The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, September 2, 2017
Religion ... Spirituality ... Zen ...

Many years ago, in a personal search for contemplative sanctity following a romantic break-up, I took up the study of Thomas Merton. Merton was a Trappist monk and author whose spiritual works became popular in the late 1940s, and remained a big part of the Roman Catholic book scene through the 50’s and 60’s. Merton’s life, and the many changes that both he and his thoughts and writings went through over the course of his life (which was ironically cut short at the age of 53 due to an accidental electrocution while attending a conference in Thailand), is a story in itself.

Merton began his adulthood as a well-educated “man of the world”, but then attempted to retreat from that world by immersing himself in the realm of Catholic monastic sanctity (he selected the Trappist tradition just because it seemed the most removed from erudite modernity). But ultimately he found his way back into the cosmopolitan intellectual scene, while remaining a full-fledged Trappist and Catholic priest (and also attempting to take on the life of a hermit!). When you become a Merton enthusiast (as I did) and really drill down into the details of his life, you can see that Merton needed to break a fair number of rules and guidelines in his tradition, and even his Church, in order to pull all of this off. When he died, he left the Trappists, the Church, and the world in general with a lot; but in order to do it, he also made a lot of compromises to his many commitments.

In the last decade of his life, Merton became increasingly interested in the Buddhist tradition, especially Zen Buddhism. His main contact and correspondent from the Zen world was the renowned Japanese Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki (although Merton had also communicated with Thich Nhat Hanh). Merton himself was a very capable scholar, and within a few years he felt himself qualified to write articles and books on Zen. His most famous work is “Zen and the Birds of Appetite” from 1968, although there is also a 1967 Merton book called “Mystics and Zen Masters” (I have read both books). In a nutshell, Merton was quite accepting of and positive about Zen, and felt that it shared much common ground with Christianity and especially the Catholic monastic and mystical traditions; and where such common ground was lacking, Merton often found that Zen “filled in the gaps” of the Christian heritage and metaphysic. Some quotes to that effect:

“I do not believe that I could understand our Christian faith the way I understand it if it were not for the light of Buddhism.”

“We have now reached a stage (long overdue) of religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to Christian and Western monastic commitment, and yet to learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist discipline and experience” (Asian Journal, xxiii).

But a bit more off the cuff, Merton made the following comment at a dialogue session at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions:

“I think if Catholics had a little more Zen they’d be a lot less ridiculous than they are. . . .”

As someone who grew up in the Catholic faith and who had deeply embraced it for many years, and yet who journeyed forth from it to experience other approaches to spiritual life (including the Zen tradition), I would certainly agree with Merton that spiritual cross-training can have many benefits. And yet, when I now re-read my Merton books on Zen (which helped me to get interested and involved with Zen in the first place!), I wonder if Merton was overly-romanticizing Zen. Merton went out of his way to prove, in his writings and speeches, that he “got it” about Zen, that he understood it to be more of an experiential thing that swirled around timeless wisdom, and that it was not an intellectual exercise for each generation to re-structure in its own right. He claimed that being a Trappist was much like that, or at least should be like that.

But Merton in reality only experienced Zen as an intellectual exercise; I doubt that he spend much time, if any, on a zafu sitting with a real sangha at a real zendo. His primary Zen-friend, D.T. Suzuki, had started his life as a true Japanese Zen student studying under the Roshis, but then moved on to the intellectual world of universities and lectures and conferences. Some commentators claim that Professor Suzuki had imagined an idealistic Zen grounded in principles that Western intellectuals could appreciate. Versus the real-world Zen of Japan and China, and then as transplanted and trans-mutated amidst the learned American culture.

After 7 years of steady involvement with the local Zen sangha, together with my observation of trends in the world of American Zen at large, I have come to realize that Zen is just as flawed an institution as the Catholic Church. You can legitimately say that they have differing strengths and weaknesses, differences which in some cases are complementary (where the Church may be weak, Zen may be strong — for me, Catholic worship is way too noisy, I really appreciate the solemn quietness that you can experience in Zen). But if you agree to that theory, then you also accept that the Church has certain strengths where Zen is weak. Both traditions could strengthen themselves by interaction; but for now, most American Zen people would have little to no interest in any interaction with any sort of old-fashioned religion.

For example, some years ago, my own zendo sangha invited the rabbi from the local Reconstructionist temple to give a talk to us. I gather that our teacher-leader assumed that a Reconstructionist would not say much about God. However, the Rabbi did provide some quotes from the Hebrew Scripture, and during the discussion session, I had engaged him with some God-talk regarding his quotes. Our own teacher became a bit miffed by this, and openly expressed his displeasure that God was being discussed in a zendo. Needless to say, we have not had a rabbi, nor any other speaker from a theistic religion, visit our Zendo since.

