Eckhart: Sermon Eighty Seven

Sermon Eighty Seven

Beatitude itself opened its mouth of wisdom and said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. All angels, all saints, and everything that was ever born must keep silent when the wisdom of the Father speaks, for all the wisdom of angels and all creatures is pure folly before the unfathomable wisdom of God. This wisdom has declared that the poor are blessed.

Now there are two kinds of poverty. The one is external poverty, and this is good and much to be commended in the man who practises it voluntarily for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he himself possessed this on earth. About this poverty I shall say no more now. But there is another poverty, an interior poverty, to which this word of our Lord applies when he says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.

Now I beg you to be like this in order that you may understand this sermon, for by the eternal truth I tell you that unless you are like this truth we are about to speak of, it is not possible for you to follow me.

Some people have asked me what poverty is in itself, and what a poor man is. This is how we shall answer.

Bishop Albert [Albertus Magnus] says a poor man is one who finds no satisfaction in all things God ever created, and this is well said. But we shall speak better, taking poverty in a higher sense: A poor man is one who wants nothing, knows nothing and has nothing. We shall now speak of these three points, and I beg you for the love of God to understand this wisdom if you can. But if you can’t understand it, don’t worry, because I am going to speak of such truth that few good people can understand.

Firstly, we say that a poor man is one who wants nothing. There are some who do not properly understand the meaning of this: these are the people who cling with attachment [Eigenschaft – possessiveness] to penances and outward practices, making much of these. May God have mercy on such folk for understanding so little of divine truth! These people are called holy from their outward appearances, but inwardly they are asses, for they are ignorant of the actual nature of divine truth. These people say that a poor man is one who wants nothing and they explain it this way: A man should so live that he never does his own will in anything, but should strive to do the dearest will of God. It is well with these people because their intention is right, and we commend them for it. May God in His mercy grant them the kingdom of heaven! But by God’s wisdom I declare that these folk are not poor men or similar to poor men. They are much admired by those who know no better, but I say that they are asses with no understanding of God’s truth. Perhaps they will gain heaven for their good intentions, but of the poverty we shall now speak of they have no idea.

If then, I were asked what is a poor man who wants nothing, I should reply as follows: As long as a man is so disposed that it is his will with which he would do the most beloved will of God, that man has not the poverty we are speaking about, for that man has a will to serve God’s will, and that is not true poverty! For a man to possess true poverty he must be as free of his created will as he was when he was not. For I declare by the eternal truth: as long as you have the will to do the will of God, and longing for eternity and God, you are not poor, for a poor man is one who wills nothing and desires nothing.

While I yet stood in my first cause, I had no God and was my own cause: then I wanted nothing and desired nothing, for I was bare being and the knower of myself in the enjoyment of truth. Then I wanted myself and wanted no other thing. What I wanted I was and what I was I wanted, and thus I was free of God and all things. But when I left my free will behind and received my created being, then I had a God. For before there were creatures, God was not ‘God’: He was That which He was. But when creatures came into existence and received their created being, then God was not ‘God’ in Himself: He was ‘God’ in creatures.

Now we say that God, inasmuch as He is ‘God’, is not the supreme goal of creatures, for the same lofty status is possessed by the least of creatures in God. And if it were the case that a fly had reason and could intellectually plumb the eternal abysm of God’s being out of which it came, we would have to say that God with all that makes Him ‘God’ would be unable to fulfil and satisfy that fly! Therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of God that we may gain the truth and enjoy it eternally, there where the highest angel, the fly and the soul are equal, there where I stood and wanted what I was, and was what I wanted. We conclude, then: if a man is to be poor of will, he must will and desire as little as he willed and desired when he was not. And this is the way for a man to be poor by not wanting.

Secondly, he is a poor man who knows nothing. We have sometimes said that a man should live as if he did not live either for himself, or for truth, or for God. But now we will speak differently and go further, and say: For a man to possess this poverty he must live so that he is unaware that he does not live for himself, or for truth, or for God. He must be so lacking in all knowledge that he neither knows nor recognises nor feels that God lives in him. More still, he must be free of all the understanding that lives in him, for when that man stood in the eternal being of God, nothing else lived in him: what lived there was himself. Therefore we declare that a man should be as free from his own knowledge as he was when he was not. That man should let God work as He will, and himself stand idle.

For all that ever came out of God, a pure activity is appointed. The proper work of man is to love and to know. Now the question is: Wherein does blessedness lie most of all? Some masters have said it lies in knowing, some say that it lies in loving; others say it lies in knowing and loving, and they say better. But we say it lies neither in knowing nor in loving, for there is something in the soul from which both knowledge and love flow, but it does not itself know or love in the way the powers of the soul do. Whoever knows this, knows the seat of blessedness. This has neither before nor after, nor is it expecting anything to come, for it can neither gain nor lose. And so it is deprived of the knowledge that God is at work in it; rather, it just is itself, enjoying itself God-fashion. It is in this manner, I declare, that a man should be so acquitted and free that he neither knows nor realises that God is at work in him; in that way can a man possess poverty.

The masters say God is a being, an intellectual being that knows all things. But we say God is not a being and not intellectual and does not know this or that. Thus God is free of all things, and so He is all things. To be poor in spirit, a man must be poor of all his own knowledge, not knowing any thing—not God, nor creature nor himself. For this it is needful that a man should desire to know and understand nothing of the works of God; in this way a man can be poor of his own knowledge.

Thirdly, he is a poor man who has nothing. Many people have said that perfection is attained when one has none of the material things of the earth, and this is true in one sense—when it is voluntary. But this is not the sense in which I mean it. I have said before, the poor man is not he who wants to fulfil the will of God but he who lives in such a way as to be free of his own will and of God’s will, as he was when he was not. Of this poverty we declare that it is the highest poverty. Secondly, we have said he is a poor ma who does not know of the working of God within him. He who stands as free of knowledge and understanding as God stands of all things, has the purest poverty. but the third is the straightest poverty, of which we shall now speak: that is when a man has nothing.

Now pay earnest attention to this! I have often said, and eminent authorities say it too, that a man should be so free of all things and all works, both inward and outward, that he may be a proper abode for God where God can work. Now we shall say something else. If it is the case that a man is free of all creatures, of God and of self, and if it is still the case that God finds a place in him to work, then we declare that as long as this is in that man, he is not poor with the strictest poverty. For it is not God’s intention in His works that a man should have a place within himself for God to work in: for poverty of spirit means being so free of God and all His works, that God, if He wishes to work in the soul, is Himself the place where He works—and this He gladly does. For, if he finds a man so poor, then God performs His own work, and the man is passive to God within him, and God is His own place of work, being a worker in Himself. It is just here, in this poverty, that man enters into that eternal essence that once he was, that he is now and evermore shall remain. [. . . ]

So we say that a man should be so poor that he neither is nor has any place for God to work in. To preserve a place is to preserve distinction. Therefore I pray to God to make me free of God, for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures. For in that essence of God in which God is above being and distinction, there I was myself and knew myself so as to make this man. Therefore I am my own cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal. Therefore I am unborn, and according to my unborn mode I can never die. According to my unborn mode I have eternally been, am now and shall eternally remain. That which I am by virtue of birth must die and perish, for it is mortal, and so must perish with time. In my birth all things were born, and I was the cause of myself and all things; and if I had so willed it, I would not have been, and all things would not have been. If I were not, God would not be either. I am the cause of God’s being God: if I were not, then God would not be God. But you do not need to know this.

A great master says that his breaking-through is nobler than his emanation, and this is true. When I flowed forth from God, all creatures declared: ‘There is a God’; but this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge myself as a creature. But in my breaking-through, where I stand free of my own will, of God’s will, of all His works, and of God himself, then I am above all creatures and am neither God nor creature, but I am that which I was and shall remain for evermore. There I shall receive an imprint that will raise me above all the angels. By this imprint I shall gain such wealth that I shall not be content with God inasmuch as He is God, or with all His divine works, for this breaking-through guarantees to me that I and God are one. Then I am what I was, then I neither wax nor wane, for then I am an unmoved cause that moves all things. Here, God finds no place in man, for man by his poverty wins for himself what he has eternally been and shall eternally remain. Here, God is one with the spirit, and that is the strictest poverty one can find.

If anyone cannot understand this sermon, he need not worry. For so long as a man is not equal to this truth, he cannot understand my words, for this is a naked truth which has come direct from the heart of God.

That we may so live as to experience it eternally, may God help us. Amen.


M. O’C. Walshe. Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises Volume II. UK, Element Books Limited, 1987.

The disciplines: Austerities and self-mortification

They may rightly and legitimately feast, who would have been as ready and willing to fast. – Meister Eckhart (Walshe, Vol. III, p. 38)

His disciples asked him, “Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity?
Jesus said to them, “If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits.
When you go into any region and walk about in the countryside, when people take you in, eat what they serve you and heal the sick among them.
After all, what goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it’s what comes out of your mouth that will defile you.” (Gospel of Thomas, Meyers, ed.)

“If you do not fast [away] from the world, you will not find the kingdom.” (Gospel of Thomas)

If I felt a craving for food, I would have to eat. – Giri Bala

In these modern times, devoid of spirituality, there is a stigma attached to the ancient practices of asceticism and self-mortification, and so they aren’t often discussed. To many they may look like symptoms of suicidal depression; and in truth these practices are part of a process of spiritual self-murder. But there are two significant differences between asceticism and depression. First, a depressed person sees the ego-self as what he is, while the ascetic sees the self as impermanent–and therefore not real–and the source of suffering. The other difference is that the depressive suffers from moral pain, while the spiritual seeker is serene, even happy.

Suicidal depression can and does lead people to an awakening: Eckhart Tolle is a perfect example. And in reading about the lives of saints and sages, the theme of wishing for death or being at death’s door is universal. Furthermore, when you consider that all illnesses and accidents–everything that happens to a person in fact–comes from a person’s mind, the inescapable conclusion is that every saint and sage has held a strong wish for death. This isn’t to be wondered at, since the self must die in order for one to know the Self.

