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  • Comparing Eckhartian and Zen1 Mysticism2
  • Jijimon Alakkalam Joseph

Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260–1328?), often referred to as “the man from whom God hid nothing,” is one of the great Christian theologians and philosophers of all time. But it is as a mystic that Eckhart is generally known. So any serious study of mysticism, in our times, cannot overlook this Dominican whose birth, childhood, and death remain obscure to this day.3 About the age of eighteen, he probably entered the Dominican order. He was trained at the universities of Cologne and Paris. After completing his higher studies in theology at Paris, twice he was appointed as Paris magister (i.e., lesemeister or master)—in 1302 and in 1311—a rare honor, until then given only to Thomas Aquinas, whose teaching influenced him.

After completing his second term as Paris magister, in 1313, he was called to function as the special vicar for the Dominican master general. From 1314 to 1326 Eckhart lived and worked first in Strasburg and then in Cologne, where he served as a spiritual guide for many Dominican nuns, also for Beguines. It was there Eckhart plunged into a life of a preacher and spiritual guide (lebemeister). His academic accomplishments, the positions he held, and the sermons he preached bear witness to his influence on Christian theology, philosophy, and mysticism.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the Occident came in contact with Oriental religious traditions, Eckhart’s theology and mysticism were suddenly seen in a new light. His daring insistence on the transcendence of the Godhead, his central theme of the union of God and the soul, his genius for apophatic theology, and so on were considered as the European parallel to the metaphysics of Asian religious traditions, especially Vedanta and Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Of all the Christian mystics, Eckhart perhaps comes closest to Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, especially the Mahāyāna tradition. Scholars like the late Ananda K. Coomaraswamy saw Eckhart as a bridge between Hinduism and Christianity, and called Eckhart’s sermons the “Upanishad of Europe.”4 Eminent Japanese Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki considered Eckhart to be an “extraordinary” Christian, saying that Eckhartian mystical thoughts “closely approached Buddhist [End Page 91] thoughts, so closely indeed, that one could stamp them almost definitely as coming out of Buddhist speculations.”5

A plethora of writings have compared Eckhartian mysticism with Zen, which has its basis on the Mahāyāna tradition. In this paper I will highlight some of those already discussed comparisons and explore a few more areas that could serve as a jumping-off point for the dialogue between these two mysticisms, especially in the Asian context. My point is not that these two mystical traditions are totally identical. Differences do exist. But I will only make a very brief mention of them because as a novice researcher of comparative religion my interest is to delve deeper into religious traditions of the world to discover those teachings that unite them.

godhead and buddha-nature

In Eckhartian mysticism, ultimate reality is called Godhead, which he distinguished from God. “The Godhead is for Eckhart, … an expression for the character of the Highest Being.”6 Godhead “includes both existence and the existing subject.”7 Godhead is being itself. Godhead is “pure Being,” “completely ‘fashionless,’ without … mode of being,” “above all conceptions and conceptual differentiations, and so beyond all comprehending and apprehending.”8 “It is not only beyond being, beyond goodness, but the ‘supra-Being’ and the ‘supra-Good.’”9 “It is neither conscious nor self-conscious … It is beyond the contrast of subject and object, knower and known, yet it is above and not below this contrast.”10 For Eckhart, “this highest Godhead is … the absolute ‘One.’”11 “Is-ness”12 is another term used by Eckhart for Godhead. He uses “is-ness” as “an abstract noun to draw our attention to the primordial existence that every existent thing and every predication about existent things presupposes.”13

For Eckhart, “Intellect” is the privileged term for Godhead. God is the “pure intellect.”14 “The One, being, and intellect, the three most important concepts in Eckhart’s understanding of God...


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