Archive for May, 2010

Additional Reflections and Reading on Thomas Merton

May 2, 2010 - 1:25 pm 32 Comments

Invocation/Offertory/Benediction Merton and Zen
Two monks, one a Christian and the other a Zen disciple were walking together, discussing spiritual ideals as they went along…. The Christian asked, ” Where is the Buddha? the Zen monk replied,” Buddha is found or remains in whatever give up or throw away. ( from yourself ) Persisting, the Christian then inquired, Who is Buddha? and the Zen monk replied, ” Who are you?” Turning the tables, we are given the Koan in Western terms… The Zen monk asked, ” Where is Christ?” The Christian monk answers, ” Christ is found in the first and in the last, in the beginning and in the ending” Persisting, the Zen monk inquires, ” Who is Christ?” and the Christian monk states, ” Who are you?”

Offertory Statement
Before I grasped Zen, mountains looked like mountains, and rivers like rivers. When I got into Zen, mountains no longer were just mountains, and rivers were no longer just rivers. But when I understood Zen, mountains were mountains, and rivers were rivers.
Before I grasped the essence of church, money was just money and community was just community. When I got into the essence of church, money was no longer just money and the community was no longer just a community. But when I understood the meaning of church and community, money was money and community was community. The offertory koan for the support of this church community will now be inscrutably understood and received.

In the words of Eckhart, Christianity and Zen merge… For this I know :The only way to live is like a rose, which can live without knowing why.

Selected Reading: Meditation by Thomas Merton

“[ Meditation is spiritual work, sometimes difficult work. But it is the work of love and of desire. It is not something that can be practiced without effort, at least in the beginning. And the sincerity, humility, and perseverance of our efforts will be proportionate to our desire. This desire, in turn, is a gift of grace. Anyone who imagines that they can progress in mediation without praying for the grace to continue, will soon give up. … Meditation is almost all contained in this one idea: the idea of awakening our interior self and attuning ourselves inwardly to the presence of the Holy Spirit… In mental prayer, in silence and in attunement, we must allow our interior perceptions to become refined or purified. Some of those perceptions will not fit our idea of the spiritual life at all, which serves to humble us. Much of the coldness and dryness in modern prayer will be an unconscious defense against the grace that threatens the ego or that unsettles and changes us…. Without realizing it, life without prayer and meditation desensitizes us so that we can no longer perceive grace, listen for our inner voice, receive intuition, or be open to emptiness and the fullness that is found in Christ.

Meditation is then always to be associated in practice with abandonment to the will and action of God…. Meditation that does not seek to bring our whole being into conformity with God’s will must remain sterile and abstract. But any sincere ,interior prayer and meditation cannot fail to be rewarded by grace. …

And as St. Theresa of Avila believed, no one who was faithful to the practice of prayer and meditation could ever lose their soul, and would gain a clear and calm sense of Paradise.]”

Pastoral Reflection: Eckhart looks at the interior life .

Thomas Merton looked for a Christian mystic that closely resembled or who intuitively understood Eastern mysticism and the philosophy of emptiness known as Zen. He found the person that even the Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Zen contemplative call one of their own: Meister Eckhart. “[ The shell must be cracked apart if what is in it is to come out, for if you want the kernel, you must break the shell. And therefore, if you want to discover God’s nakedness, you must destroy its symbols, and the farther you get into the core or kernel of spirituality, the closer and emptier you become, until you come to the essence. When you come to the One truth the One reality that gathers all things into itself, there you must stay.] … I pray God will rid me of God, and that the highest thing that one can let go of is to let go of God, for the sake of God. ” The spiritual life, for students of Zen, for disciples of mystical Western teachings, for U-U’s, is to rid oneself of all the negative images of God, all the false or harmful teachings, the judgmental beliefs, the punishing practices, the superficial use of symbols. . . and move one’s awareness past all those associations and experiences to the center or the essence of oneself, and there in the profound quiet and emptiness, God will live and become known to you.

Thomas Merton: An Introduction to His East/West Wisdom

May 2, 2010 - 1:22 pm 11 Comments

SERMON: Thomas Merton: Wisdom and Emptiness
Reflections on his life and work in Zen And The Birds Of Appetite

Most of you are acquainted with Thomas Merton. He was the most well known monk/scholar whose writings opened up a pioneering dialogue between the modern world and the monastery, and he helped to make popular the growing interest in bridging the Western traditions of spirituality to the Eastern insights and teachings. Though he died twenty five years ago, he was a modern prophet, a giant in the move toward synthesis and comparative religion. He was one of the few truly holy men the West has recently produced, and as both contemplative recluse, and as a contemporary prophet, he contributed much to our understanding of the rhythms and truths that flow between religion and life. Through his writings, such as Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he increased our attention on how religion needs to serve the change of social change, and how spirituality applied to daily life helps to rids us of any hypocrisy between what we believe and how we live. Other books, such as Seven Story
Mountain, and The Waters of Siloe, we are given a window into his life, and we can share the struggles of coming to religious maturity through parallels in our lives.

Lastly, his scholarship, found in writings such as the Wisdom of the Desert, or on St. Bernard of Clairevaux speak to us about living a life of heartfelt devotion, and how love is the supreme virtue in Western mysticism. Today, I would like to focus my words on his other great contribution, the formation of East/West dialogue. It is the topic that offers the liberal religious church an incentive for sharing in comparative thought. Because Unitarian-Universalism draws from differing traditions and practices, the unity of all the various paths is especially importance for us, and can reveal the common basis for values and inspiration to hold and understand. This unity in the quest for truth, toward the appreciation of humanity, culture, and the future is what Unitarianism can become. One of my West Coast colleagues, a U-U Buddhist, spoke of this recently from his pulpit in Berkeley. He reported that [ Unitarianism no longer can be seen as a New England tradition or a West Coast phenomenon. Instead of being defined or limited by our roots and routine ways of thinking, worshiping, and behaving, we need to be climbing to the highest most flexible branches. It is from those flexible and adaptable heights we can begin to bend toward recognizing and giving room to other liberal and open minded faiths, and joining in with them to form a progressive religious presence that is worldwide.]”

