- Thomas Merton's Encounter with Buddhism and Beyond: His Interreligious Dialogue, Inter-Monastic Exchanges, and their Legacy by Jaechan Anselmo Park
The Parliament of the World's Religions held in Chicago in 1893 marked the dawn of a new era for interreligious dialogue. The kind of dialogue that this event initiated can be characterized as having been theological or intellectual, as it sought to uncover between the many religions and denominations represented similarities and differences on the level of ideas and beliefs. Since that time interreligious dialogue has expanded to foster more experiential and hands-on avenues of exchange. Arguably the most important single person in paving the way to these newer kinds of dialogue was Thomas Merton (1915–1968), the Cistercian monk, author, poet, mystic, seeker, and activist, who was based at Gethsemani Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky.
On the night before his untimely death in Thailand, Merton is recorded to have said, "Zen and Christianity are the future" (xxiii). How it was that Merton came to feel this way and what specifically he may have meant by the statement are the subject of the book by the South Korean Benedictine monk Jaechan Anselmo Park, titled Thomas Merton's Encounter with Buddhism and Beyond: His Interreligious Dialogue, Inter-Monastic [End Page 472] Exchanges, and their Legacy. In the course of the book, Park examines the early roots of Merton's encounter with the Buddhist other; the branches of Christian-Buddhist dialogue cultivated during the latter part of Merton's life; and their fruits, in the form of specific monastic exchange programs established in Asia and the West over the last few decades. Drawing on the extensive literature on Merton's life, as well as the vast corpus of Merton's own writings, Park seeks to fill in the details of a story about which most readers of this journal will already have a general outline. What gets highlighted are Merton's specific motivations for first embarking upon this kind of exchange and what he discovered to be the most promising ways forward.
For one, Park makes clear that Merton set out in his exploration of Buddhism not as a straying from his Christianity, but with the hope of learning how to get more from his experience of being a Christian monk. In the model of religious exchange he would end up articulating, monastics, as the torchbearers of their respective religions, would be expected to play the most important role. Merton also concluded that for monks and nuns of different religions to live among one another can be a valuable experience. Another key facet of what Merton came to maintain was that the transcendent experiences produced by contemplative practice form a bridge between religions that may, on the surface, seem very different from one another (these two facets of the exchange being interrelated, Park refers to the model Merton arrived at as "inter-monastic/contemplative dialogue"). In this emphasis on peak religious experiences that are maintained to reveal a more universal religious truth, we see Merton's significance in carrying William James's understanding of religion into the twentyfirst century.
The first three chapters of Thomas Merton's Encounter with Buddhism and Beyond speak to scholars of religious modernism as well as readers who may be interested to know more about Merton's life and works for the wide range of reasons that this singularly eclectic and tradition-crossing figure has given us. In a somewhat hagiographic fashion, these chapters convey the story of Merton's life through his encounter and dialogue with Buddhism, beginning during his time as a student at Columbia. Over a period of decades Merton corresponded with the extremely important Zen modernizers D. T. Suzuki (1870–966) and Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926). In 1968, Merton embarked upon a profoundly impactful trip to Asia, which included what Park describes as "a culminating moment of enlightenment" (25) while visiting a Buddhist monument in Sri Lanka. Amidst Merton's own record of his experiences on this...