The Need to Win and Flight from Shadow

Later this week (Jan. 31) we can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton. I wrote about Merton last year at this time, and I began that post by explaining that he was a “Trappist monk considered a major spiritual thinker of the 20th century. Author of more than 60 books, he was an influential Catholic writer. He also had an impact on the religious culture of America through his embrace of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. He pioneered inter-faith dialogue, engaging with such people as D.T. Suzuki, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh.”

So if you didn’t know why folks interested in Buddhism should be aware of Merton, now you do.

merton-800b2As noted above, he was a prolific writer. I’ve read the biography by Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, but only a handful of Merton’s own writings, those that deal with Buddhism. He explored other spiritual philosophies, yet he never lost his Christian perspective and that’s why I am not in agreement with everything he had to say about Eastern thought. But one of his works I can find little to complain about is his interpretation of Chuang Tzu, the classic Chinese writings attributed to an early Taoist philosopher.

I’ve presented selections from Chuang Tzu in previous posts, and in one from 2011 I included part of Merton’s interpretation of a passage from the “Mountain Tree” chapter. I assume, since the best known translations (by Arthur Waley, Lin Yutang, and Burton Watson) are in prose form, that was how the text was originally composed. But I could be entirely wrong about it. For me, part of what makes The Way of Chuang Tzu unique and interesting is the way in which Merton interprets much of the text as poetry. It also makes for a great introduction to the Chuang Tzu’s somewhat abstruse writings, heavily invested with satire and paradox.

Here are a couple of selections:

The Need to Win

When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets —
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him.
He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting–
And the need to win drains him of power.

Flight from Shadow

There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both. The method he hit upon was to run away from them.

So he got up and ran. But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.

He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping until he finally dropped dead.

He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps.

The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1969


Thomas Merton: “Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.”

Today is the 99th anniversary of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk considered a major spiritual thinker of the 20th century.  Author of more than 60 books, he was an influential Catholic writer.  He also had an impact on the religious culture of America through his embrace of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies.  He pioneered inter-faith dialogue, engaging with such people as D.T. Suzuki, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Merton burst upon the consciousness of America with his biography, The Seven Story Mountain, published in 1948.  I’ve never read it, but I did read a biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott.  The overriding impression of Merton I got from that book was that he was a conflicted person.  Well, aren’t we all?  In Merton’s case, he lived the life of a monastic at Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, but he had a bit of wild side.  He liked jazz, dancing, drinking, smoking, etc.  My feeling was that the real source of his conflict had to do with celibacy.  He fell in love several times in his life, and if I recall correctly, he renounced his monastic vows to be with one of the women.  It didn’t last long and he returned to his monk’s cell in the abbey.  Which only proves he was human.

Merton’s interest in Eastern philosophy and meditation began an encounter with the writings of Adlous Huxley in the 1930’s.  By the late 50’s he developed a keen interest in Zen, which sparked a dialogue with D.T. Suzuki, who contributed greatly to the popularization of Buddhism in the West.  The dialogue was subsequently published in Merton’s book, Zen and the Birds of Appetite.  He also greatly admired the writings attributed to Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu and adapted them as poetry and short pieces in The Way of Chuang Tzu.

Merton’s life ended unexpectedly, and tragically.  In 1968, he was attending an interfaith meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, when he was electrocuted by an electric fan as he was getting out of his bath.  It was three weeks after the third meeting with the Dalai Lama.

thomas_merton_dalai_lamaOf that meeting, he wrote in his Asian Journal,

[The Dalai Lama] asked a lot of questions about Western monastic life, particularly the vows, the rule of silence, the ascetic way, etc… It was a very warm and cordial discussion and at the end I felt we had become very good friends and were somehow quite close to one another. I feel a great respect and fondness for him as a person and believe, too, that there is a real spiritual bond between us. He remarked that I was a ‘Catholic geshe,’ which Harold said, was the highest possible praise from a Gelugpa, like an honorary doctorate!”

Shortly before the meeting in Thailand, Merton visited Sri Lanka.  He went to the Buddhist shrine at Polonnaruwa.  The priest he was traveling with would not enter the shrine owing to its “paganism.”  But Merton removed his shoes and walked barefoot through it.  This entry in the Asian Journal records his impressions:

Then the silence of the extraordinary faces.  The great smiles.  Huge and yet subtle.  Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything  . . . For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening  . . .

Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious…

All problems are resolved and everything is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya  . . . everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.  I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination.  Surely . . . my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for.  I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.

The whole thing is very much a Zen garden, a span of bareness and openness and evidence… a beautiful and holy vision.”


Empty Your Boat

Chuang Tzu (369-286 BCE)

In yesterday’s post, I quoted German philosopher Karl Jaspers as saying, “the Buddhist Sage goes through the world like a duck; he no longer gets wet. He has transcended the world by dropping it.” That reminded me of a passage in Chuang Tzu, the writings attributed to an early Taoist philosopher.

