QUERY> Buddhist perspectives on the "Cloud of Unknowing" / Christian perspectives on parallels in Buddhism

Birgit Kellner's picture

Dear colleagues,

I am looking for information on Buddhist perspectives on the middle English work of Christian mysticism “The Cloud of Unknowing” – or, as it were, Christian perspectives on significant Buddhist parallels to the teachings in the “Cloud”.

So far I’ve been able to detect a significance of the “Cloud” in Christian-Zen encounters in Northern America (see the rather brief treatments by Aitken in Buddhist-Christian Studies 1/1981 and Loy in Buddhist-Christian Studies 9/1989). The Irish Jesuit William Johnston, who edited the “Cloud of Unknowing” in 1973, was also practicing Zen and saw parallels. I was wondering whether there is any more comprehensive literature -- a dissertation perhaps? -- that explores this entire environment (ideally not just in Northern America, but also in Europe; Germany for instance seems relevant).

I also tracked down two more substantial comparative analyses that take Buddhaghosa as a main point of reference: Ninian Smart, “What Would Buddhaghosa Have Made of The Cloud of Unknowing?”, in Katz, ed., Mysticism and Language, OUP 1992; and Rupert Gethin, “Emptiness and Unknowing: An Essay in Comparative Mysticism”, in Buddhist Studies Review 53/1-2, 2018. Again, here too further pointers would be greatly appreciated!

With best regards,

----

Prof. Birgit Kellner, PhD
Director
Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia
Austrian Academy of Sciences
Hollandstrasse 11-13/2
1020 Vienna
Austria

 

 

Dear Birgit,

 

Regarding your inquiry as to parallels between The Cloud of Unknowing (and its teachings) and Buddhism, the following come immediately to mind as fruitful general sources:

1) Williams, Janet P. (2000). Denying Divinity: Apophasis in the Patristic Christian and Soto Zen Buddhist Traditions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This mentions the Cloud, but it also includes discussion of multiple other potentially relevant mystical/apophatic Buddhist and Christian traditions.

2) Panikkar, Raimon (2006). Buddhism. (Opera Omnia: Vol. V). Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

No direct references to the Cloud, but multiple to related Christian currents.

3) Sebastian, C. D. (2016). The Cloud of Nothingness: The Negative Way in Nāgārjuna and John of the Cross. Springer.

Includes mutliple references to the Cloud (and rich further bibliography).

 

 

And more directly:

 

In adition to:

4) Aitken, Robert (1981). '"The Cloud of Unknowing" and the "Mumonkan": Christian and Buddhist Meditation Methods'. Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 1: 87-91. (which you already mention), the same journal issue includes:

5) Corless, Roger (1981). 'Editor's Note'. Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 1: 84-86.

6) Honda, Masaaki (1981). '"The Cloud of Unknowing" and the Logic of "Not-Two"'. Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 1: 93-96.

7) Young, Glenn (2010). The Work of Contemplation Then and Now: The Cloud of Unknowing and Present-Day Christian Mystical Practice. PhD Dissertation: University of Missouri-Kansas City.

8) Will, Maika J. (1993). 'The Role of Passivity in the Prayer of The Cloud of Unknowing'. Mystics Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2, June: 63-70.

9) Collins, David (1993). Unknowing: Playing Seriously with Contemplative Deconstruction. PhD Dissertation: The California School of Professional Psychology, Berkeley/Alameda.

 

All best,

Rafal


Rafal K. Stepien

Assistant Professor in Comparative Religion

Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Academia.edu

 

Dear Prof. Kellner,

I am unsure whether this could be relevant but the following study by Ueda Shizuteru 上田閑照 (1926–2019) focuses on Meister Eckhart, envisioned from the perspective of a Zen practitioner:

  • Ueda, Shizuteru. 1965. Die Gottesgeburt in der Seele und der Durchbruch zur Gottheit. Gütersloher Verl.-Haus G. Mohn.

