2. Meister Eckhart and the Knowledge of the Absolute

Analogies with advaitavāda

Differently, in her “background” the soul is without images and never comes into contact with creatures. For this reason, not even the highest powers can penetrate into her depth. In order to function, they need to represent things, drawing images from the outside through their senses. Their way of knowing cannot, therefore, be suitable for knowing God and his “spark” in the soul. In fact, the part of the soul that is in the image of the Godhood does not lend itself to any image at all, being that silent abyss from which the very powers flow. Using the paradoxical language dear to the Dominican preacher, it could be expressed as an image without images. Therefore, the soul cannot know herself and God except through a “non-knowledge” that is superior to all knowledge.

Although it may be called a non-learning, a non-knowledge, it nevertheless contains in itself much more than any learning and any knowledge outside of it.1

Not even God, as determined, can access what the Dominican master calls the “background”, the “spark”, the “castle” of the soul, images of the Godhood that dwells there in its pure essence.

So truly one and simple is this little castle, so elevated above every form and every power, and so unique that never any power or form, and not even God himself, can understand it. In truth, as long as God lives, He Himself will never penetrate it, not even for an instant, nor has He ever penetrated it with his gaze, since He exists in the determination and properties of the Persons [of the Trinity]. This is easily understood, since the only One is without determinations and without properties. Therefore, if God wishes to penetrate it with his eyes, it would cost Him all the divine names and properties of the Persons. […] only as One and simple can He penetrate into this One whom I call a castle in the soul. Only in this way can He penetrate and dwell in it, otherwise He does not penetrate it in any way. With this part of herself the soul is similar to God, and not otherwise.2

Here is evident how misleading the example of the image can be, given that the soul, in her most intimate nature, is an image of what is devoid of any image, above any representation, even the Trinitarian one. More properly, one could consider the image as the ability to receive the Godhood. In its purity and simplicity, the “bottom of the soul” can receive only the latter and nothing else, in an absolute absence of otherness.

The soul receives from God not as from something else other than herself, for example in the way the air receives sunlight, that is in otherness. Rather, the soul receives God not in an alterity or as if it were below Him, since what lies below must be necessarily other and separated from what lies above. The teachers say that the soul receives in the same way as a light receives from the light, because there is no otherness or distance exists between them.3

This “background” is the end of every content and every image, which remain relegated to the outermost and superficial part of the soul. “Background” and “bottom” are to be understood as unfathomable depth, abyss, not as foundation4. Creatures always remain outside this depth that remains eternally stable in itself and motionless.

Distant from all that is finished, man discovers that the bottom of the soul is also the bottom of God, in a unity that is beyond all distinctions.

In truth, the closeness between God and soul leaves no room for distinction. […] The soul takes her own being directly from God, and thus God is closer to the soul than she is to herself. Therefore, God is at the bottom of the soul with all his Godhood.5

The apophatic dimension that belongs to the Godhood is therefore shared with the bottom of the soul which, from time to time, is indicated by Eckhart as nameless, inexpressible, beyond any description, devoid of images and separated from the “here” and “now”. In its purity the soul, like the Godhood, is “neither this nor that”, but beyond and above all forms, completely free:

[…] Sometimes I said it is a casing of the spirit, sometimes I said it is a light of the spirit, sometimes I said it is a small spark. But now I say it is neither this nor that; rather, it is something higher above this and that, higher than the sky is above the earth. So, I call it more nobly now than I have ever done before, even though it loughs at nobility like at any other form, because it is far above all this. It is free from any name, devoid of any form, free and detached as God himself is free and detached. It is also one and simple as God is one and simple, so that no one can lay his eyes on it in any way.6

It is precisely on the absolute identity of Brahman and Ātman, the Self, the real principle of every being, that the whole system of Advaita Vedānta develops.

The Ātman, the perceiver of everything, is the Brahman.7

This is the knowledge that allows Liberation. Descending into the depth of himself, man discovers that his true being is not that limited by time, space and otherness that generates separation. His true being is divine, it is the very Absolute.

That great, birthless Ātman is undecaying, immortal, undying, fearless and absolute. Brahman is indeed fearless [blissful].8

Therefore, the fundamental error is to take this limitless Self with the limited ego, with the “I”, which is opposed to all that is “non-I”. The removal of the superimposition of body, senses, mind, to this Self is the essence of the whole teaching of Vedānta. The Ātman, having no nature of object, cannot be known in the same way that other objects are known. Being pure Consciousness (cit) it cannot even be the object of such consciousness, as if it were second to it.