Madame Guyon was a 17th-century saint who constantly prayed to God to give her “crosses.” Because she clung to a dualism of her soul and God, she suffered from painful and sometimes life-threatening illness even after her enlightenment, or sanctification. However she maintained a moral serenity in the belief that her suffering came from God, and that God loved her. Because of her illnesses she saw the practice of self-mortification as unnecessary and possibly a source of pride, and in A Short and Easy Method of Prayer she advised against it, arguing that we should leave it to God to inflict crosses on us.

As the word ‘self-mortification’ makes clear, these are actions that come from self-will: they generally involve fasting or a dietary restrictions, slowing the breath, going without sleep, pilgrimages, and spending long hours in prayer or meditation. We decide their character, when they start and when they end. Calamities are different, because even though they, too, are self-inflicted, they come from the unconscious mind, and so we feel that they are beyond our control. Madame Guyon taught that we should welcome all adversities because they come from God and are for our own good, and this is well for those who believe in God. But if one knows he is the cause of everything that happens to him, the laws of karma cease to operate in this sense; one no longer suffers from illnesses or accidents. Asceticism may be a way to hasten the process of purification in the absence of adversity arising from unconscious thoughts.

If we don’t consciously wish for adversity, why do we unconsciously will it upon ourselves? Suffering has two purposes: punishment and purification. If we are turned away from God, we adversity in order to turn ourselves away from desire and towards God: this was the purpose of Lester Levenson’s business failures, ulcers and heart attacks. Once we are turned, or converted, we bring adversity in order to purify ourselves of clinging to existence. For example, Anita Moorjani’s cancer purified her by bringing her to the very brink of death.

To diminish one’s attachment to existence is the same as diminishing one’s aversion to not existing; the feeling that one is confronting is always fear. This is very important to understand, because actions and words are meaningless in themselves, and the aim of all of the disciplines is the cultivation of the mind. An example of this principle is Layman P’ang. He was born a Confucian and had inherited some wealth. Upon converting to Buddhism, he loaded all of his money and possessions onto a boat and sunk them in the middle of a river. He felt his possessions were a burden which kept him in bondage, and he didn’t wish to lay his burden on others by giving them away. It was the thought of giving up, not the action of giving to someone else that mattered.

The cultivation of the mind focuses on three categories of hindrances, or klesa: attachment, aversion and ignorance. Self-mortification deals with all three at once. In confronting the fear of death we confront the desire for existence, and at the same time we confront the delusion of the reality of the body.

Now that we understand the purpose of these disciplines–overcoming attachments, aversions and delusion–we need to decide whether the disciplines create more karma than they destroy. I think we can justly compare Lester Levenson’s experience to that of the Zen master, Hakuin.

Lester never went through any disciplines; what he did was to focus his mind on just one question at a time. When his practice of loving others produced an awakening, he set about bringing all of his subconscious feelings to consciousness and letting go of them. After three months of this intense investigation, self-examination and letting go, during which the psychic powers “fell” on him, he was cured of all of his illnesses. Hakuin, on the other hand, went through years of arduous disciplines, and even gave himself an illness he called Zen sickness. I think that Lester’s path demonstrates that if one is zealous enough in investigating, in letting go of attachments and aversions, in reducing the self to nothing, and finally going beyond it, the disciplines are unnecessary. Since Lester’s self-realization came about so quickly it’s impossible to examine each thing he did separately, but later on he taught his students how to gain mastery over the body without extreme measures such as long fasts or going without sleep.

Sages and saints do not put their austerities or powers on display so that others may imitate them, but rather, as Giri Bala said, “To show that man is spirit.” (Indeed they are reluctant to display their powers because that would cause their students to feel that their master was different from them, which would be discouraging the students; this discouragement was evident in Jesus’s disciples, who held him to be a superior being.) Practiced in moderation, however, fasting and practices such as slowing the breath or bathing in cold water do no harm, and may be helpful for confronting fear and letting go of it. But it’s the mind that is the object, not the body. Hence Meister Eckhart’s words, “They may rightly and legitimately feast, who would have been as ready and willing to fast.”


Broughton, Jeffrey L. (2015). The Chan Whip Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

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

The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic

Translated from the Pali by N.K.G. Mendis © 2007

Thus it was heard by me. At one time the Blessed One was living in the deer park of Isipatana near Benares. There, indeed, the Blessed One addressed the group of five monks.

“Form, O monks, is not-self; if form were self, then form would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus’; and indeed, O monks, since form is not-self, therefore form leads to affliction and it does not obtain regarding form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus.’

“Feeling, O monks, is not-self; if feeling were self, then feeling would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding feeling: ‘May my feeling be thus, may my feeling not be thus’; and indeed, O monks, since feeling is not-self, therefore feeling leads to affliction and it does not obtain regarding feeling: ‘May my feeling be thus, may my feeling not be thus.’

“Perception, O monks, is not-self; if perception were self, then perception would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding perception: ‘May my perception be thus, may my perception not be thus’; and indeed, O monks, since perception is not-self, therefore, perception leads to affliction and it does not obtain regarding perception: ‘May my perception be thus, may my perception not be thus.’

“Mental formations, O monks, are not-self; if mental formations were self, then mental formations would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding mental formations: ‘May my perception be thus, may my mental formations not be thus’; and indeed, O monks, since mental formations are not-self, therefore, mental formations lead to affliction and it does not obtain regarding mental formations: ‘May my mental formations be thus, may my mental formations not be thus.’

“Consciousness, O monks, is not-self; if consciousness were self, then consciousness would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding consciousness: ‘May my consciousness be thus, may my consciousness not be thus’; and indeed, O monks, since consciousness is not-self, therefore, consciousness leads to affliction and it does not obtain regarding consciousness: ‘May my consciousness be thus, may my consciousness not be thus.’

“What do you think of this, O monks? Is form permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, O Lord.”

“Now, that which is impermanent, is it unsatisfactory or satisfactory?”

“Unsatisfactory, O Lord.”

“Now, that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, is it proper to regard that as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”

“Indeed, not that, O Lord.”

“What do you think of this, O monks? Is feeling permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, O Lord.”

“Now, that which is impermanent, is it unsatisfactory or satisfactory?”

“Unsatisfactory, O Lord.”

“Now, that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, is it proper to regard that as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”

“Indeed, not that, O Lord.”

“What do you think of this, O monks? Is perception permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, O Lord.”

“Now, what is impermanent, is it unsatisfactory or satisfactory?”

“Unsatisfactory, O Lord.”

“Now, that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, is it proper to regard that as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”

“Indeed, not that, O Lord.”

“What do you think of this, O monks? Are mental formations permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, O Lord.”

“Now, those that are impermanent, are they unsatisfactory or satisfactory?”

“Unsatisfactory, O Lord.”

“Now, those that are impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, is it proper to regard them as: ‘They are mine, this I am, this is my self’?”

“Indeed, not that, O Lord.”

“Now what do you think of this, O monks? Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, O Lord.”

“Now, what is impermanent, is that unsatisfactory or satisfactory?”

“Unsatisfactory, O Lord.”

“Now, what is impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, is it proper to regard it as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”

“Indeed, not that, O Lord.”

“Therefore, surely, O monks, whatever form, past, future or present, internal or external, coarse or fine, low or lofty, far or near, all that form must be regarded with proper wisdom, according to reality, thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’

“Therefore, surely, O monks, whatever feeling, past, future or present, internal or external, coarse or fine, low or lofty, far or near, all that feeling must be regarded with proper wisdom, according to reality, thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’

“Therefore, surely, O monks, whatever perception, past, future or present, internal or external, coarse or fine, low or lofty, far or near, all that perception must be regarded with proper wisdom, according to reality, thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’

“Therefore, surely, O monks, whatever mental formations, past, future or present, internal or external, coarse or fine, low or lofty, far or near, all those mental formations must be regarded with proper wisdom, according to reality, thus: ‘These are not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’

“Therefore, surely, O monks, whatever consciousness, past, future or present, internal or external, coarse or fine, low or lofty, far or near, all that consciousness must be regarded with proper wisdom, according to reality, thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’

“O monks, the well-instructed noble disciple, seeing thus, gets wearied of form, gets wearied of feeling, gets wearied of perception, gets wearied of mental formations, gets wearied of consciousness. Being wearied he becomes passion-free. In his freedom from passion, he is emancipated. Being emancipated, there is the knowledge that he is emancipated. He knows: ‘birth is exhausted, lived is the holy life, what had to be done is done, there is nothing more of this becoming.'”

This the Blessed One said. Pleased, the group of five monks were delighted with the exposition of the Blessed One; moreover, as this exposition was being spoken, the minds of the group of five monks were freed of defilements, without attachment.

Indeed, at that time there were six arahants in the world.

Madame Guyon: Letter to Gregory

To M. Gregoire Bouvieres de La Mothe.

My Dear Brother,

It is always with the greatest pleasure that I receive any tidings from you; but your last letter gave me more satisfaction than any previous ones. You are the only remaining member of our family who appears to understand the dealings of God with me, and to appreciate my situation. I receive your letter as a testimonial of Christian union and sympathy.

The Lord has seen fit to bless me much in the labours for a revival of inward religion, especially in Grenoble, where the work was very wonderful.

I speak to you, my dear brother, without reserve. And in the first place, my soul, as it seems to me, is united to God in such a manner that my own will is entirely lost in the Divine will. I live, therefore, as well as I can express it, out of myself and all other creatures, in union with God, because in union with His will. . . . It is thus that God, by His sanctifying grace, has become to me ALL in ALL. The self which once troubled me is taken away, and I find it no more. And thus God, being made known in things or events, which is the only way in which the I AM, or Infinite Being, can be made known, everything becomes, in a certain sense, God to me. I find God in everything that is, and in everything that comes to pass. The creature is nothing; God is ALL.

And if you ask why it is that the Lord has seen fit to bless me in my labours, it is because He has first, by taking away my own will, made me a nothing. And in recognising the hand of the Lord, I think I may well speak of God’s agency physically as well as mentally; since He has sustained me in my poor state of health and in my physical weakness. Weak as I have been, He has enabled me to talk during the day and to write at night. After the labours of the day, I have, for some time past, spent a portion of the night in writing commentaries on the Scriptures. I began this at Grenoble; and though my labours were many and my health was poor, the Lord enabled me, in the course of six months, to write on all the books of the Old Testament.

