Self-embrace

Please note: section 5 of this blogpost was revised and republished on Saturday May, 26, 2018.

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In a review[1] of a new translation of a mediaeval Persian religious epic called The Conference of the Birds by Attar, the reviewer, Robyn Creswell, offered some background to the acknowledged masterpiece of Sufi spirituality.

The Sufis taught a form of monotheism that believed not only that there is a single God, but God is all that truly exists; everything else, including our worldly selves, is merely a shadow of his presence. Accordingly Sufi sheikhs urged their followers to disdain wealth and bodily pleasures. By looking inward, believers were taught to recognize the affinity of their soul with God. Through self-discipline they were guided toward a self-annihilating union with the divine.

Creswell then gives a short précis of the narrative. A small bird, the hoopoe whose significance comes from its special mention in the Koran, gathers all the birds of the forest together and

exhorts them to renounce their material comforts and join him on a difficult journey through seven valleys (the first is the valley of the Quest, and the last is the valley of Poverty and Nothingness) to reach mount Qaf the home of the mythical Simorgh (an Iranian version of the Phoenix).

One by one the birds decline, each for their own reasons until at the end of the journey only a handful of the original multitude remain to meet the Simorgh.

They arrive in his presence only to discover a mystical mirror:

“There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw themselves

The Simorgh of the world ― with awe

They gazed and dared at last to comprehend

They were the Simorgh and the journey’s end.”

The birds were the very thing they had searched for. It is an eloquent summary of the Sufi teaching that the divine lies within each believer’s soul.

The overall concurrence of the Sufi worldview recounted here with the views of Mahayana Buddhism and Eckhartian Christianity is the more remarkable in that it comes from another religious tradition altogether. Granted that in all three cases we are dealing with an evolution from a more fundamentalist primitive origin that continues to exist (and for two still remains the majority view), the agreement suggests that insights and aspirations that gave rise to such similarities in such different environments in time and place, and coming from such different ideological roots, may be indications of something universal to the human species.

Moreover, unlike the more fundamentalist versions of Christianity and Islam, this view is compatible with science.   This makes for an unexpected four-way consonance that adumbrates a universalist synthesis about reality and spiritual development that is valid wherever human beings are found.

 

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I propose that the term and concept “Self-Embrace,” symbolized by the birds’ recognition that they themselves were the very object of their quest, captures the essence of the mystical insight common to these three traditions. That insight describes and defines both the metaphysical nature of existence itself, and the ultimate goal of psychological/spiritual development which is cosmic nature’s human recapitulation. Parallel to this is the understanding of all the major traditions that the commonly acknowledged moral paths ― Dharma, Tao, Torah ― have always been understood as themselves the reflection of the same inner dynamism that rules the cosmos. Thebes falls into chaos because Oedipus, however unwittingly, shattered the natural order. All reality resonates in the same key. The harmony comes first, not last; it is we with our unfettered minds who have to listen closely enough to hear it and intentionally join in the chorus. Our morality ― justice, and compassion for all things ― is that enlistment. The implication here is plain: there is a common spirituality that suggests a common dynamic that rules the universe ― a common metaphysics. I want to explore that connection, and the exciting possibilities if it is true.

Self-Embrace and the delusion of permanence

I take the term “self-embrace” to mean that, insofar as anything is able to assume an intentional stance of some kind toward its own existence and character, it will be driven to accept, cherish and defend itself as it is and with whatever tools or abilities it has received from cosmic and biological evolution.

Before beginning any further analysis, to propose self-embrace as the goal of human spiritual development should strike one as paradoxical; that it doesn’t, is a clue to the depth of the problem. For it implies that in some fashion or another self-embrace is not the status quo, i.e., that what in fact actually obtains among human beings is a self-alienation, a discomfiture with oneself, in which the individual does not accept, cherish, defend and enjoy itself as it is. Humans are not happy with what they are, how they feel, and what they do in life. Much of their activity is not necessary for survival, and seems rather dedicated to becoming something else. This is extraordinary, for nothing else in the entire universe seems to have this problem.

Survival is the primary act of self-embrace. I believe the imperative to embrace oneself derives directly from the bearing of existence to-be-here-now clearly manifest and perceptible to us in the compulsion of every living organism to preserve itself. This instinct for self-preser­va­tion is called the conatus by Spinoza. All living things are “born with” that instinct. It is not repressible, and it is absolute, i.e., it has no natural limitation. There is no intrinsic reason perceptible to the conscious organism, man or animal, why the daily struggle for and conquest of survival should ever end.

Most living things accept and enjoy being what they are, and doing what they do. It does not occur to them that their daily victories will ultimately terminate in extinction. Humans, however, are different. They know that no matter how efficient they are at amassing what is necessary for survival, they will die. It’s simply a matter of universal fact: their very organisms are impermanent and will decompose. Why? The answers are all conjecture. No one really knows. The fact, however, is undeniable, and it is responsible for driving a wedge between the conatus and the instincts installed by evolution for the survival of the physical organism and its species.

The Buddha’s insight was to see that the ordinary urges and desires implanted in the human body do not correspond to the need of the intelligent conatus for continued existence. It’s as if there were two affective dynamisms vying for attention in the same organism: a dynamism akin to animals’ urges for day-to-day survival: to eat, reproduce and defend themselves and their progeny, urges that once they are satisfied are temporarily quiescent, and a second dynamism working in the human imagination that never rests; it refuses to be satisfied with daily survival and aspires to the permanent possession of being-here, something that is clearly impossible because, like all biological organisms, we eventually succumb to entropy, the material energy of our bodies decoheres and we die. Altogether, this accounts for what we call the human condition. We are not reconciled to this situation. It accounts for an immeasurable amount of suffering, both in the anguish of individual deterioration and loss and in the social horrors perpetrated by individuals’ delusional attempts to create an ersatz immortality by amassing wealth for themselves and power over others.

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The problem is the imagination. It allows us to separate ourselves from the present moment and its needs (or absence of needs) and put ourselves in a past that we wish had not occurred but cannot change or in a future that we yearn for but cannot insure, so vividly that we feel all the associated emotions of desire and aversion. The imagination is also capable of fixating on virtually any conceivable surrogate as the symbol of its quest to break out of the life-to-death cycle, despite lack of any evidence for its possibility. The most glaring example of this is the generalized belief that permanence is achieved at the very moment when impermanence is most undeniable: at death. This reveals the human imagination to be utterly irrational and capable of grabbing at anything that it believes will “save” it from material decomposition. We are matter. Matter’s coalescent coherence is temporary ― a coherence snatched from the very jaws of the entropic energy that would return everything to a state of incoherent equilibrium. To claim that when the dreaded decomposition actually occurs that permanence is miraculously achieved, is the height of delirium.

What is even more remarkable is that this thirst for permanence is capable of transcendentalizing the more concrete desires of the biological organism, like the appetite for food, sex, battle, and turn them into symbols of permanence. Hence always eating the food one prefers instead of what is available is a symbol that connotes permanence. That one is not ever limited to what will just keep the organism alive is a symbol of not being needy. It’s hardly necessary to point out how that functions in the case of other intense gratifications like alcoholic beverages and sexual experience. These activities lose the focus on their primary purpose altogether and become symbols of a possession of transcendent life that is pure illusion. Universally acknowledged as desirable because of their euphoric ability to extract the psyche from ordinary experience, they become symbols of transcendence and are pursued as a conspicuous display of power and control, not just for the pleasure they afford. There are multiple addictions in play here. As soon as something is enjoyed for its symbolic or surrogate significance, we know we are in the realm of the delusion of permanence.

The problem lies in the conatus’ alliance with the intelligent imagination. Since what the conatus wants ― endless life ― has no identifiable means of achievement, the human mind must imagine what it might be, and any passing satisfaction is capable of capturing it. This explains , for example, the grip that promises of eternal life in exchange for Catholic Church membership, obedience and monetary support had on the mediaeval Christian mind ― and on the minds of many even today.

The Buddha’s solution was to get control of the imagination ― the mind and its thoughts. He taught that meditation was the tool that would do this. By first maintaining a steady calm of body and mind, concentrated reflection would first of all bring the imagination back from its past and future haunts and set it firmly in the present moment. Once the mind begins to experience the peculiar pleasure of the present moment without the torments of past remorse and future yearning, meditation will inevitably reveal to the mind the all too obvious disconnect between what the individual was seeking, eternal life, and the target content he/she had identified as the means to its acquisition. The foolishness, self-destruction, insatiable frustration, damage to others and to the earth that came in the train of mindless response to selfish desire would necessarily, in meditation, rise to the level of clarity. It was that clarity that the Buddha was after. Once the mind could see clearly that desire for an impossible permanence is what stood in the way of its own peace and threatened the peace and joy of others, it could choose the correct path, what he called the Dharma, the “way.” The way out is to accept ourselves as impermanent evanescent biological organisms ― nothing more or less than what we are. And meditation ― the intense and continuous practice of mindfulness, living in the present moment ― is the tool that will do that. He insisted we trust him on this. It works, he said. He did it. So can we.

Buddhist teacher and social activist Thich Nhat Hanh provides a simple way of illustrating this greatest of Buddhist achievements. All things, including us, he says, are like waves in the ocean:

Some waves are high and some are low. Waves appear to be born and die. But if we look more deeply, we see that the waves, although coming and going, are also only water, which is always there. Notions like high and low, birth and death, can be applied to waves, but water is free of such distinctions. Enlightenment for a wave is the moment the wave realizes that it is water.[2]

Accepting ourselves as impermanent is enlightenment. There is nothing arcane or mystical about it. What makes enlightenment seem so elusive is the recrudescent insistence of the conatus constantly to create, maintain, defend and promote a false self locked into the need to achieve a delusional permanence in the multitude of forms available in our material universe. No matter how often the individual realizes that the false self is really no-self at all, and transform its stance toward reality by living mindfully in the present moment and accepting its impermanence, the conatus, even though perhaps weakened by the assaults of Buddhist practice, is never entirely eliminated. It is always ready to direct its energies once again toward rebuilding the sand castle of our dreams.

