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Thomas Merton (1915-1968)
A zen és a falánk madarak
A szemlélődés magvai
A belső tapasztalat
The Zen Revival (1964)
PDF: A Christian Looks at Zen (1967)
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The Zen in Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton (1915-1968): új-zélandi és amerikai művészszülők gyermeke. Tanulmányait Franciaországban, Angliában és Amerikában végzi. 1938-ban a Columbia Egyetemen szerez bölcsészdiplomát, majd ugyanott doktorátust. Egy hindu szerzetessel történő találkozás gyökeresen megváltoztatja életét, rövidesen megkeresztelkedik, majd a papi hivatás felé fordul. 1939-ben ferences szerzetesnek jelentkezik, majd visszavonja jelentkezését. 1940-ben nagyheti lelkigyakorlatra megy az Our Lady of Gethsemani nevű kolos-torba, ugyanez év decemberében posztulánsként felvételét kéri a Szent Benedek reguláját szigorúan értelmező cisztercita rendbe. 1942-ben öltözik novíciusi habitusba, rendi neve: Louis. 1947-ben örök fogadalmat tesz. 1948-ban publikálják Hétlépcsős hegy c. művét, mely rövidesen "bestseller" lesz, többszázezer pédányban kel el. 1949-ben pappá szentelik. 1953-ban publikálják újabb siker-könyvét, a Jónás jelét. 1955-ben novícius-mester lesz. 1958-tól a világtól félrevonuló szemlélődés helyett a világ szükségletei iránt nyitott misztika felé fordul. 1961-től tanulmányozni kezdi kelet vallási felfogását. 1964-ben találkozik egy zen tudóssal, majd a kolostorban lelkigyakorlatot szervez az erőszakmentességről. 1965-ben a Gethsemani kolostor területén épült remeteségbe költözik. 1966-ban egy buddhista szerzetes látogat a kolostorba, aki mély benyomást tesz rá és a közösségre. Folyamatosan jelennek meg újabb művei és verseskötete.1968-ban Bangkokba utazik egy konferenciára a vallások közötti monasztikus életről. Indiában találkozik a Dalai Lámával, Sri Lankán buddhista kegyhelyeket látogat. December 10-én halálos áramütés éri egy zárlatos ventillátortól.
Vajon mi késztette Thomas Mertont, a jómódú polgárfiút, hogy lemondva a fogyasztói társadalom kínálta javakról a legszigorúbb, aszkétikus fegyelemben élő ciszterci rend tagja legyen? Vajon miért vágták le hajukat, öltöttek szerzetesi habitust, dolgoztak az apátság földjein, böjtöltek, aludtak szalmazsákon és imádkoztak fél éjszakákat a Marlboro, a Coca-Cola és a rock and roll Amerikájának fiataljai? Merton, szerzetesi nevén Louis testvér közel egy évtizedes hallgatás után rendi felettesei utasítására tollat fog, hogy megossza a világgal a szemlélődő hivatás rejtett kincseit. Később, már világhírű íróként ismét előlép a Gethsemani kolostor csendjéből, hogy a monasztikus hagyomány ösvényein tovább haladva megvalósítsa élete nagy álmát: kelet és nyugat szintézisét. Ebben akadályozza meg váratlan, tragikus halála.
Jelként is értelmezhetjük azt a titokzatos keretet, mely Thomas Merton életét körülöleli. Doktori tanulmányai idején, 1938-ban még ateistaként a Columbia Egyetemen találkozik egy Brahmacsárí nevű indiai szerzetessel, aki mestere kérésére jött Amerikába vallásfilozófiát tanulni. Mezítlábas bocskorban, egy szál vászonruhában hol itt, hol ott tűnik fel. Sorra szerzi a legnevesebb egyetemek diplomáit és doktori fokozatát, majd ahogy jött, olyan váratlanul eltűnik. Brahmacsárít nem téveszti meg a nyugtalan, lázadó szellemű polgárfiú. Megérzi benne azt a titokzatos hívást, mely más életre szólítja őt. Mélységes alázattal nem hinduvá akarja téríteni, hanem azt ajánlja neki, amire meglátása szerint szüksége van: olvassa Szent Ágoston Vallomások-át és Kempis Tamás Krisztus követése-t. E két könyv alapjában rengeti meg Merton elképzelését életről, hivatásról. Alig egy évre rá megkeresztelkedik, majd pár év múlva a középkori fegyelemben élő ciszterci rend novíciusa lesz. A hindu szerzetes sosem tudta meg, mit indított el barátja lelkében.
Merton életének másik végpontja a vallások megbékélésével foglalkozó 1968-as bangkoki konferencia. A ciszterci remete, a kongresszus vezéregyénisége akkor már világhírű író, akinek lelkiségi könyveit milliós példányszámban adják el. Elutazása előtt azt írja barátainak: "ázsiai tartózkodásom időtartama egyelőre bizonytalan." A tanácskozás egyik szünetében rejtélyes áramütés éri. Pár nappal korábban álmot lát, melyben a keleti szerzetesek sáfrányszínű öltözékét hordja, s arról beszél, hogy a nyugati vallások megmaradása függhet attól, miként tudják átvenni és tanításukba ötvözni kelet gazdag hagyományát.
Szerzetesi életének legkorábbi felismerései közé tartozik, melyről első sikerkönyve, a Hétlépcsős hegy lapjain ír, hogy az emberi lét legmélyén sajátos paradoxon rejlik. Amíg ezt fel nem fogja, nem lehet tartósan boldog az emberi lélek. Az ellentmondás a következő: az ember a természet rendjében létezik, ugyanakkor ebben tud legkevesebbet tenni azért, hogy megoldja létének legfontosabb problémáit. Ha csak a természetéhez, filozófiájához, erkölcsi követelményeihez igazodik, akkor a pokolban lyukad ki. A saját vágyait követő Jónás prófétát a világ minden mocskával egy cethal nyeli el, s csak Isten felé forduló, dicsőítő fohászai, igaz hite és hivatásának elfogadása hozza ki az alvilág gyomrából.
Mertonra rendkívüli hatással volt az indiai kultúra mélyen vallásos jellege, mely különösen a szemlélődésre helyez nagy hangsúlyt. Kelet kontemplatív magatartása igazából rejtély marad a nyugati gondolkodás számára. A nyugati ember a tettekre elhivatott. Expanzióra törekvő szelleme mindent meg akar ismerni, meg akar szerezni. Leköti a tudomány és a technika világa, minden kézzel fogható, mérhető számára. A természet titkainak kutatásakor már a végtelent ostromolja, de ez még mindig nem elég neki. Megismerésében is a birtoklás vágya mozgatja. A hirdetések és reklámhadjáratok nyomán egy fogyasztói szemlélet ördögi körébe kerül, mely sebesen távolítja léte igazi titkaitól. A Lét azonban visszajelez. Feszültség, frusztráció, csillapíthatatlan éhség jön a várt nyugalom helyett.
Az indiai társadalomban Mertont az ragadta meg, hogy a dolgok birtoklásánál fontosabb a lelki függetlenség, melynek első feltétele az anyagi javaktól való függetlenség. Ez esetenként a szegénység számunkra elképzelhetetlen fokán nyilvánul meg. A nyugati ember sokszor a lemondást is úgy értelmezi, hogy azért legyenek meg számára a létszükségleti cikkei, sőt annál egy kicsit több is. Emiatt kelt gyakran mosolyt a nyugati lemondott rendek életmódja keleti missziójuk során. Indiában a lelki függetlenedést leginkább a cölibátusban élő szerzetesek gyakorolják, de megható az, ahogyan a világban élő emberek is tesznek erőfeszítést ennek érdekében, például mértéktartó táplálkozás, öltözködés, szórakozás és "birtoklás" útján. Merton szerint a lelki függetlenség legfőbb célja, hogy az ember mindenekelőtt "lenni" és ne "birtokolni" akarjon. A gyakorlatban a lét akkor kerülhet a birtoklás fölé, ha az ember eltávolodik önző énjétől és személyisége alapvető kincsei felé fordul. Belső kaland című, kéziratban maradt művében így ír a szemlélődés első lépéseiről: "Az első lépés, amit meg kell tennünk, mielőtt a szemlélődésről kezdünk gondolkodni, természetes egységünk visszanyerése, darabokra hullott életünk egységbe rendezése, hogy újra megtanuljunk harmonikus emberi lényként élni. Ez annyit jelent, életünk szétzilált darabjait össze kell szednünk, hogy az én szót kiejtve valóban legyen valami, amire a névmás utal."
A szemlélődés gyümölcsei-ben folytatja: "Mielőtt fel tudnánk fogni, kik vagyunk, annak a ténynek kell tudatára ébrednünk, hogy az a személy, akinek itt és most gondoljuk magunkat, legjobb esetben is csak egy idegen, egy betolakodó. A hamis empirikus énünk olyan álarc, amely elfedi igazi énünket, önazonosságunkat, ahogy Isten szeretete és a kegyelem előtt csupaszon megállunk majd." Napjainkban a társadalmi érdekeltség horizontális teológiáját követve az emberek teljes lényükkel embertársaik vagy önmegvalósításuk irányába fordulnak. Ezen kellene változtatni azzal, hogy személyiségüket Isten felé orientálják. Ez az újfajta irányultság (vertikális teológia) a szemlélődő élet legfontosabb követelménye. A létnek társadalmi kérdésekben is elsőbbséget kellene élveznie a tett és a birtoklás előtt. E befelé tekintő lelkiséget nevezte Merton a "lét spiritualitásának". Minden igaz társa-dalmi mozgásnak ezen a valóságszemléleten kellene nyugodnia.
"Nemcsak az anyag szükségszerűségnek való alávetettsége az egyik képe a mi engedelmességünknek, de maga a szükségszerűség is képe a kegyelem természetfeletti műveletének."
"Elsőként azt kell szem előtt tartanunk Istenkeresésünkben, hogy bizonyos értelemben lényegünk legmélyén máris Isten rabjai vagyunk. Csak az keres-heti Őt, aki korábban már rátalált, s csak az találhat rá, akit Ő valamilyen formában már megtalált" írja A csendes élet című írásában. "Folytonos keresésünk kevéssé jelenti holmi aszketikus technikák gyakorlását, mint inkább teljes életünk lecsendesítését és megregulázását az önmegtagadás, az imádság és a jó cselekedetek által, hogy maga Isten, aki jobban keres minket, esz mint mi Őt, »megtalálhasson« és birtokába vehessen bennünket" folytatja az Élet és szentség lapjain. "Sohasem fogunk azonban eljutni annak felismerésére, hogy kinek a birtokában vagyunk, ha csak rá nem ébredünk saját semmi voltunkra és ürességünkre. Ehhez külső, empirikus énünket teljesen alá kell rendelnünk Isten szeretetének és így megfeledkezve önmagunkról, mint gondolatunk tárgyáról, megszabadulunk attól, ami illuzórikus és felszínes, ami igazi énünket elfedi, hogy visszanyerjük azt a hűbb és mélyebb önmagunkat, amely Isten képmása bennünk" írja ázsiai tapasztalatai nyomán születetett írásaiban. Merton szerint korunk legnagyobb veszélye, hogy életünk alapjának ezt az illuzórikus lényünket tekintjük, és hajlunk a felszínes perszonalizmusra, amely egyenlőségjelet tesz a személy és a külső vagy empirikus ego közé, majd túlzott erőfeszítéssel e hamis ént kultiválja. Ennek eredménye napjaink individualizmusa, mely végső soron álspirituális és morális köntösbe bújtatott gazdasági koncepció.
Ilyen társadalmi környezetben különösen fontos, hogy az ember megszívlelje a belső életre hívás fontosságát, mely jóval több a törvények, az erkölcsi és vallási normák, a közösség szabályainak puszta betartásánál. A belső élet személyes elkötelezettséget kíván tőlünk, önmagunk fenntartás nélküli átadását, szívünk legintimebb szférájának felszínre hozatalát és megosztását Istennel. Ugyancsak ázsiai tapasztalatai hatására élete utolsó éveiben Merton kedvelt témája volt a tudat transzformációja, mely az empirikus vagy hamis én felismerésekor és az igazi én ébredésekor kezdődik meg az individuumban. Hatására az egyén többé már nem elszigetelt egoként tud önmagáról, hanem önmagát léte alapján látja függeni Mástól. Többé nem gondol önmagára sem reflexiója alanyaként, sem tárgyként, hanem Istenben elrejtve találja magát. "Így, öntudata átalakultával maga az individuum is átformálódik. Énje már nem központja többé önmagának, a központba Isten kerül." (Az új tudatosság)
Merton a szemlélődő hivatás alappillérének a jó lelkivezetést tartotta, melynek gyakorlatát évszázadokon át megőrizte az egyház, s melyben nagy szentjei születtek: Benedek, Gergely, Bernát, Tamás, Bonaventura, Sziénai Katalin, Keresztes János, Avilai Teréz.
A vallásos életben már többéves tapasztalattal rendelkezők képesek magukat irányítani, de néha még Nekik is szükségük lehet vezetői tanácsra. Egyetlen hívő sem állíthatja, hogy soha, semmilyen lelki útbaigazításra sem szorult. Ugyanakkor "ezerből jó ha egy ember alkalmas a lelkivezetés szerepének betöltésére, melynek ismertetői a szeretet, a tudás és a megfontoltság"- idézi Keresztes Szent Jánost Louis testvér, aki rendjének novícius mestereként maga is kiváló lelki vezető hírében állt.
Meg volt győződve arról, mennyire fontos lenne viszszatérni a lelkivezető régi hagyományához. Ebben is elbűvölte kelet hagyománya. Csodálattal írt arról, milyen fontos szerepet játszik az indiai emberek vallásos életében a guru. "A guru Isten embere, az a bölcs, az a szent ember, aki szavain és saját életén keresztül tanítja, hogyan éljünk, azt tanítja, mit kell tennünk, hogy » le-gyünk«, Ázsiai útinapló-jában arról is ír, hogy az indiai emberek néha több száz kilométert megtesznek, hogy egy ilyen bölcs emberrel találkozhassanak. Néha csak a megpillantásában reménykednek, máskor kis ideig hallgatni szeretnék, vagy eligazító, bátorító szót kapni tőle. Mindez nem idegen a zsidó-keresztény hagyománytól sem. Jézust is egyénileg vagy csoportosan, mint tanítót keresték fel és kérlelték: "Mester, tudjuk, hogy igaz vagy és az Isten útját az igazsághoz ragaszkodva tanítod, ... mondd meg tehát nekünk, mi a véleményed..." (Mt 22,16), vagy "Jó Mester, mit tegyek, hogy elnyerjem az örök életet?" (Mk 10,17)
Kolostori élete kezdetén Merton oly módon helyezi a szemlélődést a társadalmi kötelezettségek elé, mintha e kettő egymást kölcsönösen kizárná. Közel egy évtizedes visszavonultság után úgy érzi, egyedüli ok a szerzetességre, hogy megtaláljuk valódi helyünket a világban, de ha azért vonulunk vissza a monasztikus életbe, hogy megszabaduljunk társadalmi kötelezettségeinktől, csak az időt vesztegetjük. Aki úgy érzi, hogy el kell me-nekülnie a világból egy kolostorba, illúzió áldozata, s ráadásul magával cipeli a világot a kolostorba. Ha meg akar szabadulni a világ illúzióitól, rövidesen fel fogja ismerni, hogy ezek éppúgy megvannak őbenne és a monasztikus életben egyaránt, mint az emberek világában. Ha azért választja a kolostor magányát, hogy egyedül lehessen, akkor egyszerűen saját maga világába zárkózik, önzése társaságában. Az igazi szemlélődő a kontempláción keresztül arra törekszik, hogy felfedezze, mi hamis és mi igaz a világból, s bár legszembetűnőbb vonása az ima és a magány, részt kell vennie a világban.
