Introduction to Meister Eckhart

Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) is quite arguably the greatest Christian mystic of all time. Of course, the word “mysticism” is vague and usually connotes visionary experiences, of which there is little trace in Eckhart. Still, with the possible exception of Dionysius the Areopagite, Eckhart is certainly the greatest exponent of the via negativa, or path of negation. The path of negation is that of absolute imageless transcendence, and this is at the heart of Eckhart’s mysticism. But Eckhart expresses this path of negation in the most colorful and daring ways of anyone in the history of Christianity. In this collection of his work, we offer selections from his sermons that reveal just how extraordinary he was, and that are meant to offer a way into the tradition that he more than anyone else exemplifies.
Eckhart was born, probably to nobility, in Thuringia near Erfurt in about 1260. He probably joined the Dominican priory at Erfurt in 1275, and it is quite possible that before 1280 he studied at Cologne, where Albertus Magnus was still teaching. By 1293, we know that Eckhart took part in disputations in Paris, and that by 1298 he was known as Prior of Erfurt and Vicar of Thuringia. By 1302, he had received the title “Meister,” or Master, for his theological knowledge. And in 1303, he was elected to the position of Provincial of Saxony (including much of Northern Germany and Holland). In 1307, he became Vicar-General of Bohemia, and in 1310, Provincial of the Southern German province of Alemannia. By 1314, he was in charge of a convent at Strassburg, while carrying out his other official duties. In 1322 came the greatest honor of all, when he was called to Cologne to assume the chair once held by none other than Albertus Magnus himself.
But the Archbishop of Cologne at the time, Heinrich von Virneburg, was a sour Franciscan who was bitterly opposed to anything that resembled “mysticism,” which he associated with heresy. In 1326, the archbishop instituted proceedings against Eckhart before the Inquisition for spreading dangerous doctrines among common folk. Because of his fame and reputation, Eckhart probably was not in danger of being burnt at the stake, but it became a nasty battle for him nonetheless. Several lists of supposedly incriminating statements were drawn up against him, which he refuted chiefly by showing that they were indeed orthodox and that his accusers simply didn’t understand what they were impugning. On 13 February, 1327, Eckhart publicly declared that he was not a heretic, that what was attributed to him as heresy had been distorted or misunderstood, and that anything inadvertently heretical he had said he now retracted. The case continued, but Eckhart died before 1328. In 1329, some of Eckhart’s work was denounced in a papal bull as heretical, ironically enough by a pope who had accumulated great wealth and who was himself denounced by a subsquent pope as heretical!
This ill-considered and confused condemnation kept Eckhart from being more widely known for centuries to come, though he was influential for such subsequent figures as Heinrich Suso, Johannes Tauler, Nicholas of Cusa, the Theologia Germanica, and Angelus Silesius, and was rediscovered in the nineteenth century by Franz von Baader, the great theosopher in the tradition of Jacob Böhme (d. 1624). But Eckhart came into his own in the twentieth century, for as the West came into genuine contact with Asian religious traditions, notably Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism, Eckhart’s genius for apophatic or negative theology suddenly could be seen in a new light. If in the fourteenth century, he could be portrayed as heretical, by the twentieth century his daring insistence on the transcendent nature of the Godhead and of the spiritual awakening of the individual could be seen in a world context as the European parallel to Buddhist metaphysics.
The parallels between Meister Eckhart’s thought and Mahayana Buddhism became more widely known with the publication of a book entitled Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist by D. T. Suzuki in 1957, and by Shizuteru Ueda in his book Die Gottesgeburt in der Seele, published in 1965. Suzuki in particular was keen to show “the closeness of Meister Eckhart’s way of thinking to that of Mahayana Buddhism, especially of Zen Buddhism” (3). Suzuki spent the beginning of his study considering Eckhart’s teachings concerning detachment and the “pure Nothing,” because these and related concepts are very much akin to the concept of emptiness, or shunyata, in Buddhism. And without doubt, there are many other parallels between Eckhart’s work and Zen Buddhism, so many that to this day Eckhart remains the subject of ever more comparisons between Christian mysticism and Buddhism, particularly in Japanese scholarship.