I am willing, in this as in other things, to commit all to God, both in doing and suffering. To my mind it is the height of blessedness to cease from our own action in order that God may act in us.

And this statement, my dear brother, expresses my own condition, as it is my prayer that it may express yours.

In such a state, riches and poverty, and sorrow and joy, and life and death, are the same. In such a state is the true heavenly rest, the true Paradise of the spirit.

In the hope and prayer that we may always be thus in the Lord, I remain, in love, your sister,

Jeanne Marie B. de la Mothe Guyon

Dec. 12, 1689


Upham, Thomas C. Life of Madame de La Mothe Guyon. London: Sampson Low, Son, and Co., 1858 (p. 305).

Madame Guyon: The surest way to arrive at divine union

[Note on translation: The following is an excerpt from A Short Method of Prayer. It was written between 1681 and 1682, after Jeanne had moved to Geneva but before she had left Gex to stay with the Ursulines at Tolon. A. W. Marston’s translation is followed here, with some minor changes. – Editor]

A Short Method of Prayer



An act is an action that is good, useless or offensive. The actions of creatures are either external or internal. The external are those that appear outwardly and have their object in the realm of the senses, having neither good nor evil qualities in themselves except those that are attached to them by the motivating principle. It is not of these that I intend to speak, but only of internal actions, those actions of the soul by which it turns inwardly toward some object or turns away from another.

When, being turned toward God, I desire to perform an action of a different nature from those that He would prompt, I turn away from God and I turn towards created things to a greater or lesser degree according to the force or weakness of my action. If, being turned towards the creature, I wish to return to God, I must perform the action of turning away from the creature and turning towards God. The more perfect is this action, the more complete will be the conversion.

Until I am perfectly converted, I need several actions to turn me towards God. Some are performed all at once, others gradually; but my action ought to lead me to turn to God, employing all the strength of my soul for Him. As it is written, “Therefore even now, saith the Lord, turn you even to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12); “You shalt return unto the Lord your God . . . with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 30:2). God only asks for our heart: “My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways” (Prov. 23:26). To give one’s heart to God is to have its gaze, its strength, and its vigour all centred on Him, to follow His will. We must, then, after we have applied to God, remain always turned towards Him.

But as the mind of the creature is weak, and the soul, accustomed as it is to turn towards worldly things, is easily turned away from God, as soon as it perceives that it is turned towards outward things it must resume its former position in God by a simple act of returning to Him. And as several repeated acts form a habit, the soul acquires a habit of conversion, and from action it passes to a habitual condition.

The soul, then, must not seek by means of any efforts or works of its own to come near to God; this is seeking to perform one action by means of others [indirect action], instead of by a single [direct] action of remaining attached to God alone.

If we believe that we must commit no actions, we are mistaken, for we are always acting; but each one must act according to his degree. I will endeavour to make this point clear, as, for want of understanding it, it presents a difficulty to many Christians.

There are passing and distinct actions, and continuous actions; indirect actions and direct actions. Not everyone can perform the first, and not everyone is in a condition to perform the others. The first actions [passing and distinct] must be performed by those who are turned away from God. They must turn to Him by a distinct action, more or less strong according to their distance from Him.

By a continuous action I mean that by which the soul is completely turned towards its God by a direct action, which it does not renew, unless it has been interrupted, but which subsists. The soul altogether turned in this way is in love and remains there: “And he that dwells in love, dwells in God” (1 John 4:16). Then the soul may be said to be in a habitual action, resting even in this action. But its rest is not idle, for it has an action always in force: a gentle sinking in God, in which God attracts it more and more strongly. And, following this attraction and abiding in love, it sinks more and more in this love, and has an action infinitely stronger, more vigorous, and more prompt than that action which forms only the return to God. Now the soul which is in this profound and strong action, being turned towards its God, does not perceive this action because it is direct and not indirect, so that people in this condition, not knowing how rightly to describe it, say that they have no action. But they are mistaken — they were never more active. It would be better to say they do not perceive any action than that they do not perform any.

The soul does not act of itself, I admit, but it is drawn, and it follows the attracting power. Love is the weight which sinks it, as a person who falls in the sea sinks, and it would sink to infinity if the sea were infinite, and without perceiving its sinking it would sink to the most profound depths with incredible speed. It is, then, incorrect to say that no actions are performed. All perform actions, but not everyone performs them in the same manner, and the error arises from the fact that those who know that action is inevitable wish it to be distinct and sensed. But action that is sensed is for beginners, and the other for those more advanced. To stop at the first would be to deprive ourselves of the last, and to wish to perform the last before having passed the first would also be a mistake.

Everything must be done in its season; each state has its beginning, its progress, and its end — there is no act which has not its beginning. At first we must work with effort, but afterwards we enjoy the fruit of our labour. When a galley is in the harbour, the sailors labour to row it out to the open sea; but once there they easily set course. Just so, when the soul is in sin it needs an effort to pull it out; the ties that bind it must be loosened. Then, by means of strong and vigorous action, it must be drawn within itself, little by little leaving the harbour and being turned within, which is the place to which it should be steered.

When the vessel is offshore the sails catch the wind and the oars are useless. What does the master do then? He is content to set the sails and remain at the helm. Setting the sails is simply laying ourselves before God to be moved by His Spirit; remaining at the helm is preventing our heart from abandoning the right way, steering it gently and guiding it according to the movement of God’s spirit, who gradually takes possession of it, [just] as the wind gradually fills the galley’s sails and carries it forward. So long as the vessel sails by the wind the oarsmen rest from their labour; they travel farther by the wind in an hour than they would in a much longer time rowing; and if they attempted to row, besides the fatigue that would result, their labour would only serve to slow the vessel.

This is the conduct we should pursue in our inner life, and in acting thus we shall advance more in a short time by the Divine guidance, than we ever could do by our own efforts. If only you will try this way, you will find it the easiest possible.

When the mind gets free enough, then the Self of you takes over and you are from then on Self-propelled. – Lester Levenson




It is impossible to attain divine union by the way of meditation alone, or even by the affections, or by any luminous or understood prayer. There are several reasons; these are the main ones. First, according to Scripture, “No man shall see God and live” (Exod. xxxiii. 20). Now all discursive exercises of prayer, or even of active contemplation, regarded as an end and not as a preparation for the passive, are exercises of life by which we cannot see God, that is, become united with Him. All that is of man and of his own industry, however noble and elevated it may be, must die.

St John tells us, “there was silence in heaven.” Heaven represents the depths and centre of the soul, where all must be in silence when the majesty of God appears. All that belongs to our own efforts or to ourselves in any way must be destroyed. The self is a force opposed to God, and all the malignity of man lies in this self-appropriation, which is the source of his evil, so that the more a soul loses its appropriation (grasping, holding on), the more pure it becomes. Secondly, in order to unite two things so opposed as the purity of God and the impurity of the creature, the simplicity of God and the multiplicity of the creature, God must operate alone; for this can never be done by the effort of the creature, since two things cannot be united unless there is some relation or resemblance between them, as an impure metal would never unite with one that was pure and refined.

What does God do then? He sends before Him His own wisdom, as will be sent upon the Earth to consume by its activity all the impurity that is there. Fire consumes all things and nothing resists its activity; it is the same with wisdom. It consumes all impurity in the creature to prepare him for divine union.

This impurity, so opposed to union, is grasping and activity. Grasping, because it is the source of the real impurity that can never be united with essential purity. As the sun’s rays may touch the earth but cannot unite with it, so the divine never unites with grasping. Activity, because God being in an infinite 47 stillness, for the soul to be united to Him it must participate in His stillness, without which there can be no union because there is no likeness, and in order for two things to unite they must be in a like stillness. It is for this reason that the soul can only attain divine union by the pacification of its will, and it can only be united with God when it is in a central stillness and in the purity of its creation.

To purify the soul God makes use of wisdom as fire is used to purify gold . . . until it is fit to be employed in the most excellent workmanship. This being understood, I say that in order that the soul may be united with God, wisdom and divine justice, like a pitiless and devouring fire, 48 must take from him all grasping, all that is worldly, carnal, and of his own activity; and having taken all this from him, they must unite him to God. This is never brought about by the labours of the creature; on the contrary, it even causes him regret, because as I have said, man so loves what is his own and is so fearful of its destruction that if God did not accomplish it Himself and by His own authority, man would never consent to it.

Some will object that God never deprives man of his liberty, and that therefore he can always resist God, for which reason I ought not to say that God acts absolutely, without the consent of man. In explanation I say that it is sufficient that man should give a passive consent that he may have entire and full liberty. This is because having at the beginning given himself to God that He might do as He would both with him and in him, he gave from that time an active and general consent to all that God might do. But when God destroys, burns, and purifies, the soul does not see that all this is for its benefit — it rather believes the contrary. And since at first the fire seems to tarnish the gold, so this operation seems to despoil the soul of its purity, so if an active and explicit consent were required, the soul would find it hard to give it, and often would not give it. All that it does is to remain in a passive contentment, enduring this operation as well as it can, being neither able nor willing to prevent it.

God then so purifies this soul of all natural, distinct, and perceived operations that at last He makes it more and more conformed to Himself, and then uniform, raising the passive capacity of the creature, enlarging it and ennobling it, though in a hidden and unperceived manner which is termed mystical. But in all these operations the soul must concur passively, and as the working of God becomes stronger the soul must continually yield to Him until it is absorbed altogether.

We do not say, then, as some assert, that there must be no action, since, on the contrary, this is the door; but only that we must not remain in it, seeing that man should tend towards the perfection of his end, and that he can never reach it without quitting the first means, which, though they were necessary to introduce him into the way, would greatly hinder him afterwards if he obstinately attached himself to them. . . . 49 Should we not consider a person destitute of reason who, after undertaking a journey, stopped at the first inn because he was assured that several had passed it, that a few had lodged there, and that the landlord lived there? What the soul is required to do, then, is to advance towards its end, to take the shortest road, not to stop at the first point . . .