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Accepting ourselves as impermanent is what I mean by self-embrace. Now this is open to further analysis in two areas: (1) experience and that includes discovering the daily practices that will support and advance personal transformation towards the embrace of impermanence, and (2) metaphysics which looks to grasp intellectually the foundational underpinnings in universal reality ― the cosmos ― that confirm, support, encourage and foster a project of personal moral transformation as the disciplinary path for the achievement of enlightenment.

The first, the analysis of experience, is practice. It explores the way our bodies and minds work. It is fundamentally mental because it involves the imagination above all, but it is not a simple rational choice. Feelings, urges, desires must also change. When we finally accept ourselves for what we are, the added psychological suffering ― the sense of suffocation caused by alienation from ourselves ― disappears. This is what Buddha discovered, and what inspired his compassionate efforts to share the discovery with everyone. First and foremost, it was a program of practice, and the practice was meditation. He wanted to end suffering, and to that end he offered a program that worked.

The second area is metaphysical understanding; by that I mean a comprehension that is fundamentally scientific. Metaphysics has been the discipline used to speak objectively about the nature of reality in our scientific tradition. Most often it has involved the analysis of being. But the Platonic confusion between the concept of being and the nature of being has brought the entire enterprise into disrepute. Given Plato’s belief in the substantial existence of ideas as spiritual realities, it was natural to think that by examining the concept of being that one was examining being itself. In fact, since the notion of “God” as a cosmic factor came to be equated with being as the act of existence, philosophers were persuaded that by a careful analysis of the qualities and features of the concept of being that they were discovering the nature of “God” and the dynamic features of “God’s” reality that produced the universe.

Modern science, functioning on the premise that concepts are not spiritual realities that exist out there somewhere on their own but are simply states of the human brain, has limited itself to observing, measuring, analyzing and describing the properties of reality as a material energy. Through the last five centuries of intense study science has been able to identify the workings of material reality to such a degree of proven accuracy, that many are prepared to accept physical science as the permanent replacement for metaphysics.

I have a different idea. I believe it’s time to finally abandon the bifurcated worldview in the west that sees reality as split between a material and a spiritual side, and that “science” is the analysis of the material only, leaving the rest ― ideas ― to philosophy. But ideas are as much a part of the work of science as any other discipline and the analysis of the data uncovered by scientific observation and experiment is guided by the same logic and probative principles as ancient philosophy. I believe we should call the thinking about cosmic reality what it is: a cosmo-ontology ― a study of the existence of the material (scientifically known and described) cosmos. I am not proposing a new science, I am simply acknowledging that all analysis must proceed from and attempt to elucidate the observed and measured data of science. Metaphysics, in other words, has to not merely include the sciences, it must use them as its point of departure and they must remain the heuristic framework throughout its procedures. It is no longer a valid enterprise to pursue metaphysics as a separate discipline with its own conceptual data, starting point and ultimate worldview.

It’s here that the two perspectives ― the psychological/spiritual and the metaphysical ― merge, or perhaps better, where they show themselves to be mirrors of one another: where human attitudes and behavior recapitulate the evolutionary dynamism of the living cosmos. What each and every thing spawned by the substrate is focused on is the same as the what the totality constituted by the substrate is focused on: self-embrace, because, I contend, the substrate which we all share ― matter’s living energy ― is itself only and always a material self-embrace, observable in a material drive to be-here activating and directing the totality as much as any individual within it, including human beings. We are all material energy. We are all “water.” And we are all driven to be-here under the same conditions: we are impermanent composites of components that are common to all..

Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha himself, however much he avoided answering questions about the nature of reality beyond human experience, still clearly crossed the line and made statements foundational for his program of self-transformation that were undeniably metaphysical. The primary example of this is his key concept of impermanence. When Buddha speaks of impermanence, he is certainly referring to human experience, and if pressed could always deny having metaphysical pretensions: “We experience everything as transient and changing, composing and decomposing.” If asked why? (the metaphysical question), he could say “we don’t know why. Nothing says it had to be this way, but that’s just the way it is.”

But please note: he always says “that’s just the way it is.” He never says, we do not know what things really are, but that’s the way they appear to us. He avoids metaphysics at a second level of explanation, but not at the first. The first level is epistemological. The Buddha is a realist, and a metaphysics is implied in that. He believed that what our senses perceived and told us was out there, was accurate and reliable. What we perceived as impermanent was really and factually, always and everywhere, impermanent.

This is not insignificant. Later followers took impermanence to the next level of explanation. They made an unambiguously metaphysical attempt to explain why things are, and we accurately experience them as, impermanent. The principal metaphysician of Mahayana Buddhism was Nagārjuna who wrote in the second century of the common era. The explanatory term he used was emptiness. He said the reason why things are impermanent is that they are empty of their own reason for being-here. Both their coming into existence and their continuation in existence is due to a plethora of causes outside themselves. This is called “dependent co-arising” and while that term antedated the Buddha and is found in the Upanishads, it did not have the same causal denotation as it would later have with Nagārjuna.[3]

Nagārjuna did not have the benefit of modern science and was not aware of the quantum energy that constitutes the reality of which we are made. The totality of what exists, we now know, is what can be called in short-hand, matter. I say short-hand because the “nature” of matter, once thought to be billiard-ball like particles called atoms, is now known to be a vast interpenetrated and interrelated collection of force fields that, depending on our instruments of observation and meas­ure­ment, can appear to us either as waves or as particles. And while we are still far from plumbing exactly how all this varied energy interacts in time to produce our universe, we are pretty sure that it is all there is.

Certainly there is nothing else as far as the eye can see. But is there more beyond our ken? If there is nothing more, then our universe contains within itself the reason for its being-here. That means, whether we have discerned and identified what it is or not, we must already be in touch with it, for we ourselves are, in our very selves, everything that reality is. The only other alternative is that the totality of co-dependent causation responsible for all phenomena ― emptiness, as Nagārjuna defined it ― is itself the product of some higher-level causation of which we have no evidence and are unaware. In other words, that emptiness might itself be empty, a proposition that Nagārjuna defended.

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We may have thought that last paragraph gave a final description to an ultimate dilemma that we do not have the resources to resolve, because we cannot see beyond the horizon of our sight. Seeing is limited to seeing, and the explanation is either inside or outside the totality. It is either accessible or not.

But I believe that the dilemma mis-states the possibilities. There is a third alternative. The explanation — the causal source — is both. It is accessible to me because it is inside the totality characterized by emptiness and at the same time it transcends the limitations of the things that compose and decompose. There is nothing arcane or “mystical” about this alternative, because the causal source is an existential energy that is physically, observably and measurably the very component of which all things that exist in the totality are constructed. In other words, there is no dichotomy between the things that are empty and the things that are not. Both are commensurate with the totality, the energy as “light source” and the “shadows” as dependently arisen. All things are the locus where both reside, simultaneously. A forcefield that is not empty energizes the components whose coming together and coming apart constitute the emptiness of all things made from it.

Emptiness also means that the realities that we see directly, throw shadows of unmistakable similarity to their own form that constitute other realities. These latter, then, are things whose form imitates and reveals the presence of what launched them out into the world. Sparrows beget sparrows, humans beget humans. They are shadows for sure, we can see that, but what casts them is itself a shadow and imitates the form of an even earlier shadow and form. Nothing is its own explanation of what it looks like and why it’s here; everything comes from something else. How far back can this go? We are looking at the famous “infinite regress” that philosophers have perennially claimed cannot be. They insist that the entire chain must hang from a single immovable hook somewhere ― a form that is not a shadow. Buddhists were not unaware of this revelatory function of emptiness. This following quote is an exclamation (udāna) attributed to the Buddha from an early collection in the Pali Canon:

There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.

(Udāna 8:3 … tr. Thānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff).   Cited by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 138. On the antiquity of the Udāna: Scholars have questioned whether this collection is related to the udānas collected during the Buddha’s lifetime … there are no compelling reasons to believe that the relationship is not close. (De Graff)

Commentary on this udāna in a contemporary parallel collection of quotations suggests that the Buddha was not referring to some absolute “thing” out there, but rather to nirvana, enlightenment, a human state of mind, an interior appropriation that provides an “escape that is calm, permanent, a sphere beyond conjecture, unborn, unproduced, the sorrowless, stainless state, the cessation of stressful qualities, stilling-of-fabrications bliss.” (itivuttakas 43 (“quotations.” The Fourth Part of the Khuddaka Nikāya).

But the udāna is clearly intended to evoke both, because it very explicitly quotes the Buddha as saying that the state of mind would not be possible if the metaphysical reality were not also there. The Buddha’s reputed statement is only possible because they are one and the same thing, exactly as Mahayana Buddhism discerned. For all the branches and derivatives of the Mahayana reform of the second century c.e., samsara and nirvana refer to the same reality. The only difference is in the perception, the state of mind in which reality is apprehended. Reality is simultaneously temporal and timeless, limited and unlimited, composed and uncomposed. The empty “shadow” entity contains within itself the source of the light that throws it.

Other traditions corroborate this interpretation. In the mediaeval metaphysics of Johannes Eckhart, source and shadow are explicitly identified as the same reality. We have to remember, Eckhart claimed there is no “God,” no “thing” or “person,” an entity apart from other entities that thinks and acts and creates, but rather a “Godhead” that, following Aristotle, was the Pure Act of existence, esse in se subsistens, the pure unmixed energy of being-here expressed as a simple, eternal, impassive, totally fulfilled self-possession ― a serene motionless, non-rational, unthinking and silent self-embrace that emanates the cosmos of material being. The material energy that science has identified as the homogeneous substrate of all things plays precisely the same role that the mediaevalists like Eckhart attributed to “being.”

