Merton — a man of his times?

Discussion in 'Comparative Studies' started by Thomas, Jul 30, 2019.

  1. Thomas

    Thomas Well-Known Member

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    OK ... here goes ...
    The blog 'Transient and Permanent' offers a critique of Thomas Merton's "Zen and the Birds of Apetite"

    "The first thing to be said about ZBA is that Thomas Merton’s understanding of Buddhism and Zen is far less than he seems to think it is. Statements ... demonstrate the sort of Orientalizing and projection characteristic of Western encounters with Buddhism in the fifties and sixties."

    This is important, contextually. Zen in the 50s and 60s was still largely unknown. The fame of Zen in the west came later, after Merton, and commentators today have acknowledged that for all the good things he had to say, Merton's perception of Zen was framed within his own limited exposure to the tradition.

    As the author notes, Buddhism is 'a far more systematic religion than Christianity'. The three jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, can be paralleled with Christ, His teaching and the Church. The rules of the sangha were established by the Buddha in far more definitive terms than Christ's establishment of a Church. Western commentaries have tended to play down this aspect because they were riding the wave of post 60s anti-authoritarianism. Anything that smacked of 'institution' was definite no-no. In fact Buddhism, and especially Zen, was sold on the very idea of its anti-traditionalism. But this is all part of the western marketing-matrix.

    Merton's introduction to Zen was founded on 'poorly translated textual sources centered on meditation techniques', and he took that to be 'the whole tapestry'. Again, not uncommon at the time of his writing.

    Merton's approach to Zen was "the quest for direct and pure experience on a metaphysical level." This has been his road from his first epiphany at the age of 23, another a few years later which brought him into the monastic orders, and his petitioning his superiors to build a hermitage to which he could withdraw and escape 'the tyranny of the bell' that struck the hours of the contemplative religious life.

    Merton's journey has been characterised by a (questionable) desire for mystical experience, On the one hand to attain Eckhartian depths of realisation, on the other to escape the trials and tribulations of his mortal life.

    At this point it's worth mentioning that the then-contemporary Catholicism was hampered by a definite reluctance to treat Catholic faith as a dynamic spiritual practice. Faced with the 'heresies' of anti-mystical Protestantism and secular Modernism, the Church had dug in its heels, and the seminaries were places of dry, dusty scholasticism by the book; the monasteries followed the Liturgy of the Hours. The laity never even got a look in, and there was precious lettle to guide them beyond The Imitation of Christ or The Cloud of Unknowing.

    Spirituality was Suspect, especially with spiritism and the various modes of spiritual expression that were emerging in the US.

    Buddhism, on the other hand, seemed to offer a direct path, the practice of meditation, a physical system oriented towards spiritual realisation. For Merton, Zen was an escape from "developing Christian consciousness [that is] activistic, antimystical, antimetaphysical" (p29).

    It's a pity then that he was unaware of movements in Europe, where from the 1930s on, writers who were snarkily referred to as exponents of 'la nouvelle theologie' by an institution who regarded everything 'new' as suspect, were promoting just that. It was the influence of such writers that inspired John XXIII to "Throw open the windows of the Church and let the fresh air of the Spirit blow" by announcing the Second Vatican Council.

    (The immediate results Merton saw as negative. He was not a liberal Christian by any measure and disliked the relaxing of the rules.)

    This is salient for me. Merton's deeply troubled psyche is no secret. In the years before he died, and while he was supposedly a Trappist hermit, he followed a writing career and toured the Far East. He engaged vigorously with the American socio-political scene and expressed his fury with the authorities, including his own, over right-wing politics.

    A psychologist friend told him he secretly desired to sit in a tent in the middle of Times Square with a sign outside the tent saying: "Hermit". His first abbot curtailed his travels. His last was an ex-student who encouraged him to do just that, and it seems the temptations he had escaped by withdrawing to the cloister claimed him in the end. While all this was going on, he was having an affair with a 19-year-old woman (he was then 53) who's fiancé was serving in Viet Nam. When that ended – he continued to call and write, right up to the day she left on her honeymoon – it was to have a devastating effect on his life.

    At one point Merton declares man's pressing need for: "liberation from his inordinate self-consciousness, his monumental self-awareness, his obsession with self-affirmation” (p31). Surely this was Merton talking to himself.

    +++

    Merton was indeed a troubled soul. Whether or not he was the spiritual giant that he is acclaimed to be, I do not know. I have many of his books, inc. The Seven Story Mountain. Personally, I'm inclined to think not.

