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Can You Trust Thomas Merton?

Thomas Merton (1915–1968), a Trappist monk, was one of the most well-known Catholic writers of the 20th century. He was the author of more than 60 books, including the story of his conversion, Seven Storey Mountain, a modern spiritual classic. Yet Merton is a controversial figure. In the last year of his life, he wrote in his journal while traveling through Asia:

Last night I dreamed I was, temporarily, back at Gethsemani. I was dressed in a Buddhist monk’s habit, but with more black and red and gold, a “Zen habit,” in color more Tibetan than Zen . . . I met some women in the corridor, visitors and students of Asian religion, to whom I was explaining I was a kind of Zen monk and Gelugpa together, when I woke up. (Asian Journal, 107)

A Trappist dreams of being a Buddhist monk? My grandparents recall an American impersonator named Lon Chaney (1883–1930) who was such a master at changing his screen identity that he came to be called “the man with a thousand faces.” Fr. Thomas Merton was a man of a thousand lives. He was at one time a womanizer, a member of the Young Communist League, an English student at Columbia, a peace activist, an English teacher at St. Bonaventure University, and a social work volunteer. He was an orphan, the father of a child, a Catholic convert, a Trappist monk, a priest, a poet, a writer, and some describe him as a Zen Buddhist. It is difficult to distill the essence of Thomas Merton: He and his works are complex.

Christian Mantras?

I’m going to be a bit critical of Merton’s interest in and writings on Asian philosophy and religion, not because I don’t admire his brilliance, but because his commitment to orthodox Catholicism appears suspiciously attenuated by the end of his life. In the 1969 book Recollections of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West, Benedictine monk Br. David Steindl-Rast wrote that Thomas said that he wanted “to become as good a Buddhist as I can.” When he flew out of San Francisco for Asia on October 15, 1968, he left with the expectation of religious discovery, as if his monastic life at the Abbey of Gethsemani was a spiritual precursor to the insights he would gain in the East. He wrote in his journal:

Joy. We left the ground—I with Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny, of being at last on my true way after years of waiting and wondering and fooling around. . . . May I not come back without having settled the great affair. And found also the great compassion, mahakaruna . . . I am going home, to the home where I have never been in this body. (Asian Journal, 4)

He writes as if his Christianity and his Buddhism had already become enmeshed into a new hybrid religion, with “Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny,” and he expresses his desire never to return until he has found mahakaruna, the Buddhist notion of “great compassion.” As a Christian, I admire Buddhist mahakaruna, but as a Christian I also know that one need not look beyond Christianity to find it. I wonder—and we shall never know in this life the answer—what “home” Merton was headed for that day in October.

Divine Comedy

Most of what we know of Thomas Merton’s life is taken from his wonderfully written, almost Augustinian, autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948. The work’s title alludes to Mount Purgatory in Dante Alighieri’s (1265–1321) Divine Comedy, thus comparing his autobiography to an account of a personal catharsis. Like Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953), Merton was a French-born writer who converted to Catholicism after a long and complicated intellectual journey. He was born in Prades, France, to parents who were both painters; his father, Owen, was from New Zealand and his mother, Ruth, was an American. In 1917, the family moved to Flushing, New York, where his brother, John Paul, was born. His mother died when he was six, his father died ten years later, and his brother died in 1943 while flying over the English Channel to the war.

In 1926, Merton returned to France where he enrolled in a boarding school, and in 1928 he moved to England. He traveled to Rome in 1933 and visited several of the city’s beautiful churches: the Lateran Baptistery, Basilica di San Clemente, Santa Costanza, Santa Pudenziana, and Tre Fontane, a Trappist monastery. The beauty of the churches and the richness of Christian history there made a large impression on young Thomas. He writes of visiting Sts. Cosmos and Damian, across the Forum, where he meditated on “a great mosaic in the apse, of Christ coming in judgment in dark blue sky, with the suggestion of fire in the small clouds beneath his feet” (Seven Storey Mountain, 108). He was moved, or rather displaced from his previous motto: “I believe in nothing.” While in the “dark, austere old church” at Tre Fontane, Merton was too scared to walk over to the monastery, imagining the monks “were too busy sitting in their graves beating themselves with disciplines,” but after pacing around the outside he left, thinking to himself, “I should like to become a Trappist monk” (Seven Storey Mountain, 114).