Spinoza attributed the same emanative energy to his “God,” identifying divine energy so thoroughly with the universe of perceptible things that emanated from it that he called them mere modalities of “God,” earning him the false label pantheist. But like Eckhart, Nagārjuna, and Buddha he was trying to explain how two realities, cause and effect, reside in the same “thing” even while they reside in all things, without either losing its character as cause or effect.

To enter nirvana is to enter a forcefield that is already there. It is to resonate with the existential energy that pervades, suffuses and characterizes everything in our material universe. It is consciously and intentionally to enter a state of being-here-with everything else (what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being”) and in the way everything is-here-together.   It is to vibrate on that same wavelength, with the same frequency, driven by the same appetitive energy for being-here, the conatus, that mystics of all traditions have most remarkably described in exactly the same terms despite differences of time, place, cult and culture. Clearly, their experience was the same. It is to identify your being-here with the cosmic forcefield in which all other things are-here and are joyfully themselves in their shadow relationships with all other things. This is not just a frame of mind. The frame of mind is possible, as the Buddha said so emphatically, because the physical/metaphysical reality establishing that consonance is really physically there. It is to embrace yourself unreservedly for being exactly what you are … just as everything rejoices in being exactly what it is: this perishing material organism that is-here, now. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that the permanence you touch is yours.

How did Eckhart get there? He claimed that it was precisely the fact that this vast network of impermanent shadows was itself a shadow, exactly as second century Indian Nagārjuna said, that turned the Meister, who wrote in frontier Germany in the early years of the 14th century, into an explorer of mystical space. His quest was for the face and features of what he believed had necessarily emanated the entire universe as such a perfect shadow ― such a faithful and accurate representation of itself ― that using the universe including his own individual human yearning self as a map and guide, and working backwards, he could “discern” it. He called it “The Godhead” and believed that his own “soul,” similar to the Sufi mystics, was its mystical mirror. What he saw when he looked at his own face, was the face of the Godhead, what I call LIFE. Nirvana is the personal appropriation of the pure existential energy ― the LIFE ― of living / dying matter. It is the realization that there is nothing else there. The wave is all and only water. WE ARE THAT and our liberation is not to stop being THAT impermanent, vanishing, decomposing matter, but to embrace it.

 

[1] Robyn Creswell “The Seal of the Poets,” The New York Review of Books, October 2017, p. 24 ff.

[2] Thich Nhat Hanh Living Buddha, Living Christ, Riverhead Books, NY, 1995, p.138

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pratītyasamutpāda

 

 

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The Mahayana Buddhist ideal: The Bodhisattva

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The historical evolution of Buddhism around the beginning of the common era had much in common with the developments that occurred in Western Christianity at the end of the middle ages. Buddhism, which started about 500 bce as something of a demystification and democratization of elitist Hindu Brahmanism, over the next four hundred years became an almost exclusively monastic pursuit, requiring celibacy and the abandonment of home and family, supported by the wealthy and ruling classes. It was as exclusive, if not as elitist as what it had replaced. The failure of Buddhism to achieve one of its principal goals — the universalism implied in the Buddha’s personal commitment to unlimited compassion for all sentient beings — occasioned a major rethinking of Buddhist practice and led to a great reformation known as Mahayana around the beginning of the common era.

The word Mahayana connotes a “great boat,” large enough to accommodate everyone, in contrast to Hinayana — a small craft that could only carry a few, a pejorative term used of monastic Theravada Buddhism. The keynote of the Mahayana reform was the insistence that the heights of Buddhist spiritual achievement were not restricted to those who left home and family and lived in a monastic community, but was open and accessible to ordinary householders, women as well as men, living and working in the world.

This transformation bears an historical resemblance to the Protestant revolt of the early 16th century which occurred at the beginning of the modern era in Western Europe. Like the Mahayana in India, the Pro­tes­tant Reformation represented the widespread rejection of the eremitic celibate religiosity that had come to dominate Western Catholic Christianity in the middle ages. The limitation of the highest aspirations of Christian perfection to the monasteries from which the general clergy drew their ideals and their personnel, was an accepted wisdom that dovetailed conveniently with the two-tier, clergy-laity structure of Church authority and ritual practice. Laypeople’s contribution was relegated to the support of the religious elites.

In the centuries leading up to the Reformation, however, a new restive population began demanding participation in authentic Christianity. Lay movements like the Beguines, supported by outstanding theologians, created their own network of residences outside of the control of Church authorities. These groups adapted the principles of monastic spirituality which they used as personal preparation for a life of loving service to others in the world.

Interest in spirituality was in evidence everywhere in Western Europe, and the participants were not persuaded that obedience to the ecclesiastical authorities was a necessary element in that pursuit. Resistance to this movement on the part of the bishops, predictably, was strong and repressive. The Inquisition, originally created to counteract the spread of heretical ideas came increasingly to be employed in the control of these groups whose call for greater participation inevitably turned into a demand for reform of the venal and authoritarian hierarchy itself. The issue was never heresy. A Conciliar Movement that would have taken Church governance out of the hands of an Imperial Papacy and given it to representative Ecumenical Councils was stalled and finally crushed in the fifteenth century by the monarchs organized and led by the pope. With the elimination of any institutional path to reform it’s not surprising that by early in the following century reformers were ready to disregard the authorities altogether. Central to that reform was the invalidation of the monastic way of life and the promotion of the ordinary Christian values of love and compassion applied to life in the world, lived in family households. The concurrence with what happened in south India in the first centuries of the common era is remarkable and illuminating. For it speaks to the very heart of religion and how easily it is detoured.

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It is said that the Buddha, after having discovered the secret of overcoming suffering in life, chose to forego nirvana — a life of contemplative bliss — in order to remain in the world teaching his method of personal liberation until all had been freed from the delusions of samsara. (Samsara is the suffering created by the attempt to satisfy selfish desire.) In a famous passage at the end of the Dhammapada, one translator rendered the Buddha’s compassion this way:

The sun shines in the day; the moon shines in the night. The warrior shines in battle. The Brahmin shines in meditation. But day and night the Buddha shines in the radiance of love for all. (Dhammapada, 26 # 387 tr. Eknath Easwaran)

The verse places the Buddha’s universal love at the apex of that short poetic list of human achieve­ments. It conspicuously declares compassion to be more important than either the controlled anger of the warrior who has conquered his fear of death, or of the accomplished ascetic who has embraced his true Self in the depths of mindfulness and contemplative practice. Universal love, it is saying, embodied in the Buddha’s compassion, transcends it all. It is the unsurpassable goal of human fulfillment.

This ultimate Buddhist vision, a product of the Mahayana reform, contrasts with Siddhartha Gautama’s original program. His teaching could be characterized as the elimination of suffering obtained through self-abnegation and a life of moral uprightness. Compassion stands out as a Mahayana development because the Buddha, even while he practiced it, never emphasized it in his message to others or to the monks; it was always there but often implicit, or stated simply without development. Whatever Buddha’s intentions, once Mahayana clearly articulated the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice as compassion, it was never lost to view. Compassion, universal love, characterized all subsequent Buddhist evolution.

One of the developments that reflected that insight was the elevation to primary status of a new Buddhist ideal: the faithful Buddhist practitioner known as the bodhisattva. Bodhisattva meant someone who was becoming a Buddha. The significance of this new image was based on taking “Buddha,” which means fully awakened, as the symbol of the totally perfected end of the entire process. In this sense “Buddha” stopped being an historical person who lived and died, taught and trained, and became an eschatological ideal: the essence of liberation, nature transformed and returned to its primitive innocence and perfection. The image of the ordinary human being, submitting himself to the Buddhist program and striving to serve all sentient beings, evoked someone on the path to Buddhahood. That meant that Siddhartha Gautama himself, by rejecting nirvana, chose to be a bodhisattva rather than Buddha: he would not allow himself to enjoy the full fruits of liberation until all were liberated.

I believe that this turn toward the universal, so evident in the Mahayana inclusion of everyone in the quest for liberation, and the similar democratization of spirituality represented by the salvation by faith of the Christian reformers of the 16th century, is not just a coincidence. It speaks to the very nature of the material reality in which we live and move and have our being, and religion has been its perennial expression everywhere.

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In a background awareness that is always present but not always in the forefront of consciousness, there is, I contend, a universal astonishment among humankind of the utterly improbable developments of biological evolution, culminating in the emergence of the intelligent human organism. If the word that characterizes this perception is not astonishment, then it is awe. Regardless of the absence of any obvious personal author of that development, and despite the compelling scientific argument that there is none, it is difficult to suppress the impression that the developments of biological evolution result from some unknown form of affective abundant generosity ― a benevolence as immense as it is unfathomable. It is one of the sources of our sense of the sacred.

The feeling that there is, in nature, an uncontrolled compulsion to share, to multiply, expand, with a selfless abandon that is so automatic and unrestricted as to appear to be reflex, almost mechanical and totally unlike anything resembling “personal intention,” is recognized as a common background across the planet. I believe it is the source of a sense of the sacred that grounds religion, and a factor in the evolution of morality toward universal love.   The pre-scientific assumption that there was a “God”-per­son responsible for creation sustained the belief that nature’s generosity was indeed “love” and not something else.

However, that this source of the LIFE that abounds everywhere on earth, and that we increasingly suspect functions uncontrollably everywhere in our vast material cosmos, is not a “person,” is becoming acceptable simply because the evidence for it is overwhelming. Anyone can see that this unquestionably “abundant generosity” is not the product of someone’s free choice in any sense that we can recognize. Hence, in describing the source of the living cosmic phenomenon by which and into which we have been spawned, we find ourselves embracing the unresolved paradox that LIFE is an “abundant generosity” functioning as non-personal reflex mechanism. We are becoming comfortable with that, for no other reason than that is exactly the way things always and everywhere present themselves. Prior assumptions about a rational “God-person” no longer obviate that equation. But as a consequence, the assumption that nature’s abundance is really “love” loses coherence if not credibility. Those who are committed to “love” because of its human resonance with the natural order, tend also to cling to the “God” theory of cosmic origins despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

The “over-abundance” evident in the explosion of LIFE evokes a sense of redundancy, of unnecessary excess. It’s the first hint that there is something strange here, something that does not quite compute. For it doesn’t take much reflection to recognize that LIFE has absolutely no purpose whatsoever. 99% of all living species produced by evolution on planet earth during three and a half billion years at least, have ceded their place in the sun to other species that survived better. No achievement of biological evolution accomplishes the apparent goal of secure and permanent existence ― the invincible possession of being-here. Any successes are quickly swallowed up in new developments that are more successful and capture the food niche of their predecessors … only themselves to be superseded by still others.

