Thomas Merton’s “I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can”: All roads, including to Rome, lead Home

I was speaking to a Christian who does Yoga – I’ll call the person C.Y. He says he only does the physical part, the Hatha part. Hatha Yoga is purification of the body, and so its focus is on exercises and breathing, which are intended as the preparatory stage for meditation. “Hatha Yoga brings about the Unity of the mind, body and spirit. Through this practice, the body is toned, strengthened and healed so that a transformation in consciousness can occur.”

C.Y. said that he doesn’t go into the spiritual side of Yoga – that side is reserved for Jesus. Having practised Hatha Yoga and meditation myself as a young man, I remarked: “When you do the breathing exercises, you feel very relaxed and at peace.” “Yes, he said beaming, and I find that this peace is a great opportunity to witness to my non-Christian Yoga friends. I tell them that the peace they feel, they can have it more deeply if they knew Jesus.”

The fact is that the Yoga breathing exercises are not merely physical. C.Y. proved it with his claim to find through these breathing exercises the door to inner peace. I can see why C.Y. fell for this deception. After all, didn’t the Lord Jesus say much about peace. I don’t, however, believe that Yoga peace and Christian peace are compatible, because the peace found through Yoga creates the conviction that the answer to life’s problems is all about finding peace, which is not the Christian message at all. The Christian Gospel is about sin, repentance and Jesus Christ as a substitutionary sacrifice who pays the penalty for the believer’s sin. Christianity is about becoming a child of God, a God who is distinct from His creatures. Christianity does not teach that “we share a common Self, and that inner peace and Love are in fact all that are real…” (Gerald Jampolsky). From personal experience, I know that when you do Hatha Yoga (you don’t have to go into any deeper kind of Yoga), you have the experience of sharing a common Self (with a capital S) – a deceptive form of “The Kingdom of heaven is within you.” But then, many Yoga practitioners will tell you a similar story. And this search for inner peace is the force that drives so many, including many Jews,among them many young Israelis who “leave the army and go to India looking for wisdom, so that they can make sense of the spiritual world.”

Where there is peace, there is love; and love and peace are believed by many to be the goal. One cannot, the gurus say, achieve peace nd love without a transformation of conscioussness.  This transformation of consciousness is the foundation of Eastern thought systems such as Buddhism and Yoga, which has become a key ingredient in Western psychotherapy. “Hatha Yoga brings about the Unity of the mind, body and spirit. Through this practice, the body is toned, strengthened and healed so that a transformation in consciousness can occur.” The ultimate aim of this transformation of consciousness is, in the Jewish psychiatrist’s words, is a “search for a better way of going through life that is producing a new awareness and a change of consciousness. It is like a spiritual flood that is about to cleanse the earth. This transformation of consciousness is prompting us to look inward, and as we explore our inner spaces, we recognize the harmony and at-one-ment that has ALWAYS (Jampolsky’s emphasis) been there. As we look inward we also become aware of an inner intuitive voice which provides a reliable source of guidance…listen to the inner voice and surrender to it…In this silence…we can experience the joy of peace in our lives” (p. 11. my underlining).

I now elaborate on the mystical strivings of Eastern thought and it’s influence on Christianity with  specific reference to the “Catholic Buddhist,” Thomas Merton, who has had a massive influence on “universalist” thought in Catholicism. By “universalist” I mean “all paths, including Rome, lead Home.” In the 1940-60s,  many Catholics joined monastic orders under Merton’s influence.

In the previous post, I examined the Catholic Carlo Carretto’s mystical musings on universal love. In what he calls his “mystical” communion with God, Carretto says, “love and all becomes logical, easy and true.” (Carlo Carretto, “I sought and I found, 1985, Orbis Books, 1985, p. 64). Carretto describes his visit to the “the temple of Kamakura, some hundred kilometres from Tokyo. It was a marvellous morning. And for the Japanese it was the day the birth of life was celebrated. Prospective bridegrooms were escorting their brides-to-be before the great Buddha…I was enchanted by all this beauty, and by such throngs of people at prayer…such vitality, such hope. Look how many ‘are finding’…How many have found! See how they love one another! See how they hope! Don’t be afraid! God is the living one!”

Religions share many common features such as faith, hope and love, and many other features. For example, certain parts of the Bhagavad Gita, a core Hindu text, resonate well with other religions, as well as with all philosophies, even materialist ones. Here is a verse from the Gita:  “One cannot remain without engaging in activity at any time, even for a moment; certainly all living entities are helplessly compelled to action by the qualities endowed by the material nature.” (Chapter 3, verse 5).

