You should know that God must act and pour Himself into the moment He finds you ready. (German sermon 4, trans M.OC. Walshe)

A Buddhist muses briefly on Meister Eckhart’s use of ‘Unborn’.

Musings on Buddhism’s Unborn

By George Wilson

1.    Unborn and Allah.
2.    On Meister’s use of Unborn.

2.   On Meister’s use of Unborn.

When asked about the way forward in life, Meister Eckhart said that a person who has a ‘breakthrough’ should return to work in the stable. This is very significant and important advice. It suggests the immediacy of what is often referred to as the divine in everyday life.

Immediacy is a way of saying that the divine cannot be attained, it is always available; it is not something ‘other’ that must be earned through religious or virtuous endeavour; nothing is required, nothing can be added to life, which is perfect just as it is. Our true nature is the ‘divine’.

This is not at all clear to us because it is a ‘hid divinity’1; hidden by our collective and individual consciousness, which by its very nature must objectify the world and look out on it from the position of an observer. In other words, out of the many interlocking ‘worlds’ that are before us - the interbeing of the tangle of substantial and insubstantial realms we are part of – we create a reality that is reinforced by usage and habit, and is projected on to the universe as ‘real’. Conditioned to see only one level of reality at a time, we select our familiar one, and the rest recedes. Every entity creates its ‘world’ in the same way.2

Yet this is just the way it is. In all that complex interplay, no realm of reality impedes another, everything being an expression of divinity at that ‘level’. The only ‘reality’ is divinity, which is uninterrupted Wholeness, nevertheless characterised by diversity.  Ordinary relative life then, is revelation; an expression and unfolding of divinity presenting at every moment. This is not obvious to us because of the operation of that impressive human quality intellect, and the power of thought. It is thought that has created the world we experience, has given it birth. We might also refer to divinity then, as uncreated, as Unborn.

The Unborn is open to us before thought. In the midst of some activity, or conversation, or whatever, an unexpected sound might arise such as a dog barking, or bird-song. The moment of awareness of these sounds is the Unborn, which becomes the created world when we identify them using thoughts and words. At such a ‘point’ the bird and our consciousness co- create; they co-arise together.3  Our conceptual world is exactly the Unborn obscured by words.

The experience of the moment of awareness arises unbidden. It can occur at any time; when in the midst of mundane activity, or in a location we find awe inspiring, holding a child’s hand, anything really. It is the ‘Aha’ experience, which often brings with it a feeling of at-one-ness where a sense of self momentarily disappears.  

If we can be open to this we can live in tune with the divine, the Unborn, and we do not need to be scholars, or other than ordinary folk to do so. In this passage in Sermon Two (Walshe translation) Meister Eckhart makes no mention of the need for or benefit of religious practice or intensive study.

But I say more (do not be afraid, for this joy is close to you and is in you): there is not one of you who is so coarse-grained, so feeble of understanding, or so far off but that he can find this joy within himself, in truth, as it is with joy and understanding, before you leave this church today, indeed before I have finished preaching. He can find this as truly within him, live it and possess it, as that God is God and I am a man.

In Sermon Six Eckhart is likening Jesus chasing the merchants out of the temple to the need for us to make our hearts receptive to ‘the Word’ by avoiding speculation, or trying to get God by deserving him by special behaviour. We might infer from this that what we seek is already a feature of our human nature, and that we can only open to it, for it is not a ‘something’ that we can attain. 

His Sermon Eighty-Seven thoroughly, deeply, systematically and very clearly goes into the matter of how being naked of any form of effort and speculation is the only condition to be utterly receptive. This is a state of spiritual poverty where even a sense of a separate self might be said to disappear. It is in this sermon that he makes a distinction between mundane reality and divinity which Eckhart says is his ‘first cause’. In his first cause, before thought we could say, he:

…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…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.

