Meister Eckhart: Higher states of being

Meister Eckhart preached about the ascending states of being in what the translators–Maurice O’Connell Walshe, based on Josef Quint–have labeled Sermon Seventy. In the following passage from this 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 caught my attention in this sermon was the fact that Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, Lester Levenson and Meister Eckhart all speak of ascending states, and they describe them in terms of work and being. Because of the ubiquity of this teaching, we know that these higher states are, and in order to have the right view of them it’s necessary to compare different descriptions and eliminate any concept that is not universal.

Lester Levenson was impressed by Yogananda’s autobiography, and from it he took the terms ‘astral realm’ and ‘causal realm’ to describe realities of which he had personal knowledge. (These realms are described in great detail in Dolores Cannon’s Between Death and Life, published two years after Lester died.) The astral realm is the Hindu precursor of the Buddhist form realm: in it there is no desire but there are forms, and beings can cause things to appear instantly by thought. In Hui-neng’s era this was referred to as the Western Paradise. The causal realm is the Hindu precursor of the formless realm, a much higher plane. The desire, form and formless realms make up the Buddhist triple world, which, because beings have not abandoned the self, is the abode of the unenlightened. Beings eventually reach a stage at which it is unnecessary for them to incarnate on Earth, although they may do so if they wish to perform a service in this world.

Yogananda was well versed Adi Shankara’s warning:

“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.”

But despite this admonition, Yogananda persisted until the end of his life in viewing “God” and other people as distinct from himself, and viewed matter as real. On a visit to see Sri Yukteswar in 1935, he demanded that his guru tell him that he loved him. After Yukteswar passed on, he appeared to Yogananda and told him about the astral realm:

“This is a flesh and blood body. Though I see it as ethereal, to your sight it is physical. From the cosmic atoms I created an entirely new body, exactly like that cosmic-dream physical body which you laid beneath the dream-sands at Puri in your dream-world. I am in truth resurrected–not on earth but on an astral planet. Its inhabitants are better able than earthly humanity to meet my lofty standards. There you and your exalted loved ones shall someday come to be with me.” (Chapter 43)

Yukteswar went on to explain 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,” Sri Yukteswar explained. “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.”

This description by Yukteswar is in accord the testimonies of Dolores Cannon’s subjects.

In Get Off the Rollercoaster, Lester tries to explain the realms to a student:

S: “So, on our way up we’re going to see that we have a choice to go into the astral and the causal?”
Lester: “Can’t you see it now?”
S: “No.”
Lester: “You don’t think you have a choice?”
S: “I mean, I don’t know anything about the astral or the causal.”
Lester: “It’s all in the mind. You’re experiencing both of them right now. When you have an idea, and you see it through to completion the moment you have it, that’s done by the causal part of you. When things happen immediately, that’s done in the astral part of you. Like in a night dream: whatever you think is immediate. And when it takes time and years, you’re in the physical.”

In the same talk Lester said: “These states are awfully tempting; and as you move up, some of these characters will invite you in to it. My recommendation is this: bypass it all.” (Get Off the Rollercoaster). Lester seems to be talking about the astral and causal realms in two ways–as mental states, and as realms with beings who interact with one another. But as Williams (2000) explains, the form and formless realms are both meditative states and destinations for the spiritually advanced (Rebirth, karma and meditation). Because these realms are within every being whether incarnated or not, it seems entirely plausible that Yogananda, when he passed on, joined his guru in the astral, or form realm. (Incidentally, those “characters” really can invite you in. Remember Lester’s advice and bypass them all.)

Lester also said that the higher the state, the less motivation there is to become liberated. He could have meant that those who have awakenings lead happier lives and may stop advancing, or that those in the form or formless realms may remain unenlightened for ages. According to Cannon’s otherworldly informants in Between Death and Life (which I believe was the basis for Albert Brooks’ movie “Defending Your Life”) Earth isn’t a place for the spiritually advanced. One being says that those on in the highest level of the form realm only return to Earth when summoned to perform some mission, and that the Buddha and Yeshua are two examples (p. 84).

The original premise of this post was that these states, when stripped of their imaginative and dualistic trappings, are defined simply by work (abhisamskara) and being. The lowest state of enlightenment for Eckhart is that in which a soul is borne up in the Trinity, which he defines (with his customary unconcern for orthodoxy), as power, wisdom, and 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”–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 the ability to “constrain God” the equivalent of the Buddhist form realm (“I know now that your simple word is binding on the whole cosmos” – Rama is raised from the dead). Above this 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 although it is the highest state attainable in this life, it isn’t the highest state of all, since the Godhead is ‘being’ without ‘person’. The very highest perfection for Eckhart is “that which we shall possess forever with the body and soul.” Here the body is the ability to manifest a physical body, and the soul is personhood.

In Mahayana Buddhism the vessel by which one knows all realms is the threefold body of the buddha. This isn’t a physical body, but three states of being. The lowest is the sambhogakaya, or reward body, which is when the body of a living 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. Lastly, there is the nirmanakaya, the transformation body or manifestation body, by which a buddha can appear in different forms to teach beings anywhere according to their capacities and needs. This triple-body is like the Holy Trinity: when a being is incarnate it is the Son, when in union with the Dharma it is the Father, and when it appears everywhere to help the sentient beings it is the Holy Spirit.

Like Eckhart, Buddhism considers the realization of the Dharma, or Godhead, to be an incomplete enlightenment. The highest perfection is a bodhisattva, who does not remain in contemplation of sunyata, or non-materiality, but is ever ready to help others to advance. 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 Fifty Seven Eckhart describes angels in a way which reminds one of bodhisattvas, and in Sermon Seventy he 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.”

This is the nirmanakaya buddha, who works to liberate all beings. From the point of view of this being, an earthly form cannot accomplish very much.

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

* * *

Sermon Seventy

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.

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.

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