- Thomas Merton's Unfinished Journey in Dialogue with Buddhism
Thomas Merton was many things—literary critic, poet, author of immensely popular spiritual books, social critic, proponent of dialogue with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews. But throughout, he remained a Cistercian monk who longed to reform monastic life, aspired somehow to be a public hermit, and focused unwaveringly on the central importance of contemplative prayer and renewal. Because he was so multifaceted and so widely known and admired, Merton still attracts attention and praise—even the very public praise of Pope Francis speaking before the US Congress in September 2015. And because Merton was so malleable, he has been portrayed by others in many different ways: as an exemplar, a heretic, a confused man, a deeply committed monk, and a representative of all that was beginning to happen in the wake of Vatican II.1 And because, more than most humans, he lived in so many dimensions, it is difficult to write about him. The views and values—even the life experiences—of anyone who attempts to evaluate the contributions of Thomas Merton soon become apparent.
Thus it is with some hesitation that I offer here my reading of Merton's dialogic engagement with Buddhism. I speak from the perspective of a Christian who has long been committed to that endeavor and who, through the convergence of many causes and conditions, has become schooled in the history and doctrine of Buddhism. When asked, I often identify myself as a Mahāyāna Christian. By that I mean that I live and think my Gospel faith in terms of Mahāyāna philosophy rather than the archaic metaphysical patterns of Greek theology, and as a result I have come to what I believe is a more modest and contextual theology of faith. Through my years of study and work in Japan and the United States, my perspective has been honed and enriched through lively and wide-ranging discussions with Buddhist scholars and practitioners, and indeed with mentors and colleagues of many persuasions. By the karmic happenstance of now residing in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, I am not presently in direct, personal dialogue with Buddhists; my engagement today is primarily with Buddhist texts and philosophies and my own ponderings on how those may aid us in the tasks of enunciating the Christian faith. When I pray, I do so in the name of Jesus.
Beginning with the 1948 publication of his bestselling autobiographical work The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton inspired countless people through his [End Page 103] numerous theologically astute books on spiritual practice.2 As a widely read and admired author, he exercised immense influence in the turbulent world of Catholic thinking in the 1960s. Others had begun to write about Zen Buddhism in those years: in 1963 Dom Aelred Graham, a Benedictine monk of Portsmouth Abbey, published a book titled Zen Catholicism in which he recommended that Zen be embraced within Catholic spiritual traditions. Graham's book was well received but quietly read and set aside, and it was instead the better-known Merton who did the most to popularize Zen among Catholics and other Christians. Indeed, it was Thomas Merton's writings, together with those of Zen thinkers like D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, that introduced me to Buddhism during my years as a Roman Catholic seminarian and later curate in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Merton was certainly not the first Westerner, or the first Christian, to have been drawn to a great Asian religious tradition. Many Christians were already engaged in reconceptualizing the Gospel vis-à-vis Buddhist and Hindu religious thought. After Nostra aetate—the Vatican Council's declaration that non-Christian religions enjoy both grace and truth—numbers of Catholic theologians and missionaries around the world began to move from trying to convert benighted pagans to engaging in respectful dialogue with other ancient world traditions. Benedictines Bede Griffiths and Henri Le Saux (Abhishiktananda) were deeply immersed in Hindu meditation and lived in their own ashrams in India, attracting students, teaching contemplative practice grounded both in the Gospel and the Upanishads, and envisioning a new Christian theology informed by Hindu teachings. In...