We have to prune the tangential side shoots, and trim out all the divisiveness, and put the energy into growth among the forest of free religious traditions that enrich our world.] ( isn’t great that I found another U-U minister who loves to use Nature metaphors!)

Unfortunately, theologians from various world religions often decline to speak to one another, for the scandal of learning about other creeds and commentaries, other ways to see humanity and experience God might threaten their orthodoxy and upset their comfortable assumptions…. But mystics East and West, are another breed of religious or spiritual human being. They welcome the exchange of ideas and practices that brings together the depth of their individual tradition with the beauty and insights of another. The results are a new synthesis of spirituality that in some ways is more complete, more versatile, flexible and applicable to the world’s needs and to our journey as U-Us toward self discovery and wholeness.

One such meeting was the dialogue, which became the friendship between Thomas Merton and D.T. Suzuki, the great Zen Buddhist scholar. Over the years of writing and speaking with one another, a bridge of heart and mind developed and a deep appreciation of one another constancy searching within life’s profound mysteries.

This bond of a shared journey built a recognition between these two men that catapulted the awareness of Zen into the Western culture and that brought out the parallels to Eastern mysticism found in Western mystics, principally, Bernard of Clairevaux, known for his approaches to spirituality and love, and Meister Eckhart, known for his approach to the Creation and for his understanding of holy emptiness as the way toward experiencing divine allness.

The interface of comparative teachings and spiritual practices is an intricate and extensive one. I could not begin to summarize all there is without occupying days of listening and years of practicing together so that we could begin to experience the truths they share. As Eckhart put it, “[ When we try to speak of divine matters, we have to stammer… because we are forced to express our rich experiences with the poorness of words]” It is strange- this Mystery, this Void, this essence of Being, for as we experience it, we cease to talk about it, for it has no words, no explanations. We love God when we accept ourselves mindlessly. We humbly accept that we are to live it.]” As a simple synopsis, I will focus on Merton’s dialogue with Suzuki on one main topic, the Eastern ideal of enlightenment compared and aligned with the Western ideal of Paradise.

“[Zen practice encourages the necessity to separate innocence and intuition from knowledge and analysis, using both, but knowing how they differ, and where they are best applied. Using the analogy of the Garden of Eden, Zen matches Christianity as it states that the original status of humankind was the pure Void, the free consciousness, an innocence existence, uncorrupted by ego assertions.]” Innocence is a fresh, unprejudiced state of understanding and receptivity, it is not reducible to a moral issue or a legal outcome. After the ego developed,( what many esoteric teachers call the Fall) we learn to substitute the worldly knowledge of good and evil, that is, sensate knowledge and intellectualism for our intuitive, intimate understanding. The tragedy of the Fall is not found in the sin of disobedience, but in the intellectual belief that we are to base our lives on separation or analysis for all our answers concerning life, God, psyche or soul. Mystics East and West agree that the goal of spiritual practice, prayer, meditation and discipline is the restoration of that holy innocence. They also agreed in the method to this goal: it can be accomplished by the steady process of emptying one’s heart and mind of all unnecessary beliefs about separation and alienation, and replace them with the virtues and truths that embrace the Oneness or the essence of the original blessings- peace, trust, joy, and love.

The danger, they say, is that knowledge, while necessary, does not dispel illusions of self and society but can contribute to confusion concerning one’s identity, or purpose in the world. Such estrangement from intuitive and inspirational relationship between humanity and divinity, between one’s outer self and one’s inner being reinforces separation and accelerates confusion which develops into desires and attachments that build a hard ego, a false self. Only wisdom, born of prayer and practice, clarifies or completes knowledge for the head and the heart, so that emptiness is arrived at or in Western terms, emptiness is replaced by the allness of God understood and graciously perceived. This emptying out process is difficult work that is done over the years and across the span of oneself. Instead of filling ourselves with so much stimuli and social intensity, the mystics of East and West urge that we learn to let go, to say no, and give time and deference to the deep essentials of life which include finding our inner, quiet voice, and our peaceful, compassionate heart. Suzuki finishes his remarks by observing that only to the degree that we are free, free and empty of the false or competing concepts of self is our innocence restored and our enlightenment realized. Merton concludes his thoughts on Paradise in a similar outlook. He affirms that the Eden’s garden gate is still open, that Paradise is not lost, nor is God’s grace ever removed from us. It is only as inaccessible as we believe and act like people separated or alienated from God, that is our sin, believing that we live apart or removed from sustaining grace. He affirms that Paradise is always present, available and intact within us. It is our complexities, and preoccupations that hide this beauty, this joy, this truth from us. Lastly, as the bridge and the conclusion we have the observation of Eckhart who recalls this primal truth about humanity and divinity, and the intimacy and affection found there. He said, ” The eyes with which I perceive God, are the same eyes with which God perceives me.” If I see God as judgmental, then the God I see will judge me. If I see God as loving, trustworthy and true, then God will see me, and love me in that same way. This is an essential lesson for any of us; it is vital to any worthwhile religious education, and changing perceptions is at the core of so many problems that ask for a spiritual solution to the estrangement and lacks that we feel. If two great teachers can agree, and find a single voice that bridges East and West, so can we learn to cross over any obstacles that confront us. We too, can find God through prayer and practice, through the efforts of holy subtraction and simplicity. May you all learn to see God as God sees you, and may the truth than span our globe, find their home in your hearts. AMEN