- “Wide Open to Life”:Thomas Merton’s Dialogue of Contemplative Practice
Through my decades of Tibetan Buddhist practice and interreligious dialogue experience, I have often contemplated an encounter that took place in a bar in the Central Hotel in Calcutta, October 19, 1968. It is the encounter between Thomas Merton in the last year of his life with my Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, early in his teaching career in the West. This encounter has deeply influenced my life of dialogue, for they initiated what I came to understand as a new kind of interreligious dialogue—the dialogue of contemplative practice. It is the kind of dialogue Trungpa introduced to Naropa University in the late 1970s in Merton’s honor, and it has influenced our university ever since.
Thomas Merton, Father Louis, was fifty-three years old when stepped off the plane in India for his much-anticipated Asian journey. Excited and jet-lagged, he met the twenty-eight-year-old Tibetan monk Chogyam Trungpa, who had returned to India and Bhutan for a retreat after five years of study at Oxford University and a new venture of teaching dharma to Westerners. Trungpa’s English would have been accented but comprehensible, and his curiosity about Christian monasticism was at its peak. Merton was “coming home” to a place he had never been, visiting Asia to look for true spiritual masters about whom he had read for so many decades. He was later to admit to a special attraction to the Tibetans.
On Merton’s first day in India, he and Trungpa found each other over many gin and tonics at the Central Hotel in Calcutta, talking about the contemplative life and its challenges in the twentieth century. It was the first of a number of conversations over the next few months. In his journals Merton commented:
the important thing is that we are people who have been waiting to meet for a long time. Chogyam Trungpa is a completely marvelous person. Young, natural, without front or artifice, deep, awake, wise. I am sure we will be seeing a lot more of each other, whether around northern India and Sikkim or in Scotland, where I am now determined to go to see his Tibetan monastery if I can … The newsletter he puts out is good. His own meditations and talks, from what I have seen, are extraordinary.1 [End Page 193]
Trungpa had a similar rapport with Merton. In the 1971 edition of his autobiography, he wrote, “Father Merton himself was an open, unguarded, and deep person. During these few days, we spent much time together and grew to like one another immensely. He proposed that we should collaborate on a book bringing together sacred writings of the Catholic and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions.”2 In another reflection, Trungpa commented, “Meeting Thomas Merton was wonderful; he was like a child, and at the same time, he was full of energy and life.”3 Still later, Trungpa was to conclude, “I had the feeling that I was meeting an old friend, a genuine friend … [Father Merton] was the first genuine person I met from the West.”4
Later, Trungpa was deeply saddened by Merton’s premature death, feeling he had lost a heart friend, a genuine dialogue partner. Thirteen years later, Trungpa launched a series of seven landmark dialogue conferences at the fledgling university that he had founded, Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. From the beginning, Trungpa dedicated these gatherings to “Fr. Merton” and said that he sought to cultivate the kind of conversations between genuine contemplatives that he had discovered with Merton. Sister Pascaline Coff, from the Benedictine community of Osage Monastery in Oklahoma, wrote that the inaugural conference was “a major breakthrough in the Christian-Buddhist dialogues.”5 This breakthrough gave impetus to the development of the international Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (DIM in Europe) and other contemporary dialogue developments.6 What kind of dialogue is this, and how did Merton stimulate this movement?
I’ve written elsewhere about Merton’s encounter with the Tibetans and their view of him.7 I’ve also described Merton as a Dzogchen yogi, especially in relationship with his contact with Tibetan...