Thomas Merton számára kolostori magányos évei után az volt a legnagyobb felismerés, hogy meglelt hivatásában mennyi mindent köszönhet másoknak. Rájött, hogy ő maga is akkor válhat igazi szerzetessé, ha szereti és segíti embertársait. Bár továbbra is rámutatott a világ hibáira és perverzióira, ettől kezdve nem arra biztatta az átlagpolgárt, hogy szerzetesnek álljon. Aki orvosolni akarja a modern élet betegségeit, az a szemlélődő életet a világban is megélheti. Sőt, egyenesen hangsúlyozza, nagy szükség van szemlélődő laikusokra is, akik tevőlegesen részt vesznek a társadalom életében. A szemlélődő szerzetességről az a véleménye, hogy a monasztikus életformát nem szabad minden ember számára mércének tekinteni. Az emberek szemlélődő életre is különböző szinten kapnak meghívást, mely nagyban függ élethelyzetüktől, hivatásuktól. A szemlélődés mindenki életének szerves része kell legyen, aki a lelki és társadalmi megváltás isteni üzenetét közvetíteni akarja, aki vágyik Isten akaratának jobb megértésére. A monasztikus szerzetesség számára a magány, a félrevonulás a természetes közeg, de azt javasolja a társadalomban élő embereknek is, hogy mindenkinek legyen olyan helye, ahol senki nem háborgatja, ahová rendszeres időközökben elvonul szemlélődni, hogy amikor visszatér, és itt találkozik monasztikus és világi szemlélődő hivatás jobban szerethesse a világot.
A szemlélődés rendet, összefüggést és távlatot visz az ember életébe azáltal, hogy lelki közösséget teremt Istennel. Merton szerint minden ember születése pillanatától hamis énje rabja, és ahogy növekszik, hamis énje is erősödik, egyre makacsabbá válik, beárnyékolja igazi énjét. Az ember lelki boldogsága azon múlik, képes-e eltávolítani a hamis maszkot, és feltárni valódi azonosságát. Csak ekkor találhat igazi boldogságra és békére. A földön csak az jelenthet igazi örömet, ha sikerül kiszabadulni önzésünk börtönéből és a szeretet által egységre jutunk azzal, aki minden élet forrása és minden teremtményben benne él. Usque ad temetipsum occure Deo tuo – mondja Szent Bernát nyomán. "Ha meg akarjuk találni Istenünket, először rá kell találnunk igazi önmagunkra."
Merton vallásosságában az intézményes, a társadalmi és az intellektuális elem mellett a misztikának van legnagyobb szerepe. Nyugodtan állíthatjuk, az egyház legnagyobb misztikusai közt van a helye. Annak ellenére, hogy életművének elemzői szerint gondolatvilága és munkamódszere a tradicionális misztikus teológiában gyökerezik, melyben sosem lépi át a katolicizmus szimbólumait és struktúráit, sikerült valami egészen újat hozzátennie két évezred keresztény misztikájához. Ennek titka az, hogy képes volt meglátni más vallások misztikus tapasztalataiban azokat az ősi, egyetemes igazságokat, melyek az emberiség vallási örökségének közös kincsei. A szemlélődésre vetítve mondhatjuk azt is, hogy katolizálni akarta a kontemplációt, a katolikus szót a legtágabb, egyetemes jelentésében értve. Ugyanígy az ökumenizmust sem a hagyományos módon, csupán a keresztény vallásokra értette, hanem az egész világot átfogó, univerzális értelemben. Ehhez szolgált alapul a keleti szemlélődőkkel folytatott párbeszéde, melyet egy vallásközi párbeszéd első lépésének tekintett. Élete utolsó éveiben arról ír, hogy a szemlélődés-központú keleti hagyomány a kereszténység számára új távlatokat kínál, melytől annak lelki és fizikai túlélése múlhat. E vallási szintézis megteremtésén munkálkodva érte korai, tragikus halála.
Thomas Merton on Zen
The Zen Revival
London : Buddhist Society, 1971, , 20 p.
Originally published in 'Continuum' 1, Winter 1964. pp. 523-538.
PDF: Mystics and Zen Masters
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967, 303 p.
Contents: Mystics and Zen masters -- Classic Chinese thought -- Love and Tao -- The Jesuits in China -- From pilgrimage to crusade -- Virginity and humanism in the Western fathers -- The English mystics -- Self-knowledge in Gertrude More and Augustine Baker -- Russian mystics -- Protestant monasticism -- Pleasant Hill -- Contemplation and dialogue -- Zen Buddhist monasticism -- The Zen Koan -- The other side of despair -- Buddhism and the modern world.
PDF: Zen and the Birds of Appetite
New York : New Directions, 1968. 141 p.
Contents [First published in...]:
The Study of Zen [Cimarron Review, Oklahoma State University, June, 1968.]
New Consciousness [R.M. Bucke Memorial Society's Newsletter-Review, Montreal, Vol. II, No. 1, April, 1967.]
A Christian Looks at Zen [Introduction to John C.H. Wu's The Golden Age of Zen. Taipei, 1967.]
D.T. Suzuki : The Man and His Work [The Eastern Buddhist, New Series, Vol. II, No. 1, Kyoto, August, 1967. pp. 3-9.]
Nishida : A Zen Philosopher
Transcendent Experience [R.M. Bucke Memorial Society's Newsletter-Review, Montreal, Vol. I, No. 2, September, 1966.]
Nirvana [Journal of Religious Thought, Howard University, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, 1967-68.]
Zen in Japanese Art [The Catholic Worker, July-August, 1967.]
Appendix : Is Buddhism Life-Denying?
Wisdom in Emptiness : A dialogue / D.T. Suzuki and Thomas Merton. [New Directions 17, 1961]
The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton
New York : New Directions Pub. Corp., 1973, 445 p.
Edited from his original notebooks by Naomi Burton, Patrick Hart & James Laughlin. Consulting editor: Amiya Chakravarty.
Merton's pilgrimage to Asia, reaching out in ecumenism to Islam, Zen, Sufism, and Buddhism, but not breaking from his Christian roots.
Thomas Merton on Zen
London : Sheldon Press, 1976. 144 p.
A selection of the author's writings published between 1961 and 1968.
PDF: Thoughts on the East
New York : New Directions Books, 1995; Kent [England] : Burns & Oates, 1996. eBook
Contents: Introduction - Thomas Merton and the monks of Asia, by George Woodcock; Thomas Merton on Taoism; on Zen; on Hinduism; on Sufism; on varieties of Buddhism;
A hidden wholeness : the Zen photography of Thomas Merton
Catalog from an exhibition of photographs held at the McGrath Art Gallery, Bellarmine University, Louisville, Kentucky,
November 19th 2004 - January 5th 2005.
Includes essays by Paul M Pearson, Deba P. Patnaik, and Bonnie B. Thurston.
Edited and introduced by Paul M Pearson.
Louisville, KY. : Thomas Merton Center, 2004. 36 p.
Photographs and drawings by Thomas Merton
The Zen Revival
London : Buddhist Society, 1971, , 20 p.
Originally published in 'Continuum' 1, Winter 1964. pp. 523-538.
The whole world of spiritual affairs suffered a loss with the death of
Father Thomas Merton, who died in December, 1968 at the age of fifty
three. He was already well known as an English journalist when he entered
the Church of Rome, and achieved fame with his autobiographical work
"The Seven Storey Mountain", A year later he was ordained, and thereafter
lived in the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
He was fascinated with Zen Buddhism, and his Mystics and Zen Masters
will rank as a classic for all interested in Zen.
He was a remarkable man in that by the power of his enlightenment,
however labelled, he formed a bridge between the Church of Rome and
Zen Buddhism where alone such union can be made, at the highest level
of each. For him the limitations and imperfections of both were no longer
barriers to the light which, in pure experience, he found to be theirs in
common. His was indeed a brilliantly illumined mind.
He had known of the writings of Dr. D. T. Suzuki for a long time
and had corresponded with him. It seemed inevitable that the two would
meet, and the meeting, in June, 1964, belongs to the history of Zen
Buddhism and perhaps of the Catholic Church. Mr. Lunsford Yandell, a
friend of both men, described it in the Memorial issue of the Eastern
Buddhist as follows:
"I found Dr. Suzuki at his cheerful best. He said that on the day before
my visit Father Thomas Merton had come to see him, and he spoke
with great warmth of his unusually deep insight into Zen. He gave me an
article on Zen by Father Merton to read, published a short time before in
Continuum, saying, "There is more true understanding of Zen in this
article than anything I have eyer read by a Western writer". Mr. Yandell
adds, "Father Merton, for his part, wrote a week after Dr. Suzuki died,
"I share your deep sorrow at the loss of so great a man as Dr. Suzuki,
whom I certainly regard as one of the spiritual masters of our time".
Thanks to Mr. Yandell a copy of the article came into the hands of
the Buddhist Society, and I at once wrote to the Editor of the journal,
Continuum, in which it first appeared in Winter 1969 [1964 !]. The Editor,
Mr. J. G. Lawler, has kindly given the Society permission to reproduce it
in pamphlet form. Here, then with this minimum Foreword, is the article
itself, in which Father Merton made clear to Dr. Suzuki the depth and
quality of his understanding of Zen, not merely as a scholar but in terms
of his own enlightenment
Publisher to the Buddhist Society, London.
THE ZEN REVIVAL
Zen Buddhism is often dismissed as one of those "ancient cosmic religions"
which has had all the props knocked out from under it by modern science.
It is one of those which is, in Teilhard's words, "steeped in a pessimistic
and passive mysticism," and cannot adjust itself "to the precise immensities
nor to the constructive requirements of space-time." Of Zen and Neo-
Vedanta, R. C. Zaehner says in his recently published Matter and Spirit,
"they may satisfy some individuals for a short time, [but] they plainly can
never be integrated into modern society." Yet true as this may be, in fact,
we must nevertheless admit that the nature of Zen is not such that its
existence and survival in the new world of technology and collectivity is
a priori excluded.
It is certainly not easy to conceive Zen as a powerful social force in the
modern world, even in the Orient. It is also quite true that the Zen craze
in the United States has about it everything that Zaehner justly dismisses as
trivial and irrelevant. But can we truly dismiss Zen as "passive mysticism"?
Is it mysticism at all? Is it a "way of salvation"? Is it individualistic?
Is it "subjective"? These are not easy questions to answer, with any amount
of exactitude, though it can be said from the start that terms like
"mysticism", "passivity", "subjectivity" and so on, especially the term
"religion" cannot be applied to Zen without very strict qualifications and
indeed they should perhaps not normally be applied to it at all.
One of the most thorough recent attempts to explain Zen by tracing its
history is the work of a Jesuit scholar who has spent years in Japan. This
book is very clear, full of new material, and, in spite of certain limitations
of perspective, it is probably the best and most comprehensive history of
Zen that has yet appeared in any western language. Heinrich Dumoulin
is no novice in the study of Zen Buddhism. For over twenty-five years he
has been publishing articles in learned oriental journals on this subject,
and in 1953 an English translation of a preliminary study, of which the
present book is a full development, was published by the First Zen
Institute of America. Hence it is clear, that we are dealing with a widely
recognized western authority on Zen, and with one who, besides having a
 Matter and Spirit: Their Convergence in Eastern Religions, Marx and Teilhard de
Chardin, New York, Harper and Row, 1963, p. 185.
 A History of Zen Buddhism, by Heinrich Dumoulin, S.J., trans. by Paul Peachey,
Pantheon Books, New York, 1963.
 The Development of Clrinese Zen, by Heinrich Dumoulin, S.J., trans. by Ruth Fuller
Sasaki, New York, First Zen Institute of America, 1953.
profound insight into Japanese religion and culture, is a Christian scholar
and theologian. This book makes it possible for the average Christian
student to advance, with a certain amount of security and confidence, into
a very mysterious realm.
Buddhism is generally tagged in the West as "selfish", even though the
professed aim of the discipline from the very start is to attack and overcome
that attachment to individual survival which is believed to be the
source of every woe. The truth is that the deep paradoxes and ambiguities
of Buddhism have led most Westerners to treat it as a mixture of incomprehensible
myths, superstitions and self-hypnotic rites, all without
The first Jesuits in Japan made no such mistakes. Like St. Francis
Xavier, they had a very healthy respect amd curiosity for the thought and
spirituality of "the bonzes":
"I have spoken with several learned bonzes, especially with one who is held
in high esteem here by everyone, as much for his knowledge, conduct and
dignity as for his great age of eighty years. His name is Ninshitsu, which in
Japanese signifies "Heart of Truth". He is among them as a bishop, and
if his name is appropriate, he is indeed a blessed man. . . It is a marvel
how good a friend this man is to me." [A History of Zen Buddhism, pp. 199-200.]
Though Japanese religion was then in a state of decline, the Jesuits quickly
found that the Zen temples were still, in spite of serious abuses, the
centres of a very real spiritual life. It is true that the many-sided manifestations
of Buddhist life and thought were not always easy to grasp or
entirely congenial. Nor was it possible to expect men trained in scholastic
theology and Aristotelian logic to take kindly to the outrageous paradoxes
of Zen which is aggressively opposed to all forms of logical analysis.
A genuine dialogue between the Jesuits and the Zen masters was no
simple matter, especially on the highest level which Fr. Dumoulin does
not hesitate to qualify as "mystical".
