Thomas Merton’s Art: Suzuki and Maritain, Zen and Connaturality

In effect these writings are decidedly hopeful in their own way in so far as they stand outside all processes of production, marketing, consumption and destruction, which does not however mean that they cannot be bought. Nevertheless it is clear that these are not legal marks. Nor are they illegal marks, since as far as law is concerned they are perfectly inconsequent. It is this and this alone which gives them a Christian character (Galatians 5), since they obviously do not fit into any familiar setting of religious symbolism, liturgical or otherwise.
(Thomas Merton – “Signatures: Notes on the Author’s Drawings”)

During the last years of his life, Thomas Merton created a striking body of art in the style of abstract expressionism influenced by Zen calligraphy. The drawings, “summonses to awareness, but not to ‘awareness of,'” would be first exhibited at Catherine Spalding College in the last months of 1964. In Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton, the art historian Roger Lipsey writes about Merton’s art in a way that draws together two profound, yet – as we shall see – not discrepant, influences on his life – the Zen scholar Daisetz T. Suzuki and the Catholic intellectual Jacques Maritain:

Since the mid-1950s, Suzuki’s writings had drawn and inspired Merton. Very largely in Suzuki’s version, Zen Buddhism became the mirror of his Christian faith and practice. It showed him the goodness and depth of Christianity but also alternative principles and insights, and an alternative teaching/learning style preserved in the baskets of Chinese and Japanese writings. Suzuki’s Zen teachings gave Merton a new way to think about the inner life, a new sacred history composed of the sayings and doings of the early Chinese masters, and new forms of practice. “Zen is not kerygma, but realization,” Merton wrote toward the end of his life, “not revelation but consciousness, not news from the Father who sent his Son into this world, but awareness of the ontological ground of our own being here and now, right in the midst of this world.” And he went on to write that Zen and Christianity complement each other. That was overwhelmingly his experience. Merton’s hunger to be real, to experience his inner and outer life vividly and without self-deception, needed the practice of Zen.

Buddhist meditation, but above all that of Zen seeks not to explain but to pay attention, to become aware, to be mindful, in other words to develop a certain kind of consciousness that is above and beyond deception by verbal formulas. Deception in what? Deception in its grasp of itself as it really is. Deception due to diversion and distraction from what is right there – consciousness itself.

 (emphasis added by Merton)

Released from the monastery with the permission and blessing of Dom James Fox, Merton traveled by air for the second time in June 1964 and found himself again in New York City after an absence of some twenty-three years. He joined Dr. Suzuki and his secretary, Mihoko Okamura, at the simple apartment where Suzuki was staying.

One had to meet this man in order to fully appreciate him. He seemed to me to embody all the indefinable qualities of the “Superior Man” of the ancient Asian, Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist traditions. Or, rather in meeting him one seemed to meet that “True Man of No Title,” that Chuang Tzu and the Zen Masters speak of. And of course this is the man one really wants to meet. Who else is there? In meeting Dr. Suzuki and drinking a cup of tea with him I felt I had met this one man. It was like finally arriving at one’s own home.

As Merton wrote to a friend in religion several months later, “Without contact with living examples, we soon get lost or give out.” Over the years, he had neither gotten lost nor given out, but his experience of monasticism had lacked a living example. It was this void, this unoccupied place, which Suzuki filled not through any deliberate action on his part but simply by the way he was and by virtue of the knowledge he had feelingly mastered. “He really understands what interior simplicity is all about and really lives it. This is the important thing,” Merton reported in the same letter. As the next section of this exploration of friends will suggest, there was a second living example [Maritain], endowed with another sort of wisdom and so close to Merton in the 1960s that he was not so much an example as a family member ahead on the path.

There would have been no significant art from Merton without Suzuki’s immense impact on him – or in any case a very different art. More important still, Merton would not have been the person he was in the 1960s without Suzuki as a source and friend. I wrote many pages ago that there would have been no art without the hermitage. These two themes, Zen and the hermitage, coincide in a passage from Merton’s journal in 1966. Perhaps in those words is the sound needed to conclude this evocation of a friendship that keeps asking for more time, more remembrance:

Beauty and necessity (for me) of solitary life – apparent in the sparks of truth, small, recurring flashing of a reality that is beyond doubt, momentarily appearing, leading me further on my way. Things that need no explanation and perhaps have none, but which say: “Here! This way!” And with final authority.

It is for them that I will be held responsible. Nothing but immense gratitude! They cancel out all my mistakes, weaknesses, evasions, falsifications.

They lead further and further in that direction that has been shown me, and to which I am called.

[Now, Lipsey discusses Jacques Maritain, to whom Merton wrote a letter in 1966 signed “Avec toute mon affection filiale,” showing their closeness]

Although the Neo-Thomist view of art can be embraced as a flawless doctrine and divider of sheep from goats, [Maritain] didn’t mean it to be taken that way and didn’t practice anything of the sort. He was too sensitive to the warmth and movement of art, too aware of its challenges, too much a poet himself to allow rigidity. He and Raïssa [his wife] had friends among French artists, particularly Marc Chagall. Their approach to art was in part an approach to artists. It remained alive. In his Mellon lectures of 1952, Maritain returned again and again to the notion of “creative intuition,” a term that leaves the field open for surprises and much goodness.

Art and Scholasticism was Merton’s master text on Christian art, but for a time in the late 1950s and very early 1960s – the period of his struggle to write Art and Worship – Merton allied its light and clarity with his own confusions. That was an unhappy thing to do, and he got over it. But even in the summer of 1964, a high point for his practice as a calligraphic artist, he organized his talks on art for the novices around the text he called in his notes “A&S” – Art and Scholasticism. By then, he had come to the balanced, creative attitudes we have experienced and explored. One of many passages from Maritain he recorded in those notes has precisely the warmth and openness, the invitation to spontaneity that he had come to value. Under the heading of “Art and Kairos” – art and the moment of great, life-giving insight – Merton transcribed: “In the end, all the rules having become connatural to him, the artist seemingly has no other rule than to espouse at each moment the living contour of a unique and dominating emotion that will never recur.” The word connatural is part of Thomist heritage; today we might say “second nature.” But it couldn’t be clearer that Merton was finding, now, in traditional Catholic thought the basis for freedom he had discovered through his exploration of Zen Buddhism.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Thomas Merton’s Art: Suzuki and Maritain, Zen and Connaturality

  1. Pingback: Thomas Merton and Buddhism « Catholic Sensibility

  2. The whole thing between Merton and Suzuki on the true/false self problem seemed to come down to one question that they were exploring in that meeting in NYC –”what is a person ?”

    in regards to Merton and Islam , in his letters to the Sufi practioner Abdul Aziz , Merton uses Meiter Eckhardt’s ”Godhead above God ” as a recommendation to Aziz , and also answers his question as to how he meditates.

    these dialogues are vital . why ? becuase of many reasons . the first being that the question of a person being spirit goes against the grain of reducing man to matter . for as we say in the mass during the responsorial ”and with your spirit ”.

    secondly –we need badly a christian -muslim dialogue now more than ever.

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