Paths to Transcendence: According to Shankara, Ibn Arabi & Meister Eckhart
  • Book Title:
 Paths To Transcendence
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Ibn al-'ArabiReza Shah-Kazemi
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Part I: Doctrine of the Transcendent Absolute2
1. Designations and Definitions of the Absolute2
2. Being and Transcendence8
Part II: The Spiritual Ascent12
1. The Role of Scripture13
2. Action17
3. Rites and Knowledge21
4. Meditation24
5. Concentration and Interiorization28
6. Moksa36
Part III: Existential “Return”53
1. The Mind54
2. “All is Brahman56
3. Action and Prarabdha Karma59
4. Suffering and the Jivan-Mukta63
5. Devotion65
CHAPTER 2 — IBN ARABI: La ilaha illa’Llah69
Part I: Doctrine of the Transcendent Absolute71
1. Doctrine as Seed or Fruit?71
2. Unity and Multiplicity75

Part II: The Spiritual Ascent 79

  1. Sainthood and Prophethood 79
  2. Ontological Status of the Vision of God 87
  3. Fana’ 92

Part III: Existential “Return” 105

  1. Poverty and Servitude 105
  2. “The People of Blame” 111
  3. Theophany: Witnessing God’s “Withness” 113
  4. The Heart and Creation 116

Part IV: Transcendence and Universality 118


Part I: Doctrine of the Transcendent Absolute 132

  • Beyond the Notion of God 132
  • From God to Godhead 135

Part II: The Spiritual Ascent 142

  1. Virtue and Transcendence 142
  2. Unitive Concentration, Raptus, and the Birth 152
  3. Intellect and Grace 160

Part III: Existential “Return” 172

1. Thought and Action in the World 173

  •  Seeing God Everywhere 175
  • The Saint and Suffering 178
  • Poverty 182


Elements of Commonality 193

Part I: Doctrines of Transcendence 193

  1. Dogma and Beyond 193
  2. One Absolute or Three? 196

Part II: The Spiritual Ascent 198

  1. Virtue 198
  2. Ritual and Action 198
  3. Methods of Ascent 200
  4. Bliss and Transcendence 203
  5. Transcendent Union 205
  6. Agency in Transcendent Realization 207
  7. Grace 211

Part III: Existential “Return” 211

  1. Poverty 211
  2. Existence and Suffering 214
  3. Devotion and Praise 217
  4. Vision of God in the World 218



Critical Appraisal of Recent Academic Approaches to Mystical Experience 229 Part I: Against Reductionist Epistemology: Katz and “Contextualism” 229

Part II: Against Reductionist Experience: Forman’s “Pure Consciousness Event” 237

Part III: Against Reductive Typologies: Stace, Zaehner, and Smart 241

  1. Stace and the “Universal Core” 241
  2. Zaehner: “Monism” vs. “Theism” 243
  3. Smart: The “Numinous” vs. the “Mystical”; “Union” vs. “Identity” 245

Part IV: Against Reductive Universalism: Staal and Huxley 248





The aim of this book is to contribute to the elucidation of an important but much neglected theme in comparative religion and mysticism: that of transcendence. More specifically, we intend to shed light on the meaning of transcendence both in itself and as the summit of spiritual realization; thus, both as a metaphysical principle and as a mystical attainment, our principal concern being with the concrete dimensions of the spiritual paths leading to what we shall be calling here “transcendent realization.” What we wish to offer is an interpretive essay on this theme, taking as our starting point what three of the world’s greatest mystics have said or written on this subject.

Numerous studies have been made on mysticism in general, but this category embraces such a wide range of phenomena—from the psychic to the imaginal, from visionary experience to prophecy, from transient ecstatic states to permanent transformations of consciousness—that the principial aspects of transcendence, in relation to phenomenal descriptions of mystical experience, have been largely overlooked.

 It is all too easy to mistake the outward phenomena of mysticism for its goal; when the transcendent summit is understood, on the other hand, mystical phenomena can be properly situated in relation to it. It may strike many as presumptuous to put forward any definitive and exclusive notion of what this transcendent summit is; and this would be true were it to be a notion based entirely upon philosophical speculation.

The meanings and implications of transcendence elaborated in this study, however, are based on the doctrines and pronouncements of spiritual authorities of the highest rank, that is, sages who, whilst not being prophets in the strict sense, can be said to have realized the ultimate degree of spirituality enshrined within their respective religious traditions.

Shankara, Ibn Arabi, and Meister Eckhart have been chosen as appropriate subjects for this study inasmuch as both the conceptual and experiential aspects of transcendence figure prominently in their articulated writings and discourses; each one has, moreover, expressed himself in a manner that is at once authoritative—bearing witness to his personal realization—and detailed, thus allowing for extensive analytical treatment of these aspects of transcendence.

