Merton and the Opening to the East

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2008 »Volume 45 2008 Number 3 »Merton And The Opening To The East

Thomas P. Rausch, SJ

Thomas P. RAUSCH, SJ, has a PhD in religion from Duke University (1976). He is the T. Marie Chilton Professor of Catholic Theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A specialist in the areas of Christology, ecclesiology, and ecumenism, he has published 15 books and over 200 articles and reviews.


Thomas Merton was one of the great spiritual teachers of his age. In addition to his works on spirituality and the monastic life, this cloistered, contemplative monk wrote about issues of nonviolence, the environment, ecumenism, and interreligious dialogue considerably before they were taken up by his Church. Lawrence Cunningham calls him the greatest spiritual master the American Catholic Church produced in the twentieth century.1 Though he died forty years ago, there is still much we could learn from him.

Among his many interests was a deep appreciation for Zen Buddhism. Even before Vatican II recognized for the first time that non-Christian religions "often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women,"2 Merton was seeking to drink deeply of the wisdom of the East. We will consider some of the steps in his spiritual itinerary that opened him to Eastern thought.

The Young Merton

Merton became an American citizen only in 1950. He was born in France in 1915. His mother was American, of Quaker background; his father from New Zealand, with roots in the Church of England. Raised without any formal religious education, he reports in his famous autobiography that his mother was somewhat "worried" at some early manifestations of his character. When he was about four years old, f.i., he had "a deep and serious urge to adore the gaslight in the kitchen stove."3 Whatever the import of this story, there was in Merton’s soul, along with the tendency to go his own way, a fascination with mystery and the transcendent.

His path to Catholicism was a complex one. In November 1937, while he was an undergraduate at Columbia, he read Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means. It awakened in him an interest in mysticism, both Christian and Eastern, not as "a mixture of dreams and magic and charlatanism," but as a matter of concrete experience.4 Mysticism or the experience of ultimacy would be a lifelong concern of Merton.

Also very influential was Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, which introduced him to an idea of God that for the first time made sense to him, although he tells us that he was tempted also to throw the book out the window of the train on which he was riding when he discovered on its opening page a Catholic Imprimatur. He kept the book with its notion of God as pure act, and from it gained a respect for Catholic philosophy and the Catholic faith.5

The mystical William Blake, the subject of Merton’s master's thesis at Columbia, also pointed him towards the Catholic Church, which Blake described as "the only one that taught the love of God."6 Among the entries in his bibliography for his Blake studies appears the notation, "Suzuki—Zen Buddhism," which would engage him much later in his life.7 But it was especially Bramachari, a Hindu monk he met through his friends in New York, who convinced Merton to read deeply his own Christian tradition. Among the books that Bramachari recommended was James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a book that on Merton’s first reading had depressed him; later, its picture of priests and Catholic life fascinated him.8 He was received into the Catholic Church on 16 November 1938.

If his famous autobiography shows a Catholicism still quite narrow and insular, his vision began to deepen as is evident from his notebooks written after 1956, published in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further.

So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot "affirm" and "accept," but first one must say "yes" where one really can.

If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic; and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.9

Merton’s Opening towards the East

Merton’s interest in the East began very early in his life. While still a 16 year old schoolboy at Oakham, he had defended Gandhi as well as the right of the people of India to govern themselves. He spoke against his head prefect, who was also a football captain. This was not a popular position to take in the England of the 1930s.10 Much later as a monk, in 1955, he began a study of Gandhi, who was to influence his later writings on non-violence.11 He had also begun exploring Eastern mysticism during his time at Columbia as an undergraduate, searching for a spiritual way that he could make his own. He tells us that after reading Huxley he began "ransacking the university library for books on Oriental mysticism."12 He also experimented with various disciplines for meditation that he learned from a French Jesuit’s translations of Eastern texts, although he says all he learned was a practical way to relax when he couldn’t sleep. It was shortly after that, in 1938, that he met Bramachari.