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that living creatures can’t help it: they always have to be doing something. But, the Gita is saying more than this. It is this frenzied compulsion to action that is the cause of much human misery. All religions agree on this. The first chapter of the King Solomon’s book “Ecclesiastes”  (1:1-3) begins:

The words of Koheleth son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, said Koheleth; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit has man in all his toil that he toils under the sun?”

(Koheleth is Hebrew for “gatherer”, “assembler”. Koheleth is the Hebrew name of the book of Ecclesiastes).

There are other verses in the Gita that resonate with the Bible.

From the Gita: “But if a man will meditate on Me and Me alone, and will worship Me always and everywhere, I will take upon Myself the fulfilment of his aspiration, and I will safeguard whatsoever he shall attain. (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 17).

From the Bible:  “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me….. If you keep My commandments, you shall abide in My love, even as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. I have spoken these things to you so that My joy might remain in you and your joy might be full” (John 15:4-11).

The Gita says: “I am the source of all; from Me everything flows,” and  “Of all the creative Powers I am the Creator…” (Ch. 10, The Divine Manifestations). The Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospel say similar things to the Gita. There is, however, much chalk in the Gita that clashes with the cheese of the Bible. One overarching  difference is the nature of the divine being. Here is just one verse that shows the difference:

Know that among horses I am Pegasus, the heaven-born; among the lordly elephants I am the White one, and I am the Ruler among men.” (Ch. 10 “Divine Manifestations”). Who is this “I am”, this individual consciousness? It is my Self, THE Self, Ultimate Consciousness. The “divine manifestations” pervade everything.

When I was a devout Catholic, I read the great Catholic mystics such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. I was still wet behind the mystical ears, and had no idea that you could be a good Catholic and a good Buddhist at the same time. According to Thomas Merton, Buddhism and Catholicism are two sides of the same same Koinona (communion); they participate, according to Merton, in the same communion of divine fellowship where each is a different door to God, human solidarity and brotherhood. Yet, Christ said: “Truly, truly (that is, I am telling you the absolute truth), I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” ” If Merton’s – and Carretto’s – universalism is right, then surely this must mean that Christ is wrong.

Merton’s classic work is his autobiography “The Seven Storey Mountain” (1948). The title of the book refers to the mountain of Purgatory in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. When young, Merton was exposed to nominal protestant Christianity.  Like many others, he found little satisfaction in academic study and political commitment. In 1938, at the age of 23, he had a dramatic conversion experience, and found his ultimate truth in Roman Catholicism.

Merton’s struggles of the flesh and his eventual conversion, related in “The Seven Storey Mountain,” have been compared to the “Confessions” of St Augustine. Whereas Augustine kept on stressing how depraved he was, he doesn’t provide any salacious detail. Merton, in contrast, did go into some detail. His superiors of the monastery would not permit publication of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” (1947) until he had lopped off the bawdy bits.

I had converted to Catholicism at the age of 19, in 1960, in my second year at the University of Cape Town. Contrary to Merton, I found great satisfaction in academic study. It was the brilliance of Thomas Aquinas, the lucidity of French Catholic writers like Etienne Gilson and Gabriel Marcel, and the apologetic aplomb of Bishop Fulton Sheen that compelled me to bow the intellectual knee and acquiesce to Rome.

Soon after publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, the book had a great influence on vocations to the priesthood and to the monastic life. Many of those entering the religious life arrived with a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain tucked in their suitcase. Together with their Bibles? Albert Nolan, the well-known South African Dominican priest, was greatly influenced by Thomas Merton to enter the religious life. Albert entered the Stellenbosch priory in the early 1960s. I encountered his gaunt radiance often when I stayed at the priory.

When I read Merton’s story in the early 1960s I also got caught up in the majestic sweep of the book’s all-encompassing spirituality. I went on frequent visits to the Dominican priory in Stellenbosch, and spent weekends and even part of the university holidays living the life of an honorary monk.

Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani  as a trappist  monk in 1941. Over the next 20 years he wrote on a wide range of topics from contemplative prayer to economic injustice. He was one of the first Catholics to not only commend Eastern mysticism but to absorb Eastern philosophy and practices into Catholicism. What made Merton so attractive was his universalism. He embodied the glorious quest for unity and compassion among men.  If he were alive today, he would have been, as was Mother Teresa, a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. And like Mother Teresa, won it.

