Dilatato Corde 7:1
January – June, 2017
With D. T. Suzuki, New York, 1964
With D. T. Suzuki, New York, 1964
Monastic Interreligious Dialogue
In Merton’s Last Years


This essay was originally written as Introduction to the publication of a new Italian translation of the speeches that Merton prepared for or gave during the conferences in Calcutta and Bangkok in 1968: Thomas Merton, Verso l’altro: in dialogo con le spiritualità orientali, with a Preface by Bonnie B. Thurston (Magnano: Qiqajon, 2016). The essay was translated by William Skudlarek.

“I’m an explorer for you”
The fruitful but all too short life of Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the Trappist monk whose monastic name was Louis, is a maze of diverse and intersecting paths. There is the path of Merton the monk, always in search of ways to lead a spiritual life that is more human and a monastic life that is more authentic; that of Merton the writer, looking for a real and transparent dialogue with the world; that of Merton the poet, exploring the depths of the human heart; that of Merton the prophet, who envisioned an “alternate way of living”[1] in response to the radical demands of the Gospel, of justice, and of peace. Throughout his life Merton traveled along these and many other paths. His primary journey, however, was inward, for he believed that “our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.”[2]
Thomas Merton’s final journey, the one he undertook between October 15 and December 10, 1968, carried by the wind that was propelling him toward Asia,[3] should also be read this way. As he makes clear in his Asia Journal,[4]this was an inward journey of encounter, relationship, and dialogue with the other. With his trip to Asia, Merton brought to fulfillment a monastic life that was shaped by a web of relationships: the relationships of a man, a monk, who in the course of his human and spiritual journey gradually understood that the true identity of the monk does not consist in being a solitary isolated from the world, cut off from the anguish and the joys of people, but in being, even in the solitude of the monastic life, a “searcher in realms” that others do not have the opportunity to visit, an “explorer” for others, “summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts.”[5] Since Christianity is “the taste and experience of the eternal life[6] it follows that “the contemplative life is then the search for peace not in an abstract exclusion of all outside reality, not in a barren negative closing of senses upon the world, but in the openness of love,”[7] and thus in a dynamic experience of relationship.

This being the case, it is no surprise that when he was asked to speak at an intermonastic and interreligious conference in Calcutta on the monastic life “in dialogue,”[8] he put aside the notes he had prepared for his first talk in Asia. Sensing the urgency of making a bold and prophetic statement, he spoke off the cuff on the topic that was closest to his heart and the motivating force of his entire trip to Asia that was now beginning in India: “Who is the monk?” In this speech, he consciously adopted “a different approach to the external experience of the monk,”[9] and offered a moving portrayal of his personal and tormented monastic journey, which led him to speak of monasticism in terms of “marginality,” “irrelevance,” “openness to gift,” at the service of an absolutely free choice for that radical nakedness that is essential to every human being, torn by doubt, fear, anguish, death, in order thus to become an authoritative witness of life:

In speaking for monks, I am really speaking for a very strange kind of person, a marginal person, because the monk in the modern world is no longer an established person with an established place in society. . . . The monk is essentially outside all establishments. He does not belong to an establishment. He is a marginal person who withdraws deliberately to the margin of society with a view to deepening fundamental human experience. Consequently, as one of this strange people, I speak to you as a representative of all marginal persons who have done this kind of thing deliberately. Thus I find myself representing perhaps hippies among you, poets, people of this kind who are seeking in all sorts of ways and have absolutely no established status whatever. . . .
Are monks and hippies and poets relevant? No, we are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being. The marginal man accepts the basic irrelevance of the human condition, an irrelevance which is manifested above all by the fact of death. The marginal person, the monk, the displaced person, the prisoner, all these people live in the presence of death, which calls into question the meaning of life. He struggles with the fact of death in himself, trying to seek something deeper than death; because there is something deeper than death, and the office of the monk or marginal person, the meditative person or the poet is to go beyond death even in this life, to go beyond the dichotomy of life and death and to be, therefore, a witness to life. . . .
