Gethsemani Encounter 1996

by Matthew Greenblatt

It is a warm Monday afternoon. The rolling hills of the Kentucky countryside provide a profound contrast to the California coastal desert, which I left just a few hours ago. Motoring along the road to Trappist, Kentucky, I notice a sign inviting us to visit the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, not too far from here.

As we drive the time passes quickly, for my friend’s conversation is both lively and interesting. Father Tom Hicks spent some months in India, meeting with close associates of Abhishiktananda (Father Henri Le Saux) in an effort to shape his own life along similar lines. Father Tom’s main interest, or rather passion, is the Hesychast tradition of the early Greek and Russian orthodox churches, and its yogic-like practice of the Jesus Prayer. Father Tom is thrilled that I will be spending the next week at Gethsemani Abbey, the monastery where Thomas Merton lived and wrote prolifically on a wide variety of subjects concerning spiritual practice and experience.

We are beginning to doubt that the directions we were given contain all the information necessary to reach our destination-typical of the mind’s nature when we set our will upon a goal. We stop at a private home to confirm our location and the two women we meet laugh in unison as they tell us “Gethsemani is just up the road, to the left.”

The Abbey sits quietly amidst green rolling hills, as if it had always been there. It is a bit larger and more modern looking than I had imagined, but being a truly international center, proper facilities for outside guests and programs are necessary. Upon entering the visitor’s reception area, the elderly Trappist behind the desk asks my name, as he prepares to locate my attendee packet. I tell him “I’m here as an observer.” He simply smiles and looks at me with an expression that crosses the centuries. What immediately strikes me is that these Trappist monks seem to “wear” their tradition on their faces and in their actions. In fact, they are the tradition.

As we prepare to walk across the road to our guest room, I am delighted to meet an old friend—one that I will have the pleasure of rooming with for the next few days. Jeff Cox runs Snow Lion Publications, one of the Dalai Lama’s principal publishers. Jeff has had an obviously close association with His Holiness and Tibetan Buddhism for many years. His talks with me over the next few days greatly help to broaden my understanding of this remarkable man from the heart of Tibet.

Just before dinner, there is a press conference in which regional and national news people ask the Dalai Lama the usual sociologically based questions: “What about abortion?” “How can you feel compassion for the Chinese?” “What about the future of Tibetan Buddhism?” etc. His Holiness answers each in a spontaneous and straightforward manner. He talks about compassion and tolerance, both cornerstones of the Buddhist tradition. I find myself looking ahead to tomorrow, when the Dharma talks will begin. Like a few others in the room, I wish to know about his inner life and the application of Buddhist practice to the great challenges he faces as both a spiritual leader and head of the Tibetan Government in exile. What amazes me is that he looks exactly like the photo we have of him hanging in our office. There is not a line or crease on his face that reflects a life of burden, sorrow, or overwork. There is only His Holiness—in the present moment—with the reporters. An enthusiastic, middle-aged lady begins speaking in veiled new-age terminology about the significance of the Dalai Lama’s visit, and how she would like to read to him a poem she composed, etc. Our astute facilitator quickly discerns her direction and hastily moves on to the next questioner. When the question and answer period end, this same woman approaches the Dalai Lama (still seated) with her poem. He looks at her for a moment, clasps her left hand in his right, and begins reading her poem, holding it in his free hand. Most of the people in the room begin filing out, but I am somewhat awestruck by this action of His Holiness. He is tightly grasping this unknown woman’s hand, while reading her poem with all the attention and presence he might afford a dignitary. For him, compassion means no difference among beings—and here was its expression in action. I’m deeply touched.

Dinner is in one of the three dining rooms and in true Trappist tradition; the only language spoken is silence. However, the attendees are feeling energized, and silence is the last mode of expression on their minds. There are Theravadin Buddhists monks from Cambodia, Burma, and Sri Lanka; Zen Buddhist priests from Japan, Korea, and San Francisco; Chinese Buddhist monks from the Mahayana and Ch’an traditions, and of course Buddhist monks from Tibet.

