The Perfection of Renunciation

Meister Eckhart: Sermon Forty

Now listen to a true saying! If a man gave a thousand marks of gold for building churches and convents, that would be a great thing. Yet that man would give far more who could regard a thousand marks as nothing; he would have done far more than the other.

When God created all creatures, they were so poor and narrow that he could not move in them. But the soul he made like himself and in his own image so that he could give himself to her; for whatever else God gave her she had no care for. God must give himself to me for my own as he is his own, or I shall get nothing and nothing will [satisfy me]. Whoever shall thus receive him outright must have wholly renounced himself and gone out of himself. He gets directly from God all that God has his own, just as much as it is God’s . . . Those who have gone out of themselves and renounced themselves in equal measure will receive equally, and no less. (Walshe, Vol I, p. 281)

As long as the least of creatures absorbs your attention, you will see nothing of God, however small that creature may be. If there were nothing between God and the soul, the soul would see God at once, for God uses no media nor will he suffer any intervention. If all the shells were removed from the soul . . . he could give himself directly to the soul without reserve. But as long as the soul’s shells are intact—be they ever so slight—the soul cannot see God. If anything, even to the extent of a hairbreadth, came between the body and the soul, there could be no true union of the two. If that is the case with physical things, how much more true it is with spiritual! Thus Boethius says: “If you want to know the straight truth, put away joy and fear, expectation, hope and disappointment.’’ Joy, fear, expectation, hope, and disappointment are all intervening media, all shells. As long as you stick to them and they to you, you shall not see God. (Sermon Forty Two, MODICUM ET I AM NON VIDEBITIS ME.)

Jeanne Guyon:

I beg of you, whoever you may be, who are desirous of giving yourselves to God, not to take yourselves back when once you are given to Him, and to remember that a thing once given away is no longer at your disposal. Abandonment is the key to the inner life: he who is thoroughly abandoned will soon be perfect.

You must, then, hold firmly to your abandonment, without listening to reason or to reflection. A great faith makes a great abandonment; you must trust wholly in God. Abandonment is the casting off of all care of ourselves, to leave ourselves to be guided entirely by God.

All Christians are exhorted to abandonment, for it is said to all, “Take no thought for the morrow; for your Heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things” (Matt. vi. 32, 34). “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Prov. iii. 6). “Commit your works unto the Lord, and your thoughts shall be established” (Prov. xvi. 3). “Commit your way unto the Lord; trust also in Him; and He shall bring it to pass” (Ps. xxxvii. 5).

Abandonment, then, ought to be an utter leaving of ourselves, both outwardly and inwardly, in the hands of God, forgetting ourselves, and thinking only of God. By this means the heart is kept always free and contented.

Practically it should be a continual loss of our own will in the will of God, a renunciation of all natural inclinations, however good they may appear, in order that we may be left free to choose only as God chooses: we should be indifferent to all things, whether temporal or spiritual, for the body or the soul; leaving the past in forgetfulness, the future to providence, and giving the present to God; contented with the present moment, which brings with it God’s eternal will for us; attributing nothing which happens to us to the creature, but seeing all things in God, and regarding them as coming infallibly from His hand, with the exception only of our own sin.

Leave yourselves, then, to be guided by God as He will, whether as regards the inner or the outward life. (A Short Method of Prayer)

Guru Bhaduri:

“Master, you are wonderful!” A student, taking his leave, gazed at the sage. “You have renounced riches and comforts to seek God and teach us wisdom!” It was well known that Bhaduri Mahasaya had forsaken great family wealth in his early childhood, when single-mindedly he entered the yogic path.

“You are reversing the case!” the saint replied. “I have left a few paltry rupees, a few petty pleasures, for a cosmic realm of endless bliss. How then have I denied myself anything? I know the joy of sharing the treasure. Is that a sacrifice? The shortsighted worldly folk are verily the real renunciates! They give up an unparalleled divine possession for a poor handful of earthly toys!”

“The world is full of uneasy believers in an outward security. Their bitter thoughts are like scars on their foreheads. The One who gave us air and milk from our first breath knows how to provide day by day for His devotees.” (Yogananda)

Meister Eckhart: The Book of Divine Comfort

So, if you would seek and find perfect joy and comfort in God, see to it that you are free of all creatures and of all comfort from creatures; for assuredly, as long as you are or can be comforted by creatures, you will never find true comfort. But when nothing can comfort you but God, then God will comfort you, and with Him and in Him all that is bliss. While what is not God comforts you, you will have no comfort here or hereafter, but when creatures give you no comfort and you have no taste for them, then you will find comfort both here and hereafter. (Complete Works, p. 535)

Chuang Tzu:

YAO WANTED TO CEDE THE EMPIRE to Hsu Yu, but Hsu Yu refused to accept it. Then he tried to give it to Tzu-chou Chih-fu. Tzu-chou Chih-fu said, “Make me the Son of Heaven? – that would be all right, I suppose. But I happen to have a deep-seated and worrisome illness which I am just now trying to put in order. So I have no time to put the empire in order.” The empire is a thing of supreme importance, yet he would not allow it to harm his life. How much less, then, any other thing! Only he who has no use for the empire is fit to be entrusted with it.