Among humankind, energy expenditures are equally pointless. Every achievement of intense human striving, individual or communal, eventually disintegrates and vanishes. Even huge stone monuments, erected in an attempt to triumph over this galling disintegration, also eventually crumble to dust. Nothing is permanent. All human organisms die, leaving behind only the members of their own species that they may have reproduced and protected at great cost, but who in turn also die, giving rise to the suspicion that our sense of being substantial “persons,” souls apart from our bodies, is an illusion. We are our bodies, and when our bodies disappear, “we” disappear with them. And there is no guarantee that homo sapiens, which emerged about 300,000 years ago, will not also go extinct as have all other earlier sub-species of homo. The very pointlessness of life adds to our sense that we are on the right track in this conflation between benevolence and impersonal force. There is something astonishingly generous here, but it is not rational.

But “pointless” is not only a negative. “Pointless” in the sense of “purposeless” is the basis and justification for some of the most cherished experiences in life: the infinite human capacity for play, our desire to “hang out” with the people and things we love, our ability to “waste time” doing the things that just give us pleasure but are of no benefit to anyone, or doing nothing at all. What is the “point” of a vacation, a crossword puzzle, a Sudoku, a friendship? Looked at in themselves and taken out of any pecuniary or competitive context what is the “point” of art, music, poetry, story-telling, dance, theater, sports? The most precious and enjoyable things in life are “pointless.” They lead nowhere, they earn nothing, they achieve nothing, they help no one, and like everything else, they do not endure. And love, most of all, is utterly gratuitous and evanescent. There is nothing that coerces or justifies its inception nor any universal necessary benefit that results from its practice. Love, like most of the things we treasure in life, like LIFE itself, is its own reward, and eventually disappears.

4

These multiple indications that there is no purpose to LIFE besides living itself, I contend, completely dominate the subliminal awareness of all intelligently perceptive human beings. It is this universal and undeniable pointlessness that ultimately provides the background of our cultural choices. But not always in the same direction. There is a huge backlash. For it quickly becomes clear that, however enjoyable the present moment, organic survival in a material universe characterized by random interactions will not tolerate dallying in aimless triviality for long. Even if we are not taught, we soon learn that we have to organize our activities into work that is planned, directed and purposeful. We have to find and gather what we need to live: food, clothing, shelter, mates, and a cooperative community of human collaborators dedicated to mutual protection. Without a plan and sense of purpose we will die. However temporary, we must build the structures that protect us from the randomness of reality. The grasshopper lives for one season only, but the ants know they cannot fiddle around if they want to endure the winter to see another spring. A common human reaction to the pointlessness of LIFE is to deny it, and create narratives intended to disprove it. Human culture conjures an imaginary world in which the constant application of human planning and purpose supplants nature’s profligate tendency to live in the moment. That imaginary world has to be sustained by a massive lie; and the lie is that ultimately there is a purpose to it all. It should come as no surprise then to learn that the proponents of the “purpose” scenario tend to make common cause with the proponents of the “God” theory, since each is invested in the demolition of the view that the cosmos as far as we can tell, is pointless and unintended.

Here in the West, that alliance is identified with a hardened belief that the purpose of life is a permanent happiness after death earned by an immortal “soul” through the faithful compliance with a spiritual “God”-person’s moral program, a major part of which is work. After an avalanche of scientific challenge, that narrative appears more and more to be simply a pathetic attempt to introduce purpose and immortal (permanent) “spirit” into a universe where there is neither; left to themselves our material organisms vibrate with the rest of nature on a dynamic of dalliance and play, the appropriate response to pointlessness.

The scenario of eternal reward and punishment, we should also notice, is self-refuting: the happiness that the “doctrine” claims to offer is still, at the end of the day, only life. Why will a perishing “life” that now leaves us frustrated, miserable and unfulfilled, suddenly become a source of unmitigated happiness? The argument that it will stop being life as we know it and become something else is futile. We don’t want anything else. Or that we will be changed into “spirits” and so enjoy life in another form. But we don’t want to be changed. We want to be what we are, with these bodies, families and friends that make us, us. It can’t be life as we know it, because life includes death as intrinsic to its processes. If we get what we want, permanent human life, we will get permanent suffering, frustration, loss, isolation … and with nothing to put an end to the misery, the best that can occur is that we get more of the same. Eternal Life translates to endless suffering, separation, and the slow deteriorations ― the entropy ― that characterize matter’s energy wherever it is found.

So, besides confirming the Buddhist insight into samsara (that desire is ultimately insatiable and re-begets itself in its fulfillment) it evokes the imagery of endless recurrence that in Indian tradition has crystallized in the belief in rebirth after death. When Buddha speaks about ending the cycle of rebirth, what he says applies to this foundational frustration of our organic condition: that an eternal life would simply prolong suffering endlessly. What we want is for that suffering to end. The Buddha claims he discovered how to end suffering.

5

I believe Siddhartha Gautama came to see the fundamental features of human life on earth in the terms laid out above. He saw that we are quite alone. He did not believe there was a “loving person” behind it all, explaining life’s depth and diversity, nor did he believe that we ourselves were permanent “persons,” “souls” that are not subject to the vanishing that affects all other biological life. He saw that we were fooled by the ever-recur­ring delusion that our desires and instincts could be trusted to lead us to the end of suffering. It seemed clear to him that all sentient beings, not only humans, were the victims of a massive scam: that by following the urges of our organisms we will find happiness and closure. It is simply not true. The animals are unaware that they are being scammed. We are, and we rebel.

Know all things to be like this: a mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition, without essence but with qualities that can be seen.

Know all things to be like this: As a magician makes illusions of horses, oxen, carts and other things, nothing is as it appears. [1]

Later, Mahayana would call it emptiness.  I believe that his celebrated compassion was born of that assessment.

With a cold decisiveness that betrayed the hidden fury behind his quest and discoveries the Buddha dismissed the promptings of nature as fraudulent and devised a way to replace them with others that were guaranteed to end suffering. The uncontrolled stream of images that passed for thought, he said, was the source of reflex behavior that could hardly be called conscious. He determined that by re-introducing conscious awareness back into a mind that was at the mercy of its urges, we could gain control over the process of living and feeling and not be its passive victims. How to re-introduce this conscious awareness? By incrementally changing thought through meditation.

Meditation for the Buddha was not a head-trip in search of enlightenment, much less the dreamy delights of a nuptial relationship with a transcendent Bridegroom. Meditation was a warrior’s daily workout designed to control thought, discipline the mind, re-estab­lish conscious control over our attitudes, opinions, feelings and their subsequent actions. Stop obeying a blind conatus, and start obeying the dharma ― the moral responsibilities revealed to us by our innate and honest intelligence. Think the right thoughts, and you will do the right thing. Start living according to your conscience and you will end suffering for yourself and all others whom you touch.

The Buddha’s program exudes the sweaty energy of military exertion and control. “You got yourself into this pickle, you have the resources to get yourself out.” “Be master of yourself. Once you are in control you will be the best master you will ever have.” “Do it yourself. Be beholden to nobody.” In the entire Dhammapada there is no mention of any help from the outside, divine, human or the forces of nature. Even the sangha, the community of practitioners, is barely mentioned. You are on your own.

It was the absence of any appeal to outside help and no acknowledgement of a “revealed” standard of behavior that has impelled the nearly universal judgment that the Buddha was atheist ― at least in our western terms. The motivation for transformation was what the individuals decided was the right thing to do. There was no “god’s will” being served by any of this, nor was there any prodding or help coming from the practitioner’s “higher power.” What motivated the Buddha was love of his LIFE and the LIFE he shared with others. He wanted to end human suffering. That was the source of his compassion.

The program of obedience he proposed was to one’s own conscience. He called it the dharma. The term captured the essence of a what is universally considered right and wrong: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not become intoxicated, do not transgress sexual norms. Commentators have remarked on the similarity of the concept of the dharma with the Chinese notion of the Tao and the original Hebrew idea of the Torah not as written law but as “the way of heaven.” Some have tried to equate it with the “natural law” of later Greek philosophy, but the dharma does not share the rigidity, divinization of logic and legal simulation that characterizes the western system.

6

Mahayana went beyond the Buddha in a number of ways. To understand how, let’s recap. I believe there are two bedrock ultimates at play in life. In the first there are intense cravings that arise spontaneously in the human organism compelling it to pursue things that are necessary for the survival of the individual and of the species. These are algorithms implanted by evolution. We are all familiar with them. They impel us incessantly to nourish ourselves, reproduce, accumulate, compete with and defend ourselves against others, and in the pursuit of those objectives, to plan and apply disciplined purposeful effort. Second, and with a completely opposite dynamic, there is also a universal sense of purposelessness about reality that comes from the superfluous profligacy of LIFE coupled with its utter randomness, and the spontaneous, virtually irrepressible attraction of the human organism to play and enjoyment. These two force-fields are in direct competition with one another for the attention of the human beings trying to navigate the current that carries them from the cradle to the grave.

I believe the ancient Indians saw the intrinsic connection between the impermanence and frustration that attends the planned attempt to satisfy spontaneous desire, and the purposelessness of all reality. They are one and the same thing.  They called it emptiness.  Because reality has no purpose beyond just being-here, no version of it, no matter how elaborated or evolved, is ever enough, finished, complete. The hunger for more life emerges insatiably from the very material cells of our organism. I believe it is a clear evidence of the existential bearing of matter’s energy.