We are called by the voice of God . . . to pierce through the irrelevance of our own life, while accepting and admitting that our life is totally irrelevant, in order to find relevance in Him. And this relevance in Him is not something we grasp or possess. It is something that can only be received as a gift. Consequently, the kind of life that I represent is a life that is openness to gift; gift from God and gift from others.[10]
From this point of view, the monastery might seem to be meaningless in the sense that it offers a place of refuge for those who want to isolate themselves from any share in human effort. In fact, however, the monastery became for Merton a particular symbolic locus of a universal presence to the world, a presence that was hidden and loving:

My monastery is not a home. It is not a place where I am rooted and established on the earth. It is not an environment in which I become aware of myself as an individual, but rather a place in which I disappear from the world as an object of interest in order to be everywhere in it by hiddenness and compassion.[11]
In Bangkok, on the day of his death, he will say, “The monk belongs to the world, but the world belongs to him insofar as he has dedicated himself totally to liberation from it in order to liberate it.”[12]
This opening of horizons, which extended from the monastery of Gethsemani to the geographical, cultural, and spiritual boundaries of the world, along with his sharp yet humble intellect, his keen interest in study, and his natural flair for writing and for epistolary communication, enabled Thomas Merton to develop an intense and profound dialogue as well as meaningful and lasting friendships with many believers and scholars of other religious traditions. His extensive collection of letters provides ample testimony to this.[13] Even his meetings with monks from other religious traditions, whether they actually took place or were only sought after, were a part of his search. They were always thought of as “significant contacts . . . among people who are seeking.” The search was mutual, but with “the basic condition . . . That each be faithful to his own search.”[14]
This is the first and essential element to be highlighted when characterizing the dialogic style of Merton. Dialogue involves a specific and concrete encounter with the other in order to listen to what gives means to his or her life and faith, in the sure knowledge that what one hears can be a source of enrichment for one’s own life and faith. As Merton put it, “sharing the vision of other traditions can enrich one’s own faith by unveiling neglected or undervalued aspects of what it means to be fully human.”[15]
Before the Second Vatican Council would turn the minds and hearts of Catholics towards the realm of interreligious dialogue, Merton was already reaching out through dialogue and friendship to practitioners of Hinduism and Buddhism, to the followers of Islam and Judaism. These were no quick forays into their spiritual territories, but intellectual and spiritual quests that would engage him, both existentially and theologically, in such challenging issues as metaphysics, epistemology, and contemplation. He had an early interest in “other spiritualities” and this continued to develop over time. But there is no doubt that it was during the last decade of his life, 1959-1968, that he experienced an “explosive Catholicity,” as he referred to it to his friend Donald Allchin (1930-2010), that was characterized by an exceptional intellectual vitality. But this explosion was “a special kind of explosion, one which has no exact equivalent in the physical world. It was a non-disintegrating explosion, and hence [its] effects were constructive and not destructive.”[16] So it is no surprise to learn that Father Louis was giving conferences on Sufi wisdom and mysticism to novices in formation at Gethsemani in the years 1966-1968.[17]
Searching for monastic identity through dialogue
Prior to and underlying Merton’s interest in other spiritualities, he may well have been aware of what it is that leads us to see in him not just a pioneer of interreligious dialogue in general,[18] but more specifically a pioneer of monastic interreligious dialogue. Merton wrote in his diary in 1964: Asia, Zen, Islam, etc., all these things come together in my life. It would be madness for me to attempt to create a monastic life for myself by excluding all these. I would be less a monk.[19]
In other passages of his writings there are clear statements that also indicate his desire to learn from Eastern spiritual traditions. First in order of importance, even though the last in order of time, are his notes for a presentation he gave in Calcutta in October 1968:
I speak as a Western monk who is pre-eminently concerned with his own monastic calling and dedication. I have left my monastery to come here not just as a research scholar or even as an author (which I also happen to be). I come [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. I seek not only to learn more (quantitatively) about religion and about monastic life, but to become a better and more enlightened monk (qualitatively) myself.[20]
Merton believed that encountering other cultural worlds and other spiritual traditions is inherent, essential, innate to the monastic life itself. It is not ancillary or extraneous, but an integral part of that widening of the heart by which the monk tends to perfection of love that is always being sought because never completely attained.[21] What specifically characterizes and motivates Merton’s interest in the East is the renewal of monastic life.[22] In the same draft of the talk he gave in Calcutta in 1968, Merton writes:
With Thich Naht Hanh, Gethsemani, 1966
With Thich Naht Hanh, Gethsemani, 1966
think that we have now reached a stage of (long-overdue) religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment, and yet learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist or Hindu discipline or experience. I believe that some of us need to do this in order to improve the quality of our own monastic life and even to help in the task of monastic renewal which has been undertaken within the Western Church.[23]
Study of the monastic tradition and reflection on its renewal was a concern that Merton carried with him his whole life long.[24] His interest in the East was also a permanent feature of his forward-looking temperament. But his concern for renewal needs to be clearly understood. He was not concerned with theoretical questions about the forms and the ascetic practices of monastic life, but rather with a deepening of the spiritual life of the monk through contact with the spiritual riches developed in other forms of monastic life. It is not surprising that on the eve of his departure for Asia Father Louis was caught up in book written by another monk to report on his experiences in Asia. So writes Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s secretary:
