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]
Astonishing comparisons! Hard not to ponder both. Thank you, Tiramit 🙏🏽
I felt the same, hard not to ponder both. The way to go, then, is take both of them on. The only difference is the word ‘God,’ seems like a personification. Or you could you could say ‘God’ in this context is Brahman. I’m still pondering
There is a lot to consider here. I love your depth of study. I wonder about these parallels and overlaps. That last part is gonna stick with me because I absolutely agree. Though I’m not sure I ever was Christian or fully Buddhist, both have been along my path.
The underlying message is universal but I know what you mean. Maybe the way to overcome this ‘not sure’ feeling is to think of it as neither Buddhist nor Christian, but Hindu or Advaita Vedanta. For me it was easier to see it through the eyes of a Hindu because I’m (naïve) less familiar with the Anatman/Brahman concept.
Umm… I love to ponder and done it all my life! I decided a long time ago that there is truth in all religions and have taken the words that resonated with me… mainly because the people who wrote them might have had their own interest at heart… rather than for the good of all. my very foundation is based on a mixture of truths and am not part of anything, but everything! I’ve never felt a separation from god, love or consciousness which we all all, you could say Christ consciousness too! As human we are here to enjoy our senses and self awareness and have therefore never resonated with teachings that teach you to negate them. Yes to quietening the emotional mind but meditation is for me to stay in full awareness of the Human self AND feel the loving presence of the Divine. We are both and maybe we just need to allow this, in whatever way we choose rather than competing which, why, what. Thankyou tiramit for your lovely inspiring post! Sending love to you my friend❤️
Thanks for being in touch. I was thinking of you when I found the reference to ‘Lila:’ In Hinduism Lila is a way of describing all reality, including the cosmos, as the outcome of creative play by the divine absolute (Brahman). The world is a mere spontaneous creation of Brahman. I imagine all these centuries ago, and the people who lived there then, in the quietness of the emotional mind, their world of sensory delight, living in full awareness of their ‘being,’ and the loving presence of the Divine.
Oh I love the words of Lila… describes very well what I feel… all is the outcome of creative play by the Divine absolute❤️🌈 To play creatively has always felt the most important for us all to focus on and keep us in balance. I’ll remember this, Thankyou Tiramit❤️
When Tom transitioned I was given a small pink crocheted pig going on my first solo flight ✈️, she was called Lila and she was to keep me company awhile on my travels until I found the courage to play creatively again with life❤️
I had began to feel much better and more balanced coming home on my last trip and Lila jumped down from my handbag. Obviously to find someone else who needed help to play creatively in life.
Dude, I’ve been hunting my spiritual tribe on here. Thank you for existing first off. Second- the merkhaba tradition is rooted in Ezekiel’s vision and there is hardcore anthropomorphic symbolism attributed to God in those visions.
Honestly, just glad to see other people looking at the ways we are the same instead of arguing over dogma. Love the Cloud of Unknowing by the way! Great post!
Thanks for being a part of what’s going on over here. The direction I arrived from is Theravada Buddhism; a refugee from the leaking boat, Churchianity. Sink or swim I found the Cloud of Unknowing then Eckhart and that led to the Gnostics. Thus, the return to the Jesus story left half-finished from that earlier time and the Nag Hammadi version of Genesis, Hypostasis of the Archons. That’s as far as I’ve reached… the Old Testament is awesome.