The Buddhist might say that ‘That which He was’ is the Unborn. ‘That which He was’ is not everyday experience, and to move beyond that, Eckhart prays that he can be rid of God, by which he means any thought of God. In effect he is moving away from a dualistic characterisation of an exclusively transcendental god. He would be beyond having any connotation for God, even be beyond regarding God as ground of being, or a superior implicate order or intelligence that everything depends on. This would require that he lets all conceptions go, even that God is unknowable, including a concept of God as beyond delimitation. He would have no concept at all or any attempt at a concept; not even of Essence.
   It is at this point he brings in the Unborn:

…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…if I were not, then God would not be God. But you do not need to know this.  

I think that Eckhart knows that two ‘modes’ are operating simultaneously, his unborn mode and his creaturely mode. In his birth all things were born and he was the cause of himself and all things; which means that once his consciousness knows his birth, all relative reality arises also. The ‘created’ world co-arises in his birth; that is in his consciousness. He makes a related point about the ‘oneness’ of perception and its object in sermon six with his example of ‘eye-wood’. 

The ‘creaturely mode’ opens out from self-image. The Unborn, the unconditioned, is distorted through the filter of self-image, so that what is encountered is qualified by our opinion, experience and bias; by our conditioning. The elements of the conditioning of all of us results in relationships being a complex negotiation of positive and negative forces; of power-play. In any human encounter our state of mind at that moment influences how we regard the other and how they make us feel. We enter the negotiation with a sense of identity which has been built up from learned and reinforced patterns and habits of behaviour and reaction. It is the sort of conditioning that forms the image we have of the outside world. If we have learned that appeasing is the way we will safeguard our identity, then we will behave in a placatory manner, even if at a deeper level we might feel uncomfortable in doing so. Similarly, if we have learned that to get in first and dominate works best for our identity, then confrontation will be our response, although that too might cause discomfort. Sometimes we might feel insignificant and behave in ways in which we think we can be impressive; or we might not feel we fit in and in discomfort, act in bizarre and irritating ways. Negotiating the power-play in such behavioural patterns, which in the examples given here are gross, condensed versions of typical responses to others, simply reinforces earlier conditioning. However, if we can develop strong enough awareness of just what is happening, emotionally and conceptually, which will include the ability to see how feelings come and go according to conditions, with no ‘reality’ of their own, and will arise and vanish independently if left alone, we can become free from conditioning. 

Such complexity is a construction of human consciousness which has taken the presentation of divinity and created a story of its own; it has seen the universe opening before it and projected its own story on to its fabric. The major cause of human suffering is that we believe the stories we create, so divinity is lost to us. 

In Buddhist terms the divinity we are talking about is the Unborn and Unconditioned true mind which is always our original mind. When we obscure this by conditioning what arises in true mind by thought and words, and by holding too great store by them, we imprint habitual behaviours that true mind simply repeats time and again. 

If we can be mindful of how thoughts create our daily life, and meet whatever comes to us with awareness before thoughts and words kick in, we can learn to deal with what life is, not what we want it to be. Eckhart would say perhaps that this is living God’s will, not our own.

Footnotes

1 See Wolters writing on Dionysius.
2 The works by Goswami and Lanza on consciousness being the ground of being and not matter are relevant here, as is Bibel’s example of the termite, whose existence rests on the action of microorganisms and specific bacteria.
3 See Waddell and Goswami ‘Quantum Creativity’.

Relevant reading.

Bibel, Debra Jan, Freeing the Goose in the Bottle, (Elie Metchnikoff Library, California, 1992)
Eckhart, Meister, Sermons and treatises, Volumes 1, 2, 3,  M. O’C. Walshe, (Element, 1987)
Goswami, A. The Self-Aware Universe, (Tarcher/Penguin) 1995.
                      The Visionary Window, (Hampton Roads) 2000.
                      Physics of the Soul, (Quest Books) 2001.
                      quantum Creativity, (Hay House) 2014.

Lanza, Robert. BIOCENTRISM. How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the    True Nature of the Universe. (BenBella books) 2009.
Waddell, Norman. The Unborn. The life and Teaching of Zen Master Bankei 1622-1693 (North Point Press) 1984.
Wolters, Clifton, (Trans) The Cloud of Unknowing and other works. ( Penguin Classics 1983)

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