What is it in Eckhart’s work that makes him so amenable to comparison with Buddhism or Vedanta? We may begin by considering the way Eckhart begins our selection entitled “The Secret Word”: “Here in time we celebrate because the eternal birth that God the Father bears unceasingly in eternity is born now, in time and human nature. According to St. Augustine, this birth is always happening. But what does it profit me if it does not happen in me?” From the outset, it is clear that Eckhart has little to do with what we may call an historicist Christianity—that is, with a Christianity that emphasizes faith or belief without any inner process of regeneration or awakening. It is not enough only to believe this or that, according to Eckhart: we must realize what Eckhart here calls the “eternal birth” for ourselves.
In other words, Eckhart insists above all that we directly experience spiritual illumination for ourselves, and that “the highest attainment in this life is to remain still and let God act and speak in us.” He calls us to enter into the soul’s hidden ground and to be reborn.
This process of rebirth takes place through the path known as apophatic, or negation, but could also be termed the path of transcendence. This path of transcendence is one that goes beyond the intellect; it is one in which the soul’s spark, or synteresis, that inner transcendent faculty, perceives the divine within one in a way that can best be termed “unknowing.” Eckhart explains that “There is more in this unknowing knowledge than in any ordinary understanding, for this unknowing lures you away from all understood things and from yourself. This is what Christ meant when he said: ‘Whoever does not deny himself and leave father and mother and is not estranged from all these, is not worthy of me.’ That is as though to say: whoever does not abandon creaturely externals can neither be conceived or born in this divine birth.” Entering into this unknowing might also be called a kind of gnosis, or inner spiritual knowledge, though as Eckhart has it, “the height of gnosis is to know in agnosia.” In agnosia, or unknowing, one realizes direct spiritual understanding for oneself.
The Christian path of transcendence takes its origin from Dionysius the Areopagite (ca. fifth century A.D.), whose treatises on the via negativa remain a cornerstone of Christian mysticism to this day. Eckhart explicitly draws upon Dionysius with some frequency, particularly concerning the divine Nothingness. Thus when Eckhart writes that “In unknowing knowing we know God, in forgetfulness of ourselves and all things up to the naked essence of the Godhead,” it is in a passage that both begins and ends with references to Dionsyius. Yet let it not be thought that this unknowing knowing is without signs. Eckhart writes of this new birth that in it “God pours into the soul in such abundance of light, that it floods the soul’s ground, running into her powers and into the outward man as well. So it befell Paul when upon his journey God touched him with his light and spoke to him: the reflection of this light showed outwardly so that his companions saw it surrounding Paul like the saints.” According to Eckhart, this unknowing knowing is the soul’s becoming acclimated to God, and being filled with spiritual knowledge that is simultaneously love and joy. In all of this, Eckhart’s work is very much in the lineage of Dionysius.
Yet Eckhart is also extraordinary for his inventiveness and daringness of expression; he is not by any means a derivative author, but rather clearly writes directly from his own experience. Who can doubt that when he writes “God enjoys himself in all things,” such an observation comes from Eckhart’s own experience? But he also speaks explicitly of himself, as when he remarks that “My outer man enjoys creatures as creatures, like wine and bread and meat. But my inner man enjoys things not as creatures, but as the gift of God. And my inmost man enjoys them not as God’s gift, but as eternity.” This inner experience of God gives rise to Eckhart’s understanding of the profound relation between creatures and God, for the contemplative realizes this relation directly for himself. Hence Eckhart observes that “Things perceived by my soul from without contain an outside element. But my perception of creatures in God contains God alone, for in God there is nothing but God. When I see all creatures in God I see nothing.” It is as daring today as it was in his own time for Eckhart to speak openly of seeing all creatures in God, or of realizing God as the divine Nothing.

Still, it is often said, and I myself have occasionally thought, that Eckhart’s work presents a view from the heights—breathtaking, to be sure, but without any clear directions on how we get to those heights ourselves. Yet a closer reading of his work reveals definite instructions on contemplative practice. He tells, for example, the story of a mathematician so engrossed in his mathematical studies that he did not even hear when he was challenged by a swordsman, who subsequently cut off the philosopher’s head! If this is how engrossed someone in the natural sciences might be, how much more must the contemplative be engrossed in his practice! Eckhart reminds us that “A master says, ‘To achieve this interior act, one must gather all one’s powers into one corner of the soul, where, secreted from images and forms, one can work.’ We must attain an oblivion and unknowing. This unknowing is not ignorance, but transformed knowledge; it is by knowing that we get to this unknowing.” His work reveals a contemplative path that goes beyond what we usually understand by “contemplation”—that is, thinking—and into what we may call “meditation,” by this meaning a sitting practice very much akin to what we find in Zen and most other forms of Mahayana Buddhism.