There are also many Benedictine monastics present. Along with the host Trappists, the quiet and gentle ways of these dedicated people will make for a week that though diverse in approach and theology, is truly one in the silence of the Spirit.

After dinner, we all attend a tree-planting ceremony on the front lawn of the Abbey. The Dalai Lama is about to help plant a new tree in the ground and all of the participants and observers break ranks to join their respective traditions—Christian or Buddhist. Then it strikes me for the first (but not the last) time that I don’t quite fit in; I am neither Christian nor Buddhist. Philosophically, I can easily identify with the teachings of the Buddha on the inherent absence of a personal self or God. So, having spent several years in India trying to imbibe the teachings of Ramana Maharshi and the Advaitic (non-dualistic) tradition of Indian Vedanta, the body begins inching toward the Buddhist side. But the mind begins to engage, and decides that since I’m basically a Jewish guy from Brooklyn—a product of Judeo-Christian culture—I will become an “honorary” Christian for the next week. Among Buddhist chants and Christian hymns, the tree is planted.

The “Chapter Room” is a large hall with an interesting mix of what appears to be multi-period architecture. Apparently, this room is used whenever space for a large gathering is necessary. The participants sit along opposite rows, facing the center of the room while I, along with the other observers, sit in folding chairs facing the participants. At the front is a modest podium placed at floor level where, after the tree planting ceremony, the first speaker begins the program. Prof. Jeffrey Hopkins gives a talk about the philosophical vision of life behind the traditions of Buddhist spirituality, followed by Prof. Donald Mitchell’s talk on the philosophical vision of life behind the traditions of Christian spirituality. Clearly, the program organizers have thought this one through.

I basically don’t sleep at all that night. The energy is so great that it courses through my body as it lies upon the bed in this clean, well-furnished guest room. My mind is quiet, though, as I wait for the alarm to go off. Deciding I could be at the monastery meditating, I turn the alarm clock to the “off” position and spring into action, trying not to wake Jeff from his near-perfect sleep. Jeff later refers to this tendency of mine as the “Zen Warrior” syndrome.

The organizers of this conference, the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue committee, have decided to turn the outer chapel into a meditation room. The front two-thirds of the room is now filled with brand-new meditation cushions, fresh from an east-coast Zen Buddhist enterprise, while the existing hardwood pews fill the rear of the chapel, another indication that the organizers have left their special mark on all aspects of the conference. I’m up fairly early but the room is almost filled by this time. These early morning sittings become for me the metaphorical expression of this conference. For, though we may hear diverse approaches of the path(s) to awakening and observe fundamental philosophical differences, there is no doubt that in this small, incense-filled room, we all meet in the oneness of transcendental Silence. In this silence there are no Christians, no Buddhists, and no Jewish guys from Brooklyn.

The chanting of Tibetan Buddhist Sutras signals the end of the meditation session and the start of breakfast. As I look around the room, I am again struck by the remarkable mix of monastics and practitioners from East and West. There are several well-known American Buddhist teachers present, and an august assemblage of Trappists and Benedictines.

The days begin like this in the small chapel, and then moves to the Chapter Room. They are long days with talks completing each evening, after 8:00 p.m. But the time moves quickly, probably because we’ve lost sense of it altogether. David Steindle-Rast facilitates the conference and proves to be a past master at moving the program along while skillfully sticking to the subject matter—all with remarkable dignity and presence. He is always “on call” as it were, to smooth over any philosophical wrinkle that may arise. David is Benedictine, and a well-known author and speaker. As a serious and longtime Zen practitioner, David has been able to counsel many on the deeper aspects of Christian contemplation and mysticism within the context of Zen and Buddhist meditation practices. David’s energy level is remarkable. He is a small, wiry person, with a short graying beard and a simple Benedictine habit. In the end, he will have proved to be a contemplative version of the Energizer Bunny.

