Thomas Merton: Abiding In Christ

Last year in the May 23 issue (“The Refiner’s Fire,” pp. 21–24) we printed an article by John Leax about the poetry of Thomas Merton; his writing and contemplative lifestyle have become important to many young evangelicals. After that article was published we received several enquiries about Merton’s shift in later life from Christianity to Buddhism. Here is Leax’s reply.

Following the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton was continually beset by the rumor that he was, for one reason or another, abandoning his monastic vocation. When he left Gethsemani, his Kentucky monastery, in October, 1968 to visit the Orient, this rumor gained a specificity it had previously lacked: Merton was converting to Buddhism. As unlikely as such a conversion sounds, one must consider the testimony of Merton’s last years carefully before discounting the possibility. Not only had he been studying Oriental religions for some years, his essays on Buddhism had seemed to many far too sympathetic to have been written by an orthodox Catholic monk.

Merton probably intended to edit the three journals he had kept while in Asia. If he had lived to do so, many of the ambiguities that puzzle his readers would have undoubtedly been removed. But his accidental death by electrocution in Bangkok left the journals incomplete. Wisely Naomi Burton, Brother Patrick Hart, and James Laughlin, his editors, concentrated on arriving at an accurate text of the journals and studiously avoided guessing at Merton’s sometimes obscure intentions. This unfortunately creates difficulties for the reader of The Asian Journal seeking to understand the full depth of Merton’s involvement in Buddhism.

Merton’s comments on the possibility of finding a Tibetan guru and making a long retreat can serve as an illustration of the difficulty The Asian Journal presents the reader. On November 2, after about two weeks in Asia Merton wrote:

Sonam Kazi.… thinks I ought to find a Tibetan guru and go in for Nyingmapa Tantrism initiation along the line of “direct realization and dzogehen (final resolution).” At least he asked me if I were willing to risk it and I said why not? The question is finding the right man. I am not exactly dizzy with the idea of looking for a magic master but I would certainly like to learn something by experience [New Directions, 1973, p. 82].

Two weeks later Merton visited with Chatral Rimpoche. They discussed meditation, discovering to their surprise that they “agreed very well.” At the end of their discussion Chatral called Merton a “natural Buddha.” Merton was delighted and concluded his account of the interview with the following observation:

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He (Chatral) was surprised at getting on so well with a Christian [italics mine] and at one point laughed and said, “There must be something wrong here!” If I were going to settle down with a Tibetan guru, I think Chatral would be the one I’d choose. But I don’t know yet if that is what I’ll be able to do—or whether I need to [p. 144],

These two passages show that Merton was open to the Eastern experience. Indeed, from them one can safely conclude that he considered it a valid experience. But one cannot say with any certainty how Merton related to that experience. The humor of his offhanded “why not?” and the choice of the phrase “magic master” in the first passage should probably be read as qualifying the expressed desire to learn by experience. More importantly, in the second passage Chatral’s consciousness that he is speaking with a Christian indicates that Merton’s willingness to learn did not compromise his identification with Christ. Yet, even with these positive aspects emphasized, the passages remain troublesome.

Other entries, as enigmatic as these, appear with some frequency in The Asian Journal and create no small difficulty for the Westerner used to equating Eastern thought with either nihilism or pantheism. One thing, however, is clear; the journal shows that Merton intended to remain a monk of Gethsemani. Just two days after recording the entry regarding Chatral Rimpoche he wrote, “There is no problem of wanting simply to ‘leave Gethsemani.’ It is my monastery and being away has helped me see it in perspective and love it more” (p. 149). To properly evaluate the import of this, one must remember that Merton could have established a hermitage at any geographic location (he was seriously considering Alaska) and still have been faithful to his vow of stability. Nevertheless his faithfulness to his vow should be read as an affirmation of his faith in Christ and as an indication that a conversion to Buddhism was not imminent.

If this conclusion is true, what then was the object of Merton’s Eastern studies? A clue to his purposes lies in a brief note he makes on St. Thomas Aquinas in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

The great originality of St. Thomas lies in his vocation: the realization that he was called by God to evangelical perfection and to the study of Aristotle.… Hence the theology of St. Thomas is a theology of intellectual reconciliation, which, instead of maintaining itself in existence by the insistence on those opposites which create problems, justifies itself by uniting opposites and looking beyond the stereotyped solution of problems.
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This archetypal reconciliation was present in his own vocation which, as he lived it, told him daily that the confrontation of apparently irreconcilable opposites presents no problem at all. One could love and serve God in the city, teaching Christian clerks from the book of a pagan philosopher [Doubleday, 1968, p. 206].

With the realization that Aquinas began his study of Aristotle when Aristotle was under the Church’s ban, the parallel to Merton becomes clear. Like Aquinas, Merton recognized that because God has been continuously revealing himself to man something of his truth is present in all cultures and in all faiths. What is true is of God. The Christian, who possesses the revelation of Jesus Christ, can, discerning what is true and what is false, lay claim to that which is true and thereby grow not only intellectually but spiritually. The danger here, of course, is syncretism. But as Aquinas avoided it, so does Merton.

