Thomas Merton

For an essay I'm writing, I had occasion to take a look at Thomas Merton's Asian Journal. I am a Zen practitioner & I grew up in the 1960s - 70s at a time when Merton, Alan Watts & others were popularizing Buddhism in general & Zen in particular. (Watts became a leading exponent of Zen without ever practicing zazen, sitting meditation, which is at the center of Zen.) Merton was a Trappist monk who interested himself in many other religious traditions; like Watts & Aldous Huxley, he tended to elide distinctions between Buddhism & Hinduism, which strikes me as intellectually sloppy. This may be an unfair judgment based on slim acquaintance, but Merton strikes me as kind of a drip. Self-involved, declamatory, aggressively synthesizing--a spiritual tourist. At least in these journals. But then, having fled from the Christians who harried me in my childhood, I have never understood, either before or after becoming a Zen student, the desire to bring Jesus & Gautama into harmony. I'm a pretty thorough-going pluralist, too, so I just don't see the usefulness of this sort of religious syncretism.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

7 thoughts on “Thomas Merton”

  1. Hi JD, nice to see you again here. I’m not sure I’ll send this, but I’m going to write it out for myself and see how it sounds. I avoid religious arguments and don’t want to seem contentious, but I’d like to respond to some of what you’re saying from another angle. And honestly, because the subject is right at the center of life/existence for me.

    Zen Buddhism seems to presume the existence of a spiritual/non-material world – the one to which Buddha attained upon enlightenment – and to which we too can attain through zazen, etc., but has little to say about what that spiritual world consists of, or what goes on there, or who else we might find if we were to gain entry to it through our diligent practice finally.

    In the story of Jesus (and one has to get past one’s own personal traumas at the hands of so-called Christians, read parents, to see this perhaps) we find a man who becomes a Christ, a human being who achieves enlightenment, and demonstrates that death is not real, life goes on. Whatever else we can know about Jesus Christ, he was an enlightened being, that is the point of the story. It just doesn’t seem to me intellectually sloppy at all to wonder about the connection between these two most powerful beings, one suddenly appearing in the East, and then a few hundred years later, a kind of echo in the West, some would say taking the story a few steps further into a deeper understanding of the purpose of suffering and evil (and responsibility) in human evolution.

    How could we know about Buddha and Jesus Christ and they not know about one another, and in fact, be working together from and in that same spiritual world from which we have come and to which we will return?(Reincarnation is obviously required by the slow perfecting of all things, or not.) There is for me an amazing incuriosity about the content and activity of the actual spiritual world, though we all claim it exists. I thought enlightenment meant one was able to penetrate consciously into the living spiritual world, either gradually or all at once, a task I don’t think can be accomplished anymore by trying to stop thoughts, but by trying to lift them up to the spirit, recognizing they are themselves already real spirit beings.

    OK, I’ll send it. Best regards.

    1. Peter, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’ve got a cold, so I’ll reply for now in brief, though this is a topic I’d be glad to air out a bit when I’m feeling better.

      Seems to me that your argument here, though you don’t mention it, comes out of Axial Age theory. Without denigrating the subtle scholarship of people like Robert N. Bellah, I’m put in mind of J.V. Cunningham’s epigram: “This Humanist whom no belief constrained / Grew so broad-minded he was scatter brained.” While I wouldn’t deny that Jesus & Gautama share certain characteristics, I find the differences more telling that the similarities. These can be seen most clearly if you extract the words of Jesus from the Gospel text surrounding them. (Aside: Because of the technologies of memory developed in India from 1500 BCE onward, the recorded words of the Buddha are probably more reliable as a historical record than the words of the Christ, though the former were not put into written form until some 300 years after the death of the speaker, while the later were recorded 75 to 100 years after they were spoken.) In any case, there is a kind of syncretism that tends toward New Age mushiness. (On the other hand, there are what I would call natural syncretisms, such as you find in Vietnam, but that’s a topic for another day.)Zen Buddhism seems to presume the existence of a spiritual/non-material world – the one to which Buddha attained upon enlightenment

      You write: “Zen Buddhism seems to presume the existence of a spiritual/non-material world – the one to which Buddha attained upon enlightenment.” I’m not sure this is the way I’d put it. After his night of meditation beneath the Bodhi tree, Gautama, now the Buddha, saw the morning star and exclaimed, “I and all sentient beings have achieved liberation.” This is usually taken to mean that the Buddha has recognized the non-existence of the self with the consequence that there can be no ultimate distinction between beings. This includes, not just humans, but all beings in the six realms. He reached down & touched the earth. There is no appeal to anything otherworldly; the various gods of that time & place are part of the natural order & do not transcend it.” Early Buddhism, unlike early Christianity, posits no God, no being who stands outside of reality. (This is true of Daoism as well.) The distinction between spiritual & material reality does not enter into it.

