Merton’s Critics

Thomas Merton always had his share of critics. You would think that after his death all that would subside. However, considering Merton’s importance for Catholic spirituality, for monastic spirituality, for the East-West dialogue, etc., well, you can see why people can still get all worked up about this issue or that issue when it is connected to Merton. Intelligent criticism is always most welcome; it can help clarify one’s understanding; it can resolve ambiguity in what was said; it can enlarge the original vision to encompass new possibilities, and so on. However, a lot of the Merton criticism is not of that sort; it is too often shallow, a misrepresentation of what he was saying, or just plainly missing his point altogether. Recently I ran into some such examples.


Example #1 is among the worst kind of criticism. It is due to the blindness and narrowness of conservative Catholics who feel threatened by Merton’s openness to the religious experience of non-Christians, especially the Buddhists. They have a website called Catholic Answers (among many other such websites, newspapers, magazines, books and radio and TV programs–these folks are quite numerous), and they have no qualms about calling Merton “dangerous,” “misguided,” “lost,” “wayward monk,” etc., etc. Here is an example from “Catholic Answers”:


“Merton wrote in his Zen and the Birds of Appetite that the ‘real way to study Zen is to penetrate the outer shell and taste the inner kernel which cannot be defined. Then one realizes in oneself the reality which is being talked about’ (13). He calls his reader to enter deeply into Zen in order to discover a certain reality. In essence, he calls his reader to do what he did, to turn his gaze eastward to Daoism and its Zen descendant. When asked if he felt that ‘turning away from traditional Christianity toward the East’ would cause ‘an eventual turning back to a different form of Christianity, one that might even be more genuine,’ Merton replied, ‘Yes, I think so’ (Thomas Merton: Preview of the Asian Journey, 53-54). Merton viewed Zen as a necessary step in the Church’s march toward Christ, and so he urged Christians to turn to Zen. Not all of his readers agree with his views. Pope Benedict XVI has expressed serious concerns regarding the appropriateness of approaches such as Merton’s. In fact he predicted that Buddhism, with its “autoerotic” type of spirituality, would replace Marxism as the principle antagonist of the Catholic faith, for the very non-dualist ideas it espouses deny the Christian belief in a Creator who is separate from His creation. The transcendence that Zen Buddhism offers is one of non-distinction, a state free from, as Benedict notes, the imposition of religious obligations. In the end, to turn to the ideas of Zen is to turn away from any need for a personal savior. We save ourselves in Buddhism, but only Christ saves in Christianity.”

And another quote from the same source: “…some of his ideas are dangerous. His later writings (see ‘Read with Caution,’ page 9) are more confusing than helpful, for they conflate and confuse Buddhist and Christian teachings. One example of that confusion is seen in a popular icon sold in many Christian and Buddhist stores that depicts him sitting in the lotus posture in Zen meditation. The night before his death, Merton told John Moffitt that, ‘Zen and Christianity are the future.’ This is precisely what the Holy Father has expressed grave concerns about.  Just before he left for Asia, Merton participated in a ‘dialogue session’ at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, where he opened with the troubling statement: ‘What I want to do today is to give you some kind of account of the mischief I expect to get into in Asia’ (Thomas Merton: Preview of the Asian Journey, 30). He then asserts that there is no danger in conflating Catholicism and Buddhism. Just after making this claim, Merton continues, ‘And it is perfectly possible to . . . [pause], and I think Catholics should. I think if Catholics had a little more Zen they’d be a lot less ridiculous than they are. . . .’ (Thomas Merton: Preview of the Asian Journey, 33). His writings, like this comment, leave a lot to be discerned within the ellipses.”

I am not going to waste any time trying to answer this muddle of misrepresentation and misunderstanding and misleading. I would wish that this was just one outlandish and eccentric review of Merton, but I am afraid there is a lot of that kind of stuff among conservative Catholics. (And if any of them ever got hold of Abhishiktananda…..!)


One interesting thing that this conservative website brought to my attention is this letter from Merton to his abbot back in 1954. Merton was experiencing a crisis in his vocation that was to last several years. Here is a key passage:

“I am beginning to face some facts about myself. Yes, need for more of a life of prayer, greater fidelity, greater sincerity and simplicity in doing what God wants of me. Easy to say all that. It depends on getting rid of something very deep and very fundamental in myself. . . Continual, uninterrupted resentment. I resent and even hate Gethsemani. I fight against the place constantly. I do not openly allow myself—not consciously—to sin in this regard. But I am in the habit of letting my resentment find every possible outlet and it is such a habit. . . . I am not kidding about how deep it is. It is DEEP.” (Gethsemani Abbey archives)


Now for these conservative Catholics these kind of sentiments mean that Merton was “losing his vocation” and exhibiting “serious flaws.” That Merton did experience a true “vocation crisis” during these years in the mid-fifties is true, but actually such a “vocation crisis” is inevitable when there is a real depth to the person; and in fact it is absolutely necessary if one is truly to mature in one’s vocation. One has to come to terms with everything within one. That façade of pious language and pious images and self-images all has to shatter. Merton did benefit from psychoanalysis to a certain degree, from his “opening to the world,” and from his exposure to Buddhism and Taoism. And he used all these then to reinterpret his monastic life and deepen his monastic identity.


