The Via Negativa Meets the Prajnaparamita
by Mirabai Starr
Sometimes I go to my zafu like a famished person to her bowl of soup. I bow before my altar, offer incense to the saints and sages whose familiar faces beam at me from their framed pictures on the wall and touch the small feet of the carved and cast statues of the holy ones on my puja table. I fold my legs into a comfortable half lotus, gather my prayer beads on my right knee, breathe deeply, and drop down into my daily meditation.
This is a ritual that has been with me since I was a teenager, nearly three decades ago. It is a practice I have maintained through a thousand changing circumstances, a dozen living situations, and countless states of heart and mind. No matter how broken I may be, I crawl to the cushion and give thanks for the deep silence I find there.
Recently, I experienced a particularly sweet surge of quiet joy as I settled into my morning sit. I mused for a moment on the undeniably sensual gratification I derive from my meditation practice. For as long as I have been on the path, I have intuitively known that the Truth transcends any forms that might appear to point the way. “Neti-neti” was my favorite mantra from an early age: not this; not that.
And yet this basic insight about the underlying emptiness of reality has never stopped me from being drawn like a moth to the fire of religious ritual and sacred imagery.
As I sat that morning, forgetting to hang out in the spaces between the thoughts, I remembered an anecdote about the sixteenth century Spanish mystics, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. I had just spent the past three years translating John’s masterpiece,
Dark Night of the Soul and Teresa’s, The Interior Castle
It is said that John, known for his severe austerity, was forever challenging Teresa about her excessive attachment to forms. At one point he convinced her to strip the walls of her cell of all the pictures of Christ, the Blessed Mother and the saints she had plastered there.
Teresa obeyed, but she was miserable. She prayed fervently for the poverty of spirit required for this important mortification, but detachment was not forthcoming. Instead, she had a vision of Christ. “Which is better?” he asked her, “poverty or charity?” Then he said, “If love is better, you must not give up anything that awakens love in you.” And so Teresa joyfully hung all her pictures back up.
As I pondered this story, I recognized the same dynamic tension represented by these two legendary Christian mystics reflected in my own practice. As a natural contemplative, I am drawn to stillness, to emptiness, to formlessness. But I am also a practitioner of kirtan (devotional chanting in the Hindu tradition) and I rejoice in sacred song. I used to feel vaguely apologetic while engaged in one of these two spiritual activities, knowing I would soon be defecting to the other.
Although I had read the Heart Sutra innumerable times, I seem to have focused entirely on the teachings of emptiness and missed the part where the Buddha taught that there is no actual distinction between form and emptiness, between samsara and nirvana, between silence and praise.
I picture Teresa of Avila pounding the last nail into her wall, her beloved icons safely back in place. She rushes downstairs to the rectory, habit billowing, hammer in hand. “Father!” she cries. John looks up from the poem he is writing. Teresa breathlessly recounts her vision, beaming with relief. John cannot help himself but smile. “Very good, my daughter,” he says. And he means it.
He would mean it because, as the author of
Dark Night of the Soul
, which depicts the spiritual journey through the void of unknowing to union of love with the Divine, he knew better than most that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” He must have been pleased to see his greatest spiritual companion come to this realization through experience. Teresa had become “a lamp unto herself.”
While Buddhism is based clearly on the understanding of sunyata, Christianity is not generally recognized for its teachings on emptiness. But they are there, embedded in the poetry of the mystics. The via negativa is like the eastern practice of neti-neti, in which the practitioner consciously navigates her way through the alluring array of spiritual phenomena to the fundamental “suchness” at their core.
In the via negativa, the seeker must first surrender to a process of negation, in which all sensual attachments to the sacred are stripped away and all concepts of the nature or even the existence of God are forfeited. This is the path of “purgation” (via purgativa).
From that place of spiritual nakedness, the seeker enters into the second phase of her journey (the via iluminativa), in which the divine light is poured into the purified vessel of the soul. Because of our old way of seeing, this blinding radiance is experienced as darkness. We have to develop new spiritual eyes to absorb the illumination that can only come into a soul emptied of all feelings and all concepts. It is an experience of satori.
The final stage of the spiritual path is union (via unitiva). This occurs when the small self is annihilated and merges into the One. The Christian mystics use the language of romantic love to describe this melding. It is transformation of the lover (the soul) into the Beloved (God), rendering them inseparable. Every last shred of awareness of the phenomenal world falls away in that mystical absorption. In the Eastern traditions, we call it samadhi.
For John of the Cross, the journey to liberation (union) involves passage through the desert of the unknown, where the seeker suffers the excruciating loss of everything that ever caused her to feel connected to her God and assure her that he was with her. This dark night of the soul, says John, is the true beginning of the spiritual life.
Teresa of Avila, author of
The Interior Castle
, saw the soul as a beautiful crystal, perfectly clear, with many facets leading to the central chamber, where the King of Kings is calling her inward to have union with Him. For Teresa, the path home to God was to simply be still and go within. She calls this contemplative practice “the Prayer of Quiet.”
These two great mystics lived the classical spiritual paradox: when the lover at last achieves the object of her passionate longing and unites with the Beloved, she is obliterated and there is no one left to enjoy the fruits of union. There is only love. Atman and Brahman are one in the same, after all.
Form is no other than emptiness. Emptiness is no other than form. I can sing to Krishna on Tuesday nights, my heart filled with that special bliss and return to my cushion the next morning, watching my thoughts and sensations arise and fall away. Bodhi swaha!
Mirabai Starr is the author of a new translation of
Dark Night of the Soul, by St. John of the Cross (Riverhead Books, 2002) and The Interior Castle
, by St. Teresa of Avila (Riverhead Books, 2003). She teaches Philosophy and World Religions at the University of New Mexico-Taos.