It is well known that the sovereign good is God, that essential blessedness consists in union with God, and that this union cannot be the result of our own efforts, since God only communicates Himself to the soul according to its capacity. We cannot be united with God without passivity and simplicity, and this union being bliss, the way that leads to it must be the best, and there can be no risk in walking in it.

This way is not dangerous. If it were, Christ would not have represented it as the most perfect and necessary of all ways. All can walk in it; and as all are called to blessedness, all are called to the enjoyment of God, both in this life and in that which is to come, since the enjoyment of God is blessedness. I say the enjoyment of God Himself, not of His gifts, which can never impart essential blessedness, not being able fully to satisfy the soul, which is so constituted that even the richest gifts of God cannot thoroughly content it. The desire of God is to give Himself to us, according to the capacity with which He has endowed us, and yet we fear to abandon ourselves to God! We fear to possess Him, and to be prepared for divine union!

You say we must not bring ourselves to this condition. I agree with that; but I say too, that no one ever could bring himself to it, since no man could ever unite himself to God by his own efforts, and God Himself must do the work.

You say that some pretend to have attained it. I say that this state cannot be feigned, any more than a man dying of hunger can for any length of time pretend to be satisfied. It will soon be known whether or not people have attained this end.

Since, therefore, none can arrive at the end unless he be brought there, it is not a question of introducing people to it but of showing them the way which leads to it, and begging them not to rest in those practices which must be relinquished at God’s command. 50

Would it not be cruelty to show a fountain to a thirsty man and then hold him bound and prevent his going to it, leaving him to die of thirst? That is what is being done now. Let us all be agreed both as to the way and the end. The way has its beginning, its progress, and its terminus. The more we advance towards the terminus, the farther we go from the beginning; and it is impossible to reach the terminus but by constantly going farther from the starting-point, being unable to go from one place to another without passing through all that comes between them: this is incontestable.

Oh, how blind are the majority of men, who pride themselves upon their learning and talent!

O Lord! how true it is that Thou hast hidden Thy secrets from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes!

Translated from the Paris Edition of 1790 by A. W. Marston.

London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low, & Searle, 1875. Printed by Ballantyne and Company, Edinburgh and London. (guyon_shortmethodofprayer)


The life of Madame Guyon

The less you have of self, the more you will have of God. 

Early life

Jeanne de la Mothe Guyon (1648-1717), was a French mystic in the time of Louis XIV. She was born into an aristocratic family, and like other children of her class she was left in the care of servants when she wasn’t boarding at one or another convent, where she received somewhat better care. Jeanne was sickly as a child; her illnesses, solitude, and upbringing in the convents made her devoutly religious.

At the age of eleven Jeanne was introduced to silent prayer while reading about the life Madam de Chantal, and she prayed for what she called the “gift of prayer.” At twelve she repeatedly tried to join a convent but her father wouldn’t allow it; he arranged for her to be married, at fifteen, to Jacques Guyon, a wealthy man twenty-two years her senior.

Jeanne had her first awakening in 1668, when she was nineteen. She had been very ill with her first child and was pregnant with her second, and she was in low spirits from the constant fault-finding of her mother-in-law and husband. She was visiting her parents, and at her father’s suggestion she went to see a visiting Franciscan priest.

Jeanne’s primary concern was prayer: she aspired for that state of continual prayer that she had seen in a cousin who was a priest, what Hakuin called uninterrupted meditation. After she had explained her difficulty, the priest was silent for a time. Presently he said, “It is, Madame, because you seek without what you have within. Accustom yourself to seek God in your heart, and you will there find Him.” The following is her description of her awakening:

These words brought into my heart what I had been seeking so many years. O my Lord, Thou wast in my heart, and demanded only a simple turning of my mind inward to make me perceive Thy presence. While I was running hither and thither to seek Thee my life was a burden to me, although my happiness was within myself. It was for want of understanding these words of Thy Gospel, “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation* . . . For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20). This I now experienced. [*The verb θεαομαι (theaomai) means to watch]

I, Lord, went wandering like a strayed sheep, seeking thee with anxious reasoning without whilst thou wast within me. I wearied myself much in looking for thee without, and yet thou hast thy habitation within me, if only I desire thee and pant after thee. I went round the streets and squares of the city of this world seeking thee, and I found thee not, because in vain I sought without for him who was within myself. – St Augustine

I told this man that my heart was quite changed, that God was there. He had given me an experience of His presence in my soul; not by thought or any application of mind, but as a thing really possessed after the sweetest manner.

I slept not that whole night, because Thy love, O my God, flowed in me like a delicious oil, and burned as a fire which was going to devour all that was left of self. I found no longer those troublesome faults or reluctances. They disappeared, being consumed like chaff in a great fire.

Nothing was more easy to me than prayer. Hours passed away like moments, while I could hardly do anything else but pray. It was a prayer of rejoicing and possessing, devoid of all busy imaginations and forced reflections; it was a prayer of the will, and not of the head. The taste of God was so great, so pure, unblended and uninterrupted, that it drew and absorbed the power of my soul into a profound recollection without act or discourse.

The will absorbed the two others, the memory and understanding, into itself, and concentrated them in LOVE; not but that they still subsisted, but their operations were in a manner imperceptible and passive. They were no longer stopped or slowed by the multiplicity, but collected and united in one, just as the rising of the sun does not extinguish the stars, but overpowers and absorbs them in the brightness of its incomparable glory. (Autobiography, Cp. 8)

Guyon bore five children, of which two died. Her life was a continual trial, yet she suffered all patiently in the belief that God was purifying her soul of pride of self, much in the way that fire separates gold from impurities in the crucible. Years later, while in prison, she told her spiritual director,

I request you not to look at things on the side of the creature, which would make these persons appear worse than they were. My mother-in-law had virtue, my husband had religion, and not any vice. It is necessary to look at everything from the side of God: He permitted these things only for my salvation, and because He would not have me lost. I had besides so much pride that had I received any other treatment I should have continued therein, and should not, perhaps, have turned to God as I was induced to do by the oppression of a multitude of crosses.

Guyon’s marriage ended in 1676 with the death of her husband. As soon as he died she said, “Oh, my God, thou hast broken my bonds!” But she was physically exhausted from the recent birth of her daughter, and in addition she was in a state of moral despair that had begun a few years before:

This state of emptiness, darkness, and impotency went far beyond any trials I had ever yet met. I could now no longer pray as formerly. Heaven seemed shut to me, and I thought justly. I could get no consolation or make any complaint; nor had I any creature on Earth to apply to. I found myself banished from all beings without finding a support of refuge in anything. I could no more practice any virtue with facility. I often thought all creatures united against me. Laden with a weight of past sins and a multitude of new ones, I could not think God would ever pardon me, but looked on myself as a victim designed for hell.

A widow at twenty-eight, with a newborn and a young son, Jeanne remained with her mother-in-law for four more years. Then, in 1680, at thirty-two, she conceived the idea of moving to Geneva. There she envisioned using her wealth and her knowledge of nursing to found hospitals and convert people through charitable works. To this end she was corresponding with a priest she knew in Geneva named Francis de La Combe: they had met many years earlier and had formed a lifelong friendship. It was in this state of happy anticipation — of beginning a new life in a new place, of being near her friend — that she had a second awakening:

About eight or ten days before Magdalene’s day (July 22), 1680, it came into my mind to write to Father La Combe and to request him, if he received my letter before that day, to pray particularly for me. . . . On that happy Magdalene’s Day my soul was perfectly delivered from all its pains. It had already begun since the receipt of the first letter from Father La Combe, to recover a new life, but it was then only like that of a dead person raised, though not yet unbound from the burial clothes. On this day I was, as it were, in perfect life, and set wholly free. I found myself as much raised above nature as before I had been depressed under its burden. I was inexpressibly overjoyed to find Him, whom I thought I had lost forever, returned to me again with unspeakable magnificence and purity. It was then, O God, that I found again in Thee with new advantages, in an ineffable manner, all I had been deprived of; the peace I now possessed was all holy, heavenly and inexpressible. All that I had enjoyed before was only a peace, a gift of God, but now I received and possessed the God of peace. Yet the remembrance of my past miseries still brought a fear upon me lest nature should find a way to take to itself any part therein. As soon as it wanted to see or taste anything, the ever-watchful Spirit crossed and repelled it. I was far from elevating myself or attributing to myself anything of this new state: my experience made me aware of what I was.

I hoped I should enjoy this happy state for some time, but little did I think my happiness so great and immutable as it was. One day of this happiness was worth more than years of suffering. It was indeed, at that time, well worth all I had undergone, though it was then only dawning. An alacrity for doing good was restored to me, greater than ever. It seemed to me all quite free and natural to me. At the beginning this freedom was less extensive, but as I advanced it grew greater. I felt a kind of beatitude every day increasing in me.

I was released from all crosses. I resumed my care of the sick, and dressing of wounds, and God gave me to cure the most desperate. When surgeons could do no more, it was then that God made me cure them. I did all sorts of good, without selfishness or premeditation. Whenever a self-reflective thought was presented to my mind it was instantly rejected, and as it were a curtain in the soul drawn before it. My imagination was kept so fixed that I had now very little trouble on that. I wondered at the clearness of my mind and the purity of my whole heart.

When I had lost all created supports, and even divine ones, I then found myself happily compelled to fall into the pure divine, and to fall into it through all those very things which seemed to remove me further from it. In losing all the gifts, with all their supports, I found the Giver. In losing the sense and perception of Thee in myself I found Thee, O my God, to lose Thee no more in Thyself, in Thy own immutability. (Cp. 27)

A year later, in July of 1681, Guyon quietly left with her daughter for Geneva; but her destination was Gex. She had met with the Bishop of Geneva in Paris, and when she told him that she wanted to use her “substance” for missionary work, he told her that it was providential, since the New Catholics* were going to establish a new convent in Gex. She told him that her calling was for Geneva, but he told her that she might go there from Gex. He drew up a contract for her engagement, but she refused to sign it, although she made a large donation. *(The New Catholics were part of an initiative of Louis XIV to make Roman Catholicism the only religion in France. To this end he had driven thousands of Protestant families into exile, and the Church was charged with the conversion of those who remained.)

