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Thomas Merton on Zen

May 12, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Yesterday, while shelving books at my bookstore I noticed a slender book, Thoughts on the East, by Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who, among other things, helped bring Buddhism to America in the 1960’s.  I had not noticed this book before, which is unusual as I have read most of his books as well as many of the books written about him. 

I have also listened to cassette tapes of his talks about Sufism and Buddhism and psychoanalysis that he gave to his fellow monks.  His actual voice was as unusual as the tone of his books.   He talked very fast as if he was impatient to get out the next thought that he had just grabbed by the tail.  He often couldn’t wait for the end of a sentence and would just trail off with a “and so on and so forth,” so he could begin the next sentence.  This voice has guided me over the years as I have continued my search for myself in different contexts. 

So, this morning, I’d like to share a little of his short chapter on Zen Buddhism, which is the simplest and most eloquent introduction to Zen by an American that I have ever read.  Having said this, I have to remind myself that he wrote this book when Suzuki Roshi had but a handful of disciples who sat with him in a small temple in San Francisco’s Japan Town.  Scholarly books, notably several titles by D.T. Suzuki, had been published but there were very few Zen practitioners in America.  And, as far as I know, Merton himself didn’t sit zazen regularly like many of us do today. 

So how did he come to such a deep understanding of Zen? How could he have written:  Zen insight is not our awareness, but Being’s awareness of itself in us?  How could he have understood that Zen is not some kind of meditation practice, devised to help one move toward enlightenment, but is an experience of enlightenment itself?  The answer lies not in what he read or whom he talked to, but in his own experience of himself in Christian prayer as a monk and hermit. 

He quotes Meister Eckhart, a 14th century Dominican monk, to illustrate a point: The shell must be cracked apart if what is in it is to come out, for if you want the kernel you must break the shell.  And therefore, if you want to discover nature’s nakedness you must destroy its symbols, and the farther you get in the nearer you come to its essence.  When you come to the One that gathers all things up into itself, there you must stay.  Eckhart could say this not because he had studied theology but because he had studied himself. Theology without an “inner empiricism” rarely, if ever, can guide a person into the depths of him or herself.

Merton, or Father Louie as he called himself, understood Zen only insofar as he understood himself.  His understanding was not theoretical or philosophical—it was experiential.  He does offer quotes from Zen masters to make his points, but it is clear that he is talking from firsthand experience of himself.  Without this experience, the paradoxical and non-linear statements of Zen would make no sense.  This experience gives this little essay (17 pp.) an “inner authority” that I have rarely encountered in works of comparative religion. He understood what Dogen said, To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.  

He understood that we don’t have Buddha nature but are Buddha nature.  He concludes his essay with this short mondo:

A monk asks Pai-Chang, “Who is the Buddha?”

Pai Chang answers, “Who are you?”

What better way to start a study of Zen or of oneself?



From → Zen Buddhism

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