Given the immense importance of these figures within their respective traditions, close scrutiny of their perspectives should yield valuable insights into the ultimate spiritual attainments conceived and realized in the Hindu, Muslim, and Christian traditions [01]For a good translation of a classic biography of Shankara, see Swami Tapasyananda, The Sankara dig-vijaya of Madhara Vidyaranya, Ramakrishna Mission, … Continue reading.

In adopting this approach, we are following the comparative model employed by Toshihiko Izutsu in his work, Sufism and Taoism [02]T. Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983. There, central philosophical concepts of Ibn Arabi are compared with those of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu; the key feature of the work which commends itself for this study is the depth with which the two perspectives are dealt with in their own terms; and this forms the basis for entering into the final comparative chapter. This approach stands in stark contrast both to comparative analyses of mysticism taking key mystics as points of departure, such as Rudolph Otto’s Mysticism East and West [03]R. Otto, Mysticism East and West, Macmillan, New York, 1960, and those analyses which are based on selected quotations from various sources, such as

R.C. Zaehner’s Mysticism: Sacred and Profane,[04] R.C. Zaehner, Mysticism: Sacred and Profane, Oxford University Press, 1961. and D.T. Suzuki’s Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist [05]D.T. Suzuki, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1979. While illuminating parallels may emerge through the juxtaposition of selected passages from different mystics, what is lacking is an analysis of each of the perspectives in its own terms as a basis for meaningful comparison. Moreover, there has been no effort to expound rigorously the notion of transcendence in relation to spiritual consciousness.

The concern here is with the vital connection between the awareness of transcendence as a notion, concept, idea, or principle, on the one hand, and the concrete modalities of spiritual attainment on the other. Our aim, then, is not so much to unearth new or hitherto undiscovered material—we shall be confining ourselves to existing translations of the primary sources; nor do we claim to be representing in any exhaustive fashion the doctrines of the three mystics.

Rather, the intention is to focus upon, and elucidate, the most essential aspects of the teachings of the three mystics insofar as the highest metaphysical doctrine and the deepest spiritual realization is concerned.

The meaning of transcendent realization will be explored, then, according to each of the three mystics. As for the term “transcendent realization” itself, by it is meant the summit of spiritual attainment, “realization” here intended in the sense of “making real,” on the basis of direct experience and personal assimilation; and by “transcendent” is meant that which relates to the ultimate aims of religion insofar as the individual is concerned hic et nunc, as opposed to salvation in the Hereafter, without implying thereby any essential incompatibility between the two aims.

The discussion will be closely tied to the major texts and discourses of the three mystics selected for study. This work of interpretive analysis is based on important recent advances in the field of translation: in particular, the efforts of Antony Alston in respect of Shankara’s works, William Chittick’s contribution to the translation of Ibn Arabi’s voluminous writings, and the translation of Meister Eckhart’s sermons by Maurice O’Connell Walshe.

There will be little reference to secondary sources in the three main chapters dealing with each of the three mystics in turn, the aim here being to allow the….


Elements of Commonality

As the reader will no doubt have seen, the similarities between the three sages studied here are remarkable. There are so many areas where their doctrines and experiences overlap that it would be vain to try and offer an exhaustive appraisal of the commonalities in this final chapter. Instead, we will focus on what appears to us as the most essential elements of commonality.

In the course of evaluating these common elements the question posed at the outset—whether the different religions have different summits, or whether the summit is in fact one and the same—is answered emphatically in the positive.

In respect of conceiving and realizing transcendence the evidence presented here leaves no doubt that the sages are indeed speaking of the selfsame reality.

 Coming from such prominent mystical authorities within their faiths, this evidence of spiritual unanimity on the ultimate values and goal of religion is of particular importance in demonstrating the oneness of religions, not on the formal, but on the transcendent plane, precisely.1

Important differences between the perspectives will not be ignored; rather, we shall try to evaluate their significance in the light of the metaphysical principles that have been expounded by the sages themselves. The structure of this chapter will reflect that of the preceding ones, with the first part addressing doctrinal aspects of transcendence, the second and third dealing with concrete aspects of the highest spiritual realization.

Part I: Doctrines of Transcendence – PATHS TO TRANSCENDENCE

1. Dogma and Beyond

The most significant aspect of the doctrinal approaches to the Transcendent put forward by the three mystics lies in their tendency towards a supra-dogmatic or “unramified” mode of expression.

The key distinction made by all three on this level of discourse—which goes beyond the conventional confines of religious thought proper to the theistic contexts of Ibn Arabi and Eckhart—is that between the absolute transcendence of the “One” and the relative transcendence of the Personal God—that plane to which relate, in the first instance, all possible determinate designations, personal distinctions, particular names, and thus dogmatic definitions and concepts.