On the cultural level, however, the encounter was relatively easy. The
Jesuits were entirely charmed with the subtlety, the refinement, the perfection
of taste and the good order that reigned even more in the Zen
temples than everywhere else around them. Hence they did not hesitate
to exercise their characteristic flair for adaptation, and to model the outward
forms and ceremonies of their community life in Japan on those of
the Zen monks. Indeed, it was altogether logical for them to do so, since
they were not blinded by the illusion of so many other missionaries who
tended to identify the accidental outward forms of European culture with
essentials of Christian piety. St. Francis Xavier, who seems to have been entirely
free from illusion in this respect, did not hesitate to say of the Japanese
in general: "In their culture, their social usage and their mores, they
surpass the Spaniards so greatly that one must be ashamed to say
The famous Jesuit Visitator of the Oriental province, Valignano, strongly
urged the missionaries to associate with the Zen monks. This meant
participation in the quasi-religious "tea Ceremony", in which the Jesuits
not only took a keen interest, but which they practiced with a relatively
consummate artistry, sharing with their Zen friends a real appreciation of
its spiritual implications. One Jesuit has left us a moving account of his
impressions in a sixteenth-century Portuguese manuscript, an excerpt
of which has been published for the first time by Fr. Dumoulin:
"This art of tea is a kind of religion of solitude. It was established by the
originators in order to promote good habits and moderation in all things
among those who dedicate themselves to it. In this way they imitate the
Zen philosophers in their meditation as do the philosophers of the other
schools of Indian wisdom. Much rather they hold the things of this world
in low esteem, they break away from them and deaden their passions
through specific exercises and enigmatic metaphorical devices which
at the outset serve as guides. They give themselves to contemplation of
natural things. Of themselves they arrive at the knowledge of the original
cause in that they come to see things themselves. In the consideration of
their mind they eliminate that which is evil and imperfect until they come
to grasp the natural perfection and the being of the First Cause.
Therefore these philosophers customarily do not dispute or argue
with others, rather allowing each person to consider things for himself,
in order that he may draw understanding from the ground of his own being.
For this reason they do not instruct even their own disciples. The teachers
of this school are also imbued with a determined and decisive spirit without
indolence or negligence, without luke-warmness or effeminacy. They decline
the abundance of things for their personal use as superfluous and unnecessary.
They regard sparsity and moderation in all things as the most
important matter and as being beneficial to the hermit...This they combine
with the greatest equanimity and tranquillity of mind and outer modesty
... after the manner of the Stoics who thought that the consummate
person neither possesses nor feels any passion.
The adherents of cha-no-yu claim to be followers of these solitary
philosophers. Therefore all teachers of this art even though they be
unbelievers otherwise, are members of the Zen school or become such,
even if their ancestors belonged to some other persuasion. Though they
imitate this Zen ceremony, they observe neither superstition nor cult,
nor any other special religious ritual, since they adopt none of these things
from it. Rather they copy only their cenobitic solitude and separation
from the activities of life in the world, as also their resolution and readiness
of mind, eschewing laxity or indolence, pomp or effeminacy. Also in their
contemplation of natural things, these practitioners imitate Zen, not
indeed with regard to tbe goal of the knowledge of being and the perfection
of original being, but rather only in that they see in those things the outer
tangible and natural forms which move the mind and incite to solitude
and tranquillity and detachment from the noise and proud stirring of the
world." [A History of Zen Buddhism, pp. 214-215.]
There are several instances of Zen Masters who became Christians in the
early days of the Japanese mission, along with some of the "Tea-Masters"
who were not always members of the Zen sect. But the relations between
the Jesuits and the Zen monks did not always remain friendly. There was
a certain amount of ambivalence and misunderstanding. In fact, when the
great persecution of Japanese Christians began, some of the Zen abbots
were among the most zealous in instigating it. The reasons for this were
extremely complex and we do not need to go into them here.
What, exactly, is Zen? If we read the laconic and sometimes rather
violent stories of the Zen Masters, we find that this is a dangerously
loaded question: dangerous above all because the Zen tradition absolutely
refuses to tolerate any abstract or theoretical answer. In fact, it must be
said at the outset that philosophically or dogmatically speaking, the
question probably has no satisfactory answer. The word Zen comes from
the Chinese Ch'an which designates a certain type of meditation, and is
based on the Sanskrit word dhyana. Zen is therefore not a religion, not
a philosophy, not a system of thought, not a doctrine, not an ascesis.
In calling it a kind of "natural mysticism" Fr. Dumoulin is bravely
submitting to the demands of western thought which is avid, at any price,
for essences. But I think he would not find too many eastern minds who
would fully agree with him on this point, even though he is, in fact,
giving Zen the highest praise he feels a Christian theologian can accord it.
The truth is, Zen does not even lay claim to be "mystical" and the most
widely-read authority on the subject, Daisetz Suzuki, has expended no
little effort in trying to deny the fact that Zen is "mysticism". This,
however, is more a matter of semantics than anything else.
The Zen insight cannot be communicated in any kind of doctrinal
formula or even in any precise phenomenological description. This is
probably what Suzuki means when he says it is "not mystical": that it
does not present clear and definitely recognizable characteristics capable
of being set down in words. True, the genuineness of the Zen illumination
is certainly recognizable, but only by one who has attained the insight
himself. And here of course we run into the first of the abominable pitfalls
that meet anyone who tries to write of Zen. For to suggest that it is "an
experience" which a "subject" is capable of "having" is to use terms that
contradict all the implications of Zen.
Hence it is quite false to imagine that Zen is a sort of individualistic,
subjective purity in which the monk seeks to rest and find spiritual
refreshment. It is not a subtle form of spiritual means of self-gratification, a
repose in the depths of our own silence. Nor is it by any means a simple
withdrawal from the outer world of matter to an inner world of spirit. The
first and most elementary fact about Zen is its abhorrence of this dualistic
division between matter and spirit. Any criticism of Zen that presupposes
such a division in Zen is, therefore, pure nonsense.
Like all forms of Buddhism, Zen seeks an "enlightenment" which
results from the resolution of all subject-object relationships and oppositions
in a pure void. But to call this void a mere negation is to reestablish the
oppositions which are resolved in it. This explains the peculiar insistence
of the Zen Masters on "neither affirming nor denying." Hence it is impossible
to attain satori (enlightenment) merely by quietistic inaction or
the suppression of thought. Yet at the same time "enlightenment" is not
an experience or activity of a thinking and self-conscious subject. Still
less is it a vision of Buddha, or an experience of an I-Thou relationship
with a Supreme Being considered as object of knowledge and perception.
However, Zen does not deny the existence of a Supreme Being. It neither
affirms nor denies, it simply is. One might say that Zen is the awareness of
pure being beyond subject and object.
But the peculiarity of this awareness is that it is not reflexive, not self-conscious,
not philosophical, not theological. It is in some sense entirely
beyond the scope of psychological observation and metaphysical reflection.
For want of a better term we may call it "purely spiritual." In order to
preserve this purely spiritual quality the Zen Masters staunchly refuse to
rationalize or verbalize the Zen experience. They relentlessly destroy all
figments of the mind or imagination that pretend to convey its meaning.
They even go so far as to say: "If you meet the Buddha, kill him!" They
refuse to answer speculative or metaphysical questions except with words
that seem utterly trivial and which are designed to dismiss the question
itself as irrelevant.
When asked - "If all phenomena return to the One, where does the One
return to?" the Zen Master Joshu simply said - "When I lived in Seiju I
made a robe out of hemp that weighed ten pounds." This is a useful and
salutary mondo (saying) for the western reader to remember. It will guard
him against the almost irresistible temptation to think of Zen in neoplatonic
terms. Zen is not a system of pantheistic monism. It is not a
system of any kind. It refuses to make any statements at all about the
metaphysical structure of being and existence. Rather it points to being
itself without indulging in speculation.
Fr. Dumoulin does not attempt to explain Zen, or analyze it. He treats it
with a respectful and historic objectivity. He tells us where it came from,
how it developed and what the various schools were. Though Suzuki and
the other writers on Zen are generally careful to identify the Zen Masters
whom they quote, and to try to situate them in their context, a simple yet
complete historical outline has long been badly needed. Fr. Dumoulin
gives us the whole picture. After some early chapters on Indian Buddhism
with necessary information on Mahayana Sutras (without which Zen is
not fully understandable) he speaks of the introduction of Zen to China
by the semi-legendary Bodhidharrna, a contemporary of St. Benedict in the
west. In point of fact, Zen was not suddenly "introduced" to China by any
one man. It is a product of the gradual combination of Mahayana
Buddhism with Chinese Taoism which was later transported to Japan and
further refined there. Though Bodhidharrna is regarded as the first in a
line of Chinese Zen Patriarchs who have "directly transmitted" the enlightenment
experience of the Buddha without written media or verbal
formulas, the way for Zen was certainly prepared before him. The four
line verse (gatha) attributed to Bodhidharrna, and purporting to contain a
summary or his "doctrine", was actually composed later during the Tang
Dynasty, when Zen reached its highest perfection in China. The verse
A special tradition outside the scriptures (i.e., sutras);
No dependence upon words and letters;
Direct pointing at the soul of man;
Seeing into one's own nature and the attainment of Buddhahood.
It is clear from this that Zen insists on concrete practice rather than on
study or intellectual meditation; as a way of attaining enlightenment. The
key phrase of this verse is: "direct pointing at the soul of man," and this
is practically repeated in the synonymous phrase that follows: "seeing
into one's own nature." The commonly accepted translation "seeing into
the soul of man" is however rather unfortunate. It suggests clear and formal
opposition between body-soul, spirit and matter, which is not to be found
in Zen, or at least not in the way that such terms might suggest to us.
This, in fact, rather disconcerted St. Francis Xavier when he conversed with
his friend the Zen Master, Ninshitsu. The good old man did not seem to
know whether or not he had "a soul". In fact, to him the concept of "a
soul" as a sort of object that "one" could be considered as "having"
and even "saving" was completely unfamiliar. He sought salvation, indeed,
but this search could only be expressed in utterly different terms.
In other texts of Bodhidharma's verse the word here given as soul is
"mind" (H'sin). But "mind" (H'sin) is more than a psychological concept.
Nor is it equivalent to the scholastic idea of the soul as "form of the body".
Yet it is certainly considered as a principle of being. Suzuki says that
"mind" in this sense is "an ultimate reality which is aware of itself and
is not the seat of our empirical consciousness." This "mind" for the Zen
Masters is not the intellectual faculty as such but rather what the Rhenish
mystics called the "ground" of our soul or of our being, a "ground"
which is not only entitative but enlightened and aware, because it is in
immediate contact with God. The New Testament term that might possibly
correspond to it, though of course with many differences, is St. Paul's
"spirit" or "pneuma".
It must be admitted that a great deal of study remains to be done to
clarify the basic concepts of Buddhism which have usually been translated
by western terms that have quite different implications. We have
habitually taken western metaphysical concepts as equivalent to Buddhist
terms which are not metaphysical but religious or spiritual, that is to say,
expressions not of abstract speculation but of spiritual experience. As a
result we have read our abstract western divisions into an oriental experience
that has nothing whatever to do with them, and we have also
presumed that Oriental contemplation corresponded in every way with
Western philosophical modes of contemplation and spirituality. Hence
the mystifying use of terms like "individualism", "subjectivism", "pantheism",
etc., one on top of the other, in our discussion of something like
 Essays in Zen Buddhism, Series III, p. 23, London, 1958.
Zen. Actually these terms are worse than useless. They serve only to
make Zen utterly inaccessible to us.
The Zen insight, as Bodhidharrna indicates, consists in a direct grasp of
"mind" or one's "original nature". And this direct grasp implies rejection
of all conceptual media or methods, so that one arrives at mind by
"having no mind" (wu h'sin): in fact by "being" mind instead of "having"
it. Zen enlightenment is an insight into pure being in all its actual presence
and immediacy. It is a fully alert and super conscious act of being which
transcends time and space. Such is the attainment of the "Buddha mind"
or "Buddhahood". (Compare the Christian expressions, "having the mind
of Christ", being "of one Spirit with Christ"; "He who is united to the
Lord is one Spirit"; though the Buddhist idea takes no account of any
"supernatural order" in our sense.) It is the awareness of full spiritual
reality, the emptiness and absence of all limited or particularized realities.
Hence it is not accurate to say that the Zen insight is a realization of our
own individual spiritual nature, or (as Zaehner would say) of our "pre-biological
One might ask if our habitual failure to distinguish hetween "empirical
ego" and the "person" has not lead us to oversimplify and falsify our
whole interpretation of Buddhism. There are in Zen certain suggestions
or a higher and more spiritual personalism than one might at first sight
expect. Zen insight is at once a liberation from the limitations of the
individual ego, and a discovery of one's "original nature" and "true face"
in "Mind" which is no longer restricted to the empirical self, but is in all
and above all. Zen insight is less our awareness, than being's awareness of
itself. This is not a submersion or a loss of self in "nature" or "the One". It
is not a withdrawal into one's spiritual essence and a denial of matter and
of the world. On the contrary it is a recognition that the whole world is
aware of itself in me, and that "I" am no longer limited to my individual
and empirical self, still less to a disembodied soul, but that my "identity" is
to be sought not in that separation from all that is, but in oneness with all
that is. This identity is not the denial of my own personal reality but its
highest affirmation. It is a discovery of genuine identity in and with the One,
and this is expressed in the paradox of Zen, from which the concept of
Person in the highest sense is unfortunately absent.
The most critical moment in the history of Chinese Zen is evidently the
split between the Northern and Southern schools in the seventh century.
This extremely complex affair nevertheless has one feature which is
important for the real understanding of Zen: the events which led to the
choosing of the Sixth "Patriarch", Hui Neng. When the time came for Hung-
Jen, the fifth patriarch, to transmit his role and dignity to a successor,
he asked each of his monks to compose a verse which would give evidence
of Zen insight. Presumably the one whose verse was most adequate would
be worthy to succeed Hung-Jen, as Patriarch, because he would be the one
whose Zen enlightenment was most authentic. Foremost among the disciples
of the old man was Shen-hsiu, He was a senior in the community,
outstanding for his experience, and his succession was taken as a foregone
conclusion. He composed a verse which ran as follows:
The body is the Bodhi-tree [under which Buddha was enlightened]
The mind is like a clear mirror standing,
Take care to wipe it all the time
Allow no grain of dust to cling to it.
Anyone familiar with routine descriptions of the contemplative experience
east or west, will recognize this approach: It is, as a matter of fact, very close
to neo-platonism. It suggests (probably more in the translation than in the
original) the familiar Greek division between mind and matter, and it
situates enlightenment in a state of immaterial purity and in the absence
of concepts. It indicates a program of purification and recollection, a
"liberation" of the soul from the terrestrial and temporal condition
imposed on it by the body and the five senses.
As a matter of fact, this is the kind of thing that the western
reader would be perfectly ready to accept as Zen. But it is rejected with
impassioned scorn by the Zen Masters. Another member of that monastic
community, who was not even a monk, but an illiterate working in the kitchen,
reacted against the inadequacy of the verse, and posted another
verse of his own, which he (and his followers in the "Southern School"
of Zen) felt to be more satisfactory. In fact this untrained peasant, Hui
Neng, was preferred to Shen-hsiu and succeeded Hung-Jen as the sixth
patriarch. Here is the verse:
The Bodhi is-not like a tree,
The clear mirror is nowhere standing.
Fundamentally not one thing exists:
Where then is a grain of dust to cling?
 The exact meaning or the Chinese is apparently, "the clear mirror is without stand".
In other words, the duality, body-soul, is treated as irrelevant to Zen enlightenment.
