Merton suggests another kind of consciousness available to the modern person. He says it “starts not from the thinking and self-aware subject but from Being, ontologically seen to be beyond and prior to the subject-object division. This experience of Being is “totally different from an experience of self-consciousness. . . It has in it none of the split and alienation that occurs when the subject becomes aware of itself as a quasi-object.” The consciousness of Being, says Merton, is “an immediate experience that goes beyond reflexive awareness. It is not ‘consciousness of’ but pure consciousness, in which the subject ‘disappears’.” 1
Man’s loneliness is, in fact, the loneliness of God. That is why it is such a
great thing for a man to discover his solitude and learn to live in it. For
there he finds that he and God are one: that God is alone as he himself is
alone. That God wills to be alone with him. 2
Contemplation cultivates a sublimely different way of experiencing reality, closer to deep truth and unity in difference. Mystical consciousness is re-centering subjectivity from self to God. The self is not its own center and does not orbit around itself. Instead, it is centered on the one center of all which is ‘everywhere and nowhere.” In whom “all are encountered, from whom all proceed. Thus from the very start this consciousness is disposed to encounter ‘the other’ with whom it is already united anyway in God.” 3
The contemplative who is steeped in this experience of “no-self” or “non-dualism” insists it is a real, fundamental concrete intuition directly apprehended and springs from a “totally different kind of self-awareness from that of the Cartesian thinking-self.” 4 Therefore, he does not expect patience or understanding of it from modern “men of action.” 5
While dynamics of Christian revelation come to bear, that is to say, “from above” and “from below,” so that dualistic conceptions of God (Christ, Spirit, self) are unavoidable to some degree; still:
The self-centered awareness of the ego is of course a pragmatic psychological
reality, but once there has been an inner illumination of pure reality, an
awareness of the Divine, the empirical self is seen by comparison to be
“nothing,” that is to say contingent, evanescent, relatively unreal, real only in
relation to its source and end in God, considered not as object but a free onto-
logical source of one’s own existence and subjectivity. 6
This is represented in the difference between pantheism (God in the world) and panentheism (All in God) which comes closer to the Christian mystical tradition. There is the ultimately personal character in Christian metaphysics. This distinctive symbolic quality of the inbreaking Wisdom and Word of God is where Christianity parts with Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and other non theistic philosophies.
The divine presence and radical union with God is shaped by the faith community’s “memory and experience” of God’s “incarnational union with the world in the person of Jesus Christ.” It is an “‘identification,’ 7 a transcendent union of consciousness in which man and God become ‘one in spirit.’” 8
The intuition of the gift of radical love may be in the roots of being, but innocence has been lost and must be recovered, requiring a spiritual discipline that will interrupt our illusory patterns of thinking and cultivate an awareness of our original blood ties with the “hidden ground of Love.” 9
Zen realization and biblical-mystical faith share the disarming experience of “a breakthrough. . .a recovery of unity which is not the suppression of opposites but a simplicity beyond opposites. . .This means a totally different perspective than that which dominates our society—and enables it to dominate us.” [Also, see “The Zen Koan,” in Merton’s Mystics and Zen Masters (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), 235-54. Merton’s best study of the similarities-in-difference between Zen realization and Christian mysticism] 10
The mystical-prophetic sensibilities of these twentieth century contemporaries from different cultures enflesh what otherwise might seem abstract. Mahatma Gandhi, the “Indian mind that was awakening” (Merton’s description), approximately parallels Martin Luther King’s core belief in the “interrelated structure of all reality” rooted in the biblical conviction that a loving presence binds all life “in an inescapable network of mutuality” a “single garment of destiny.” 11 In his moments of darkest despair and doubt, King was reassured forward in his vocation to unity giving himself over to the loving presence of the divine.
The words of Merton portray the sapientially hearted, stridently nonviolent prophet:
The way of wisdom is no dream, no temptation and no evasion, for it is on the
contrary a return to reality in its very root. . .It does not withdraw from the fire.
It is in the very heart of the fire, yet remains cool, because it has the gentleness
and humility that come from self-abandonment, and hence does not seek to
assert the illusion of the exterior self. 12
1. Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968), 23; hereafter, ZBA.
2. Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1985), 190.
3. Ibid, 27.
4. Ibid, 26.
5. Ibid, 24, 29.
6. Ibid, 26.
7. Thomas Merton, Bread in the Wilderness (New York: New Directions, 1953), 122.
8. Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 222; hereafter, FV.
9. See “Wisdom and Emptiness” in ZBA, 99-141 for the Suzuki-Merton dialogue.
10. ZBA, 140.
11. Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 72.
12. FV, 218. Merton reflects on the historical and faith elements of Christian wisdom and refers to King and Gandhi.