Bramachari, a monk belonging to a new community founded in India by a Hindu guru called Jagad-Bondhu, first came to the United States in 1933 for the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, but he arrived only after it had ended. According to Merton, although Bramachari came without funds, he managed to complete a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago. Some five years later, Merton, then only 23 years old, met Bramachari when they both arrived in New York to visit their mutual friend Seymour Freedgood. Merton describes Bramachari as a shy little man with a big smile, wearing a yellow turban, a white robe, and tennis shoes. The two of them became friends. "He sensed that I was trying to feel my way into a settled religious conviction, and into some kind of life that was centered, as his was, on God."13 Merton found him kind, non-judgmental, a genuinely holy man. Though Bramachari was not prone to giving advice, at one point, sensing Merton’s enthusiasm for the mysticism of the East, Bramachari said, "There are many beautiful mystical books written by the Christians. You should read St. Augustine’s Confessions, and The Imitation of Christ."14 Although Merton had turned spontaneously to the East, it was this Hindu monk that helped him channel his considerable intellectual energy towards the Christian tradition. He followed Bramachari’s suggestion, adding theImitation to his books, and from there, "I was eventually to be driven out by an almost physical push, to go and look for a priest."15

Merton and Zen

Despite his long friendship with Bramachari, what fascinated Merton most about the East was not Hinduism but Buddhism, particularly, Zen. As Cunningham suggests, "the Zen emphasis on spareness, simplicity, indirection, and purity would provide a natural gravitational pull to anyone attracted to the Cistercian aesthetic which, in its historical beginnings, stressed the same values as a protest against the phantasmagorical excesses of the Romanesque in general and Cluniac monasticism in particular."16 Also attractive was its contemplative worldview and bias "towards that imageless strain of contemplation which has strong affinities with the apophatic tradition of the west."17 As his knowledge of Zen grew, Merton continued to struggle against the tendency of too many Christians who were content out of ignorance to describe Buddhism as "life-denying," "selfish navel-gazing," and "Nirvana as a sort of drugged trance."18

Unlike some scholars who study religions comparatively, Merton’s approach to Zen was never reductionistic. Although his own apophatic approach to contemplation led him to see commonalities in the words "emptiness" and "ground," he did not want to baptize Zen. He criticized the tendency to take Western metaphysical concepts as equivalent to Buddhist terms, to confuse metaphysical speculation with concrete spiritual experience. His two great teachers were D. T. Suzuki and John C. H. Wu—the former a Japanese scholar, the latter a Chinese convert to Catholicism.

D. T. Suzuki

As we have seen, Merton first came across the name of Suzuki when he was preparing his thesis on William Blake in 1938. In 1956, Merton began reading Suzuki, perhaps the best known Japanese Zen Buddhist scholar in the U.S. at the time. They began corresponding in 1959 and became friends. In 1960 Merton invited the Zen scholar to write the introduction for his book, The Wisdom of the Desert, but the Cistercian Abbot General intervened, preventing it as "inappropriate."19

Suzuki and Merton met for the first time in 1964 when Merton’s abbot, Dom James, allowed him to travel to New York, his first trip outside the monastery on his own. In an essay entitled "Learning to Live," published posthumously in 1969, he describes his meeting at the Columbia campus with the ninety-four year old scholar. Suzuki wore a hearing aid that seemed completely ineffective; his secretary had to repeat everything. They shared the tea ceremony—Merton, "as reverently and attentively" as he was able; Suzuki, somewhat impatiently picking up his cup and draining it.20

In an essay on Suzuki and his work, Merton described Suzuki as the "Superior Man" of the ancient Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist traditions, or as the "True Man of No Title" that Chuang Tzu and the Zen Masters speak of. He wrote:

In Dr. Suzuki, Buddhism finally became for me completely comprehensible, whereas before it had been a very mysterious and confusing jumble of words, images, doctrines, legends, rituals, buildings, and so forth. It seemed to me that the great and baffling cultural luxuriance which has clothed the various forms of Buddhism in different parts of Asia is the beautiful garment thrown over something quite simple.21

Suzuki became for Merton the living embodiment of Buddhist teaching, enabling him to appreciate it not as a doctrine or a system, but as a self-evident value. But he was also a teacher, particularly effective because he was able to transpose Zen into terms familiar to the Western mystical traditions. He could take traditional Western symbols such as the Fall, and like the Fathers of the Church, mine their meaning without literalizing them.22

John Wu

Merton describes Dr. John Wu as an eminent jurist and diplomat, a Chinese convert to Catholicism, a scholar, but also a man of genuine simplicity and spiritual freedom who could write of Buddhism from within. His obvious appreciation of Wu’s ability to drink from many streams is evident in his comment that Wu was "not afraid to admit that he brought Zen, Taoism, and Confucianism with him into Christianity."23 Merton’s essay, "A Christian Looks at Zen,"24 was originally published in 1967 as a preface to Wu’s The Golden Age of Zen.