Here the western reader is likely to be both disconcerted and misled. He
will seize upon the phrase "not one thing exists" in order to account for
his anxieties: but if he thinks this is a statement of fundamental principle,
a declaration of pantheism, he is wrong. As Suzuki says, "When the
Sutras declare all things to be empty, unborn and beyond causation, the
declaration is not the result of metaphysical reasoning; it is a most penetrating
Buddhist experience". As usual, he avoids the use of the word
"mystical" but statements about the "nothingness" of beings and of
"oneness" in Buddhism are to be interpreted just like the figurative terms
of western mystics describing their experience of God: the language is
not metaphysical but poetic and phenomenological. The Zen insight is a
direct grasp of being, but not a formulation of the nature of being. Nor
can the Zen insight be described in psychological terms, and to think of it
as a subjective experience "attainable" by some kind of process of mental
purification is to doom oneself to error and absurdity. This error came to
be described as "mirror-wiping Zen", since it imagines that the mind is
like a mirror which "one" (who?) has to keep clean. To illustrate this,
here is another well-known Zen story:
A Master saw a disciple who was very zealous in meditation.
The Master said: "Virtuous one, what is your aim in practicing Zazen
The disciple said: "My aim is to become a Buddha".
Then the Master picked up a tile and began to polish it on a stone in
front or the hermitage.
The disciple said: "What is the Master doing?"
The Master said: "I am polishing this tile to make it a mirror".
The disciple said: "How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?"
The Master replied: "How can you make a Buddha by practicing Zazen?"
The capital importance of this story is that it shows; once for all, what
Zen is not. It is not a technique of introversion by which one seeks to
exclude matter and the external world, to eliminate distracting thoughts,
and to concentrate on the purity of one's own spiritual essence, whether
or not this essence be regarded as a mirror of the divinity. Zen is not a
mysticism of withdrawal. The way to enlightenment by withdrawal is
definitely closed to it. What remains, then, is to seek insight elsewhere.
But where? One of the common misunderstandings or Zen is to interpret
 Essays in Zen, Series III, p. 25.
 Development of Chinese Zen, p, 51, Dumoulin, translation. by Ruth Puller Sasaki.
stories like this to mean that sonic of the Zen Maslers attached no importance
to meditation, or thought that no preliminary discipline was required:
enlightenment would come suddenly all by itself. Dumoulin himself
seems to have misinterpreted Hui Neng's doctrine of "sudden enlightenment"
in this way, for he says: "The elimination of all preliminary stages
and the renunciation of all preparatory exercises is the typical Chinese
element in the Zen of Hui Neng".
It is true that Hui Neng did revolutionize Buddhist spirituality by
discounting the practice of formal and prolonged meditation, referred to
as zazen ("sitting in meditation"). Yet it would he utterly misleading to
think that the "renunciation of preparatory exercises" means "no preparation"
or the rejection of formal zazen means "no meditation". This way
of interpreting Hui Neng accounts for the common error that his spirituality,
and that of Zen in general, is "quietistic". Hui Neng was no quietist;
on the contrary, he was reacting against a quietistic type of spirituality.
But his reaction was not activistic either. It was a break through into
something quite original and new. He refused to separate meditation as
a means (dhyana) from enlightenment as an end (prajna). For him, the two
were really inseparable, and the Zen discipline consisted in seeking to
realize this wholeness and unity of prajna and dhyana in all one's acts,
however external, however commonplace, however trivial. For Hui Neng
all life was Zen. Zen could not be found merely by turning away from
life to become absorbed in meditation. Zen is the very awareness of life
living itself in us. When in his verse about the "mirror" Hui Neng
rejected the "mirror wiping" concept of meditation, he was therefore
not rejecting meditation itself, but what he helieved to be a totally wrong
attitude to meditation. We may sum up the "wrong" attitude in the
First, it begins with a central-consciousness, an awareness of an empirical
self, an "I" which, with all the good intentions in the world, sets out to
"achieve liberation" or "enlightenment". This is the familiar empirical
ego which is aware of itself, observes itself, remembers itself, and seeks
ways to preserve and perpetuate its self-awareness. This "I" seeks to affirm
itself in its actions, thoughts. and contemplation. In stripping off the
exterior and sensible trappings of superficial experience, the ego seeks to
realize its own inner spiritual nature.
Second, the emperical and self-conscious self then views its own thought
as a kind of object or possession, and in so doing accounts for this thought
by situating it in a separate, isolated "part of itself", a mind, which it
compares to a "mirror". This is also considered as a "possession". "I have a mind".
Thus the mind is regarded not as something I am, but something I own. It then
becomes necessary for me to sit quietly and calmly, recollecting my faculties and
reaching down to experience "my mind".
Third, the empirical self then resolves to purify the mirror of the mind
by removing thoughts from it. When the mirror of the mind is clear of all
thought (so it imagines) the ego will be "liberated". It will affirm itself
freely without thoughts. Why does it aim at this bizarre attainment?
Because it has read in the sutras that enlightenment is a state of "emptiness",
and "suchness". It is an awareness of an inner and transcendental
mind. Presumably if all thoughts of material and contingent things are
kept out of the mirror, then the mirror will be filled with the pure spiritual
light of the Buddha mind, which is a kind of "emptiness". At best, this
contemplation is an ascent from the external and empirical consciousness
of individuality to a higher and more general consciousness of one's
spiritual nature. The lower self is then dissolved in the consciousness of
a nature which transcends the external self.
What has happened is that this clinging and possessive ego-consciousness,
seeking to affirm itself in "liberation", 'craftily tries to outwit reality by
rejecting the thoughts it "possesses" and emptying the mirror of the
mind which it also "possesses". Thus "the mind" will be in "emptiness"
and "poverty". But in reality, "emptiness" itself is regarded as a possession,
and an "attainment". So the ego-consciousness renounces its spiritual
autonomy in order to sink into its spiritual, pre-biologcal nature. But
since this nature is regarded as one's possession, the "spiritualized" ego
thus is able to affirm itself all the more perfectly, and to enjoy its own
narcissism under the guise of "emptiness" and "contemplation".
Now as Hui Neng points out, I think quite rightly from any point of
view, this elaborate mental fabrication is a naive and pointless artifice.
Indeed, it is not only useless, but deceitful and pernicious, since it induces
an illusion that the empirical ego has transcended the conditions of
matter and of egotistical self-hood by sitting in meditation, excluding all
external impressions and resting in the purity of its own mind.
It is quite true to say that the "sun rises" and the "sun sets" according
to our empirical, every-day experience. But such terminology is no longer
adequate for the professional concerns of a space man. So too, the Zen
Masters realized that though the mind is certainly a reality, to speak of
mind as a mirror which is "owned" by the ego and which must be kept
pure by the exclusion of all thoughts was, from the point of view of
Zen understanding, sheer nonsense. Such language does not come anywhere
near giving a proper notion of what true insight is. Hui Neng
therefore described it in other terms, in which, of course, he had been
anticipated by many centuries in the Mahayana Sutras, particularly the
Diamond Sutra. For Hui Neng the central reality in meditation or indeed
in life itself is not the empirical ego, but that ultimate reality which is at
once pure being and pure awareness which we referred to above as "mind"
(h'sin). Because he contrasts it with the "conscious" empirical self, Hui
Neng calls this "ultimate mind" the "Unconscious" (wu nien). (This is
equivalent to the sanskrit Prajna, or wisdom).
It must be said here that the "Unconscious" of Hui Neng is totally different
from the unconscious as it is conceived by modern psychoanalysis. To
confuse these two ideas would be a fatal error. As Bodhidharma said,
the "Unconscious" (prajna) is a principle of being and light secretly at
work in our conscious mind making it aware of transcendent reality. But
this true awareness is not a matter of the empirical ego standing back and
"having ideas", "possessing knowledge" or even "attaining to insight"
(Satori). Here we are dealing not with a Cartesian awareness of a thinking
self but with the vastly different realm of prajna-wisdorn. Hence what
matters now is for the conscious to realize itself as identified with and
illuminated by the Unconscious, in such a way that there is no longer
any division or separation between the two. It is not that the empirical
mind is "absorbed in" Prajna, but simply that Prajna is, and nothing else
has any relevance except as its manifestation.
Indeed it is not the empirical self which "possesses" prajna-wisdorn, or
owns "an unconscious" as one might have a cellar in one's house. In
reality the conscious belongs to the transcendental Unconscious, is
possessed by it and carries out its work, or it should do so. Its destiny is
to manifest in itself the light of that Being in which it subsists, as a Christian
philosopher might say. It becomes one, as we would say, with God's
own light, and St. John's expression, the "Light which enlightens every
man coming into this world", (John 1:9) seems to correspond fairly
closely to the idea of Prajna and of Hui Neng's "Unconscious".
This then is what Hui Neng means by saying that "mirror wiping" is
useless. There is no mirror to be wiped. What we call "our" mind is only
a feeble and flickering reflection of Prajna - the formless and limitless
light. We cannot be enlightened by cutting the reflection off from the
original light and giving it an absolutely autonomous existence which it
cannot possibly have. Another Zen Master said, characteristically, that
there is no enlightenment to be attained and no subject to attain it. "No
one has ever attained it in the past or will ever attain it in the future for
it is beyond attainability. Thus there is nothing to be thought of except
the Unconscious itself. This is called true thought". Therefore
Bodhidharma said, "All the attainments of the Buddhas are really
As long as the empirical ego stands back and imagines itself to be
illuminated by any light whatever, whether its own or beyond itself, and
strives to see things in its "own mind" as in a mirror, it simply affirms
itself as distinct from a source outside itself to which it must attain,
because it is "separate" and distant. But in actual fact, Hui Neng says,
there is no attainment, and therefore to busy oneself about seeking a
"way" to attainment is pure self-deception. Zen is not "attained" by a
self-conscious mirror-wiping meditation, but by self-forgetfulness in the
existential present of life here and now.
This reminds us of St. John of the Cross and his teaching that the
"Spiritual Way" is falsely conceived if it is thought to be a mere denial
of flesh, sense and vision in order to arrive at higher spiritual experience.
On the contrary, the "dark night of sense" which sets the house of flesh
at rest is at best a serious beginning. The true dark night is that of the
spirit, where the "subject" of all higher forms of vision and intelligence
is itself darkened and left in emptiness: not as a mirror, pure of all impressions,
but as a void without knowledge and without any natural capacity
to know the supernatural. It is an error to think that St. John of the
Cross teaches denial of the body and the senses as a way to reach a higher
and more secret mystical knowledge. On the contrary he teaches that the
light of God shines in an emptiness where there is no natural subject to
receive it. To this emptiness there is in reality no definite way. "To enter
upon the way is to leave the way", for the way itself is emptiness.
We are plagued today with the heritage of that Cartesian self-awareness,
which assumes that the empirical ego is the starting point of an infallible
intellectual progress to truth and spirit, more and more refined, abstract
and immaterial. Now this state of affairs can never be remedied by the
empirical ego merely going through gestures of purification and concentration,
suppressing thought, creating a void in itself, sinking into its
own essential purity, and so on. This is only another way of affirming
itself as an independent, autonomous possessor now of thought, now of
 Essays in Zen, Series III, p. 42. (p. 41).
 Ibid., p. 30.
non-thought, now of science, now of contemplation; now of ideas, now
of emptiness. The "emptiness" which the empirical ego strives to produce
in itself by "wiping the mirror" clean of all thoughts is then nothing
but a trick. At best it is bogus mysticism, and at worst, schizophrenia.
In any case it is pure illusion, and it makes true enlightenment impossible.
This is precisely what Zaehner stigmatizes as "individualism" and "passive
mysticism" in its most refined and dangerous sense.
As Hui Neng saw, it really makes no difference whatever if external
objects are present in the "mirror" or consciousness. There is no need to
exclude or suppress them. Enlightenment does not consist in being
without them. True emptiness in the realization or the underlying Prajna
wisdom of the Unconscious is attained when the light of Prajna (the
Greek Fathers would say of the "Logos", Zaehner would say "Spirit"
or Pneuma), breaks through our empirical consciousness, and floods with
its intelligibility not only our whole being but also all the things that we
see and know around us. We are thus transformed in the Prajna light, we
"become" that light which in fact we "are". We see the light in everything.
In such a situation, the presence of external objects and concepts in our
mind is irrelevant, for our knowledge of them is no longer obtained by
thinking about them as objects. We know them in a vastly different way,
as we know ourselves not in ourselves, not in our own mind, but in
Prajna, or as a Christian would say, in God.
This state or "enlightenment", then, has nothing to do with the exclusion
of external or material reality, and when it denies the "existence" of the
empirical self and of external objects, this denial is not the denial of their
reality (which is neither affirmed nor denied) but of their relevance insofar
as they are isolated in their own forms. They have become irrelevant
because the subject-object relationship that existed when the empirical
self regarded them and cherished its thoughts about them, has now been
transcended in the "void". But this void is by no means a mere negation.
It would be more helpful for western minds to call it a pure affirmation
of the fullness of positive being, though Buddhists would prefer to adhere
to their principle, neither affirming nor negating. The void (or the Unconscious)
may be said to have two aspects. First, it simply is what it is.
Second, it is realized, that is, it is aware of itself and, to speak improperly,
this awareness (prajna) is "in us", or better, we are "in it". Here of course
the mirror of "mind" is not our mind but the void itself, the Unconscious
as manifest and conscious in us. Hui Neng describes it in the following
When the light or Prajna penetrates the ground nature of consciousness
[in this translation Suzuki is obviously thinking of Eckhart] it illuminates
inside and outside: everything grows transparent and one recognizes
one's inmost mind. To recognize the inmost mind is emancipation . . .
this means the realization of the Unconscious (wu nien). What is the
unconscious? It is to see things as they are and not to become attached
to anything . . . To be unconscious means to be innocent of the workings
of a relative (empirical) mind . . . When there is no abiding of thought
anywhere on anything - this is being unbound. This not abiding anywhere
is the root of our life.
Prajna therefore is not attained when one reaches a deeper interior
center in one's self (Suzuki's translation, "one's inmost mind", might be
misleading here). It does not consist in "abiding" in a secret mystical
point in one's own being, but in abiding nowhere in particular, neither in
self or out of self. it does not consist in self-realization as an affirmation
of one's own limited being, or as fruition of one's inner spiritual essence,
but on the contrary it is liberated from any need of self-affirmation and
self-realization whatever. In a word, Prajna is not self-realization, but
realization pure and simple, beyond subject and object. In such realization,
evidently "emptiness" is no longer opposed to "fullness", but emptiness
and fullness are One. Zero equals infinity.
Another Zen Master was asked how this enlightenment could be attained.
He answered: "Only by seeing into nothingness".
The disciple: "Nothingness: but is this not something to see? [i.e. docs
it not become an object - the empty mirror, unstained by "thought?"]
The Master: "Though there is the act of seeing, the object is not to be
designated as something
The disciple: "If this is not to be designated as "something" [object]
what is the seeing'?"
 Suzuki, Op, Cit., pp. 34, 35.
