Thomas Merton and Buddhism

This is Neil again. I’ve already posted on Thomas Merton and Buddhism, focusing on his artwork. I’ve also posted twice on Thomas Merton and Islam (here and here). The second of the posts on Merton and Islam drew on a lecture delivered last year at the University of Calgary by the Disciples of Christ minister and exegete Bonnie Thurston. I would now like to examine Reverend Thurston’s lecture, part of the same series, on Merton and Buddhism. Nearly everthing substantial that follows is indebted to her.

She begins, appropriately, with what Merton planned to say in Calcutta in 1968 on interreligious dialogue (you can find this paper in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, which can apparently be bought for $2.43). Merton listed four principles. First, perhaps envisioning the regular dialogue that has occurred between monastics of different religions (for a very good recent example, see here), Merton suggested that dialogue be reserved for those who “have been seriously disciplined by years of silence and by a long habit of meditation.” During this dialogue, “there can be no question of a facile syncretism” and “there must be a scrupulous respect for important differences.” Finally, continuing his decidedly monastic emphasis, Merton say that the essential “is to be sought in the area of true self-transcendence and enlightenment.”

Merton’s eventual interest in Buddhism wasn’t always obvious. As a student in Columbia in the late 1930s, Merton, inspired by Aldous Huxley, had sought out books on Eastern spirituality. The Seven Storey Mountain (available for $4.00) reports Merton’s inauspicious conclusion about “all Oriental mysticism”:

The only practical thing I got out of it was a system for going to sleep, at night … You lay flat in bed, without a pillow, your arms at your sides and your legs straight out, and relaxed all your muscles, and you said to yourself: ‘Now I have no feet, now I have no feet … no feet … no legs … no knees.’

You may tell me in the comments if this method works at all. Much more importantly, however, Merton came across the stranded Hindu monk Bramachari in either 1937 or 1938. Bramachari wisely directed the inquisitive Merton to the mystical books in Merton’s own tradition – Augustine’s Confessions, The Imitation of Christ. These works surely played a role in Merton’s conversion to Catholicism in November of 1938. Merton would write in The Seven Storey Mountain about Bramachari’s recommendations, “Now that I look back on those days, it seems to me very probable that one of the reasons why God had brought him all the way from India was that he might say just that.” Merton, of course, would then become a Trappist monk. At Gethsemane, a more mature Merton would turn his interest to the Asian religions once more in 1949. This time, his interest would be both profound and lasting. With particular regard to Buddhism, as I posted in my earlier entry on Merton and Buddhism, the most important figure for Merton was D.T. Suzuki.

Thus, Merton first studied the Zen tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. But then he went to Asia in 1968. There he met Tibetan monks. Merton had read about Tibetan traditions, but had also written that “much that appears in books about them seems bizarre if not sinister.” But these apprehensions fell away when Merton made real contact with Tibetan Buddhism – a companion on Merton’s travels wrote, “Merton’s reception by each Lama brought an instantaneous mutual recognition in an atmosphere of ‘Cor ad cor loquitur‘ (‘heart speaks to heart’).” Finally, Merton saw the carved Buddhas at Polonnaruwa (in Sri Lanka). Paul Wiles has written about Merton’s epiphany here in the June 2 Commonweal. Merton himself wrote:

I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely with … Polonnaruwa my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.

But what did Merton see in Buddhism? How did it help him “pierce through the surface”? Two things must be made clear. First, Merton did not see his appreciation of Buddhism as corroding his vocation as a Christian monk and priest. He wrote to a correspondent on December 12, 1964:

I have no hesitation in saying that the ‘Buddhist’ view of reality and life is one which I find extremely practical and acceptable, and, indeed, I think it is one of the very great contributions to the universal spiritual heritage of man. It is by no means foreign or hostile to the spirit of Christianity, provided that the Christian outlook does not become bogged down in a slough of pseudo-objective formalities, as I am afraid it sometimes tends to do.

In a circular letter written on November 9, 1968 (Merton died on December 10), mainly concerning his experiences with the Tibetans, Merton ended by saying, “in my contacts with these new friends I also feel consolation in my own faith in Christ and His indwelling presence. I hope and believe He may be present in the hearts of all of us.” Second, Merton was intensely practical.

Merton’s concern with actual religious practice first drew him to Buddhism. From 1951 to 1955, he was Master of Scholastics at Gethsemane; in 1955, he began a decade as Master of Novices. Merton, Bonnie Thurston says, would discover that Zen is about “direct, unmediated experience” and has a “preference for the concrete and tangible; it locates ultimate meaning in the ordinary, humble tasks and problems of daily life and, often, it is high spirited, good humored and rather irreverent.” I do not think that it is unfair to suggest that these emphases could serve as a corrective to at least some aspects of preconciliar Catholicism. They could have been rather useful for a spiritual director and teacher.