Best wishes,

_________________________________________
Michel Mohr, Professor
Department of Religion
University of Hawaii
http://michelmohr.com
http://www.hawaii.edu/religion/

 

Thanks to everyone for responses on- and off-list. Here follows a compilation of all references and other kinds of information that I received from Ronan Farrell, Allan Ding, Rafal Stepien, Sara McClintock, Michael Mohr, Nikko Odiseos, and Stephan Peter Bumbacher.

Literature references:

  • Aitken, Robert (1981). '"The Cloud of Unknowing" and the "Mumonkan": Christian and Buddhist Meditation Methods'. Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 1: 87-91
  • Collins, David (1993). Unknowing: Playing Seriously with Contemplative Deconstruction. PhD Dissertation: The California School of Professional Psychology, Berkeley/Alameda.
  • Corless, Roger (1981). 'Editor's Note'. Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 1: 84-86.
  • Corless, R., “From Ignorance to Unknowing in The Cloud of Unknowing and the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”, in V. Lagorio (ed.), Mysticism: Medieval and Modern, Universität Salzburg, Salzburg, 1986, pp. 118-34.
  • Honda, Masaaki, ‘“The Cloud of Unknowing” and the Logic of “Not-Two”’, Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 1 (1981), pp. 93-96.
  • Llewelyn, R., “The Treatment of Distractions in Zen and the Cloud of Unknowing”, Mystics Quarterly, 7 (1981) pp. 61-67.
  • Massa, Willi: Kontemplative Meditation: Die Wolke des Nichtwissens. Matthias Grünewald Verlag, Mainz 1974.
  • Massa, Willi: Wolke des Nichtwissens und Brief persönlicher Führung. Anleitung zur Meditation. Neu übertragen und herausgegeben von Willi Massa, Freiburg i. Br. 1999, Verlag Herder.
  • Nakamura, H., ‘The Goal of Meditation’, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies , Vol. 13, No. 1 (Mar., 1986), pp. 63-79.
  • Panikkar, Raimon (2006). Buddhism. (Opera Omnia: Vol. V). Maryknoll: Orbis Books. [No direct references to the Cloud, but multiple to related Christian currents.]
  • Sebastian, C.D., The Cloud of Nothingness: the Negative Way in Nagarjuna and John of the Cross, Springer, 2016.
  • Will, Maika J. (1993). 'The Role of Passivity in the Prayer of The Cloud of Unknowing'. Mystics Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2, June: 63-70.
  • Will-Fowler, M., “Zen Buddhist Meditation and The Cloud-author’s Prayer of Love”, Downside Review, 113, 1995, pp. 289-308.
  • Williams, Janet P. (2000). Denying Divinity: Apophasis in the Patristic Christian and Soto Zen Buddhist Traditions. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [This mentions the Cloud, but it also includes discussion of multiple other potentially relevant mystical/apophatic Buddhist and Christian traditions.]
  • Young, Glenn (2010). The Work of Contemplation Then and Now: The Cloud of Unknowing and Present-Day Christian Mystical Practice. PhD Dissertation: University of Missouri-Kansas City.
  • The introductions to a number of recent editions of the Cloud mention a connection, in some form or other, with Buddhist teachings, for example, Johnston (1967); Progoff (1969); and Spearing (2002).

There are also a few other works and papers on the Cloud and Indian traditions more generally, e.g.:

  • Elwin, H.V.H., Christian Dhyana; or Prayer of loving regard, SPCK, London, 1930.
  • Watson, K. “The Cloud of Unknowing and Vedanta,” in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England, ed. M. Glasscoe, University of Exeter Press, Exeter, 1982, pp. 76-101.
  • Will-Fowler, M., “The Prayer of the Cloud Author: A Fourteenth-Century Christian Mantra?”, Faith and Reason, The journal of Christendom College, Fall 1995, Vol. XXI, No. 3, pp. 1-8.

