Tag Archives: Thomas Merton

Language Places Limits On Our Conceptual Thinking

By: David Xi-Ken Shi

I have been speaking recently about the importance of how language can have primary control over our ability to express the reality around us, and thus influence the value we place on it. Even when that language is not spoken as words but thought of as an idea. When a visual artist expresses an idea or feeling, the “language of thinking” is behind the intent of their expression and comes first. We think and conceptualize an idea in words, or any abstract concepts will eventually emerge into words in order for us to share such thoughts to others. And that thinking process influences (limits?) the values we place on all manner of human endeavors. Our language can even constrain our path to wisdom and readiness toward awakened moments. This notion of how language influences our thinking process is another plank in pragmatic philosophical understanding, but is not owned by it as others have expressed the power of language in the abstract that can place limits on the rational thinking process.

I wish to share with you here what the late Thomas Merton (Fr. Louis as he was known in the Order) the Christian Cistercian monk and spiritual thinker has to say on this very subject. It comes from one of his greatest works The Ascent to Truth. Please work to find the lesson that I think even the Buddha would give an approving bow to.

“…all our concepts have limits. They have to have limits for us to understand them. In our language, wisdom is not justice.” “To define an idea is to give it boundaries. Every reality that we are capable to grasping in a concept is hedged in by its own frontier. What is indefinable is, to us, unknowable because there is no word or idea capable of containing or delimiting its meaning. And we cannot clearly understand realities that do not present themselves to us contained in an idea.

“Although it can be argued that all ideas are in some sense illusory, because there is no human concept that fully contains all the concrete reality of the thing it tries to signify, nevertheless we have to admit that conceptual knowledge gives us a sure intellectual grasp of reality.”1

Our “outer nature, our everyday mind” works with language. Our “Inner nature, our higher conscious state of mind” experiences conceptual processes in order to come to a higher degree of understanding of universal realities/concepts. Language is a tool that can only get us so far on this path of understanding the Dharma. Ideas emerge that must then transcend the ordinary so we can possibly experience the extra-ordinary, if only intellectually. And that can prove to be a big leap forward in our dedicated practice.

1 The Ascent to Truth by Thomas Merton, 1951 Harcourt, Brace and Company NY Pg. 91-92

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Learning The Lessons Of Silence

By: Mn. Dr. Brian Jin-Deng Kenna

“Last night I dreamed I was, temporarily, back at Gethsemani. I was dressed in a Buddhist monk’s habit, but with more black and red and gold, a “Zen habit,” in color more Tibetan than Zen… 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 Gelugpa together, when I woke up.” 1    (pg. 107)

As I reflect on my own spiritual journey, one that started on a Christian path and moved to take a new direction at a fork in the road to my present path, I can see many similarities. My experience as an ordained minister and church leader has benefited and in ways shaped my experience as a Buddhist monastic. One of these ways has been in the lesson of silence.

Silence can be a scary thing for many people. Often times we try to fill our days with “noise.” Some people feel the need to fill silence with meaningless conversation, other with background noise from TV or radio.

But what if we embrace silence? What happens then? How can it impact and strengthen our spiritual lives? What is sacred silence and what are the requirements for it?

Well, to begin with we need to start with something else humans have trouble doing. Be Still! We need to stop with our busyness and take time to just Be Still. This is what is first required as the type of silence necessary for self and universal knowledge. It also becomes the purpose of silence to lay the foundation where one can awaken to the realities of the universe including self-knowledge. To become more open and in tune to the expressions the universe uses to show us glimpses of itself and ourselves. Silence apart from this and lacking an intimacy with the universe becomes nothing more than exercise to please and soothe ones ego.

This world we live in is very busy. I would venture to say that much of our communication between people is not done face to face anymore. We have text messages, and emails, and instant messages, as well as old fashioned phone calls and snail mail. We often try to fit these in when we have few moments between meeting, shuffling kids to sports or other events, cooking meals, shopping, etc, etc. The list becomes long and endless. After an amount of time of rushing about and communicating using these modern tech-tools we may begin to lose our ability to communicate in real and meaningful ways that only comes from body language added to our verbal expressions that is unique to what it means to be human. Our ability to personally connect may not be as strong as it once was. This tends to happen when we try to apply our fast food world mentality to the more complicated issues of life and the questions dealing with it.

In my business (work practice) we are often looking for ways to maximize output. We are always “watching the clock” and seeing where precious seconds can be gained. However problems occur when we try to apply this to our personal and spiritual lives. We cannot become efficiency experts in spirituality. We need to move more like a glacier. Slow and with purpose. My teacher Xi-Ken Shi often speaks of the benefits of spiritual retreats as a way to strengthen ones practice because it allows one to do so in a setting that allows us to withdraw into silence and come face to face with universe and ourselves. It is the opposite of what the busy-world teaches us. Instead of hurry up and wait, we need to take time to smell the proverbial roses.

Be Still and Embrace Silence. These two things seem simple in idea but become a real challenge to practice. With all the demands and pressures of life how can we live Be Still and Embrace Silence? Most of us are not living behind the walls of a monastery. Most of us have more on our plates on any given day then we have hours to deal with. But the reality is that many among us do achieve the silence necessary to begin to awaken to universal realities and the discovery of our self natures. Is it easy? Is it fast? Of course not, but what in life that truly means something is easy or comes quickly? It is a dedication to our practice. It is renewing that dedication on a day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute basis. Breaking away from the fast food mentality to a sitting down for a 5 course mean mentality. Silence has much to tell us if we are truly ready to listen.

1 The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton by Thomas Merton, A New Directions Book 1975

Leave a comment

Filed under jin-Deng

Paradox of the Modern Man

“It is a strange paradox indeed that modern man should know so much and still know practically nothing.  The paradox is most strange because men in other times, who have known less than we know, have in fact known more.”

Thomas Merton from The Ascent To Truth


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor