Seeking peace: Merton's affinity for Buddhism explored

By Frederick Smock, The Courier-Journal, June 2, 2007

Louisville, KY (USA) -- Tongues are wagging over just how Buddhist the celebrated Trappist monk Thomas Merton became late in his life. "Because it has traditionally been understood that Christianity makes exclusive claims on those of us who follow Jesus, when a great master in our tradition studies (and practices) another way, eyebrows are raised," Bonnie Thurston writes in her preface to Merton & Buddhism.

Sometimes the worry seems nervous. John Eudes Bamberger, who studied under Merton, wrote in his book Thomas Merton: Prophet of Renewal, "There is no basis for the opinion that Merton's faith in the church or in his Cistercian vocation was ever modified, much less weakened by, his interest in the East." Not even "modified"? Thurston, in a second essay here (on the Zen influence in Merton's poetry) writes that "when Merton reached out to Buddhism, he did so by going to his own deepest roots."

Merton admired and studied Buddhism assiduously. Daisetz Suzuki said that Merton was the one Westerner who understood Zen better than any other. The Dalai Lama pronounced him an honorary geshe, or Zen adept, the highest honor for a non-Buddhist.

The question about his Buddhist leanings could really only be answered by one man, Merton himself, who is no longer with us. Merton was accidentally electrocuted in Bangkok in 1968, after delivering an address (which was not well received, by the way) to a conference of world religious leaders on the subject of reconciling the differences between Buddhism and Christianity. Many of the attendees deemed such a reconciliation to be impossible.

The current volume, Merton & Buddhism, collects essays from a conference at the Louisville Seminary entitled "Merton and Buddhism: Wisdom, Emptiness and Everyday Mind," preceded by foundational essays in each title subject, by Buddhist scholar Roger Corless, and Merton scholar and religiost Thurston. Taken together, these essays open up avenues of inquiry in solid and exciting ways.

Merton encountered Eastern mysticism as early as 1930, at the Oakham School in England, when he investigated Gandhi for a class report. At the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, he renewed his interest, corresponding with D.T. Suzuki (who introduced America to Zen in the 1960s) and others, and by writing such books as Mystics and Zen Masters (1967) and Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968).

He traveled in Thailand and India, meeting fellow monks, and leaning ever eastward. He was searching for the perfect retreat, which Gethsemani did not provide him, even in his private hermitage. If he had survived his trip to Bangkok, would he have returned to Kentucky and Gethsemani? Or might he have established a hermitage in Dharamsala, or Alaska, or Sri Lanka, or Kyoto, that lovely Japanese city of temples? There is no way to know.

Paul Pearson, the director of the Merton Center at Bellarmine University, contributes an essay about the Zen nature of Merton's photographs -- of tree roots, weeds, and junk-piles. Indian children. Mount Kanchenjunga. The Buddhas at Polonnaruwa. "The camera is the most eager and helpful of beings, all full of happy suggestions," Merton wrote in The Road to Joy. " 'Try this!' 'Do it that way!' Reminding me of things I have overlooked. This is a Zen camera."

Other essays include Roger Lipsey on Merton's calligraphic drawings, James Wiseman on Merton and Theravada Buddhism, Judith Simmer-Brown on Merton and Tibetan Buddhism, and Ruben Habito on Merton's Zen experience.

Paul Pearson also appends a bibliography on Merton and Buddhism.

Other titles in the Fons Vitae Thomas Merton series include Merton & Sufism: The Untold Story (1999), Merton & Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart (2003), and Merton & Judaism: Holiness in Words (2003).

Frederick Smock is poet-in-residence at Bellarmine University. His newest book is Pax Intrantibus: A Meditation on the Poetry of Thomas Merton (Broadstone Books).
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