I’m enjoying the talks from the observer section. We learn about meditation practice in the Zen, Theravadin, and Tibetan Buddhist traditions as well as from the Christian contemplative tradition, and about the tradition of Lectio Divina, the practice of deep-listening to Christian scripture, a method that has been taught and practiced for centuries. As my mind starts to assimilate this information, it begins to appropriate the new-found material to their respective conceptual places. I notice this tendency, along with a nagging question that begins to take root: “Isn’t true spirituality really a question of identity?” In other words, I’m now concerned about the question of one’s ultimate identity in the place of these talks. I keep saying to myself: “Find out who the ‘I’ is and all else is known.” I decide, however, to give the mind a holiday and try to practice a modified form of Lectio Divina, or deep-listening, without any kind of mental judgment.

I slept a bit more the second night-perhaps three or four hours. Jeff laughs as I continue to play the role of “Zen Warrior.” We walk over in the early morning stillness to join the morning sitting. The second day, the meditation session ends with a walk to the Gethsemani Abbey Church, to celebrate Mass. The Church is very large and the acoustics seem to be purposefully designed to scramble every word. I have no idea what is being said, but seem to follow once the singing begins. Today we recite from the Psalms of David. These beautiful passages have been rendered into a simple lilting meter and have a way of directly speaking to the participant’s heart. It’s quite a poignant scene: the Trappists and Benedictines who have been sitting (quite impressively) on either side of me on the floor of the chapel now pour their hearts out in hymns of praise and thanksgiving. It has become a true interreligious dialogue—sharing talk, food, prayer, and meditation cushions until, of course, it is time for the Eucharist.

I am not a theologian and I don’t know at what point in Christian theology the idea of excluding nonmembers of the flock from partaking of the blood and body of Christ became canonical law. Preferring to thoughtfully err on the side of traditional Advaita, I think to myself, “But Christ is a Principle, a Consciousness. Would he not, in his universal love, embrace all?” By this time formal lines are drawn and those of us who are not Catholics watch from the sidelines. Tradition has its own beauty and place in the scheme of things and I immediately “let go” of my own concepts of how things should be and recognize it is much better to open one’s heart to the experience at hand and be completely accessible to it.

His Holiness will be with us for the next four days. The only protocol we observe is to rise whenever he enters or leaves the room. He appears very relaxed and his humility is striking; always bowing low to all in the room, showing great respect to the assemblage of Buddhist and Christian “practitioners,” as he likes to call them. “The Dalai Lama has no ‘posture,’ I tell Jeff. “That’s right” he replies, “he doesn’t believe in ‘posture’.” Throughout the week, the venerable monks and nuns are sitting in a somewhat attentive pose, to perhaps facilitate the faculty of attentiveness, or “mindfulness,” according to Buddhist terminology. The Dalai Lama, however, is quite at ease, almost hunched over. He scratches his head and chuckles to himself  regularly, yet whenever there is a point or reference that needs his awareness, he is always present. It is really quite a fascinating aspect that I begin to notice about him. In India, it is not uncommon for the man of Wisdom to appear to an onlooker to be somewhat “unaware” or “unknowing.” I am fascinated with this aspect of his being and enjoy watching it regularly throughout the conference.

When the Dalai Lama speaks (he did so five or six times), he will speak in English if he feels the subject manner does not demand the exactness of technical terminology, which the Tibetan language provides. His English is simple and he manages to convey a remarkably vast range of ideas and feelings using a limited amount of language. When his talks cover stages of the Bodhisattva, then he speaks in Tibetan, with Prof. Jeffrey Hopkins translating. Jeffrey’s command of Tibetan is so complete, and his attunement to the Dalai Lama’s ideas so mature, that his translations flow flawlessly, in perfect rhythm and synchronicity. It is a joy to watch Jeffrey play his role so well. The Dalai Lama is enthusiastic about Christian-Buddhist dialogue and clearly wants it to continue. But he also makes it clear that he is not in favor of people leaving one tradition for another. A Christian need not become a Buddhist, and vice-versa. He seems to want everyone to go to the heart of their own tradition, while engaging in tolerance and dialogue with those of others.

