Meister Eckhart preached about the ascending states of being in what the translators–Maurice O’Connell Walshe, based on Josef Quint–have called Sermon Seventy. In this passage from the sermon, Walshe relied on Quint’s translation due to the difficulty of the subject and the unreliability of the source, and I have copied it as Walshe translated it.
What is interesting about this sermon is the fact that Hinduism, Buddhism, Lester Levenson (secular Jewish) and Meister Eckhart (Catholic) all speak of ascending states, which they describe in terms of work and being. The lower states are characterized by work or doing, and the highest state is pure being. Because of the ubiquity and the similarity of these descriptions, we know that these higher states are real.
Lester Levenson was impressed by Yogananda’s autobiography, and from it he took the terms “astral realm” and “causal realm” to discuss the higher states. These realms are also described in great detail in Dolores Cannon’s Between Death and Life, published in 1996, two years after Lester passed on.
The astral realm is the Hindu precursor of the Buddhist form realm. Beings born in this plane of existence being have eliminated desire, and they can cause things to appear instantly by thought. There is death and rebirth here. The causal realm is the Hindu precursor of the formless realm, a much higher plane, and therefore almost impossible to describe in words.
In Buddhism the desire, form and formless realms make up the triple world: this is the abode of the unenlightened, because beings have not completely abandoned the self.
Yogananda’s spiritual goal was not enlightenment, but rebirth in the astral (form) realm. In his Autobiography (1946) he translated Adi Shankara’s warning about seeing distinctions:
“The Vedas declare that the ignorant man who rests content with making the slightest distinction between the individual soul and the Supreme Self is in peril (of rebirth). Where there is duality by virtue of ignorance, one sees all things as distinct from the Self. When everything is seen as the Self, then there is not even an atom other than the Self.”
Yet despite this admonition, Yogananda persisted until the end of his life in viewing “God” and other people as distinct from himself, and in viewing matter as real. For example, on a visit back to India in 1935, Yogananda demanded that his guru, Sri Yukteswar, tell him that he loved him.
After Yukteswar had passed on, he appeared to Yogananda and told him that he had become a savior to astral beings:
“As prophets are sent on earth to help men work out their physical karma, so I have been directed by God to serve on an astral planet as a savior. It is called Hiranyaloka or ‘Illumined Astral Planet.’ There I am aiding advanced beings to rid themselves of astral karma and thus attain liberation from astral rebirths. The dwellers on Hiranyaloka are highly developed spiritually; all of them had acquired, in their last Earth-incarnation, the meditation-given power of consciously leaving their physical bodies at death. There you and your exalted loved ones shall someday come to be with me.” (Chapter 43)
In a talk about the three states of existence (“Get Off the Rollercoaster”: https://youtu.be/kTyiBXSulM0) Lester issued this warning: “These states are awfully tempting, and as you move up, some of these characters will invite you into it. My recommendation is this: bypass it all.” It is not a contradiction to speak of the astral and causal as both states of mind and dwelling places of beings. As Williams (2000) explains, the higher realms are not only meditative states, but also places where the spiritually advanced are reborn (Rebirth, karma and meditation).
The following is Lester’s description of what the form realm would be like on Earth:
If everyone were in harmony, there would be no waiting in line for tickets; there would be no one clamoring around a box office trying to get them. When everyone’s in harmony, there are enough seats for everyone, and everyone walks right in without needing a ticket. You don’t even have to pay for it. Nature provides in superabundance when we get in tune with it. There would never be such a thing as shortages. There is unlimited infinite energy available to us, as well as a superabundance of everything we would want to use. That’s when you’re in tune with nature. Really, no effort is needed when you’re in tune with nature. Effort is required when you’re working against nature, when you’re not in tune with it. This world was put here for our use and play. The idea of nature needing to be conquered is a very negative idea. What needs to be conquered is our negative ideas, and then only positive things happen. (“The Source of All Intelligence”: https://youtu.be/LJ7j5jszw5w)
Lester made the following comment about the form realm in his autobiography (2003):
As Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2).* After people drop the body they go into a world similar to this where they meet old friends. The main difference is that everything there is immediate. Whatever you think comes into being right away. It’s heavenly compared to this. But because of its being so easy, there’s little incentive to grow. Here, the opportunity for growth is the greatest. (p. 97)
*In the house (beth) of my Father are many abodes; if [it were] not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
Lester advised his students on a number of occasions to aim for complete Self-realization while on Earth:
And we can go from the physical, we can graduate, get our wings, and fly off into the astral. And you can spend far more millennia in the astral than you do here because it’s an easier way of life. And then we can graduate into the causal. But if you understand what the ego is, you can go all the way from the lowest realm that we are in now, back to the highest, by eliminating the ego-sense. When we lose all of our ego-sense we are fully realized. We go all the way. We return to being the All. The opportunity to do this exists more in this realm than in any other realm, because it is so difficult that the incentive is greatest in this realm. As life gets easier the incentive to grow gets less. But when you think you are not going to eat, and the whole world is going to collapse on you and so forth, and you have a sick body and all these troubles, you have a tremendous incentive to get out of that. And the incentive being so much stronger in this realm, it’s possible to transcend all the realms and go right back to the One, or the All. (“The Mind Mirror”: https://youtu.be/CGdCMMRebgM)
You’ll never, ever be satisfied living life in the world—or in any other world, or in the heavens. There are heavens on top of heavens on top of the heavens. We happen to be in the hell-realm of the heavens. And you’ll never, ever be satisfied until you go to the ultimate, until you recognize it. (“The Ultimate Freedom”: https://youtu.be/O5SBbSE0Hcw)
The original premise of this post was that the higher states or realms are defined by work and being. For Eckhart the lowest state is that in which a soul is borne up in the Trinity. But he redefines the Trinity, replacing God with power, the Son with wisdom, and the Holy Spirit with goodness. “That which God is in power, we are in the image . . . There we shall know as we are known, and we shall love as we are loved. But this is not without working, for the soul is borne up in that image, and works in that power as that power.”