Guyon’s project was destined to failure from the start, and it marked the beginning of her political troubles. While she and Father La Combe did set up some hospitals, her refusal to submit to the will of the bishop and his priest, combined with their envy, earned her their lasting enmity. It wasn’t long before they were preaching publicly against her and writing to Paris denouncing her. But instead of seeing the hostile reaction she provoked within the Church as coming from God, she made an illogical distinction between God’s will and the will of her enemies. Laboring under the delusion that God wanted her to lead a reformation, she spent nearly twenty years in the attempt. She constantly moved back and forth between withdrawal and engagement, remaining defiant even while imprisoned in the Bastille.

The purpose of suffering

The story of Mme Guyon’s struggle with the Church is intimately tied to the theme of suffering. She believed that God visits suffering on us to turn us towards him and to destroy the impurity, or sin, of the self — pride of self, self-love or self-will. Because of this, she not only accepted “crosses” but prayed for them. In A Short and Easy Method of Prayer she writes:

You can only find consolation in the love of the cross and in complete abandonment. He who has no love for the cross has no love for God (see Matt. xvi. 24). It is impossible to love God without loving the cross; and a heart which has learned to love the cross finds sweetness, joy, and pleasure even in the bitterest things. “To the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet” (Prov. xxvii. 7), because it is as hungry for the cross as it is hungry for God.

The cross gives God, and God gives the cross. Abandonment and the cross go together. As soon as you are sensible that something is repugnant to you which presents itself to you in the light of suffering, abandon yourself at once to God for that very thing, and present yourself as a sacrifice to Him: you will see that, when the cross comes, it will have lost much of its weight, because you will desire it.

Guyon also claimed that at times she underwent spiritual suffering on behalf of others in order to hasten their conversion. One might be tempted to dismiss this, except for the fact that Yogananda said that his guru, Sri Yukteswar, did the same.

There is, however, a glaring contradiction that she was never able to explain. If, as she said, she had been purified of the sin of self, why did she continue to suffer — not for others, but in her own body and mind?

While in prison (1698-1702), writing an account of her life for her spiritual director, Guyon stated that in 1680 she was released from all crosses. Yet she also stated that her crosses had increased “until the present time”:

After twelve years and four months of marriage, crosses as great as possible, except poverty, which I never knew though I had much desired it, God drew me out of that state to give me still stronger crosses of such a nature as I had never met with before. For if you give attention, sir, to the life which you have ordered me to write, you will remark that my crosses have been increasing till the present time, one removed to give place to another to succeed it, still heavier than the former. Amid the troubles imposed upon me, when they said I was “in a mortal sin” (the time of her imprisonment) I had nobody in the world to speak to. I could have wished to have had somebody for a witness of my conduct, but I had none. I had no support, no confessor, no director, no friend, no councillor. I had lost all. And after God had taken from me one after another, He withdrew also Himself. I remained without any creature; and to complete my distress, I seemed to be left without God, who alone could support me in such a deeply distressing state. (italics added)

In order to understand why she continued to suffer from physical and mental afflictions and even abandonment by God long after she claimed that she could no longer find her self, it is necessary to examine her actions and the reactions that followed from them.

A thorn in the side of the Church

From the time she arrived in Gex, Guyon’s enemies could always count on the support of her half-brother, Father de La Mothe. It was he who accused her of going to Geneva to be with Father La Combe.

As soon as it was known in France that I was gone there was a general outcry. Father de la Mothe wrote to me that all persons of learning and of piety united in censuring me. To alarm me still more he informed me that my mother-in-law, with whom I had entrusted my younger son and my children’s substance, was fallen into a state of childhood (senile dementia). This, however, was false. I answered all these fearful letters as the Spirit dictated. My answers were thought very just, and those violent exclamations were soon changed into applause. Father La Mothe appeared to change his censures into esteem, but it did not last. Self-interest threw him back again, being disappointed in his hopes of a pension, which he expected I would have settled on him.

After a few months in Gex the sisters began to mistreat her. The bishop kept the letters her friends had sent her, and he and the sisters wrote to her friends and others to destroy her reputation. Finally she was given an ultimatum: engage or retire; but she wasn’t disposed to go back home:

My near relations did not signify any eager desire for my return. The first thing they proposed to me, a month after my arrival at Gex, was not only to give up my guardianship, but to make over all my estate to my children and to reserve an annuity to myself. They sent me an article to execute, and I signed it. Though what I had reserved to myself was sufficient to support me in this place; yet it was scarcely enough to do so in some other places.

Guyon first went to stay with the Ursulines at Thonon, who had been caring for her daughter, but there the bishop continued to incite people against her. An aristocratic friend wrote to invite her to stay at her home in Turin, some 300 km to the south and east, and so she took her daughter there for a time. But Father La Combe had previously taken a position nearby in Vercelli, and the Bishop of Geneva wrote to several people saying that she had run after him. One day La Combe arrived in Turin and told her that she had to return to Paris without delay.

I confess this sudden news startled me. It was for me a double sacrifice to return to a place where they had cried me down so much; also toward a family which held me in contempt, and who had represented my journey, caused by pure necessity, as a voluntary course, pursued through human attachments.

Nevertheless she left with her daughter the next day, and Father La Combe was obliged to accompany them as far as Grenoble, to the west. At his advice she went no farther but stayed there for some time at the home of a friend. In Grenoble Mme Guyon became a celebrity:

I placed my daughter in a convent, and resolved to employ all this time in resigning myself to be possessed in solitude by Him who is the absolute Sovereign of my soul. I made not any visit in this place; no more had I in any of the others where I had sojourned. I was greatly surprised when, a few days after my arrival, there came to see me several persons who made profession of a singular devotion to God. I perceived immediately a gift that He had given me of administering to each that which suited their states. I felt myself invested, all of a sudden, with the apostolic state.

It was thou, O my God, who didst all these things; some of them sent others to me. It came to such excess that generally from six in the morning till eight in the evening I was taken up in speaking of the Lord. People flocked on all sides, far and near, friars, priests, men of the world, maids, wives, widows, all came one after another.

In a letter to her brother Gregory, she wrote: “The Lord has seen fit to bless me in labours for the revival of inward religion, especially in Grenoble, where the work was very wonderful.”

In Grenoble an influential visitor found a prayer tract that she had written lying on a table and asked to borrow it. He and his friends liked it so much that he had it printed. Published in 1685, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer became instantly popular, and a matter of months it had spread throughout Europe. However, its publication came at an inconvenient time, since there was a campaign underway against silent prayer, known at the time as quietism. Nancy James (2011) explains:

In 1685, Louis XIV requested that the Vatican condemn as a heretic a popular Spanish priest named Miguel Molinos, accusing him of something called quietism. . . . The work of teachers such as Father Molinos, as well as Madame Guyon, was gaining more and more followers. At times their teachings were believed to advocate the idea that when one receives a divine word from God in quiet prayer, the person then knows a type of spiritual purification and enlightenment that is unavailable through the normal course of life — including through the sacraments of the Church alone. Understandably, the Church hierarchy feared this popular movement that was attracting so many to a path that did not need the mediation of clergy or bishops. In 1687, the Vatican declared quietism to be heretical.

In the midst of this controversy, Father de La Mothe . . . charged that Father La Combe had a secret relationship with Rome that could undermine the authority of the French Roman Catholic leaders. These charges concerned the powerful Bishop Bossuet, who helped lead the Gallican Movement encouraging French isolation from excessive Vatican influence. Father de La Mothe stated that La Combe brought into France ideas of undue submission to the pope, an idea that the Gallican bishops did not accept. He also said that La Combe and Guyon had an immoral relationship. (pp. 26-28)

Hearing about her growing influence in Grenoble, Guyon’s enemies began to stir up fear:

Libels began to spread. Envious people wrote against me, without knowing me. They said that I was a sorceress, that it was by a magic power I attracted souls, that everything in me was diabolical; that if I did charities, it was because I coined, and put off false money, with many other gross accusations, equally false, groundless and absurd. As the tempest increased every day, some of my friends advised me to withdraw.

She decided to go back to Turin, so leaving her daughter in the convent she set off. Because she took a boat to Genoa, she arrived first in Vercelli. Father La Combe was embarrassed by her presence, but his bishop had a great regard for her and begged her to stay. However, Father La Mothe contrived to have La Combe ordered to Paris, and Guyon decided to go back with him. She wrote,

As soon as it was determined that I should come into France the Lord made known to me that it was to have greater crosses than I ever had. Father La Combe had the like sense. He encouraged me to resign myself to the divine will, and to become a victim offered freely to new sacrifices. He also wrote to me, “Will it not be a thing very glorious to God, if He should make us serve in that great city for a spectacle to angels and to men?” I set off then with a spirit of sacrifice to offer myself up to new kinds of punishments, if pleasing to my dear Lord.

Guyon arrived in Paris on July 21, 1686, five years after she had left. She rented a house where she lived with her daughter and her two sons. Because news of her gifts and her writings had spread, she was warmly received by several women of high rank, and it wasn’t long before she had built a following among some of the most important families in France. She formed a little association of noblewomen which held meetings. Paris was divided between admirers and enemies.

