Thomas Merton and Dialogue with Buddhism
I have been asked, first, to sit in meditation with a Buddhist group in San Francisco at the end of this month and,then, give them a talk on Thomas Merton and the dialogue with Buddhism. Merton who early on in his career showed a keen interest in dialogue with the religions of Asia ( Hinduism, Sufism as well as Buddhism) tended to think such dialogue should, primarily, focus on practice and experience and less on doctrine or beliefs, as such.
Already in 1937, when Merton read Aldous Huxley's Ends and Means, Merton showed an interest in the Asian religions. When he was a student at Columbia University, Merton sought out a Hindu monk named Bramachari for some counsel. The monk advised Merton to follow his own Christian tradition to find what he was most deeply looking for. A strong admirer of Gandhi, Merton also noted how Gandhi, a Hindu, had found a congenial ' second home' of sorts in the Christian Sermon on the Mount. In the 1950's Merton began exploring Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism. He thought he found some resonance between Zen and the Desert Fathers. Like Zen roshis, the Desert Fathers sought a kind of loss of the self and its merger into a larger reality which transcended self or object. They often enough gave the equivalent of koans ( unsolvable and puzzling riddles) to desert monks under their sway. Their meditations on the kenosis or emptying of Christ and the monk's similar emptying in poverty and acceptance of suffering struck Merton as akin to the Buddhist notion of emptiness. For Merton, the koan meant that the monk comes to experience himself as a riddle without any easy or facile answers. Merton sent a copy of his study of the Desert Fathers to D.J. Suzuki, the leading exponent of Zen in the west. They began a long correspondence in the late 1950's ( cf. Encounter: Thomas Merton and D.T. Suzuki Robert Daggy, ed., Larkspur Press, 1988).
In his correspondence with Suzuki ( the two finally met in New York in 1964), Merton refers to the doctrine of analogy in Aquinas by which it was just as legitimate , in one sense, to say of God that he is non-being as to affirm God is being, since God so transcends being as we know it that any attribution of being as we know it would mislead. Merton was quite taken by the mystical tradition of a kind of un-knowing in our contemplation of God. He said to Suzuki: " I have my own way to walk and for some reason Zen is right in the middle of wherever I go. If I could not breathe Zen, I would probably die of asphyxiation." He also told Suzuki: " Speaking as a monk and not a writer, I am much happier with ' emptiness' when I do not have to talk about it." Merrton and Suzuki exchanged manuscripts and books and eventualloy engaged in a written dialogue which appears in Merton's posthumously published book, Zen and the Birds of Appetite.
In Merton's book, Mystics and Zen Masters, he says of Zen that it is " a concrete and lived ontology which explains itself not in theoretical propositions but in acts emerging out of a certain quality of consciousness and awareness. Only by these acts and by this quality of consciousness can Zen be judged." Merton thought Zen compatible with Christianity. In its essence Buddhism is about suffering, its causes and the paths to live with yet beyond it. It is about emptiness ( the delusion of a subject-object distinction and the non-substantiality and transcient nature of all existence). It is also about universal compassion. Merton approves of Suzuki's comment that the most important thing is love.
Merton, then, argues that Christian mystics approach ( in the apophatic tradition of approaching God with no words or images) the void, emptiness, the transcendence of subject and object, in their sense of pure darkness ( the dark night of the soul and of the senses of John of the Cross), kenosis and abandonment. For them, too, pure void and pure light come together. Merton cites John of the Cross' enigmatic remark about todo y nada ( everything and nothing at once!). He also lifts up the remark of the mystiic Jacob Boehme: " God is called the seeing and finding of the Nothing and, therefore, is called a nothing ( though it is God himself) because it is inconceivable and inexpressible." Again, he found affinities to Zen in the remarks of Meister Eckhart: " To be a proper abode for God and fit for God to act in, a man should be so poor that he is not and has not a place for God to act in. To reserve a place would be to maintain distinctions."
Merton had a very strong attraction to Zen. In his lecture, " Monastic Experience and East-West Dialogue", delivered in Calcutta shortly before he died, Merton said: " I come as a pilgrim who is anxious to obtain not just information, not just ' facts' about other monastic traditions but to drink from ancient sources of monastic vision and experience. I seek not to just learn more quantitatively about religion and monastic life but to become a better and more enlightened monk ( qualitatively) myself." Again in Zen and the Birds of Appetite Merton argues: " Both Christianity and Buddhism show that suffering remains inexplicable, most of all for the man who attempts to explain it in order to evade it, or who thinks explanation itself is an escape. Suffering is not a ' problem' as if it were something we could stand outside of and control. Suffering, as both Christianity and Buddhism see, each in its own way, is part of our very ego-identity and empirical existence, and the only thing to do about it is to plunge right into the middle of contradiction and confusion in order to be transformed by what Zen calls ' the great death' and Christianity calls ' dying and rising with Christ'. "
In his Calcutta talk, Merton affirmed: " i think that we have now reached a stage of religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment and yet learn, in depth, from a Hindu or Buddhist discipline or experience. Some of us need to do this in order to improve the quality of our own monastic life.". Merton told Brrother David Steinal-Rast, shortly before Merton died: " I do not believe that I could understand our Christian faith the way I understand it if it were not for the light of Buddhism."
Before he died, Merton undertook an Asian journey to Bangkok, India and Sri lanka. He spent three successive days in conversation with the Dalai Lama. The latter said of Merton that he was a kind of Christian geshe. He also said that in Merton he had met for the first time a Christian spiritual man who opened his own eyes to what could be learned also by Buddhism from the west ( The Dalai Lama underscored social service and its connection to contemplation). Merton's last journal, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, recounts in detail his sense that the dialogue with Buddhism was not to become some facile syncretism and did involve a scrupulous respect for important differences. Yet he had found in Suzuki, the Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Han, sources to help him drink from this ancient source and yet remain a Catholic monk.
Almost twenty years after Merton's death, a group of fifty monks, Buddhist and Catholic, met at Merton's monastery, Gethsemani--under the tutelage of the Dalai Lama, to discuss the practice of prayer and community in spiritual lfie; the stages in the process of spiritual development; the role of the teacher and the community in the spiritual life; the spiritual goals of personal and social transformation ( cf. The Gethsamni Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics New York: Continuum, 1998). One Buddhist monk at that conference quoted with approval the following remark of Merton: " At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own world."
Clearly, world peace, a growing need for compassion for the many suffering in our world and the avoidance of that solitary ego lost in its own individuality and lack of relationaltiy, calls for us to find ways to continue Merton's Christian-Buddhist dialogue. Like him, we need to stress less doctrine and more experience. We need also to ask what we can learn from the differently religious which would enhance and deepen our own faith tradition of prayer and service, meditation and compassion.
“I will not be so foolish as to pretend to you that I understand Zen. To be frank, I hardly understand Christianity. ...
“Not to be foolish and multiply works, I’ll say simply that it seems to me that Zen is the very atmosphere of the Gospels, and the Gospels are bursting with it. It is the proper climate for any monk, no matter what kind of monk he may be. If I could not breathe Zen I would probably die of spiritual asphyxiation. But I still don’t know what it is. No matter. I don’t know what the air is either.”
- Letter to D.T. Suzuki, March 12, 1959, The Hidden Ground of Love, pp. 561-562