Their friendship was sparked by Merton’s interest in Chuang Tzu, a Chinese philosopher he had encountered while working on his thesis on Blake. He wrote Wu in 1961, asking for help with his Asian studies. As Mott says, from this modest beginning, "their correspondence developed into one of the warmest friendships by letter, as well as one of the most beneficial."25 Merton even attempted to learn Chinese, but had to give it up because of other commitments. With Wu’s help he published The Way of Chuang Tzu, his "imitation" or free, interpretative reading of Chuang Tzu’s Taoist poems. He said he enjoyed writing this book more than any other and listed it as among his best.26 Although Merton had a great appreciation for Chuang Tzu’s work in itself, he also recognized its significance in the development and transmission of the Buddhist tradition. As he wrote, Chuang Tzu’s thought and the culture it represented "was what transformed highly speculative Indian Buddhism into the humorous, iconoclastic, and totally practical kind of Buddhism that was to flourish in China and in Japan in the various schools of Zen."27

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh was a Vietnamese monk who became well known in the 1960s for his struggle for reconciliation between North and South Vietnam. Hanh had studied at Princeton in 1960. In 1966 he accepted an invitation from the Fellowship for Reconciliation to come to the United States and in May visited Merton at Gethsemani, spending two days. The visit was a great success. He gave a talk to the monks about monastic life and it drew much appreciative laughter. In his talks with Merton, the two monks discovered how much they shared beyond their common interest in the monastic life: "They had both been in monasteries for many years; they were both poets; each had written a poem to a brother killed in war."28 When Merton asked the Vietnamese monk what the war was doing to his country, Hanh replied simply, "Everything is destroyed." Afterwards Merton published an essay entitled "Nhat Hanh Is My Brother."29

This was not to be the only meeting between Eastern and Western monastics at Gethsemani, and Merton looked forward to more. In his notes for a talk that was to be given at Calcutta in the course of his final journey, Merton wrote:

There is a real possibility of contact on a deep level between this contemplative and monastic tradition in the West and the various contemplative traditions in the East—including the Islamic Sufis, the mystical lay-contemplative societies in Indonesia, etc., as well as the better-known monastic groups in Hinduism and Buddhism.30

Though he was not there to see it, the First Gethsemani Encounter took place in July 1996, bringing Christian and Buddhist monastics together for a dialogue on the spiritual life. Among the participants was the Dalai Lama, whom Merton had met shortly before his death. A Second Gethsemani Encounter in April 2002 featured 22 talks from Buddhist and Catholic speakers, most of them monastics. In addition to the ordinary monastic hours, the participants shared in a number of Buddhist rituals.

The Final Journey

Early in 1968 Merton received an invitation from an international Benedictine group to take part in a conference for Asian Benedictine and Cistercian monastics in Bangkok the following December. He was to give the principal address. His new abbot, Dom Flavian Burns, gave him permission to go. In September, in a letter circulated to his friends, he expressed the hope that his trip to Asia would "also enable me to get in contact with Buddhist monasticism and see something of it firsthand."31 He was coming to Asia, not as a research scholar or writer, but "as a pilgrim who is anxious to obtain not just information, not just ‘facts’ about other monastic traditions, but to drink from ancient sources of monastic vision and experience."32 To this end he made arrangements to meet with a number of Buddhist monks known as spiritual masters.

Merton was aware of the rumors that his journey to Asia meant that he was leaving Gethsemani for good, and perhaps Christianity as well; indeed, some of the things he said may have contributed to that impression. Nevertheless, these rumors were without substance. His Asian Journal indicates that he took advantage of every opportunity to say Mass during his journey. In the "Introduction," his secretary, Brother Patrick Hart, said that Merton had written a month before his death: "Give my regards to all the gang and I hope there are not too many crazy rumors. Keep telling everyone that I am a monk of Gethsemani and intend to remain one all my days." At the end of November he wrote in his journal:

Though the Jesuits at St. Joseph’s have repeatedly dropped hints about the need for contemplative Catholic foundations in India, I do not get any impression of being called to come here and settle down.… I do not think I ought to separate myself completely from Gethsemani, even while maintaining an official residence there, legally only. I suppose I ought to end my days there. I do in many ways miss it. There is no problem of my wanting simply to "leave Gethsemani." It is my monastery and being away has helped me see it in perspective and love it more.33

With permission to travel, Merton made the most of it. Leaving Gethsemani on September 10, he spent several days in New Mexico, gave a conference to some Poor Clare nuns in Chicago, and then traveled to Alaska for another retreat. He flew to San Francisco and then went down to Santa Barbara, where he spoke at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. He visited Our Lady of the Redwoods, a Trappistine community on the Pacific coast, finally departing from San Francisco for Bangkok on October 15.

