Buddhist Lessons From A Christian Monk

By: David Xi-Ken Astor 

Some have said that the Christian Trappist monk, Thomas Merton,  is the man with rich wisdom and an everyday mind that was seeking a broad and pluralistic dimension to spirituality who caused the Dalai Lama to come to admire Christianity and it’s history of contemplative thought.  As a Christian Cistercian monk, Catholic priest, a world renowned spiritual guide and teacher of the contemplative life, Thomas Merton (Fr. Lewis) was not your ordinary religious cleric.  In fact, he was agnostic in worldview and philosophically opposed to organized religion of any tradition until later in his twenties when he became spiritually aware.  He was a writer, artist, intellectual, political activist at one time,  and a man of the world.  He was well educated with an over-active curiosity.  He even fathered a child out of wedlock while a student at Cambridge in England before moving to New York and attending Columbia University.  But something was missing in his life; and he was on a path to awakening, even if he was unaware of the potential at the time.  And when it came, it was for him, like being hit by lightening.  It was as immediate as was Alice’s experience with the rabbit hole.  He became one of the most important spiritual writers of the last half of the twentieth century.  And his writing impelled by his monastic life’s interests in the world’s spiritual traditions are recognized as a seminal and continuing catalyst for inter-spiritual dialogue in this twenty-first century.   Thomas Merton was a true ascetic and contemplative that constantly challenged his understanding of a spiritual life as his ego driven self kept getting in the way of finding the true self within.   He died young in Thailand while attending a world conference of monastic leaders in 1968.

Thomas Merton was his own bridge that fill the gap between religious and secular perspectives.  Some believe that he means almost more today to many than he actually did in his lifetime.  And I agree.  He is becoming an iconic figure who models inter-spiritual dialogue for those who are seeking a common ground of respect for the varied ways in which human beings realize the nature of our world.   As you hear me often say, there are many paths up the mountain.  And Merton recognized this early on in his contemplative practice.  He honored a pluralistic and pragmatic worldview when it came to leading a spiritual life.  Perhaps this was made more possible based on how he lived before stepping on a spiritual path.  Consider that he entered the riggers of a Trappist monastic life only six months after he received baptism as an adult.    His introduction to Buddhism set him on the path to find language to express inclusivity and respect among the various monastic traditions, in order to transmit meaningful change to a contemporary audience.  So I wish to explore the lessons that can be found in the way Merton practiced the spiritual dimension of what he came to be awakened to that shaped, and reshaped, his worldview.  And see if you can also find that when we step on a spiritual path, and when we learn to remove the filters that often distort our perspective, we awaken to the common elements we all share as humans seeking the spirit and wonder of this life’s journey.  Discover, like Thomas Merton did, that it does not always come from our own tradition.

Fifty years ago as a young man the Dalai Lima left his homeland and began a new life in India as a refugee.  In general his departure from Tibet and the circumstances that led to it are causes for much regret as he speaks about it.  However, these experiences have also inadvertently provided him personally with many reasons to be grateful too.  He mentions that among these are the many opportunities he has had to become better acquainted with the world’s major religious traditions.  He talks about how he has been welcomed at places of worship throughout the world, and has visited and shared practice at many places of pilgrimage.  But while having this pluralistic experience was important, he talks about the more important experience he has had in meeting spiritual teachers and making friends with them.  The Dalai Lima has written about the lessons he has taken away from these experiences that all the world’s spiritual traditions have similar potential to help us become better human beings.  For centuries, millions of people have found peace of mind in their own religious tradition.  But today we find followers of many faiths sacrificing their own welfare to help others, and to find happiness and human flourishing that is an important goal of all spiritual practices.

Human beings naturally possess different interests and inclinations.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we have many different religious traditions with different ways of thinking and behaving.  The Dalia Lama has said, “..this variety is a way for everyone to be happy.  If we only have bread, people who eat rice are left out.  With a great variety of food, we are able to satisfy everyone’s different needs and tastes.  And people eat rice because it grows best where they live, not because it is either any better or worse than bread.”   This model worldview has the potential to allow various spiritual traditions to maintain harmony and respect among themselves.  To accomplish this it is important to find paths that supports effective face-to-face dialogue.  Let us meet together, study together, and practice together, and by sharing this experience we begin to expand our understanding, not only of another perspective, but also a wider and deeper understanding of our own inner and outer spiritual being.  By adding new enriched soil to the ground of our practice, we grow a stronger practice.   This happened for both the Dalia Lama and Thomas Merton when they met for the first time.  That meeting was the beginning of a life long friendship among two monks of different traditions but mutual experiences and common contemplative thought.  Thomas Merton broadened his spiritual journey that day and began his life long seeking of the Ox.  His writing also changed, and awakened to a new potential of seeing the world with Universal eyes.