    He was a voice of the zeitgeist for sure, and he laid bare the agonies of the western psyche and soul in search of authentic fulfilment. But, and it pains me to say it, it seems he never had the makings of the true mystic, he never attained that which he aspired to, and his private life alone would ensure that.

    As deep as he sought to bury himself in monasticism, the counter-current sought to find ways out. Certainly the institutional church did itself no favours in this. He simply could not accept the yoke of the path he had chosen. Had he a more insightful, dare one say spiritual, spiritual director, who knows ...
     
  2. muhammad_isa

    muhammad_isa Active Member

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    Indeed .. westerners often want to escape to eastern culture, while they themselves are often looking for western materialism.
    Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh [ the orange freaks ;) ] was very successful in the 70's exploiting this very issue.

    Indeed, and quite right to be, imo :)
     
  3. Three things:-

    1. To claim that Buddhism (a western construct, the west which likes its various categorical "isms" not to say "ainities") is a far more systematic religion than Christianity, is to favour Theravada as the model.

    2. Having read virtually all Merton's Journals (seven volumes) what is apparent beyond dispute (IMO) is his profound self honesty. Nothing said about him in the OP is not directly addressed, admitted, known to Merton. He had no illusions about himself. His "deeply troubled psyche" was well known to himself. If only most of us had his own power of introspection! He at least never saw himself as a "spiritual giant".

    3. Having read, and continuing to read, many many books by Buddhists of all types, Western and Eastern, all written over the past 50 years by those well acquainted with its on-going relevance to the West, personally I find Merton's insights on Christian/Buddhist dialogue remain very pertinent and not out-dated.
     
  4. One further word, Merton actually speaks of an attraction to zen built upon:-

    "post 60s anti-authoritarianism"

    And spoke against it.

    Here:-

    However, let us be on our guard. This reference to Zen, which naturally suggests itself at a time when Zen is still somewhat popular in the western world, may be a clue, but it may also be a misleading cliché. There are quite a few western readers who have in one way or another heard about Zen and even tasted a little of it with the tip of the tongue. But tasting is one thing and swallowing is another, especially when, having only tasted, one procedes to identify the thing tasted with something else which it seems to resemble. The fashion of Zen in certain western circles fits into the rather confused pattern of spiritual revolution and renewal. It represents a certain understandable dissatisfaction with conventional spiritual patterns and with ethical and religious formalism. It is a symptom of western man’s desperate need to recover spontaneity and depth in a world which his technological skill has made rigid, artificial, and spiritually void. But in its association with the need to recover authentic sense experience, western Zen has become identified with a spirit of improvisation and experimentation—with a sort of moral anarchy that forgets how much tough discipline and what severe traditional mores are presupposed by the Zen of China and Japan. So also with Chuang Tzu. He might easily be read today as one preaching a gospel of license and uncontrol. Chuang Tzu himself would be the first to say that you cannot tell people to do whatever they want when they don’t even know what they want in the first place!

    (From "A Study of Chuang Tzu")

    And a final word.......who is ever not a "man of his times" by some measure?
     
  5. Yes he referred to himself as an "anti-monk"

    Perhaps the "institutional Church" should have forbidden him to ever write again after entering the Trappist Order?"

    Yes, some quite entertaining entries in Merton's Journals regarding his first Spiritual Director! Perhaps the full weight of the Inquisition could have been reconstituted just for Merton's sake?!
     
  6. wil

    wil UNeyeR1

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    My eyesight and brain told.me the title of this thread was "Merlin -...
     
    StevePame likes this.
  7. Obviously my hobby horse! :)


    Just read a little of the full blog, and Merton is deemed to know "less about zen than he thinks he does." The following is quoted from Merton's essays on Zen in ZBA:-

    To define Zen in terms of a religious system or structure is in fact to destroy it—or rather to miss it completely (p. 3)”, “Buddhism itself . . . demands not to be a system"

    As I see it, the words "define" and "demands" make Merton perfectly correct, and by using them as he does Merton actually by-passes the criticisms of him that are raised "because Buddhism is in fact more systematic than Christianity."

    As far as "limited exposure", well Merton came in for much stick from his fellow monastics simply because of the time he spent in the woods practicing zen meditation, the heart of zen. Maybe he should have had greater "exposure' to books on the subject?
     
  8. All in all, a poor blog. I feel, for many reasons, that in fact Merton knew far more about zen than the blogs author, who appears to have his own axe to grind, a man of his times.

    I really do have to consider the letters of Merton...