Other possibly relevant items of information / studies:

  • New translation of "Cloud" by Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambala Publications 2018)
  • William Johnston mentions Zen in his "The Mysticism of the Cloud of Unknowing" (Fordham University, 2000), see p. 12 (Allan Ding).
  • Ryan Kuratko wrote a theology dissertation at Emory in 2018 comparing Buddhaghosa and Teresa of Avila (Sara McClintock).
  • Study on Meister Eckhart envisioned from the perspective of a Zen practitioner: Ueda, Shizuteru. 1965. Die Gottesgeburt in der Seele und der Durchbruch zur Gottheit. Gütersloher Verl.-Haus G. Mohn. (Michael Mohr)
  • Some references to the "Cloud of Unknowing" in publications by Shambala, e.g. p. 38 of Traleg Rinpoche's "Mind at Ease", "Only Don't Know" pp. 162-164 (Korean Soen), mention of concept, but not of text, also made in Ken Wilber's "Integral Buddhism" (Nikko Odiseos, Shambala Publications)

------

Prof. Birgit Kellner, PhD
Direktorin
Institut für Kultur- und Geistesgeschichte Asiens
Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften
Hollandstraße 11-13/2
1020 Wien

Prof. Birgit Kellner, PhD
Director
Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia
Austrian Academy of Sciences
Hollandstrasse 11-13/2
1020 Vienna
Austria

Tel./Phone: +43-(0)-1-51581-6420
Web: http://ikga.oeaw.ac.at

Dear Birgit, I sent you an email which you perhaps did not receive, so here it is again: Dear Professor Kellner,

I hope life in Vienna continues to be pleasant (as during the Dharmakirti conference of 2005 and the IABS conference of 2014) and that your research has not been disrupted by the epidemic. My brother is now the Irish Ambassador there, so I hope to visit in the autumn and link up with the world of Buddhist scholarship in the university.
In response to your query re The Cloud of Unknowing, I doubt if that particular text has a strong presence today, in comparison with Eckhart or even Julian of Norwich. (Google hits for "Cloud of Unknowing", 205,000, for "Julian of Norwich" 586,000, for "Meister Eckhart", 1,160,000).
Fr Bill Johnston published a translation and a commentary The Mysticism of the Cloud of Unknowing (foreword by Thomas Merton) but I don't think he edited the Middle English text. There's a chapel on the sixth floor of SJ House in Sophia University, where he used to pray in adoration of the Bl. Sacrament, a holy place!
Another of my colleagues in Sophia, Ruben Habito, gives a response to the Cloud of Unknowing here: https://elijah-interfaith.org/courses/2-c-4-anonymous-the-cloud-of-unkno...
I wasn't aware of my friend David Loy's engagement with this text. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1390000?seq=1 also in
Budhi: A Journal of Ideas and Culture 1 (2):15-37 (1997) https://journals.ateneo.edu/ojs/index.php/budhi/article/view/451/451
There's a brief reference to the Cloud of Unknowing here: https://cswr.hds.harvard.edu/news/2021/1/12/video-reading-hindu-and-chri... Frank Clooney, Jon Levenson, Sarah Coakley -- great line-up!
Here's a piece by a man I met briefly in the US back in 1982: https://www.pdcnet.org/thought/content/thought_1979_0054_0002_0162_0175
There's also Glenn Young, "Practice and the comparative study of mysticism: the Yoga Sutra and The Cloud of Unknowing", Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies 29 (2016):54-61.
I wrote a piece vaguely straying into this area lately (for Cattoi, ed., Routledge Handbook of Buddhist-Christian Studies), which I attach. I also mentioned Bill Johnston in ‘Pioneers of Buddhist-Christian Dialogue Before Vatican II.’ In: Indunil J. Kodithuwakku, ed. Building a Culture of Compassion: Essays Celebrating 25 years of the Vesakh Message to Buddhists, In dialogo 12. Vatican: Urbaniana University Press, 2020, 27-41.

Best wishes for a peaceful and healthy summer,

Joseph O'Leary

The message is for Prof. Kellner, not for publication.