Father La Combe was the first to fall victim to their enemies. La Mothe led a group to the Archbishop to accuse him of heresy, and the latter signed the accusations and presented them to the king. He issued a letter of imprisonment, and on Oct. 3, 1687, La Combe was taken to the Bastille. Upham writes: “It was not enough to put an end to his labours as a preacher. His work, entitled An Analysis of Mental Prayer, written originally in Latin, and translated into French, was submitted to the Inquisition at Rome and condemned by a formal decree, September 4, 1688.” Father La Combe spent the remaining 27 years of his life in prison, but he never regretted having had Guyon as his teacher. His life in prison was not unlike life in a monastery, as he told her in a letter:

“It is true, there has been some mitigation of my state. I am now permitted to go beyond the walls of my prison into the neighbouring gardens and fields, but it is only on the condition of my labouring there without cessation from morning till evening. What then can I do? How can I meditate? How can I think? — except it be upon the manner of subduing the earth, and of cultivating plants.” (Upham, p. 272)

While La Mothe was pursuing the same course against his sister, he warned her to leave Paris, telling her that she was accused of high crimes. Her response is interesting as it betrays a sense of self-importance, of concern for her reputation:

I cannot flee, I cannot go out of the way. There are abundant reasons why I should remain where I am. I have made an open profession of dedicating myself to the Lord, to be His entirely. If I have done things offensive to God, I ought by my punishment to be made an example to the world; but I am innocent, and shall not prejudice my claims to innocence by taking flight.” (Upham, p. 275)

The following is her account of the events of 1687 that led to her first arrest:

They continually spread stories of horrible crimes. They then made the king believe that I was an heretic, that I carried on a literary correspondence with Molinos, that I had written a dangerous book; and that on those accounts it would be necessary to issue an order to put me in a convent that they might examine me. I was a dangerous person, it would be proper for me to be locked up, to be allowed no commerce with any one since I continually held assemblies, which was very false. To support this calumny my handwriting was counterfeited, and a letter was forged as from me importing that I had great designs but feared that they would prove abortive because of Father La Combe’s imprisonment, for which reason I had left off holding assemblies at my house, being too closely watched, but that I would hold them at the houses of other persons. This forged letter they showed to the king, and upon it an order was given for my imprisonment.

This order would have been executed two months sooner than it was had I not fallen very sick. I had inconceivable pains and a fever. Some thought that I had a mass in my head. The pain I suffered for five weeks made me delirious. I had also a pain in my breast and a violent cough. Twice I received the holy sacrament, as I was thought to be expiring.

As he had done with La Combe, La Mothe took his accusations to the archbishop, who presented them to the king. But there was an additional detail: the archbishop had a nephew who wanted to marry Guyon’s daughter, then twelve, as the girl had inherited considerable properties from her father. The king had approved of the union.

In January, 1688, at thirty-nine, Mme Guyon was imprisoned in a convent. Her daughter was taken away from her and held in secret. Guyon was told that she would be released if she gave up guardianship of her daughter and allowed her to marry, but though they threatened her with life imprisonment or the scaffold, she refused.

Guyon’s letters from her first imprisonment point to the self-will that caused her to suffer in spite of her high spiritual attainment. While at the convent, she corresponded with her friends, who did what they could for her release. Although she taught that one should not merely endure but welcome whatever God wills, she rebelled against her imprisonment, as the following excerpt shows:

While I am kept here by the power of my enemies, I cannot help but think of those who need spiritual instruction. What a mysterious providence it is, which keeps me out of my place of labour, out of my element! It looks to me as if there were great numbers of children asking for bread, and there is scarcely anyone to break it to them.”  (Upham, p. 295)

In another letter, written after she had gotten medical treatment at the convent, she betrays her confusion about the source of her suffering — was it her enemies or was it God? I have found no statement to indicate that she ever realized that she brought everything upon herself.

She was favoured, however, after a time, through the sympathy of those who had the immediate charge of the Convent, with the assistance of a maid-servant, and a physician and surgeon. It was done, it is true, in violation of the orders of her imprisonment. But Madame Guyon remarks, ” It was God who put it into their hearts, and gave them the determination to do it; for had I remained as I was, without any proper attendance, I must have died. My enemies were numerous and clamorous. It was not merely death which was before me, but disgrace. My friends were afraid lest I should die; for by my death my memory would have been covered with reproach, and my enemies would have triumphed; but God would not suffer them to have that joy. After bringing me down, He was
pleased to raise me up again.” Upham, p. 292

The self-importance on display in these letters explains why she was afflicted, why she experienced extreme destitution and depression, as well as poor health. She clung to her reputation, and she exalted herself above others, whom she referred to as her spiritual children. There is the vanity of martyrdom: “Was not our beloved Saviour looked upon and denounced in the same manner? Is it a hard matter to walk in His footsteps, and to suffer as He suffered?” (Upham, p. 297) Finally there is the blindness with regard to God’s will: if her enemies did as God allowed them to do, as she acknowledged, then clearly it was God’s will that she give up her crusade to reform the Church.

Through the intervention of the king’s wife, Mme de Maintenon, she was released after eight months, in October of 1688. She was once more received into the distinguished families with which she had been associated prior to her imprisonment, and she immediately resumed her labors:

The watchfulness of her opponents rendered it somewhat difficult for her to continue her religious conferences for prayer and conversation; but, too devoted and persevering to be foiled by ordinary obstacles, she neither ceased to make efforts, nor did her efforts
cease to be availing. (Upham, p. 300)

Soon after she was released, Guyon was introduced to Francois Fenelon, who had just returned to Paris from a mission in Poiton, where the king had sent him to oversee the peaceful conversion of Protestants. Fenelon had heard a great deal of Guyon in the provinces and had been eager to meet her. There was immediate sympathy between the two and Fenelon became her student. As early as November, 1688, a month after her release, Guyon submitted some of her writings to him for his criticism. (Upham, p. 312)

Guyon also met Mme de Maintenon at St. Cyr, a charitable house that she had founded to educate the daughters of indigent noblemen. After that Guyon was often invited to St. Cyr, and at some point Maintenon asked her to give instruction to the young ladies. Guyon obliged for three years, and in 1692 the two had a close acquaintance.

But it was not to last. Bishop Bossuet was angered that Fenelon, his former student and now the tutor of the heir-apparent, had come under her influence. He was also displeased with the high regard that Mme Maintenon had for her, and he wrote her to tell her that Guyon was a bad influence, putting an end to her visits to St. Cyr. Maintenon eventually spoke out against her.

Though he was an admirer of Bossuet, Thomas Upham’s account shows that Bossuet had been aware of the campaign of defamation against Guyon and approved of it. But her influence, instead of decreasing, continued to grow, so he decided in September 1693 that the time had come to take her measure.

It seemed to him impossible that Madame Guyon, whatever might be her talents and personal influence, could produce an impression, either in Paris or elsewhere, which could be dangerous to the Church. And if it were so, was it not enough that D’Aranthon (Bishop of Geneva) and Father Innocentius, men of distinguished ability and of great influence, had already, in the early and distant places of her influence, set in motion measures of opposition; measures sustained at Paris by the efforts of La Mothe and De Harlai, of Nicole and Boileau, aided by a multitude of subordinate agencies?

He accordingly visited her, for the first time, at her residence in Paris, with the Duke of Chevreuse, in September 1693. During the conversation Bossuet remarked that he had read, with a degree of satisfaction, her Treatise on Prayer, and Commentary on the Canticles. The Duke (Guyon’s friend) directed his attention to the work entitled The Torrents. He immediately cast his eye rapidly over some passages. A few moments after, he remarked, without condemning anything, that some things required explanation.

A second meeting took place, January 30, 1694. In the interval, the Duke of Chevreuse . . . gave Bossuet the manuscript of her Autobiography. He read it carefully, and politely wrote a letter to the duke, expressive of the interest he felt in it. All her printed works also were submitted to him, so that Bossuet felt prepared to state some of the objections which he felt to her views.

Bossuet arranged another private meeting, where they had a long interview, a fascinating reconstruction of which Upham provides in his biography (pp. 344-363). Guyon wrote that the archbishop spoke “almost with violence and very fast, and hardly gave me time to explain some things which I wished to explain.” The experience left her sick with a fever for some time afterwards.

In 1694 Guyon proposed a commission be formed to judge her writings and offered to submit herself to confinement:

Madame Guyon was almost universally considered as the teacher of a new doctrine. Her character was assailed, as well as her doctrine. She wrote, therefore, to Madame de Maintenon, requesting that a number of suitable persons might be selected for the purpose of judging both of her doctrine and morals; and offering to submit to any confinement and restraint until it should please the king to appoint such persons. (Upham, p. 365)

Three eminent clergy were chosen to review her works. Because of the many public attacks, Guyon had already published “A Concise Apology of A Short Method of Prayer.” For the commission she wrote a lengthy manuscript in her defense, titled “Justifications,” as well as many letters.

The first meeting of the commissioners was in August 1694, at the house of Bossuet in Meaux. Guyon’s friend, the Duke of Chevreuse, had accompanied her for moral support, but Bossuet asked him to retire. After the interview she went to see one of the commissioners, the Bishop of Chalons, who although kind, suggested that given the state of affairs she would be well advised to “live in a manner as retired as possible.”

In January of 1695 Guyon went to stay at a convent in Meaux. She was sick for six weeks, until the end of February, and was not yet recovered when Bossuet came and asked her to add her signature to a pastoral letter condemning certain religious errors. She added some remarks to the letter, after which he said that he had expected her to acknowledge herself guilty of all of the errors and confess herself a heretic. She refused, and he threatened to excommunicate her. He then proposed that she declare that there were errors in the work of Father La Combe. She again refused and he went away angry. (Upham p. 375) Guyon left the convent on July 8, 1695. She told Bossuet that she needed to go to Bourbon, but proposed that she would return to spend the rest of her life at the convent; he was pleased by this. However, the ladies who came to pick her up took her to Paris.

When it was known that she was again in Paris there was an uproar: her enemies denounced her and the king and Mme Maintenon were angry. Another complication was that the Archbishop of Paris had died on August 6, and Bossuet coveted the position. He saw Fenelon as his rival, and he set about to destroy him through his support for Guyon (James, 2011). The king issued a letter for her arrest, and in late December of 1695 she was taken prisoner.

Guyon was imprisoned in Vincennes for ten months on political charges. When, after long interrogations, she was found innocent, the Church pressed religious charges and she was transferred to a nunnery. In 1698 she was imprisoned in the Bastille and remained there for four years. This was where she wrote a large part of her autobiography at the behest of her spiritual director.

In 1702, she was released, at the age of fifty-four. The king banished her to of Blois on the Loire, where she lived for the rest of her life. Even though she had been imprisoned for A Short and Easy Method of Prayer, the tract had remained popular throughout her imprisonment, even within the Church:

It is remarkable that they say nothing to those who prefixed their approbations, and that, far from condemning the book, it has been reprinted since I have been in prison, and advertisements of it have been posted up at the Archbishop’s palace, and all over Paris.

