Birthday of Thomas Merton
Born on 31st January, 1915, Thomas Merton was a Roman Catholic monk, poet, and prolific writer on spiritual and social themes, one of the most important American Roman Catholic writers of the 20th century. On May 26, 1949, he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood and given the name “Father Louis”. Merton wrote more than 50 books in a period of 27 years, mostly on spirituality, social justice and a quiet pacifism, as well as scores of essays and reviews. Among Merton’s most enduring works is his bestselling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948). His account of his spiritual journey inspired scores of World War II veterans, students, and teenagers to explore offerings of monasteries across the US. Merton became a keen proponent of interfaith understanding, exploring Eastern religions through his study of mystic practice. He is particularly known for having pioneered dialogue with prominent Asian spiritual figures, including the Dalai Lama; Japanese writer D. T. Suzuki; Thai Buddhist monk Buddhadasa and Vietnamese monk Thich Naht Hanh. He traveled extensively in the course of meeting with them and attending international conferences on religion. In addition, he wrote books on Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, and how Christianity related to them. This was highly unusual at the time in the United States, particularly within the religious orders.
Merton’s only novel, My Argument with the Gestapo, written in 1941, was published posthumously in 1969. His other writings included The Waters of Siloe (1949), a history of the Trappist ; Seeds of Contemplation (1949); and The Living Bread (1956), a meditation on the Eucharist. Further posthumous publications included the essay collection Contemplation in a World of Action (1971); The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (1973); seven volumes of his private journals; and several volumes of his correspondence. When Osho talks about Thomas Merton, he says, “Thomas Merton is far better than Suzuki, than Alan Watts, than Paul Reps, than Hubert Benoit, and than many others who have written about Zen. He comes the closest, because he is not speaking through the head, he is speaking through the heart of a poet. But the heart is only just in the middle, between the head and the being. Unless you reach to the being, you don’t have the experience yourself. But he was a sensitive man; he managed to state things which he had not experienced.”
The first question:
IN THOMAS MERTON’S VIEW:
“ZEN IS NOT A SYSTEMATIC EXPLANATION OF LIFE, IT IS NOT AN IDEOLOGY, IT IS NOT A WORLD VIEW, IT IS NOT A THEOLOGY OF REVELATION AND SALVATION, IT IS NOT A MYSTIQUE, IT IS NOT A WAY OF ASCETIC PERFECTION, IT IS NOT MYSTICISM AS IT IS UNDERSTOOD IN THE WEST; IN FACT IT FITS NO CONVENIENT CATEGORY OF OURS. HENCE ALL OUR ATTEMPTS TO TAG IT AND DISPOSE OF IT WITH LABELS LIKE PANTHEISM, QUIETISM, ILLUMINISM, PELAGIANISM, MUST BE COMPLETELY INCONGRUOUS. “BUT THE CHIEF CHARACTERISTIC OF ZEN IS THAT IT REJECTS ALL SYSTEMATIC ELABORATIONS IN ORDER TO GET BACK AS FAR AS POSSIBLE TO THE PURE, UNARTICULATED AND UNEXPLAINED GROUND OF DIRECT EXPERIENCE. THE DIRECT EXPERIENCE OF WHAT? LIFE ITSELF.”
BELOVED MASTER, HAS THOMAS MERTON GOT IT?
It is a very sad story about Thomas Merton. Perhaps he was one of the persons in the West who has come closest to Zen. He had the sensibility of a poet; the others are approaching Zen from their intellect, their mind. Thomas Merton is approaching Zen through his heart. He feels it, but he could not live the direct experience he is talking about. He would have been the first Zen master in the West, but he was prevented by the Catholic church.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk under the control of the Vatican. The Trappist monks are the most self-torturing ascetics in Christianity. Perhaps that’s why they are called Trappist — trapped forever. Thomas Merton wrote beautiful poetry, and he asked again and again to go to Japan and to live in a Zen monastery to have the direct experience of Zen. But permission was refused half a dozen times; again and again he was refused. If he had really understood Zen he would not have bothered even to ask for permission. Who is the Vatican? Who is the pope? A Zen master asking permission from unenlightened people is simply not heard of. And he followed the orders from the Vatican and from the abbot of his own monastery. He had been reading as much as was available in English about Zen. Finally, he had a chance to go, but he did not understand the way the organized religions work. There was going to be a Catholic conference of missionaries in Bangkok, Thailand, and he asked permission to attend the conference. Deep in his heart he was going to Bangkok to attend the conference just so that from there he could enter Japan without asking anybody’s permission. But the pope and the Vatican leaders and his abbot — they were all aware of his continuously asking for permission to go to a Zen monastery.
