Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 23, 2000
Merton linked Zen, Christianity
Prof says monk remained orthodox while embracing Eastern religion
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Thomas Merton's study of Eastern religions helped to deepen his understanding of Christianity, says a Newman College professor.
Les McKeown, a professor of spirituality and systematic theology at Newman, said Merton, a well-known Trappist monk and spiritual writer who died in 1986, saw Christianity stretching "beyond the heritage of Europe."
He took Eastern religions seriously, anticipating Vatican II's openness to those religions.
McKeown spoke on society's spiritual quest and Thomas Merton's response before an audience of 50 people Oct. 15 at Newman College. His lecture was the last in the college's Culture and Christianity series.
Between 1941 and 1968, Merton's writings made his own spiritual journey known to a world whose own spiritual hunger was as deep as his own, the professor said.
Merton conducted a genuine dialogue with other traditions while maintaining a deep belief in Christ as the Son of God, he said.
"Thomas Merton's dialogue with other religions, and Zen (Buddhism) in particular, deepened his understanding of the contemplative dimension of Christianity."
McKeown stressed that the writings of St. John of the Cross provided the basis for Merton's traditional approach to contemplation but also enabled him to embrace Zen.
In his 1961 book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton moved away from his strictly orthodox approach to monastic life.
Frustrated with the abstract, analytical Western approach, the monk began to combine "aspects of existentialism, Christian personalism and Zen into Christian contemplation."
"He advocates contemplation as heightened consciousness and as the highest expression of humanity's intellectual and spiritual life."
In Contemplative Prayer (1965), Merton says the early desert fathers had an appreciation of solitude, poverty, emptiness, compassion and rejection of the world, which he equates to a Zen-like attitude towards life.
"Merton concludes that there are strong links between Zen and the Christian Eastern tradition of the desert fathers," McKeown said.
His later writings (1965-68) show Merton "now embraced certain aspects of Zen, which he considered to be life-affirming and transforming."
Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968) reinforced the monk's contention that the contemplative life was more than what could be captured in words and concepts, McKeown noted.
Merton maintained that in their purest forms, both Christianity and Zen seek to transcend the individual ego and bring the person into an experience of the absolute.
"In the Christian tradition, the focus of this experience is found not in the individual self as a separate, limited and temporal ego, but in Christ, or the Holy Spirit as an integral part of this self. In Zen, it is self pure and simple."
Merton contended that love was at the centre of his entire life and pilgrimage.
"Merton perceived and lived a life centred on Christ within the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith while embracing the truth contained in other religious traditions, in particular Zen," McKeown said.
"In my view, Merton prophesied the next giant step in our evolving faith tradition."