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.
[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.”