In Asia he spoke at a conference in Calcutta; from there he was invited to Dharamsala for a meeting with the Dalai Lama. He was accompanied by Harold Talbott, an American student of Buddhism. During five days (November 4-8) Merton and the Dalai Lama met three times and seemed to understand each other. They discussed Merton’s interest in Tibetan mysticism, including some distorted Western views on the subject which disturbed the Dalai Lama, as well as epistemology and samādhi, with the Dalai Lama demonstrating for Merton the sitting position essential for meditation. During their third meeting he queried Merton about the Western monastic life. Merton concluded, "It was a warm and cordial discussion and at the end I felt we had become very good friends and were somehow quite close to one another."34 From there, with Talbott and some others, he visited Chatral Rimpoche, who called Merton a rangjung Sangay, a natural Buddha.35 From Darjeeling he traveled again to Calcutta, his third visit. Towards the end of November he visited Madras, and then flew to Colombo, the capital of Ceylon or Sri Lanka, as it has been known since 1972, visiting several cave-dwelling monks in Kandy.

On December 2 he visited the ancient medieval capital of Sri Lanka called Polonnaruwa, famous for its colossal figures of the Buddha carved out of stone, one of them the famous "Sleeping Buddha," reclining on its side. While approaching the Buddha barefoot, his feet in the wet sand and grass, Merton had an experience that moved him deeply:

Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tired vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. … The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no "mystery." All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya … everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity, running together in one aesthetic illumination.36

This was clearly the high point of his journey. After a brief trip to Singapore, he returned to Bangkok on December 6. His last journal entry was on December 8. The Conference that occasioned his trip was at a Red Cross Conference Center twenty miles from the city. He delivered his paper, "Marxism and Monastic Perspectives," on the morning of December 10; it did not seem to be very well received.37 He left the stage at the end, putting off the question period with, "So I will disappear from view and we can all have a Coke or something. Thank you very much."38

At about 3:00 p.m. someone heard a cry and what sounded like a fall from his cottage guest room. They found Merton on the floor, just out the shower, an electric fan, still running, across his chest. Rembert Weakland, then Abbot General of the Benedictines, was among those who found his body. Merton had been electrocuted by the defective wiring in the fan. He died twenty-seven years to the day he entered the order. He was 53 years old.


Merton’s approach to Zen and Buddhism in general was never reductive; he did not try to find artificial convergences between Zen and Christianity. In some notes for a presentation on the "Monastic Experience and East-West Dialogue," he argued that "there can be no question of a facile syncretism, a mishmash of semireligious verbiage and pieties, and a devotionalism that admits everything and therefore takes nothing with full seriousness."39 He wanted to approach Zen in its integrity. In his article, "A Christian Looks at Zen," one of his best works on the subject, he wrote that Zen is not a philosophy of life, a doctrine, worldview, system of thought, a theology of revelation or salvation (he admits that Pure Land Buddhism is an exception). It is not a way of ascetic practice or a mysticism as it is understood in the West. Nor does it fit into any of our categories. Zen seeks not to understand or believe in the Buddha’s enlightenment, but to share in that experience. Rejecting systematic elaborations, it wants to get back to the unexplained ground of direct experience, the direct experience of life itself. It focuses, not on explanation like Christianity, but on experience.40

Yet Merton reminds his readers that although Christianity begins with a revelation, what is at the heart of Catholicism (or Christianity), "is a living experience of unity in Christ which far transcends all conceptual formulations (John 1:2-3)."41 He mentions that both Christians and Buddhists can practice Zen, but admits that the question of practice becomes more complex on a theological level.42 Zen is not about a doctrine, even a doctrine of enlightenment, but about "awakening a deep ontological awareness, a wisdom-intuition (prajna) in the ground of the being of the one awakened."43 While he stresses repeatedly the importance of experience in Christianity, Zen is more contemplative; it is designed to frustrate the practical Western reason, just as the Cross should transform the Christian understanding of the meaning of life.44

In many ways Merton could be considered a precursor of comparative theologians like Francis Clooney and James Fredericks, who enter sympathetically into other religious traditions, both to learn from them and to better understand their own. In an age when many speak easily about a "clash of civilizations," interreligious dialogue and understanding become ever more important. If Merton was a precursor of others doing comparative theology in the Christian tradition, it might not be amiss to ask, where are the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish Mertons? Suzuki certainly was one.

Vatican II took virtually unprecedented steps towards opening Catholicism to the great religions of the world.45 And although John Paul II did not go so far as to assert that these religions were salvific in their own right, he was willing to acknowledge the Spirit’s presence and activity, not just in non-Christian individuals, but also in their cultures and religions.46 However in recent years Rome has moved in a more conservative direction. From some perspectives it seems obsessively concerned with the doctrine of salvation, rather than the experience of God’s graciousness, however it might be identified.