As I approached the hermitage that warm summer afternoon [1968], I found Father [Louis] walking slowly on a shady, well-beaten path at the edge of the woods overlooking the quite valley, reading Dom Aelred Graham’s new book on his Asian experiences: Conversations: Christian and Buddhist. I never saw him so healthy and happy as on that day . . . We discussed his proposed trip to Asia.[25]
Furthermore, the Benedictine monk Jean Leclercq (1911-1993) noted that
Merton prepared for his trip to Asia well in advance—in fact, by three decades of reading and also by study. However, his goal remained essentially monastic, oriented toward inner growth rather than the acquisition of knowledge that then could be used in dialogue with non-Christians. On several occasions Merton said that he was looking for what was good “for him.”[26]
Speaking a few weeks later in Bangkok to an audience of monks and nuns, Merton concluded his speech by saying without hesitation that the oriental monastic values ​​could complement those of Western Christian monasticism:
If you once penetrate by detachment and purity of heart to the inner secret of the ground of your ordinary experience, you attain to a liberty that nobody can touch, that nobody can affect . . . Behind our monasticism, and behind Buddhist monasticism, is the belief that this kind of freedom and transcendence is somehow attainable. . . . I, as a monk—and, I think, you as monks—can agree that we believe this to be the deepest and most essential thing in our lives, and because we believe this, we have given ourselves to the kind of life we have adopted. I believe that our renewal consists precisely in deepening this understanding and this grasp of that which is most real. And I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own traditions, because they have gone, from the natural point of view, so much deeper in this than we have. The combination of the natural techniques and the graces and the other things that have been manifested in Asia and the Christian liberty of the gospel should bring us all at last to that full and independent liberty which is beyond mere cultural differences and mere externals—and mere this and that.[27]
A few days before leaving for Asia, which would be the last trip of his life, Merton noted in a circular letter to his friends that his experience of coming “in contact with Buddhist monasticism” was not “anything unusual in the monastic life.”[28] Dialogue is part and parcel of the search for the true “self”—in the Zen terminology that Merton liked to use—of one’s human and monastic identity. His writings show that he experienced and understood that the discovery of one’s true face—another expression taken from Zen—coincided with one’s own search for God and for the “other.” The spiritual journey of Merton led him to a remarkable sense of unity and wholeness in which he recognized the deeply rooted interconnections between the “self,” God, and the other.[29] Moreover, one would probably not have suspected that this voyage of profound recognition and interconnection with spiritual worlds far from “home” would, in the end, not only not result in his becoming distanced and lost, but would, in fact, bring him back “home,” enriched by what he had experienced and eager to his brothers. Indeed, this was already clear to him on the eve of his departure, when he noted in his journal, “I go with a completely open mind. . . . My hope is simply to enjoy the long journey, profit by it, learn, change, perhaps find something or someone who will help me advance in my own spiritual quest,” and then immediately added, “But I remain a monk of Gethsemani.”[30]
On November 18, a month after his departure from the United States, he was in Calcutta and made the following entry in his journal: “I do in many ways miss it [Gethsemani]. 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."[31]
Writing from New Delhi, ten days earlier, on November 9, 1968, Merton had also told his friends,
My contacts with Asian monks have been very fruitful and rewarding. We seem to understand one another very well indeed. . . . It is invaluable to have direct contact with people who have really put in a lifetime of hard work in training their minds and liberating themselves from passion and illusion. . . . I am sure the blessing of God will be upon these meetings, and I hope much mutual benefit will come from them. I also hope I can bring back to my monastery something of the Asian wisdom with which I am fortunate to be in contact. . . . In my contacts with these new friends I also feel consolation in my own faith in Christ and His indwelling presence.[32]
In a recent biography of Merton, John Eudes Bamberger, a monk who was a student of Merton at Gethsemani in the years 1952-1955, confirmed that his friend’s spiritual journey, transformed and matured through immersion in Asian spirituality, deepened his monastic life in absolute fidelity to his vocation:
Merton’s exploration of Eastern religious traditions influenced the evolutions of his views on contemplation. . . . A careful examination of his extensive writings on this subject reveals that there is no basis for the opinion that Merton’s faith in the Church or in his Cistercian vocation was ever modified, much less weakened by, his interest in the East. His contacts with these traditions both by study and dialogue with members of these traditions certainly had an impact on his views of monastic life and contemplation. This influence was a wholesome one in that it led him to emphasize the fundamental simplicity and other central elements of the contemplative life.[33]
These words make it clear what it was that Merton found to be true on several occasions during his meetings with Buddhist monks in Asia and “what appeals [to him] most”:[34] that he finally had the possibility of making direct contact with “specialists in meditation and contemplation.”[35] One might also say—using a famous Zen adage that Merton certainly knew—that what was now possible for him was a “heart to heart transmission” (ishin denshin 以心伝心). In India, Ceylon [Sri Lanka], and Thailand, Merton put the seal of direct experience on his personal transformative journey of understanding and practicing “contemplation” and “the contemplative life.” In Asia Merton was able to complete by means of experience what he had been reflecting on during the last years of his life thanks to his exposure to the spiritual world of Buddhism, and in particular Zen.
His reflections were conflated in two fundamental texts, Mystics and Zen Masters, published in 1967, and Zen and the Birds of Appetite, published in 1968, and then further developed in a third but less well known text that is specifically dedicated to the theme of contemplation: The Inner Experience, a short work that Merton composed in the months immediately preceding his departure for Asia. In a letter to a friend, Merton presents it as just having been completed in the spring of 1968 and asks him to assess it so that they can discuss it on his return from Asia. It will only be published much later, after his death.[36] If Merton had returned from his trip to Asia, he would certainly have augmented it with the experiences of his contacts with “contemplatives” in Asia.