Then, in a tour de force of vertical reflection, Hindu-Buddhists realized that if being-here is all that LIFE is really concerned about, then being-here is the elusive “purpose” that we have always been searching for. If being-here is the goal of LIFE then, zounds! we already have it, and we have had it from the very beginning. The last place we looked was under our feet. Things are, in a profound but hidden sense, already perfect, enough, fulfilled, complete, finished.

Therefore, the rest ― the craving, the fear of dying, the need to reproduce, the amassing of wealth and power, the annihilation of competitors ― are residual reflex urges which, if mistakenly pursued beyond their temporary evolutionary purpose, degrade into a vain attempt to achieve permanence. In this form they are pure delusion, for none of it accomplishes its imagined purpose: none of it gets us one step closer to permanence. LIFE always remains vulnerable and evanescent. There is no closure.

But LIFE itself, in its perishable form, is the closure. The craving for more is delusion because it is not possible to have more, and the attempt to satisfy a delusion is what is responsible for socially generated suffering, the human condition. The answer to LIFE is not to continue trying to get what we think we want but cannot have, but to retrain our minds to want what we’ve got.

The Buddhist practical organizers zeroed in on the answer: to embrace what is, as it is, and forget about what our “desires” claim they need, and what our rational intelligence, following the clues of our desires, thinks is the purpose of LIFE. We need neither. Embracing what we are, as we are, is to put being-here-now at the center of our striving. Embracing ourselves in the present moment is the ultimate answer to LIFE. And it is not only the answer now, it is the answer at every now. It is always the answer, the only answer; there will never be a time when it is not the answer or when there is any other answer.

The discovery that not only is there a reason why things seem pointless, but that’s the way they are supposed to be, is mind-blowing. Far from being a problem, it is revealed as the solution. And our “job” is not to try to disprove it, or undermine it, or transcend it; it’s rather to endlessly enjoy its utter and glorious emptiness as we would an infinite spring of clear mountain water. We find that our thirst for being is slaked from the very first moment … and every subsequent present moment thereafter. All that remains is to retrain our frightened and paranoid conatus to see things for what they are. It’s not really a matter of faith, but rather trust. We can trust LIFE, the way things are … and we can trust what our human teachers ― Buddha, Jesus and their authentic imitators ― accomplished with their lives and the steps they took to get there. If they could do it, they told us in very clear terms, we can do it. We have to trust that they were ordinary human beings just like us, something that both of them insisted on. And we have to trust that since our humanity is the same, we also carry that power with us. The ability to transcend suffering and sorrow is ours to activate.

7

This opposes the fundamental direction of our Western Christian worldview which is focused on moral compliance in the pursuit of eternal reward, permanent immortality, and ― according to Roman Augustinian Christianity ― relies exclusively on the intervention of a spiritual “God” who both issues the moral law as the command of his will, and elects those who will receive and benefit from his miraculous “grace.” In this view, in complete opposition to the Buddha’s original teaching, the entire drama of personal transformation and the achievement of immortality in a state of eternal bliss, is the work of “God.” For a Christian to become a Buddhist, as the Buddha conceived his program, would involve a radical shift in perspective.

But the West is not totally closed to the Hindu-Buddhist view. There is a “minority report” from western culture that is diametrically opposed to the mainstream quid pro quo scenario outlined above and is categorically in agreement with the “pointlessness” that Indian spirituality adumbrates at the core of reality. The most articulate proponents of this opposing point of view are Johannes “Meister” Eckhart, a mediaeval Dominican theologian who died in 1328, and those who were inspired by his mystical vision in the centuries that followed : Tauler, Ruysbroeck, Suso, Angelus Silesius.

The last named author in the list of the Meister’s followers was Angelus Silesius. He was German, a mystical poet who wrote about the middle of the 17th century, more than 300 years after Eckhart’s death but his writings are full of the Meister’s thought. Here is a sampling of his poetry from different translations that reveals the similarity with the Buddhist view. Keep in mind that he is projecting these ideas in the midst of a Christian cultural contradiction. These individual and separated verses come from a much larger series of poems called The Cherubinic Wanderer, composed about 1658. His lines are in italics and indented: [3]

On the absence of “purpose” in life he says:

The rose is without ‘why’; it blooms simply because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it.

On the “will” of “God”:

We pray: Thy Will be done! But God has no Will: in His changelessness God is eternally still.

On divine Providence and predestination:

God foresees nothing — it’s our dull and blundering sense that imagines God with the attribute of Providence.

On the “rationality” of the abundant source of LIFE:

God does not think. Otherwise He would change, and that is impossible.

On “God” as the “being” of all things:

Eternal Spirit, God, becomes All that He wills to be — but still remains ever as He is, without form, or aim, or will.

For Eckhart and his followers, their experience conformed to and in many cases was the formative factor in their theology. Following the mediaeval focus on God as ESSE in se subsistens ― self-subsistent Being ― they conceived of God, the designer and exemplar that all things resembled and the absolute good that all things desired to possess, as pure impassive stillness. They imagined God living in a blissful serenity totally absorbed in an eternal act of self-embrace silently pouring out a single changeless energy (Aristotle called it Pure Act) that because there was nothing in ESSE that was not fully actuated, could not become something more in any way. It remained exactly the same for all eternity. They called it The Eternal Now.

Eckhart laid great emphasis on the eternal now:

The now-moment in which God made the first man, and the now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the now-moment in which I am speaking are all one in God, in whom there is only one now. [2]

Time in their view stood at the other end of the spectrum from the eternal now. Time was the record of change, of becoming, the activation of dormant potential ― of what could be but was not yet ― and on the downslope of new being, the entropic dissipation of energy in the inevitable direction of equilibrium, inaction, non-becoming, complete stasis, death. Time is the vapor trail of becoming ― i.e., the tracks left by potential being activated, by things coming into being-here out of nothing, which occurs always and only at one point in time: the present moment. They saw the present moment as the “stargate,” the “wormhole,” the permanent, ever accessible bridge and indelible link between the Eternal Now and the world of time and change. It was the one, solid, ever present and infallible connection between God and humankind, the place of contact, the kiss of existence that sustains the universe.

This is where the contemplative experience of both East and West, Buddhism and the Mystical traditions of the religions of The Book, not only confirmed what the other had stumbled upon, but reached for a rational way to explain why. For contemplative experience universally rests upon the present moment, and is described as absorption in the here and now ― the reality of being-here-now ― to the complete exclusion of any competitor or rival. It includes the sense that there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to get, nothing to want, nothing more precious or valuable than the simple uncomplicated act of being-here-now-together which is the simultaneous activation of energy by the living material organisms and the material energy of their common source-matter, the substrate of which all things are made, LIFE.

The awareness that this realization ends suffering, both the suffering that comes from fear of personal annihilation and the suffering that comes from competing violently with others for possession of what neither of us needs and really wants, is the ultimate source of the universal love, expressed as compassion, gratitude, generosity, respect, forgiveness, characteristic of both traditions. In India, it was crystalized in the image of the bodhisattva and his mind-blowing recognition that nirvana and samsara were only different ways of looking at one and the same pointless material cosmos, the same purposeless LIFE. Nirvana itself stopped being a thing to be achieved. Nirvana became present in the instant of embracing the present moment, the kiss of LIFE. Zen practitioners called it satori ― enlightenment.

It works coming and going. Coming to us as the joy of being-here-together and going out from us as the joy of sharing the good news of our liberation to fellow slaves and victims of mindlessness.

 

 

[1] The Buddha, quoted by Andrew Harvey, Mystics, Castle Books, 1996, p.72

[2] Johannes Eckhart, quoted in DT Suzuki, Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist, Macmillan, 1957, p. 84

[3] Selections from The Cherubinic Wanderer, by Angelus Silesius, translated with an introduction by J. E. Crawford Flitch, [London, 1932]   http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/sil/scw/scw004.htm

 

Surrender

2,800 words

We are exploring the question of Religion in a material universe. Our quest is complicated because we come from an ancient tradition that believed that we are not matter, but “spirit.” And based on those premises our forebears developed a lore of wisdom and a storehouse of ascetic practices that they used and tested and passed on to us. Some of these people we knew personally and we can acknowledge that, whatever it was they did, it made them extraordinary human beings.

We know, like them, we are just human.  We have to ask ourselves: Would our times have changed us so radically that what worked for them could not continue to work for us?  That does not mean we are trapped in an eternal repetition of the past, but it does mean that our dialog with this new world that science has opened up for us must constantly include a third party: the people who have gone before us. After all, it was they who implanted in us the obsessions that drive our search for the face of God.

Following up on the two previous posts, this reflection is focused on the inner transformation that some ancient Christian spiritual masters recommend for the individual believer, and as a by-product, the effect on the community made up of those believers. As our ruminations unfolded in earlier posts, Benedictine monasticism as reflected in the Rule, written toward the middle of the sixth century, was seen to focus on achieving humility as the most highly prized inner attitude. And the tool that was declared to be the most effective in that effort was obedience.

But obedience, aside from its therapeutic function in the monasteries, also formed one side of the two-sided quid pro quo distorted Romanized version of the Christian religion that I believe occasioned the rise of the monasteries to begin with. In that respect we can anticipate that obedience might not always work as a gospel corrective; if misapplied by the abbot or mis-taken by the monk, it could work to sustain the original distortion. There is nothing magic about obedience, and it should be noted that Jesus’ message conspicuously ignored it. He spoke of imitating God, not obeying him.

