IN HONOR OF THOMAS MERTON’S 100TH BIRTHDAY: AN EXCERPT FROM “JUSTIFICATION BY IMAGINATION.” BY ALFRED EAKER

January 31st is the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton. In honor of his centenary, the following is an excerpt from my Master’s Thesis: Justification By Imagination: The Marian  Art Of Thomas Merton. 

The thesis was approved by Drs. Frank Burch Brown, Marti Steussy, and Lorna Shoemaker.

 

Introduction: Opening Merton

 

It is, perhaps, apt that Thomas Merton’s Marian art is primarily concealed—much as the Marian figure is in the gospels. The bulk of Merton’s Marian drawings reside at the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. Little of that art has been published. To approach it, one must first open Merton: “One hears from others that this is a Sacred Book, takes their word for it, and resolves not to get involved.”[1] Thomas Merton’s own words on the act of opening the Bible can be applied similarly to opening Merton. Over one hundred books and several documentary films have been produced about Thomas Merton since his death in 1968, indicating the extent of his art and influence. The magnitude and immensity of Merton is such that no single interpretation will have the final word on the famed Trappist, whose status as the preeminent Christian monk of the twentieth century, is readily acknowledged, even by his critics. Continue reading

A DIAPHANOUS PLANE (AWAKENING THE BUDDHA WITHIN)

In the meditative state an achieved plane is desired, a plane with  such shining translucency, that it takes on the characteristic of a perfectly formed icicle. This plane is prajna, the Sanskrit word for Wisdom. A common misconception among Westerners is that Buddhism, being a pessimistic, pantheistic religion, flouts moral conviction. Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor pantheistic and, rather than flouting moral conviction, Buddhism edifies ethical conduct as an essential goal attained through the wisdom from a life of meditation, as I will endeavor to show.

First, in briefly addressing the charge of pantheism, I will quote Dom Aelred Graham, “Buddhism stands in itself and is not to be subsumed into any such category. Pantheism is apt to ignore differences, while Buddhism does not. Differences are differences and as such they remain. But there is something in the differences which makes them most intimately related to each other,  as if they all came from the same source.” [1]

Second, is the stereotype of a pessimistic religion. Thomas Merton writes, “The Western Stereotype is that of a World-denying religion. According to this view, all positive value in earthly existence is negated. It is similar to the distortion suffered by Christian mystics, regarded as life-denying and world-hating ascetics when in reality this mysticism abounds in love, vitality and joy.” [2]

The most common exterior criticism is that Buddhism rejects the world and its peoples as phantasmagoric interruptions on the path to Nirvana. This, of course, is a pedestrian cliché and conveys anti-Nirvana, rather than Nirvana. Buddhist concentration espouses empathy for all life. First, it seeks to penetrate the substance of suffering through a meditative state. Secondly, Buddhism offers itself up as a  diverse, fluid sanctuary for all life. Nirvana is the enlightenment of superlative love, self-contained and concrete, without hostility.

Buddhism seeks the recovery of Paradise here and now and this is achieved by self-discovery, or to put in Christian phraseology, the discernment of the Kingdom of God from within. Part of the confusion, from a Western perspective, may be in the application of “right thinking.” Christianity is so saddled with apprehensive security in regards to doctrinal interpretation of moral laws that we, more often than not, succumb to audacious recourse within the sacraments. Yet, Buddhism steers clear of attachment to dogma. In so doing, it reaps the criticisms of pessimism and lax morality. According to Das, we find “wisdom functioning in life very practically. Most religious groups have only been around a few thousand years. But being itself-that mystical sacrament-has been around much longer.”[3]

Das’ description of the “Middle Way” [4]is helpful. Balance, sanity, inner strength, purity, restraint, steadfastness and moderation are characteristics of the Middle Way. The direction of the Middle Way is towards an impeccable life. “To remain whole requires a complete inward arc, or full circle, rather than just a linear achievement-oriented race to grace.”[5] Daisetz T. Suzuki  paints a silent orbiting of prajna in the form of a “circle whose circumference is nowhere and center is everywhere.” [6] With such metaphoric, ambiguously symbolic imagery, it is no wonder that liner, systematic, narratively inclined Westerners are often prone to dismissive conclusions of ethical chaos. However, Buddhism has historically been resistant to straightforward articulation.  Buddhism’s morality lies in its willingness to deconstruct conventional ideology, which includes a simplistic assessment of societal ethics, or, as Das compares wisdom’s function of something akin to “uncommon common sense.”[7]

When Das illuminates inner wisdom as a state of wiping the dust from our eyes[8] he is not adhering to populist notions of ethics, wisdom, or superficial common sense, all of which frequently lead to immorality. It is safe to conclude that the fuller the crowd, the more likely that what it esteems is farce. As Dom Aelred states so succulently, “it is not the intent to dispense altogether with morality. The moral content of many social conventions may be much less than is often supposed. It is well to take note of the Zen tendency to sit lightly to ethical obligation, and even seek to rationalize this irresponsibility by an appeal to an implied philosophy of Buddhism.” [9]

“Do we really believe and know that we reap what we sow?” is asked. This question could be comparable to “We all know we will die someday, but do we really believe it?” These are among the dysfunctional myths we live by.  The desired diaphanous plane, of diamond-like vision, is only achieved through the advanced, moral severance from religious and cultural dogma followed by inner adherence to “right view.”

Das relates his practice of chanting the eight similes of illusions during meditation. The eight similies are replete with  resplendent imagery, such as bubbles on a moving stream, dewdrops evaporating  on blades of grass, a candle flickering on a strong wind. [10] Contemplation on such imagery is beneficial to personal union with clarity. We can strip away the gossamer sheen and penetrate the depths of a true, ethical life.

Das reflects on death as the great, intimate teacher of life. “No one, when facing death, exclaims, I wish I had spent more time in the office.” [11] That is so simple, yet so evasive that it can only be attained in Prajna’s mature grasp of the primordial emptiness in which all things, all elements are of one stream.

Bibliography

Das, Lama Surya. Awakening the Buddha Within. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.

Graham, Dom Aelred. Zen Catholicism. New York: Harvest Books, 1963.

Merton, Thomas. Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Gethsemane: New Directions, 1961.

Suzuki, D.T. Zen Buddhism. New York: DoubleDay Books, 1956.


[1] Dom Aelred Graham. Zen Catholicism. New York: Harvest, 1963.29

[2] Thomas Merton. Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Gethsemani: New Directions, 1961. 81

[3][3] Lama Surya Das. Awakening the Buddha Within. New York: Broadway,1997. 95-96.

[4] ibid. 92

[5] ibid.

[6] D.T. Suzuki. Zen Buddhism. New York: DoubleDay, 1956.71

[7] ibid. 96

[8] ibid. 99

[9] ibid. 30

[10] ibid. 97

[11] ibid. 108