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

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