By Michael Dise, Guest Writer
The great medieval mystic Meister Eckhart sought an absolute union with the God of Christianity through a total emptying of the self so that in that emptiness Christ may be born within. He called it the birth of the Son in the soul. But he also expressed through an alternative motif a divine atheism wherein even God rids Godself of God: the breakthrough to the Godhead. This breakthrough entails the disappearance of both creation and Creator in the groundless ground and abyss that is both the ground of God and the ground of the soul. Here not only the creaturely self is emptied of self but God is emptied of God, and the primordial ground and abyss of being appears forth as the timeless and eternal Source and Womb that precedes both the birth of God and creation, making possible the birth of the Son in the soul upon the common ground that unites God and soul. Hence for Eckhart, total mystical union meant union with the emptiness that grounds all forms and appearances, making possible every new creation and new birth beyond all predeterminate structures and designs.
In this more radical theme of the breakthrough to the Godhead, Eckhart is describing something analogous to how Zen Buddhists approach emptiness. Zen teachers claim that emptiness is form and form is emptiness, that there are no eternal essences that structurally ground existing entities with permanence and absolute meaning. Rather all phenomena are empty, and it is said that even emptiness is empty, which is to say that even the concept of emptiness is empty since no concepts are essential. Perhaps the simplest description of this truth is that nothing that exists has its existence in itself: rather all existing phenomena derive their being from the whole, even as the whole only exists as this interdependent network of phenomena. Hence even the self is empty—an illusive entity that is derived from interdependent existence and which holds no essence or identity in itself.
Eckhart’s breakthrough to the Godhead that grounds the birth of the Son is like the Zen practitioner’s breakthrough into the perception of emptiness in order to give birth to the bodhisattva: the bodhisattva is the empty self whose emptiness allows consciousness to become a compassionate mirror of whatever it reflects, thus enabling the Zen practitioner to become a compassionate servant of fellow creatures. The mind, like a pool, is first cleared of the ripples of thinking. Then, as transparent consciousness, it can become what is reflects: laughing with those who laugh, weeping with those who weep, rejoicing with those who rejoice.
Is not then Christ a type of bodhisattva, emptying the egoic will so as to birth a divine will, which is actually a compassionate will that mirrors the joys and sufferings of fellow creatures, even to the point of total dissolution of self in martyrdom? Is this not the true meaning of both the death of the self and the death of God, which is to dissolve every boundary of existential separation so as to realize oneself as an element in a sacred ecosystem, as a single cell in one great Life whose vocation is to contribute to one great Body wherein there is no separate essence or identity? Here one is able to perceive an ontology of love as the compassionate interaction of differentiated but unified lives in one shared Life, and a Life that perhaps one might call “God.”
Nonetheless, some will see a fundamental incompatibility here between Christianity and Buddhism on the basis of a distinction between incarnation and emptiness. Yet perhaps this is a misunderstanding of Zen emptiness. In Zen Buddhism, everything is already empty, meaning already empty of any independent essence, so there is no final Nirvana toward which one hopes to escape existence into emptiness. Rather emptiness is a description of what existence always already is right now, pointing toward the fact that things are only insofar as they participate in one another. Similarly, in much of the Christian mystical tradition inspired by Eckhart, incarnation is the means by which God becomes God—the very self-creation of God and being wherein everything only comes about interdependently. Put another way, all entities—whether “gods” or creatures—only exist co-dependently and without hierarchy. Hence, incarnation and emptiness can be seen as complimentary: all of us only come to be through relationship to one another, creation, and the ground of being so that incarnation is the flipside of emptiness. In this way one might see the possibility of a Zen Buddhist Christianity wherein the divine nature of Christ is his Buddha-nature, which is the true nature of all existence as the all-pervasive emptiness that makes possible every new being and every new horizon within one interdependent body.
Michael Dise is an alumnus of Wake Forest School of Divinity. He is currently working on a Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion at VU University Amsterdam, and his research focus is in radical theology and contemporary mysticism.