Furthermore, Merton was an American citizen. His critiques of American society are somewhat debatable, but Merton certainly believed that America was preoccupied with “getting and taking” and its religiosity had lost any sense of interiority. Dialogue with Buddhism could, Merton thought, help Christians learn what it meant to follow the Christ who continually withdrew to pray, to “commune with his own heart and be still.”

Most importantly, Merton was a monk who was very generally concerned with monastic renewal. In the paper that was supposed to be delivered in Calcutta, he encouraged dialogue, for “I believe that some of us need to do this in order to improve the quality of our own monastic life and even to help in the task of monastic renewal which has been undertaken within the Western church.” What did he hope to learn about religious practice and monastic renewal from Buddhists?

Merton was convinced that the heart of monasticism was conversion. The greatest obstacle to conversion was self-absorption. And Buddhism, Thurston suggests, “provided a practical articulation of an issue Merton faced as a Christian monk and teacher of monks”: how to wake up from self-absorption, from the prison of the false self. Although Buddhism does not have the doctrine of original sin, Buddhism diagnoses suffering as the result of an absence of inner illumination. Buddhist practices are meant to cause one to wake up, or become converted, to the real nature of reality. Merton said, while in Bangkok, “Both Christianity and Buddhism agree that the root of man’s problems is that his consciousness is all fouled up and he does not apprehend reality as it fully and really is.” Both Christians and Buddhists require a “transformation of man’s consciousness” – an awakening from blindness.

Merton saw this satori, “enlightenment,” as an “immediate experience of Being.” Thurston suggests that we can better understand what satori might mean by looking at Merton’s poem, “A Song for Nobody,” found in his 1963 collection, Emblems of a Season of Fury (unfortunately, this would cost you $42.00):

A yellow flower
(Light and spirit)
Sings by itself
For nobody.

A golden spirit
(Light and emptiness)
Sings without a word
By itself.

Let no one touch this gentle sun
In whose dark eye
Someone is awake.

(No light, no gold, no name, no color
And no thought:
O, wide awake!)

A golden heaven
Sings by itself
A song to nobody.

Thurston, herself a poet, tells us that the narrator apparently first sees an identifiable and categorizable flower, but then grasps “a golden spirit” which sings through it – and singing is a metaphor for prayer and praise. The spirit sings simply for the sake of the act – “for nobody,” without any thought of profit or gain. The narrator realizes that he must not disturb or try to possess this spirit – “Let no one touch this gentle sun.” He then understands that, even as he looks at the flower, “Someone” is also looking back at him through the flower’s own “dark eye.” There is, Thurston says, an “inter-penetration” of perception. She reminds us of John Donne’s poem “The good-morrow,” where the lover says to his beloved, “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears.” And of Meister Eckhart’s striking remark, “The eye wherein I see God is the same eye wherein God sees me.” Now having left behind any possible desire to objectify the flower – “no gold, no name, no color” – the narrator is “wide awake” before a Presence. For him, the flower has become the sign of a “golden heaven.” Merton tried to render this “awareness” in many of his poems in the 1950s and the 1960s.

Merton had written to D.T. Suzuki in 1959 that, “it seems to me that Zen is the very atmosphere of the gospels, and the Gospels are bursting with it.” Thurston, a former professor of New Testament, suggests that this Buddhist emphasis on “awareness,” enlightenment, satori, is a useful way to try to understand the emphasis on “seeing” in the Gospels. This is most evident in the Gospel of John, where Jesus calls his disciples by telling them “Come and see” (Jn 1:39). Jesus says, after performing the “central” miracle in John’s Gospel, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind” (Jn 9:39). We are not supposed to merely see one particular thing or object, but to develop an entirely new way of perception. In Polonnaruwa, Merton movingly speaks of such a new way of perception: “I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.” This new perception naturally affects how we see our brother and sisters (we are surely not “in the light” if we do not love them [1 Jn 3:10]). It also affects how we see ourselves. As Merton wrote to Suzuki, “The Christ we seek is within us, in our inmost self, is our inmmost self, and yet infinitely transcends ourselves.” It even changes our perception of our everyday, ordinary lives. In New Seeds of Contemplation (cheap), Merton wrote that contemplation was “more than a consideration of abstract truths about God. … It is awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life.”

So, why was Thomas Merton interested in Buddhism? The quick answer is that he wanted to follow Jesus’ call to “Come and see” and Buddhism helped him do just that.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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