      This distinction seems fundamental to me.

  2. Thanks, JD, I hope you’re feeling better.

    I think it’s important in discussing the subject of religion/spirituality to try to avoid dogmatism and to strive for objectivity in one’s considerations, asking of it what one would ask of any serious explanatory theory put forth, even one that exceeds the (merely) material side of existence.

    Because this seems to me the fundamental question – Is there a real, living spiritual world, or not, and if so, of what does it consist? To summarize: Buddha completes a series of lifetimes and finally achieves enlightenment, which gives him the option of not having to incarnate again. But where does he go to enjoy his higher No-self, and where was he between lives, here in this illusory world? As a spiritual being of some accomplishment his subsequent life would likely be spent in some kind of spiritually equivalent world.

    Once you accept/perceive that the spiritual world is a real and living level of consciousness, that it exists in and all around us, that we are embedded in it and that we ourselves must then be spirit creatures of some kind or stage, you start to wake up to what total materialists we’ve become, and realize that we are actually afraid of the spiritual world, we don’t want to think about it, it’s unknowable anyway, we say, and turn away. So much real superstition has been built up about the spiritual world, and so much intellectual effort is spent trying to deny it or misrepresent it, now mostly by religion itself, even though people are encountering it in every minute of their life on earth. It’s called thinking, and when thinking is alive and conscious of itself it is a spiritual activity, present in the spiritual world. This is the idea behind meditation, I think, to help us think our way through pictures and feelings and mantra into the objective spiritual world, in other words, to learn how to wake up inside the dream in loving and creative ways.

    How can there be Buddha and not Godhood? Buddha is (a) God, who recognizes great beings before him and great beings after him. Without prior spiritual beings/the gods/God, who would want enlightenment?

    Sorry, this is longer than I thought it would be.

    Be well.

    1. Peter, I have a long & busy day today & I’m still a little under the weather. I will return to this subject, but wanted to say:

      1. My Zen teachers, who are recognized as teachers in a linage that goes back to Master Dogen in 13th c. Japan, would be very surprised to hear that “Buddha is (a) God.” This is simply not the case. Indeed, I have heard them say many times that Zen is a non-theistic religious practice. Gautama never claimed to be anything but a man. It’s true that some strained of Mahayana Buddhism later developed devotional practices with the Buddha at their center, but this is by no means universal. Nor does it have a textual basis in the earliest sources.

      2. Buddhism does not offer transcendence into a spiritual realm; it offers a way of understanding reality. Don’t get hung up on the distinction between the spiritual & the material. Dogen wrote in Bendowa that there is no distinction between the sacred & the secular. There is no spiritual world.

  3. JD, I’m unsure if you want to continue this discussion, but I can’t help but respond to these last comments. So few people seem interested in these matters.

    First, I understand the surprise about my statement about Buddha being a god. I meant it in the sense of this statement: “No teacher was as godless as Lord Buddha, yet none so godlike. Though master of all, he was the universal brother of each. And even if the virtues of Tathagatha are infinitely superior to those of ordinary men, still the ideal can serve as a pattern and guide.”

    Re the spiritual world, I take these from the notes by Red Pine in his “The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma”: “Buddhists recognize four heavens of form, which are divided into sixteen to eighteen heavens, and four of formlessness. At the opposite side of the Wheel are eight hot hells and eight cold hells, each of which has four adjacent hells. There are also a number of special hells of endless darkness and endless suffering.”

    And, “Buddhists, like the followers of others faiths, recognize a category of being whose sole purpose is to sidetrack would-be buddhas. These legions of devils are led by Mara, whom the Buddha defeated the night of his enlightenment.”

    And finally, “The Three Realms: the Buddhist psychological equivalent of the Brahmanic cosmological triple world of earth, atmosphere and heaven. The Buddhist triple world includes kamadhatu, or the realm of desire — the hells, the four continents of the human and animal world, and the six heavens of pleasure; rupadhatu, or the realm of form — the four heavens of mediation; and arupadhatu, or the formless realm of pure spirit — the four empty, or immaterial, states. Together the three realms constitute the limits of existence. In Chapter
    Three of the Lotus Sutra the three realms are represented by a burning house.”

    Also this: “Wholehearted invocation of Amitabha, the Buddha of the Infinite, assures devotees of rebirth in his Western Paradise, where enlightenment is said to be far easier to attain than in this world.” Of course, this is only one reference to this Western Paradise.

    Hope you’re staying warm.


  4. I do want to continue the discussion, Peter, but I won’t be able to do so for at least a day or two–here in the mundane world of human beings, there are stacks of student essays to grade & a search committee to serve on. I will return to this discussion as soon as I can make enough clear mental space to do so wholeheartedly.

Comments are closed.