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, Walshe relied on Quint’s translation due to the difficulty of the subject and the unreliability of the source, and I have reproduced it as Walshe translated it.
The triple body of a buddha isn’t a physical body, but three states of being. The lowest state is the sambhogakaya, or reward body, which is a material body that functions in perfect harmony. (Lester Levenson spoke about how, when he had been told he could die of a heart attack at any moment–his coronary arteries being blocked and his myocardium extensively damaged–with a single thought his heart was completely healed, as well as every other ailment he had.) Next is the dharmakaya, the essence body, which is formless: this may be the state of being united with the Absolute. Lastly, the nirmanakaya is the manifestation body, by which a buddha can appear in different forms to teach beings anywhere according to their particular understanding.
Eckhart also uses the body figuratively. In this particular sermon he uses ‘outer man’ to refer to the physical body, perhaps because to the senses the world appears to exist outwardly. However he was no materialist, and in the bull of Pope John XXII, the following statement is in the list of those having ‘a very bad sound and suspect of heresy’: “All creatures are pure nothing. I do not say that they are a little something, or anything at all, but that they are pure nothing.” (Walshe, Vol. I, p. L)
The lowest state of enlightenment for Eckhart is that in which a soul is borne up in the Trinity: power, wisdom and goodness, and “works in that power as that power.” (The Sanskrit for work is abhisamskara). This may be the state in which one possesses ‘gifts’ that he discusses in Talks of Instruction. Above this is “being that does not work but here alone is being and work.” Beyond everything that can be named there is the ground, or Godhead, where there is only beingness, and no work (anabhisamskara), which is “the highest perfection of the spirit to which man can attain spiritually in this life.” But it isn’t the highest state, since it is ‘being’ without ‘person’. The very highest state for Eckhart is “that [perfection] which we shall possess forever with the body and soul.”
The Mahayana masters also considered the attainment of the Absolute to be an incomplete enlightenment, and they severely criticized those who remained in the contemplation of emptiness. As the Vimalakirti Sutra says, “One sees that there is such a thing as tranquil extinction, but does not dwell in extinction for long.” The perfection of which Eckhart spoke, which he said was not attainable in life, is exemplified by Jesus Christ:
“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 state that the Mahayana called the nirmanakaya, the manifestation body or transformation body exemplified in the Buddha, and for the Hindus exemplified in Babaji.
Eckhart stated on occasion that when he was in the Godhead he was greater than God, and he also said without reservation that since all is one in the Godhead, there was essentially no difference between him and Jesus Christ. What he appears to be saying is that he himself was a perfected being, a buddha, who chose to be born into this world in order to teach us.
He becomes a monk in all the different creeds of the world
so that thereby he may free others from delusion
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. (The Complete Madame Guyon, p. 242)
Nancy C. James, The Complete Madame Guyon. Brewster, MA, Paraclete Press, 2011.
M. O’C. Walshe. Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises Volume II. UK, Element Books Limited, 1987.