Then we looked at mediaeval theologian and mystic Johannes Eckhart who offered a theological “theory” as to how exactly obedience functioned for the divinization of the Christian. He believed that obedience was the most effective tool for achieving detachment, amounting to a radical internal poverty of willing, knowing and possessing that most closely imitated the independent serenity of the “Godhead.” Humility for Eckhart would then be a poverty of spirit that, because the “soul” knew itself, like God, to be part of “Being” — the source of all things — and therefore already in possession of all there was to have, “wanted what it was, and was what it wanted.” He called such a gospel-conscious individual “an aristocrat,” a term that evoked a sense of permanent independent self-worth. He was condemned by the Inquisition, in part, “because,” they said, “he confused the ordinary people.” Humility for Eckhart is knowing the truth about who you are. Indeed, in the rigid class society of mediaeval Europe, suggesting that the ordinary people enjoyed the same worth as an aristocrat directly threatened the very basis of social cohesion. The Inquisitors could be expected to take notice.

But this was nothing new. From even before Constantine, mainline Christianity, determined to survive in the real world, had accepted the absurd task of finding a way to make Jesus’ egalitarian vision function within the exploitive two-class society ruled by Rome. That helps explain the schizoid incoherence at the heart of Western civilization. It is an internal contradiction that has functioned throughout its history right down to our day. The Christian West has traditionally proclaimed itself the champion of liberty and equality, while remaining a two-class society ruled by a wealthy elite that routinely exploited the labor of the lower class, conquered and enslaved outsiders perceived as “heathen,” and expropriated their energies and goods. Obedience under these conditions, is not a tool of perfection; it is submission to oppression.

The Roman Empire

I have argued that Roman Christianity as we have inherited it, is not what was preached by Jesus or originally understood by the community of his followers. It is rather a doctrinal and structural distortion developed under the influence of the Mediterranean civilization of the second century dominated by the control needs and theocratic traditions of the Roman Empire.

At that point in time, the Roman Empire was the latest, greatest example of an ancient culture whose economic life functioned on the continuous influx of slaves obtained by conquest. Mediterranean civilization, regardless of the various political structures which its city-states adopted to govern themselves, ran on an economy dependent on slave labor. This created a two class (master-slave) society. Christianity lived with it, but was never able to justify it and seemed resigned to simply accept it. What else explains not only ancient Christian inaction about slavery, but its stone silence.

I contend that a thousand years later, mediaeval aristocracy, born together with feudal serfdom as the coefficients of a purely agricultural economy, was the ultimate product of that anomaly. It was the Western European Christianized version of the ancient Greco-Roman society of masters and slaves which the “barbarians” had inherited with Christianity.

Monastic Obedience and Feudal Serfdom

In the West, the anarchic, almost stateless era between the demise of the Roman slave based commercial economy and the rise of feudal agriculture, was dominated by the Church and its most cohesive social model, the monastery as an agricultural enterprise. The Church could not justify slavery, but it could justify religious obedience. The monastic elevation of obedience into a tool of perfection had the effect outside the monastery of reinforcing the distorted quid pro quo version of the Christian message and provided the link that transformed Roman slavery that had always lived in a shaky co-existence with Christian ideals, into a full blown Church sanctioned obligation. Slavery, effectively, was sublimated. Monasticism gave feudal serfdom a “religious” significance. The serfs’ obedience to their lords was no longer a counsel to resign oneself to an inherited monstrosity; it had become a sacred duty, the very bond of a new social order presided over by the Church that presaged the end of times. It had to be the “will of God.” And in the offing, the ruling class was given a metaphysical upgrade commensurate with its new role as representative of God on earth. Mediaeval aristocracy enjoyed far more than political or economic power; aristocrats were given sacred power. The nobles became God’s surrogates, and their commands were the commands of God to be obeyed in a spirit of latria — worship.

As late as the Peasant Wars in Germany, 1525, the serf’s disobedience to his lord was categorically declared to be “mortal sin” entailing eternal torment in hell. The unspeakable tortures, burnings, blindings and maimings of the peasants that came in the wake of the nobles’ treacherous suppression of the insurgency reflected the religious aura that surrounded the feudal relationship.

Suddenly, the spiritual significance of monastic obedience in the West is revealed to be defenseless against the overarching dominance of obedience’s theocratic role. Theocracy represents a very simple formula. Do what you’re told, it is “God” whom you obey and God’s punishment for disobedience is eternal damnation. Benedict’s attempt to turn obedience from being a response to the threat of eternal punishment into a creative spiritual tool administered by a benign and gospel-conscious father-abbot, had to fail when applied in the aggregate, if only because there were precious few who were interested in exercising authority like benevolent fathers even if they were capable of it.

Eckhart’s attempt to explain obedience as an exercise generating a detachment that imitated a “Godhead” of pure infinite indifference, was necessarily addressed narrowly to fellow monks, because outside the monasteries obedience as a spiritual exercise and not a quid pro quo demand did not exist. Not even the Beguines were structured around a central authority, and the lay people whom Eckhart counselled would generally be under authorities of dubious gospel-consciousness. Benedict’s obedience needs a true father to function because the object of the obedience is not the external compliance, it is the internal surrender.

Obedience /compliance; humility / humiliation

Hence, in this analysis, our own experience is confirmed: the effect of a misapplied obedience can be humiliation rather than humility, and can result in a strengthening of the selfish, self-protective, self-aggrandizing ego born when its own deep origins in the “Godhead” and its own inalienable value are unacknowledged. Once born, the humiliated ego quickly becomes lost in a futile quest to acquire value from outside itself, from a finite world that cannot provide it. The instinct of the desert fathers to use obedience itself as a personal tool to tear down the false ego its misapplication had created, has got to be one of the great achievements of our tradition; but it depended on how it was used. Obedience as mere compliance always remains potentially humiliating.

Eckhart’s theory may seem complex because the unconscious ego has so many surrogates it has identified as necessary to this delusional acquisition of value, but seen from the other side it is really quite simple: our origin in the depths of the Godhead is something we can never lose, making the individual incomparably and inalienably wealthy — like an aristocrat. No amount of superficial loss can affect our roots in the ground itself, and therefore slapping down the false ego does you no real damage. To the contrary it makes you free.

We are made of Esse — God-stuff. Eckhart’s focus on detachment, therefore, is aimed at the central issue: the eternal value of the individual rooted in its existential origination. To be effective, however, it is the one who obeys who must use obedience as a sword to slay the dragon that would devour him.

Seen from this angle, humility becomes even more clearly highlighted as truth. Humility is the flip-side of an aristocratic self-awareness, or as we would say today: an independent sense of self-esteem. It needs nothing because it has everything. In Eckhart’s vision it is grounded in the origins of the individual in Being Itself, the source of all things. It is my contention that Eckhart’s insight is insuperable. There is no way to achieve a sense of independent self-worth without conceding the implication: I am already in possession of an invulnerable well-spring of existence. There is nothing I can accumulate that can compare with what I already have as a human being.

Humility in a material universe

Fast forward to our era. The identity of the human organism with the totality of matter’s energy parallels Eckhart’s identification of the “soul” with the Godhead defined as Esse, Self-subsistent Being. We must remember Eckhart believed both the “soul” and the Godhead were “substantial ideas” meaning “spirits.” It was the state of the art science of his times. We have moved far beyond such conceptions. Our science now suggests that the phenomena we used to attribute to “spirit” are actually the activities of a single substance that displays the qualities and capacities of both matter and spirit. The conceptual system is called “neutral monism,” and it provides an unexpected philosophical congruence with what science observes, measures and describes.

In our world, the observations and measurements of modern science are accepted as the authentic description of what constitutes reality. Everything is made of the same material energy which is a self-transcending dynamism internally driven to survive. In living things it is palpably experienced as the instinct for self-preservation traditionally called the conatus. Every living thing is recognizably driven by its conatus because everything is made of the same material energy. Material energy thus manifests itself as an existential energy. It is a living dynamism for being-here and everything it enlivens is intelligible very simply as a function of continuing to be-here.

This implies an expectation of endlessness. This is not specific to human beings. It is characteristic of everything that lives. The tiniest paramecium’s tireless search for food, mates and the avoidance of predators is, formally speaking, endless: it does not anticipate any moment when living will terminate. Humans are no different. We are programmed to live; we do not expect to die. There is nothing in us that tells us it will ever end, and when the realities of life enter forcibly and make death undeniable, it runs so counter to our instinctive expectations that it can be immobilizing. Our grief can be intense. The human species, of all the billions of living things on earth that we know of, is the only one that knows it will die, but that knowledge is acquired from observation, not internal instinct. As far as the material organism is concerned, we go on forever.

The power of the instinctive drive to live is so overwhelming that even the immobilization of intense grief is effortlessly overcome by the organism in a relatively short time without conscious intervention, and while remembered as a fact, is quickly forgotten as a feeling and no longer interferes with the mundane pursuits of the conatus. The natural attitude of all living matter is simply to live.

What I find remarkable is that despite the vast divergence in the metaphysics between Eckhart and today, the spiritual dynamics remain the same. Whether you believe, as Eckhart did, that the “soul” had existed as an “idea” in the mind of the Godhead of Being from all eternity, or, as I do, that the human organism is constructed of living material energy which is neither created nor destroyed, the implication for the human interpreter is the same: my organism is part of a vast totality that is itself the source — the very well-spring — of existence.

Surrender

It is the individual human perception of independent self-worth that is the sine qua non of Benedictine humility and Eckhartian detachment, both of which in the ancient monastic tradition were elicited by obedience. Monastic obedience was employed to directly challenge the reality of the false ego born of the illusion of groundlessness — the illusion that we are existential isolates, and must create ourselves in order to obey the dictate of the conatus. To the contrary, we who align ourselves with Eckhart in the sense of belonging to the totality of being, know that we have already been created by matter’s evolving energy; we do not need to do it again. What’s left to us is to embrace it.

That means we are talking about surrender … surrender to reality. Ancient monastic obedience is no longer available to us as a resource; there are no abbots to command us. But we can reproduce its action in our lives. Obedience is a metaphor. Obedience symbolizes yielding to the truth of the human immersion in a vast creative project extending beyond the species in every direction and involving the totality of reality. Belonging to a project so immense in both time and extension, reveals the individual attempt to shape and secure an endless existence for itself to be a patent redundancy, an absurd, self-defeating and unnecessary exercise. Obedience means denying that false ego its reality. We do not need an ego in order to exist.