On the last day of the conference in Bangkok, Thomas Merton spoke about Zen. And he also mentioned that he would love to go to Japan from Bangkok. That very night he was found dead. And without anybody being informed, his body was embalmed immediately, without any autopsy, without knowing the cause of his death. After you have embalmed a body there is no possibility of autopsy. There is every reason to suspect that he was poisoned to prevent him from going to a Zen monastery.
Murder has been the argument of the so-called religions. This is not a religious attitude at all. If he wanted to experience Zen, any religious man would have allowed him to go. That’s what happens in Zen. No master ever rejects any disciple’s interest in some other Zen monk, in some other monastery — maybe belonging to a different branch, Soto or Rinzai… Permission is gracefully given, and not only to those who are inquiring about going somewhere else. Even the master himself, if he feels that some other master will be more appropriate, some other path leading to the direct experience will be more fitting to the disciple, will send his own disciples to other monasteries. This is a totally different world, the world of Zen, with no competitiveness, no question of conversion.
Thomas Merton’s murder shows the poverty of Catholicism and Christianity. Why were they so afraid? The fear was that Thomas Merton had already praised Zen, and although he was living in the monastery, it seemed he was wavering between Zen and Christianity. To give him a chance to go to Japan and have a direct experience under a master might have been dangerous. He might have become involved in Zen for his whole life. These so-called religions are so jealous; they don’t have any compassion for individual growth, freedom. Thomas Merton’s murder is not only Thomas Merton’s murder, it should make every Christian aware that Christianity is not a religion. Deep down it is more interested in gathering numbers. Numbers have their own politics.
The greater the number of followers you have, the greater the power to dominate. And they are always afraid that anybody who leaves their fold is betraying.
But it is absolutely certain that Thomas Merton had already felt in his heart the immense need for Zen. Christianity was no longer satisfying. His whole life he had been a monk in the monastery, but slowly slowly, as he became aware of Zen, he could see that Christianity was not at all a religion; fictions, lies, beliefs, but not a direct experience. The very idea of Zen as a non-systematic, individualist approach to truth in a direct way — not through theology, not through any belief, not through any philosophy, but through meditation — was attracting him immensely, but it was not yet an experience.
Thomas Merton is far better than Suzuki, than Alan Watts, than Paul Reps, than Hubert Benoit, and than many others who have written about Zen. He comes the closest, because he is not speaking through the head, he is speaking through the heart of a poet. But the heart is only just in the middle, between the head and the being. Unless you reach to the being, you don’t have the experience yourself. But he was a sensitive man; he managed to state things which he had not experienced.
His statement is beautiful, but it shows clearly that he had not experienced it himself. This is his understanding — of course, far deeper than any other Western scholar of Zen. If it had really been a direct experience for him, the way he was saying, he would not have cared about anybody’s permission, he would not have cared about Christianity. He would have come out of that fold — which was just a slavery and nothing else.
Because he never came out of the fold, that shows he was hanging in the middle, he was not yet certain. He had not tasted the truth. He had only heard about it, read about it, and felt that there seems to be a different approach, altogether different, from that of Christianity. But Christianity was still keeping its hold over him. He could not be a rebel, and that’s where he failed, completely failed.