Merton starts with an affirmation of his own Catholicism:

Certainly I find in myself not the slightest inclination to “be” anything but “Catholic.” Any further question of other institutions, other organizations, appears to me to be totally ludicrous. I am in the place where Christ has put me. Amen [p. 250].

His next step, however, is not the expected. Instead of allowing his Catholicism to define him in terms of opposition to all that is not Catholic, he emphasizes the fact that one becomes more truly himself as he discovers himself in others and others in himself:

I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Prostestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further.
So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, and indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot “affirm” and “accept,” but first one must say “yes” where one really can [p. 144].

The object then of Merton’s study is to discover what one may say “yes” to and what effects that “yes” might have on his life.

While a conclusive evaluation of what may be affirmed and an estimate of the effects of such an affirmation is a task for students of comparative religion, two related topics can be singled out as appropriate starting points. Neither is specifically “religious” but both have applications to the spiritual life. The first involves the nature of contemplation.

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Here the modern Western Christian, whose life has been oriented to action and action only, is severely handicapped. The contemplative life, particularly as it is lived by the Asian masters, appears quietistic. Merton assures us that it is not. An openness to this way, as it is reflected not only in the lives of the Asians but in the lives of the fourth century desert fathers and in the lives of innumerable Christian saints and mystics, might lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of the peace which Christ promised us and a more consistent manifestation of the fruits of the Spirit.

It must be emphasized, however, that no technique of contemplation is ever sufficient for spiritual growth or maturity. As Merton wrote, “We must also look to the transcendent and personal center upon which this love, liberated by illumination and freedom, can converge. That center is the Risen and Deathless Christ in Whom all are fulfilled in One” (Mystics and Zen Masters, Delta, 1969, p. 42).

If the only gain promised by Merton’s pilgrimage to the East was a renewed vision of the contemplative life, his pilgrimage was probably unnecessary. But there is a more profound truth to be learned, one that, though not alien to Christianity, has largely been lost.

In Mystics and Zen Masters, Merton wrote, “We are plagued today with the heritage of that Cartesian self-awareness, which assumes that the empirical ego is the starting point of an infallible intellectual process to truth and spirit” (p. 26). This Cartesian self-awareness operates by means of a subject-object division. The “I,” the subject, perceives an object, which it stands apart from and in opposition to. This leads both to the sophistication of modern technology and to the alienation of modern life. Merton claims its logical end is the death of God:

Cartesian thought began with an attempt to reach God as object by starting from the thinking self. But when God becomes an object, he sooner or later “dies,” because God as object is ultimately unthinkable [Zen and the Birds of Appetite, New Directions, 1968, p. 23].

Note, here we are not directly dealing with matters of faith but with a philosophical problem. Consequently, any source that does not contradict Christian doctrine is available to us.

It is at this point Merton finds Buddhist ontology helpful. Put most simply, the Buddhist does not begin with an affirmation of himself. Neither does he begin by affirming something outside of himself. Either affirmation would lead to the Cartesian dilemma. He starts instead with a concept of Being which is “seen to be beyond and prior to the subject-object division”:

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This is totally different from an experience of self-consciousness. It is completely nonobjective. It has in it none of the split and alienation that occurs when the subject becomes aware of itself as a quasi-object.… It is not “consciousness of” but pure consciousness, in which the subject as such “disappears.” … Here the individual is aware of himself as a self-to-be-dissolved in self-giving, in love, in “letting go,” in ecstacy, in God—there are many ways of phrasing it [pp. 23, 24].

The similarity of this philosophical, Buddhist position with Christian doctrine is obvious. It is not unorthodox to suggest that the nature of rebirth is ontological. Certainly Christ is concerned with actions; he places a heavy responsibility on his followers, requiring them to go to all nations preaching the gospel. But his first requirement is for the believer to be in him. St. Paul describes this in Galatians 2:20 when he writes, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (The Jerusalem Bible). He makes it even more emphatic in Colossians 3:10, 11. “You have put on a new self which will progress toward true knowledge the more it is renewed in the image of its creator; and in that image there is no room for distinction between Greek and Jew … There is only Christ; he is everything and he is in everything” (The Jerusalem Bible).

The Christian who takes Scripture seriously must regard these passages as more than figurative expressions of unity. Otherwise the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ is nonsense. And if the mystical body of Christ is nonsense, there not only is no Church, there is no Christianity.

So, from Buddhist ontology, from its conception of the nature of being, Merton learned something of the meaning of abiding in Christ. What he learned was not something alien that he added to Christianity, but something essential that had been and continues to be obscured by cultural additions to the gospel.

As positive as these conclusions are, a word of caution is necessary. Merton’s interpretations of aspects of Buddhism are often radically opposed to those found in most comparative religion textbooks. Consequently, more study is necessary before we can give more than tentative approval or disapproval to his judgments. Until that study is done, we would do well to heed the advice Merton himself received from Bramachari, a Hindu monk he met in 1938:

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There are many beautiful mystical books written by Christians. You should read St. Augustine’s Confessions, The Imitation of Christ.…

Yes, you must read these books. Merton, I’m sure would concur [The Seven Storey Mountain, New American Library, 1952, p. 195].


John Leax is assistant professor of English at Houghton College, New York.

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