It is fair to ask why a Christian, a Roman Catholic priest, and a Cistercian monk who loved his own spiritual tradition would be so powerfully drawn to Buddhism?  In my study of Thomas Merton I have seen no convincing evidence that he was abandoning his Church for Sangha.  None of his close associates, or Buddhist teachers he personally knew, have observed a close conversion on his part toward Buddhism.  But I do believe if Merton had lived he would have returned to Asia for further study and instruction in both Tibetan and Zen tradition’s contemplative practices.  He was seeking a deeper understanding of his own Christian spirituality and contemplative life by looking at how others with different experiences engaged the mutual journey up the mountain.  He wrote that he found a deeper meditative practice among Buddhist monks than he often did in his Christian brothers.  In a 1992 interview in the Buddhist magazine ‘Tricycle’ the Buddhist scholar and personal friend of Merton, Harold Talbott, said simply, “he would never have left the Church”.  The aspects of Buddhism which particularly attracted Merton were its articulation of the paths of spiritual development, its cultural alternative, its rejection of Relativism, and its contribution on monastic renewal.  Because Zen encourages direct, verifiable experience, its language and teaching were particularly valuable to contemplative and meditative practices.  Its preference for the concrete and tangible, its finding meaning in the ordinary tasks and challenges of daily life, and its often high spirited, good humored and irreverent approach appealed to Merton.  Merton was a very non-conventional monk that often drove his Abbot crazy.  Additionally, the Buddhist tradition is extremely acute psychologically and has developed very precise language to describe the body-mind experience.  It provides not only techniques to foster that development, but a language to describe the radical re-ordering of Universal perspective.  Merton happily embraced these insights and used this language, and it worked because he had experienced the realities of which they spoke.   His writing began to take on the voice of Zen, but yet directed toward Christian perspective.  And in doing so, enriched the Christian spiritual frame of reference.

Merton’s initial understanding of Buddhism and of Asian culture was undoubtedly romanticized.  Perhaps much like our own experience.  There was a sense in which Buddhism was a metaphor for the opposite aspects of Western culture he distrusted, especially his notion of a trend toward universal secularity.  He viewed the sorry state of Western society as the outward and visible manifestation of the fact that Western religion had lost its interior dimension and focus away from the humanity and compassion of what Jesus taught.   In September 1968, just before his death, he wrote a letter which was published in his ‘Asian Journal’ that said, “Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.  Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action.”  Buddhism provided models whereby Christians (and this is important, for it means Merton understood Christians could adapt practices of other traditions in light of their own fidelity to their own tradition) could learn how to turn inward in order to learn to express the compassion and wisdom outwardly to promote social wellbeing.   A practice almost totally foreign to contemporary Church practice.

More pointedly, Buddhism provided a way to confront and change the intellectual dualism engendered by early Christian theology.  He felt the spiritual path was broken, and thought Buddhism had lessons the Christian Church could adopt to bring spiritual renewal back into daily life.  In ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander’ Merton wrote:  “The taste for Zen in the West is in part a healthy reaction of people exasperated with the heritage of four centuries of Cartesianism: the reification of concepts, idolization of the reflexive consciousness, flight from being into verbalism, mathematics, and rationalization.  Descartes made a fetish out of the mirror in which the self finds itself.  Zen shatters it.”

Thomas Merton’s interest in Buddhism was never ambiguous.  Merton says explicitly that he came to study Buddhist philosophy and meditative practices, and to journey in Asia, as a “pilgrim to drink from ancient sources of monastic vision and experience, and to become a better and more enlightened monk” to put it in his words.  “Conversion of life” was central to both the monastic practice, and Merton’s intellectual development, regardless of where these lessons came from, and that he cared for so deeply.   Central to this conversion of life is the diminishing of the Ego, what Merton called the ‘false self’.  (Sound familiar?)  One who is self-absorbed cannot be a good monk or a good Christian, he once said.  Merton saw conversion of life, this ‘egolessness,’ dramatically represented in the Tibetan and Zen monks he met.  His earlier studies of Zen gave him a valuable set of practices and teachings to help overcome the problem of self absorption.

