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.
As 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