 Compare the doctrine of Nicholas uf Cusa : since the infinite is all, it has no opposite
and no contrary. It is at once the maximum and minimum, and is the perfect coincidence
of all contraries. Hence it explodes the Aristotelian principle of contradiction.
Nicholas of Cusa, like the Zen Masters, affirms and denies the same thing at the same
time, when speaking of the infinite. For him, admission of the coincidence of opposites
is the "starting point of the ascension to mystical theology". A remark of Gilson's
shows how perfectly Nicholas of Cusa agrees with Hui Neng. "Nicholas exhorted
his readers to enter the thickness of a reality whose very essence, since it is permeated
with the presence of the infinite [i.e., "the Unconscious"] is the coincidence of opposites".
History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, p, 536.
Master: "To see into where there is no something [object]; this is true
seeing, this is eternal seeing".
Where there is a "something", a limited or defined object, there is less
than Act, therefore not "fullness". Once again, "emptiness" of all limited
forms is the fullness of the One: but the One must never be regarded as a
limited or isolated form. To avoid this misconception, the Zen Masters
speak always of emptiness.
It is impossible to get a real grasp of Zen if one does not understand
the distinction between the two concepts of "mind" propounded by the
Southern School of Hui Neng and the Northern School of Shen Hsiu.
This resolves itself into a real grasp of the difference between the two
verses ascribed (at least by posterity) to the two contestants for the title
of Sixth Patriarch; and this is a point where Fr. Dumoulin seems to be
open to criticism. But if he is deficient in his understanding of such a
crucial matter, his whole thesis about the mystical character of Zen will
tend to be weakened.
It seems to me that Fr. Dumoulin does, in fact, miss the point of Hui
Neng. And it is possible to surmise that he does so out of an unconscious
anxiety to bring Zen a little closer to conventional Western ideas of
contemplation, so that the Zen experience can be more clearly demon-
strated to be something akin to supernatural mysticism, that is, to an
"I-Thou" experience of God. This of course is a very difficult task,
because it seems to involve one, again, in the subject-object relationship
which is discarded by the Zen experience of void. But is it after all necessary
to cling to this one viewpoint? Is Martin Buber's formula absolutely the
only one that validly describes true mystical experience? Is a personal
encounter with a personal God limited to an experience of God as "object"
of knowledge and love on the part of a clearly defined, individual and
empirical subject? Or does not the empirical self vanish in certain forms
of Christian mysticism? It is my opinion that even the contemplation of
the void as described by Hui Neng has definite affinities with well-known
records of Christian mystic experience, but space does not permit us to
quote texts here. Here is how Fr. Dumoulin describes the "void" and
"unconsciousness" of Hui Neng:
The resolving of all opposites in the Void is the basic metaphysical
doctrine of the Diamond Sutra on which Hui Neng founds his teachings.
 Suzuki, Op. Cit., p. 38.
The absence of thoughts which is achieved in the practice of contemplation
by the suppression of all concepts is regarded as the primal state of mind
whose mirror light clings to no concept . . . The absence of all concepts
indicates that the mind adheres to no object but rather engages in pure
mirror activity. This absolute knowing constitutes the unlimited activity
of inexhaustible motion in the motionlessness of the mind . . . All objects
are cleared away by contemplation of the void, and personal consciousness
There are, it is true, elements superficially resembling Hui Neng in
these sentences, but in their substance, especially in the passages I have
italicized, they are in reality a contradiction of Hui Neng. They are much
rather an expression of the mirror wiping Zen of Shen-hsui, The "absence
of thoughts is achieved" - by whom? What achievement? All concepts
are suppressed - in what? By whom? The mind engages in pure mirror-like
activity. What mind? What activity? Who? This is directly opposed
to Hui Neng's insistence that there is no special psychological state to be
"achieved", that the suppression of thoughts is irrelevant, and that the
mind is not to be isolated in itself and in its own purity.
The language which is used here does not express the Zen of Hui Neng:
these are concepts that are determined by purely western preconceptions
about the mind and about contemplation. What is talked about is indeed
"the Void", but in reality the language used can apply to the empirical
ego. Hence the description is purely and simply of the empirical ego
polishing the mirror of its own self-consciousness, and attempting, by
scraping the tile, to become a Buddha. This is exactly what Hui Neng
refuses to countenance.
In view of these limitations, when Fr. Dumoulin goes on to attribute
to Hui Neng the idea that "all distinctions are nullified, and there is no
difference between good and evil", we find ourselves plunged once again
into serious misconceptions about Zen. I admit, Hui Neng says this,
but it can only be true for him when the empirical ego has vanished. For
the empirical self there is, and must be, good and evil. Only in Prajna
(we would say in God) is there no more good and evil. It is small wonder
that Fr. Dumoulin somewhere says that for Hui Neng the contemplation
of one's own nature is a "promethean exploit". Obviously, if it is the
work of the empirical ego, it can hardly be anything else.
 Dumoulin, History, pp. 91-92 emphasis added.
There is of course every reason to understand why Fr. Dumoulin is
un-sympathetic to Hui Neng and indeed profoundly suspicious of him.
While Suzuki, for instance, is temperamentally disposed to defend Hui
Neng and the Rinzai school of Zen, Fr. Dumoulin is naturally inclined
toward the other celebrated Japanese Zen school: Soto. As a matter of
fact, one of the best chapters of his book is the one devoted to Dogen,
the founder of that school. But Dogen is a defender of the meditative
zazen type of Zen and he is closer to Shen-hsui than to Hui Neng.
Fr. Dumoulin's interpretation of Hui Neng certainly falls short of the
highest and most original Zen insight, and therefore it presents Zen,
once again, as a form of quietism, a passive, "mirror-wiping" technique
of self-emptying by sitting in long periods of meditation. Such meditation
attempts to "purify" the mind of all the "polluted imagery" and conceptual
baggage which it has acquired by its unfortunate association with the body.
This equates Zen with the conventional methods of Yoga and contemplation
common both in east and west, which all presuppose the separation
of spirit and matter, rather than that "recapitulation" of all things in
Christ proclaimed by St. Paul. Hence it is natural that someone like
Professor Zaehner, for all his knowledge of Indian and lranian mysticism,
can finally end by lumping all these forms of contemplation together
as if they were all equally negative, passive; quietistic or spiritualistic,
and as if they had nothing whatever to offer in an age that has discovered
the urgent need to heal the forced separation of matter and spirit by
"convergence" and unity.
Of course I am not attempting to affirm that the "emptiness" of Hui
Neng has social implications that would bring him into harmony with
Marx, Engels, and Teilhard de Chardin. On the other hand there is nothing
in him that opposes social action or human progress because his is not a
mere technique of withdrawal, negation and passivity. A well-ordered
concern with social affairs need not conflict with this kind of Zen wisdom.
A genuine understanding of Hui Neng will show that at least some of
the Zen masters were fully aware of the basic, indissoluble unity in man,
and fought against every form of mystical illusion that would break that
unity down in order to achieve an abstract or gnostic reorganization of
spirit on an immaterial plane. I do not know if the insight of Hui Neng
can influence our thinking on a large scale today; but it remains permanently
valuable for those who can see what he is saying, not only because
it is courageous, original and brilliant, but because it apprehends the
unity of Being in a simple, concrete intuition which is completely free,
not only from all forms of dualism, but also from pantheistic monism as
well. The simplicity of this Zen insight which is innocent of all theorizing,
and neither affirms nor denies anything, is outside all philosophical and
Thomas James Merton
A monk who lived in isolation for several years, and one of the most well-known Catholic writers of the twentieth century, Thomas Merton was a prolific poet, religious writer, and essayist whose diversity of work has rendered a precise definition of his life and an estimation of the significance of his career difficult. Merton was a Trappist, a member of a Roman Catholic brotherhood known for its austere lifestyle and vow of silence in which all conversation is forbidden. Merton's accomplishments as an author are even more remarkable considering that when he entered the Trappist monastery in Kentucky in 1941, monks were allowed to write only two half-page letters four times a year and nothing more. In The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, biographer Michael Mott called Merton a "poet, writer, activist, contemplative, . . . reformer of monastic life, artist, [and] bridge between Western and Eastern religious thought." Indeed, Merton is credited with introducing the mysticism of Eastern spirituality to Western Christians.
The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiography Merton published in 1948 when he was only thirty-three years old, is probably the book for which he is best remembered. It was an instant success, and even before its publication caused considerable excitement for its publisher. Looking for recommendations to print on the book's jacket, Robert Giroux, Merton's editor, sent galley proofs to Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Clare Boothe Luce for their opinions. According to Mott, Waugh responded that The Seven Storey Mountain "may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience." Greene wrote that the autobiography has "a pattern and meaning valid for all of us." And Clare Boothe Luce declared, "It is to a book like this that men will turn a hundred years from now to find out what went on in the heart of men in this cruel century." These enthusiastic replies led publisher Harcourt, Brace to increase the first printing order from five thousand to twenty thousand copies and to order a second printing before publication.
Reviewers' praise of The Seven Storey Mountain confirmed Harcourt's suspicions that the book would be well received and talked about. In Catholic World, F. X. Connolly noted that Merton's autobiography "is bracing in its realism, sincere, direct and challenging. . . . The Seven Storey Mountain is a prolonged prayer as well as a great book." Commenting in the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, George Shuster wrote: "The fervor of [Merton's] progress to the monastery of Gethsemane is deeply moving. It is a difficult matter to write about, but I think there will be many who, however alien the experience may remain to them personally, will put the narrative down with wonder and respect." George Miles observed in a Commonweal review that "the book is written simply; the sensory images of boyhood are wonderful, and the incisive quality of his criticism, that tartness of his humor have not been sentimentalized by Merton's entry into a monastery. . . . The Seven Storey Mountain is a book that deeply impresses the mind and the heart for days. It fills one with love and hope."
Reviewers and readers were moved by the intriguing story of Merton's undisciplined youth, conversion to Catholicism, and subsequent entry into the Trappist monastery. "With publication of his autobiography," noted Kenneth L. Woodward in Newsweek, "Merton became a cult figure among pious Catholics." According to Edward Rice in his biography The Man in the Sycamore Tree: The Good Times and Hard Life of Thomas Merton: An Entertainment, the book "was forceful enough to cause a quiet revolution among American Catholics, and then among people of many beliefs throughout the world." A Time writer reported that "under its spell disillusioned veterans, students, even teenagers flocked to monasteries across the country either to stay or visit as retreatants." As Richard Kostelanetz observed in the New York Times Book Review, Merton's "example made credible an extreme religious option that would strike many as unthinkable."
Rice theorized that the success of The Seven Storey Mountain was not only due to interest in Merton's story but also to the way events in his life reflected the feelings of a society recovering from the shock of world war. Explained Rice: What sets The Seven Storey Mountain apart from other books like it was "its great evocation of a young man in an age when the soul of mankind had been laid open as never before during world depression and unrest and the rise of both Communism and Fascism. . . . It became a symbol and a guide to the plight of the contemporary world, touching Catholics and non-Catholics alike in their deep, alienated unconsciousness."
The popularity of Merton's book resulted in profits, and the money Merton earned was used at the Abbey of Gethsemane for much-needed improvements and expansion. As Rice noted, however, it also "catapulted Merton into the eyes of the world," making a celebrity of a man who wanted to live in solitude. Without the publication of this autobiography, Mott wrote, it is possible "that Thomas Merton might have achieved . . . obscurity and oblivion." But that was not to be; for the rest of his life Merton was to deal with the consequences of having written such a popular book.
In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Victor A. Kramer commented on the contradictory aspects of Merton's life and work, observing that "Merton's dual career as a cloistered monk and prolific writer, a career of silence yet one which allowed him to speak to thousands of readers world wide, was a paradox." The significance of this contrasting need in Merton for both silence and fellowship with the people outside the monastery walls "was a source of anxiety to Merton himself," explained Ross Labrie in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981. But according to Labrie, "It is one of the strongest centers of excitement in approaching his work as well as being one of the clearest ways to see his role in twentieth-century letters." James Thomas Baker agreed that the dichotomy of monk/writer in Merton's personality is an essential ingredient in his writing. As Baker stated in his Thomas Merton: Social Critic, "There was . . . an oriental paradox about his life and thought, the paradox of a monk speaking to the world, which gave it the quality that was uniquely Merton, and any other career would have robbed his work of that quality."
Due to the abundant autobiographical material Merton produced—at his death, he left 800,000 words of unpublished writings, mainly journals and letters, as well as hundreds of taped talks—a great deal is known about how he dealt with the anxiety produced by his paradoxical desire to be both a contemplative and a social activist. Mott's research revealed that by 1940 Merton was actually keeping two sets of journals, private journals handwritten in bound notebooks and the edited, typewritten journals he showed to others. In the late 1990s many of these journals were edited, resulting in the seven-volume Journals of Thomas Merton. Volume six, Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom caused a small stir when journal entries revealed what Merton labeled an "affair" with a young nurse in 1966. The woman, identified only as "M," was the object of Merton's deep passion: "I have never seen so much simple, spontaneous, total love," he wrote, although stopping short of describing their relationship in sexual terms. As the book's editor, Christine Bochen, suggested in a Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service article, "This journal needs to read as a chapter in Merton's story, but not a dominant one."
Merton's love of writing started early in his life, as Israel Shenker noted in the New York Times. "He wrote his first book at the age of ten," wrote Shenker, "and followed it with ten more unpublished novels." (One of these early novels was published posthumously as My Argument with the Gestapo: A Macaronic Journal. ) By 1939, while teaching university extension classes at night, Merton's writing occupied most of his days. That same year, according to Mott, Merton also "wrote the first poem that would continue to mean something to him." Although Merton had already written quite a few poems, he explained in The Seven Storey Mountain, "I had never been able to write verse before I became a Catholic [in 1938]. I had tried, but I had never really succeeded, and it was impossible to keep alive enough ambition to go on trying."
Merton became well known as a poet during his first years in the monastery. His first book of poetry, 1944's Thirty Poems, includes poems composed before and after entering the abbey. According to Baker, Merton believed "the poetry which he wrote at that time was the best of his career." The book received favorable reviews, Robert Lowell writing in Commonweal that Merton is "easily the most promising of our American Catholic poets."
Merton's next book of poetry included all the selections from his first book plus fifty-six more written during the same period. This book, A Man in the Divided Sea, was equally praised by critics. Calling it "brilliant" and "provocative," Poetry critic John Nerber commented, "It is, without doubt, one of the important books of the year." In the New Yorker Louise Bogan wrote that although Merton "has not yet developed a real synthesis between his poetic gifts and his religious ones . . . the possibility of his becoming a religious poet of stature is evident."
Despite the stature of his religious writings and essays, the literary value of Merton's poetry has always been questioned. Writing in Commonweal, William Henry Shannon argued that Merton's poetry, consisting of "over a thousand pages," contained "a fair amount of . . . mediocre or just plain bad" writing, "but one will also find fine poetry there." Addressing the religious content of Merton's work, Therese Lentfoehr, writing in her Words and Silence: On the Poetry of Thomas Merton, explained that "only about a third of the poems might be viewed as having specific religious themes." Many of the other poems were accessible to a larger audience because Merton enjoyed writing about children, the natural world, and the larger world outside the monastery. In the 1960s he also wrote poems about social issues of the day.
