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.