Bondage to Sin

After his time in Rome, Merton entered Clare College at Cambridge. He describes his life there as one of indulgence, drinking excessively, frequenting local pubs, and womanizing. Indeed, he fathered a child with a girl while he was at Cambridge, a detail of his life that Trappist censors removed from the original draft of his Seven Storey Mountain. Merton writes: “I labored to enslave myself in the bonds of my own intolerable disgust” (Seven Storey Mountain, 121). By 1935 he was back in America and enrolled at Columbia University, where he studied English. While there he began reading the works of such Catholic, Thomistic writers as Étienne Gilson (1884–1978) and Jacques Maritain (1882–1973). He met the Hindu monk Mahanambrata Brahmachari, who told him to read the Confessions of St. Augustine (354–430) and Thomas à Kempis’ (ca. 1380–1471) Imitation of Christ. He immersed himself in Catholic thought. On May 25, 1939, Thomas Merton was finally confirmed into the Catholic Church, and he considered a vocation as a Franciscan friar.

After revealing the details of his debauched days at Clare College to the Franciscans, however, he was no longer welcomed there, and after a brief time teaching English at St. Bonaventure University, Merton was accepted into the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky on December 13, 1941. He was, as he had once so casually remarked he would be, a Trappist monk. Once ensconced in his new life as a monk, his poetic and writing talents were discovered by a wide and appreciative readership. But along with his meteoric rise to fame, Merton’s relationships with his superiors remained turbulent; indeed one of his most antagonistic relationships was with the staunchly traditional abbot, Dom James Fox. In a recently discovered letter written to Dom Fox on Passion Sunday, 1954, Merton expressed his inner tensions with monastic life:

I am beginning to face some facts about myself. Yes, need for more of a life of prayer, greater fidelity, greater sincerity and simplicity in doing what God wants of me. Easy to say all that. It depends on getting rid of something very deep and very fundamental in myself. . . Continual, uninterrupted resentment. I resent and even hate Gethsemani. I fight against the place constantly. I do not openly allow myself—not consciously—to sin in this regard. But I am in the habit of letting my resentment find every possible outlet and it is such a habit. . . . I am not kidding about how deep it is. It is DEEP. (Gethsemani Abbey archives)

Merton became increasingly attracted to Eastern religion as his attachments to his own monastery grew more tenuous.

The Call of the Buddha

After meeting the Japanese Buddhist scholar Daisetz T. Suzuki (1870–1966), Merton began a zealous interest in Zen, keeping an active correspondence with Suzuki, eventually producing a collection of essays called Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968). In this work he compares Zen with Christianity, and in later works he began to highlight more and more what he believed to be commonalities between the two religions. His works display a certain inner antagonism—Merton was used to that—between viewing his growing interest in the East as a means of defending his own Western Christian tradition, and a need to supplement, if not fulfill, Christianity with Buddhism.

His attraction to Buddhism was growing at a time when the Church was beginning to admit the commendable elements in other religious traditions. Pope Paul VI’s (r. 1963–1978) decree Nostra Aetate declares that:

The Church therefore has this exhortation for her sons: Prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and cultures. (3)

And in his Mystics and Zen Masters (1967), Merton celebrates this message, stating that, “The Christian scholar is obligated by his sacred vocation to understand and even preserve the heritage of all the great traditions insofar as they contain truths that cannot be neglected and offer precious insights into Christianity itself” (65). He continued to discuss the commonalities between Confucianism and the traditions of his own Benedictine order.

One Toe over the Line

But where do his ideas become suspect? Does he stray from Catholic orthodoxy? These are difficult questions to answer concisely, but it is clear in his writings that Thomas Merton was more of a spiritual seeker rather than a spiritual settler. His ideas evolve and change often, and his immersion into Eastern religion often appears more like replacement than rapprochement. Merton’s intellectual and physical pilgrimage to Asia was, as he suggests, at least ostensibly an attempt to deepen and supplement his own religious life. He writes that “we have now reached a stage (long overdue) of religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to Christian and Western monastic commitment, and yet to learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist discipline and experience” (Asian Journal, xxiii). He continues to assert that the Western Church is in need of such a Buddhist influence to be improved, to help the Church in its “long overdue” renewal.

In order to facilitate this “renewal” based on Buddhist tenets, Merton turns to Zen ideas of self-inquiry and non-duality. In one passage in his Mystics and Zen Masters, Merton quotes Buddha’s comments to Ananda, wherein he says, “. . . you must be your own lamps, be your own refuges” (218). He admits how different this statement is from the Christian belief in one’s “total self-surrender and a complete dependence on Christ,” but his growing attraction to Buddhism brings him to defend the Buddha’s assertion by reinterpreting it.