After his poetry writing in the 1940s, Merton ceased writing poems in such quantities again until the 1960s. With his appointment in 1951 as master of scholastics, many of his works—such as The Living Bread, No Man Is an Island, and The Silent Life —expanded on ideas expressed in the monastery classes he conducted for the young monks studying for the priesthood.
Several critics, including Kramer and Baker, noted a change in Merton's writing sometime between the end of the 1950s and the early 1960s. Whereas Merton previously appeared to advocate isolation from society as the answer to the question of how a Christian should respond to the unspirituality of the world, his writing began to suggest the need to deal with social injustice through social activism. Baker explained, "By the mid-1960s [Merton's] attitude toward the world had changed so dramatically that Merton-watchers were speaking of the 'early Merton' and the 'later Merton' to distinguish between his two careers, the one as a silent mystic who celebrated the virtues of monastic life in glowing prose and poetry, the other as a social commentator."
Kramer cited three books in particular that demonstrate "the significant changes in awareness" in Merton's writing. The first of these books, 1949's Seeds of Contemplation, is entirely spiritual in focus. New Seeds of Contemplation, published in 1961 as a revised version of the same book, reflects what Kramer called Merton's "greater concern for the problems of living in the world." The third book, 1964's Seeds of Destruction, is a collection of essays on world problems, including racism. According to Kramer, the changing themes illustrated in these three books reflect Merton's movement from solitary monk in a monastery cell to social activist. While unable to join the sit-ins and protest marches of the 1960s, Merton was able to express his support for such activities with his writing.
Mott explained the change in Merton's style by noting that at the end of the 1950s, "after sixteen years of isolation from social issues, Merton was beginning to feel cut off from what he needed to know." Since radios, televisions, and newspapers were forbidden in the monastery, only chance readings of magazines and books brought to the abbey by Merton's friends enabled him to keep up with world events. Belatedly, he learned about the suffering caused by the U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Japan and the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. He learned of social injustice in Latin America by reading Latin-American poets, including Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal , who spent some time at the Abbey of Gethsemane himself in the late 1950s. As Mott explained, Merton "was unsure of himself, certain only that the time had come to move from the role of bystander . . . to that of declared witness." The works Original Child Bomb: Points for Meditation to Be Scratched on the Walls of a Cave and "Chants to be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces" are products of his awakening social conscience.
Merton's increasing concern with racial injustice, the immorality of war—particularly of the Vietnam conflict—and the plight of the world's poor caused increasing conflict with the monastic censors at Gethsemane. When originally confronted with the manuscript version of The Seven Storey Mountain, for instance, the censors rejected it because of the numerous references to sex and drinking it contained. Although the debate over The Seven Storey Mountain was eventually resolved, monastic censors once again grew concerned about Merton's writings on war and peace. Frustrated, Merton circulated some of his work in mimeographed form that came to be known as the "Cold War Letters." In 1962, Merton was forbidden by his superiors to write about war, but was allowed to write about peace.
Despite censorship and isolation, Merton became, according to Kenneth L. Woodward in Newsweek, "a prophet to the peace movement [and] a conscience to the counterculture." At the height of the Vietnam War, he welcomed a Vietnamese Buddhist monk to speak at the abbey, met with peace activist Joan Baez, corresponded with Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, and planned a retreat for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that was halted by King's assassination. Controversial comedian Lenny Bruce often closed his nightclub act by reading from an essay Merton wrote about German Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in which Merton questions the sanity of the world.
Much of Merton's increased public profile was observed after he began living as a hermit in a cabin located in the woods on the monastery grounds. Just as his desire to be removed from the world became greatest, so did his need to speak out on social problems. In his writings, he attempted to explain this paradox as much to himself as to others.
In Best Sellers, Sister Joseph Marie Anderson wrote that in Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action, the monk stresses "that the contemplative is not exempt from the problem of the world nor is the monastic life an escape from reality." In a review of Merton's The Climate of Monastic Prayer, a Times Literary Supplement critic noted, "Merton came to see that the monk is not exempt from the agonies of the world outside his walls: he is involved at another level." The reviewer offered this quote from Merton's book: "The monk searches not only his own heart: he plunges deep into the heart of that world of which he remains a part although he seems to have 'left' it. In reality the monk abandons the world only in order to listen more intently to the deepest and most neglected voices that proceed from the inner depth." According to Lawrence S. Cunningham, writing in Commonweal, Merton saw the contemplative as someone who "should be able to communicate . . . from the deep center or ground which is God."
Along with social activism, Merton became increasingly interested in the study of other religions, particularly Zen Buddhism. His books Mystics and Zen Masters and Zen and the Birds of Appetite reflect his love for Eastern thought. In the New York Times Book Review, Nancy Wilson Ross wrote, "In Mystics and Zen Masters [the author] has made a vital, sensitive and timely contribution to the growing worldwide effort . . . to shed new light on mankind's common spiritual heritage." She added: "Merton's reasons for writing this [book] . . . might be summed up in a single quotation: 'If the West continues to underestimate and to neglect the spiritual heritage of the East, it may well hasten the tragedy that threatens man and his civilization.'" In the New York Times Book Review, Edward Rice explained further that "Merton's first notion was to pluck whatever 'Christian' gems he could out of the East that might fit into the Catholic theological structure. Later he abandoned this attempt and accepted Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam on their own equally valid terms . . . without compromising his own Christianity."
Merton died in 1968, while attending an ecumenical conference in Bangkok, Thailand, his first extended journey outside the monastery walls since his entry in 1941. Ironically, his death came twenty-seven years to the day from when he first became a member of the Gethsemane community, and was the result of an electrical shock from a faulty fan.
Merton's writings on peace, war, social injustice, and Eastern thought created controversy both inside and outside the abbey. As J. M. Cameron remarked in the New York Review of Books, "Merton will be remembered for two things: his place . . . in the thinking about the morality of war. . . ; and his partially successful attempt to bring out, through study and personal encounter, what is common to Asian and West monasticism and . . . contemplative life." Rice agreed with this observation, noting in The Man in the Sycamore Tree, "It [was] the later writings on war and peace, nonviolence, race, . . . and above all on Buddhism, that show Merton at his best and most creative."
A man of great personal charisma, Merton symbolized, for many Catholics, the search for meaning in life in the aftermath of a cataclysmic war, the shock waves of which had shattered many cultural and social traditions and uprooted long-held values. Decades after his death, his works and life found additional relevance among a new generation of Catholics and non-Catholics, and his writings on war and peace from the 1960s were echoed in the U.S. Catholic bishops' statement on nuclear war published in the 1980s. The trajectory of his life, reveals, Monica Furlong maintained in her Merton: A Biography, "much about the twentieth century and, in particular, the role of religion in it."
Merton "has been prolific even in death," according to U.S. Catholic reporter Jim Forest, citing the many publications containing his essays, prayers, letters, and articles that continue to be published more than three decades after his tragic death. The fiftieth-anniversary edition of The Seven Storey Mountain was published in 1999. Other works released posthumously include Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings, which Library Journal 's Graham Christian applauded as casting "new and thought-provoking light on his finely written prayers," and The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, a revision of Merton's 1948 book What Is Contemplation? In Library Journal Stephen Joseph praised The Inner Experience as an argument to make "contemplation . . . central to all aspects of life rather than just one more compartment." While noting the "rough" quality of the book due to its being still unfinished at Merton's death, a Publishers Weekly reviewer nonetheless cited The Inner Experience for providing "vivid examples of Merton's ability to make monastic disciplines intelligible and plausible even to secular readers."
Merton as Something of a Rebel is implied in the title of a biography of the spiritualist by William Shannon. Shannon's subject "was a unique monk," he stated. "One would have to go all the way back to the [twelfth] century—to St. Bernard—to find a monk whose writings were as influential as Merton's have been." But Merton "belonged to his own age," Shannon wrote. "He wrote in his own time in history, yet so much of what he wrote seemed to reach beyond the culture of his own time. He was supracultural, yet not ahistorical. By that I mean he was alive to the historical circumstances in which he lived, yet not so hemmed in by cultural restraints that he could not break through them."
The Thomas Merton Studies Center at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky, contains over 10,000 items related to Merton and some 3,000 of his manuscripts. The Merton Legacy Trust, devoted to gathering all future Merton scholarship, is also located at Bellarmine. The International Thomas Merton Society was founded in 1987 and reports a membership of over fifteen thousand.
by THOMAS JAMES MERTON
Some one who hears the bugle neigh will know
How cold it is when sentries die by starlight.
But none who love to hear the hammering drum
Will look, when the betrayer
Laughs in the desert like a broken monument,
Ringing his tongue in the red bell of his head,
Gesturing like a flag.
The air that quivered after the earthquake
(When God died like a thief)
Still plays the ancient forums like pianos;
The treacherous wind, lover of the demented,
Will harp forever in the haunted temples.
What speeches do the birds make
With their beaks, to the desolate dead?
And yet we love those carsick amphitheaters,
Nor hear our Messenger come home from hell
With hands shot full of blood.
No one who loves the fleering fife will feel
The light of morning stab his flesh,
But some who hear the trumpet’s raving, in the ruined sky,
Will dread the burnished helmet of the sun,
Whose anger goes before the King.
Advice to a Young Prophet
Keep away, son, these lakes are salt. These flowers
Eat insects. Here private lunatics
Yell and skip in a very dry country.
Or where some haywire monument
Some badfaced daddy of fear
Commands an unintelligent rite.
To dance on the unlucky mountain,
To dance they go, and shake the sin
Out of their feet and hands,
Frenzied until the sudden night
Falls very quiet, and magic sin
Creeps, secret, back again.
Badlands echo with omens of ruin:
Seven are very satisfied, regaining possession:
(Bring a little mescaline, you’ll get along!)
There’s something in your bones,
There’s someone dirty in your critical skin,
There’s a tradition in your cruel misdirected finger
Which you must obey, and scribble in the hot sand:
“Let everybody come and attend
Where lights and airs are fixed
To teach and entertain. O watch the sandy people
Hopping in the naked bull’s-eye,
Shake the wildness out of their limbs,
Try to make peace like John in skins
Elijah in the timid air
or Anthony in tombs:
Pluck the imaginary trigger, brothers.
Shoot the devil: he’ll be back again!”
America needs these fatal friends
Of God and country, to grovel in mystical ashes,
Pretty big prophets whose words don’t burn,
Fighting the strenuous imago all day long.
Only these lunatics, (O happy chance)
Only these are sent. Only this anaemic thunder
Grumbles on the salt flats, in rainless night:
O go home, brother, go home!
The devil’s back again,
And magic Hell is swallowing flies.
An Elegy for Five Old Ladies
(Newton, Mass., April 20: Five women ranging in age from 80 to 96 drowned this afternoon when a driverless car rolled across a rest home lawn and sank in Crystal Lake . . . the new york times)
Let us forget that it is spring and celebrate the riderless will of five victims.
Old companions are sitting silent in the home. Five of their number have suddenly gone too far; as if waifs,
As if orphans were to swim without license. Their ride was not lucky. It took them very far out of bounds.
Mrs. Watson said she saw them all go at three-forty-five. Their bell had rung too loud and too late.
It was a season when water is too cold for anyone, and is especially icy for an old person.
The brazen sedan was not to be trusted. The wheels went too well for one short and straight journey. It was the last: the doors did not open.
Dimly and too late they saw themselves on a very wicked lawn. May God have mercy on their recreation!
Let us accordingly pay homage to five now legendary persons, the very chaste daughters of one unlucky ride.
Let the perversity of a machine become our common study, while I name loudly five loyal spouses of death!
At This Precise Moment of History
1. At this precise moment of history
With Goody-two-shoes running for Congress
We are testing supersonic engines
To keep God safe in the cherry tree.
When I said so in this space last Thursday
I meant what I said: power struggles.
2. You would never dream of such corn. The colonials in
sandalwood like running wide open and available for
protection. You can throw them away without a refund.
3. Dr. Hanfstaengel who was not called Putzi except by
those who did not know him is taped in the national
archives. J. Edgar Hoover he ought to know
And does know.
But calls Dr. Hanfstaengel Putzi nevertheless
Somewhere on tape in the
He (Dr. H.) is not a silly man.
He left in disgust
About the same time Shirley Temple
Sat on Roosevelt’s knee
An accomplished pianist
A remembered personality.
He (Dr. H.) began to teach
To his mother a Queen Bee
In the American colony.
4. What is your attitude toward historical subjects?
—Perhaps it’s their size!
5. When I said this in space you would never believe
Corn Colonel was so expatriated.
—If you think you know,
Take this wheel
And become standard.
6. She is my only living mother
This bee of the bloody arts
Bandaging victims of Saturday’s dance
Like a veritable sphinx
In a totally new combination.
7. The Queen Mother is an enduring vignette
at an early age.
Now she ought to be kept in submersible
For a while.
8. What is your attitude toward historical subjects
Like Queen Colonies?
—They are permanently fortified
For shape retention.
9. Solid shades
Seven zippered pockets
Close to my old place
Waiting by the road
Big disk brakes
Long lights stabbing at the
Two together piggyback
In a stark sports roadster
Regretting his previous outburst
Al loads his Cadillac
10. She is my only living investment
She examines the housing industry
Counts 3.5 million postwar children
And draws her own conclusion
In the commercial fishing field.
11. Voice of little sexy ventriloquist mignonne:
“Well I think all of us are agreed and sincerely I my-
self believe that honest people on both sides have got
it all on tape. Governor Reagan thinks that nuclear
wampums are a last resort that ought not to be re-
sorted.” (But little mignonne went right to the point
with: “We have a commitment to fulfill and we better
do it quick.” No dupe she!)
All historians die of the same events at least twice.
13. I feel that I ought to open this case with an apology.
Dr. H. certainly has a beautiful voice. He is not a silly
man. He is misunderstood even by Presidents.
14. You people are criticizing the Church but what are
you going to put in her place? Sometime sit down with
a pencil and paper and ask yourself what you’ve got
that the Church hasn’t.
15. Nothing to add
But the big voice of a detective
Using the wrong first names
In national archives.
16. She sat in shocking pink with an industrial zipper spe-
cially designed for sitting on the knees of presidents in
broad daylight. She spoke the president’s mind. “We
have a last resort to be resorted and we better do it
quick.” He wondered at what he had just said.
17. It was all like running wideopen in a loose gown
At least someplace.
for Baroness G. de Hueck
Across the cages of the keyless aviaries,
The lines and wires, the gallows of the broken kites,
Crucify, against the fearful light,
The ragged dresses of the little children.
Soon, in the sterile jungles of the waterpipes and ladders,
The bleeding sun, a bird of prey, will terrify the poor,
These will forget the unbelievable moon.