These texts demonstrate the extent of the spiritual and intellectual evolution brought about by Merton’s encounter with the Far Eastern thought, particularly with Zen Buddhism and Taoism.[37] Ekman Tam recognizes five main areas of the spiritual journey of Merton that were influenced by Zen Buddhism and Taoism in the last years of his life (1959-1968):
First, Zen-Taoism motivated Merton to move away from a dogmatic framework and turn toward an experiential approach. Second, Zen-Taoism affirmed Merton’s positive worldview and concern for the well-being of humanity. Third, Zen-Taoism expanded Merton’s understanding of God. Fourth, Zen-Taoism influenced Merton’s understanding of the Christian experience of self-realization. Lastly, Zen-Taoism affected Merton’s view of contemplative prayer and spiritual itinerary.[38]
These last writings of Merton offer a particularly admirable synthesis of his understanding of Christian contemplation.[39] At this point in his life, Merton spoke of Christian contemplation with language shaped by Zen, but he did so while remaining utterly faithful to the Christian understanding of contemplation. For the follower of Christ, contemplation expresses a willingness to descend into the innermost depths of the heart in order to find there the true reality of one’s being, one’s “inner self,” doing so by crucifying our “false self.” It is thus that the Christian lives out, like Christ and in Christ, the passage from death—the “great death” of Zen—to authentic life. Speaking in Bangkok to a gathering composed mainly of Christian monks and Buddhists about this transformation of the “inner self,” Merton said that such an inner transformation is a “transformation of man’s consciousness,” a “liberation of the truth imprisoned in man by ignorance and error”—the avidyā of Buddhism—to achieve “full realization.”[40] In effect, Merton is saying that monks are those who strive to transform themselves in order to transform the world, and that “the Christian monk and the Buddhist monk—in their sort of ideal setting and the ideal way of looking at them—fulfill this role in society.”[41] As in Buddhism, so too in Christianity, one comes to understand, in this process of transformation, that “the individual ego [is] illusory.” But Merton then added that in the alchemy that is at the heart of Christian contemplation, this same “individual ego . . . dissolved itself, and in place of this self-centered ego
With Chatral Rinpoche in Darjeeling, 1968
With Chatral Rinpoche in Darjeeling, 1968
came the Christian person, who was no longer just the individual but was Christ dwelling in each one. So in each one of us the Christian person is that which is fully open to all other persons, because ultimately all other persons are Christ.”[42]
“Explorational” dialogue in depth
In his practice of dialogue and his reflections on it, Merton offers us a model of dialogue that one scholar has happily called “explorational.”[43] Unlike functional dialogue, which has a specific purpose and is carried out by delegated individuals who represent various religions and for this reason can be called “official” dialogue, explorational dialogue indicates an unofficial kind of dialogue that takes place between spiritual individuals who are acting personally, with limited objectives—or even none. In an essay devoted specifically to “Contemplation and Dialogue,” Merton emphasizes and outlines “the special contribution that the contemplative life can bring to the dialogue, not only among Christians, but also between Christians and the ancient religions of the East.” He is convinced that
A genuinely fruitful dialogue cannot be content with a polite diplomatic interest in other religions and their beliefs. It seeks a deeper level, on which religious traditions have always claimed to bear witness to a higher and more personal knowledge of God that that which is contained simply in exterior worship and formulated doctrine. . . . In all religions it is more or less generally recognized that this profound “sapiential” experience, call it gnosis, contemplation, “mysticism,” “prophecy,” or what you will, represents the deepest and the most authentic fruit of the religion itself. All religions, then, seek a “summit” of holiness, of experience, of inner transformation to which their believers—or an elite of believers—aspire because they hope, so to speak, to incarnate in their own lives the highest values in which they believe. To put it in grossly oversimplified language, all religions aspire to a “union with God” in some way or other, and in each case this union is described in terms which have very definite analogies with the contemplative and mystical experiences in the Christian, and particularly the Catholic, tradition.[44]
In this kind of in-depth dialogue, Merton recognizes that Christian contemplatives play an essential role. These contemplative are not necessarily or solely monks, although monks may indeed be blessed with the most appropriate conditions for living the “contemplative” dimension of existence. For this reason, Merton exhorts Western monastic orders not to be suspicious of the mystical traditions of the East:
If anyone should be open to these Oriental traditions and interested in them, it should be the contemplative monks of the Western monastic orders. . . . The great contemplative traditions of East and West, while differing sometimes quite radically in their formulation of their aims and in their understanding of their methods, agree in thinking that by spiritual disciplines a man can radically change his life and attain to a deeper meaning, a more perfect integration, a more complete fulfillment, a more total liberty of spirit . . . Far from being suspicious of the Oriental mystical traditions, Catholic contemplatives since the Second Vatican Council should be in a position to appreciate the wealth of experience that has accumulated in those traditions.[45]
His personal experience and that of the monastic community at Gethsemani, which in the 1960s gradually opened up to contacts with “those who were experienced and fully qualified to represent traditions such as rāja Yoga,[46] Zen, Hassidism, Tibetan Buddhism, Sufism, etc.,” led Merton to recognize that
the question of contacts and actual communication between contemplatives of the various traditions no longer presents very great obstacles. A little experience of such dialogue shows at once that this is precisely the most fruitful and the most rewarding level of . . . exchange. While on the level of philosophical and doctrinal formulations there may be tremendous obstacles to meet, it is often possible to come to a very frank, simple, and totally satisfying understanding in comparing notes on the contemplative life, its disciplines, its vagaries, and its rewards. Indeed, it is illuminating to the point of astonishment to talk to a Zen Buddhist from Japan and to find that you have much more in common with him than with those of your own compatriots who are little concerned with religion, or interested only in its external practice.[47]
The above passage contains a word that is central to Merton’s conception of dialogue: communication, which for Merton is essentially communion.[48] Among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible. And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept.[49]
Merton specifically addressed this central and essential point in the practice of dialogue in one of the notes he made for the talk he was to give in Calcutta in October 1968. In it he made it clear that the type of communication required for dialogue consisted of “a kind of lingua franca of the religious experience,” that “will permit intelligent discussion of all kind of religious experience in all the religious traditions.”[50] Jean Leclercq summarized this position well when he wrote, “in these kinds of human encounters and conversation, what is not said is more important than what is said.”[51]
This kind of communication cannot get far unless it is carried on among people who share some degree of the same enlightenment. It is too optimistic to expect the monks themselves to make this contribution? I hope not. . . . True communication on the deepest level is more than a simple sharing of ideas, conceptual knowledge, or formulated truth. The kind of communication that is necessary at this level must also be “communion” beyond the level of words, a communion in authentic experience which is shared not only on a “preverbal” level but also on a “postverbal” level . . . This I would call “communion.” I think it is something that the deepest ground of our being cries out for, and it is something for which a lifetime of striving would not be enough.[52]
Another dimension of the dialogic style of Merton is participation. In his exploration of other people’s spirituality he strives to attain an insider’s look at them. This is especially clear from the autobiographical words he wrote as a preface to his book Mystics and Zen Masters:
The author has attempted not merely to look at these other traditions from the outside, but, in some measure at least, to try to share in the values and the experience which they embody. In other words, he is not content to write about them without making them, as far as possible, “his own.”[53]
Although he was aware that such an insider’s perspective was ultimately unattainable by an outsider, nevertheless, the tension is palpable in all his writings and in all his “interreligious” letters.” In them, as Jim Forest notes, one can sense the “gift Merton had of writing to people from almost within their own skin.”[54] This remarkable intuitive perception of the other, of their heart, their faith, is also shown by the response Merton made to people of other faiths with whom had intense relationships.
