Four years before Merton’s untimely death, in a letter he wrote:
“I have no hesitation in saying that the “Buddhist” view of reality and life
is one which I find extremely practical and acceptable, and, indeed, I think
it is one of the very great contributions to the universal spiritual heritage
of man. It is by no means foreign or hostile to the spirit of Christianity,
provided that the Christian outlook does not become bogged down in a
slough of pseudo-objective formalities, as I am afraid it sometimes tends
to do.” William Shannon (ed.), Thomas Merton Witness to Freedom (New
York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994) pp. 167-168.
In his last talk on the day he died, Merton intimated a certain wariness of traditional religious structures. “The time for relying on structures has disappeared,” he said. (AJ 338) In that same talk, he repeated the words of a Tibetan abbot of a disbanded monastery, saying, “from now on, Brother, everybody stands on his own two feet.” (AJ 338)
Many have speculated about what Merton might have done had he lived longer. One thing seems evident. While taken up with his experiences among Buddhists, Merton was clearly heartened by his faith in Christ and the Divine Indwelling. In another letter he writes, “in my contacts with these new friends I also feel consolation in my faith in Christ and His indwelling presence. I hope and believe He may be present in the hearts of all of us.” (AJ 325)
Merton found Zen very helpful to express interior life and spiritual development. Zen’s direct experience gives access to ultimate meaning in concrete ways and its lexicon conveys these insights within tangible everyday living. This had great appeal for Merton. Unmediated Zen experience and its language communicate a fondness for ordinary life. For Merton, this revitalized the spiritual life in a way that doctrine and systematic theology couldn’t.
Thomas Merton applied what he learned from Buddhists. He found Buddhism psychologically penetrating and instructive in spiritual development. Merton incorporated Zen methods such as sitting meditation in his practice. He welcomed Zen techniques and intuitions which rearrange perspectives with acute freshness.
Zen’s purity and simplicity was especially attractive to Merton. These attributes countered Western materialism, reliance on technology, and acquisitive mentality. Merton was more and more engaged in the natural world, especially in his later years at his hermitage where he was captivated by the woods, the birds, and animals. Zen instilled a contemplative attitude toward the natural world Merton deeply valued.