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Thread: Mystics and Zen Masters by Thomas Merton

  1. #1

    Mystics and Zen Masters by Thomas Merton

    Gassho to all...

    I have been reading Mystics and Zen Masters by Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk and lived through the first half of the 20th century (1915-1968). Even though I have given up on Christianity as a dogmatic faith, I still value much of what Christian authors have to say- especially when they are willing to apply what they believe to the wider human audience in a context of spirituality (in general.)

    I have come across two quotes from this book that stuck with me, and wondered what you thought of them. The first is from a discussion of Taoism, which Merton links with Zen in his writings:

    "The sage, then, accomplishes very much indeed because it is the Tao that acts in him and through him. He does not act of and by himself alone. His action is not a violent manipulation of exterior reality, an "attack" on the outside world, bending it to his conquering will: on the contrary, he respects external reality by yielding to it, and his yielding is at once an act of worship, a recognition of sacredness, and a perfect accomplishment of what is demanded by the precise situation. The world is a sacred vessel which must not be tampered with or grabbed after. To tamper with it is to spoil it, and to grasp it is to lose it."

    The second refers also to the "sage" of Taoism, but more specifically to his character:

    "The sage, or the man who has discovered the secret of the Tao, has not acquired any special esoteric knowledge that sets him apart from others and makes him smarter than they are. On the contrary, he is from a certain point of view more stupid and exteriorly less remarkable. He is dim and obscure. While everyone else exults over success as over a sacrificial ox, he alone is silent, 'like a babe who has not yet smiled.' Though he has in fact returned to the root, the Tao, he appears to be the only one who has no home to return to."

    These quotes seem to me at once insightful and perhaps stretching the metaphor as he attempts to incorporate Zen ideas into his Catholic faith. This is why I have posted them: am I biased when I recognize the metaphors and connections he proposes, and doubt their legitimacy because of the "connection?" Or has Merton actually figured out how to draw from "faith" in general and connect disparate cultures and times in their search for truth? This is an important matter for me, because as any former Christian may know, to leave the Christian faith can be difficult and frightening- it is necessary to abandon a belief in eternal damnation, the existence of an eternal static afterlife of either bliss or pain. I was indoctrinated from about age 6, and was lucky to have fairly secular parents who couldn't "stick with it" at church. By the time I was a teenager, we didn't have any focus on Christianity in my house, which made it much easier for me to explore alternatives. I am, however, hounded by the possibility that Christian theology contains a nugget of truth. That's the nugget I want to find! Does anyone else think Merton was successful in shining a light on the "truth" shared between Christianity and Buddhism?
    It occurs to me that my attachment to this body is entirely arbitrary. All the evidence is subjective.

  2. #2
    Hi Tobiishi

    I like Father Merton's writings a lot and 'New Seeds of Contemplation' is one of my favourite 'dharma books'.

    For me, contemplatives of all religious traditions seem to share commonalities in how they see things and the insights they have, even if these are often expressed through different religious language. Merton is different in that he also speaks 'Zen' and thus can communicate across the spiritual divide. I must admit that I like his purely Christian writings too.

    The first quote definitely finds an echo in Dogen:

    "To carry the self and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening."
    -- Genjōkōan

    Personally, I think there are nuggets of truth in all religions, and none. I don't have much of a Christian background (I was once a camel in the school nativity) but there are people in Zen Buddhism who have no problem combining their Zen practice and Christian faith. Others find it more problematic. Regardless of any dogma, some of the writings by Christian mystics such as Teresa of Avila, St Francis, Mister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich have incredible beauty and insight, comparable with great writings in other religious traditions.

    Nuggets of truth can certainly be found in great writings and they can also be found on the meditation cushion, in nature, and when cleaning the floor. For me, the more I find these nuggets in one place, the more I can see them elsewhere. Not sure if that helps but I really like your post and questions.


  3. #3
    "Jesus said,

    I will give you what no eye has seen,
    and what no ear has heard,
    and what no hand has touched,
    and what has not arisen in the heart of man."

    Gospel of Thomas 17 - (one of the "heretic" Gospels because it does not turn Jesus into a Greek god [ a lá Saul/ Paul, Luke, John, et. al. ] )

    Most of what Jesus taught in Gospel of Mark is buddhist. Thank you for the lesson.

    Myosha sat today
    Last edited by Myosha; 03-26-2015 at 07:54 PM.
    "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Shakyamuni Buddha when asked, "Uhm . . .what?"

  4. #4

    Mystics and Zen Masters by Thomas Merton

    I believe that there are universal human truths expressed in various traditions that reflect the historical, cultural, and political contexts of those traditions. They serve as the basis for a narrative which gives identity to a particular group of people. Often in addition to the these universal truths (love, compassion, forgiveness, etc) statements are added given the particulars of a historical situation which serve to identify a group of believers as privileged or unique - often political purposes are served, as in the case of Constantine and the Nicean controversy and ensuing ecumenical councils, or the disputes between the western and eastern churches. Examples exist similarly in Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, to name a few.

    Even in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism there are alliances between religion and the state which accommodate the agendas of both - the challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff - all the worlds traditions share commonality in the essential message of basic human qualities of love and fellowship. This gets lost in the struggles for power over the centuries. When religious figures exhort followers to kill or subjugate others it is usually political purposes that are being served. Selective readings of scripture usually support these positions.

    My opinion only.

    Monastic,, ascetic and solitary practices have common ground between many of the worlds traditions. Merton had a great dialogue with Asian practitioners and teachers. Zen and the Birds of Appetite discusses this, and his Asian Journals are important as well. Whether we are discussing Shikantaza, hesychasm, or salat/ijtihad, interfaith dialogue and exploration in this area can be very fruitful.

    Deep bows

    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
    Last edited by Yugen; 03-26-2015 at 07:43 PM.

  5. #5
    Gassho to all...

    "To carry the self and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening."
    -- Genjōkōan
    This is a beautiful connection, Kokuu, thank you That I strive and get nowhere, yet if I surrender, the truth comes from behind and taps me on the back of the head. I wrote a poem once with that sentiment, and it recurs in my mind when I think of where I am trying to get to. I know, intellectually, that I am already there, yet the ego...

    Myosha, the Gospel of Thomas is my favorite! The fellows who left it out of the canon certainly did us a disservice in their pursuit of power.

    Yugen... it is very difficult to read any authoritative work un-selectively, I think. Especially when we go into reading them with a subconscious agenda (I am right, they are wrong.) I have tried to read biblical passages and just let them "sink in" and be what they are, but others' opinions and translations/interpretations overshadow so often. Maybe if I get a quiet mind first, and drop all ego, and forget myself, all will become clear... yeah, like that's gonna happen

    Thanks for the replies, it keeps me thinking

    It occurs to me that my attachment to this body is entirely arbitrary. All the evidence is subjective.

  6. #6

    Regardless of the label you want to use, human spirituality has a lot of common believes shared through traditions.

    Take Gratitude for instance. No matter where you are in the world, time or culture, Gratitude is a huge part of human belief systems. No matter if you thank a deity, life or the universe, being grateful feels good and connects us with Everything.

    But that's just me.


    Hondō Kyōnin
    奔道 協忍

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