Eckhart generally talks about “works” in the sense of service to others; but sometimes he is talking about graces or gifts, which is the ability to perform miracles:
A master called Avicenna declares that the mind of him who stands detached is of such nobility that whatever he sees is true, and whatever he desires he obtains, and whatever he commands must be obeyed. And this you must know for sure: when the free mind is quite detached, it constrains God to itself . . . (On Detachment).
For the sake of symmetry we will call being in the Trinity, where one has the ability to “constrain God,” the equivalent of the form realm.
I know now that your simple word is binding on the whole cosmos. – Yogananda
Above the realm of the Trinity is “being that does not work but here alone is being and work.” Again, for symmetry, we will call this the equivalent of the formless realm.
Above everything is the Godhead, where there is only being and no work. According to Eckhart this is “the highest perfection of the spirit to which man can attain spiritually in this life.” But it isn’t the highest state of all, because the Godhead is “being” without “person.” For Eckhart the very highest perfection is “that which we shall possess forever with the body and soul.”
Mahayana Buddhism teaches about the threefold body of the buddha. The lowest is the sambhogakaya, or reward body, which is when the body of a sage functions in perfect harmony. Next is the dharmakaya, which is the state of union with the Dharma–or as Eckhart calls it, the Godhead. Highest of all there is the nirmanakaya, which is the transformation body or manifestation body of the buddha. This is where a buddha appears in different forms to teach beings everywhere according to their capacities and needs. Because a physical body imposes so much limitation, it may be that the transformation body is only possible after death. The triple-body might be compared to the Holy Trinity: incarnate, a being is the Son; in union with the Dharma, a being is the Father; and free to help sentient beings everywhere, a being is the Holy Spirit.
Like Eckhart, Buddhism considers the realization of the Dharma, or Godhead, to be an incomplete enlightenment. The highest perfection is represented by the bodhisattva, who does not remain in contemplation of sunyata, or non-materiality, but is ever ready to help lead others to liberation. The Vimalakirti Sutra says, “One sees that there is such a thing as tranquil extinction, but does not dwell in extinction for long.” In Sermon Seventy Eckhart holds up Jesus as exemplifying this perfection:
“Now since the same substance whereby Christ is a person, as the bearer of Christ’s eternal humanity, is also the substance of the soul, and yet there is one Christ as regards substance, as regards both being and person . . . This personal man-God-being outgrows and soars above the outer man altogether, so that he can never reach it.”
He becomes a monk in all the different creeds of the world
so that thereby he may free others from ignorance
and save them from falling into erroneous beliefs. – Vimalakirti Sutra
* * *
Now take note of a saying which I consider very fine: when I think how one He is with me, as if He had forgotten all creatures and nothing existed but I alone. Now pray for those who are entrusted to me! Those who pray for anything but God or to do with God, pray wrongly: when I pray for nothing, then I pray rightly, and that prayer is proper and powerful. But if anyone prays for anything else, he is praying to a false God, and one might say this was sheer heresy. I never pray so well as when I pray for nothing and for nobody, not for Heinrich or Konrad. Those who pray truly pray to God in truth and in spirit, that is to say, in the Holy Ghost.
That which God is in power, we are in the image: what the Father is in power, the Son in wisdom and the Holy Ghost in goodness, we are in the image. “There we shall know as we are known”, and we shall love as we are loved. But this is not without working, for the soul is borne up in that image, and works in that power as that power; she is also borne up in the Persons in accordance with the power of the Father, the wisdom of the Son and the goodness of the Holy Ghost. All this is the work of the Persons. Above this is being that does not work but here alone is being and work. Truly, where the soul is in God, just as the Persons are suspended in being, there work and being are one, in that place where the soul grasps the Persons in the very indwelling of being from which they never emerged, where there is a pure essential image. This is the essential mind of God, of which the pure and naked power is intellect, which the masters term receptive.