According to Merton, this participation in the spiritual experience of the other is possible because the experience is in some way outside of, beyond, religious structures, which may eventually prove to be incompatible. There is no question of abandoning your own religion. What is needed, however, is that you experience it, experience it in depth, to the point of being free of its structures, while at the same time remaining within them. So free, in fact, that you can authentically share in the spiritual experience of the other.[55] Merton puts it this way:
We can easily see the special value of dialogue and exchange among those in the various religions who seek to penetrate the ultimate ground of their beliefs by a transformation of the religious consciousness. . . . Even where there are irreconcilable differences in doctrine and in formulated belief, there may still be great similarities and analogies in the realm of religious experience. . . . Cultural and doctrinal differences must remain, but they do not invalidate a very real quality of existential likeness. . . . On this existential level of experience and of spiritual maturity, it is possible to achieve real and significant contacts and perhaps much more besides.[56]
A final element that underlies and characterizes Merton’s openness to the spirituality of the other is his recognition of the mutual interdependence between beings, a belief that was reinforced by his contact with Zen. It is significant that he chose the words “no man is an island” from a verse of the English poet John Donne (1572-1631) as the title of a book he published in 1955. In it he affirms that “every other man is a piece of myself, for I am part and a member of mankind.”[57] This conviction was poignantly echoed in the extemporaneous words with which he concluded his talk in Calcutta in October 1968:
Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.[58]
If the other, with his history, his culture, his faith, is part of me, then I have to affirm him, I have to say “yes.” Only in this way will I be see more clearly who I am, as Merton himself so beautifully wrote in 1966:
The more I am able to affirm others, to say “yes” to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says “yes” to everyone. 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.[59]
With the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, 1968
With the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, 1968
“Pentalogue” of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue
In the text that Merton prepared for the repeatedly mentioned conference in Calcutta in October 1968, but which was never given in this form, he sketched out the contours of the kind of monastic interreligious dialogue he envisioned and then concluded by listing the do’s and don’ts of dialogue, the “wrong ways that are to be avoided,” as he himself put it.[60] It can still serve as a road map for those who venture out on the path of dialogue.
The first rule is one that combines discipline, seriousness, and rootedness in one’s own tradition. In opposition to any wasteful and counterproductive dabbling, Merton proposes a dialogue in depth that goes to the roots of the traditions of those involved. For this reason such dialogue can only be engaged in by people who draw life from those roots, those sources. Dialogue of this kind is open to the possibility of new ways to access these same ancient sources. Merton, in fact, demonstrated in his own practice of dialogue that he was able attain a new Christian “enlightenment” and a new ability to enter more deeply into his own tradition. In his Asian Journal he speaks repeatedly of his desire to re-read some aspects of the Christian tradition from an Eastern point of view,[61] or to have some books of the Bible interpreted by his Buddhist counterparts.[62]
The second rule of dialogue bans any easy syncretism and all trivial attempts at concordism.
Merton’s third rule of dialogue demands an absolute respect for differences. Such an attitude demands both patience and a willingness to look for future opportunities for mutual understanding. He emphasizes the need for constant belief in the good faith of the interlocutor and the future of the dialogue. In dialogue one is always at the beginning, looking toward future achievements, broader understanding, deeper communion, always believing that whatever we may be able to accomplish will not come about by neutralizing or smoothing over differences, but by accepting them as opportunities for access to a “beyond,” to an ever greater understanding of humankind, of the world, of God.