    The scope and variety of his correspondents are staggering. He wrote to poets and heads of states; to popes, bishops, priests, religious and lay people; to monks, rabbis, and Zen masters; to Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, Orthodox Christians, and Jews; to Buddhists, Hindus, and Sufis; to literary agents and publishers; to theologians and social activists; to old friends and young ones, too. The range and contents of his letters are almost as diverse as the number of his correspondents. He wrote about Allah, Anglicanism, Asia, the Bible, the Blessed Virgin, Buddhism, China, Christ, Christendom, Church, conscience, contemplation, and the cold war; about Eckhart, ecumenism, God, happiness, his hermitage, and his hospital interludes; about illusions, Islam, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Koran, Latin America, liturgy, the love of God, poetry, political tyranny, precursors of Christ, prophets, psalms, silence, solitude, and sobornost; about technology, Trinity, unity, the will of God, his own writings. The subjects of his letters parallel, and often shed light on, the wide variety of topics in his published articles and books.

    Having read more than half of them at one time or another, it is obvious to me that Merton as a man was truly able to "commune" with others via words, to deepen their faith. And like all true Christians, did so purely because of his faults and failings. And I think he knew this.
     
  9. It might as well have been.........:)
     
  10. A Cup Of Tea

    A Cup Of Tea An ordinary cup of tea

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    Going from your telling of him, he doesn't seem to actually have faults?
     
  11. I think if you read back, I'm saying that he was actually aware of all the faults alluded to in the OP.

    Which is another thing entirely.
     
  12. Thomas

    Thomas Well-Known Member

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    I'm not question that, rather it's the profound need to write about himself. As Gregory Zilboorg (his psychoanalyst) noted, he had a deep desire for celebrity.

    I'm not here to attack Merton, just to contextualise a little bit. But, you have to admit, he was a crazy, mixed-up kid, a mass of contradictions.

    I see a man who wanted to escape the world, but keep one foot in it ... his spiritual writings document this in depth, I'm sure. I also raise an eyebrow that M, the young woman with whom he had an affair, was named in journals (it was the editor who redacted the text to 'M') and he never made any attempt to preserve her anonymity ... but of a toughie, as she was engaged at the time and I wonder at how she and her husband managed that revelation!

    I have Seven Storey Mountain, Seeds of Contemplation and a couple of other books, but I must admit we never sparked.

    Having said that, I'm happy enough to dismiss the blog entry above as one-sided. My web browsing took me to the apparently cruel biography by Gary Wills, and that too I'm happy to ignore. I came across comments from another writer, the now-Orthodox ex-Gethsemani student, Patrick Henry Reardon, and found these comments interesting:
    Very much in line with Ressourcement Theologie!

    The stumbling block for me is he is a monk who had an affair ... I'm not castigating him for that, but on the other hand, had he not enjoyed the reputation he has for ecumenism, a spokesperson of comparative religion and of course the post-modern assumption that he was thinking 'outside' the Catholic box, he would be just another example of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church – the question of abuse of authority (he a famous author, she young and dazzled) and the fact that in the end he could not break off with her, but never intended to marry her ...

    Well not all of us are so conflicted, nor do we have the desire to play out our conflicts for the world...

    Surely one of the tenets of Buddhism is not to get involved with such introspection? Is this not the ephemeral focussing on the ephemeral? As a famous Zen master once said, "Enough talk (writing, introspection), zazen!"

    I think Merton was always looking to escape some part of himself. He looked into the world religions before he joined the Catholic Church. He was dissatisfied with his pew-dwellers and entered the monastery. He was dissatisfied with his brothers and sought out the hermitage, and when there, he was dissatisfied that no-one came to ask how he was ... the hermit became a global celebrity ...

    ... There is much, I'm sure, to be gleaned from his self-reflections, and his dialogue with other traditions, but it does seem to me he never found the peace he was looking for. The Dalai Lama once told a seeker that if he couldn't find what he was looking for in his own tradition, he wouldn't find it here. When he visited the Dominican monks at Oxford, he said something akin to: "I can't think of anything to say. I am a monk. You are monks. We're the same. What is there to be said? I feel like I am among friends, not in front of an audience... What time d'you get up in the morning?"

    Conversion — and there was never any question of conversion in Merton — is a rare thing, as I think it is with you, if I may say — my attempts at Soto never really got off the ground. And I read somewhere that Merton was not a syncretist as, say, Bede Griffiths.

    ... maybe it's because I have my own travails enough, without engaging in someone else's, my faith isn't strong enough!
     
  13. muhammad_isa

    muhammad_isa Active Member

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    I would agree. His thesis upon graduation was on William Blake.
    "One of Blake's strongest objections to orthodox Christianity is that he felt it encouraged the suppression of natural desires and discouraged earthly joy ... he saw the concept of 'sin' as a trap to bind men's desires, and believed that restraint in obedience to a moral code imposed from the outside was against the spirit of life"

    Nouvelle théologie (French for "new theology") is the name commonly used to refer to a school of thought in Catholic theology that arose in the mid-20th century.
    It rejects an orthodox interpretation, such as that of Thomas Aquinas. Merton was part of that movement.

