POSTCARD#498: Bangkok: I was in the library in Harnham Buddhist Monastery in September 2022, browsing through all the books they had on Meister Eckhart, the Thirteenth Century Christian Mystic. He is famous for asking: “What does it avail me that Mary birthed Christ long ago if I don’t also birth Him in my soul?” I hadn’t thought of Christ being reborn in an ordinary person – although Eckhart was an extraordinary person, nevertheless the Teaching is that this could happen to you or me. The text goes on: ”…we do not find God outside ourselves and we should not conceive him except as in us…” The main difference between Christianity and Theravadin Buddhism is that Christian meditation is about Self or Soul, and in Buddhist meditation there is no discussion on whether there is a Self or a Soul. Besides, most Western Buddhists arrived at the Buddhist point of view from a Christian background without any closure on that earlier time and some unresolved issues remain, to a greater or lesser degree. We are quick to see the differences and not interested in any parallels.
I had only just started finding out about this special kind of Christian contemplation (apophaticism) that rejects all the attributes and ideas about God we’ve known since we were children, and staying in this ‘darkness’ until there is only a state of “unknowing.” Thus, arriving at this experiential union with the divine. There were a few things about this kind of Christian contemplation that seemed very ‘Buddhist’ to me, I recognised the state of unknowing as being that which is outside human experience; “Outside the thinking mind there is only the uncreated.” [Ajahn Sumedho] There is an agreement here: “The ineffable reality of God lies beyond our ordinary comprehension.” Also, on the position of thinking during meditation: “…we are slipping in and out of interior silence, a state in which we do not become attached to the thoughts as they go by.” (Centering Prayer, a method of Christian meditation). I know the feeling of that curious extended, stretched-out moment when there’s just no thought at all: Suññatā: emptiness, often refers to the non-self (Pāli: anattā).
However, the main difference is, at this stage Buddhism stays with Suññatā but Christian meditation goes on to “Christhood and the supreme state of God consciousness.” Most Western Buddhists find it difficult to bring in the anthropomorphic God. “When we speak about ‘God’ we start getting ideas in our head about what God is and that is very far from the unborn, the unconditioned, the uncreated, the unoriginated, the deathless.”[John Cianciosi (Ajahn Jagaro)]
There is also the book “The Cloud of Unknowing” an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the 14th century. The Cloud requires the initiate to withdraw from the senses. All cognitive and sensory faculties must be pushed “beneath” the practitioner in a “cloud of forgetting.” This is so that the initiate can focus and cultivate a “blind stirring of love” toward the Divine. The Cloud instructs us to “forget all of Creation … so that your thoughts and desires are not directed and do not reach out towards any of them”. In this process of forgetting, the soul goes through a darkness where a desiring love reaches out to the Divine in a “cloud of unknowing.”
The turning point for me was that “we are to give birth to the Divine in us.” At first, I didn’t notice the prevailing familiarity about all this; it wasn’t me, wasn’t mine or whatever, because I’m a Buddhist, nearly 30 years now, and long since taken on the Buddhist no-self anatta reality that there is no Self. But what I’d overlooked was a tiny fragment of Christian conditioning embedded in memory that triggered the thought about an everlasting soul. So, it all came crashing in on me; a returning to something about the paradox of the Holy birth that held my interest at the time but I had never understood it as a young person.
I haven’t really reached any conclusions about my Christian beginnings except that fantastic imagery does appear in the mind during advanced meditation but Buddhist ignore it: Experience shows that visions arising at this stage are notoriously deceptive and completely untrustworthy. The recommended thing to do is to remove all interest and go back to the breath meditation. [Link:] https://dhammafootsteps.com/2022/03/25/suitable-nimitta-and-useless-nimitta/ If you are a regular reader of these posts, you will remember our study of Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond, A Meditators Handbook by Ajahn Brahm.
Another similarity mentioned in Christian meditation, is: “the Divine light … this light is not apprehended by the senses.” A more detailed description is given in Ajahn Brahm’s book, where it is: “the Nimitta, the reflection of the mind freed from the five senses. It is like the full moon coming out from behind the clouds.” [Link:]https://dhammafootsteps.com/2021/08/13/experiencing-the-beautiful-nimitta/ VIsiting again Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond, A Meditators Handbook by Ajahn Brahm. There are other Heaven-like colours and images (Jhānas) we have read about in the same book and these would be on a parallel with Eckhart’s advanced meditation. But Buddhism does not recognise there is a God. These are meditational experiences, part of Buddhist Practice.
“One of the criticisms of Christianity, and one of the reasons why many young Christians turn to the East, to Buddhism or to Hinduism, is that in Christianity there is no apparent help with method. How do we find God? How do we even start? Eckhart is one of the Christians who faces this and accepts it as a problem. Good intentions are not always enough. We need instruction in how to make ourselves fit to receive the revelation of God, to receive the eternal birth. “[Ursula Fleming, The Eckhart Society, 1995]