A man of Zen is basically rebellious. Thomas Merton was not rebellious, he was a very obedient person. Obedience is another name for slavery, a beautiful name that does not hurt you, but it is spiritual slavery. His asking six times and being refused, and still remaining in the fold, shows clearly that he was spiritually a slave. Although he was showing a deep interest in Zen, it was at the most, deeper than the mind, but not deep enough to reach to the being. He remained hanging in the middle. Perhaps now in his new life, he may either be here, or in Japan — most probably he is here amongst you — because that was his last wish before he died. As the conference ended and he went to his bed, immediately he was poisoned. While he was dying, thinking about Zen, his last wish must have been to go to Japan, to be with a master. He had lived under Christianity his whole life, but it had not fulfilled him, it had not made him enlightened. It had only been a consolation.
Only fools can be deceived by consolations and lies and fictions. A man of such intense sensitivity as Thomas Merton could not be befooled. But a lifelong obedience turned into a spiritual slavery. He tried to sneak out from Bangkok — because there was no need to ask the abbot of the monastery, there was no need to ask the pope. He could have simply gone from Bangkok. But these so-called religions are murderous. They must have been ready. If he showed any interest in Japan and not going back to his monastery directly from Bangkok as the conference ended… the murderers must have been already there. And because he mentioned in his last speech to the conference that he was immensely interested in Zen, and he would like to go to Japan from there, this statement became his death. So it is not only Ayatollah Khomeini. There have been murders and murders, century after century, of people who wanted to get out of the slavery and seek and search the truth on their own; who wanted to get rid of all systems, who wanted to have a direct experience of life.
Thomas Merton’s words are beautiful, but they are empty words because there is no supporting experience behind them. I will read those words again. “Zen is not a systematic explanation of life” — but this can be said very easily by anybody reading books about Zen. It is not a systematic explanation of life; in fact, it is not an explanation at all. That makes the difference. He is denying: “Zen is not a systematic explanation of life.”
I say unto you, Zen is not an explanation at all about life or existence. It is an experience, not an explanation. It is not an ideology.
This can be said by anyone who is reading a book on Zen. But it is stated with such certainty by so many people who have only an intellectual understanding, that it is not a great indication of whether Thomas Merton had had any experience. Zen certainly is not an ideology, it is not a world view. All these are different words for the same thing: “a systematic explanation, an ideology, a world view, a theology of revelation and salvation.” He is simply being tautological, he is saying the same thing again and again in different words. “It is not a mystique” — there he is wrong. It is, although it is not stated. That’s why he thought it is not a mystique. It is the greatest mystique, but it is not said because it cannot be said. Because it is never said, he thought that it is not a mystique. These small things indicate that he’s just read about it — because nowhere is it said that it is a mystique. Because no master ever indicated in words that it is a mystique, he thinks it is not a mystique. It is. It is the greatest mystique, the greatest mystery, the greatest miracle.
But to say it in words has not been the way of Zen. It attracts people, takes away their ideologies, their theologies, their religions. It leaves you absolutely fresh at the very center of your being. Without saying anything, you experience the mystique, you experience the mystery of existence and life. But because it is an experience…
In Zen they don’t even use the word `experience’, they use the word `experiencing’, because the experience is not something dead and complete. It is a river flowing, flowing, alive, moving. The word `experience’ indicates that it has become complete. Anything that becomes complete becomes dead, and Zen is the most alive thing in the world; hence it cannot be said that it is an experience. We have to invent a word, `experiencing’; instead of river, `rivering’… That gives the clear-cut idea that a river is not static, it is moving. On the way, always on the way, moving eternally, falling into the ocean, rising into the clouds, falling in the rain on the mountains, and again into the river… moving in a circle of tremendous aliveness, never stopping anywhere.
There is no full stop in Zen, and all our words — `experience’, `knowledge’, `understanding’… give the illusion of a full stop. We have to change our nouns into verbs — verbs come closer to life. We use the word `life’, but we should use the word `living’ — that comes closer. Moment to moment, living. `Life’ seems to be something dead; it has already completed its course, has come to an end, to the graveyard.
