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  • Merton and Buddhism: Wisdom, Emptiness and Everyday Mind
  • Kristin Johnston Largen
Merton and Buddhism: Wisdom, Emptiness and Everyday Mind. Edited by Bonnie Bowman Thurston. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2007. 271 pp.

This particular book—Merton and Buddhism—is the fourth in a series that seeks to study world religions “through the lens of Thomas Merton’s life and writing” (p. viii). The first three volumes in the series are Merton and Sufism, Merton and Hesychasm, and Merton and Judaism. This book continues in the same format and includes essays from a variety of scholars addressing various aspects of Merton’s engagement with different schools of Buddhism. It is divided into four main parts, with a fifth part that contains a helpful bibliography as well as notes on the different contributors. Additionally the text is peppered with a variety of illustrations, including a center section with many pictures of images of the Buddha from different cultural contexts. The assortment of black-and-white illustrations include pictures of people Thomas Merton (1915–1968) met on his travels, pictures he took while on his “Asian Journey,” and pictures of Merton himself and Our Lady of Gethsemani Monastery.

The volume begins with two helpful essays that orient a novice reader to the volume. The first essay, by the late Roger Corless (1938–2007), is a simple, straight-forward [End Page 218] introduction to Buddhism. This is useful for readers who are drawn to this book by the desire to learn more about Merton but have no background in Buddhism itself. The second essay is by Bonnie Thurston, who describes her piece as “Merton and Buddhism 101” (p. 15). Her essay describes primarily the “when” and the “why” of Merton’s interest in Buddhism, noting that Merton was not interested in becoming a Buddhist himself, but rather believed that his own (and others’) practice of Christianity could be positively informed by Buddhism, particularly in its attention to meditation and dismantling what Merton called the “false self.”

The second main part of the book is devoted to essays that each focus on Merton’s engagement with a specific Buddhist tradition. While it is clear that Merton was particularly influenced by and drawn to Zen Buddhism (Ruben Habito supplies the essay on Merton’s experience with Zen in this section), he did not limit himself to Zen, but sought out connections and experience with individuals from diverse Buddhist backgrounds. Thus, the first essay in this section details his meetings with monks from the Theravada tradition and emphasizes the central role Merton’s own monastic identity played in his understanding and evaluation of Buddhism as a whole.

The second essay is of particular importance, as it discusses Merton’s engagement with Tibetan Buddhism, which many believe would have developed into a much deeper connection had his exposure to Tibetan Buddhism not come at the very end of Merton’s life. The author of this essay, Judith Simmer-Brown, notes that “Previously, Merton’s interests had been in Zen Buddhism, but after meeting Tibetans in India he felt an immediate rapport” (p. 53). The Tibetans also shared this experience. The Dalai Lama (from whom Merton received meditation instruction), Trungpa Rinpoche, and Chadral Rinpoche, among others, all recognized his spiritual depth and honesty. At the end of her essay, Simmer-Brown reflects on the strong impression the mountain Kanchenjunga made on him (this is the “seventh mountain” of Merton’s personal geography—see The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, by Michael Mott) and speculates as to how Merton might have continued to explore Tibetan Buddhism, had he lived beyond the year.

The final essay in this section is of a different nature, but serves a very important purpose. John Keenan’s essay, “The Limits of Thomas Merton’s Understanding of Buddhism,” makes clear that Merton’s understanding of Buddhism reflects the general ignorance of Buddhism by Western Christians at that time, and thus, while Merton’s engagement with Buddhism was “welcome and mind-stretching” to his audience in the 1960s, it is “quite insufficient today for any dialogue with Buddhism, or with Zen” (p. 121). Keenan notes that a large part of the problem stems from Merton’s...