The fourth rule spells out the way to engage in dialogue as well as the essential content of dialogue. Genuine communication between monks engaged in dialogue is not about comparing doctrine but about what is essential to the monastic life and about what I would call a “spiritual yearning for what is beyond,” that inner dynamic that moves one to come out of oneself and one’s surroundings. This spiritual dynamic is characterized by an ever greater conversion of the heart—what Merton calls “self-transcendence”—to an ever more authentic and luminous understanding of reality, of oneself and of God, an understanding that Merton refers to with the Buddhist term “enlightenment.” This spiritual journey involves a descent into one’s inner depths—here Merton speaks of the “transformation of consciousness in its ultimate ground”—and the process of gradually going out of oneself, of an “ecstasy” that is an essential component of love—in Merton’s terms, “the highest and most authentic devotional love.”[63]
Merton experienced this kind of genuine and profound dialogic communication during his trip to Asia and, so it seems, especially in India with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan master Chatral Rinpoche, with whom he discussed key issues of monastic life: “hermit questions,” as his interpreter liked to refer to them. Suffice it to quote a few lines in which Merton gives us a sense of the tone of these conversations:
The unspoken or half-spoken message of the talk was our complete understanding of each other as people who were somehow on the edge of great realization and knew it and were trying, somehow or other, to go out and get lost in it.[64]
Merton’s fifth and final rule is drawn out of the previous one and deals with the hierarchy of values ​​that must be taken into account in the dialogue. Here Merton reiterates the need to focus on the essentials as the proper and most productive terrain for intermonastic encounter. Beyond life styles and communal structures, what needs to be addressed are the values and rationale that underlie the existence of those forms, as well as the spirit that animates them. Behind and within the means that the various forms of monastic life rely on to achieve their goal—the unum necessarium—dialogue must pull out what we would call “the deep reasons of the heart” and that which Merton here calls “interior development” for the purpose of “enlightenment.” As he put it, “the things that are on the surface are nothing, what is deep is the Real.”[65]
Two outstanding testimonies can help to sum up Merton’s views on interreligious dialogue. The first is that of the Chinese intellectual John Wu Jingxiong (1899-1986), who in a 1961 letter to Merton said, “You are so deeply Christian that you cannot help touching the vital springs of other religions.”[66]
The second and more extensive testimony comes from his Bengali friend, Amiya Chakravarty (1901-1986):
Readers of Thomas Merton know that his openness to man’s spiritual horizons came from a rootedness of faith; and inner security led him to explore, experience, and interpret the affinities and differences between religions in the light of his own religion. That light was Christianity. . . . The search for diversities is never free from an element of risk. But his long years of arduous discipline and his insights produced a deep religious maturity, and his encounters with other religions and religious cultures never found him unresponsive, nor irresponsible in regard to his own commitment. The monk of Gethsemani did not desert his own indwelling heights when he climbed to meet the Dalai Lama in the Himalayan mountains. In a way his discipleship of Jesus grew as he gained the perspective of divine faith; in Asia, he felt the need to return to his monastery in Kentucky with newly affirmed experiences.[67]
Chakravarty’s words bring to mind the dream that Merton had in Dharamsala (India) on the night of November 4-5, 1968. He dreamt that he was back in Gethsemani and clothed in the robes of a Buddhist monk. He was explaining to the guests that he had become a sort of synthesis of these two traditions:
Last night I dreamed that I was, temporarily, back at Gethsemani. I was dressed in a Buddhist monk’s habit, but with more black and red and gold, a “Zen habit,” in color more Tibetan than Zen. . . . I met some women in the corridor, visitors and students of Asian religion, to whom I was explaining I was a kind of Zen monk and Gelugpa together, when I woke up.[68]
We might also point out that some years earlier his Chinese friend John Wu seems to have suggested that in a “previous life” Merton would have been a Chinese monk. Merton’s comment on this pleasant provocation is illuminating in relation to what has been called the monastic archetype:
I do not know about that . . . But I have been a Christian monk for nearly twenty-five years, and inevitably one comes in time to see life from a viewpoint that has been common to solitaries and recluses in all ages and in all cultures . . . There is a monastic outlook which is common to all those who have elected to question the value of a life submitted entirely to arbitrary secular presuppositions, dictated by social convention, and dedicated to the pursuit of temporal satisfactions which are perhaps only a mirage. Whatever may be the value of “life in the world” there have been, in all cultures, men who have claimed to find something they vastly prefer in solitude.[69]
The life and thought of Thomas Merton help us understand how those who are spiritual searchers and explorers of depths of the heart can be the source of profound dialogue at the level spiritual experience, and that dialogue of this kind can evolve into an interreligious encounter that goes farther and deeper.
[1] Cf. T. Merton, Un vivere alternativo (Magnano, 1994).
[2] Id., “September 1968 Circular Letter to Friends,” in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, ed. by N. Burton, P. Hart & J. Laughlin (New York, 1975), p. 296.
[3] “For me the wind blows to Asia,” wrote Merton to a friend in September 1968, a few weeks before his departure for the East. The Journals of Thomas Merton, vol. VI: Learning to Love. Exploring Solitude and Freedom [1966-1967], ed. by C. M. Bochen (San Francisco CA, 1997), p. 157.
[4] The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, ed. by N. Burton, P. Hart & J. Laughlin (New York, 1973).
[5] Id., “A Letter on the Contemplative Life,” in Id., The Monastic Journey, ed. by P. Hart, Cistercian Studies Series 133 (Kalamazoo MI, 1992), p. 171. Emphasis added.
[6] Id., Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York, 1968), p. 39. Emphasis added.
[7] Id., “A Letter on the Contemplative Life,” pp. 172-173.
[8] See the proceedings of the “Spiritual Summit Conference,” an interreligious conference organized by the Temple of Understanding at Calcutta, October 22-16, 1968, on the theme “The Relevance of Religion in the Modern World.” They are published in The World Religions Speak on “The Relevance of Religion in the Modern World,” ed. F. P. Dunne Jr. (The Hague, 1970).
[9] “Thomas Merton’s View of Monasticism,” in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p. 307.
