Meister Eckhart and Master Hui-Neng
In the past, I have repeatedly encountered texts, essays and books that discuss parallels between Meister Eckhart and Buddhism. So now I would like to get to the bottom of it myself and find out to what extent these two perspectives correspond.
Since there is no such thing as "Buddhist philosophy" any more than there is such a thing as "Western philosophy," it is crucial to find an appropriate point of reference. In doing so, I have first focused on the tradition of Zen Buddhism. Within Zen Buddhism, I have decided to take the Platform Sutra of Master Hui-Neng as a point of reference. In doing so, I use a translation of the so-called 'Tunhuang edition' and a translation contained in the 48th part of the Taishō Tipitaka. In the case of Meister Eckhart, I focus on the treatise 'On Seclusion'.
Attachment, craving, wanting and not wanting, along with ignorance - in the sense of the absence of wisdom and the presence of delusion - are the main causes of suffering in Zen Buddhism. In all consistency, the path to enlightenment, peace of mind, happy life leads through the systematic elimination of attachment, craving, wanting and not wanting. This is done through the so-called detachment or non-attachment, through non-attachment to the sensual world, which is sought especially through the practice of meditation, through the practice of wisdom and concentration.
As it seems, there is a parallel in the highest virtues - seclusion in Eckhart and non-attachment in Zen Buddhism. Furthermore, in both cases, the perfection of this highest virtue leads to the realization of human potential, to enlightenment, to peace of mind, to a happy life.
- For example, Huineng says: "To be without recollection, without attachment, to not activate the false and deceptive - this is to allow one's self[-suchness]-nature to function. To use wisdom to contemplate all the dharmas without grasping or rejecting is to see the nature and accomplish the enlightenment of buddhahood."
- And Eckhart: "Here also the word that Saint Augustine speaks can fit: The soul has a heavenly entrance into the divine nature, where all things are nullified to it. This entrance is on earth nothing else than pure seclusion." and further "Now hear, reasonable people all: there is no one more joyful than he who stands in the greatest seclusion."
The parallels between Meister Eckhart and Master Hui-Neng
Meister Eckhart and Hui-Neng show us ways to reach the highest goal of our existence. For Eckhart, this is the path of seclusion, which leads to equality with God; for Hui-neng, it is the path of non-attachment, which leads to enlightenment. So the question arises, to what extent paths and goals correspond to each other? One can probably assume that a correspondence of paths entails a correspondence of goals: Those who follow the same path should arrive at the same destination. Meister Eckhart and Zen Master Hui-Neng lived at different times in very different cultures. Nevertheless, there are also elementary connecting elements: (1) They both pursued the goal of realizing themselves as human beings and (2) they had the same reality in front of them. They both wanted to understand the reality (2) in order to reach the highest goal of their existence (1). Understanding was therefore not an end in itself, but a means to an end: the primary focus of both was not theoretical, but practical. If we assume that both succeeded to a certain degree in understanding reality and realizing the goal, we should also find significant commonalities despite these very different premises.
Eckhart compares the highly respected virtues of seclusion, love, compassion and humility and comes to the conclusion that seclusion is the highest virtue. Although we do not find this comparison explicitly in Hui-Neng's Platform Sutra, there is implicitly a significant parallel here. Buddhist philosophy is based on the following insights: 1. man suffers due to unhealthy mental factors - in Hui-Neng the three poisons - 2. unhealthy mental factors have a healthy mental state as their counterpart and 3. unhealthy mental factors cannot exist simultaneously with healthy ones. Consequently, the goal of Buddhist practice is to eliminate unhealthy mental factors by cultivating healthy ones. Thus, suffering is minimized and happiness is maximized. Hui-neng mentions 1. ignorance, 2. craving and 3. aversion as central unhealthy mental factors. In this context, 2nd craving and 3rd aversion arise from 1st ignorance, which is why ignorance in particular should be eliminated. The antithesis of ignorance is wisdom; subsequently the "perfection of wisdom" is the goal. Already in the early Buddhist texts, one also finds the antipoles to craving and aversion: These are renunciation or love and compassion. The central healthy mental factors (or virtues) are thus: 1. wisdom, 2. renunciation, and 3. love and compassion. This list corresponds quite closely to the 'highly respected virtues' studied by Meister Eckhart: 1. renunciation, 2. humility, 3. love and compassion. As we will see in a moment, there is a correspondence in 1. since Buddhist wisdom is the flip side of non-attachment and non-attachment corresponds to seclusion. At 2. there is some closeness, since renunciation ('nekkhamma') can be described in terms of the virtue of humility, and this is arguably related to humility. And in 3. we find a clear correspondence. So, as it seems, there are two parallels: 1. the same selection of virtues that are considered outstanding and 2. the same supreme virtue.