Paths to Transcendence

All three insist on an apophatic dialectic in regard to the transcendent Absolute: Shankara subjects all nominal, formal, and conceptual designations of the Absolute to the double negation of neti, neti, the Absolute in itself being without “name and form”; Ibn Arabi likewise writes that the Essence has no definition “since it has no attribute”; and Eckhart says that God is much closer to what is not said than to what is said.

This apophatic approach must be seen as the necessary conceptual expression of the ontological incommensurability between all determinate and relative forms—and hence conceptions, since these partake of the formal order—and the essence of the Absolute;

 this great gulf that separates the Absolute from all relative conceptions means that all three mystics are compelled to assert the final inadequacy, as well as the initial necessity, of the designations of the Absolute found within their respective traditions.

Taking Shankara first: while the scriptural definition of Brahman as “Reality- Knowledge-Infinity” is deemed necessary to point to a divine reality, it must in its turn be negated by the neti, neti in order to indicate the incomparability of this reality in itself, which transcends all relative “name and form.”

For Ibn Arabi, the Essence is posited as that which surpasses, even while constituting the true substance of, the Name Allah, and all other Names of God, which are the ontological foundations of the cosmos, while themselves possessing no ontological substance other than that of the Essence, the modes of whose relationship with the relative world they embody. The Names pertain, then, to the “Level” of Divinity, and only the Name “the One” can be said to be a Name of the Essence inasmuch as it includes all that is, even while excluding all that can be distinctively conceived as other than it.

Thus the Essence is alone real, all the Names being reduced, in the very measure of their distinctive properties, to the nature of “imagination.”

Eckhart likewise refers to a transcendent Godhead which is as far above the God of the three Persons as heaven is above earth.

This transcendent degree, then, can only be indirectly alluded to, and this, always in terms that are metaphysical rather than dogmatic or theological: for Ibn Arabi to call the Essence “the One” corresponds with Shankara’s abstract designation advaita, “non-dual,” as does Eckhart’s reference to the Godhead as the “solitary One.”

This unity refers to reality such as it is in itself, a transcendent reality which perforce comprises within itself all things, but in a manner which excludes their separative manifestation; in the very measure that reference is made to the principle of the manifestation of these “things”—that is, to the principle of Being—all three mystics unite in asserting that this very principle is itself not only the first relativity, but also the first degree at which formal designations become metaphysically intelligible:

 in Shankara, the “Lord” as Isvara is identified with the Absolute insofar as it is endowed with qualities, Brahma saguna, and the latter is identified with Sat or Being; for Eckhart, the Persons are “suspended in Being” at the level where “God works”; and in Ibn Arabi’s doctrine, the existentiating command “Be!” (kun) devolves upon the level of the Divinity, at which level are affirmed the distinctive properties of the Names “Creator,” “Judge,” etc.; while the Essence has absolutely no relation with the created cosmos.

The Realization of Transcendence

There is, therefore, an intimate link between ontology and conception, or being and theology: determinate concepts can be applied to the determinate level of Being, while only indeterminate or apophatic concepts are applicable to that which transcends Being as the primary causal principle of universal manifestation. Both Shankara and Eckhart explicitly refer to the Absolute as “Beyond-Being”: Brahma nirguna is dissociated from the causal attribute Sat, Being, according to Shankara; and in the “ground,” God is “above all being,” according to Eckhart.

This notion of Beyond-Being, however, is not found explicitly in Ibn Arabi’s perspective; it may be objected, indeed, that it is antithetical to his perspective which stresses, above all, the metaphysical principle of the unity of Being as counterpart to the theological principle of the unity of God (tawhid).

To answer this objection, it is necessary to show two things: first, that the unity of Being is not contradicted by the notion of degrees within it; and second, that what is positively designated as “Being” by Ibn Arabi is, at its summit, not other than what is apophatically referred to as “Beyond-Being” by the other two mystics.

First, it must be stressed that it is the Absolute and nothing else that assumes the relativity of Being; or, to put it another way, that it is the supra-personal Essence that assumes the personal attributes of Lordship at the level of Being.

According to Shankara, the Absolute takes on the appearance of relativity in order to rule over it as Lord so that “That which we designate as the Creator is the Absolute.” Similarly with Eckhart: Being is the first “name” of the Absolute:

it is the Absolute and nothing else that “overflows” into, and as, the Persons: “The first outburst and the first effusion God runs out in is His fusion with the Son, a process which in turn reduces him to Father.”

This corresponds closely to Shankara’s formulation: the Father or “Creator” is only rendered such in relation to the relativity of which He is the Principle— the “Son” here standing for the image in, from, and by which manifestation proceeds.