Example #2:

Here is a more subtle, more scholarly critique of Merton. Here we are more in the straightforward realm of ideas and how we read the sources. Merton had a real interest in Daoism (in his day the usual spelling was: Taoism) during the very early ‘60s. This was mainly because of the influence of his friend John C. H. Wu. In fact the collection of essays about this aspect of Merton is subtitled: “Dialogues with John Wu and the Ancient Sages.” Wu was convinced that Daoism and Zen were closely related in ancient China, and Merton’s exposure to all this material convinced him that the real inheritors of the spirit and thought and insights of Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi were in fact the early Zen masters of China, not the later pop/cultural Daoism which still has a certain popularity today. This is a somewhat debatable point, and there are any number of reputable figures who would disagree. Red Pine (Bill Porter), for example, does not believe that Daoism and Zen have anything in common. Well, we can have a legitimate argument here, and people can have different views of the matter. However, in one of the essays in this collection one of the authors, Bede Bidlack, says that basically Merton misunderstands Daoism and misrepresents it, period. He has his dander up at this kind of statement by Merton (and one can see why!): “One must also see [Chuang Tzu] in relation to what followed him, because it would be a great mistake to confuse the Taoism of Chuang Tzu with the popular, degenerate amalgam of superstition, alchemy, magic, and health-culture which later Taoism became.”

First of all Bidlack accuses Merton of being “infected” with an old reading of Daoism that was promoted by Christian missionaries from way back: all that “odd” paraphernalia of Daoism as “superstition.” He mentions that Merton’s mentors in his study of Chinese thought, John Wu and Paul Sih were both Catholic Christians and “were not motivated to challenge the 17th Century interpretation.” But, alas, today we are beyond all that, at least the scholarly world, so says Bidlack. The thing is that one has to understand what Merton is referring to by that term, “superstition.” Daoism is very, very ancient–much older than any of the other major religions. It goes back to China’s shamanistic past thousands of years ago.   Truly it does have a lot of elements to it, rituals, mythology, mystery, etc. With figures like Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi (Merton’s Chuang Tzu), we find a distilling, as it were, of the essence of Daoism, a penetration to the heart of Daoism, a total vision, a complete awakening, an awareness, a state of being if you will, etc., that Merton was very keen in picking up. He had a knack for doing that with everything he touched, whether it be his own monastic sources, Christian spirituality in general, Buddhism, Islam, even political/social movements like the Black Liberation movement that was afoot in the ‘60s. He had no time for all the “odds and ends” of any religious tradition; he wanted to get a sense of what is at its heart. Now for Bidlack and scholars like him, Daoism is the whole cultural/historical package, and you can’t have Daoism without the whole package. Let me illustrate the nature of the problem here using another religious tradition, my own: Christianity. Imagine now if you were approaching the phenomenon of Christianity without any knowledge of it. What would you do? If you happen to be interested only in Christianity as a cultural phenomenon, yes, there are plenty of things to note: the various religious groups, various rituals, the sacraments, the Bible with its supposed inerrancy, the preaching tradition, the art, the veneration of saints, relics, statues, “miracles,” festivities, novenas, canon law, theologies, pilgrimages, various forms of prayer, etc., etc. But is Christianity the sum of all these things, or is there some core meaning, some central experience, some essential awareness around which all these other things develop–and some of these are just as much a manifestation of superstition as anything in Daoism or in any other religious tradition. Do you really get at this center by studying Christianity’s historical development or its institutional structures or its cultural forms? And if there is such a center, then how do you get a sense of it without getting lost in the clutter? Maybe it would be meeting and experiencing the presence of someone who has a true grasp of that center; maybe it would be penetrating the “husk” of a key foundational text, like the Gospel of John. Merton was especially very good at this and not getting lost in the clutter. You can see that pertaining to Buddhism when you read his account of his “experience” at Polonnaruwa–but more about that later. With Daoism it was primarily his encounter with the writings of Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). He was able to penetrate this text even with the handicap of not knowing Chinese–but he had a lot of help from Wu and others. He did something that these scholars have a hard time accepting; their verdict is “nice try but it’s seriously lacking.” However, one of the English-speaking world’s top translators of Chinese poetry and religious texts into English, Burton Watson, commended Merton’s version of Zhuangzi –it captured the real vitality and liveliness of Zhuangzi; and even Bidlack himself admits that astonishingly enough for someone who doesn’t know Chinese Merton does have a grasp of the text. There is a lot more that Bidlack says critically about Merton but we won’t bother here–just an example of that criticism.


