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  • “Something Breaks Through a Little”: The Marriage of Zen and Sophia in the Life of Thomas Merton
  • Christopher Pramuk

The fact that you are a Zen Buddhist and I am a Christian monk, far from separating us, makes us most like one another. How many centuries is it going to take for people to discover this fact? 1

Though Merton’s “turn to the East” began well before Vatican II would turn the eyes of Roman Catholics toward the ecumenical and non-Christian world, its fruits would not generally appear in published form until after the Council. In works such as Mystics and Zen Masters (1967) and Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968), Merton spends much labor correcting caricatures of Eastern spirituality prominent in the West, especially in the American counterculture. These remain vital texts today because they give us the mature Merton at his best, pressed to the limit of discursive communication on vexatious systematic and epistemological problems—and this after more than a decade of reflection and growth with respect to interfaith dialogue. Indeed, brilliantly realized essays such as “The New Consciousness” and “A Christian Looks at Zen” reveal Merton to be much more “conservative” than conservative caricatures make him out to be, and much more “liberal” than most progressives. Merton writes with the authority of a committed Christian immersed in serious dialogue, with all its challenges and risks, and not just as one who talks about it.

Few serious students of Merton’s life and writings—whether inspired by his universal scope of vision or scandalized by it—would dispute that his conception of the divine changed as he allowed deeper encounters with Eastern traditions to interrogate his faith. What is less commonly understood, however, is how closely Merton’s engagement with Zen corresponded with his internalization of a deep thread in the Christian East, namely, the Sophia tradition of Russian Orthodoxy, or “sophiology” as known in its speculative form, associated with thinkers such as Vladimir Soloviev (d. 1900), Sergius Bulgakov (d. 1944), and Paul Evdokimov (d. 1970). What attracted Merton to these thinkers was their recasting of the Christian narrative of salvation in the boldest imaginative and metaphysical terms; from biblical, patristic, and modern philosophical sources they had fashioned a “positive theology,” a theology brimming with content. Though Merton himself would never develop a formal [End Page 67] sophiology, his internalization of Russian imagery is amply evidenced in journals, letters, notes, and in seminal works such as The Behavior of Titans (1961), The New Man (1961), and New Seeds of Contemplation (1961). The prose poem Hagia Sophia (1962), still one of Merton’s most understudied and “secret” works, is by far the most realized, lyrical, and daring of his meditations on the Wisdom figure of Sophia.

In this article I wish to suggest that the striking “coincidence” of Zen and Sophia in Merton’s life during the late 1950s was not merely a coincidence, but hinged in part on epistemological difficulties he was wrestling with in the midst of radically shifting cultural, ecclesial, and political horizons. While in one sense the irruption of Sophia into Merton’s consciousness in the late 1950s was just one thread woven into the larger mosaic of his “turn to the world,” it was, I believe, the golden thread that helped him to hold the fabric together, ever more centered in Christ. In other words, this “bringing together” of apparent opposites does not end with epistemology. What emerges in Merton’s concurrent study of Zen and Russian sophiology is a kind of “story-shaped” Christology, a story told through the life of Merton but haunted more and more by the mysterious figure of Sophia.2

Nondualism: A Zen and Ancient Christian “Way of Seeing”

In a letter dated March 12, 1959, Merton introduced himself to Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki, then known worldwide for his gift for translating the teachings of Zen Buddhism to the West.3 After receiving a warm reply and some poems from Suzuki, Merton wrote a second letter. His tone is warm and forthright, written as one might address a respected mentor or a long-time friend. What is most striking is the intimacy with which...