The Dalai Lama begins to have an interesting effect on people who are open. He immediately endears himself to you, and you begin to feel that he truly belongs to each community that is represented. His face wears a universal expression, reflecting in it the best that humanity has to offer.

I’m still thinking that the true purpose of spirituality is simply a question of realizing one’s true identity. “Why is it that no one addresses this fundamental issue?” I ask myself. Turning to the person sitting next to me I decide to share my thoughts with him. Murray Bodo is a Franciscan priest and the author of several books on St. Francis. Murray immediately agrees with me and proceeds to explain how he came to the same conclusion through a series of experiences. We quickly become friends and share adjoining seats for the balance of the conference.

Meals are a special time at the Abbey. The organizers have just about given up on having us observe the “silence is spoken here” rule. Enthusiasm runs high and finds its natural outlet through speech. David Steindle-Rast ultimately waves the white flag during a morning announcement, when he indicates that two of the three dining rooms will now accommodate those who wish to talk while eating. The third dining room, farther down the hall, is to be reserved for those who wish to observe silence. I’m not sure if anyone actually made it down to the third dining hall, though I caught an occasional glimpse of someone walking that way with food tray in hand. We’ve basically succeeded in turning centuries of tradition on its ear. But, the inner joy and energy are so great that meals provide a special opportunity to relax a bit and meet with one another on a less formal level. In fact, mealtime becomes an almost impromptu, secondary conference.

There is an elderly Benedictine sitting alone at a small table toward the rear of the dining room. I decide to join him and before long we engage in conversation. He is from Spencer, Massachusetts and studied with Suzuki Roshi. It seems he has been practicing Zen meditation for the last twenty years. We talk about the Centering Prayer practice, made popular by Father Thomas Keating. He tells me that the Spencer House is very open in its approach to Eastern spirituality, often inviting different Buddhist and Hindu monks to be guest speakers.

On the morning of the Dalai Lama’s departure, there is a tribute to Thomas Merton in the Church. Along with His Holiness, Abbott James Connor, editor of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue newsletter, speaks about Merton’s special contribution to Buddhist-Christian dialogue. Because of the church acoustics no one can understand a word the speakers are saying. It is actually quite humorous. McNeil-Lehrer is videotaping the event for the PBS evening news and I plan to watch it on TV to be able to hear what is being said. The Dalai Lama places the proverbial white scarf (a Tibetan sign of respect) around a painting of Merton, and we all move to the front steps to take group photos. Again, the organizers seem to think of everything. To make sure that everyone is in the photograph, all present are asked to deposit their cameras on a table at the foot of the Church steps. The same picture is taken with each person’s camera. It is quite a funny scene, and it ends only after the last camera in the pile records this remarkable image. The Dalai Lama is then off to Bloomington, Indiana.

I have long wanted to visit Gethsemani Abbey and especially see the small cabin that Thomas Merton lived in. To accommodate the many visitors who wish to see this special site, there are twice-daily trips to his home by van. Merton’s cottage is walking distance from the Abbey, but the van trip saves precious time from our schedule and frees us from having to locate the cabin in its secluded spot. In his later years Merton lived alone, rarely participating in the daily schedule of prayer at the Abbey. The cottage contained everything he needed: A simple kitchen, living room with fireplace, a specially made Shaker-style writing desk, bathroom, tiny chapel, and a cistern for catching rain water. Heat came from a simple oil stove that sat prominently in a corner of the living room. Merton must have had a hearty constitution, for he led a remarkably austere life and ate a very simple diet. The kitchen counter housed lots of little containers in which, we are told, Merton loved to keep different kinds of teas.

