Monday, June 6, 2011

light within darkness

Over the past week, because of some objectively tragic circumstances within my extended circle of friends, I reopened my copy of Meister Eckhart's Book of Divine Consolation.

Given the extraordinary nature of Meister Eckhart's entire oeuvre of work, it's surprising to me that we hear so little about him in modern times. It's safe to say that there are many passages in his deeply Christian sermons which bear a direct relationship to things one hears from the Buddhist masters, as well as statements about form and the nature of Being that are, in their essence, very nearly identical to things that Jeanne DeSalzmann said. Among them are many masterful, sophisticated, and enlightened arguments about the nature of Divine Will which any seeker might well find interesting.

One point Eckhart makes is that it is in man's very nature to be sinful. (I've explored the nature of sin in other essays on this site, comparing it to a lack of understanding or an existential condition of incarnation on this level. Anyway, it's not my intention to recapitulate that here.) The point here is that even sin–even our lack, our sleep, our inability to understand, and all of our transgressions–are of and willed by God, or, if you will, the Dharma. All of these things are an essential and inseparable aspect of the total oneness of truth (another subject Meister Eckhart tackles in his Book of divine consolation.)

What are the implications of this? In the context of acceptance of God's Will , Meister Eckhart proposes that we must live within the nature of our sin without resistance.

This kind of argument–which is certainly too sophisticated for the average medieval Christian mind, and probably even most contemporary ones–is the kind of thing that got him in trouble with the Inquisition. It can, after all, be interpreted to suggest that it's all right to sin, that there is no absolute morality–and Meister Eckhart most certainly did not believe that. It does, however, highlight how dangerous his arguments can be in the hands of the uninitiated.

In the Gurdjieff work, we frequently see that we must see without judgment. Seeing does not involve changing what we are, adjusting our behavior so that it is better, eliminating our negative emotions, being nicer people, and so on. In fact, any intentional attempt to manipulate our behavior so that we like what we see is far from the point. We are supposed to see what we are–whether we like it or not–that is the point. Self observation and self-knowledge cannot be gained from a manipulated system. The inhabitation of life needs to be direct, immediate, and non-manipulative.

This idea of seeing without judgment relates closely to the idea of inhabiting our sinfulness with an attitude of objectivity. We inhabit this metaphorical “darkness” of our sleep with an element of light, that is, a thin ray of consciousness, of something that sees what we are, even as we are what we are. Meister Eckhart points out that here we may catch a glimpse of what John meant when he spoke about "true light shining in the darkness" (John 1:5) and what St. Paul meant when he said that “virtue is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9.)

We are not meant to fix anything. We are, like all the souls in Dante's purgatory, expected to endure and experience our sinful nature, our lack of presence, our inability, deeply and thoroughly, with the greatest possible humility and an increasing understanding and remorse. The condition we are in is just.

This very process is what opens us to forces that might help to effect a change–a change we are unable to mediate ourselves.

Two striking remarks I gleaned from my reading this weekend, both taken from Meister Eckhart–selected writings (Oliver Davies, Penguin Classics, 1994) are as follows:

In short, if anything is to be receptive and to receive, it must be empty. (p. 69. )

Therefore there is an inner work which neither time nor space can support or contain and in which there is something which is of the divine and akin to God and which, similarly, is beyond all time and space. (p. 75.)

Given these statements, and other remarkable observations, it's a good thing that the church was unfamiliar with texts from Zen Buddhism during the Middle Ages. Meister Eckhart's work seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to Dogen's Shobogenzo and other Buddhist texts of revelation.

Had the church authorities been more aware of this, the heresy charges might have stuck.

May our prayers be heard.

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