Merton argues that Buddha is “by no means telling them to rely on themselves ‘instead of’ on ‘grace’” (Mystics and Zen Masters). According to him, Buddhists are “to rely on nothing but ‘the truth’ as they experience it directly” (219). But what Buddha is saying here is precisely what Merton insists he isn’t. Buddha, in his first sermon in the Deer Park, had already denied the possibility of a personal ego, and he had rejected any truth other than the lack of truth—what the Western tradition calls the “liar’s paradox.” The Buddha’s assertion is exactly what it appears to be: We can rely on nothing but ourselves and our own discovery of our lack of self and truth to become enlightened. These two positions, the Buddhist reliance upon self and the Christian reliance on Christ, are not as reconcilable as Merton suggests.

No Absolutes

Merton holds that there are common truths held by both Buddhism and Christianity, so it is natural for us to ask what these truths are. He suggests, for example, that Zen brings a person to “attain to an authentic personal experience of the inner meaning of life” (Mystics and Zen Masters, 219). To illustrate this point he quotes the founder of Zen (‘Chan” in Chinese), Bodhidharma (sixth century), who said:

A special tradition outside the scriptures
No dependence upon words and letters;
Direct pointing at the soul of man;
Seeing into one’s own nature and the attainment of Buddhahood. (qtd. in Mystics and Zen Masters, 15)

What Fr. Merton obscures from this saying is that its principle contradicts Christian notions of truth. What the Zen founder is saying, as a member of the Lanka Mind-only School of Buddhism, is that man’s enlightenment is precipitated simply by the realization that he is already enlightened. That is, our attachment to a self, to a non-self, and to the reality of reality, is in the end an illusion that masks the reality that we are already enlightened. This is why Zen refers to enlightenment as an “awakening,” experienced like a “thunderclap.” Zen Buddhism, as Fr. Merton understood well, was influenced by Daoism, from which Buddhism largely derives its doctrine of non-duality. In fact, one of Merton’s favorite thinkers was the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, whom he wrote about in his The Way of Chuang Tzu (1969).

In the Daoist model there are no opposites, no absolutes. In the abstruse opening of the Daodejing (also called Laozi), it is said that “The Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way, and the name that can be named is not the constant name.” The implication here is that the Way is a state of non-duality: Since it includes Way and non-Way, and name and non-name, it cannot be identified in human language, which is confined by categories. Fr. Merton appreciates this notion of non-duality because it collapses the distinctions of subject and object; as he writes, “Zen is the ontological awareness of pure being beyond subject and object. . .” (Mystics and Zen Masters, 14, emphasis in original). This Daoist ideal inherited by Zen is, for Fr. Merton, consistent with Teilhard de Chardin’s (1881–1955) concept of “convergence,” or the evolutionary progress of man toward a converging with the love of Christ in what he termed the “Omega Point.” Merton compared the Daoist/Zen idea of non-duality to Christian mysticism, insisting that this concept is “not philosophical, not theological,” hoping, it seems, to render the idea innocuous vis-à-vis Christian belief (Mystics and Zen Masters).

No “Us” for “Him” to Save

The deeper implication in Daoist thought is that there can be no such thing as an ultimate anything, and this includes an ultimate good, an ultimate truth, and an ultimate God. Daoist and Zen notions of non-duality have little to do with mysticism as Fr. Merton insists, but rather seek to describe a larger ontological paradigm. For a Daoist and Zen Buddhist, any one thing necessitates the existence of its opposite, and thus an ultimate truth must co-exist with ultimate untruth, and ultimate good must co-exist with ultimate evil. In the end, both Daoism and Zen deny the existence of any dualities, and ultimately anything, in order to deny such necessities. The sixth patriarch of Zen, Huineng (638–713) expressed this concept well in his famous saying:

The Boddhi tree is not like a tree,
The clear mirror is nowhere standing.
Fundamentally not one thing exists:
Where then is a grain of dust to cling? (qtd. in Mystics and Zen Masters, 19)

Huineng is here denying the reality of Buddhism itself: The Bodhi (enlightenment) tree does not exist; the mirror (mind) does not exist; and grains of dust (thought) do not exist. This Zen view denies the “I/Thou” relationship between man and God; that is, Christianity affirms the kind of duality (i.e., distinction of identities) rejected by Daoists and Zen Buddhists. If, as Daoism and Zen Buddhism suggests, there are no distinctions between beings or things, then there would be no need for Christ’s Passion, for there would be no “us” for “him” to save.

