What the Dalai Lama Learned from Thomas Merton

In a provocative op-ed this morning in the New York Times, the Dalai Lama speaks of his 1968 encounter with Thomas Merton and the need for religions to highlight "what unites us."  Interestingly, Merton is often criticized by some Catholics for not being "sufficiently Catholic" towards the end of his life (when he travelled through Asia en route to an interfaith conference in Thailand, where he was accidentally electrocuted) or, likewise, for not wanting to return to religious life after the Asia trip.  (This critique showed up when Merton was removed from a roster of Catholic lives in the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults in 2005.)  Both of these critiques are answered by his voluminous journals, his published writings at the time, the letters he sent to the monastery during his trip, as well as strong comments from his brothers in the Abbey of Gethsemani.  Somewhat hidden in this op-ed on interfaith relations, however, is a comment from the Dalai Lama, who adverts to Merton's desire to remain "perfectly faithful" to Christianity.

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.


An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.

A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.

I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.

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Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 1 month ago
I find it interesting that before his trip to Asia, Merton was not especially interested in Tibetan Buddhism. Like the Buddhism of Nepal, he considered it “… ferocity, ritualism, superstition, magic. No doubt many deep and mysterious things, but maybe it needs to disappear.” (The Other Side of the Mountain, p. 145, July 23, 1968).
However after meeting the Dalai Lama on November 4th, it was clear that Merton and the D.L. were kindred spirits.  Merton said that he had seldom met anyone with whom he "clicked so well".
More about the 3 meetings between Merton and D.L. and the visit of the D.L. to Merton's grave at Gethsemani are here:  
Bill Collier
9 years 1 month ago
That must have been quite a meeting between Merton and the Dalai Lama, who IMO is one of the most deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates. From his acceptance speech in 1989:

"As a Buddhist monk, my concern extends to all members of the human family and, indeed, to all sentient beings who suffer. I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of inner peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved through the cultivation of altruism, of love and compassion and elimination of ignorance, selfishness and greed.

The problems we face today, violent conflicts, destruction of nature, poverty, hunger, and so on, are human-created problems which can be resolved through human effort, understanding and the development of a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We need to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share. Although I have found my own Buddhist religion helpful in generating love and compassion, even for those we consider our enemies, I am convinced that everyone can develop a good heart and a sense of universal responsibility with or without religion."

The problems he identifies are arguably more dire two decades on, and the glass half-empty part of me laments that we have yet "to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share."

Pearce Shea
9 years 1 month ago
As a big fan of Merton myself I do have to admit that the man was clearly troubled by parts of his faith and of his professed vocation and clearly had a deeply felt need for "a change." None of this need not necessarily preclude him from a list of saints, but, given that the Catechism for Adults is meant as a sort of teaching guide or intro to aspects of the Faith, it seems fair to me to exclude more problematic members (leave Merton for RCIA graduates, most of what he has to say is too much for most RCIA students, anyway). Merton may be a saint and I pray that he is, but, near the end of his life, he was clearly going through a particularly pronounced period of doubt, and he just so happened to die before seeing the other end of it. And yes, his letters and notes, etc do indeed suggest (to my simple mind) that he was perhaps "insufficiently Catholic," insofar as he seemed to want to transcend the Church herself. So we will never know for certain, which is true of plenty of things in this world. So sure, I agree that Merton probably wanted to remain "Christian" but I doubt that he wanted to remain Catholic. 
Pearce Shea
9 years 1 month ago
Bill C- I think, perhaps that cultivating an universal responsibility for one and the planet we all share may well be the domain of the Kingdom of God. 
Joyce Donahue
9 years 1 month ago
Not everyone is called to the same task. Some like Merton, are called to interact with those of other faiths, in search of common truth and the good of all humankind.  At Vatican II, we acknowledged the value in this: 
''We think cordially too of all who acknowledge God, and who preserve in their traditions precious elements of religion and humanity. We want frank conversation to compel us all to receive the impulses of the Spirit faithfully and to act on them energetically.'' (Gaudiam et Spes, 92)
It seems to me that the Dalai Lama is speaking of this kind of frank conversation with Merton.
Paul Kelley
9 years 1 month ago
This is a very intersting and importaqnt comment. Itreminds me very much of the writings of  Karen Armstrong, who was a Catholic nun at onetime. In one of her books she also traced Compassion as a common thread in religions. We should be continuing on this path of acknowledging our commonality.
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 1 month ago
Someone who knew Merton well, (Tommie O'Callahan) said that Merton liked to complain a lot about the abbot and monastery rules, but really he was always grateful that he had a valid reason to refuse all the invitations to speak and travel.  Without the structure and discipline of the monastery, he would have spun totally out of control. I think that there is some truth to that, and Merton knew it.  The monastery gave him the ground and freedom from which he could explore other religions and more off the beaten track ways.  He could have never become who he was without the Church.


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