Beyond Heaven and Hell: A Brief Analysis of Meister Eckhart’s 87th Sermon

By Jin-yeong Yi

Drop of water in water

“By meditating on our birth, we can also see that there appears to be a definite time at which our existence began. Before our birth this ‘I’ did not exist. But we realize that cannot be. There can never be a stage in which we did not exist, and this ‘I’ is only a temporary reflection of our infinite existence.
Similarly, by meditating on our death, we can see that it is impossible that there will come a time when when we do not exist. It is only this individual consciousness that will cease to exist, our true ‘I,’ the subject of our consciousness, must always continue to exist.”

—P. J. Mazumdar, The Circle of Fire

“It is child’s talk that a man dies and goes to heaven. We never come nor go. We are where we are. All the souls that have been, are, and will be, are on one geometrical point.”

—Swami Vivekananda

If you’re an atheist, you probably don’t believe in life after death. Medieval Christian theologian Meister Eckhart may convince you otherwise. Here is an excerpt from his 87th sermon:

“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…  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.”

This text is intrinsically about nothing. I don’t know what Eckhart, who was a highly controversial figure during his time, really intended for it to mean. The following is what it means to me personally:

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.”

“God” = the universe as a whole. In the same way that a solar prominence is not separate from the Sun, we are fundamentally not distinct from God: we are God; we only need to realize this fact.

“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.”

Notice that Eckhart uses the word “origin” rather than “creator” in referring to God.

“Therefore I am my own cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal.”

“Essence” = energy. Energy is eternal because, according to the first law of thermodynamics, it cannot be created nor destroyed. “Becoming” = a particular, dynamic configuration of matter, which arises out of energy.

“Therefore I am unborn, and according to my unborn mode I can never die.”

If the universe is eternal, and we are an inextricable part of the universe, then we are eternal.

“That which I am by virtue of birth must die and perish, for it is mortal, and so must perish with time.”

“That which I am by virtue of birth” = a particular, transient collocation of matter.

“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.”

Once again, notice Eckhart’s unusual wording. He does not say “When I was created by God,” let alone “created by God ex nihilo.”

“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.”

To recognize that the constituent parts we are made of are eternal is to recognize that we have always existed and always will.

“Here, God is one with the spirit, and that is the strictest poverty one can find.”

“Strictest poverty” = absolute purity without any accoutrements, the essence without the externals. In other words, complete identification with what is eternal: the universe, sans personification.

If this is how the real afterlife looks like, well, I suppose one could do a lot worse…

“Oh, if only you knew yourselves! You are souls; you are Gods. If ever I feel like blaspheming, it; is when I call you man.”

—Swami Vivekananda

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The Most Precious Pearl of Them All

By Jin-yeong Yi

“‘The person has two states: this one and the state of the other world. The third, intermediate, state is that of dreaming sleep. When he rests in the intermediate state, he sees both states: this one and the state of the other world. When he has gone by whatever way it is that one gains the state of the other world, he sees both evils and joys. When he falls asleep, he takes with him the material of this all-containing world, himself breaks it up, himself re-makes it. He sleeps by his own radiance, his own light. Here the person becomes lit by his own light.
‘There are no chariots, nor chariot-horses, nor roads there, but he creates chariots, chariot-horses and roads. There are no pleasures, nor enjoyments, nor delights there, but he creates pleasures, enjoyments and delights. There are no ponds, nor lotus-pools, nor rivers there, but he creates ponds, lotus-pools and rivers. For he is a maker.’”

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

—The Bible, Matthew 6:19-21 (King James Version)

“The self is dearer than a son, dearer than wealth, dearer than any other thing, and deeper within. If someone were speaking of something other than the self as dear, and one were to say of him, ‘He will weep for what is dear to him’, one would very likely be right. One should worship only the self as dear: then what is dear to one is not perishable.”

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“You are walking on the earth as in a dream. Our world is a dream within a dream; you must realize that to find God is the only goal, the only purpose, for which you are here. For Him alone you exist. Him you must find.”