Shun wanted to cede the empire to Tzu-chou Chih-po, but Tzu-chou Chih-po said, “I happen to have a deep-seated and worrisome illness which I am just now trying to put in order. So I have no time to put the empire in order.” The empire is a great vessel, yet he would not exchange his life for it. This is how the possessor of the Way differs from the vulgar man.

Shun tried to cede the empire to Shan Ch’uan, but Shan Ch’uan said, “I stand in the midst of space and time. Winter days I dress in skins and furs, summer days, in vine-cloth and hemp. In spring I plow and plant – this gives my body the labor and exercise it needs; in fall I harvest and store away – this gives my form the leisure and sustenance it needs. When the sun comes up, I work; when the sun goes down, I rest. I wander free and easy between heaven and earth, and my mind has found all that it could wish for. What use would I have for the empire? What a pity that you don’t understand me!” In the end he would not accept, but went away, entering deep into the mountains, and no one ever knew where he had gone.

Shun wanted to cede the empire to his friend, the farmer of Stone Door. The farmer of Stone Door said, “Such vigor and vitality you have, My Lord! You are a gentleman of perseverance and strength!” Then, surmising that Shun’s virtue would hardly amount to very much [for his rebirth], he lifted his wife upon his back, took his son by the hand, and disappeared among the islands of the sea, never to return to the end of his days.

Meister Eckhart: Sermon Fifty-Five

He who gives up all things gets back a hundredfold. But whoever expects a hundredfold will get nothing, for he is not giving up all things but wanting his hundredfold back. But our Lord promises a hundredfold to those who leave all things: then he will get a hundredfold back and eternal life as well. It might be that a man, in the course of giving up things, got back the very thing he had given up; but if any should give up anything for this very reason, then, not giving all, he would get nothing. Anyone who seeks anything in God—knowledge, understanding, devotion, or whatever it might be—though he may find it he will not have found God. Even though he may indeed find knowledge, understanding, or inwardness, which I heartily commend, it will not stay with him. But if he seeks nothing, he will find God and all things in Him, and they will remain with him. (Walshe, 2009, p. 289)


Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples. He told them: If anyone wants to come after me, he must renounce himself (απαρνησασθω). For whoever would save his soul (ψυχη psuche) shall lose it; but whoever loses his soul (ψυχη) shall save it. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world yet harm (ζημιωθη) his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?** Mark 8 : 34-36 (Abarim Publications)

**This is the most difficult passage of the synoptic gospels. The Greek psyche may be the equivalent of the Chinese hsin or the German, Geist—the ego, or false self. To paraphrase the passage in this sense: “Whoever would save his false self will lose it to death; but whoever loses his false self will be saved from death.”

Meister Eckhart: The Talks of Instruction

As Christ says, “He who abandons anything for my sake will receive again a hundredfold” (Matt. 1 9:29). Truly, whatever a man gives up or renounces for God’s sake, even if that man greatly yearns for the consolation of such feelings and such inwardness and does all he can to get it, and God denies it to him, if he renounces and does without it for God’s sake, then in truth he will find it just as if he had possessed everything and had willingly abandoned, renounced and given it up for God. He will be rewarded a hundredfold. For whatever a man would have, whether it is physical or spiritual, if he renounces and does without it for God’s sake, he will find it all in God just as if he had had it and had willingly given it up; for a man must suffer himself to be deprived of all things for God’s sake. (Walshe, 2009, p. 496)

Layman P’ang:

THE LAYMAN, whose personal name was Yun and whose nickname was Tao-hsuan, was a native of Hsiang-yang. His father held the office of Prefect of Heng-yang. The Layman lived in the southern part of the city. There he built a hermitage, carrying on his religious practices to the west of the house, and after several years his entire household attained the Way. This was what is now Wu-k’ung Hermitage. Later he gave his former dwelling near the hermitage to be made into a temple. This was what is now Neng-jen Temple.

During the Chen-yuan era [785-804] of T’ang he loaded the treasure of his household—several tens of thousands of strings of coins—onto a boat in Tung-t’ing Lake to the right of the river Shao, and sank it in the middle of the stream. After that he lived like a single leaf.

