Asian Perspectives of Thomas Merton

by By Robert E. Daggy, Ph.D.

During Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States, while addressing the Congress, he mentioned Fr. Thomas Merton. This is a reprint of an original article that we ran in an early print issue of the Inner Directions Journal.

THOMAS MERTON DIED IN BANGKOK, THAILAND, on December 10, 1968, a victim of an accidental electrocution. His death ironically occurred twenty-seven years to the day after his entrance into the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, on December 10, 1941.

Thomas MertonThis man, whose writings came to mean so much to people in all parts of the world, began his “journey,” as he often described his life, on January 31, 1915, in Prades, France, a small village near the Spanish border. He received his education in the United States, Bermuda, France, and England. His father died in 1931 when he was sixteen and, after a disastrous year at Cambridge University (1933-1934) in England, his British guardian sent him to the United States to be supervised, financially and otherwise, by his American grandparents. He attended Columbia University in New York City, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1937 and a master’s degree in English in 1938. Merton dabbled with Communism and peace movements and apparently followed a “Bohemian” lifestyle, perhaps because his childhood had left him comfortable only with a lifestyle perceived as marginal (and one must say questionable) by the rest of society.

He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1938 and attempted to join the Franciscan Order, but was rejected. He then secured a job teaching English but continued to desire greater withdrawal from the world. In 1941, he entered the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (or Trappists) at Gethsemani. The state of Kentucky was then sparsely populated and the abbey, or monastery, was in an area of dense hardwood forest, surrounded by ancient, eroded mountains called “knobs.” Merton was to live among these trees and knobs for the next twenty-seven years of his life. It was not an easy life, for when he entered the Order they still followed a medieval lifestyle based on prayer, silence, and work. Merton was given the religious name of “Louis” and was ordained a priest in 1949.

He had aspired to be a writer and had written several novels, mostly autobiographical, before entering Gethsemani. His search for himself and for God caused him to abandon these early aspirations for a time, though he continued to write poetry. His own inclinations and the requirements of his order, however, led him back to writing as part of his vocation as a monk. In 1948, his autobiography, the story of his conversion to Roman Catholicism and entrance into the monastery, was published. Called The Seven Storey Mountain (a reference to the levels of Dante’s purgatory), it was an immediate and phenomenal bestseller and brought him international recognition. Speaking from the margins of society, Merton touched a nerve in the post-World War II world, not just in the United States, but also in war-weary Europe and Latin America. During the next twenty years he produced an amazing number of books and articles and increasingly became a voice to be heard and reckoned with.

Merton entered Gethsemani to withdraw from the world and to live on its fringes in silence and solitude. His early writings, those from the 1940s and into the 1950s, tended to be ascetic, other-worldly, colored by a conviction of the complete separation of God and the world. Yet, despite this desire for withdrawal and the expression of it in his early writings, Merton was never quite able to withdraw totally from the world.

Although he was initially preoccupied with Eastern teachings in his college days, he began to study the Zen Masters seriously in the late fifties. His writings and taped lectures on Eastern traditions helped to introduce them to American readers—Taoism, Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, Sufism, and Austronesian spirituality. Through his wide correspondence (he basically never left the monastery), he engaged in dialogue with scholars and leaders of Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and other religious traditions. His book, The Way of Chuang Tzu, he admitted frankly was one of his favorites.

In 1965, as part of his search for an ever greater solitude, he was given permission to withdraw from the routine of community life and to live on the Abbey grounds in a small, concrete block cabin. He described his occupation in 1967 as “hermit.” In 1968, he was given permission to travel to Asia on a kind of pilgrimage. There, at a conference on Buddhist-Christian monasticism outside Bangkok, he died. On Merton’s trip to Asia he wrote of the heart of spirituality in the closing paragraph of a circular letter:

“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.”

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The following article and biographical sketch is taken from a talk, presented by Robert E. Daggy, Ph.D., in China, in 1993.

Universal Love in Mo Tzu and Thomas Merton
Mo Tzu and Thomas Merton: strange bedfellows

Mo Tzu lived in China in the fifth century before Christ. Thomas Merton was very much a twentieth century person, who died only twenty-five years ago. At first glance, it would seem that these two figures, separated in time by nearly two and a half millennia, have only one thing in common. As noted scholar Arthur Waley pointed out fifty years ago (and it still holds true today): “A good many people outside China have heard of Confucianism and Taoism; very few know even the name of Mo Tzu.” It is undoubtedly true that very few people in China know the name of Thomas Merton. Both came to the conclusion that universal love—a benign, benevolent, nondiscerning love—might be the governing principle, indeed the remedy, which would allow the world and all humans (not just an individual culture) to live in peace and harmony, and this love might be the world’s salvation.

Thomas Merton was a significant figure in helping to introduce Chinese thought and make it explicable to readers in the West. He wrote in nearly mystical fashion that he had the “reassuring companionship of many silent Tzu’s and Fu’s” in his hermitage in the woods.

Even though Thomas Merton was a Catholic monk with a vow of poverty (which meant, among other things, that he was not supposed to own books), he gathered what I would judge to be one of the best collections on Chinese thought in the state of Kentucky.