He who inhabits the intellect [vijñāna, the faculty of knowing, the buddhi] but is distinct from it, whom the intellect does not know, whose body is the intellect, and who controls the intellect from within, is the Internal Ruler, your own immortal Self.9

Nevertheless, it is not unknown or unknowable since it is the immediate evidence of Consciousness, it is the foundation of every experience as the consciousness of existing, naturally indisputable and unquestionable. No one can deny being conscious without falling into contradiction. Consciousness is therefore always present as the substratum of all knowledge, even of the limited knowledge of the dualistic vision.

What is lacking in the everyday life of the common man is the complete awareness of being this absolute Self-Consciousness, confused with the aggregate of mind, body and senses, or with the psycho-physical “I”, which is only a faded reflection. This is avidyā, ignorance. It is precisely for the sake of rectifying such fundamental ignorance that all norms of behaviour and sacred scriptures find their reason to exist. Their function is exclusively to set man free from this mental image that suggests an I-world antithesis and is the cause of all suffering. From the wrong conception of self, due to the confusion of the Self-Atman with body and mind and of Consciousness with what is not conscious, every other false conception descends. With the following words, Śaṃkara ends his introduction to the Brahma Sūtra:

The content of all the Upaniṣads aims at eradicating this source of all misery [the superimposition] and acquiring the knowledge of the unity of the Self.10

Furthermore, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad says:

[…] It is, therefore, the Self that must be looked at and felt, it is the Self that must be thought and to which the attention must be directed, oh Maitreyī; my dear, when one sees, listens, thinks and knows the Self, the whole universe is known.11

Knowing yourself is equivalent to knowing the whole universe. There is no distinction in the depth of man. Having reached the absolute unity of the Atman, of the Self, man knows everything, free from the distinction between the knower, what is known known and knowledge, since there is nothing different from the Atman:

Because when there is duality, as it were, then one sees something, one smells something, one tastes something, one speaks something, one hears something, one thinks something, one touches something, one knows something. But when to the knower of Brahman everything has become the Self, then what should one see and through what, what should one smell and through what, what should one taste and through what, what should one speak and through what, what should one hear and through what, what should one think and through what, what should one touch and through what, what should one know and through what?12

Even the distinction between universal and individual, between God and man, disappears: everything is One.

This shining, immortal [universal] being who is in this air, and the shining immortal [individual] being who is the prāṇa in the body are but this Ātman. This is immortality, this is Brahman, this is All.13

The already strong consistency between Ātman and the “bottom of the soul” is further reinforced by observing that both in the Advaita doctrine and in Eckhart man, descending into his deepest intimacy, becomes aware of his being one with the Absolute. Brahman, the Absolute, is neither distant nor unreachable; on the contrary, It lives in man who, recognizing himself as identical to It, draws on eternal Happiness:

That indeed which is Brahman, is surely this which is the space outside a person. That space indeed which is outside a person is surely this which is the space within the person. That indeed which is the space within a person is surely the space that is within the heart. That which is this is all-pervading and without movement. He who knows thus, attains a bliss which is full and indestructible.14

In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, Ātman is called the “Reality of reality”; Eckhart calls the One “denial of denial”: both definitions aim at transcending the ordinary understanding of the world around us. A transcendence that, we reiterate, does not imply otherness. Despite the apparent multiplicity, everything is founded and leads back to the oneness of the Sat, of “what is”. Thus, teaches Uddālaka to his son Śvetaketu, repeating nine times:

That is this subtle essence, That is the Self of all this [universe], That is the Truth. That Thou art, o Śvetaketu.15

That Thou art”, Tad tvam asi: this is one of the declarations that represent the quintessence of the Upaniṣad, one of the mahāvākya. The advaitins, ancient and modern, recognize in the correct understanding of this aphorism the means for liberation. Indeed, this is the Reality! The is nothing that must be achieved.

Therefore, it is not a question of knowing “something”; the Ātman is unattainable by any means of knowledge. This is the reason why Uddālaka, in the previously mentioned passage of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, says: “that which is this subtle essence”. Much along the same lines of reasoning concerning the Godhood and the “bottom of the soul”, the apophatism that is inherent in Brahman is the same that complements the Ātman, since there is no separation between the two. Just as Brahman was referred to by the formula neti-neti, likewise no term can properly indicate the Ātman:

This Ātman is That which has been described as “not this not this”: it is imperceptible for it is never perceived, undecaying for it never decays, unattached for it is never attached; unfettered, it never feels fear and never suffers injury.16

According to Śruti, as well as to Eckhart, the intellect, buddhi17, remains nevertheless the highest faculty that an individual possesses. The buddhi, if released from mind and senses and rendered luminous, best reflects the consciousness of the Ātman, being very close to it, and thus becomes a privileged vehicle in the process of Liberation:

The objects (arthāḥ) are higher than the senses (indriya), and the mind (manas) is higher than the objects, the intellect (buddhi) is higher than the mind and the Great Self is higher than intellect.18

