Can I Trust Thomas Merton? (Part II of II)

MertonThis RockCoverCarlEOlson

Some time ago a reader asked if we recommend Thomas Merton’s work. We answered that question through the insights of a scholar of Asian history, a man who is fluent in Chinese language and culture and who understands Buddhism from a vantage point unavailable to most in the West. The scholar’s name is Dr. Anthony Clark. Here’s the link to my comments and his earlier treatment of this topic: Can I Trust Thomas Merton (Part I of II). As a note of caution, Thomas Merton has had a positive impact on many, of this truth I have no doubt. That said, this positive impact does not place Merton or any other writer above the Holy Spirit’s admonishment through St. Paul in scripture to “test all things and hold fast to that which is true.” This is our aim in presenting this material to you. Our goal is not to tear down Merton or the good he has done, but simply to answer the question in a charitable and reasonable manner for your consideration.

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Carl E. Olson on Thomas Merton

“Dr. Anthony Clark’s essay, “Can You Trust Thomas Merton?”,
offers a careful, detailed look at the popular monk’s thought and work

Fr. Robert Barron’s recent post, “The Hundredth Anniversary of Thomas Merton’s Birth” (Feb. 3), has generated a fair amount of interest and some argument over the value of the late monk’s writings. I’m not an expert on Merton by any means; in fact, I didn’t read much of his work until a few years ago, and most of my reading has been from his earlier books, especially from the 1950s. A particular favorite is The Ascent To Truth (1951), which is on the mysticism of St. John of the Cross, but opens with a scathing, even breathtaking, denunciation of secularism and the banality of much popular writing and thinking on theology and spirituality of the time.

My good friend, Dr. Anthony Clark (who writes the “Clark on China” feature for Catholic World Report), has read nearly everything Merton, and has spent time delving into Merton’s later writings, since he teaches Asian history (at Whitworth University) and has written several books on Catholicism, China, and related matters, including Buddhism. Ten years ago, we co-authored an article for This Rock, “Catholicism and Buddhism,” and a few years later, Dr. Clark wrote a feature article (which I illustrated), “Can You Trust Thomas Merton?” (May 2008). Here a couple of sections from that essay:

Fr. Thomas Merton was a man of a thousand lives. He was at one time a womanizer, a member of the Young Communist League, an English student at Columbia, a peace activist, an English teacher at St. Bonaventure University, and a social work volunteer. He was an orphan, the father of a child, a Catholic convert, a Trappist monk, a priest, a poet, a writer, and some describe him as a Zen Buddhist. It is difficult to distill the essence of Thomas Merton: He and his works are complex.

Christian Mantras?

I’m going to be a bit critical of Merton’s interest in and writings on Asian philosophy and religion, not because I don’t admire his brilliance, but because his commitment to orthodox Catholicism appears suspiciously attenuated by the end of his life. In the 1969 book Recollections of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West, Benedictine monk Br. David Steindl-Rast wrote that Thomas said that he wanted “to become as good a Buddhist as I can.” When he flew out of San Francisco for Asia on October 15, 1968, he left with the expectation of religious discovery, as if his monastic life at the Abbey of Gethsemani was a spiritual precursor to the insights he would gain in the East. He wrote in his journal:

Joy. We left the ground–I with Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny, of being at last on my true way after years of waiting and wondering and fooling around. . . . May I not come back without having settled the great affair. And found also the great compassion, mahakaruna . . . I am going home, to the home where I have never been in this body. (Asian Journal, 4)

He writes as if his Christianity and his Buddhism had already become enmeshed into a new hybrid religion, with “Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny,” and he expresses his desire never to return until he has found mahakaruna, the Buddhist notion of “great compassion.” As a Christian, I admire Buddhist mahakaruna, but as a Christian I also know that one need not look beyond Christianity to find it. I wonder–and we shall never know in this life the answer–what “home” Merton was headed for that day in October.

One Toe over the Line

But where do his ideas become suspect? Does he stray from Catholic orthodoxy? These are difficult questions to answer concisely, but it is clear in his writings that Thomas Merton was more of a spiritual seeker rather than a spiritual settler. His ideas evolve and change often, and his immersion into Eastern religion often appears more like replacement than rapprochement. Merton’s intellectual and physical pilgrimage to Asia was, as he suggests, at least ostensibly an attempt to deepen and supplement his own religious life. He writes that “we have now reached a stage (long overdue) of religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to Christian and Western monastic commitment, and yet to learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist discipline and experience” (Asian Journal, xxiii). He continues to assert that the Western Church is in need of such a Buddhist influence to be improved, to help the Church in its “long overdue” renewal.

In order to facilitate this “renewal” based on Buddhist tenets, Merton turns to Zen ideas of self-inquiry and non-duality. In one passage in his Mystics and Zen Masters, Merton quotes Buddha’s comments to Ananda, wherein he says, “. . . you must be your own lamps, be your own refuges” (218). He admits how different this statement is from the Christian belief in one’s “total self-surrender and a complete dependence on Christ,” but his growing attraction to Buddhism brings him to defend the Buddha’s assertion by reinterpreting it.

Merton argues that Buddha is “by no means telling them to rely on themselves ‘instead of’ on ‘grace’” (Mystics and Zen Masters). According to him, Buddhists are “to rely on nothing but ‘the truth’ as they experience it directly” (219). But what Buddha is saying here is precisely what Merton insists he isn’t. Buddha, in his first sermon in the Deer Park, had already denied the possibility of a personal ego, and he had rejected any truth other than the lack of truth–what the Western tradition calls the “liar’s paradox.” The Buddha’s assertion is exactly what it appears to be: We can rely on nothing but ourselves and our own discovery of our lack of self and truth to become enlightened. These two positions, the Buddhist reliance upon self and the Christian reliance on Christ, are not as reconcilable as Merton suggests.

May He Rest in Peace

It would be unfair to call Merton an unfaithful Catholic, or to insist that he became a Buddhist before his death. In his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he explained:

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. (133)

Nevertheless, some of his ideas are dangerous. His later writings (see “Read with Caution,” page 9) are more confusing than helpful, for they conflate and confuse Buddhist and Christian teachings. One example of that confusion is seen in a popular icon sold in many Christian and Buddhist stores that depicts him sitting in the lotus posture in Zen meditation. The night before his death, Merton told John Moffitt that, “Zen and Christianity are the future.” This is precisely what the Holy Father has expressed grave concerns about.

Just before he left for Asia, Merton participated in a “dialogue session” at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, where he opened with the troubling statement: “What I want to do today is to give you some kind of account of the mischief I expect to get into in Asia” (Thomas Merton: Preview of the Asian Journey, 30). He then asserts that there is no danger in conflating Catholicism and Buddhism. Just after making this claim, Merton continues, “And it is perfectly possible to . . . [pause], and I think Catholics should. I think if Catholics had a little more Zen they’d be a lot less ridiculous than they are. . . .” (Thomas Merton: Preview of the Asian Journey, 33). His writings, like this comment, leave a lot to be discerned within the ellipses.

The piece includes a Sidebar that has recommended Merton works, as well as five later books that should be “Read With Caution” (including descriptions of each).

This post, and artwork, by Carl E. Olson originally appeared in The Catholic World Report. Used with permission.


Editor’s Note: A listing of all our “Can I Trust” Posts can be found here: “Can I Trust?” Series.

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