External activities and their consequences

That Mme Guyon was persecuted is indisputable, but she was persecuted in direct proportion to how the Church hierarchy felt threatened by her influence. Thomas Upham gives the following example of this influence:

In the early part of 1689, a few months before the events of which we are now speaking, some priests and theologians made a visit to Dijon. And, apparently to their great surprise, they found a considerable religious movement in progress, of which Madame Guyon was the reputed author, and which was evidently sustained by the free circulation of her writings. In her return from Grenoble to Paris in 1686, she passed through Dijon on the way, and spent a day or two there. She left a deep impression on a few persons, especially Monsieur Claude Guillot, a priest of high character in the city. The seed thus sown in conversations, enforced by a single sermon from La Combe, sprang up and bore fruit; so that in 1689 the new religious principles excited much attention. The persons who visited Dijon at this time, coming with some degree of ecclesiastical authority, interposed to stop this state of things. Among other things they collected three hundred copies of the work of Madame Guyon on Prayer, and caused them to be publicly burned. (p. 329)

Her enemies simply wanted her to go away, and gave her every opportunity to do so, but for some reason she felt compelled to defy them. When she returned to Paris in 1686, her purpose was none other than to lead a religious movement that threatened the political order. She saw herself as emulating Jesus, who returned to Jerusalem to lead a religious movement that threatened Roman rule. In prison she wrote this surprisingly defiant statement:

God accomplishes His work either in converted sinners, whose past iniquities serve as a counterpoise to their elevation, or in persons whose self-righteousness He destroys by
totally overthrowing the proud building they had reared on a sandy foundation, instead of the Rock — CHRIST. The establishment of all these ends, which He proposed in coming into the world, is effected by the apparent overthrow of that very structure which in reality He would erect. By means which seem to destroy His Church, He establishes it. How strangely does He found the new dispensation and give it His sanction! The legislator Himself is condemned by the learned and great as a malefactor, and dies an ignominious death.

But in Jerusalem God went out of Jesus — “Why hast thou forsaken me?” — and in Paris God went out of Mme Guyon. She was often ill and in a state of moral distress. She wrote in prison:

I have borne long and sore languishings, and oppressive and painful maladies without relief. I have been also inwardly under great desolations for several months, in such sort that I could only say these words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!” All creatures seemed to be against me. I then put myself on the side of God, against myself.

The source of suffering

As was already mentioned, Guyon believed that suffering has two purposes: to turn the soul towards God, and to purify the soul of impurities that adhere to it as a consequence of sin. She welcomed suffering until the moment she was sanctified; however after this point I think it is fair to say that instead of welcoming it she simply endured it, no doubt uneasily, because it was an unmistakable sign that she was doing something wrong. In Paris, at a loss to explain why she continued to suffer, she attributed it to her enemies, contrary to her teaching that suffering is only inflicted by God. 

A. W. Marston, who translated A Short Method of Prayer, was perplexed by the contradiction, and he tried to explain it in a preface:

The “Torrents” especially needs to be regarded rather as an account of the personal experience of the author, than as the plan which God invariably, or even usually, adopts in bringing the soul into a state of union with Himself. It is true that, in order that we may “live unto righteousness,” we must be “dead indeed unto sin;” and that there must be a crucifixion of self before the life of Christ can be made manifest in us. It is only when we can say, “I am crucified with Christ,” that we are able to add, “Nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” But it does not follow that this inward death must always be as lingering as in the case of Madame Guyon. She tells us herself that the reason was, that she was not wholly resigned to the Divine will, and willing to be deprived of the gifts of God, that she might enjoy the possession of the Giver. This resistance to the will of God implies suffering on the part of the creature, and chastisement on the part of God, in order that He may subdue to Himself what is not voluntarily yielded to Him.

Marston is correct to relate suffering to self-will, but he doesn’t venture to say what the Divine will was that she refused to resign herself to.

Mme Guyon’s error was twofold. First there was her belief that there was something distinct from her called God, which willed her to reform the Church; second was her belief in the distinction between herself and others. In prison she wrote that she was dismayed by the loss of all human support: “I had nobody in the world to speak to. I could have wished to have had somebody for a witness of my conduct, but I had none. I had no support, no confessor, no director, no friend, no councillor. I had lost all.” Even at this late date she still believed in the duality of herself and God, the duality of herself and others, and she still craved external approval.

If there were times when Mme Guyon had no self-will, and there is no reason to doubt this, her self was never completely annihilated — only suppressed. This is the same conclusion at which D. T. Suzuki arrived in Passivity in the Buddhist Life.

The following paragraph, written about her release from prison in 1702, suggests that imprisonment had produced in her an awakening involving the body and mind:

The abbess and my children’s guardian came to get me and manifested great joy, as did all my friends. The others, however, were extremely annoyed at it. I left without feeling I was going out, and without being able to reflect on my deliverance. Yesterday morning I was thinking, But who are you? What are you doing? What are you thinking? Are you alive, that you take no interest in what touches you as if it did not touch you? I am greatly astonished at it, and I have to apply myself to know if I have a being, a life, a subsistence. I do not find it. On the outside I am like another; but it seems to me I am like a machine that speaks and walks by springs and that has no life or subsistence in what it does. This is not at all apparent on the outside. I act, I speak like another, in a manner more free and expansive, which embarrasses no one and pleases others, without knowing either what I do or what I say, or why I do it or say it, or what causes me to say it. (James, 2011, p. 238)

But in spite of her inner wisdom, her health got worse, not better, and she couldn’t explain why:

My life is consecrated to God, to suffer for Him, as well as to enjoy Him. I came out of my place of confinement in the Bastile; but, in leaving my prison, I did not leave the cross. My afflicted spirit began to breathe and recover itself a little after the termination of my stay there; but my body was from that time sick and borne down with all sorts of infirmities. I have had almost continual maladies, which have often brought me to the very verge of death.” (Upham, p. 489)

However, these maladies never affected her inner state, which was immovable.

Christianity and enlightenment

Reading the writings of Mme Guyon and Meister Eckhart, Buddhists will find a new way of understanding religious terms. For the European Christian, oneness is simplicity; enlightenment is sanctification; grasping is appropriation; sentient beings are creatures; evil karma is sinful thoughts or actions; the fruit of karma is divine justice or retribution; abandonment and renunciation are forsaking; meditation is quietism or silent prayer; psychic abilities are mysteries or gifts; etc.

Perhaps because she was a laywoman who had received little in the way of formal education, Madame Guyon explains herself with an openness and artlessness that is wanting in the teachings of Buddhist masters, with the exception of Hakuin. I also find that her descriptions of what different stages of enlightenment feel like perfectly describe my own experiences.

Like Meister Eckhart, another saint denied sainthood because of accusations of heresy, Mme Guyon struggled in her writing to bring the enlightenment experience into accord with Church doctrine. The first difficulty lay in advocating silent prayer: she was imprisoned for advocating quietism, a controversial doctrine at the time. She also had to find a term to describe the post-awakening experience, that peculiar state of being drawn in by something, which the Chinese sometimes called the virtue of the Tao. She called this simply prayer.

Meister Eckhart often went well beyond the teachings of the Church and even contrary to them, yet he peppered his sermons with random Biblical quotes and ended each one with a perfunctory prayer for God’s help, even if he had said in that same sermon, “Never pray to God for anything.” Madame Guyon also used short Biblical quotes to give her writing the appearance of orthodoxy and made frequent appeals to God — tedious, yet they contain important lessons.

Furthermore, like Eckhart, Mme Guyon wasn’t sure where to place Jesus Christ. They knew that he wasn’t unique as God made flesh, that they were God as much as Jesus. They also knew that his death on the cross wasn’t indispensable for salvation — Guyon always said she owed her salvation to God’s grace, not the self-sacrifice of Jesus. When she had her awakening at nineteen, for example, she felt a strong aversion to receiving indulgences, saying that if God willed that she suffer for her sins she preferred to suffer. At times Jesus was God incarnate, and at other times he was a divine power, what Eckhart described as “God’s continual begetting of his only begotten son” within:

I was astonished at myself. I found there was nothing which I was not fit for or in which I did not succeed. Those who observed said that I had a prodigious capacity. I well knew that I had but meager capabilities, but that in God my spirit had received a quality which it had never had before. I thought I experienced something of the state which the apostles were in after they had received the Holy Ghost. I knew, I comprehended, I understood, I was enabled to do everything necessary. I had every sort of good thing and no want of anything. When Jesus Christ, the eternal wisdom, is formed in the soul after the death of the first Adam, it finds in Him all good things communicated to it.


The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Autobiography of Madame Guyon, by Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte Guyon:

James, Nancy C. The Complete Madame Guyon. Brewster, MA, Paraclete Press, 2011.

Upham, Thomas C. Life of Madame de La Mothe Guyon. London: Sampson Low, Son, and Co., 1858.

The life and poetry of Layman P’ang

Old P’ang requires nothing in the world;
All is empty with him, even a seat he has not,
For absolute Emptiness reigns in his house.
How empty indeed it is with no treasures!
When the sun is risen he walks through Emptiness;
When the sun sets, he sleeps in Emptiness.
Sitting in Emptiness he sings his empty songs,
And his empty songs reverberate through Emptiness.
Be not surprised at Emptiness so thoroughly empty,
For Emptiness is the abode of all the Buddhas.
Emptiness is not understood by men of the world,
But Emptiness is the real treasure.
If you say there is no Emptiness,
You commit a grave offense against the Buddhas.


(Suzuki, Passivity in the Buddhist Life)

Layman P’ang Yun (d. 808)

Layman P’ang was the wealthy son of a prefect and a family man. A Confucian by birth, he practiced Zen Buddhism. One day he loaded all of his money and possessions onto a boat and sunk them in a river. He received his first awakening under Shih-t’ou, and his greatest awakening under Ma-tsu, who formed eighty masters during his life. However, P’ang continued to wear the white robe of a layman.

P’ang’s wife, son and daughter all became Buddhists. He was accompanied in his travels by his daughter, Ling Zhao, who served him and who sold the bamboo utensils they made in order to support them. The day P’ang planned to pass on, he asked Ling Zhao to tell him when it was noon. There was a solar eclipse that day and she called him from his bed to see it. She then sat on his bed and herself passed from this world, obliging her father to die a week later than planned.