At present, it seems unlikely that a Catholic parish or Bishop’s Office or even a Jesuit college would feel comfortable engaging any Zen leaders for a Merton-like discussion (even though there are a small handful of priests and nuns in the New York metro area who are recognized “teachers” in Zen communities). I’m sure that there are Episcopalians, Quakers and other liberal Protestant communities that might be open to this; but it hardly seems to happen (probably because there are so many books on Zen available right now, including the ones from D.T. Suzuki and Thomas Merton, such that anyone interested can just read up on Zen; no need to bother anyone face-to-face).

Merton made it sound as though Zen and theistic faith traditions should mix just as well as peanut butter and chocolate (ah, sweet memories of Reese’s cups). Thich Nhat Hanh also writes and speaks as if Zen and Jesus are a natural pair.

But unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way. Both Merton and Nhat Hanh were imagining theoretical versions of their two traditions. In reality, each tradition has tendencies, flaws and hang-ups which work against cross-discussion and interaction, despite all the potential benefits that could result from it. In his later works, Merton was very honest and often critical of the tendencies, flaws and hang-ups in the daily life of his own Roman Catholic faith and his Trappist community. He just didn’t seem able to realize that Zen, as it actually exists with actual people, also has such flaws. Just for starters, the frequent sex scandals involving Zen leaders.

Thomas Merton was always looking for someone or some movement to fall in love with. When you read his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, his embrace of the Catholic Church and his pursuit of a monastic vocation sound much like a young romance story, with dramatic obstacles that are finally overcome in order to find commitment and fulfillment. But of course, like real romance, the reality of monastic life isn’t quite what was imagined during the heated pursuit. So Merton kept on looking for new romance, and found it in various ways during his quarter century as a Trappist monk. He took up intellectual study, writing, ecumenical outreach, Church reform, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and Eastern spirituality in his search for “the real Thomas Merton” (he was also known as Father Louis to the Trappists; but the irony is that “Father Louis” could not quench and settle Thomas Merton’s restless spirit, despite all of the idealistic words to that effect in Seven Storey Mountain). In his last two years, he actually fell in love with a woman nurse who had tended to him during a short stay in a hospital, and kept a covert “dating life” with her for quite a few months.

Obviously, Thomas Merton also fell in love with Zen. Perhaps it was best that he never had the chance to see it in the light of day, with all of its warts and flaws.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:21 pm      

  1. Jim, Once again, a nice piece on Merton and his life and Zen. Most certainly, you are right about the contradictions in Merton’s life.

    You mention “wondering if Merton “over-romanticized Zen”: I’d say Merton “over-romanticized” everything he became interested in . . . until he got to the point where it lost its “romantic” element for him; then he went looking for something else. Not that that’s bad; just that that’s how he was.

    And you are so right that he only experienced Zen as an intellectual “exercise” (my word here). My hunch would be that had he not been killed in that strange and weird electrocution accident (I remember not being able to believe it happened when I heard about it in 1968), he likely would have “left” the Trappists and stayed in the East somewhere studying Zen. OR he might have stayed a Trappist who remained in the East studying Zen indefinitely (probably until it lost its romantic aspect for him and he went searching for something else). And do not a lot of us (Americans?) do the same thing but only have a different “thing” that moves us from one aspect of growth to another aspect of mature growth. Perhaps this “movement” from one thing to another is an American thing more than a “thing” in other cultures, who are more apt to stay put and live out one particular spiritual exercise.

    Yes, you are 100% right: Merton WAS “always looking for someone . . . to fall in love with”. (See “romanticizing” above.)

    I might slightly disagree with you on the point that Merton kept a “dating life” with a woman “for quite a few months”. Last I read on that was that before he left for the East he was in touch with her telling her of his coming trip; still he did not really want to end the relationship. My understanding is that it was SHE who wanted to end the relationship as she found it could lead “nowhere” for her (no family, no children etc.); he however seemed to need her in his life, which seems about right to me as I find few people, if any, can live without love in their lives, one way or another. In the end, I admired that in him, a change of opinion in my own tho’t about Merton.

    I certainly agree with you re your observation that Zen is “just” another institution as flawed as the Catholic Church, and I might add as flawed as any other Church in America. The fact of the matter is that given the fact that humans are the practicing members of such churches, “flawed” is likely to define the institution. I know I left any interest in Buddhism when I realized that should I continue in the study of Buddhism, I’d end up with about the same thing I got out of the Catholic Church: A long set of what I must do to be a “good” member of the group; if I did not, I’d probably not be welcome. I remember thinking, haven’t I “been there/done that” before? Why start the whole thing over again? And I decided Buddhism was not for me. Yet, certain aspects of it had a lasting influence on me for which I am grateful; and I still use comfortably; but that’s about it.

    Furthermore, I have yet to find ANY religion or spiritual group that does not have a bias toward males and a prejudice toward females. That in itself is something that tends to “turn me off”.

    I’d say you have hit the nail on the head with your last paragraph. Likely, it is good that Merton did not live to see the “warts and flaws” of Zen; however, I’m sure as with the monastic life, he’d simply have moved on to the next step in his spiritual life and it’s growth and maturation. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 3, 2017 @ 10:46 am

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