Thomas Merton developed substantial connections with many of the most prominent men of thought in his day.  The Dalia Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dr. Martin Luther King, the Zen master D. T. Suzuki, the Pope, and many of the world leaders.   He also developed relationships with faith-based Catholic modernists like the Benedictine monks Wayne Teasdale and David Keating who went on after Merton’s death to develop the inter-spiritual movement that attracted the attention of the Dalia Lama.  Merton was perhaps the greatest popularizer of interspirituality.  Not only did he acquaint his readers with the rich and vast tradition of Christian contemplation, but he opened the door for Christians to explore other world religions, notably Taoism and Buddhism.   Merton’s fascination was an honest attempt to integrate the East’s contemplative insights with the heart of Christian contemplative wisdom.  He wrote about his experience in Sri Lanka before the majestic statues of the reclining Buddha which was a decidedly awakened moment for him and opened another dimension of the “inner landscape of my mind” as he put it.

Merton was far ahead of his time.  His spirit of openness, building on the work of countless others, helped guided the Church into new realms of inter-religious understanding.  The full realization of the Church’s new view appeared in 1966 in a decree of the Second Vatican Council.  In this document, the Church acknowledged the truth and moral values of the Easter religions, and committed to a course of dialogue with them, including Buddhism.  This watershed document radically transformed a historically negative attitude into a useful and positive possibility for constructive dialogue, especially among the leadership.  By removing the obstacles to mutual exploration between Christianity and the other religious, particularly those of Asia, this change has greatly contributed to the emergence of interspirituality.  This stunning move was reflected in many Christian interfaith council meetings globally.  Since the 1970’s the Church has moved toward a more open dialogue with various Buddhist communities, especially in America.  Many Christian and Buddhist monasteries in America began to meet to explore each other’s spiritual path.  One of the most celebrated of these was the Gethsemani Encounter between Christian and Buddhist monastic’s at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton’s monastery near Louisville, Kentucky, which took place for a week in July 1996.  The “Gethsemani Encounter” as it was called included dialogue on such issues as ultimate reality, prayer, contemplation and meditation, monastic formation, work and the role of the teacher.  The warmth, openness, respect, and affection displayed among the participants made this event an important success.  It was attended by the Dalia Lama himself by the way.  All a testament to the work Merton started three decades before.

Merton said that what is important in our traditions of spiritual practice is what we have in common, not what divides us.  He thought it was not important to talk about a god, when we have the Universe that talks in a more elegant manner if we only take the time to listen.  One of Merton’s close friends said this, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated.  We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.  We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.  If we are to have peace on earth .. We must develop a world perspective.”   Can you guess who said this?  It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  a Baptist minister reflecting the voice of his friend I would like to think.  You see, it is what we as humans and as spiritual beings have in common, even if our beliefs interpret this experience differently.  It is this worldview that enriched Merton’s spiritual journey, and what led him to explore out-side-the-box of his own rigid tradition, even though he loved and honored his tradition deeply.  His discovery was that our spiritual paths head in the same direction, but just in different lanes.  Sharing our experiences together, gives us an opportunity to realize that while there are difference among us, the differences between us is just an illusion.

In his diary Merton gave a description of a dream he had.  This was just about a month before his death.  It was during the time he was working with the Dalai Lama.  It gives a glimpse of the depth to which Buddhism had penetrated Merton’s inner life.  He wrote, “Last night I dreamed that I was, temporarily, back at Gethsemani.  I was dressed in a Buddhist’s monk’s habit, but with more black and red and gold, a ‘Zen habit,’ in color more Tibetan than Zen.  I was going to tell the cook in the diet kitchen, that I would be there for supper.  I met some women in the corridor, visitors and students of Asian religion, to whom I was explaining I was a kind of Zen monk and teacher, when I woke up.”  (AJ 107)

Well, “waking up” is what it is all about.  In doing so, the old-world becomes the new-world which unfolds like a flower exactly where one is.  So it was for Merton.  Buddhism helped to awaken Merton to the potentialities unfolding in the lotus of every moment.  What we can learn from Merton’s  contemplative practice is something we can bring into our own monastic practice that can become one of the pillars under girding how an OEB monk servers his community, in his community.

Copyright: OEB January 2014

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