In Ibn Arabi, one finds a similar picture: although from the point of view of tanzih or incomparability, the “Real” has nothing at all do with creation, which latter proceeds from, and is ruled by, the Lord as Divinity, nonetheless, the Real and creation do “come together” from the point of view of tashbih or similarity and this “in respect of the fact that the Essence is described by Divinity.”

The Essence is thus transcribed within relativity by the Divinity: to revert to Shankara: the Creator is the Absolute. This is also implicit in the fact that the Names of God have no distinct ontological entities: each Name is the Named in respect of its inner substance and is only distinct therefrom in the measure of its specific properties, which presuppose the forms of the cosmos. To say, then, that the Name is the Named is to say also the converse:

 the Essence is the Divinity; the Essence not as it is in itself, but in the already relative aspect it must perforce assume in order to enter into relationship with the relative world.

It is this very relativity within Being, which remains nonetheless one, that furnishes the basis for a convergence between Ibn Arabi and the other two mystics on the question of “Beyond-Being.”

 This term, though it does not appear in Ibn Arabi, is implicit in his doctrine; for the oneness of Being, actually presupposes a hierarchical distinction of degree, rather than being contradicted by it: it presupposes the distinction between the following planes, degrees, or dimensions: the lowest plane of cosmic existence, the intermediate plane of divine existentiation, and the highest plane which transcends the relativity entailed by causal relationship with the relative existence of the world. Without these distinctions, the oneness of Being would imply the abolition of the difference between the relative and the Absolute; that is, transcendence would be negated.

On the other hand, without the doctrine of oneness, these distinctions would imply the attribution to the world of a separate and autonomous existence: the immanence of the Real throughout existence would then be negated.

The distinction between the Essence and the Divinity/Level can therefore be seen as corresponding, functionally, to the distinction between Beyond-Being and Being, given the way in which these two aspects of the self-same Reality are conceived.

Furthermore, it could be argued that Ibn Arabi’s view of the ultimately illusory nature of everything apart from the Essence—the Names being “imaginary” in the measure of their distinction from the Essence—brings him even closer to Shankara’s most rigorous metaphysical denial of the reality of all but Brahma nirguna: the Absolute is alone fully real and this is because, to use Shankara’s phrase, it is prapañcha-upasama—without any trace of the development of manifestation.

Being, then, constitutes the first “trace”—albeit principial—of the development of manifestation; and if Being is itself the first self-determination of Beyond- Being, and the Divinity is the first self-determination of the Essence, then one can legitimately posit Ibn Arabi’s distinction between the Divinity and the Essence as analogous to the distinction between Being and Beyond-Being; Universal Manifestation has its immediate principle in Being or, in Ibn Arabi’s terms, the Divinity, and not in Beyond-Being, or the Essence.

2. One Absolute or Three?

The next basic question that arises is the extent to which there is convergence as regards the conceptions of the Absolute proposed by the three mystics. As seen above, it is only to the “lesser Absolute” that determinate conceptions apply, so the question needs to be formulated: at the level of conception itself, to what extent can the outwardly differing names and designations of the lesser Absolute be regarded as converging upon a unique higher Absolute?

The answer to this question can be pitched at two levels: the one negative and deriving from mode of expression, and the other positive, deriving from metaphysical intelligibility. Turning first to the negative level: it is the very apophatic character of all references to the transcendent Reality evinced by the three mystics that opens up the possibility of convergence.

They all assert that there is an epistemological disjuncture between the word/name/concept and the Reality so named; this very fact brings closer together their respective provisional designations of the Absolute. If there were no assertion of the transcendence of the Absolute over all conceptions thereof, then these conceptions would be endowed with an absolute status, and, consequently, with a rigorously exclusive character:

each conceptionwould then perforce exclude the validity of other conceptions found in different perspectives. On the other hand, in the measure that the designations of the Absolute be regarded as transcended by the Absolute, it is legitimate to posit, albeit in negative terms, a convergence of conception of the Absolute.

A more positive affirmation of convergence arises out of reflection upon the metaphysical principles and symbols given by the mystics. To begin with, Eckhart’s principle of spiritual inclusivity may be cited: while all material things limit and exclude each other, all things of a spiritual or divine nature include each other; material exclusivity entails separative particularity, whilst spiritual inclusivity is equated with unitive universality.

Applying this principle to the question of differing conceptions of the lesser Absolute, one may say: in the measure that these conceptions intend an indefinable spiritual reality, one which transcends the formal and possibly dogmatic character of the conceptions themselves, they can be regarded as inwardly united by the very content of that intended reality, which is identified as absolute infinitude: this infinitude, being of a supereminently spiritual nature, is by that same token unitive and thus all-inclusive.