Now mark my words! It is only above all this that the soul grasps the pure absoluteness of free being, which has no location, which neither receives nor gives: it is bare ‘beingness’ which is deprived of all being and all beingness. There she grasps God as in the ground, where He is above all being. This is the highest perfection of the spirit to which man can attain spiritually in this life.
Yet this is not the highest perfection: that which we shall possess forever with the body and soul. Then the outer man will be entirely maintained through the supportive possession of personal being, just as humanity and divinity are one personal being in the person of Christ. Therefore I have in that the same support of personal being in such a manner that I myself am that personal being while totally denying my awareness of self, so that I am spiritually one according to my ground, just as the ground itself is one ground. Thus according to the outer being I should be the same personal being, entirely deprived of my own support. This personal man-God-being outgrows and soars above the outer man altogether, so that he can never reach it.
Relying on himself he indeed receives the influx of grace from the personal being in many manifestations of sweetness, comfort and inwardness, and that is good: but it is not the best. Therefore if he remained thus in himself [in the body] yet unsupported by himself, then, although he would receive comfort through grace and the co-operation of grace, which however is not the best thing, the inner man, who is spiritual, would have to come out from the ground where he is one, and would have to be directed by the gracious being by which, through grace, he is supported. Therefore the spirit can never be perfect unless body and soul are brought to perfection. Thus, just as the inner man, in spiritual wise, loses his own being by his ground becoming one ground, so too the outer man must be deprived of his own support and rely entirely on the support of the eternal personal being which is this very personal being.
We have now therefore two kinds of being. One ‘being’ is according to the Godhead, bare substantial being, the other is personal being, and yet both are one ‘substance’. Now since the same substance whereby Christ is a person, as the bearer of Christ’s eternal humanity, is also the substance of the soul, and yet there is one Christ as regards substance, as regards both being and person, so too we must be the same Christ, following him in his works, just as he is one Christ as regards his humanity. For, since by my humanity I am of the same genus, therefore I am so united to his personal being that, by grace, I am one in that personal being and am that personal being. So, since God (Christ) dwells eternally in the ground of the Father, and I in him, one ground and the same Christ, as a single bearer of my humanity, then this (humanity) is as much mine as his in one substance of eternal being, so that the being of both, body and soul, attain perfection in one Christ, as one God, one Son.
May the Holy Trinity help us so that this may come to pass in us. Amen. (p. 174)
* * *
Madame Guyon on simplicity and multiplicity:
The soul is created one and simple like God. To arrive at the end of creation, we must therefore leave the multiplicity of our actions to enter into the simplicity and unity of God, “in whose image we are created” (Gen. 1:27). God is one and multiple; God’s unity does not prevent its multiplicity. We become one with God’s unity and have the same Spirit with God. Yet we are multiplied in respect to God’s outward will, without leaving our unity. So when we are entirely moved by the divine Spirit, which is infinitely active, our activity differs greatly in energy and degree from that which is only our own. (James, p. 97)
God asks two admirable things from his devotee. One, now he must leave the profound silence in which he has remained. During the time of becoming lost in God, God asked that the devotee reduce his being into the the simplicity and unity of God. Now that the union is complete, God desires to give the devotee the fruit of his consummated state, the knowledge of multiplicity and unity. In this stage the multiplicity does not interfere with the unity, and the unity does not interfere with the multiplicity.
God desires that the devotee should add the outward praise of his mouth to the silent word of the center known as the state of unity. This is an imitation of what is accomplished in glory. After many centuries, when the soul has been absorbed into the ineffable yet ever-eloquent silence of the divinity, it will receive its glorified body, which will give praise to God. So this resurrection of the body will have its own language of praise that increases happiness yet does not interrupt the soul’s peace.
In this life, after the soul knows consummation in a unity that cannot be interrupted by external actions, the body’s mouth finds praise appropriate to it. The beautiful harmony between the silent word of the soul and speech of the senses makes up the consummation of praise. (James, p. 231)
I should be unable to write anything about my interior state. I will not do it because I have no words to express what is entirely disconnected from everything considered as feeling, expression, or human conception. I shall only say that after my state became resurrected, I found myself for some years, before being placed in the state that is called apostolic, in a bliss equal to that of the blessed, reserved for the beatific vision. Nothing down here touches me, and neither do I see anything in heaven or in earth that can trouble me concerning myself. The happiness of a soul in this state cannot be comprehended without experience, and those who die without being employed in the external state die in supreme bliss even though overwhelmed with external crosses. (James, p. 242)
Cannon, Dolores (1996). Between Death and Life: Conversations with a Spirit. Bath: Gateway Books.
James, Nancy C. (2011). The Complete Madame Guyon. Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press.
Levenson, Lester (2003). No Attachments, No Aversions: The Autobiography of a Master. Sherman Oaks, California: Lawrence Crane Enterprises.
M. O’C. Walshe (1987). Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises Volume II. UK: Element Books Limited.
Williams, Paul (2000). Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. London and New York: Routledge.
Yogananda, Paramhansa (1946). Autobiography of a Yogi. New York: The Philosophical Library