The role of the family community in this awareness is crucial. A community of families who understand they are part of the totality and communicate that conviction to one another, and especially to their children, serves as the medium by which the sense of inalienable self-esteem is made concrete, transmitted and is reinforced for all. The dynamic interaction within such a community obviates the temptation of any individual or group to mis-take the urgings of the conatus and attempt to achieve what is both impossible and unnecessary: to create oneself and expand one’s quota of existence. Of course, it assumes justice as a prerequisite. In such a community voluntary enthusiastic collaboration between individuals may even come to resemble the obedience that the monasteries once employed in the pursuit of perfection.

We are all being carried along in an evolving current that in 14 billion years, using only quarks and leptons — the particles produced in the big bang — created a universe with at least one earth teeming with billions of life forms and dominated by intelligent, thinking organisms of enormous depth and complexity. If evolution makes anywhere near the same exponential leaps in the next 14 billion years, what the future holds in store for evolving matter cannot even be guessed at. And we are THAT. Our reality — and our worth — derives from our place in the whole.

Tony Equale, June 2017

Eckhart’s Obedience

2,800 words

Readers of this blog will likely be familiar with Meister Eckhart. A Dominican friar from Germany, he entered the order in 1275, the same year Thomas Aquinas died, and after a career distinguished by academic achievement at Paris in Thomas’ chair, high administrative responsibility in his order in Germany and the Rhineland, and a widespread reputation as a preacher and counsellor of the Beguines, a lay women’s movement in the Rhineland and the Low Countries, was con­demned by the official Church at Avignon in 1328. He escaped what might have been a most heinous execution by dying of natural causes before sentence could be passed.

His condemnation must be understood in the context of his times. Church authorities used the Inquisition to control groups like the Beguines whom they claimed were guilty of heresy. The Beguines were self-governing communities of laywomen who had dedicated themselves to contemplative prayer and a life of Christian perfection but were not under the control of the official Church or any of its approved religious orders. Eckhart supported them, taught and counselled them and was himself a disciple of one of their own advanced contemplatives, Marguerite Porrete, who was burned at the stake in 1310 in Paris by an Inquisitor of Eckhart’s own order. As for the issue of heresy, many believe it was largely the concoction of church authorities determined to maintain control of a population increasingly aware of the corruption and hypocrisy of the hierarchy. The Beguines were condemned in 1318. Eckhart’s conviction of heresy 10 years later was not an unconnected event.

Eckhart was a monk in an age when spirituality was moving out of the monasteries. Monasticism was coming under criticism for arrogating to religious elites the means of perfection and the contemplative life, while lay men and women were consigned to second class Christian citizenship. Movements like the Beguines and their priest supporters sprang up in response. They were most active in “frontier” areas where new towns were expanding with the influx of serfs freed from their fiefs by land enclosures. The sermons for which Eckhart is most famous and which contain the most radical expression of his vision, were aimed at a spirituality for laypeople. They were delivered in the vernacular German — the language spoken by these searching people — itself a daring and iconoclastic gesture at the time, representing a movement toward democratization. His work was clearly an attempt to bring the best theology to ordinary Christians and to emphasize the effectiveness of the active life in achieving perfection. The Meister was famous for reversing John’s judgment; he said “Martha has chosen the better part.”

It could all be subsumed under the heading of “reform,” and while no definitive reform would be forthcoming for at least another century, and Luther’s revolt, two centuries, the universal desire for reform and the broad outlines of its scope were already in place. Eckhart has been identified as the symbolic precursor of the Reformation in the Christian West. Nevertheless, the mysticism that was characteristic of Eckhart’s time and can be said to constitute the bulk of his contribution, was not characteristic of later reformers. The growing “personalist” spirituality that imagined Jesus as one’s intimate friend, confidant and even spouse, represented by such works as The Imitation of Christ, was not yet solidly in place, and Eckhart’s Logos spirituality had more in common with Benedict of Nursia than Thomas à Kempis.

Eckhart’s system and Doctrine of God

Eckhart’s system was internally consistent. Peoples’ needs derived from what they were as human beings, and that in turn reflected the nature of the “God” from whom they emanated and in whose “ground” they remained immersed for eternity. Whether you began with the behavior he encouraged, or with the doctrine of “God” that he proposed, it all fit together.

Perhaps the place to start is where Eckhart seems most at odds with the mainstream understanding of Christianity: the doctrine of “God.”

For Eckhart, Being, esse, is “God.” This does not seem very radical given the philosophical thought of his age. It is similar to what the principal theologians believed. Thomas Aquinas, for example, said that “God is being.” But their ultimate meaning was different. Aquinas meant that God had his own being which was absolute and unconditioned, but also created another kind of being that was conditioned and dependent on his. Aquinas called the second, esse commune. It was finite; belonged to creatures and was distinct from “God’s” which was esse in se subsistens — infinite. With Eckhart, in contrast, there was only one esse. It was Aristotle’s “Pure Act,” conceptually akin to what, in a material universe we would call “matter’s energy,” and everything that existed participated in the unique and exclusive existence — esse — which was “God.” There were not two esse’s. There was only one. To exist at all, therefore, was to possess and be energized by the only esse there was, and for Eckhart, that was God.

This neo-Platonic participation made Eckhart’s system different from his contemporaries, and the source of misunderstanding that got him in trouble with the thought police. But from our point of view it makes his concept of “God” much closer to what modern science might infer from the absolute autonomy of matter that it observes as the building blocks of all existing things. If material reality is absolutely commensurate with esse, i.e., if matter is the very energy of existence itself, then material energy is “God.” “God” is material, and in a material universe, Eckhart’s “Being is God” remains intact.

Eckhart’s definition of Being as God brought him to imagine a “Godhead” of pure limpid being with characteristics derived from the simple bareness of the concept. This “Godhead” is the serene unrelated “ground” from which all things flowed, and in which the human soul pre-existed as an “idea” in the divine mind from all eternity. Eckhart distinguished the utterly detached Godhead from the image of “God” the Creator of the universe, later identified as a Trinity of Persons who related to humankind in and through the redemptive work of the Logos in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Triune God of Christian doctrine was, for Eckhart, a theophany — a mask — a role, as it were, assumed by the Godhead for the purposes of relating to humankind. To embrace this Trinity, therefore, was not the ultimate quest for human beings. The final goal was to “break through” the conceptual imagery of Christian doctrine and touch the “Godhead” itself in whose infinite ground the finite being finds its home: its origin and place of rest. The “breakthrough” recapitulated the neo-Platonic reditus — the return of all things to their source.

The Trinitarian analog for this cosmic cycle involves the generation of the Son by the Father as a first instance of the “boiling over” of divine self-love in an abundant generosity that necessarily reproduces itself “outside” itself. God cannot help it. He must love and reproduce himself even if he didn’t want to; and since he is ground he reproduces himself as ground. That is the exitus. In a second instance, creation emanates from the Father as part of the same dynamic of overflowing love that generated the Son; and the “boiling over” is reproduced a third time in the “birth of the Son” in the soul of the human being in “grace,” setting up a tension of attraction that propels the individual on a return — a reditus — back to the ground. The “soul,” swept up in this dynamic of Trinitarian love, becomes aware of its destiny — its true identity as ground in the Godhead. When that awareness occurs in this life it is what Eckhart calls “the breakthrough.” This identification with the utterly detached serene transcendent “One” beyond the Trinity who needs nothing is the keynote of Eckhart’s vision.

The “birth of the Son” in the soul means the human being is necessarily immersed in a cosmic trajectory that is finalized only with the breaking through to the “Godhead,” the ultimate ground where there is no more “God” as a Creator-entity separate from the things he creates. All of Being is identified as itself as it was from all eternity. Thus the human being, re-immersed in its source, now knows itself to be “ground,” i.e., everything once thought to be unique to “God.” The soul realizes it is an integral part of its own source and reason for being. It is like a drop of water in the ocean. It’s in describing this Godhead, the Alpha source of the primaeval exitus and the Omega goal of the final reditus, that Eckhart’s language about “God” yaws so noticeably from the mainstream:

The authorities say that God is a being, and a rational one, and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither a being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things and therefore he is all things.[1]

“Free of all things,” is the characteristic of the Godhead, pure Being, who lives in a detachment of unrelated serenity which ultimately must also necessarily characterize the human being who originated in that “ground” and always remains constituted by it. Detachment, therefore, is the key to the liberation of the human being. As the individual becomes more detached, he becomes more and more like the Godhead, the ground to which he is returning.

As a corollary to this concept of the Godhead Eckhart counsels his disciples to avoid “prayer of petition” because the detached unrelated source of all things is beyond change of any kind and therefore could not possibly respond to prayer in time. God has known everyone’s needs from all eternity. Besides, as ground, the human being realizes he needs nothing; to ask for anything more than what one already is, is meaningless.

Obedience and the ego

The “birth of the Son” in the soul marks the incorporation of the individual into this cycle of return. But its occurrence is neither automatic nor passive. The individual is responsible for an active receptivity which involves preparing space for the birth by “letting-go” and “clearing-out” everything that is not consistent with the soul’s own participation in the “ground.” Generally translated “detachment,” Eckhart uses German words that were later picked up by 20th century philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s asceticism, however, is not Eckhart’s. The modern existentialist is trying to find a way for dasein, the human self, to “create” itself (find itself) by allowing “being” to emerge and stand out resolutely in the gale winds of nothingness, while the mediaeval Meister is explicitly intent on eliminating the self-creating human ego in favor of allowing the “ground” which the soul shares with the Godhead, to become empty — the place where the “Son,” a new Self, is born and replaces the false needy and grasping ego.  All this happens here and now, as the point in which God’s creative action is actively sustaining the existence of all things.