Both Mo Tzu and Merton lived in periods which they perceived as being in political and cultural upheaval. As they viewed the “fevers and frets” of their times, they both came to offer “relief and remedies.” Both went beyond being mere cultural critics. Mo Tzu and Merton were clearly prophets, voices crying out each in his own wilderness. Somehow, both concluded finally that the most effective relief and surest remedy is “love,” a universal, all-inclusive love that pervades not just their society but the whole world. The idea of “universal love” is undoubtedly the hallmark of Mo Tzu’s thinking, at least to Westerners. And it becomes an overarching principle in Merton’s thinking. In 1967 he wrote:

“The simple fact that by being attentive, by learning to listen (or recovering the natural capacity to listen, which cannot be learned any more than breathing), we can find ourselves engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: in that hidden ground of Love for which there can be no explanations.

“I suppose what makes me most glad is that we all recognize each other in the metaphysical space of silence and happiness, and get some sense, for a moment, that we are full of paradise without knowing it.

“Love is the soul’s bond with God as the source of all reality, and therefore such love is itself the triumph of truth in our lives. Hence it drives out all falsity, all error. To remain in love is to remain in the truth! Everything else follows. Life is then a perpetual ‘Sabbath’ of divine peace.”

To that end, both Mo Tzu and Thomas Merton became what we might call “peace activists,” discouraging aggressive ways, exploitation, and notions of cultural superiority. And Love, though they had very different ideas of how to achieve “universal love” (Merton didn’t much like some of Mo Tzu’s methods which he saw as “coercive”), remains for both the underlying principle which they saw leading us toward a better world. In 1967, Merton wrote A Letter on the Contemplative Life, formed and informed by his diligent study of other religious and cultural traditions. Without that study, including I think his limited reading of Mo Tzu, he would not have written the following lines in quite the same way:

“If we once began to recognize, humbly but truly, the real value of our own self, we would see that this value was the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being. Fortunately, the love of our fellow humans is given us as the way of realizing this. For the love of our brother, our sister, our beloved, our wife, our child, is there to see with the clarity of God Himself that we are good. It is the love of my lover, my brother, or my child that sees God in me, makes God credible to myself in me. And it is my love for my lover, my child, my brother, that enables me to show God to him or her in himself or herself. Love is the epiphany of God in our poverty. The contemplative life is then the search for peace not in an abstract exclusion of all outside reality, not in a barren negative closing of the senses upon the world, but in the openness of Love.”

Mo Tzu, also known as Mo Ti and Master Mo, lived about 468-376 BC and offered an alternative teaching to the popular philosophy of Confucius. His doctrines are contained in a little-known work entitled simply, Mo Tzu, which was probably compiled by his pupils around 400 BC. Mo Tzu initially studied the teachings of Confucius but was unable to agree with his definition of morality. This led him to develop his own philosophy, the central idea of which was an all-embracing love, not confined to the family or clan (as in the case of Confucius) and subject to the will of Heaven. Mo Tzu rejected warfare in any form as well as the elaborateness of Confucianist rites so prevalent in his day. For about two centuries, Mohism held its own against the teachings of Confucius but later was gradually displaced by it.

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Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama
Merton met the Dalai Lama in November, 1968. The following excerpts are selected from the Asian Journals of Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton and the Dalai LamaI had my audience with the Dalai Lama this morning in his new quarters. It was a bright, sunny day—blue sky, the mountain absolutely clear. Tenzin Geshe sent a jeep down. We went up the long way around through the army post and past the old deserted Anglican Church of St. John in the Wilderness. Everything at McLeod Ganj is admirably situated, high over the valley, with snow-covered mountains behind, all pine trees, with apes in them, and a vast view over the plains to the south.

The Dalai Lama is most impressive as a person. He is strong and alert, bigger than I expected (for some reason I thought he would be small). A very solid, energetic, generous, and warm person, very capably trying to handle enormous problems—none of which he mentioned directly. The whole conversation was about religion and philosophy and especially ways of meditation. He said he was glad to see me, had heard a lot about me. I talked mostly of my own personal concerns, my interest in Tibetan mysticism. Some of what he replied was confidential and frank. In general he advised me to get a good base in Madhyamika philosophy (Nagarjuna and other authentic Indian sources) and to consult qualified Tibetan scholars, uniting study and practice. Dzogchen was good, he said, provided one had a sufficient grounding in metaphysics—or anyway Madhyamika, which is beyond metaphysics. One gets the impression that he is very sensitive about partial and distorted Western views of Tibetan mysticism and especially about popular myths. He himself offered to give me another audience the day after tomorrow and said he had some questions he wanted to ask me.

My third interview with the Dalai Lama was in some ways the best. He asked a lot of questions about Western monastic life, particularly the vows, the rule of silence, the ascetic way, etc. But what concerned him most was:

  1. Did the “vows” have any connection with a spiritual transmission or initiation?
  2. Having made vows, did the monks continue to progress along a spiritual way, toward an eventual illumination, and what were the degrees of that progress? And supposing a monk died without having attained to perfect illumination? What ascetic methods were used to help purify the mind of passions? He was interested in the “mystical life,” rather than in external observance.

And some incidental questions: What were the motives for the monks not eating meat? Did they drink alcoholic beverages? Did they have movies? And so on. Finally, we got into a rather technical discussion of mind, whether [mind was] consciousness, prajna (the state of deep sleep) or dhyana (meditation) and the relationship of prajna to sunyata (emptiness). The greatest error is to become attached to sunyata as if it were an object, an “absolute truth.”

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!

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The late Robert E. Daggy, Ph.D. was the resident secretary of the International Thomas Merton Society and Director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky.