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My Old Friend

June 12, 2016

by Stephen Damon

During the past couple of months or so I’ve been spending a lot of time with a dear friend whom I’ve known for over thirty five years. We met when I was in grad school and he helped me find my way as I intensified my studies in Comparative religion. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that he helped me to intensify not only my academic studies but also my spiritual practice, which was just beginning. Over the years in times of crisis and deep spiritual questioning I’ve come to him, not for advice but for support. When I say “support” I mean that when I am with him, a deeper more stable part of myself appears that guides me through any obstacles and difficulties.

Before I go further I should tell you that this “friend” of mine was the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who died when I was fourteen years old. When I was younger, I called him my teacher as he was older and more learned and had a lot more spiritual experience than I had. But through the years as my spiritual practice evolved, I came to see that even his last, most mature books contained reflections mostly on the kinds of things that I have experienced in my own inner search. But, because he was a Christian monk and not a Zen priest, his language was different, which helped me to see things from another point of view than my own. His later books contained less religious words, and less words that had “baggage” of any kind. It was if he was a man who became a Catholic, a monk and a priest, and finally became a man again.

As he matured he became very interested in eastern religion, especially Zen Buddhism. One of my favorite books of his, “Zen and the Birds of Appetite” is a collection of letters between himself and the noted Zen scholar, D.T. Suzuki. In this book and others it is clear that he not only knew himself very well, but also knew Zen as well as if he were a Zen monk. Towards the end of his life, his reflections on the Christian life became very similar to the sayings of Zen Masters. In fact, a couple of years ago when I was asked to teach several classes on comparative religion at a local college I used one of his books to make several connections between Christianity and Buddhism. If you took out a few words such as “God” and “Christ” from his later essays it would be impossible to tell his work apart from Zen. While preparing for that class I realized (again) that in the deepest sense there is only one spiritual tradition that uses to different languages at different times and places.

So Merton, or Father Louie as some of his other friends called him, had the same kind of experiences that I had. Reading his later books I would often say to myself things like “yes,” “of course,” and “that’s true.” Occasionally, he would say things that surprised me, which would motivate me to think further about certain things. I became very familiar with not only his literary voice, but also his actual voice as I had listened to many tapes of the talks he gave to monks. You would think that a monk who was not allowed to speak in his monastery spoke slowly, but Merton spoke very fast, ending many of his sentences with “so on, and so forth.” It was if he was always trying to catch up with the thoughts generated by his brilliant mind. I felt like I knew Father Louie almost as well as I knew my closest friends whom I see all the time.

Besides his essays he also published journals, which revealed other, more personal, parts of himself that were not included in his other books. Reading his journalistic accounts of what it was like to wake up at 2 a.m. in his hermitage in the Kentucky wilderness, I felt that I was with him. And, because I had been involved in many retreats in the woods and mountains, I really knew firsthand what he was talking about. I could feel the chill in the air and hear the sounds of nocturnal birds and animals. In a way, his accounts of life as a hermit and my own memories have interweaved into one narrative of a spiritual life.

This past year, perhaps because I’ve been sick and don’t have much energy, I haven’t made the effort to connect with as many people as I used to. But I decided it was time for me to reconnect with my old friend, Father Louie to see what he had to say, so I started reading his first book, “Seven Storey Mountain,” which he wrote six years after joining the Trappist monastery, Gethsemane. This book is a spiritual autobiography of his first twenty seven years that were spent in France, England, and the United States. Apart from all the details of his young life, the book is a story or perhaps I should say a “revelation” of his growing wish for a new kind of life that was not predetermined by the standards of society. When I first read this book, I was very taken by how difficult it was for him to keep this wish alive until he found a way of life that would be its guardian. More than that, I was very impressed by the vital importance this wish had for Merton, and so I realized that I too would have to be very careful about protecting this wish, which was still a very fragile part of myself. I think that one of the most important parts of my spiritual journey has been to take care of this wish.

When I first read the book I was twenty seven, the same age that Merton was when he wrote it. Like Merton who had just entered a religious life I was learning the discipline of a new spiritual practice. He was living apart from the world in a monastery deep in the Kentucky woods or the four walls of my new freedom, as he called it, and I was learning to maintain a daily practice while living in the world. Our paths were different but our search had many similar features and so I felt very connected to his story. As I recall, I took a long time reading the book, keeping it close to me all the time. I read it on the bus to school, in parks on long afternoons, and on my lap at bedtime. It was the story of a man I had never met, but I felt as if it were in some strange sense, my own story.

I may have reread parts of it a few times, but two months ago I started from the beginning and just finished it this week. Now that I am older and have garnered a lot of experience through years of spiritual practice I read parts of the book very critically, noting how literal and limited his understanding of Christianity was when he was just starting out. I dog-eared many pages and underlined lots of passages with notes and questions in the margins. But what was more striking, was how I felt. On one hand I was remembering what I felt like when I was just starting out on the path that my life would take, and on the other hand I felt as if I were reading something that I had written as a young man. I was very familiar with the books that Merton read (most of them are on bookshelves in my library) while he was considering becoming a Catholic, and many of the thoughts that he had were very similar to mine. Also, I should add that we lived in towns that were next to each other, although during different decades. When I finished the book I felt a little lost.