Outwardly differing formal conceptions thus converge insofar as their supra-conceptual referent consists in a spiritual reality that is infinite and unitive, outside or apart from which nothing exists; it is only by virtue of their formal and thus separative character that each conception diverges from the others.

This may be seen as an articulation of one level of meaning in Ibn Arabi’s image of the water and the cup: the cup may be taken to be the limited receptacle that the faculty of conception is, the water as “structured” by the cup standing for the conception of the Absolute, and water in its own nature representing the Absolute as it is in itself.

This image at one and the same time expresses the two fundamental points made earlier in regard to identity and distinction: on the one hand, the personal God/Being that is susceptible of determinate conception is not other than the Essence/Ground/Beyond-Being—the water in the cup is in essence not other than water; and on the other hand there is a strict incomparability between the ontological degree proper to the personal God/Being and that pertaining to the transcendent Essence which is beyond Being—the accidental properties of shape, form, color etc. imparted to the water by the cup can in no wise be attributed to the true nature of water.

In Shankara’s terms, the cup is the upadhi, the relative adjunct which imparts to the object it limits the appearance of its own qualities; when divested of this upadhi the object stands forth in its own right. Each conception of the lesser Absolute is then essentially identifiable with other such conceptions by virtue of its content or what it intends, even while being separate therefrom by virtue of its form.

Finally, drawing on Ibn Arabi’s explicit universalism, one can conclude with the following metaphysical principle: the very infinitude of the Real implies the impossibility of enclosing it within one conception to the exclusion of all others.

Therefore each conception of the Absolute is assimilable to the other in the measure that it opens out onto and intends the infinite and transcendent Reality.

In the case of the three mystics studied here, the fact that their determinate conceptions of the “lesser” Absolute are emphatically subordinated to the apophatically defined “higher” Absolute which transcends all limited conceptions and definitions—this fact constitutes in itself a persuasive argument in favor of the thesis that these conceptions diverge as regards their formal nature but converge in respect of their intended content.

This intended content is the Absolute itself, that which cannot be defined or named, but which can be provisionally referred to, on condition that such references are understood to be incommensurable with the reality of the Absolute, which is absolutely one. Indeed, in this crucial notion of the oneness of the Absolute there lies another argument: insofar as the absolute Reality is one, and insofar as each mystic conceives of this Absolute, the essential content of their respective conceptions must likewise be one, even if the formal structure or outward delineation of the conceptions as such necessarily differ.

Part II: The Spiritual Ascent – PATHS TO TRANSCENDENCE

It has been observed that a key prerequisite for setting out on the path of transcendence is the attainment of integral virtue. The highest teaching about the Birth, Eckhart tells his listeners, is intended only for those who fully live up to Christian precepts; transcending virtue as conceived in its human aspect, then, presupposes its perfect realization on the plane corresponding to it. Shankara stresses likewise that his doctrine of the Self is to be expounded only to those who possess all the fundamental virtues; these are assimilated as so many aspects and means of knowledge, while egoism and pride are on the contrary seen as so many intellectual dysfunctions, in addition to being moral vices.

Ibn Arabi also accords to virtue a status that goes beyond its moral ramifications, inasmuch as virtue is seen as an ontological participation in the very nature of God:

 the adoption of virtuous qualities is tantamount to “assuming the character traits of God,” and constitutes the “accidental perfection” without which the “essential,” that is, transcendent perfection cannot be attained. Virtue is also considered as a methodic precondition for entering the spiritual retreat.

While there is fundamental agreement on the necessity of virtue, there is nonetheless a difference to be noted in respect of the ritual framework within which virtuous action is to take place.

2. Ritual and Action

For Ibn Arabi and Eckhart, the performance of the orthodox rites is taken for granted as one of the foundations of the path of transcendence, and is not abandoned at any point of that path, whereas for Shankara such an abandonment is, practically if not dogmatically, part of the discipline for the aspirant to Liberation.

This is an important difference and may be seen as deriving from the following contextual factor: the adoption of the path of the sannyasin is structurally integrated into the framework of the Hindu tradition, rather than being a deviation from it, whereas the place of the rites in the historically founded religions of Islam and Christianity is far more central, being definitive of religious identity and essential to sacramental participation within those faiths.

To renounce or abandon the rites for the sake of the Absolute is then tantamount to a heretical innovation.

On the other hand, if one looks carefully both at the motivation and the proviso relating to Shankara’s formal abandonment of the rites, the difference between the two positions is substantially modified, albeit not totally overcome.