Eckhart describes the way to the highest goal with seclusion, Hui-Neng with non-attachment. So it is the seclusion which leads 'on the next way to God' and finds 'entrance into the divine nature'. Thus, it is non-attachment through which one-pointedness of mind (samadhi of oneness) and perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita) are realized, through which enlightenment is attained. Now the crucial question arises, to what extent does seclusion correspond to non-attachment? According to Eckhart, human existence consists of an inner and outer man. The goal is to minimize the soul force in the outer man and to unite it to the inner man. Thus, the five senses should not be given more power than they need for necessity. For Hui-Neng, the goal is to abandon the passions in order to achieve single-mindedness. The mind should not be entangled in perceptions, feelings, intentions, and other mental factors that come into consciousness through the five senses. In both cases, then, there is a shift of energy from the outside to the inside; in both cases, it is a matter of withdrawing from the dictates of the five senses and uniting the power within. In seclusion, man desires nothing and there is nothing he wants to get rid of; in non-attachment, there is neither wanting (desire) nor not wanting (aversion). In both cases, full realization is a state in which man has given up desire or wanting. Thus, in seclusion, the mind remains immovable against all circumstances - 'Now you shall learn that right seclusion is nothing else than that the mind remains as immovable against all circumstances, whether joy or sorrow, honor, shame or disgrace, as a broad mountain against a small wind.' - and in non-attachment immovable to all that appears in the mind - "Although you see all men and non-men, evil and good, evil things and good things, you must not throw them aside, nor must you cling to them, nor must you be stained by them, but you must regard them as being just like the empty sky." Thus, in non-attachment, the emptiness of human nature manifests, and in seclusion, the mind is empty of all creatures.
As we have seen, the maximization of remoteness or non-attachment leads to the highest goal of our existence. This highest goal for Eckhart is equality with God, while for Hui-Neng it is enlightenment. Equality with God is described by Eckhard as the most joyful state: 'Now hear, reasonable people all: There is no one more joyful than he who stands in the greatest seclusion.' Hui-Neng describes enlightenment as the unsurpassable state of our minds: "The enlightenment of buddhahood of our own minds is unsurpassable, and we vow to achieve it." Even though this is not explicitly mentioned in the Platform Sutra, in Buddhist philosophy this state is considered a state of supreme bliss. So in both cases we are dealing with a state in which man can realize his existential striving for the good and happy life. Unity with God, or enlightenment, is the most joyful, the happiest state of man. This state is then also described in Buddhist philosophy as peace of mind, while Meister Eckhard uses the term 'eternal bliss'. It is a state in which 'consciousness becomes unconscious' - 'The soul has a heavenly entrance into the divine nature, where all things become void to it. This entrance is on earth nothing else than pure seclusion. And when the seclusion comes to the highest, it becomes unconscious from consciousness and loveless from love and dark from light.' - a state in which one loses the consciousness of time and space, of values and concepts, of being and non-being - "In this state he loses his consciousness of time and space, and of the subject-object dichotomy. All names, concepts, definitions, value and moral judgments are driven out of his consciousness. He loses even his consciousness of being. Therefore, this state is called, "The Great Death."" If one brings the seclusion, the non-attachment to perfection, then this leads both with Eckhart and with Hui-Neng to a kind of breakthrough, in which our consciousness fundamentally changes.
Even though Meister Eckhart and Zen Master Hui-Neng lived at different times in very different cultures, they have two existential dimensions in common: (1) they both pursued the goal of realizing themselves as human beings, and (2) they faced the same reality in doing so.
For Eckhart, it is the path of seclusion that leads to equality with God; for Hui-neng, it is the path of non-attachment that leads to enlightenment. In both cases, it is a matter of abandoning the wanting and not wanting of sensual things, thus freeing oneself from the dictates of the senses and unifying the power within. In both cases, the maximization of seclusion and non-attachment leads to the realization of man in the highest goal. For Eckhart, this is equality with God; for Hui-Neng, it is enlightenment.
This highest goal is for Eckhart and Hui-Neng a state of highest bliss. In both cases, this is a breakthrough in which consciousness is fundamentally changed. If one considers these elementary parallels, one can only come to one conclusion: Eckhart and Hui-Neng have independently arrived at an extremely similar solution to the human problem: seclusion and non-attachment as the path to peace of mind.
Translated extracts from Bruno Steiger: Abgeschiedenheit und Nicht-Verhaftung: Wege zum Seelenfrieden, Meister Eckhart und Meister Hui-Neng, Fribourg
- Meister Eckhart: Von der Abgeschiedenheit in K. Schnabel: Meister Eckharts mystische Schriften, Berlin, http://www.zeno.org/nid/2000922274X
- John R. McRae: The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Taishō Volume 48, Number 2008, Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2000
- Philip B. Yampolsky: The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, The Text of the Tun-Huang Manuscript, New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1967
Suttas of the Pali Canon available at http://www.accesstoinsight.org
- Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)
- Nissaraniya Sutta (AN 6.13)
- Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)
- Reiner Manstetten: Esse est Deus, Freiburg: Alber, 1993
- Eshin Nishimura: Zen training in Donald K. Swearer: Secrets of the Lotus - Studies in Buddhist Meditation, Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 1997