The Cloud of Unknowing is a hybrid text. For starters, The Cloud author draws heavily on negative theology. This much is abundantly clear in his translation The Mystical Theology of St. Denis. For instance, in Chapter 4, we are to begin by “remov[ing] from God that which is without substance and everything that does not exist” (The Mystical Theology of St. Denis in The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. and ed. A.C. Spearing, p. 8). The process of removing this attribute and that from God is textbook via negativa.
The Cloud of Unknowing is clearly very much inspired by this approach, as everything that is not God in himself is to be placed in the “cloud of forgetting” and as “the cloud of unknowing” is indeed the undoing of all knowledge concerned with God’s attributes (and not his “bare existence”), with the intellect, and with the “bodily senses.” All this must go.
And yet, The Cloud author swerves from this strict “jnana path” by claiming, time and again, that it is not the intellect that can reach these heights; instead, it must be “the humble stirring of love.” In this sense, while the outer container of The Cloud is negative theology in the form of intellectual negation (cf. neti neti), the inner substance is eros, an ascent–assisted by and ultimately determined by the Creator–to God himself. This hybrid character is what, by my lights, makes the text so fascinating.
Now to my criticism. I think The Cloud author is so committed to draping all knowledge paths in pride that he’s unwilling to even argue for the need to place love before knowledge. Each time he mentions the inadequacy of the intellect he does no more than posit this, as if it were self-evident. Equally self-evident, he thinks, is that the faculty of the will, via eros love, must point the way (until divine grace can welcome one home).
This is myopia, to be sure. Consider, in this connection, a clear exposition of the huatou in Stuart Lachs’ essay, “Hua-t’ou: A Method of Zen Meditation.” Like self-inquiry, the huatou is very much guided by deep, earnest inquisitiveness. Lachs puts the attitudinal point well. The Zen practitioner utilizing the huatou method will experience “nagging undercurrents of doubt” (p. 15). That doubt, above all, is what drives this nonconceptual existential inquiry into original nature. “Who am I?” or “What is wu?” or simply “Who?” or simply “What?” clip clops and clip clops until, in time, it can gallop forward on the strength of the aching hunger to know.
I imagine you caught that last poetic phrase: “the aching hunger to know.” For truly–and the Three Greats in Chan makes this abundantly clear–the genuine mystic must have Great Doubt and Great Faith. The Cloud author gives, methinks, short shrift precisely to “the frame” (namely, his own version of Great Doubt) even as he urges one to keep “beating” on “the cloud of unknowing” with that humble yet persistent “stirring of love.”
Sri Ramana Maharshi often says, “Inquire into the Self or surrender completely to God.” While these two seminal, and basic, paths–to wit, that of jnana and that of bhakti–start off on different feet, they are braided together throughout in mysterious ways–sometimes Faith predominating while at other times Doubt does, yet in the end, as T. S. Eliot once wrote “is also my beginning,” they converge to a point at which they become, as in a sense they always were anyway, one and the same.