So, this morning, I took Merton’s “The Wisdom of the Desert,” which is a collection of sayings from the Desert fathers who lived in Palestine, Arabia, and Egypt during the fourth century, outside to the garden. It was an unusually sunny morning as I sat down among all the succulents I had planted this spring and opened the book. I felt relaxed and had a deep sense of well-being. I started reading the introduction. I recognized on page after page experiences that I had in my life. Yes, he was talking about Christian hermits of the fourth century who gave up everything, but he could’ve been talking about a Zen priest with a family and business in the twenty first century. The religious words, titles and ideas were different but the experience was exactly the same. As Merton says, the sayings of the desert fathers are important, not because they contain information or theories about the nature of the divine, but because they flow from an experience of deeper levels of life. Reading accounts of experiences that others have had in their practices has helped me gain a broader understanding of my own practice, and of myself. As I’ve studied the world’s religions it’s always been interesting to find myself in the words written in other places at other times.

I’d like to share some examples from the Desert Fathers. St. Anthony said, “The prayer of the monk is not perfect until he no longer realizes himself or the fact that he is praying.” This is very similar to what Uchiyama Roshi said in “Opening the Hand of Thought:” it is incorrect to say that you are sitting Zazen. You should say that Zazen is sitting zazen. There is only zazen. I would add from my own experience, that eventually there is no zazen. There is only a state of deep peace and compassion. There is no Stephen, no Buddha, no anything. There is just a deep sense of a vastness that is greater than outer space (Zen koan).

Merton goes on to say that in prayer, hermits were able to attain a rest, which he described as a kind of simple nowhereness and no-mindness that had lost all preoccupation with a false or limited self. In another book, Merton says that the most important thing for a person to give up is his or her sense of a separate self. Zen is, above all things, a getting beyond a sense of an individual self by seeing that it is an illusion. “Nowhereness” is a provocative way of talking about the Buddhist idea of emptiness. If there are no distinctions of any kind that give rise to a sense of thingness then reality is empty and there are no things and no “wheres” or “theres.” There is just isness, suchness (Zen terms), or nowhereness.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between the experience of the Desert Fathers and Zen is Christian love. Merton says that if one feels that they are giving charity to another he is missing the point. If a monk says that he loves another he too is way off the mark. Love requires a transformation in which a false sense of self is destroyed. One has to see that one’s neighbor is really oneself. And one has to see this self as being and abandoned and lost in God. This is exactly the meaning of the Buddhist idea of interdependence.

In my own practice, I have, from time to time, felt this burden of an alienated, separate self disappear, leaving only a sense of a vast everythingness. I recall one time when I walked into a supermarket’s produce section. Around me were several middle-aged women looking at various fruits and vegetable. All of a sudden I was drenched with the fact that each body was but a manifestation of Buddha. Perhaps those exact words came after the fact, when I came back to my senses. But they do describe the experience of seeing “others” not as others but as manifestations of one reality that could not be divided in any way.

Most of the sayings of the Fathers are just a few lines. For example, One of the Fathers said: Just as it is impossible for a person to see his face in troubled water, so the soul, unless it is cleansed of alien thoughts, cannot pray to God in contemplation. Similarly, Zen haikus are three lines long. During my Zen training I was often asked to write a four line poem to illustrate my understanding of a hundred page fascicle. Often, a Zen master would answer a student’s long question with just one word or just the movement of his hand. And, sometimes a master would answer direct questions with outlandish remarks as if ordinary language is unable to express the deeper experiences of the spiritual life.

Feeling the inadequacy of ordinary language, Merton made up a word, “nowhereness,” to make a point as precisely as he could. Sometimes, even a made-up word cannot express the subtlety of truth. I recall asking a Tibetan lama a question about the meaning of taking refuge. Instead of answering, he adjusted his robes, closed his eyes and said nothing. Perhaps the best example of the inadequacy of language to express spiritual truth is the sixth koan of the classic collection, Mumonkan: When Buddha was in Grdhrakuta mountain he turned a flower in his fingers and held it before his listeners. Everyone was confused. Only Maha-Kashapa smiled at this revelation.

Buddha said: “I have the eye of the true teaching, the heart of Nirvana, the true aspect of non-form, and the ineffable stride of Dharma. It is not expressed by words, but especially transmitted beyond teaching. This teaching I have given to Maha-Kashapa.”

Maybe my old friend said it best: If one comes close to His dwelling silence makes more sense than a lot of words. Indeed, this morning, under the warm sun with Merton’s words on my lap I felt very close to His dwelling. And so I closed the book and sat quietly, taking in the beauty of the garden, the feeling of warmth on my skin, and my conversation with my dear old friend.

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