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  • The Great Compassion: Thomas Merton in Asia
  • Jack Downey (bio)

In late August 2014, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) held its first in-person community gathering since 2006, in Oakland, California. Founded in 1978 as a largely U.S.-based nonsectarian “Engaged Buddhist” network responding to U.S. militarism and nuclear proliferation, BPF now orients itself within an intersectional framework that seeks to critically push back against contemporary structural and interpersonal manifestations of colonialism, misogyny, racism, worker exploitation, and bigotry through practices of mindfulness and “compassionate confrontation.” One of the plenary speakers, Larry Yang – a distinguished Dharma teacher and co-founder of the East Bay Meditation Center – began his talk on “beloved community” with a quote from Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

[T]here is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activists and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activists neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.1

That the reflections of a Catholic monk might be invoked at the outset of a Buddhist Dharma talk would be a profoundly peculiar proposition, were that monk almost anyone besides Thomas Merton. Particularly [End Page 107] within “Americanist” Buddhist circles, Merton has essentially been adopted as an “anonymous Buddhist” – to borrow and potentially abuse a trope from the great twentieth-century theologian Karl Rahner, SJ.2 This theological anonymity would distinguish him from a confessing Buddhist, or a self-conscious agent of what has come to be known in Christian comparative theology circles as “multiple religious belonging.”3 Merton was clearly a sincere student of Buddhism, as he was of many non-Christian religions – which is not to say completely unproblematic from the perspective of postcolonial anxieties about Christian spiritual appropriation (perhaps an impossibility). Unlike fellow Benedictines Henri le Saux, OSB (also known as Swami Abhishiktananda, 1910-1973, who helped found Saccidananda Ashram in 1950, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India, and devoted his life to Hindu-Christian “double belonging) or Bede Griffiths, OSB (Swami Dayananda, 1906-1993), who succeeded him – Thomas Merton’s sudden death in 1968 interrupted his experiential foray into spiritual hybridity when it was still in its infancy, frustrating later theoretical interests in mapping him within the modern Catholic interfaith landscape.

But notwithstanding his appeal to Christian spirituality and the self-reflective project of academic comparative theology (of which he may have been – along with Abhishiktananda – source material for reflection), Merton has also become an object of the Buddhist gaze and appropriation, sometimes depicted as one whose concentrated fascination with the Dharma during the latter decades of life represented a syncretic evolution in contemplative depth, through the rigid structures of institutions, towards a more non-conceptual, unattached, perennial freedom and truth. Occasionally such comparisons might verge on a problematic kind of Buddhist supercessionism – that, in his apparent movement towards Buddhism, Merton was “maturing” spiritually, and leaving the vacuous rigidity of Catholicism behind for the more ethereal realm of the Dharma. But thus, without ever formally pledging fidelity to any other faith, nor showing any real indication of having contemplated renouncing Christianity or changing his base affiliations, Thomas Merton has managed to become a shared hybrid commodity, intelligible – certainly lovable – yet somehow strange and, at times, remote. [End Page 108]

Zen and the Making if a Celebrity Monk

Like many “convert” Buddhist sympathizers of his generation in the United States, Thomas Merton’s primary mode of first encounter with Buddhism was largely literary.4 His early comparative interests in Buddhism were piqued in the late 1950s by Japanese Zen, most particularly the writings of Daisetz T. Suzuki (1870-1966), whose English...