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  • Ambivalence in Shangri-La:Merton's Orientalism and Dialogue
  • Judith Simmer-Brown

While I read Merton in college and was horrified by news reports of his untimely death, it was only in the late 1970s that I really met Merton through the eyes of my root Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Rinpoche met Merton on his first day in India, in the bar of the Central Hotel in Calcutta, where they instantly connected and developed a deep friendship. A Methodist minister's daughter, I was a fervent Buddhist convert who had no conscious interest in Christianity, but Rinpoche assigned me the task of directing a series of Buddhist-Christian dialogue conferences at Naropa University during the 1980s. During the seven years of those conferences, Rinpoche spoke warmly about Merton's impact. I have met Merton personally through the eyes of my teacher and of Tibetan Buddhism, and it is from that perspective that I speak of Merton.

Today I reflect in new ways on Merton's Asian journey and the legacy of his encounter with Tibetan Buddhism. In previous papers, I've traced his journey, plotted his Dzogchen inquiry, expanded on his guidelines for contemplative interreligious dialogue, and uncovered fascinating perspectives from the Tibetans about his untimely—or perhaps timely—death. I have gained tremendous appreciation and affection for Merton, and have become impressed by his community of admirers, disciples, and adherents. Because of this, I have long hesitated to launch into a critical assessment of his encounter with Tibetan Buddhism, but a close reading of his writings exposes the implicit, and sometimes explicit, Orientalism that colored his Asian journey. In the "interior" journey of the Asian Journal, he characteristically shares multiple layers of his personal reflections that can only be called ambivalence toward exotic Tibetan tantra; he wanted to "drink from ancient sources of monastic vision and experience."1

Yet his journey did not only exhibit Orientalism. He had a genuine curiosity and longing for contact with deep Buddhist contemplatives. As he wrote on June 23, 1968, "What I really want is, however, to meet Buddhists."2 Once he was able to leave his remote hermitage and engage personally with remarkable Tibetan teachers in their own settings, his Orientalism was gradually "dissolved by experience" and what was left was the beautiful dialogue.3 This journey from Orientalism to genuine dialogue may be his greatest legacy regarding Buddhism. [End Page 93]

was merton an orientalist?

Was Merton an Orientalist? Probably he was. As a product of the late 1950s and 1960s, Merton joined the Beats and the hippies in simultaneously idealizing, objectifying, and appropriating what he understood of Buddhism for his own spiritual nourishment. If this is difficult to acknowledge, it may be because Orientalism has never stopped—it still motivates much of Western appropriation of Buddhism.

Postcolonial scholar Edward Said speaks of the essentializing of the Orient and Orientals as "a mentality, a genealogy, an atmosphere" that allows the subject to create an abstraction, generalization, and construct. This "Orient" becomes the basis of description, "containing it, controlling it, teaching and learning about it, making statements about it, authorizing views of it and ruling over it by other means."4 This implies that Western society is, in contrast, developed, rational, flexible, and superior—taking the privilege of the authoritative observer who resides in moral and spiritual vacuum as the reverse aspect of true Orientalism. The emergent excitement about Buddhism in the 1950s and 1960s was pervaded by Orientalist perspectives. As an eager student, Merton had been reading in his hermitage about Buddhism for a decade, especially Zen, along with Taoism, Hinduism and Sufism.5 His lack of human contact with real Buddhists fostered an idealized caricature of Buddhism that became the basis of his Orientalism. His Buddhist sources were varied, but he had a special affinity for the writings of D. T. Suzuki. He also read Edward Conze, T. R. V. Murti, and translations of Shantideva. (Of course, he was also reading Shankara, Ramanuja, Dasgupta, and Abhishiktananda.) He wrote enthusiastically about all these sources, often jumbling them together, making what appeared to be Orientalist generalizations that he drew from them all. In the two years before his Asian journey, Merton...


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