Eckhart calls us to “to root ourselves in this same ground of contemplation . . . True, there is motion, but no more than one: it comes from God and goes back to God . . . in this activity we are in the state of contemplation in God.” We are, in this endeavour, called to “above all, lay no claim to anything. Let go of yourself and let God act for you and in you as he pleases. This work is his, this Word is his, this birth is his, and all you are, as well. For you have abandoned yourself and are gone out of all your faculties and personal nature. God installs himself in your nature when, self-bereft of all belongings, you take to the desert. There is “a voice crying in the wilderness,” as it is written. Let this eternal voice cry on in you at its sweet will, and become a desert in respect to self and creatures.” I have let Eckhart speak for himself here because it is clear even from these few excerpts that he is encouraging us on a specific contemplative path, a path toward transcendence beyond all images and earthly attachments, a rooting in the groundless ground of all things, the Godhead even beyond God himself.
This contemplative practice of Eckhart is prayer, but not in any discursive sense. For Eckhart, prayer is “glorying in pure being.” It is transcendence, a freedom from all apparent division between subject and object, an entry into the “river and fount of Godhead.” In contemplative prayer, there is no one to ask or hear a question, Eckhart tells us, and when one “flows forth” after immersion in this state, “all creatures speak God.” This movement between awareness in the inner ground and movement is akin to the shift, in Buddhist meditation practice, from deep contemplation to active or walking meditation or to put it another way, from deep samadhi (contemplative absorption) to dynamic samadhi. In contemplative absorption, Eckhart tells us, “I alone take all creatures out of their sense into my mind and make them one in me. When I go back into the ground, into the depths, into the well-spring of the Godhead, no one will ask me from where I came or where I went. No one will miss me, for there God unbecomes.”
We should note here the characteristic distinction that Eckhart makes between the Godhead and God, which corresponds to the distinction on the human level between deep contemplative absorption (the Godhead) and dynamic absorption when one conveys this realization in the world actively (God). Eckhart puts this distinction this way: “And why do [all creatures] not speak the Godhead? Everything in the Godhead is one, and of that there is nothing to be said. God works; the Godhead does no work. In the Godhead there is nothing to do; there is no activity. It never envisaged any work. God and Godhead are as different as active and inactive.” It is absolutely clear that Eckhart, exactly like Jacob Böhme and John Pordage after him, is here drawing on his own direct experience. He does not offer a narrative, as Pordage often does, but nonetheless it is clear that he has experienced this distinction between God and the Godhead, or to put it another way, between deep and active contemplation.
This “movement” between active and deep contemplation corresponds to our emanation into existence and our breakthrough return to the divine origin. Eckhart expresses this “movement” in many ways, as here, when he tells us that
While I yet stood in my first cause I had no God and I was my own; I willed nothing and wanted nothing, for I was conditionless being, the knower of myself in divine truth. Then I wanted myself and nothing else. What I willed I was and what I was I willed. I was free from God and all things. But when I escaped from my free will to take on my created nature, then I acquired a God, for before creatures came into existence, God was not God. He was what he was. When creatures came into existence, God was not God in himself, but he was God in creatures.

This “God in creatures” is not pantheism, but is an expression of what in human terms is active contemplation, or the realization of the divine in all things as an “extension” of deep contemplation.
But creatures cannot be satisfied with realization of God as God, because this still implies dualism. Thus Eckhart writes that “God as God is not the final goal of creatures. If a flea had intellect and could plumb the eternal abyss of God’s being, out of which it came, then not God and all God is could fulfill that flea. Therefore we pray we may be quit of God and get the truth and enjoy eternity, for the highest angel and the soul are all the same yonder where I was and willed that I was and was that I willed.” In deep contemplation, God as God—that is, as a conceptual designation for being or consciousness somehow separate from us—cannot satisfy our deepest longing for realization. Thus we must be “quit of God” and enter into what precedes and transcends the division between God and creatures, which Eckhart refers to as the Godhead.