[10] Ibid., pp. 305-307. Emphasis added.
[11] T. Merton, Preface to the 1963 Japanese edition of The Seven Storey Mountain, in Id., “Honorable Reader”: Reflections on My Work, ed. by R. Daggy (New York, 1989), p. 65. Emphasis added.
[12] T. Merton, “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p. 341.
[13] Cf. W. Apel, Signs of Peace: The Interfaith Letters of Thomas Merton (Maryknoll NY, 2006).
[14] “Thomas Merton’s View of Monasticism,” p. 307.
[15] P. F. O’Connell, “Interreligious Dialogue,” in The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, ed. by W. H. Shannon, C.
The Dalai Lama and Abbot Timothy Kelly at Merton's grave, Gethsemani, 1995
The Dalai Lama and Abbot Timothy Kelly at Merton's grave, Gethsemani, 1995
M. Bochen & P. F. O’Connell (Maryknoll NY, 2002), p. 222.
[16] A. M. Allchin, “The Worship of the Whole Creation,” in Merton & Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart, ed. by B. Dieker & J. Montaldo (Louisville KY, 2003), pp. 103-120, here p. 113. Emphasis added.
[17] For Merton’s interest in Islam and, in particular, Sufism, see Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story. A Complete Compendium, ed. by B. Baker & G. Henry (Louisville KY, 1999). See also B. B. Thurston, “Thomas Merton’s Interest in Islam: The Example of Dhikr,” in The American Benedictine Review 45/2 (1994), pp. 131-141; Id., “Some Reflections on Islamic Poems by Thomas Merton,” in Thomas Merton: The World in My Bloodstream, ed. by A. Stuart (Abergavenny, 2004), pp. 40-53; A. Wilkins, “Thomas Merton and Islam,” in The Merton Journal 12/2 (2005), pp. 8-22, republished in Catholics in Interreligious Dialogue: Studies in Monasticism, Theology and Spirituality, ed. by A. O’Mahony & P. Bowe (Leominster, 2006), pp. 97-119; R. Sorkhabi, “Thomas Merton’s Encounter with Sufism,” in Interreligious Insight 6/4 (2008), pp. 22-32.
[18] Cf. C. Vanbalberghe, “Thomas Merton: mystique et pionnier du dialogue interreligieux,” in La vie spirituelle 759 (2005), pp. 313-327; C. Conio, “Thomas Merton (1915-1968), la via della contemplazione: un ponte fra Oriente e Occidente,” in Id., Mistica comparata e dialogo interreligioso (Milano, 2011), pp. 131-139.
[19] T. Merton, A Vow of Conversation (New York, 1988), p. 62. Emphasis added.
[20] Id., “Monastic Experience and East-West Dialogue,” in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, pp. 312-313. Emphasis added.
[21] Cf. The Rule of St. Benedict, Prol. 49.
[22] Cf. B. B. Thurston, “Why Merton Looked East,” in Living Prayer 21/6 (1988), pp. 43-49; reprinted in Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. Bulletin 49 (1994), pp. 20-24.
[23] T. Merton, “Monastic Experience and East-West Dialogue,” p. 313. Emphasis added.
[24] Consider the three volumes by Merton dedicated to the Christian monastic tradition: T. Merton, Initiation into the Monastic Tradition (Kalamazoo MI, 2005-2008).
[25] P. Hart, “Foreword,” in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p. xxi. The Benedictine monk Aelred Graham (1907-1984) wrote Conversations: Christian and Buddhist. Encounters in Japan (New York, 1968), in which he gives an account of his experiences in Asia. Merton carried on a correspondence with him, and in his “September 1968 Circular Letter to Friends,” written on the eve of his departure for Asia he said, “I am certainly grateful to . . . Dom Aelred Graham, O.S.B., who last year visited many religious centers in Asia and has been most generous and helpful in sharing with me the fruits of his experience” (T. Merton, ““September 1968 Circular Letter to Friends,” p. 296).
[26] J. Leclercq, “Merton e l’oriente,” in Vita monastica 135 (1978), p. 49.
[27] T. Merton, “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” pp. 342-343. Emphasis added. The proceedings of this first meeting of monastic superiors from Asia were published as A New Charter for Monasticism: Proceedings of the Meeting of the Monastic Superiors in the Far East, Bangkok, December 9 to 15, 1968, ed. by J. Moffitt (Notre Dame IN, 1970).
[28] T. Merton, “September 1968 Circular Letter to Friends,” p. 295.
[29] Cf. B. B. Thurston, “Zen Influence on Thomas Merton’s View of the Self,” in Contemplative Review 17/2 (1984), pp. 1-8; J. Conner, “The Original Face in Buddhism and the True Self in Thomas Merton,” in Cistercian Studies 22 (1987), pp. 343-351.
[30] T. Merton, The Intimate Merton, ed. by P. Hart & J. Montaldo (San Francisco CA, 1999), p. 337.
[31] The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p. 149.
[32] Id., “November Circular Letter to Friend,” pp. 324-325.
[33] J. E. Bamberger, Thomas Merton: Prophet of Renewal (Kalamazoo MI, 2005), p. 63.
[34] T. Merton, “November Circular Letter to Friend,” p. 324.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Cf. Id., “The Inner Experience,” in Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, ed. by L. S. Cunningham, (Mahwah NJ, 1992), pp. 295-343.