 The motive for ceasing to perform the ordinary rites is grounded, on the one hand, in the general principle that action does not lead to Liberation, and on the other, in the subjective principle that the aspirant to Liberation must cultivate a “disgust” for all the rewards—terrestrial and heavenly—proportioned to ritual action. Seen in this light,

Shankara’s position is not so far removed in substance from those of Eckhart and, though to a lesser extent, Ibn Arabi. Eckhart’s views regarding action, and his antinomian reference to the limitations of heaven, can in fact be more clearly appreciated in the light of Shankara’s explicit pronouncements on the relativity of all but the transcendent aspiration: heaven is dialectically posited as the reward given to “asses” who may have noble intentions and commit the most pious actions, but whose knowledge is defective as regards the intrinsic reality of the Absolute. Shankara succinctly states a principle which greatly clarifies Eckhart’s antinomian hyperbole: “When the Self has once been known, everything else is seen as evil.”

For Shankara, even Dharma is a sin for the one seeking knowledge of the Self, In Eckhart, it is the “Birth” or “union” that would be stressed rather than the “Self,” since it is in this union that is found “the soul’s whole beatitude”; and it is in this light, alone, that all lesser attainments are seen as “evil.” Moreover, inasmuch as Eckhart insists that one not take God from anywhere but within oneself, his perspective comes even closer to that of Shankara, despite not sharing with the latter the continuing explicit stress on the absolute Self.

Shankara’s principle helps elucidate Eckhart’s intention in saying that “to pray for this and for that” is to pray for evil, as well as numerous other, at first sight, scandalous pronouncements.

Also to be noted is the way in which Shankara’s view of the limitations of action clarifies the motive behind Eckhart’s dismissal even of the “doves” as well as the “merchants” from the Temple; while it is clear why those who perform good acts out of attachment to the reward (“merchants”) are to be excluded, it is less clear why those who perform good acts selflessly, only for the sake of God (“doves”), are also sent away.

 In his elliptical explanation Eckhart merely says: “they work with attachment, according to time and tide, before and after”; they are said to be “hindered” by these activities without the nature of the hindrance being spelt out. It is not clear, at first sight, what the object of this attachment is, given that the “doves” are “detached” and work only for the sake of God.

The attachment in question is clearly seen when one turns to Shankara, who makes an explicit distinction which applies perfectly to Eckhart’s teaching.

Shankara distinguishes between the lower type of renunciate who has renounced selfish action and acts only for the sake of the Lord, and the higher type who renounces action because he sees “inaction in action,” that is, he has a disinterested view of action because of his knowledge that the Self is independent of action and is thus to be realized only through knowledge and not through even “ten million acts.” This accords well with Eckhart’s view of detachment and works: these are only valuable insofar as they are shed immediately.

For both Shankara and Eckhart it is attachment to the ontological status of action that constitutes the “hindrance”; even if works be accomplished in a spirit of selflessness, and in exclusive devotion to God, this subtle attachment entails a twofold entrenchment of relativity: the relativity of the empirical agent of the act on the one hand, and the relativity of the acting personal God, qua “other,” as the object of devotion, on the other hand.

Turning now to the second point, Shankara’s proviso: ritual action may continue to be performed not only by the one seeking Liberation but also by the one who has realized it, if it be for the sake of setting an example.

Thus, given the fact that the formal dimension of Islam and Christianity—that is the exoteric dogmas and prescriptions—derives in large part from the needs of the community, Shankara’s proviso permits one to see the compatibility between his own position on the rites and that of the other two; though this latter position be structurally defined in respect of outward action, it is nonetheless intellectually and spiritually governed by the highest aspiration.

This argument does not imply that Ibn Arabi, for example, only counsels, and himself abides by, the external prescriptions of the Law for the sake of setting a good example; for his esoteric interpretations of these prescriptions show that, in more positive terms, he enacts them as symbols relating to the principial realities they embody and intend.

In this respect, moreover, he rejoins Shankara’s view that the performance of rites has a purificatory function with a view to knowledge—describing the rites as “remote auxiliaries to knowledge,” in that they are “instrumental in extinguishing that demerit, arising from past sins, which obstructs knowledge of the Absolute.”

 Shankara’s abandonment of the rites, it should be remembered, involves the adoption of the quintessential rites of the sannyasin; but the important point here is that this formal renunciation of the external rites is not laid down as an absolute prerequisite for the adoption of the “Direct Path,” especially given the fact that the Vedas speak of householders also attaining enlightenment.

Therefore, there is no essential or necessary contradiction between the path of transcendence which excludes all external rites of the religious form, and the path of transcendence followed by Ibn Arabi and Eckhart wherein these rites continue to be performed, with a view to realizing their deepest significance.