But in the cells of whiter buildings,
Where the glass dawn is brighter than the knives of surgeons,
Paler than alcohol or ether, shinier than money,
The white men’s wives, like Pilate’s,
Cry in the peril of their frozen dreams:
“Daylight has driven iron spikes,
Into the flesh of Jesus’ hands and feet:
Four flowers of blood have nailed Him to the walls of Harlem.”
Along the white halls of the clinics and the hospitals
Pilate evaporates with a cry:
They have cut down two hundred Judases,
Hanged by the neck in the opera houses and the museum.
Across the cages of the keyless aviaries,
The lines and wires, the gallows of the broken kites,
Crucify, against the fearful light,
The ragged dresses of the little children.
The Zen in Thomas Merton
by John Wu, Jr.
This is a revised version of the paper presented at the First General Meeting of the Society at Southampton, May 17-19, 1996.
The original title was "Thomas Merton and the Spirit of Zen."
I must above all things avoid playing the "know myself" game, because if I do it will surely mean losing what little I can find of a path to God.
Run to the Mountain
To be a contemplative is to be an outlaw.
Rain and the Rhinoceros
The ascent is for oneself, the descent for others.
Roshi Philip Kapleau,
Zen: Merging of East and West
When a finger points to the moon, The imbecile looks at the finger.
From a New York fortune cookie
In view of the above, it appeared to me that to write only of Merton's explicit "Zen writings" would in fact put us in danger of shrinking his Zen. His writings are in fact full of Zen, and such elements can be found in the most unexpected places. That is because from the very beginning he was free, fearless and carefree, as Jim Forest suggested in the panel discussion on the first day of the Conference. Perhaps, it was because he was constitutionally unable to live in any realm other than that of freedom. Matthew Kelty, a fellow monk and student of Merton's at Gethsemani, once said of him, Merton was as difficult to bottle as fog. And I cannot think of a better description of a Zen man than this inspired image.
Besides, I think we would have to go to great lengths to find another person as fully integrated as he was. And here I do not just mean the integration one finds in his writings: what I mean is that his writings and his life are a perfect mirror of one another, a wonderful coming together of knowledge and existence, which, if not the most important, is surely one of the ideals of the great Asian traditions. And I think it had everything to do with the spiritual desert which to him could never have merely meant a physical place out there but a self fully directed to and liberated and warmed by a compassionate Lover. This, of course, was his unfailing source out of which everything else gushed forth so inevitably and richly.
Once his voice is secure, a writer involves himself with themes closest to his heart, unless he is an incorrigible escapist. He doesn't shift gears unless some huge moral or spiritual spasm disrupts that voice which necessitates a shift. Merton was to travel millenia in his thoughts, but he was fortunate to have found his voice surprisingly early on in life. Michael Mott made this quite clear during his insightful keynote presentation at the Fourth General Meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society last summer at Olean, New York. Mott is of the opinion - and I very much agree - that Merton, at the time he entered Gethsemani in December, 1941, was already in possession of all the fundamental ideas that would make him, as many say now, if not our century's premier spiritual writer, certainly one of its most appealing. His life was much like any great classical drama where the essential clues are dropped in the first act and the remaining acts become a matter of its unfolding.
This realization came to me while reading the wonderfully direct and fresh, yet, I might add, profound, Run to the Mountain, the first volume of Merton's projected seven journals which covers the two years before his becoming a Trappist. It reveals the soul of a young man steadily in search of what he himself came to call the inmost self, and what the Zen exponents might call self-nature, mind, even Buddhahood. This is in contrast to the more conventional and potentially obsessive Grecian command to "know thyself," which, to Merton's youthful credit, he never indulged much in. We will examine the personal disaffection he felt towards it in part II. Some might contend that Merton never appreciated the full implications of what the Greeks meant by Socratic self-knowledge, but we will not spend time looking at this important question here.
Merton was able to distinguish quite clearly the difference between human learning - to which he may have perhaps arbitrarily confined the entire Socratic dialectical process - and wisdom, that is, between knowledge gained through hard thinking and knowledge that reveals itself through hard experience and inner solitude. In short, wisdom appears only after one has abandoned a life of hubris, and experiences, in depth, the hollowness of intellectual knowledge, and the painful sense of moral and spiritual depravity. Moreover, unlike most other artists and writers, what distinguished the monk was that he was a great mystic and contemplative. As it has been noted by many, the psychological and spiritual makeup and the modus operandi of mystics and contemplatives from different traditions tend to be very similar, though the roads and goals they take and reach may be quite divergent, even contradictory.
Even as a young budding writer Merton was able to fathom the difference between the knowing of oneself in the Platonic Dialogues and the knowing (or, shall we say, more accurately, the "unknowing") of the true self one finds in all authentic traditions, mystical, Zen or otherwise. In this discrimination, you can see why he ultimately chose the monastery over the university and why he would have been constantly at sixes and sevens in an academic setting where high power intellects joust for the critical competitive edge that may end in great frustration. This choice of place itself comes, I think, from profound self-knowledge, for he most likely would have suffered badly in any other place except in a monastery. For, is it not true that part of life's wisdom is to know where we belong, where we would do the least damage to ourselves and others?
Although a very good intellectual, Merton knew that the Socratic kind of knowing could not possibly satiate his real desire for a fulfillment that would ultimately please and lead him back to his Maker. He had this enormously significant intuition that somehow wisdom and the search for the inmost self did not lie in the gaining of knowledge; it lay, rather, in the losing of it. Symbolically, if we recall, the young, impulsive Merton even tried to get rid of all such knowledge by throwing away all the novels and some other things he had written since his undergraduate days. Though, of course, this is not to say that he found this wisdom intact in the monastery he belonged to, either. A cursory look at his later writings on monastic reforms would quickly cure us of that illusion.
Part of the monastic problem he saw in Western societies, particularly in the more affluent ones, lay in the inordinate emphasis on the preservation of a collective monastic consciousness, which he found counter-productive. What Merton the teacher later emphasized to his novices in his many recorded talks was, in so many words, a return to true contemplation, to him, the very crux of a monk's vocation. Being familiar with both the desert Fathers and Zen, it must have saddened him that there was so little concern in his monastery for the spiritual enlightenment and cultural enrichment of the individual monk, that the monastery was not training qualified teachers who could serve in the same capacity as roshis and masters traditionally did and still do in Zen monasteries.(1)
Merton felt the job of the monastery, and this seems to be consistent with St. Benedict's Rule,(2) was to help the individual monk unload whatever excess baggage he was carrying. This could then prepare young men (and women) for the real task at hand, which, as Leon Bloy might put it, is to become a veritable pilgrim for the Absolute. Which would certainly hinder such a journey if there were entire lines of countless egos tagging along, or, as one Zen Master once suggested to a Zen hopeful, "Why did you bring along such a crowd?"
It was the bringing of such "crowds" into the monastery that Merton was most fearful of, for their presence made the basic formation of the monk very difficult. Each layer of useless, cultural armor that the aspiring monk wore into the monastery literally "crowded out" the essentials that would help the novice get closer to the Absolute. Hence, an unlearning process becomes indispensable for, without undergoing it, possibility for enlightenment would indeed remain remote. Perhaps, this unlearning is even more important than what one could possibly learn; without it, all learning would gradually, if not contaminate, at least, water down, the essentials of being a monk.
Nothing of course was more important to Merton than giving praise to God. Essentially, that was his vocation. Yet, one may justifiably contend, Well, if one accepts that assessment, what about those countless interests that seemed to fuel Merton's own monastic life--nonstop? Were they merely peripheral to him and, therefore, unimportant? Were they not, too, "excess baggage"? And were they not a contradiction of what Christian and Zen and other mystics would regard as impediments to enlightenment? To these questions one would have to answer both yes and no. Merton was not only an intellectual and a poet - alone a rare combination - but also a great lover of culture, near and far, which, in time, he managed to appropriate to himself.
Each Merton reader has met up with that delightful problem of running into books that the monk had received from some friend or publisher and whose ideas had been digested and deftly integrated into his ever-widening universe. This great knack - to integrate intellectual knowledge, experience and even friendships - was a trick he had begun to master early in life. And one is frankly knocked out by how naturally and thoroughly he was able to bring together so easily this new integration of thought without any trace of condescension on his part. Such a feat required genius of both the head and heart and had to be guided not by mere curiosity alone but by an overflowing compassion that craved ever more for ideas and interaction with other people that would fuel the ever-thirsting Light within.
He sought actively to engage what was authentic, and was not so much interested in challenging as much as to be challenged. One sees this in his friendships with Suzuki, Maritain, Milosz, Pasternak, Rosemary Ruether, Abdul Aziz, my own father, and a host of others. These were encounters from which he grew immeasurably. He could only be fearless in thrusting challenges upon himself because as a young man he had already begun to have an abiding faith in the ultimate unity of knowledge.
To the typically spiritually-minded Easterner, Merton's approach to spirituality seemed to have run counter to common sense. While this may not be true of the Confucianists who have always had a healthy penchant for both cultural and intellectual life, it certainly has been true of the Taoists and more specifically, the exponents of Zen, even present-day aspirants, who sometimes pride themselves on abandoning nearly all intellectual and cultural pursuits and, particularly, during their period of formation, on reading almost exclusively the lives of former buddhas and bodhisattvas. This external formula of edification would be likened, for the Christian novice, to reading exclusively the lives of the saints.
Even now, there are great controversies – as I suppose there are among Christian monastics in their monasteries - over this matter of what ought to be read among Zen exponents. It is for this reason that the so-called "intellectual" Zen of Dr. Suzuki has been overshadowed in recent decades by those who regard themselves as the real practitioners, which, the latter claim, Suzuki was not. At times, there is, ironically, a sharper Occam's razor among the Zen cliques fighting for authenticity of method and experience than among the splintered Christians of the world. It would seem that one needs both breadth and depth as well as encounters with multifarious experiences; common sense tells us depth of experience cannot be confined to any one method.
My own feeling is that such controversies would fade if there was greater trust and compassion among all the practitioners, and if, once more, we can regain the humble attitude that, important as Zen and Christian monastic training and discipline are, first, life in the broadest sense remains our one essential teacher; secondly, our primary goal, whatever tradition we belong to, remains attainment of the true self, or self-nature. If we forget this, whatever training we master will simply disintegrate into mere fetishes, even idolatry. Merton himself made this quite clear in his own writings as regards the dangers of overemphasizing method over substance. This is not to say that he was against strict discipline and training. He was not that naive, after all, and he himself had undergone such training and was himself a very disciplined monk.
Merton, especially in his role as novice master, nearly almost always complained of and even parodied the lack of intellectual and cultural preparation so evident in the young men aspiring to become members of the religious community at his beloved Gethsemani. His now famous "Get a life!" talk - which was so finely elaborated upon by Parker Palmer at a conference at Louisville's Bellarmine College in March, 1994 - gives us insight into the very intimate and, I think, exceedingly necessary, role that cultural knowledge plays in the spiritual and moral development and formation of each person. Without doubt, he had felt that this lack in the young reflected the broader anti-intellectual strain pervasive in America itself, particularly in the 40's and 50's. And he could not help but feel a great disquietude in seeing it dominate the American monastic landscape. But at the same time he knew, given the superficial material culture on which most young Americans were bred, this phenomenon was rather inevitable too.
Could one say that this was a prideful attitude in Merton, an idiosyncracy in the monk that drove him to want to make all the young monks over into his own image? Or, perhaps, being a Catholic convert, he deliberately wanted to make the entire Catholic Church over into a contemporary intellectual bastion, a newer, more robust Rome with ever more roads leading to its center? On the other hand, if we give him the benefit of the doubt, wasn't there in Merton a sincere attempt to recover those sources without which he knew his Church and her intellectual and cultural superstructure would be nothing more than, say, "excess baggage" or "crowds" shielding her very Heart?
One thing Merton was not: though he loved his Church, he was no apologist, at least, neither a conscious nor conventional one. As we all know now in his efforts to bring the Church into the 20th century (how quaint that sounds as we dodderingly muddle through fin de siecle, truly a fin de millenium!), he probably alienated more of its members than he won over. Of course he would have: wasn't he, after all, a prophet crying in the desert, and, fittingly, someone who knew that he and others like him were in some senses already operating in diaspora? The Jewish experience in the first half of the twentieth century and the later forced exodus of the Tibetans from their homeland had been warnings enough.
In one recorded tape(3), Merton cautions the novices of a future time when they would have to "stand on their own two feet," a prophetic theme that highlights the paper he delivered in Bangkok hours before his untimely death. He seemed to be preparing his fellow monks for that fateful day when they would have to walk on their own without baggage or crowds or intellectual and cultural crutches. I have no doubt at all that Zen helped him along this path to spiritual freedom.
Merton's own monastic life was a precarious passage to such a liberation, a letting go of all extraneous threads and anchors that unnaturally held him back. He wanted nothing better than to get rid of whatever artificial crutches and supports that would prevent him, as he said in a letter to Czeslew Milosz, from "falling through the floor of time...," and that one ought "to start with a good acceptance of the dark..."(4) In an earlier letter to Milosz, when he had said, "I had (falsely) given the impression that I had answers...,"(5) he was hinting ever so subtly at the absolute necessity of living Meister Eckhart's idea of perfect poverty,(6) that particular dimension of emptiness in Zen where prajna (wisdom) and karuna (compassion) operate in perfect union in human action.
I now think Merton was able to be fearless with regard to intellectual and cultural accoutrements because, first, he saw how he himself and a long line of monkish kinsmen and kinswomen over nearly two millenia had been able to make creative use of them; secondly, working from his unique perspective as a contemplative monk, he considered all human knowledge as a profitable means and never as an end-in-itself; and, thirdly, from a specific Christian theological dimension, he saw them as ciphers and signs, symbolic ladders and natural epiphanies of the Word Itself.
In short, rather than impediments standing in direct contrast to the Absolute, as that which taints the self and throws an irreconcilable wedge between ourselves and the truth and, therefore, standing in mutual exclusivity, he saw in human knowledge, instead, helpful, even essential windows or pictures that would aid in bringing us closer to where we should be heading, or, to where we have always been.
From the perspective of enlightenment, human knowledge, when assisted by grace, becomes an indispensable tool in the gradual journey that takes us to the core of the inmost self where we come face to face with the source of existence and literally become lost in God. Or, as we allow ourselves to be immersed in God - to be God-drunk, as it were - self-nature emerges. Human knowledge, then, once it has faithfully executed its work, must finally teach us to help it to get out of the way of the Light so that divine love and compassion may begin freely to operate in us along paths which, given the profound level at which it usually works, is often far more dark than light.(7)
I think Zen also taught Merton the fiction of both collective and individual experience, both of which he ultimately found impersonal, isolating and without connection to any past or future. They have a parasitic, ghoulish existence, in which we act as if we have been taken over by some body-snatchers. Even a monastery could represent "a womb of collective illusion" in which nothing is deeply felt because it is not personally experienced.