[37]With regard to the influence of Buddhism, especially Zen, on Merton, in addition to Merton & Buddhism: Wisdom, Emptiness, and Everyday Mind, ed. by B. B. Thurston (Louisville KY, 2007), see F. Debuyst, “Thomas Merton et le zen,” in La vie spirituelle 592 (1972), pp. 673-681; C. MacCormick, “The Zen Catholicism of Thomas Merton,” in Journal of Ecumenical Studies 9 (1972), pp. 802-818; H. C. Steyn, “The Influence of Buddhism on Thomas Merton,” in Journal of the Study of Religion 58 (1978), pp. 263-287; J. Chu-Chong, “Thomas Merton and the Far East,” in Cistercian Studies 14 (1979), pp. 45-58; D. Q. McInerny, “Thomas Merton and Oriental Thought,” ibid., pp. 59-72; S. E. Fittipaldi, “Preying Birds: An Examination of Thomas Merton’s Zen,” in Horizons 9 (1982), pp. 37-46; B. B. Thurston, “Zen in the Eye of Thomas Merton’s Poetry,” in Buddhist-Christian Studies 4 (1984), pp. 103-118; J. Wu, Jr., “The Zen in Thomas Merton,” in Your Heart Is My Hermitage: Thomas Merton’s Vision of Solitude and Community, ed. by D. Sullivan & I. Thomson (London, 1996), pp. 90-103 (http://www.thomasmertonsociety.org/wu.htm); R. Faricy, “Thomas Merton and Zen,” in The Merton Annual 9 (1997), pp. 142-151; A. Montanari, “Il dialogo con il buddhismo: Thomas Merton (1915-1968),” in Oltre la divisione: L’intuizione ecumenica e il dialogo interreligioso, ed. by A. Pacini (Milano, 2011), pp. 255-279.
[38] E. P. C. Tam, Christian Contemplation and Chinese Zen-Taoism: A Study of Thomas Merton’s Writings (Hong Kong, 2002), p. 221.
[39] Cf. R. Lipsey, “The Monk’s Chief Service: Thomas Merton’s Late Writings on Contemplation,” in Cistercian Studies Quarterly 45/2 (2010), pp. 169-198.
[40] T. Merton, “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” p. 333.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid., p. 334.
[43] Cf. C. Albin, “Thomas Merton and Inter-Faith Dialogue: Exploring a Way Forward,” in Thomas Merton: Poet, Monk, Prophet, ed. by P. M. Pearson, D. Sullivan & I. Thomson (Abergavenny, 1998), pp. 154-168; R. Corless, “The Christian Exploration of Non-Christian Religions: Merton’s example and where it might lead us,” in The Merton Annual 13 (2000), pp. 105-122.
[44] T. Merton, “Contemplation and Dialogue,” in Id., Mystics and Zen Masters (New York, 1967), pp. 203-205. Emphasis added.
[45] Id., “Preface,” in Id., Mystics and Zen Masters,pp. vi-vii.
[46] Literally, “regal yoga,” the name given to the teaching of classical yoga. It first appears in the Yogasūtra, a work attributed to the Indian philosopher Patañjali.
[47] Id., “Contemplation and Dialogue,” p. 209. Emphasis added.
[48] Cf. P. W. Collins, “From Communication towards Communion: Gustave Weigel’s Ecumenism and Thomas Merton’s Interreligious Dialogue,” in U.S. Catholic Historian 14 (1996), pp. 99-124.
[49] “Thomas Merton’s View of Monasticism,” p. 308. Emphasis added.
[50] T. Merton, “Monastic Experience and East-West Dialogue,” p. 314.
[51] J. Leclercq, “Merton e l’oriente,” p. 50.
[52] T. Merton, “Monastic Experience and East-West Dialogue,” pp. 315-316. Emphasis added.
[53] Id., “Preface,” in Id., Mystics and Zen Masters, p. ix.
[54] J. Forest, “The Panel of Friends,” in Your Heart is my Hermitage, pp. 12-31, here p. 30 (http://www.thomasmertonsociety.org/panel.htm).
[55] Cf. T. Matus, “Thomas Merton e la metodologia del dialogo interreligioso,” in Vita monastica 135 (1978), p. 22.
[56] T. Merton, “Monastic Experience and East-West Dialogue,” pp. 311-312. Emphasis added.
[57] Id., No Man Is an Island (New York, 1967), p. 16.
[58] “Thomas Merton’s View of Monasticism,” p. 308. Emphasis added.
[59] T. Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City NY, 1966), p. 144.
[60] Cf. Id., “Monastic Experience and East-West Dialogue,” pp. 316-317. A commentary and analysis is given by T. Matus, “Thomas Merton e la metodologia del dialogo interreligioso,” pp. 25-36.
[61] See, for instance, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, pp. 85, 114.
[62] Cf., for instance, ibid., p. 63.
[63] Id., “Monastic Experience and East-West Dialogue,” p. 317.
[64] The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p. 143.
[65] T. Merton, “Special Closing Prayer,” in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p. 318.
[66] Letter of J. Wu to T. Merton, November 28, 1961, cited by P. Pearson in his preface to W. Apel, Signs of Peace, p. xv.
[67] A. Chakravarty, “Preface,” in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, pp. vii-viii. Emphasis added.
[68] The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p. 107.
[69] Id., “A Note to the Reader,” in Id., The Way of Chuang Tzu (New York, 1969), p. 10. Emphasis added.
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