Monk Meets MonkThomas Merton, the widely admired Christian mystic, Trappist monk and spiritual writer, died on a pilgrimage to India on December 10th, 1968. Father Merton published some 60 books and lived a devout life as both a cloistered contemplative and as a social critic of American imperialism. He had traveled to India to meet with Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, after cultivating an interest in Zen by exchanging letters with D.T. Suzuki and writing books exploring the deeper connections between Christian mysticism and Eastern mysticism. A few days before his death in India, he experienced an epiphany on December 3rd while gazing at Buddhist figures carved out of a cliff. Here's what he wrote in his journal about that day:
Looking at these figures, I was suddenly, almost forcibly jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious . . . . The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya . . . everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don't know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. . . . my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. . . . I don't know what else remains but I have seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise. This is Asia in its purity, not covered over with garbage, Asian or European or American, and it is clear, pure, complete. It says everything; it needs nothing. And because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered. It does not need to be discovered. It is we, Asians included, who need to discover it. [qtd in Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America 2nd edition, pg 300. ]
A week later Merton died in an accident that apparently involved touching an electric fan while standing on a wet stone floor. This fatal accident occurred within two hours of a speech he gave in Bangkok, Thailand to some Catholic abbots. The topic of his final talk was on "Marxism & Monasticism". A revolutionary student leader from France had once remarked to him, "We are monks also." According to the Fields book cited above, "Merton went on to say that the monk, like the revolutionary, is 'essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the contemporary world and its structures," with the fundamental difference that the Marxist sought to change economic substructures, while the 'monk is seeking to change man's consciousness'."
He then talked about the central concern of monastic life, which is a "total inner transformation." Here's the conclusion of those last words from Merton, delivered in the fullness of his illumination:
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 into this than we have. The combination of the natural techniques and the graces we have and 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 transcendent liberty which is beyond mere cultural differences and mere externals -- and mere this and that.