Zen is certainly a mystique. In fact, it is the only mystique there is. But it is not being said, it is kept a secret so that you don’t go inside your being with a certain idea. You go absolutely clean and fresh. You will find the mystery, the immense mystery of life, but Zen’s absolute approach is not to give you any idea what you are going to find. The reason is very scientific. If you have any idea what you are going to find — which all the religions give you… The mind has the capacity to create an hallucination of the idea. Then the idea becomes a reality to you. Christians experience Christ, Buddhists experience Buddha, Hindus experience Krishna. It never happens to a Hindu that Christ comes, it never happens to a Christian that Mohammed comes. Strange… Mohammed comes only to those who believe in Mohammed…
The mind has the capacity of dreaming, hallucinating, imagining. If you are constantly working on one single idea, sooner or later it becomes such a fixed program that when you look in silence you find suddenly Christ arising. That fulfills your idea. It is a vicious circle. Because you experience Christ arising in your mind, your belief in Christ becomes stronger. Now it is no longer just a belief, you have experienced it also. Because it becomes stronger, there is more possibility of Christ coming closer to you. Every time Christ appears to you, he will be more solid, more alive, closer. And every time he appears, you are getting feedback for your belief system, it is becoming stronger and more fanatical. Soon you will be almost insane. You will start talking to Christ — and not only will you start talking, but he will answer…
Zen will not fit into any category because it is a category in itself. And it is such a rebellious category, such an unsystematic category, that in Zen all kinds of wildflowers are accepted as equal with the roses and with the lotuses. It does not matter whether it is a lotus or a rose or just a wildflower, the only thing that matters is flowering. All have flowered to their potential. That’s where they are all equal. Otherwise their colors are different, their beauties are different, their fragrances are different — a few may not have any fragrance at all. So they don’t fit in one category, but as far as flowering is concerned, they have all flowered, blossomed, to their totality. Whatever was hidden has become a reality. What was a dream in the plant has blossomed as a reality. Zen is a blossoming of your potential. And everybody has a different potential, so when you blossom as a Zen man you have a unique individuality.
You don’t fit with any category — and not only Christian categories. That’s what Thomas Merton means: “In fact, it fits no convenient category of ours.”
But I have to say to you, it does not fit any category at all, yours or ours or anybody else’s. It is beyond the mind. All categories belong to the mind.
This is the only rebellion against mind: going beyond it. This is the only revolution against the self: going into no-self, into anatta. This is ultimate freedom from all kinds of bondages:
prisons and categories and isms and ideologies and world views and philosophies. It is an absolute freedom from all that mind can create and mind can understand. It is also free from the heart.
The heart can understand something deeper than the mind, but Zen is far deeper than the heart. The heart can be just an overnight stay. While you are going towards your being, your heart, your art, your music, your dance, your poetry, your painting, your sculpture, can be just one night’s halt. But you have to go deeper. You have to reach to the very roots of your life, from where you are getting nourishment every moment, to the point where you are joined with existence, you are no longer separate.
This is an excerpt from the transcript of a public discourse by Osho in Buddha Hall, Shree Rajneesh Ashram, Pune.
Discourse name: The Zen Manifesto: Freedom From Oneself
Chapter title: Let the christian ship drown
21 February 1989 pm in Gautam the Buddha Auditorium
Osho has spoken on famous writers and philosophers like Albert Camus, Aristotle, Berkeley, Byron, Bukharin, Confucius, Descartes, Feuerbach, Fyodor Dostoevsky, D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells, Hegel, Huxley, John Milton, Kahlil Gibran, Kalidas, Kant, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Nietzsche, Rabindranath Tagore, Schiller, Shakespeare, Socrates, Voltaire, Wittgenstein and many more in His discourses. Some of these can be referred to in the following books/discourses:
- Come Come Yet Again Come
- Beyond Psychology
- The Dhammapada: the way of the Buddha Vol.1,3,7,9,10,12
- The Transmission of The Lamp
- I am That
- The Perfect Master
- The Golden Future
- Communism and Zen Fire, Zen Wind