The Layman had a wife, a son, and a daughter. They sold bamboo utensils in order to obtain their morning and evening meals. The Layman often used to say:

I’ve a boy who has no bride
I’ve a girl who has no groom
Forming a happy family circle
We speak about the Birthless

Meister Eckhart: “The Talks of Instruction”

It is written: “They have become rich in all virtues” (Cor. 1:5). Truly that can never happen unless we become poor in all things. He who would receive all things must first give up all things. This is fair dealing and an even exchange, as I said at one time.

Therefore, when God wishes to give us himself and all things in free possession, he wishes to take from us, once and for all, all possessiveness. Indeed, God would not that we should possess even so much as a speck of dust in the eye; for of all his gifts, gifts of nature and of grace, he never gave any but that we might possess nothing of our own; for such possession he has not granted in any way, not to his mother, to any man or any creature. And in order to teach us this or to prepare us for this he frequently takes away from us both physical and spiritual things. Not even honor shall be ours but shall belong to him alone. We are to have what we have as if it were loaned to us and not given, without possession, whether it be body or soul, senses, powers, outward goods or honours, friends, relations, houses, castles, or anything at all.

What is God’s purpose that he insists so much on this? He wishes himself to be our sole and perfect possession. His chief delight and enjoyment consist of this, and the more exclusively he can be our own the greater his joy. Thus the more things we keep for ourselves the less we have his love; the less things we own the more we shall own him and his. When our Lord went to speak of things that are blessed he crowned them all with poverty of spirit, and that shows that all blessings and perfection begin with being poor in spirit. Indeed that is the only foundation on which any good may rest; otherwise it is neither this nor that.

When we get rid of outward things, in return God shall give us all that heaven contains—indeed, heaven and all its powers, and all that flows out of God. Whatever the saints and angels have shall be ours as much as theirs, far more than any thing is mine. In return for my going out of myself for his sake, God will be mine entirely with all that he is and can do, as much mine as his, no more and no less.

Do you want to know what a really poor person is like? To be poor in spirit is to do without all unnecessary things. That person who sat naked in his tub said to the mighty Alexander, who had all the world under his feet: “I am a greater Lord than you are, for I have despised more than you have possessed. What you have felt so proud to own I consider too little even to despise.”1 He is far more blessed who does without things because he does not need them, than he who owns everything because he needs it all; but that man is best who can do without because he has no need. Therefore, he who can do without the most and has the most disregard for things has given up the most. It seems a great deed if a man gives up a thousand marks of gold for God’s sake and builds hermitages and monasteries and feeds all the poor; that would be a great deed. But he would be far more blessed who should despise all of that for God’s sake. That man would possesses the kingdom of heaven who could give up all things, even those which God had not given him. (Blakney pp. 39-40) (Walshe, Vol. III, pp. 53-54)

1 Diogenes (411-313 b.c.e.). Student of Antisthenes and a renunciate, who made an abandoned tub in the marketplace his home. Alexander, who had a great admiration for sages, asked Diogenes if there was anything that he could do for him, and Diogenes asked him to stop blocking his sunlight.

Eckhart seems to have confused this exchange with an encounter between an Indian yogi named Dandamis and a messenger from Alexander. The following account is told by Yogananda:

Shortly after Alexander had arrived in Taxila in northern India, he sent a messenger, Onesikritos, to summon Dandamis.
“Hail to thee, O teacher of Brahmins!” he said to the sage. “The son of the mighty God Zeus, being Alexander who is the Sovereign Lord of all men, asks you to go to him. If you comply, he will reward you with great gifts, but if you refuse, he will cut off your head!”

The yogi answered Onesikritos,

“Know this, that the gifts Alexander promises are to me things of no value. Should Alexander cut off my head, he cannot destroy my soul. Let Alexander terrify with threats those who crave wealth and who fear death, for the Brahmins neither love gold nor fear death. Go, then, and tell Alexander this: Dandamis has no need of anything that you have, and therefore will not go to you; and if you want anything from Dandamis, come you to him.” (Yogananda)

Guyon, J. M. B. de la Mot (1875). A Short Method of Prayer. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle.

Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Yoshitaka Iriya and Dana Fraser (1971). The Recorded Sayings of Layman P’ang: A Ninth-Century Zen Classic. New York: Weatherhill, Inc. (download)

M. O’C. Walshe (1987). Meister Eckhart: Sermons & Treatises (Vol. I & III). UK: Element Books Limited.

Walshe, Maurice O’C. (2009). The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company. (download)

Yogananda, Paramhansa (1946). Autobiography of a Yogi. New York: The Philosophical Library.

Watson, Burton (1968). The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu.

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