In its 2000 declaration, Dominus Iesus, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) stressed that Christian revelation was complete and not complemented by other religions (§6), that Christ has an absolute and universal significance (§15), that objectively speaking, members of other religions "are in a gravely deficient situation" in comparison with those in the Church, and that the Church must announce the necessity of conversion to Christ (§22).47 Behind this document lie tensions between Rome and the Asian churches, not so much about Christian faith, but about how to best proclaim the Gospel in an Asian context. Since then the CDF issued a "notification" on Jacques Dupuis’ work, Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism.48 Dupuis, a Belgian Jesuit, had spent thirty-six years in India. More recently (2007) the CDF has initiated an investigation of Georgetown’s Peter Phan because of his book, Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interreligious Dialogue.49

Thomas Merton remained deeply rooted in his own faith, yet he was always able to learn from others. From an original concern to unite within himself the wisdom of the different Christian traditions as a step towards greater unity, his interests broadened to embrace the great religions of the world. He sought out Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist scholars and entered into a dialogue of friendship with them through letters, practicing what Fredericks calls the new theological virtue of interreligious friendship.50 He saw monasticism, with its emphasis on experience and inner transformation rather than doctrine as a natural meeting place between East and West. Zen Buddhism was a particular interest. He was always the student, eager to learn whatever he could and from whomever would teach him.


1. Lawrence S. Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master (New York: Paulist, 1992), 15. He identifies Dorothy Day as the only one who might contest Merton for the honor.

2. Nostra aetate, §2. See Austin Flannery, Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations (Northport, NY: Costello, 1996), 571.

3. Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 5; first published in 1948. Hereinafter, SSM.

4. Ibid., 185.

5. Ibid., 171-175.

6. Ibid., 87.

7. Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984), 117.

8. SSM, 211-212.

9. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 144; first published in 1968.

10. William H. Shannon, Silent Lamp: The Thomas Merton Story (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 59.

11. Thomas Merton, ed., Gandhi on Non-Violence (New York: New Directions, 1965).

12. SSM, 187.

13. Ibid., 195.

14. Ibid., 198.

15. Ibid., 201. According to Cunningham, Merton stayed in irregular contact with Bramachari until 1965.

16. Cunningham, 45.

17. Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York; New Directions, 1968), 15; see also "Appendix: Is Buddhism Life-Denying?" 93-95. In a 20 March 1997 L’Express interview, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke of the "narcissism" (l’autoérotisme) of Buddhism or some Western appropriations of Buddhist spiritual practice. Buddhists around the world were greatly offended.

18. Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), 16.

19. Mott, 346.

20. Cunningham, 367.

21. Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, 61.

22. Ibid., 63-65.

23. Ibid., 33.

24. Ibid., 33-58.

25. Mott, 382.

26. Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New York; New Directions, 1965), 9-10. For Merton’s self-evaluation of his books, see James Forest, Thomas Merton: A Pictorial Biography (New York: Paulist, 1980), 65.

27. Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu, 16.

28. Mott, 455.

29. See "Nhat Hanh Is My Brother," in Thomas Merton, The Nonviolent Alternative (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980), 263-264.

30. Naomi Burton, Patrick Hart, and James Laughlin, eds., The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1973), 233-235.

31. Ibid., 295.

32. Ibid., 312-13.

33. Ibid., xxviii.

34. Ibid., 100-125. On p. 125, "When the Dalai Lama took part in the monastic conference at Gethsemani in 1996 he draped a Tibetan prayer-shawl around the cross over Merton’s grave."

35. Mott, 552.

36. Burton et al., 233-35.

37. Judging from the faces in Paul Wilkes’s film, "Merton: A Film Biography of Thomas Merton."

38. Mott, 564.

39. Burton et al., 316.

40. Merton, "A Christian Looks at Zen," in Zen and the Birds of Appetite, 35-38.

41. Ibid., 39.

42. Ibid., 44.

43. Ibid., 48.

44. Ibid., 51.

45. See Lumen gentium, §16; Nostra aetate, §2-3.

46. Redemptoris missio (1990), §28; see James L. Fredericks, "The Catholic Church and The Other Religious Paths: Rejecting Nothing That Is True and Holy," Theological Studies 64 (2003): 233-238.

47. CDF, "Dominus Iesus," Origins 30 (2000) 14: 209-219.

48. Jacques Dupuis, Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997).

49. Peter Phan, Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interreligious Dialogue (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004).

50. James L. Fredericks, "Interreligious Friendship: A New Theological Virtue," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 35 (Spring 1998) 2: 159-174.