In the “Mountain Tree” chapter, I-liao, an officer of Shih-nan, tells the Marquis of Lu, “If a man is crossing a body of water in a boat, and an empty boat comes along and crashes into him, even though he is a hot-tempered man, he will not get angry. If there should be someone in the other boat, however, he will shout out to him to haul out of the way. If his shout is not heard, he will shout again; and that is not heard, he will shout out a third time and follow up with a lot of curses. In the beginning, he was not angry, but now he is; before, he thought the boat was empty, but now he sees a person in it. As he makes his way in this world, if a man can empty himself of himself, who can harm him?”

Thomas Merton, in his translation/interpretation of the same passage, put it this way:

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you . . .

Who can free himself from achievement
And from fame, descend and be lost
Amid the masses of men?
He will flow like Tao, unseen,
He will go about like Life itself
With no name and no home.
Simple is he, without distinction.
To all appearances he is a fool.
His steps leave no trace. He has no power.
He achieves nothing, has no reputation.
Since he judges no one
No one judges him.
Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.

Merton (1965). The Way of Chuang Tzu. New York: New Directions.

We stand on a shore facing the river of the world, the sea of suffering. There is a boat. But it is not empty. It is filled with living beings that we have rescued. Our goal is to cross over the sea of suffering in this boat filled with others. We want to reach the other shore of Nirvana, the shore of happiness and bliss, where everyone will be enlightened and free.

There’s only one problem: we cannot see this other shore. We can journey on and on but we will never find it. We will see nothing but mirages, islands of illusion. We may think that as we journey along we will go through different stages, various phases, and that we will attain certain attainments, but these are only dreams in our mind.

We are already standing on the shore of Nirvana. We think it is a shore that borders the sea of suffering but that is only because we do not see clearly and we cannot distinguish what is truly before our eyes. Our mind is not yet free. We see attainments but there are no attainments, only change. There is nothing to attain and everything to change. The goal was never to attain anything or go anywhere, but simply to change ourselves where we are, and to rescue other living beings.

In order to accommodate passengers, we have to empty our boat. To liberate others we have to liberate ourselves, empty ourselves of ourselves. That is changing things where you are.

Ryokan was a Zen priest during the Edo era. He lived from 1758 to 1831. In Shapers of Japanese Buddhism, Aishin Imaeda writes,

Ryokan was a man of love. He loved everyone equally. He gave the clothes off his back to a beggar who came to his hut . . . he had boundless love for all living beings and all of nature . . . Ryokan lived by begging and was untempted by worldly things . . . He was completely indifferent to public criticism . . . To him there was neither beauty nor ugliness, good or evil, truth or falsehood, delusion or enlightenment, for he looked on everything without discrimination . . . Ryokan had only the bare necessities, for he had gone beyond all temptations of fame and fortune . . . Though Ryokan was a priest, he never preached or explained sutras. When he talked with friends or played with children, his pleasant smile impressed them with his goodness. This in itself was the true power of his Zen . . .

Like the idealized Taoist sage, Ryokan led by example. He taught by not teaching. His life was his teaching and the way he lived his daily life was his attainment. But he did not start out like that. He had to change himself, empty his boat, and once empty, it was then filled with all the people who returned his love, who were touched by his goodness, the people who were rescued, changed, by his presence in their lives.

To liberate someone or to rescue another, sounds like some grand act, but it’s not. It’s actually a very simple thing. A smile is a rescue. A kind word is liberation. If you can see this, then you know that when you empty yourself you also open yourself up to new possibilities.

Karl Jaspers saw existence as a state of being teeming with hope and potential. Each moment is potentially a moment of awakening. There is no attainment because there is no place you can go nor any other person you can be in order to attain. It’s all right here, before your eyes, in the present moment . . . in each potential moment. It is emptying your boat and uncovering your true self and your true mission. It’s change.

To understand is one thing. To realize, another. I think it is very difficult to grasp these simple truths deeply. We may understand intellectually, but it is hard to know them in the depths of our being. Harder than ascending to the stage of stream-enterer or becoming a once-returner, a non-returner, or an arahant. More difficult than fathoming the most profound koan, for this is the ultimate koan and we access its meaning and attain whatever there is to attain, not through attainment but through the way we live this koan called life.

Enlightenment comes when we have purged ourselves of striving and contention, for then we understand enlightenment is nothing more than real change that comes from within, intuitively, without conscious  aspiration toward something external. It does, however, require conscious effort and it’s not about being indifferent about the external world in any literal sense. A duck is not indifferent about water, but the duck does not get wet.

Emptying the boat of ourselves and then filling it with others – this is the action that sparks change. Knowing there is no journey to another shore only the inward journey to ourselves – this is the comprehension that reveals the nirvana shining all around us.

Self-portrait & caligraphy by Ryokan

I’m a fool, it’s a fact,
Living with the trees and plants as I do.
Don’t ask me about illusion and nirvana,
For here is an old man who just likes to smile to himself
As he crosses over streams on scrawny legs,
And when he carries around his bag in the springtime.
Such is my life,
And the world has no claims on me.