P’ang was a great poet: he is the source of one of the most famous sayings in the literature of Chan Buddhism: “Supernatural power and marvelous activity — Drawing water and carrying firewood.” He is also the source of “Fine snow falling flake by flake, each flake landing in its own proper place.”

The Recorded Sayings of Layman P’ang, by Ruth Fuller Sasaki

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

During the Chen-yuan era of T’ang, the Ch’an and Vinaya sects were in high favor, and the Patriarchal doctrine likewise flourished, diffusing its brilliance abroad, spreading rampant as a hop vine, and effecting its entrance everywhere. Then it was that the Layman initially visited Shih-t’ou, and in an instant his former state melted away. Later he saw Ma-tsu and again sealed his Original Mind. His every act manifested his penetration of the Mystery, and there was nothing about him that did not accord with the Way. He had the boundless eloquence of Manjusri,  in conformity with the Mahayana treatises on reality.

He whose name is “Nameless” has written this preface

 * * *

AT THE BEGINNING of the Chen-yuan era [785-804] of T’ang, the Layman visited Ch’an Master Shih-t’ou.* He asked the Master: “Who is the man who doesn’t accompany the ten thousand dharmas?”
Shih-t’ou covered the Layman’s mouth with his hand. In a flash he realized!

ONE DAY SHIH-T’OU said to the Layman: “Since seeing me, what have your daily activities been?”
“When you ask me about my daily activities, I can’t open my mouth,” the Layman replied.
“Just because I know you are thus I now ask you,” said Shih-t’ou.
Whereupon the Layman offered this verse:

My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, pushing nothing away,
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
Who assigns the (official) ranks of vermilion and purple?
The hills’ and mountains’ last speck of dust is extinguished.
Supernatural power and marvelous activity —
Drawing water and carrying firewood.

Shih-t’ou gave his assent. Then he asked: “Will you put on black robes or will you continue wearing white?”
“I want to do as I please,” replied the Layman. So he did not shave his head or dye his clothing.

*Shih-t’ou Hsi-ch’ien (700-790), was a Ch’an master of great renown.

Wherever the Layman dwelt there was much coming and going of venerable priests, and many exchanges of questions. According to the capacity of each the Layman responded as an echo to a sound.

* * *

DURING THE YUAN-HO ERA [806-820] the Layman traveled northward to Hsiang-han, stopping here and there. His daughter Ling-chao sold bamboo baskets for their morning and evening meals. The Layman had these [three] verses, which go:

When the mind is as is, circumstances also are as is
There’s no real and also no unreal
Giving no heed to existence
And holding not to non-existence
You’re neither saint nor sage, just
An ordinary man who has settled his affairs

Easy, so easy!
These very five skandhas* make true wisdom
The ten directions of the universe are the same One Vehicle
How can the formless Dharmakaya be two!
If you cast off the defilements to enter Bodhi
Where will any Buddha-lands be?**

To preserve your life you must destroy it
Having completely destroyed it you dwell at ease
When you attain the inmost meaning of this
An iron boat floats upon water

* Five skandhas or aggregates of a sentient being: 1. rupa: form, matter; 2. vedana: sensations 3. samjna: conceptions about things; 4 samskara: volition, predispositions; 5. vijnana: discriminating consciousness.
** A Buddha-land is comprised of the disciples of a particular Tathagata, or Buddha.


People have a one-scroll sutra
Without form and without name
No man is able to unroll and read it
And none of us can hear it
When you are able to unroll and read it
You enter the Principle and accord with the birthless
You don’t even need to become a buddha
Not to mention becoming a bodhisattva


Some people despise old P’ang
But old P’ang does not despise them
Opening my gate, I await good friends
But good friends do not stop by

As my mind is endowed with the threefold learning*
Consciousness-dusts do not mix with it
This one pill cures the ten thousand ills
I’ve no need for the myriad prescriptions.

* Threefold learning: observing precepts (morality), meditation, and wisdom.


Traveling the path is easy
Traveling the path is easy
Within, without, and in-between I depend upon innate Wisdom
Innate Wisdom being non-sentient, the dharmas are not born
Not form, not mind, a single radiance streams forth
In the mind-ground appears the Udumbara tree of Emptiness

*Udumbara tree: a legendary tree said to flower once every three thousand years.


It is called Wisdom,
And Wisdom is the honored
Mind and Wisdom interfusing, you penetrate the Origin
And the ten thousand things likewise return into the Gate of Non-duality
Existence is not existence — the Principle is always present;

Nothingness is not nothingness
Nothingness is the root of existence
All Buddhas of the future also will be thus
Those of today are the same as the ancient World-honored Ones
Throughout the three realms* there is no other Way
What buddha imparted to buddha is being transmitted today

*. Desire, form, and formless


Without no other, within no self
Not wielding spear and shield, I accord with Buddha-wisdom
Well-versed in the Buddha-way, I go the non-Way
Without abandoning my ordinary man’s affairs
The conditioned and name-and-form all are flowers in the air
Nameless and formless, I leave birth-and-death


A resolute man
In the past
But not today
I destroyed my treasures utterly
And ransomed back my bunch of slaves

Six in number, male and female
Each one having six mouths
The double six — the thirty-six —
Always follow me fore and after
I do not restrain them
They do not venture to run away

Were there never any other reward of what little services we do, or of the marks of homage we render Thee than this fixed state above the vicissitudes in the world, is it not enough? The senses indeed are sometimes ready to start aside, and to run off like truants, but every trouble flies before the soul which is entirely subjected to God. – Madame Guyon (Autobiography)

The Awakening of Prefect Yü Ti (from the INTRODUCTION by Dana Fraser)

Yu Ti learned about Layman P’ang from reading his poetry. He sought him out and became close friends with him. It was Yu Ti who compiled The Recorded Sayings of Layman P’ang.

There was a time when Prefect Yü Ti of Hsiang-yang issued orders that all mendicant monks in his territory should be apprehended and sent to the capital. There was not a single monk who escaped with his life — all were killed. There were numerous instances of this.

Having heard the news, Master Tsu-yü wanted to visit the Prefect, so he searched among his assembly for companions. About ten men volunteered to accompany the master. He started out at the head of ten followers. Upon reaching the border the ten others feared to go on. The master alone crossed the border. The soldiers found the master coming, put cangues on him, and escorted him under guard to the capital city of Hsiang-yang. When he arrived in front of the government building, still with cangues on, he donned his monk’s robe and entered the courtroom.

The prefect, seated grandly on a chair, put a hand on the hilt of his sword and asked: “Bah! you teacher. Don’t you know that the Prefect of Hsiang-yang has the freedom to put you to the sword?” The master said: “Do you know a King of Dharma doesn’t fear birth and death?” The Prefect said: “Ho-shang*, have you ears in your head?” The master responded: My eyebrows and eyes are unhindered. When I, a poor monk, meet with the Prefect in an interview, what kind of hindrance could there be!” (*title of respect for a monk who is a teacher)

At this the prefect threw away his sword, donned his official uniform, bowed low, and asked: “I have heard there is a statement in the teaching that says that the black wind blows the ships, and wafts them to the land of the Rakshasas.* What does this mean?” “Yü Ti!” the master called. The prefect’s face changed color. The master remarked: “The land of the Rakshasas is not far!” The prefect again asked: “What about Buddha?” “Yü Ti!” the master called again. The prefect answered: “Yes?” The master said: “Don’t seek anywhere else.” At these words the prefect attained great enlightenment, bowed low, and became his disciple. (*Man-eaters: See Suzuki, Manual of Zen Buddhism)

P’ang’s Confucian roots

From the INTRODUCTION by Dana Fraser:

What was P’ang Yün’s relationship to the Confucian traditions of his ancestors? Although he must have been taught the precepts of Confucius as a child, these seem to have had little influence upon him in adult life. The compiler of The Recorded Sayings of Layman P’ang or its later editors hardly mention him at all in connection with Confucianism. There is an account, known only in a Korean edition dated 1245 and not mentioned by any Chinese editors, that gives more information in this regard. This is the Chodang chip, the earliest known history of Chinese Ch’an, compiled in 952 by Ch’an Master Ch’ing-hsiu and two assistants. It was lost in China and, until recently, known only in Korea. Here is the Chodang chip ‘s account of Layman P’ang:

“Layman P’ang succeeded [was a Dharma-heir of] Great Teacher Ma-tsu. The Layman himself was born in Heng-yang.
“He had occasion to ask Great Teacher Ma: ‘Who is the man who doesn’t accompany the ten thousand dharmas?’ Teacher Ma replied: ‘Layman, wait till you’ve swallowed in one swig all the water of the West River, then I’ll tell you.’ At that the Layman attained great enlightenment. He went directly to the administrative office, borrowed a writing brush and ink-stone, and composed a verse which says:

[People of] the ten directions are the same one assembly
Each and every one learns wu-wei
This is the very place to select Buddha
Empty-minded, having passed the exam, I return

“And then he stayed [at Ma-tsu’s temple]. He received further instruction for one or two years. In the end, without his changing his Confucian appearance, his mind sported outside of objects; his feelings were unrestrained, but his conduct fitted with the true purport; his way of life was turbid, but he was preeminent among men. Indeed he was a Mystery-learned Confucian, a householding bodhisattva.

“He first lived at East Cliff in Hsiang-yang, and later lived in a small hut west of the city wall. He had an only daughter, who served him and fashioned bamboo utensils. He had her sell them in the city, by which to provide for their daily needs. He daily enjoyed the Way.

“His verses number nearly three hundred, and circulate widely in the world. All by their words fit the Ultimate Principle, and by their phrases reveal the mysterious course of things; to accomplished Confucians they are jewels and gold, to Buddhists they are cherished treasure.”

Sasaki, Ruth Fuller. The Recorded Sayings of Layman P’ang; a ninth-century Zen classic 
[compiled by Yü Ti]. Translated from the Chinese by Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Yoshitaka Iriya & Dana R. Fraser. 
New York, Weatherhill, 1971. (