Eckhart lays great emphasis on this point, and goes so far as to write that “Why I pray God to rid me of God is because conditionless being is above God and above distinction. It was there I was myself, there I willed myself and knew myself to make this man. In this sense I am my own cause, both of my eternal nature and my temporal nature. In my birth all things were born, and I was the cause of my own self and all things.” In other words, in the deepest contemplative experience, one enters into “conditionless being” that is prior to and beyond all distinctions, beyond therefore the distinct concept of God, so that “I” become “my own cause.” If we remain in a self-other relation to God, we remain trapped in discursive reason and are incapable of going beyond this subject-object division.
Eckhart, in such daring passages, is urging us to go beyond this apparent subject-object division, just as he has done, and just as St. Paul did. Eckhart remarks that “I will put into plain words what St. Paul means by wishing to depart from God. Man’s last and highest leave-taking is leaving God for God. St. Paul left God for God: he left everything he could give or take of God, every concept of God. In leaving these, he left God for God since God remained to him in his essential self, not as a concept of himself, or as an acquired thing, but God in his essential actuality.” For this reason, Eckhart adds, St. Paul revealed himself to be perfect, that is, to have left behind the self-other distinction and to have realized for himself what is beyond the concept of God. One who has done that is known, Eckhart tells us, as a “true man,” that is, as someone who has realized what the true purpose is of human life.
The true purpose of human life is to be like God, which is to say, to realize absolute detachment. Eckhart’s sermon on detachment is rightfully his most famous, and for this reason we have included it nearly in its entirety. For Eckhart, detachment is the highest of all virtues and attainments; for to realize detachment is to realize for oneself the nature of God. To be full of creatures is to be empty of God; and to be empty of creatures is to be full of God, Eckhart tells us. To be empty of creatures means detachment, and
The more we are disposed to receive the inflowing God, the happier we will be; perfect receptivity gives perfect felicity. Now one can make oneself receptive to God only through uniformity with God; the degree of uniformity corresponds to the degree of receptivity. Uniformity comes of subjection to God, and the more one is subject to creatures the less one is uniform with God. But the detached heart, devoid of all creatures, utterly subject to and uniform with God, is wholly receptive to his divine inflow. Hence St. Paul exhorts us to “Put on Christ”—that is, uniformity with Christ.

What is the object of detachment? It is “neither this nor that;” it is to realize the Nothing at our own center, so that God can will through us.
Conventional notions of God Eckhart discards out of hand. God, he writes, “does not see in time, nor is his outlook subject to renewal.” Eckhart continues:

Isidorus argues this in his book on the Arch-Good. He says that people are always asking what God did before he created the heavens and the earth, and how there arose in God the new will to make creatures. His reply is that no new will arose in God, for even if creatures might not have existed before as they do now, yet they have existed from eternity in God and in the mind of God. God did not create the heavens and earth as we imagine when we say in our words, “Let them be!”; rather, creatures are all spoken in his eternal Word.

Eckhart thus completely dismisses the conventional notion of biblical creationism, for God did not create the way that human beings tend to imagine, in a dualistic way. Further, God does not answer petitionary prayer as a result of a cause in time. Rather, if a prayer is answered, it is because that answer existed already in eternity before you were born, just as if a prayer is not answered, because it is foolish or misguided, it is because this denial existed in eternity prior to your asking it. Still, “men’s prayers and virtuous works are not in done in vain. Whoever does well is well rewarded, though God does stay all the while in motionless detachment.”
Contemplative practice is at heart the practice of detachment from all things and so “there is none happier than one who exists in absolute detachment . . . . Detachment is the best of all, for it cleanses the soul, clarifies the mind, kindles the heart and wakens the spirit; it quickens desire, enhances the virtue-giving intuition of God, and separating us from creatures, unites us with God.” This detachment is realized through deep contemplation, entering into the formless essence that precedes creation and all separation. The detached heart prays for nothing, because it desires nothing except unity with God. It enters into the uncreated, and “attaining this, the soul loses her identity. God absorbs her so that as self she becomes nothing, just as the sunlight swallows the dawn.” This is the realization of absolute detachment, the transcendence of all distinctions and the realization of union with the Godhead, the ultimate purpose of human life.
Near the end of his sermon, Eckhart quotes St. Augustine, who wrote that “The soul has a private door into divine nature, where all things become nothing to her” “This door on earth is absolute detachment,” Eckhart commented. The whole of Eckhart’s work may be seen as his showing the way to this door.