Some of the things that Merton said make it very difficult to understand how he can reconcile his Catholicism with Buddhism. Merton wants to be both a Buddhist and a Catholic. He says: “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity. The future of Zen is in the West. I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.” “And not only now and zen”, as Issy, my father, would have said – if the penchant had arisen to become a Buddhist; a Jewish Buddhist; “Jubu.”

Was Merton, a Catholic Buddhist or a Buddhist Catholic? Without doubt, he wanted to be both a good Catholic and a good Buddhist. But what mattered most to Merton was to become a saint . “Saint” and “holy” connote the same idea. “Saint” comes from the French “saint” through Latin sanctus;  “holy” comes from the Germanic halig, heilig.  Merton wanted to become a saint more than anything. The problem, he recognized, was that if you try to become a saint, the trying itself disqualifies you. If I want to be a saint,  I musn’t try to be one. If I see myself becoming holy, I must hide it; not only from the world, but from myself. It is hard to square the idea of “not trying” with the Catholic and Buddhist notion of works of purification; of climbing the ladder of perfection, of purification – in short, the ladder of sainthood. Not is there only the unbiblical problem of works as a condition of salvation, but there is also the hard job of trying to keep the works for God’s eyes only.

The Biblical view is that if you thirst for holiness, it is because God gave you that thirst. The natural man hates God and, therefore, is totally unable to love the things of God. Man’s nature is to love himself and to hate God. Is there anything that the natural man hates more than God, and will fill him with fury? I think there is: he hates more than anything to be told that he hates God. It’s not only natural man that hates to be told that he is dead – totally dead – to the things of God. Many Christians also block their ears and fume at the “blasphemous” idea that in Christian salvation, there are no ladders to climb or even little fingers to wiggle.  All flee from God; unless He calls:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him, down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,

I am He Whom thou seekest !

(“The Hound of heaven” – Francis Thompson)

Christ gives the believer a new nature, a holy nature. There are two parts to becoming holy (sanctification). I have mentioned the first part. The second is that we grow in holiness. That is what the Bible means by “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). This does not mean that we must now try to finish the job that God “merely” kick-started. Much effort and suffering is often involved: “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. Don’t, however, forget to read the next the word in the sentence “for” , and see what it is there for: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” It is God who works in his children, through his children. In the Bible, I don’t see any striving, any travailing, any climbing of ladders of perfection, any ascetic purifications in pursuit of God. But then I’m a sola scriptura (ok, solo scriptura if you’re a Catholic and also like jokes) man.

2 thoughts on “Thomas Merton’s “I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can”: All roads, including to Rome, lead Home

  1. I think I am reaching an understanding or better an intuition of where Catholicism is going after World War II. Merton and Madre Theresa are in line with this fascinating evolution. Too complex for me to explain here. But it is very interesting indeed.
    By the way it is also the active part of Catholicism (Merton was fascinated by the meditative part) that has shaped our western civilization in being not lenient in accepting the world as it is. Meanwhile India’s spirituality (with other eastern countries) in its personal pursuit of a meditative nullification of suffering often forgot and forgets to act against evil.

    I am not sure that it is the Self that Buddhism or any other eastern spiritual movement is reaching. For fear of suffering, the ultimate goal is Nirvana or the nullification in nothingness (they try very hard not to call it NO-THINGNESS); but ‘to extinguish’ karma without a solution toward anything else is ‘ nothingness,’ and Buddha didn’t want to give any more explanation of the idea of NIRVANA) . The cost they pay to reach this state is for me too high to even consider becoming even partially Buddhist or Zen oriented. Suffering is much less scary after all. It is, at least as we know it, human to suffer even if it is done to us in a very inhumane way. If our personal Paradise is chosen I prefer my type, the resurrection of the body in the Father’s Kingdom. In contrast, what is ultimately Nirvana?

    I agree with you. Catholicism/ Christianity is very different from Eastern spirituality. And believe me, Saints or Popes and everybody who is inside the system knows it well. They also remember quite well that “ I am the true light” stands yesterday today and much more tomorrow. Why then the confusion? Right question. I have my possible answer. And Yours?

  2. Pingback: “I am the light” and matters of “immanent” importance in Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity « OneDaringJew

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