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  • Losing the Self:Detachment in Meister Eckhart and Its Significance for Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
  • Charlotte Radler

The purpose of this article is to probe Meister Eckhart's concepts of self—or, rather, no-self—detachment, and indistinct union, and their positive implications for Buddhist-Christian dialogue. I will examine potential affinities between Eckhart and Buddhist thought with the modest hope of identifying areas in Eckhart's mysticism that may present themselves as particularly ripe for Buddhist-Christian conversations.

On April 15, 1329, Pope John XXII issued the bull "In agro dominico" that condemned tenets of Meister Eckhart's teaching. Pope John XXII, who had also dealt harshly with the spiritual Franciscans, was truly concerned about Eckhart's seductive impact on the uneducated in the pews.1 Eckhart's claim that every human's true identity, attainable through detachment, is divine must have created dreams in some of an unmediated experience of and union with the divine, and nightmares in others of the bypassing of the Church's structures, sacraments, and hierarchies.

Eckhart, a University of Paris teacher and a preacher, bases his mysticism in part on Proclus and Dionysius the Areopagite. Similarly to Proclus, Eckhart proposes that the soul's circular journey runs from the nothingness of the God beyond God, the God beyond the Trinity, into the somethingness of the world, and back to the nothingness of the God beyond the God. There is a firm ontological link between the One, the Trinity, and creation, which means that creation in its core is Trinitarian and One. In his interpretations of Job 22:14 and Ps. 61:12, Eckhart demonstrates that God is never static as One or Three or creation, but God is at once dialectically One and flowing out into the persons of the Trinity and flowing over into creation.2 This continuity between the Creator and creature, time and eternity, sanctifies creation and transience in all its grittiness and overcomes a duality between Creator and creature similar to the interpretation of samsara and nirvana (conditioned reality is Boundless Openness in Mahayana thought). Furthermore, Eckhart maintains that the One, as transparent and transcendent nothingness, encompasses and penetrates all. The wondrous truth, for Eckhart, is that we are truly all in all, just like the center of the circle is everywhere and its circumference nowhere.3 [End Page 111]

To his audience, Eckhart repeatedly underscores that the soul is ontologically rooted in the nothingness of the divine unity and is thus in its deepest essence divine. In fact—and here we find profound resonances with tenets of Buddhist thought such as the concept of no-self (anatta or anatma)—the self's only true existence is the divine nothingness. Contrary to such thinkers as Thomas Aquinas, Eckhart focuses on the principal existence of things in the godhead and maintains that the human being does not possess a true substantial existence or "I" apart from God.4 Hence, the "I" or self can never constitute the foundation of reality. Because of the human being's absolute ontological dependence on God, Eckhart can assert that "where God is, there is the soul, and where the soul is, there is God."5 In his writings, Eckhart therefore differentiates between the true existence that creatures have in their original cause, the esse virtuale, and the particular and ephemeral existence that creatures possess in themselves, the esse formale.6 Thus, instead of autonomy and possessive individualism, "theonomy" implies the realization of the human being's full potential.

While the autonomous, individual self is a form of negative nothingness or no-self, it paradoxically constitutes the greatest attachment for the human being. The clinging to the self causes what David Tracy refers to as an individual and cultural terror of transience.7 In the journey toward union, the soul must carefully release itself from all its attachments and detach itself from all its possessiveness. Eckhart's existential letting-go and letting-be imply the profoundest respect for existence itself as well as recognition of the ontological interconnectedness of all life.

One of the foremost representatives of the apophatic tradition, Eckhart hooks up the praxis of apophasis to the notion of detachment, the stripping away of...


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pp. 111-117
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