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Joy is Born - Eckhart and Nagarjuna Buddha by Maurice Walsh

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We can, I think, usefully draw a parallel between Eckhart and Nagarjuna, arguably the greatest Buddhist philosopher. Eckhart said, 'To get at the kernel, you must break the shell', but if he too recklessly broke his orthodox shell, he was soon in trouble, whereas Nagarjuna, in the vasdy freer atmosphere of ancient India, could say what he liked without fear of suppression. There were many legends about Eckhart until modern scholarship turned up a few facts, and there were and are a good many legends still current about Nagarjuna, some of which were even propagated — inadvertently of course — by modern scholars. One otherwise excellent book about him was by a Vedantist who tried to make out that his views were those of the Vedanta. Others have held that he introduced a total revolution in Buddhist thought, breaking away from the earlier tradition. In fact, as has recendy been shown, he restored the true teaching which had got garbled by the Sarvastivadins, whose so-called Hinayana beliefs have been wrongly ascribed to the Theravadins. I don't propose to go into all that here. What I am trying to suggest is that perhaps Eckhart was attempting, as far as he was able and as far as he was allowed, to restore something of the true doctrine of [[Wikipedia:Christianity|Christianity]] which had got more than somewhat overlaid by his time. Eckhart and Nagarjuna were both deeply learned in the traditional systems of their respective orthodoxies. Both had, I believe, penetrated through the jargon surrounding the kernel of their faith and were concerned to bring it to light. In this, as I have said, Nagarjuna was free to speak and write as he liked, which he did with incomparable dialectical skill, whereas Eckhart had to proceed vastly more cautiously.

Eckhart knew very well that some of his sayings would shock, even while he firmly maintained their orthodoxy. In the preface to a Latin work he wrote that many things he said might appear at first sight 'monstrous, dubious or wrong', and in his Cologne defence he said ironically that he was only surprised that his accusers had not adduced hundreds of other passages against him. Here is a passage from a sermon which contains two things his listeners had to reckon with. Neither was quoted against him, at least in the surviving records, but both may have occasioned some head-shaking, or scratching. He says there are two kinds of birth: birth in the world and birth out of the world, which is spiritual birth in God. He goes on: 'Christ says: "Whoever would follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me", that is to say: "Cast out all grief so that perpetual joy remains in your heart".' Probably few people would have interpreted this particular text (Matt. 16:24) in just this way, though in context it is not illogical. But while his hearers are puzzling out this riddle, he delivers the shock: 'Thus the child is born in me. And then, if the child is born in me, the sight of my father and all my friends slain before my eyes would leave my heart untouched. For if my heart were moved thereby, the child would not have been born in me, though its birth might be near.' Father and friends stand here for objects of attachment, to whose loss we should be indifferent. We have a parallel in Dhammapada 294: Having slain mother, father, two warrior kings and having destroyed a country together with its revenue officer, ungrieving goes the Brahmin.

In the next sentence Eckhart explains his meaning: 'I declare that God and the angels take such keen delight in every act of a good man that there is no joy like it. And so I say, if this child is born in you, then you have such great joy at every good deed that is done in the world, that your joy becomes steadfast and immutable.... For we see that in God there is neither anger nor sadness, but only love and joy.' We can compare, I think, in Buddhism the 'opening of the Dhammaeye' whereby the reality of Nibbana is seen for the first time. Those in whom, in Eckhart's terminology, the Word is born, M those in whom the Dhamma-eye has opened, perceive reality and are transformed by it. Whether the impersonal reality of Nibbana and the supra-personal Godhead of Eckhart's teaching arc the same or not is not a question I would venture to discuss,

The nearest Eckhart ever came, or could have been expected to come, to criticising the Church was when he said: 'If God could turn away from the truth, I would cling to truth and abandon God', with the implication that if the Pope or the Church could abandon truth.... And one thing that strikes us strongly is the assurance with which he speaks as one possessed of divine wisdom. This in itself is, of course, no proof of his wisdom or enlightenment - all too many people down to the present day have spoken with the authority of those who know, and all too often the outcome has been deplorable. But somehow, when Eckhart speaks, it is different. Some may think him mad, as the English Franciscan William of Ockham did. To others, however, his message rings clear and true. He is like a great beacon to lead those who wish to follow on the path to truth, albeit on a particular course not entirely of his making. It might be fair to suggest that he it was who plotted a path out of the labyrinth of medieval scholasticism. Buddhists have on the whole had it easier, and though at times they have doubtless been led astray by some of their teachers, they have at least not had to face the horrors of inquisition and persecution for having gone astray, whether in reality or in the imagination of their spiritual superiors.