Example #3

Merton also gets heavy criticism in his grasp of Zen Buddhism. In a collection of essays about Merton’s engagement with Buddhism there is one essay by John P. Keenan, “The Limits of Thomas Merton’s Understanding of Buddhism.” To me this whole essay is filled with so many misunderstandings of what Merton was doing in his engagement with Buddhism, especially Zen, that I wouldn’t know where to begin.

First of all, Merton’s so-called “erroneous Zen” supposedly came from D. T. Suzuki, who is fingered as the culprit of a lot of erroneous ideas about Zen in the west. The “devaluation” of Suzuki(and not only him but also a number of other Zen figures) has been relentless, and has been fostered by a number of other Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars. Certain things are undeniable: like the fact that Suzuki totally ignores Soto Zen and presents only the Rinzai tradition. And there is also the critique of Suzuki–and also other big Zen figures of the time–in their supposed support of the Japanese war machine. These and other issues I will address in another posting. There are important points in all these issues that call for attention. This critique also hooks up with a larger critique of Zen’s self-presentation and the earlier Chinese Chan by deconstructionist-based scholarship in recent decades. Their arguments also deserve a whole presentation in itself, and I intend to address some of the issues in another posting as I fully and vigorously disagree with their evaluations.

I think Merton had a better sense of Zen than anyone writing about Zen, Buddhist or not, in the U.S. in the past 50 years. Even if he had a “truncated” exposure to Zen through Suzuki (but Keenan I believe ignores the contributions of Wu who spanned all of Chinese Chan), I believe that he had a deep intuitive grasp of what Zen was all about. Maybe not Zen Buddhism, but certainly Zen. And here is where I have my most serious disagreement with Keenan. Keenan (and many other scholars would say the same thing) claimed that Zen is NOT some silent, wordless experience at the core of Zen Buddhism and perhaps of all religions, transcending our dualistic viewpoint and totally beyond all conceptualization. Their particular view is summed up like this–you can see what they think is the case by their negative evaluation of what Suzuki/Merton think:

“Although Zen was indeed a tried and tattered school of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, Suzuki and others began to characterize it as transcending sectarian boundaries. Sharf points out that this understanding of Zen is ‘largely a twentieth century construct,’….He identifies four moves that are made in presenting this type of Zen. The first involves positing a ‘distinction between the essence’ of a religious tradition and its ‘cultural manifestations,’ thus enabling one to speak of the essence apart from any cultural embodiment of that essence. In the second place, one identifies that ‘essence as a type of ‘experience.’ The heart of Zen thus lies not in its ethical principles, its communal and ritual practices, or its doctrinal teachings, but rather in a private, veridical, often momentary ‘state of consciousness,’ which allows one to skip the labor of careful thought and proceed directly from bare experience to spiritual affirmation. Thirdly, and importantly, one can then universalize the ‘Zen experience’ by denying that Zen is a school or sect of Buddhism per se, or even a ‘religion.’ Rather, partisans would insist that the term ‘Zen’ properly understood denotes the universal experiential core of all authentic religious traditions, both Eastern and Western…….”


Well this is a good summary of how these scholars read Merton and what they think Zen is and how different Merton’s view of all this was. I don’t know if I am reading them right, but it seems that they believe you can “think” your way to Zen, you can “ritualize” your way to Zen, etc. To put it bluntly, I think these folks don’t know Zen at all; they see its historical paraphernalia and they think that they can “encircle” Zen with their words and concepts. They are very good at what they do; I certainly would not hesitate to consult these folks for historical information about Zen Buddhism and its major figures, but I sincerely believe that they miss the REALITY of Zen by the width of the universe. It should not be surprising that people who depend for their living on examining language should feel threatened to be told that there is a reality beyond language and that can only be understood in silence.


I will conclude with several quotes, and consider them as footnotes to what was said above:

Gabriel Marcel: “There are thresholds which thought alone, left to itself, can never permit us to cross. An experience is required–an experience of poverty and sickness….”


Merton: “Where there is carrion lying, meat-eating birds circle and descend. Life and death are two. The living attack the dead, to their own profit. The dead lose nothing by it. They gain too, by being disposed of. Or they seem to, if you must think in terms of gain and loss. Do you then approach the study of Zen with the idea that there is something to be gained by it? This question is not intended as an implicit accusation. But it is, nevertheless, a serious question. Where there is a lot of fuss about ‘spirituality,’ ‘enlightenment,’…it is often because there are buzzards hovering around a corpse. This hovering, this circling, this descending, this celebration of victory, are not what is meant by the Study of Zen–even though they may be a highly useful exercise in other contexts. And they enrich the birds of appetite. Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the ‘nothing,’ the ‘no-body’ that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey.”


Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”


Dalai Lama: “But more striking than his outward appearance, which was memorable in itself, was the inner life that he manifested. I could see he was a truly humble and deeply spiritual man. This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity….it was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word ‘Christian.’”


Merton: “I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything–without refutation–without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence can be frightening. I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line…. 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 thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no ‘mystery.’ All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya…everything is emptiness and everything is compassion…. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now 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.”