Thomas Merton 100: Merton & Buddhism (Part 1)

January 17, 2015 | Writings

Thomas Merton’s one hundredth birthday is January 31, 2015. I will focus on one of several gifts he bestowed upon us—his relationship to Buddhism. Merton traversed religious differences with openness and modesty. He welcomed inquiry. He pioneered approaches to transcend intolerance. Merton innovated ways to access the great eastern traditions.

In The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, four fundamentals of religious dialogue are outlined in a talk he was to give in Calcutta. They are: 1) Interfaith dialogue is earmarked for persons who “have been seriously disciplined by years of silence and by a long habit of meditation”; 2) “there can be no question of a facile syncretism”; 3) “there must be a scrupulous respect for important differences”; 4) whatever is crucial “is to be sought in the area of true self-transcendence and enlightenment.” (Naomi Burton et al (eds.), The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1968/1975) p. 316. Hereafter, AJ).   

Merton explored some eastern spirituality in the 1930s and 1940s. However, it was correspondence with D.T. Suzuki starting in the 1950’s, that really sparked Merton’s interest in the Zen tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. Merton’s letter writing with Dr. John Wu, Marco Pallis, and Reverend Dumoulin the Jesuit, rounded out his broader view of Buddhism.

Merton’s Asian expedition in 1968 had a far-reaching affect on him. His encounters with rimpoches, the Dali Lama, and the eastern monastic tradition radically deepened his appreciation and understanding of Buddhism. Merton journaled notes of these meetings in the Fall of 1968 saying, “the most significant thing of all [was] the way we were able to communicate with one another and share an essentially spiritual experience of ‘Buddhism’ which is also somehow in harmony with Christianity.” (AJ p. 148) For Merton, the embodiment of the individual rimpoches transmitted what he wanted to grasp from Asian Buddhism.

Merton’s practice of self-emptying or kenosis prepared him for the Lamas he met. He experienced an immediate reciprocal recognition in their heart to heart talks. This affinity was largely a shared pure perception cultivated by their respective disciplines. Merton’s visit to Polonnaruwa’s great carved Buddhas culminated his pilgrimage. It was an “aesthetic illumination” for Merton which “pierced through the surface and got beyond the shadow and disguise.” (AJ pp. 235-236)

Throughout his adult life, Merton was in contact with Zen practitioners and Buddhist scholars. Merton clearly delineated intellectual details of religious tradition from more exhaustive elements of practice. For Merton, practice and existential commitment predominate.