Analogously, Eckhart declares that,

[…] These three words indicate three categories of knowledge. The first is sensorial knowledge. […] The second, the rational one is much higher. The third refers to a noble power of the soul, so high and noble as to grasp God […],19

which repeatedly confirms the capacity of this power of the soul, if withdrawn from creatures, to be enlightened by God:

Now, one cannot love God without first knowing him. […] If I withdraw my intellect – which is luminous – from all things, and point it directly to God – who unceasingly gushes out his grace – it becomes lit up and united by love, thus knowing and loving God as He is in Himself. […]we must approach this light of grace with our intellect, withdrawn from ourselves and elevated in that light that is God Himself.20

However, as Śaṃkara observes, the very transparency of the buddhi in the light of Ātman can be the cause of misunderstanding:

The appearance [upādhi] of the intellect is exceedingly effulgent, owing to its close proximity to the Supreme Self; and the Self, erroneously identified with it [upādhi], suffers the transmigration through the delusion [māyā]. This upādhi is therefore but a superimposition on the Ātman.21

Therefore, however close the intellect is to the Self, however it understands the limitations of the ego and, as an intelligent faculty, reflects the Cit of the Ātman, it still remains a modification of the prakṛti, the primordial substance, and therefore, as upādhi of the Self, continues to be the cause of transmigration. The Ātman, on the other hand, is the substratum of all individual faculties, including the intellect:

There is some Absolute Entity, an Inexpressible Entity which is the eternal substratum of the empirical consciousness, the Witness of the three states22, and distinct from the five sheaths23 that make up human individuality24.

  1. SE, 101, p. 628. Eckhart often criticizes – sometimes even using ironic terms – the so-called teachers and scholars who do not grasp the distinction inherent to the divine truth, reaching only its external appearance without ever penetrating its unchanging and indistinct background. In one of his most famous sermons that has been handed down, he defines “asses” those who think of approaching God by voluntarily subjecting themselves to privations: “[…] They call themselves saints for their external image, but internally they are asses, since they do not understand anything of the distinction inherent to the divine truth. […] They are highly esteemed in the eyes of those who know nothing better, but I say they are asses who understand nothing of the divine truth. […] They know nothing about the poverty we are talking about. “ SE, 52, pp. 389-390.
  2. SE, 2, pp. 105-106. Eckhart did not recognize the authenticity of this sermon before the Cologne Commission, although he did not deny its content. It seems that this was due to the fact that the anonymous who had drafted it had merged two different sermons in one. See M. Vannini, SE, 2, note 1, and K. Ruh, Meister Eckhart. Teologo-predicatore-Mistico, Brescia, 1989, p. 215.
  3. SE, 24, p. 243.
  4. In the advitīya language we find the same distinction. The foundation on which something rests is called āśraya, like the table on which a vase rests, or the red colour on a red flower. The bottom or substrate, adhiṣṭhāna, is instead the true reality of what is superimposed on it, like the rope for the snake.
  5. SE, 10, pp. 154-155.
  6. SE, 2, pp. 104-10.
  7. BU V.5.19.
  8. BU IV.4.25.
  9. BU III.7.22.
  10. BSŚBh I.1 preface.
  11. BU IV.5.6.
  12. BU IV.5.15.
  13. BU II.5.4.
  14. Chāndogya Upaniṣad (ChU), III.12.7-9.
  15. ChU VI.8. 6-7.
  16. BU III.9.26.
  17. Buddhi (intellect), ahaṃkāra (sense of self), manas (mind), senses, divided into buddīndriya or jñānendriya (the five faculties of knowledge: hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch) and the karmendriya (the five faculties of action: speech, grasping, walking, evacuation, procreation), according to the Sāṃkhya, constitute the stages of the progressive process of condensation of Prakṛti, the primordial Nature.
  18. Kaṭha Upaniṣad, I, III, 10.
  19. SE, 11, p. 165.
  20. SE, 75, p. 515.
  21. Vivekacūdāmaṇi (VCM), 188.
  22. Waking state (vaiśvānara), dream (taijasa) and deep sleep (prājña). Besides these, Turīya, the so-called Fourth, is Consciousness in itself, which encompasses and supports the other three, transcending them.
  23. The kośa, the sheaths or wraps that conceal the unique principle. Described in Taittirīya Upaniṣad (II), they are: annamayakośa (sheath made of food), prāṇamayakośa (sheath of prāṇa), manomayakośa (sheath of the mind), vijṇānamayakośa (sheath of awareness, intellect), ānandamayakośa (sheath of Bliss). According to Śaṅkara, they constitute the three bodies, gross, subtle and ‘causal’, corresponding to the three states: waking state, dream and deep sleep.
  24. VCM 125.