—Paramahansa Yogananda

Here is a riddle for you: What is infinite in size, yet lighter than a feather; greater than all of the wealth in the world, but does not require a safe or a vault for safekeeping?

Do you want to know what it is? More importantly, do you want it for yourself? I will tell you where you can find it.

You do not need to gather any money for it, because it’s not for sale. If it were, not all the gold in the world would be able to buy it, because it is infinite in value. You do not need to risk your life on a long, arduous, and perilous quest for it. It is already within your possession. It is invisible to the naked eye, but it can be easily located. You’re sitting on it. Or, rather, it’s sitting on you. Or, rather, it’s sitting within you. Or better still, it’s a part of you. It has always been a part of you, because you were born with it, by virtue of being human.

It’s your mind.

Am I merely engaging in cheap rhetoric, playing with words, performing verbal card tricks? Let us take some time to examine it, and then you can decide for yourself.

Your knowledge, your thoughts, your memories, your emotions, your desires, your hopes, your dreams–all of these treasures are stored inside of the vault of your mind. Are there many things in this world that you would trade these away for?

Your mind is also a sanctuary. It is your only real refuge from the incessant noise of the so-called “real world.” You can’t find absolute stillness in even the most luxurious vacation resorts, but you can find it in the penetralia of your mind when you go to bed each night. It is the only place in the world that you truly have to yourself.

Your mind is a palace, a palace of the most majestic kind. All the royal edifices that have been created by human hands, as beautiful as they are, look like tawdry playhouses by comparison. The palace that is your mind is not merely vast–it is boundless, fathomless. If you have the necessary knowledge, your palace can be whatever you wish it to be, for you have the power to mold it according to your will. If you do not know how to use your power, you can learn. When you are within your palace, seated upon your throne, fully in control of your native powers, the greatest kings and emperors look like pitiful paupers by comparison. For you are nothing less than a God.

More than anything else, your mind is a universe. It’s your universe, and it is for you to rule, and yet how much larger it is than you! How mysterious it is, how much there is to discover! You will never finish exploring it, not even after billions of years. Its riches and marvels will never be exhausted. It is the only place where all of your wishes are granted, the only place where all of your dreams come true, the only place where your life is a fairy tale.

Perhaps best of all, this treasure of treasures is always with you, no matter where you happen to be on the three-dimensional plane of reality. “Home is where the heart is,” because your mind is your home. You will never need to fret about losing it, because it will exist and be yours for as long as you live.

So why obsess about attaining wealth? You already have the greatest wealth.

Why obsess about attaining power? You already have the greatest power.

Why obsess about attaining a home? You already have the greatest home.

All you need to do is unlock them from the treasure-house that is your mind.

The Sandbox of the Gods

By Jin-yeong Yi

“The brain is wider than the sky, / For, put them side by side, / The one the other will contain / With ease, and you beside.”

—Emily Dickinson

A Japanese translation of the title of American Unitarian Universalist writer Robert Fulghum’s widely parodied collection of essays, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, reads, “Jinsei ni Hitsuyou na Chie wa Subete Youchien no Sunaba de Mananda,” which may be translated as “All the wisdom I need in life I learned in the sandbox in kindergarten.” The key word here is the word that was added to the original: sandbox.

This sentence helped me to realize what I really want to do in life: play! Unlike most activities, play is not engaged in for the sake of something else, but for its own sake. Here the line between goal and accomplishment is blurred.

In some schools of Hindu thought, the cosmos and all events within it are said to be the product of creative play (lila) by Brahman, or God. I can think of no grander mode of existence. It’s as pure as it is unrestricted. And it turns out that a humble pastime of small children, and not the worldly ambitions of adults, bears the closest resemblance to life as a God.

Hence my near-obsession with the dream world–it is a limitless sandbox in which one can, in theory, do just about anything that one can imagine oneself doing. In the universe that exists within the depths of one’s mind, no barrier exists between imagination and realization. In the dream world, to imagine something is to make it real.