The point he was trying to make on the tape I have cited above and elsewhere was that no matter how sophisticated the theologies, how richly elaborate the rituals, or how air-tight the hierarchies and superstructures of our respective traditions, all the external trappings may sometimes serve as terrible traps if the individual monk is not able to directly experience and come to terms with what is plainly there all along, i.e., Ground of Being. And as long as it is experienced on the surface and does not touch the core of our being, it is neither Christian nor Buddhist but some caricature or fiction of what truly is. In his autobiography, Beyond East and West, my father, who was as committed to Roman Catholicism as anyone could be, wrote:
"(Buddhism) has taught me the importance of direct personal experience in the matter of spiritual life. As Frank Sheed puts it, 'If you want to know how wet the rain is, do not judge by someone who went out into it with an umbrella.' He advises us to go stripped into the shower of truth and life. The spirit of Zen is nothing else but this."(8)
"Going stripped into the shower of truth and life" is very much like Dr. Suzuki's idea of experiencing life "without gloves," in which gloves are representative of anything that prevent us from encountering life as it is, from savoring the very nectar and joys, sorrows and even tragedies of life, to wit, life as given to us without any holds barred, that has not yet been filtered through or softened by some concept or reasonings that somehow take the bite or sting out of what actually is. (As a whimsical aside, I would like to say that, obviously, Frank Sheed never went out into the Southampton rain without an umbrella. Therefore, I somewhat take umbrage in what he advises!)
What happens when we do not use concepts and our reason properly is that, besides imposing our own whims and silly caricature on what we see before us, we in effect also shrink that which we are pointing to. We then find ourselves convincing ourselves that we have savored the rain in its refreshing rawness, when in fact we have done nothing more than discredit the rain itself. It may be likened to looking at the mountain without actually seeing it; we are like the imbecile obsessed with the wildly wiggling finger, trying to convince ourselves and whoever else might listen that we are in possession of the real thing when, in fact, we are simply holding on to an illusion or, at best, a distorted view of things.
Frank Sheed's simple words remind me of Merton's marvelously illuminating prose-poem, "Rain and the Rhinoceros," in which the monk suggests that rain is a festive hymn with a sacred rhythm of its own. It is such magnificent writing that we could quote it at random. For me, the great downpour serves as a final baptism that finally spiritualizes the hermit's simple hermitage once and for all and reconfirms the poet's recognition that the real hermitage is indeed his own heart. One wonders if anything could be more Zen than this piece of writing in which is anticipated Merton's later experience at Polunnaruwa on his Asian journey.
"Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water... What a thing to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech,...the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!" "Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen."(9)
The above reminds me of this lovely couplet found in Zen literature:
"The Ground of the Mind contains many seeds
Which will sprout when heavenly showers come."(10)
Thomas Merton's life as a monk, then as a hermit, was certainly an endless sprouting of seeds tumbling forth from some Unnameable Source!
Then, in the following, although Merton ostensibly speaks of the alienating effect of urban life, in fact, on a deeper metaphysical and spiritual level, he is talking of "gloves," of "umbrellas," of "excessive baggages," of the nearly obsessive shrinking of life that goes on mostly involuntarily and tragically undetected everywhere and to which all of us are always in danger of succumbing.
"They have constructed a world outside the world, against the world, a world of mechanical fictions which contemn nature and seek only to use it up, thus preventing it from renewing itself and man." (Raids, p. 11)
Like all parables, it cannot be gotten at through some clever thinking. If one "arrives" through that alone, you can be sure that you are still standing outside its gates, either wallowing in what you have "accomplished" and foolishly thinking that you have "arrived," or, if you have attained some wisdom along the way, sadly and forlornly waiting for the gates to open. The former, the one who thinks he has arrived and is pleased with his/her accomplishments, probably has not even reached the foot of the mountain, while the latter at least understands he is somewhere along the Path and his own efforts will become increasingly less significant the further he goes along. And that is really the important part, that you understand you are no longer in the driver's seat but gladly - perhaps, with a great sigh - allowing the Transformer of Life to be increasingly in charge of your life.
Thomas Merton may have been too cerebral to some of us but one of his virtues was that he rarely used intellectualism as an end-in-itself. Even as a budding young writer in his mid-twenties, he seemed to have been able to avoid the odious fetish of giving the self an undeserved god-like status. Something told him that when one pays inordinate attention to the self, by "puffing up" the self, or by giving knowledge a higher status than it deserves (reminiscent of the scientia inflat, or "inflated knowledge" - St. Augustine's personal comment on St. Paul), you actually make it less-than-itself. Obviously, too, experience had told Merton there was great wisdom and strength in meekness.
This insight may or may not have come from readings he had done on the East, but a reading of Saint Theresa's The Interior Castle which he mentions in that same entry of December 8 in Run to the Mountain, surely must have fortified this valuable intuition (whose original source lay of course in the Beatitudes). This would have widespread ramifications in nearly all his future writings. I suppose there really is no greater temptation than the intellectual who thinks himself meek, especially one who is also basically a man of the spirit. The person either sours in midstream or his/her life becomes a veritable piece of art, a paradigm of earthly paradise, perhaps, even a saint or true man or true woman.
Living in an age of individualism when most others seemed obsessed with their individual selves, the young Merton was desperately fighting against this tide which he recognized ultimately as fraudulent. The December 8, 1939 journal entry - when Merton was not yet 25, and fully two years before his entering Gethsemani - puts us in direct contact with the psychology and the comet-like evolution that his spirituality was even then undergoing. It also reveals the whimsical attitude he had begun to entertain towards himself, a Zen-like phenomenon in that the laughing at oneself - a "letting go" - was helping to strip layers and years of accumulated and essentially useless encrustation from the self. Somehow, he sensed that, up to then, the self that had sustained him had only been a parody of his true self.
The entire entry, so self-liberating in its writing, sets forth concretely a new direction for the young Merton. Humourously anecdotic, he speaks disparagingly of his own silliness in trying to figure out the "psychological type" he belonged to following a reading of C. G. Jung. He had concluded that he was an "extraverted sensation type" and writes of his unfounded fear of being an "introvert." He also makes allusion to his having absurdly identified with a character (George Gissing) in one of Virginia Woolf's novels: "What a ridiculous thing to take oneself so seriously!" Then, he adds, as if with a huge sigh of relief,
"It is completely embarrassing to come upon such examples of vanity and pride. It is more pitiful to think how miserable and ignorant I continued to be while I was so unhappily engaged in the futile business of trying in a reasonable and humanistic manner, to know myself. What floundering around! It was a wonder I remembered my own name! It was a greater wonder I remembered the names and faces of people around me." (Run, p. 96.)
It was also a wonder that Merton was able to make such a wonderfully subtle connection between this potentially self-indulgent, psychological need of self-identity, on the one hand, and the underlying religious desire for the true self and the primitive thirst for the presence and love of God, on the other hand. Into the following, one could very easily read a pietistic strain, and why not, for the young Merton was, after all, a new and enthusiastic member of the Catholic Church. He is manifestly "God-drunk" and understands that the full weight of the Creator's love can work in us only if our other desires are somehow brought to their knees:
"Knowing myself--it was really a sort of a desperate substitute for confession and penance. That was why it was so silly and so lamentably useless. For the only valid kind of self-knowledge is the amount needed for a good examination of conscience to make a good confession...and the important thing is God's love, not ourselves and what is in us. We don't want to know what is in ourselves in order to dwell upon it, treasure it, meditate upon it unless it is not of ourselves but of God. So everything that is of our own worldly desire and fear must be cast out so that we can see God within us and everywhere outside of us too. What we want to know is not ourselves but God." (Run, p. 96.)
Here in these very suggestive words one can see surfacing a future contemplative. It begins with the recognition of the spiritual blindness that results in encountering life by way of the ego; secondly, the basic insubstantiality and emptiness of worldly pleasures; thirdly, the vapidness of intellectualism devoid of a source, so that verbalization and culture become ends in themselves; fourthly, the irreconcilable gap between knowledge and wisdom; fifthly, the healing nature of a personal, loving God; and, finally, the certain faith that once we have gotten over the obsession with the self and experienced the freedom resulting from God's love, we will then be able to witness directly the workings of the divine hand in the world as well. Here, too, we can see in bold relief the first signs of the anti-Cartesian strain that was to run ever more deeply in Merton, particularly in the epistemology surrounding both his philosophy of contemplation and his approach towards Zen.
In fact, one could make a case that in these words there contained all the seeds that would gradually reach fruition in the later, mature Merton. At the same time, it would hardly be too audacious to say that the young man's basic insights and his eventual excursions into other mystical traditions would not have been possible if he had not been able to see through the empirical ego into the ontological mystery of the inmost self; furthermore, that everything Merton did thereafter centered on the unfolding of that mystery that brought him ever closer to the cosmic heart of Christ. He knew, writing twenty years later in much of his inspired "The Inner Experience," for instance, that the key to contemplation and even Zen enlightenment, lay in being dismissive of that ego which he identified as the deadly source of all human troubles.
Again, in that same marvelous and inspired journal entry, Merton hits upon another important insight, when he says: "We must know this much: that we are not God. We already know we are unhappy: the amount of self-knowledge we need is simply what will help us find out the reasons for our unhappiness: that is in what ways we have loved silly and inferior and imperfect things and preferred them before God." (Run, p. 97)
How fortunate Merton was that long before he took up Zen as a serious study he was very much aware of the seductive, built-in traps that accompany a too anxious obsession with the self; furthermore, he understood that no accumulated knowledge of the self would bring us happiness, that in fact the greater we come in possession of such knowledge, the less likely we shall be able to penetrate that shell and attain personal liberation.
Philosophical Taoism, principally the works of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, which together with classical Confucianism played a historical role in sinologizing Buddhism and helped bring Zen into a golden age during the T'ang dynasty (618-906 A.D.) in China, appears to have a strong anti-intellectual bias, which was perhaps assumed - I think, erroneously - by the Zen aspirants. This bias, however, is true only on the surface. Several passages in the Tao Teh Ching specify that the Way of Tao, in contrast to human knowledge, is the "way of unlearning," in fact, to unlearn what we have learned. This is scandalous to our twentieth century minds conditioned to indulging in positivistic myths about progress and speed and the indispensability of the most recent addition of hi-tech to our lives.
Yet, if we are able to get closer to the way of the Christian monk, the true man of Tao or the Zen aspirant, we can see them in a common link beginning with the implicit faith that much of our troubles stem from the kind of learning that inevitably disturbs the natural ecology of the mind. At times, in attempting to compensate for our loss in spiritual equilibrium, we may take upon ourselves indiscriminate modes of learning which, rather than liberating us from our estranged self, ever more entangle us in the web of illusory concepts and self-imposed mental prisons. To those on the outside, the Christian monk, the Taoist and the Zennist may indeed appear to have "abandoned" the world; when, in fact, all that he or she has done has been to strip away the deadening encrustations of the soul that leave it earthbound.
But from their respective perspective, each in his or her own way has seen the horrible consequences of making an idol either of the self or the collectivity. Merton, writing in the 60's of the rising Western interest in Zen which he saw to be "a healthy reaction of people exasperated with the heritage of four centuries of Cartesianism," blamed the vacuity of Western intellectualism on "the reification of concepts, idolization of the reflexive consciousness, flight from being into verbalism, mathematics and rationalization." He adds that "Descartes made a fetish out of the mirror in which the self finds itself. Zen shatters it."(11)
William Shannon, commenting on those words, gives his own insight: "For this Cartesian, thinking self, even God becomes an object that can be reached only by concepts. This perhaps is why an age that glorifies the ego-self is the age of 'the death of God.'" (Dark Path, Ibid.) The great temptation of Cartesianism for the West - of the dualistic split of the subject from the object - is that it has encouraged us to be conscious of a million things and, in the meantime, made us lose contact with Pure Consciousness itself. It is much like mistaking the nameable Tao for the Eternal Tao, or, from the standpoint of the Christian, of confusing its complex doctrines, and elaborate rituals and culture for the simple Pauline image of "putting on Christ."
In 1959, writing on contemplation, Merton pointed out the political consequences of a people or society existing without a genuine sense of self and healthy personalism. He speaks of our tragically facile contemporary tendency to willingly "fall back into collective barbarism in which the individual and his freedom once again lose their meaning and each man (and woman) is an expendable unit ready to be immolated to the political idols on which the prosperity and power of the collectivity seem to depend." (12) How much concerned he always was in the preservation of the real self!
The failed utopian enterprises in our century are a harrowing documentation and reminder of the sort of barbarism that results from an unwittingly naive idolization of both an impersonal collectivism and ego that live parasitically among enchanted mirrors capable only of reflecting back our illnesses and diseased souls. The extraordinary personal conviviality is that it dies upon being touched by Mystery. While Zen itself may not be equated with that Mystery, it is, nonetheless, an indispensable pointer to it.
Notes and References
(1) For a good picture of the relationship between the Zen master and the aspiring student, see Roshi Philip Kapleau's "The Private Encounter with the Master." pp.44-69, in Zen: Tradition and Transition, edited by Kenneth Kraft (New York, Grove Press, 1988)
(2) See Aelred Graham's short but enlightening essay, "On Monasticism", pp 171-82, in Zen Catholicism (New York, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1963) in which he makes some interesting and suggestive comparisons between Zen disciplne and the Rule of St Benedict.
(3) See "The Straight Way", Credence Cassette: Merton AA2801 (Kansas City, Missouri: The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Co., 1995)
(4) Thomas Merton, The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers, selected and edited by Christine Bochen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993) letter dated Jan 18 1962, p.78. Hereafter referred to in the text as Courage.
(5) Courage, letter dated June 5, 1961, p.75
(6) Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York, New Directions, 1968) p.12.
(7) Thomas Merton, Run to the Mountain: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume One 1939-1941, ed. Patrick Hart (Harper/San Francisco, 1995),418. Hereafter referred to in the text as Run.
(8) John C.H.Wu, Beyond East and West (New York, Sheed and Ward, 1951) p.185
(9) Thomas Merton, "Rain and the Rhinoceros", in Raids on the Unspeakable (New York, New Directions, 1966)p.10. Hereafter referred to in the text as Raids.
(10) John C.H.Wu, The Golden Age of Zen (New York, Doubleday Image Books, 1996) p.71.
(11) These words, originally from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, are quoted in William H. Shannon's Thomas Merton's Dark Path (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987) p.206. Hereafter referred to in the text as Dark Path.
(12) see Thomas Merton "The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation II", Cistercian Studies, 1983, p.129.
John Wu, Jr. is a regular contributor to Merton conferences in Europe and the United States.
Merton and the Opening to the East
by Thomas P. Rausch, SJ
East Asian Pastoral Review, Volume 45 (2008) Number 3
Merton's Dialogue with Zen: Pioneering or Passé?
by John D. Dadosky
Fu Jen International Religious Studies Vol. 2 No. 1 (N. Summer 2008), pp. 53-75
Openness and Fidelity: Thomas Merton's Dialogue with D. T. Suzuki, and Self-transcendence
by Joseph Quinn Raab
Thesis, University of St. Michael's College, 2000, pp. 1-227