3. Methods of Ascent – PATHS TO TRANSCENDENCE

One point of similarity between the three mystics, which at first sight may appear as a difference, lies in their respective attitudes to the mystical vision of God, seen as “other.” All three are at one in regarding this as a relative attainment and one that must be transcended by realization of the Absolute as one’s own innermost identity. But an apparent difference may be construed as between the way in which Ibn Arabi endows this vision with a relatively transcendent and, ultimately, a wholly divine nature, and Shankara’s more rigorous exclusion of all attainments short of Self-realization.

The Realization of Transcendence

For Shankara, any attribution of objective alterity to the Absolute—and therefore, implicitly, any mystical vision thereof—entails the imprisonment of consciousness within the confines of the dualistically defined ego, and, therefore, within the domain of illusion.

Ibn Arabi’s position, in one respect, is not dissimilar: the vision of God is defined in terms of the contact between the self-manifestation of God and the receptivity of the immutable entity, the ‘ayn of the individual, and is thus in one sense reducible to the level of the individual.

So far, this is close to Shankara: there is in both cases a reduction to the individual conceived as subjective correlate of the Divine qua object. But Ibn Arabi’s position is nuanced by the fact that this very preparedness of the entity is itself fashioned by the first “most holy effusion” of the Divine: this preparedness is thus itself reducible to the Divine, which in turn is reducible to the Essence.

There appears, then, a difference: Shankara’s view of the ego’s imprisonment within alterity seems to be undermined by the principial assimilations made by Ibn Arabi. However, the difference is only apparent inasmuch as for Shankara, also, the “Creator is the Absolute”: the individual ego as “creation” of the Absolute, in seeing the Lord/Creator, sees in fact nothing but the Absolute appearing, on contact with Maya, as Isvara in one of its manifestations.

While this position may be affirmed for both Ibn Arabi and Shankara, it is in any case superseded for both by the methodic principle that the Absolute alone is the object of the highest aspiration; all lower attainments are to be firmly resisted.

Ibn Arabi stresses that in the spiritual retreat all visions—celestial and divine—are strictly relativized; the aspirant at every stage of illumination is told not to “stop” with what is offered but to persevere with the invocation of the Name and the corresponding intention firmly focused on the Named, for if “you stay with what is offered He will escape you, but if you attain Him nothing will escape you.” One must resist all bestowals of God for the sake of realizing God Himself.

This corresponds closely with Eckhart’s insistence that all images must be excluded for the sake of that receptivity to the Word which consists in the absolute stilling of all intellectual powers and functions; even Christ, insofar as he is present to the mind in his corporeal form, is to be excluded, and one is told to unite with the “formless essence.”

This firm rejection of all but the Transcendent relates to the key methodic principle common to the three mystics: a concentrated withdrawal from the outer dimension of awareness and existence towards the innermost center of consciousness and being.

This interiorization, whatever be the different modes it may take, constitutes the essential methodic principle in the path of transcendence: that which is most inward is that which is most exalted: depth equals height, according to Eckhart.

Shankara’s adhyatma-yoga, the superior type of meditation, hinges on abstention; the result of abstaining from all outward modes of sense, feeling, and thought is a progressive dissolution of the outward faculties whose respective essences are successively reintegrated into their anterior and interior principles.

Ibn Arabi also uses the concept of dissolution in describing the path of interiorization, which is simultaneously the path of ascent to the Absolute; in the course of the ascent, the composite dimensions of the individual are dissolved within their respective principles until all contingency is finally transcended.

Eckhart, too, stresses the same withdrawal, but in terms this time of “stilling” all the powers of the intellect; this entails the exclusion of all empirical content inasmuch as the “silent middle” is receptive to nothing but the Word; hence it is “unknowing” and “silence” that most conduce to the Birth of the Word.

The methodic efficacy of this interiorization is grounded in a metaphysical principle of the utmost importance, a principle affirmed by all three mystics: the inmost essence of the individual is not other than the transcendent Essence of the Absolute. It is because of this preexisting identity at the inmost degree of being that interiorization is put forward as the principal means of realizing the Transcendent.

In Shankara’s case, the scriptural maxim “That thou art” establishes this identity in the clearest possible manner, but he explains its foundation in relation to the concept of tadatmya, which expresses the paradoxical relationship between the ego and Brahman: the ego is non-different from Brahman, while Brahman is not non-different from the ego.

The ego thus has two dimensions: in respect of the external dimension, there is no possible relation between the ego and Brahman, but in the inner dimension, that of pure consciousness and being, the ego is non-different from Brahman. In Ibn Arabi, one finds the corresponding principle of non-reciprocal identity is expressed, albeit inversely, as follows: “the transcendent Reality is the relative creature, even though the creature is distinct from the Creator.”