    There are many sects of Christianity in the modern world. They seem to be based on "likes and dislikes of various dogma", rather than on theological principles.
    It is right that we have our own minds and should decide for ourselves which spiritual direction we take, but the intentions behind why we choose what we choose are of paramount importance. Are we looking for truth, or are we looking for
    (to quote Blake) "earthly joy"? (or perhaps, to escape from something)

    In my understanding, G-d does not wish us to be miserable, but He wishes us to be successful in this life and the next (which is in effect, a continuation of this one in a spiritual sense!)
     
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2019
  14. A Cup Of Tea

    A Cup Of Tea An ordinary cup of tea

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    Yes, it is another thing?

    He's aware of his flaws, but his flaws doesn't come into it when you talk about him. I think that's interesting. Do you think his texts have limitations?
     
  15. wil

    wil UNeyeR1

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    They seem entwined to me.
     
  16. Thomas

    Thomas Well-Known Member

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    He might possibly be right, although he was certainly a Romantic!

    Yes.
    I think that's not quite right. There's no dogma nor doctrine rejected by 'Nouvelle theologians'.

    It was a reaction not so much against doctrine, as the way doctrine was taught. Neoscholasticism was what happens if Christianity is argued by lawyers in the courtroom.

    The Catholic Church was facing what it perceived to be a new challenge with the emergence of 'Modernism', as Europe underwent significant social and political changes. The emergence of republicanism upset the Curia deeply, as they saw it as an assault on the fundamental right to rule ... if you let the public question, where will it end?

    It's an involved topic, but spirituality and mysticism was caught between the appearance of various streams of 'free thought' liberalism on the one hand and the anti-supernatural aspects of Protestantism on the other ... it was something akin to more recent grindstones of the New Age Romance and überRationalism.

    I once heard a neuroscientist talking, and he said neuroscientists tended to keep quiet because the topic had become really hot in the popular consciousness with all manner of nonsense theories abounding. Same thing happened in Quantum Physics ... and the same thing happened in Christianity when you mention 'spirituality' or 'mystical' ... so seminary education focussed on teaching a means by which Catholic doctrine could be reasoned and argued, when everyone was either saying it's superstition/illogical/irrational, or were 'away with the faeries', as my dad used to say.

    And, of course, Aquinas' Summa was then as now the unmatched master of the logical argument.

    The Ressourcement Theologians never rejected Aquinas as such, only the 19th century teaching style. It was they who recovered Aquinas the Mystic. Various schools of Thomism exist today and notably John Paul II and Benedict XVI were both Thomists, and Benedict especially very close to the Nouvelle Theologie.

    Same with any religion, Shia Sunny ... it's all a matter of interpretation.

    Then America effectively enabled religion to be regarded as another form of commerce, then it really got going! Of the thousands of sects, I don't know how many are American, or started as commercial enterprises, 'tract publishing houses', the Jehovah's Witnesses being an example.

    Quite, a question asked of every religion.

    In fact I'd say the contemporary Western understanding of spirituality is precisely 'earthly joy'.
     
  17. muhammad_isa

    muhammad_isa Active Member

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    Well yes, I suppose they are.
    It is the nature of how they are entwined that I refer to..

    ..such as Blake's dislike of the concept of sin due to "a moral code imposed from the outside"
    That cannot be theologically justified, imo
     
  18. Here is an excerpt from a previous post of mine on this thread:-

    Having read more than half of them (his letters) at one time or another, it is obvious to me that Merton as a man was truly able to "commune" with others via words, to deepen their faith. And like all true Christians, did so purely because of his faults and failings. And I think he knew this.
     
  19. His letters, which I have mentioned, were almost exclusively about others, and of communion with others. Many friendships he had were deep and profound.

    Really, perhaps I am not so much into judgement of others as some, preferring to give thanks for what they have given me? And if that sounds self-righteous, perhaps it is.
     
  20. Well, "a moral code from the outside" was in the OT the Law writ on tablets of stone. The aim of Christ's coming was to write them upon human hearts. This latter aim was also Blakes.

    I went to the Garden of Love,
    And saw what I never had seen:
    A Chapel was built in the midst,
    Where I used to play on the green.

    And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
    And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
    So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
    That so many sweet flowers bore.

    And I saw it was filled with graves,
    And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
    And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
    And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

    (The Garden of Love, William Blake)
     

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