On Thursday afternoon, we hear two talks on the “Stages of Prayer and Contemplation in the Christian Spiritual Life,” and “Phenomena Associated with the Stages in Spiritual Growth.” Father Pierre Francois de Béthune and Sister GilChrist Lavigne, compliment each other in what becomes one of the most beautiful talks on Christian prayer I’ve ever heard. Father Pierre catches my attention early on with a reference to Abhishiktananda, the French Benedictine who lived in India [see page 15 of the current issue]. Later, I have an opportunity to speak with him and discover he recently visited Arunachala, the sacred hill in South India, and Sri Ramanasramam (the abode of the India sage Ramana Maharshi), situated on the southern slopes of the hill. We share some common experiences of Arunachala and Father Pierre expresses in an almost “confidential manner” that he would love to return and spend some weeks or months meditating in caves on the Arunachala hill. When we pursue this topic further, he reveals that it won’t be possible now, since his official duties require him to undertake an in-depth study and practice of Zen Buddhism.

There is an elderly Theravadin monk who had been sitting next to the Dalai Lama; he has an almost androgynous look about him and clearly shines with an inner light. When His Holiness entered each day to take his seat with the other Buddhist monks, he seemed to greet this person with a special respect. I can’t locate his name on the program but am looking forward to see what role he plays here. He has been sitting quietly throughout the conference and is the only Buddhist participant who has not spoken yet. I wonder if he simply doesn’t speak, as a practice. During the sessions, he looks neither left nor right, and exhibits the same demeanor during meals, as well.

On Friday morning, we hear one of his disciples read his short, but moving paper. Maha Ghosananda is a Cambodian Buddhist who not only speaks, but is fluent in fifteen languages. I understand that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 and 1996, for his work with Cambodian refugees. His life has been one long movement in the field of nonviolence and he has clearly imbibed many Gandhian ideals in his work. He says: “Reconciliation does not mean that we surrender rights and conditions. It means that we see ourselves in the opponent-for what is the opponent but a being in ignorance and we ourselves are also ignorant of many things. Therefore, only loving kindness and right mindfulness can free us.” It seems he went to visit the Dalai Lama recently and the two never exchanged a word-they simply sat in a long silence together—speaking in the only language that matters, the language of the heart.

When Maha Ghosananda begins to answer a few questions, his words come from the depths of his spiritual experience. The answers are always simple, direct, and focused on the need for the questioner to turn within. He is deeply impressive and there is a profound silence in the room. Later, there is an opportunity to speak with him privately, but only for a few moments. I have never met anyone so deeply involved in “social work,” who so embodies the wisdom born of self-knowledge. He is clear about the approach to inner development: “Peace begins with oneself.” It unfolds, he says, “step-by-step.” Just before lunch Maha Ghosananda leads us, step-by-step, to visit Thomas Merton’s grave. As we walk, we see him embody the twin Buddhist ideals of Metta or Loving-Kindness, and Mindfulness.

GosamiAs the conference draws to a close, expressions of gratitude and joy abound. One of the key themes raised is how to take the spirit of the conference with us; how to keep it alive. The participants and observers all take turns in offering their summations and perspectives on the event and its greater implications. Merton is quoted often. The question of personal identity re-enters my thoughts: “Who is a Christian; who is a Buddhist; who is a Jew? Knowing the answer to this question, all else becomes known. Isn’t this genuine inquiry the best way to keep the spirit of the conference alive?” When it comes my turn to speak I quickly drop the theme, knowing it not to be an appropriate one for this moment.

Father Tom Hicks arrives at the Abbey to drive me to the airport. Before leaving, I show him the Church and garden area. He is clearly “energized,” and is already planning on approaching the Abbey for permission to spend a week in Merton’s small hermitage. I try to fill Father Tom in on some of the events of the past week, but it is like trying to describe Silence to someone—words simply cannot express what they cannot reach. I do my best to share some of the highlights with him over Chinese food. He’s clearly looking to “catch the spirit.”

Special thanks to Father Jacques Côté, OSB, for providing the photographs used in this article.

From the Conference

The need of spirituality is obvious. I think so long as there are human beings, some kind of spirituality is necessary. In spite of different philosophies, different viewpoints, different concepts, all have the beautiful intention to help humanity, to promote human happiness. As a matter of fact, it is quite clear among humans that there is a variety of people; therefore, logically, it is far better to have a variety of religious traditions.