In Eckhart the same principle is found: the fact that the essence of the intellect is “uncreated” means that it can only be divine, hence the identity between the inmost “citadel” of the soul and the most transcendent “solitary One” above the soul; at this point of identity, only, the soul is “divine” but “God does not become the soul: the drop cast into the ocean is the ocean, while the ocean is not the drop.”

This is the reason why Eckhart urges concentration upon God not as something other, but as He is “in oneself.” To concentrate on this inmost dimension of oneself is, to apply Shankara’s principle, to become that upon which one concentrates. This same idea is expressed by Eckhart in an image to which he says the utmost attention should be paid, since, if this be understood, one will “get to the bottom of all that I have ever preached about”: in the point of contact between the eye and wood in vision, there is a single reality, “eye-wood”: “the wood is my eye.”

 In other words, such is the totality of concentration upon the object that it subsumes within itself that subject which had been the agent of the concentration: spiritual food assimilates to itself the one who “eats” it, in such a manner that the spiritual substance itself is revealed as one’s true identity. This recalls the fact that “the gazelle” which Ibn Arabi loved is ultimately revealed as being his own self.

In addition to these two fundamentally identical factors in all three mystics—the non-reciprocal identity between the essence of the soul and that of the Absolute; and the method of interiorizing concentration employed for realizing that transcendent identity—there is a further important correspondence between one methodic support advocated by Shankara and the principal such support for Ibn Arabi: concentration on the Name of the Absolute.

 Even though, from the strictly metaphysical and objective viewpoint, the Name was distinguished from the Named, from the methodic and subjective viewpoint, the complementary relationship of identity is stressed; as Shankara says, the Name is the Named.

The Named is immanent in the Name even while simultaneously transcending it. Returning to the image of the cup and water: the water in the cup is water, even though water as such cannot be reduced to that quantity in the cup. Thus, Shankara emphasizes the efficacy of invoking Om and Ibn Arabi, that of Allah. Shankara explains that realization of the Absolute is brought about as a result of the actualization of the grace inherent in the Name which sacramentally represents the Absolute.

 On the basis of this realization, the relativity of the very relationship Name-Named is itself transcended, inasmuch as the contingency or alterity presupposed by the formal affirmation of the Name is surpassed; hence “the purpose of knowing the identity of the name and the named is to enable oneself to dismiss name and named altogether and realize the Absolute which is quite different from either.”

It should be noted that in Shankara’s perspective the realization of the Absolute

is not restricted to any one method: it can be crystallized even on the basis of one hearing of the text tat tvam asi; it can result from “hearing, cogitating over, and sustained meditation upon” the sacred texts; it can come about through the concentration on the inmost source of consciousness effected through the technique of abstention; and it can be the effect of the grace attracted to the invoker as a result of the invocation of the sacred syllable Om. In Ibn Arabi, on the other hand, invocation is given as the central if not exclusive methodic practice which relates to the ultimate realization; and in Eckhart, it is only the technique of concentration through abstention that is explicitly mentioned. The fact that both of these are included in Shankara’s methodic perspective shows that there is nothing incompatible between them, so that this difference between Eckhart and Ibn Arabi on the central methodic practice leading to the final realization is a relative one, and is rendered less significant in the measure that, on the one hand, the function of these methods is identical, viz. interiorization of consciousness, and, on the other, the goal of these practices is one and the same. The next sections deal with the essential aspects of the final stages of this realization.

4. Bliss and Transcendence

As the consciousness of the aspirant approaches the summit of realization, an exalted state of bliss is experienced; but this is to be surpassed, according to all three mystics. Ibn Arabi writes that, prior to extinction, the aspirant is not to “stop” at the degree of blissful experience. Eckhart speaks of the lesser attainment of love over that of knowledge: stopping with love involves being “entangled” and “infatuated” in goodness and love; this means remaining “caught up in the gate” which is the first effusion of God. Knowledge, on the other hand, “runs ahead” and “grasps God in His essence.” Shankara also writes in similar vein: as one approaches the state experienced, but the mumuksu

must not “pause to savor it.”

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References / Footnotes

01For a good translation of a classic biography of Shankara, see Swami Tapasyananda, The Sankara dig-vijaya of Madhara Vidyaranya, Ramakrishna Mission, Madras, 1983; for an excellent spiritual biography of Ibn Arabi, see Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur: The Life of Ibn Arabi, Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, UK, 1993; and for a good concise ckhart in his context see Oliver Davies, Meister Eckhart: Mystical TheologianLondon, 1991
02T. Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983
03R. Otto, Mysticism East and West, Macmillan, New York, 1960
04 R.C. Zaehner, Mysticism: Sacred and Profane, Oxford University Press, 1961.
05D.T. Suzuki, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1979