The final step for Eckhart is the identification of “obedience” as the most effective tool for achieving detachment — the reduction of the power of the false, self-creating human ego — providing the emptiness which is the sine qua non condition for the entry of God. Once the soul is empty, God flows in, as it were, necessarily here and now, because the soul has become all and only “ground” and, morally speaking, presents no obstacle to the creative presence of the Godhead. There is no longer any false human ego, whose self-will claims to be the creator of itself, blocking God’s access to the shared ground and the “Son’s” loving return.

It is the attachment to imaginary “goods” which are pursued with existential intensity that “clutter” the ground making it impossible for God follow through on the process of bringing the soul back to its ground in the Godhead. Detachment, therefore, equates to a radical poverty that is the flip-side of the infinite wealth (nobility) of the individual. Eckhart called the human soul “the aristocrat” which would explain why the Inquisitors said: “he confused the ordinary people.” The soul, whose ultimate ground existed before birth and is shared with God, is already in possession of that existential wellspring — Being itself — that the ego thinks it lacks and must go out and find and possess. “Letting go” therefore involves dropping the fantasies of need and the delusions of inadequacy that generate the lust for accumulation — including “merit” in the afterlife — that are the spontaneous deceptions of the ego.  

This emphasis on the false ego and its replacement by the infinite aristocratic “Self” of the divine Logos puts Eckhart in a direct line of inheritance with Christian ascetics going back to the New Testament itself. Paul spoke emphatically and often about “putting on Christ” and urged his readers to put aside the “old self” in exchange for the “new self” created to be like God. In Galatians he boasted, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.” Eckhart’s insistence that the “old self” is to be identified as ”having your own way” finds its psycho-spiritual antithesis in obedience.

Following Benedict, since obedience is not sought as an end in itself but only for its power to transform the selfish, grasping, self-exalting self into a generous, compassionate, servant of others, there should be little chance that obedience will be made into an absolute. It is a tool for breaking the habitual self-exaltation and self-protection that requires the abasement and exploitation of others. Obedience is not a totalitarian idol demanding the humiliation and obliteration of the self, an absolute demand of good order, a tool of the state. For Eckhart as for Benedict obedience is not for the sake of society; it is meant to serve the healing of the individual. So it should never fall into the false quid pro quo transactional category that was responsible for turning the gospel into law under Roman tutelage despite Paul’s attempts to prevent it. Obedience is a means for intensifying and re-directing the self’s energy toward the acceptance, enhancement and service of others … turning the ego into a more highly energized “self” driven by donation, generosity, self-emptying and the wellbeing of others: the human recapitulation of the divine “boiling over” of creative love.

In modern terms it is the self-forgetful abundant benevolence characteristic of matter’s energy itself, LIFE, the very “stuff” of which we are made. I am convinced this is essentially what Eckhart experienced. He called it “being,” we call it matter’s self-transcending energy; but it is the same thing. It is the Source of LIFE, the Godhead beyond the metaphors of doctrine. By realigning the self with the “ground,” the return is anticipated in the individual’s contemplative experience. That’s what he calls the breakthrough. We know we belong to the totality, and we are not distracted by seeking a final answer anywhere else than in our return to it.

Self-forgetful, self-emptying. Understanding the transformative purpose of religious obedience brings us back full circle to Benedict’s humility. The achievement of humility represents the final metamorphosis of the false self into the “true self” which Paul said was “to be like God.” Once we realize that obedience is a tool and what it is supposed to be used for, it may occur to us that there are other things that we may use for the same purpose. Not all of us, after all, have access to an “abbot” or another religious superior who understands the transformative function of obedience. Many people are caught in situations — at work, in the family — where obedience is demanded for all the wrong reasons by someone whose own sense of inadequacy requires the abasement and exploitation of others for compensation. Obedience under these circumstances will more than likely have a reverse demonic effect. The assaulted “ego” will defend, protect and enlarge itself.

But the person sincerely in search of humility, having understood its significance, can find alternatives to religious obedience that will work as tools for the transformation of the self. There is nothing “sacred” about obedience in itself. Detachment can be pursued by other means. Once we understand that the false, self-exalting self is nothing but a futile attempt to compensate for one’s own feelings of inadequacy and exclusion, our awareness of our eternal origin in the “ground” (our belonging to the totality of matter’s energy) and the divine dynamic at work in bringing us back to our source (the return of the material of our organisms to the pool at death to be recycled), gives us a foothold for denying the ego’s demands. “Obedience” can be taken as a metaphor for anything that will help us deflate the false ego.

post script

Matter’s self-transcending energy and Eckhart’s Esse

800 words

In the universe observed by modern science, all things are constructed from the same building blocks: the quanta of material energy, sometimes observed as particles, sometimes as waves or energy fields. Metaphysically speaking, there is only one “kind of thing” out there, material energy in the form it has assumed as the result of the aggregation, integration and complexification of itself — evolution. There is nothing else. Since material energy is all that exists, it is reasonable to assert that its energy is before all else an energy for being-here. In other words, there is no other “existence” that is prior to or responsible for the existence of self-transcen­ding matter.  Self-transcending matter is esse — the energy of existence.

Of course we know Eckhart was a Platonist and thought of “being” as an idea. But in his world, ideas were also “things,” what they called “substances.” The substance genus to which ideas belonged was immaterial “spirit.” Being was a very special idea; it included all other things and all other ideas. It was an infinite and transcendent Spirit. That could only be “God.”

Eckhart’s focus on the simplicity of Being meant that his worldview was an idealist monism akin to Hegel. Everything that existed was Being, “God” by participation. Since being was immaterial, everything was basically “spirit.” Eckhart does not explain why or how “matter” came to exist in this world of spirit, and as far as humans are concerned, matter has no meaning except as a foil for spirit. Spirit dominated the universe. Matter was a kind of non-being, or anti-being that needed to be eliminated or neutralized so spirit could realize its full potential.

However, if we take “being” and “material energy” to be conceptual equivalents, as modern science suggests, Eckhart’s terminology explains the world much better than dualists like Aquinas, because esse in our world is also a monism. For us everything is made of self-transcen­ding matter; there is no such thing as “spirit.” Spiritual phenomena are the products of matter. Ideas are not things. They are the changeable mental states that human organisms assume when they think. People are “things.” Ideas are not.

Participation was a Platonic notion that worked within that ancient theory of substantial ideas: two “things” of the same species, like two people, must participate in the idea of what they have in common: humanity. The physical compenetration implied in participation was believed possible precisely because ideas were immaterial. Also, the two participants were both human beings, they shared the same one idea univocally. Humanity was the same in all its manifestations.

However, two existing things, God and any creature, both participate in the idea of being. But Being is “God.” God and creatures are not at all on the same level. Therefore the idea of being could not be applied to each univocally. Aquinas proposed that being be applied analogously to God and creatures, effectively dividing the concept of being between esse that was unencumbered by any principle of limitation, and esse that was limited by a defining form. The first he called esse in se subsistens, and the latter he called esse commune.

But the concept of Being is not divisible without introducing a factor which would have to be some kind of unrealized potential. Esse commune includes such potency as part of its definition. But that would contradict the very definition of Being as Act. Once it stopped being Pure Act and admitted a potential to be more, it stopped being “Being.” Once potency was introduced it became a “thing.”

Also ideas are only “one.” Divide an idea by some qualitative differentiation and you have two ideas, not one idea with two “levels” of itself. So Aquinas’ attempt to avoid pantheism amounted to an equivocal predication. He ended up saying that there were two separate “esse’s,” one that belonged to God and the other that was proper to all created things.

Unfortunately for Eckhart, his idealism also falls by the same premise. This highlights the contradictions internal to all forms of Idealism (belief in “immaterial” reality). “Being” as an idea cannot be shared at different levels (i.e., between Creator and creature) without imagining it as something divisible, that means quantifiable, which immediately neutralizes it as an idea and converts it into some kind of “stuff,” matter. To imagine Being as Act that is quantifiable is to imagine esse as a force field, material energy. It stops being only an idea, “spirit,” and becomes “stuff,” matter . Eckhart’s system works as a monism of neutral, self-transcen­ding matter.

But if the energy packets that constitute material reality are themselves the very act of existence, they are esse, and we participate in its energy by literally disposing of different quantities and levels of complexification of these quanta of energy without sacrificing anything of their quality as existential.

To make all this easier to grasp, think of LIFE itself. A large complex multi-cellular animal like a human being is not any more alive than a single celled paramecium. Similarly, all things are “God” by participation because they are made of the same “stuff” as “God” — material energy — while their “level” of functioning differs from one another by the amount of material energy possessed and the degree of complexity achieved through evolution enjoyed by the organism at that point in time. “God” is the infinite pool of material energy that expresses itself in incrementally more sophisticated ways through the emergent forms that it has evolved into. That’s why we call it self-transcending materialism. Evolution determines the form and function of the living energy of matter. “God” in this system, as Whitehead said, is both Alpha and Omega — the initial fully dispersed energy source driving the evolving complexification of matter, and matter’s eventual advanced level of functioning made possible by that evolution. If you want an example, just look at our spectacular universe with earth’s trillion of hierarchically ordered life forms from cyanobacteria to humankind. We are all — ALL — made of the same stuff.

Eckhart must have had something like the totality of the pool of material energy in mind when he generated his imagery about the “Godhead” as ground and the “soul’s” participation in it. He could not have been clearer: “God” was not an entity, nor rational, nor a person, and everything was part of “God” and necessarily shared those characteristics, therefore “God was all things.”

Let’s not get lost here. Forget the mediaeval categories. “God,” as John asserted, is LIFE. Science may avoid using the name but it does not dispute the fact, and LIFE as we find it, is material.

Tony Equale, May 20, 2017

[1] From sermon 52: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” printed in Meister Eckhart trans. Colledge & McGinn, Paulist Pr 1981, p.201