Though philosophies differ, the aim or purpose is to cure the unhappiness of the human mind. Buddha deliberately taught according to each different position. From this tradition, we can learn how important one’s mental position is. How can one say that only this is true and the other is false, therefore implying one should follow this? Even Buddha could not say that. From this experience, it is very clear to certain people that their method is much more effective. Muslims believe in Only one God, and according to Christians they accept the Trinity. So we cannot say that this religion is better and another is not. On an individual basis, yes, we can say this. To me, the Buddhist approach is best. There’s no doubt. But this doesn’t mean that Buddhism is for everyone.

On this basis, it is extremely important to appreciate all different religious traditions and in particularly the major world traditions. Now within this context, in meeting with the late Thomas Merton, my perception or attitude toward Christianity changed. I see him as a strong bridge between Buddhism and Christianity. While we remember him, I think the important thing is that we must honor his wish. Today, here we are, fulfilling one of his wishes.
The Dalai Lama

 Both the clear light nature of the mind and the emptiness of inherent existence of the mind are the Buddha nature-the nature of the mind that allows for transformation into Buddhahood. They are the basis of purification and transformation. They are that from which defilements are removed.
Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D.

Silence is often referred to in the Rule, but the monastic Fathers have always felt scruples about making its contents explicit. Here I will quote Father Henri Le Saux, Swami Abhishiktananda: “. . . the most intense, the most fruitful ayer, at least when the Spirit invites us, is the complete silence of the soul which has gone beyond the senses and the spirit even, collected in its source now and unable to say anything but Abba, Father, but without any word to pronounce it nor thought to conceive it. Indeed the works of God, revealed by His Word, enable us to know that He is for us, but in silence he reveals what He is in Himself, His very Being.
Pierre-Francois de Béthune, OSB

 In terms of Zen, true awakening to the ultimate fact of existence is seen as the awakening of the True Self itself. In Christianity, our devotional theistic language may emphasize the notion that God is a supreme being who is an object of conscious experience. But God is also understood as the absolute subject of spiritual experience. In the words of our scripture: “It is no longer ‘I’ who live, but Christ within me who lives” (Gal. 2:19-20). While we do exercise our freedom and cooperate with God’s grace, ultimately spiritual experience is not something we produce; it is produced in us by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, as Merton says, living in us “as the ground of a totally new life and a new being.” Therefore, just as the original fact of the unity of life bursts forth in the Zen realization of the True Self so, too, the fact of the trinitarian unity of God as the Ground of life bursts forth in Christ’s realization of himself in us.
—Donald W. Mitchell, Ph.D.

 Ultimate Reality sounds like a pretty exalted idea, but actually where would ultimate reality be? Is it under my safu? Is it buried deep within my brain? Is it in a cloud or under the ocean? I think it is in all.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer

At this time of transition, we need a vision and a prophetic voice-like that of Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century and Thomas Merton in the 20th. We need a vision of an organically interrelated global community that is spiritual at its core and at the same time grounded in the natural world and the cosmos. This is what Benedictine and Cistercian monasticism have provided for centuries through their cultivation of contemplation and literally through its cultivation of the land, and through the cosmic symbols of its liturgy which harmonize the community with the cycles of nature.
Dr. Ewert Cousins, Ph.D.

Just as Jesus struggled during his forty days in the desert and in many other moments of his life, sometimes the inner struggle of the monk or nun becomes acutely painful and is not easily resolved. Thomas Merton wrote that: Only when we are able to ‘let go’ of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste, and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire inner life.”
—Sister GilChrist Lavigne, OSCD

When we accept that we are part of a great human family-that every man and every woman has the nature of Buddha, Allah, and Christ-then we will sit, talk, make peace, and bring humankind to its fullest flowering. Our journey for peace begins today and every day. Making peace is our life. We must invite people from around the world to join in our journey. As we make peace for ourselves and our country, we make peace for the whole world. To struggle within ourselves and others is useless. The wise ones know that the root causes and conditions of all conflicts are in the mind.
—Maha Ghosananda

 Information about Gethsemani Abbey is available on their website: www.monks.org