Zen or a Savior—Not Both

Merton wrote in his Zen and the Birds of Appetite that the “real way to study Zen is to penetrate the outer shell and taste the inner kernel which cannot be defined. Then one realizes in oneself the reality which is being talked about” (13). He calls his reader to enter deeply into Zen in order to discover a certain reality. In essence, he calls his reader to do what he did, to turn his gaze eastward to Daoism and its Zen descendant. When asked if he felt that “turning away from traditional Christianity toward the East” would cause “an eventual turning back to a different form of Christianity, one that might even be more genuine,” Merton replied, “Yes, I think so” (Thomas Merton: Preview of the Asian Journey, 53-54). Merton viewed Zen as a necessary step in the Church’s march toward Christ, and so he urged Christians to turn to Zen.

Not all of his readers agree with his views.

Pope Benedict XVI has expressed serious concerns regarding the appropriateness of approaches such as Merton’s. In fact he predicted that Buddhism, with its “autoerotic” type of spirituality, would replace Marxism as the principle antagonist of the Catholic faith, for the very non-dualist ideas it espouses deny the Christian belief in a Creator who is separate from His creation. The transcendence that Zen Buddhism offers is one of non-distinction, a state free from, as Benedict notes, the imposition of religious obligations. In the end, to turn to the ideas of Zen is to turn away from any need for a personal savior. We save ourselves in Buddhism, but only Christ saves in Christianity.

May He Rest in Peace

It would be unfair to call Merton an unfaithful Catholic, or to insist that he became a Buddhist before his death. In his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he explained:

I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot “affirm” and “accept,” but first one must say “yes” where one really can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it. (133)

Nevertheless, some of his ideas are dangerous. His later writings (see “Read with Caution,” page 9) are more confusing than helpful, for they conflate and confuse Buddhist and Christian teachings. One example of that confusion is seen in a popular icon sold in many Christian and Buddhist stores that depicts him sitting in the lotus posture in Zen meditation. The night before his death, Merton told John Moffitt that, “Zen and Christianity are the future.” This is precisely what the Holy Father has expressed grave concerns about.

Just before he left for Asia, Merton participated in a “dialogue session” at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, where he opened with the troubling statement: “What I want to do today is to give you some kind of account of the mischief I expect to get into in Asia” (Thomas Merton: Preview of the Asian Journey, 30). He then asserts that there is no danger in conflating Catholicism and Buddhism. Just after making this claim, Merton continues, “And it is perfectly possible to . . . [pause], and I think Catholics should. I think if Catholics had a little more Zen they’d be a lot less ridiculous than they are. . . .” (Thomas Merton: Preview of the Asian Journey, 33). His writings, like this comment, leave a lot to be discerned within the ellipses.


Recommended Merton Readings

These works represent the early era of Merton’s monastic life, and his views are still quite orthodox. These books are beautifully written; they are what made Thomas Merton Thomas Merton.

  • The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948
  • The Tears of the Blind Lions, 1949
  • Waters of Siloe, 1949
  • Seeds of Contemplation, 1949
  • The Ascent to Truth, 1951
  • Bread in the Wilderness, 1953
  • The Sign of Jonas, 1953
  • The Last of the Fathers, 1954
  • No Man is an Island, 1955
  • The Living Bread, 1956
  • The Silent Life, 1957
  • Thoughts in Solitude, 1958

Read with Caution

By 1966 Merton’s writings begin to turn East toward Chinese and Japanese religious traditions. Starting with Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, his books begin to criticize the West and find answers in the East. Following are only a few examples of his more questionable works.

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1966
Here Merton begins the part of his life that is critical of the West. While his criticisms of Western materialism and pragmatism ring loudly, especially in today’s world, one senses here a new interest in Eastern religion—and here is where his works become most problematic.

Mystics and Zen Masters, 1967
This is Merton’s first plunge into Eastern thought and religion. Its strength is its mostly cogent description of Chinese Daoism and Zen Buddhism, but one begins to discern Merton’s attitude shifting toward his later developed notion that Eastern religion is a necessary supplement to Catholicism.

Zen and the Birds of Appetite, 1968
By now Merton is swimming in Zen—this work is a comparative consideration of Buddhism and Christianity. Beautifully expressed, but his overall goal is to erase the lines between two very distinct religious beliefs.

The Way of Chuang Tzu, 1969
This is one of Merton’s most problematic works: It valorizes the relativistic teachings of Zhuangzi, the Zhou dynasty Daoist. Here is Merton’s final interweaving of Eastern and Western thought.

The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, 1973
Here we find his final writings, and they are full of cathartic angst. At the end of this journal one senses that Merton has knowingly wandered from clear Church teaching. While in Bankok, a Dutch abbot asked him to appear in a television interview, for “the good of the Church.” But Merton writes that, “It would be much ‘better for the Church’ if I refrained.”

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