Reflections on Thomas Merton and Hinduism
Swagatam: A Celebration of India
Speed Museum, Louisville, KY November 18, 2021
Om asato mā sad gamaya,
tamaso mā jyotir gamaya,
mṛtyor mā amṛtaṃ gamaya,
Om shanti shanti shanti
Om from falsehood lead me to truth,
From darkness lead me to the light,
From death lead me to immortality,
Om peace peace peace
~ Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.3.28, trans. Olivelle)
"How the valley awakes. At two-fifteen in the morning there are no sounds except in the monastery: the bells ring, the office begins. Outside, nothing, except perhaps a bull-frog saying "Om" in the creek or in the guesthouse pond. Some nights he is in Samadhi; there is not even "Om." (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 172)
“As a mere boy I took up reading Thomas Merton and I still have breath to name the good his text has worked in me. Merton's writing remains perennially medicinal for my soul's pathologies. It opens my heart's inner ear. It unlocks my mind. It underscores my unfinishedness. He discomforts and goads me onward. Merton's text commands me to pack my bags again to search for higher ground where I can more clearly discern the call to another country, that "hidden ground of love" with all my neighbors. Merton's counsel always commands me to Light whatever oil I can and to catch up with the company of those who are staying awake.” (Jonathan Montaldo, “Going Home to Where I Have Never Been: Thomas Merton’s Flight toward Joy,” The Merton Seasonal , p. 3)
I might as well have been a “mere boy.” I was 18. A freshman in Dr. Bill Grosnick’s “Introduction to Buddhism” class. One of the required course readings was a slim, glossy text, with uniquely rounded edges along the spine – the cover pages never seemed to lie just flat, but always hovered over the surface of the opening pages as if beckoning me to enter more deeply into the text. It was Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu. On the back cover, a Catholic monk with a black and white clerical mug shot. I will never forget that image. It was so familiar, and yet my initial questions so alien: “Why is a Catholic priest writing on a Chinese Taoist philosopher?” I had no idea who Thomas Merton was, but my introduction to him through a 4th c. BCE author from an extraordinarily distant culture to my Philadelphia Italian-Catholicism was serendipitous. No, to quote Gray Henry, it was Providential.
To encounter the living spirit of Thomas Merton in a religious and philosophical culture so distinct from my own, would be the first of countless Providential gifts to come, as Merton’s words would continue to “discomfort” me, remaining “perennially medicinal for my soul's pathologies.” I am grateful to “still have breath to name the good his text has worked in me” even – or even especially – when that text is in a language that is “foreign” to my often-parochial ears. Especially in this sense, Merton’s voice “opens my heart's inner ear…unlocks my mind… and goads me onward.” I was 18 and extraordinarily blessed. It is an earth-shattering reality to be kissed by God in the voice of another. That was over twenty years ago.
In April of 2018 Jonathan Montaldo invited me to edit Merton and Hinduism – what would be the final volume of the Fons Vitae Thomas Merton inter-faith series.
The invitation came on the heels of what was then the largest recorded wildfire in California history, that devastated parts of Santa Barbara and most of Ventura Counties; followed by severe rains, and a hundred-year flood that claimed the lives of 23 people. All of this occurred approximately 3 miles from where I was living at that time in the foothills of Santa Barbara’s Los Padres National Forest. It was a period of extraordinary dryness, depression, and doubt. To be kissed again in the midst of so much suffering and trauma.
Merton and Hinduism isn’t just a book (albeit a perhaps too thick and weighty one) – it’s a witness to human resilience and a testament to the Providential nature of the Holy Spirit. It’s a lineage – from the rishis of the Vedas, the yogis of the Upanishads, the poet of the Bhagavad Gita, the sage of the Yoga Sutra, to the present day gurus, Swamis, Independence fighters, and seekers for love and truth that constitute and represent the spirit of that continually giving “Great Mother” that India has represented to the West and to the World.
And yet, more locally, immediately, Merton and Hinduism inhabits and embodies very real human people, which come to life upon only the most cursory glance through the dense thicket of its table of contents: Fr. Jules Monchanin, the French priest, who, along with the Benedictine, Henri Le Saux (also known as Swami Abhishiktananda) founded Shantivanam ashram on the shores of the Kaveri River in Tamil Nadu (in Southern India). The rich connections between the eastern Christian prayer practice of hesychasm and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra as deftly articulated by Camaldolese priest and monk, Thomas Matus. Writings on Mahanambrata Brahmachari and his early influence on Thomas Merton – the first to introduce Merton to the Christian mystical tradition – from a Hindu monk! And Aldous Huxley – the British psychonaut and California transplant who would be the first to introduce Merton to Indian mystical and yogic texts through his influential Ends and Means. Essays weaving the vital connections between Merton and the “Song of the Lord,” The Bhagavad Gita respectively composed by Steven Rosen and Christopher Key Chapple. An essay highlighting the lasting influence of Mohandas K. Gandhi – the Great One – on Merton as envisioned by Paul Dekar; Jesuit comparative theologian, Francis X. Clooney’s contemplative model and approach to “deep Christian learning across Religious Borders.” Ruminations on Merton and inter-religious pioneer-priest Raimundo Panikkar; the friendship between Merton and Amiya Chakravarty; Merton and Ananda K. and Dona Louisa Coomaraswamy; Merton and Paramahansa Yogananda. Not to mention the entire section compiling Merton’s own writings and deep thinking across religious borders on yoga and Hindu traditions. Where to begin? How to end?
How about here:
Recently, on a trip to Northern California – a pilgrimage, more precisely, to Redwoods Monastery – I had the privilege to walk the cliffs overlooking this part of California’s “Lost Coast”: “Needle Rock” and “Bear Harbor,” places where Merton penned some of his final journey entries on the North American continent before his long journey home – to Asia.
“The country which is nowhere is the real home,” Merton writes, “only it seems that the Pacific Shore at Needle Rock is more nowhere than this, and Bear Harbor is more nowhere still.” (May 30, 1968; The Other Side of the Mountain, 110).
Merton’s favored geography mirrored the gradations of his own spiritual landscape – rugged, wild, untamed – like the Western edges of the continent he haunted in October of 1968. He preferred these boundless vistas where the horizon vanishes towards distant shores - these same horizons where West meets East. “Over there, Asia” Merton would write; referring to the Pacific as “that Asian ocean.”
Merton and Hinduism is a tangible portal that connects these dimensions; between the covers of this book an oceanic tidal wave of wisdom culled from generations of “spiritual masters” East and West.
In his essay, “The Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita,” Merton reminds us:
"Once we live in awareness of the cosmic dance and move in time with the Dancer, our life attains its true dimension. It is at once more serious and less serious than the life of one who does not sense this inner cosmic dynamism. To live without this illuminated consciousness is to live as a beast of burden, carrying one’s life with tragic seriousness as a huge, incomprehensible weight…. The weight of burden is the seriousness with which one takes one’s own individual and separate self. To live with the true consciousness of life centered in Another is to lose one’s self-important seriousness and thus to live life as ‘play’ in union with a Cosmic Player."
Similarly, on karma yoga, the practice of working without attaching oneself to the fruits or rewards of one’s labor, Merton, speaking to a group of contemplative nuns at the Abbey of Gethsemani, tells us:
"The great thing is that your work is not overwhelmingly serious. It’s never to be taken with the kind of seriousness that we take it with, because really not that much depends on the results. The great thing in karma yoga is first of all that you work without desire, and you work without attaching importance to the results. The whole thing is that the work is part of a game which you do as well as you can, but without any desire to succeed and without any care about whether you get results, whether you get rewards or not, because you leave that in God’s hands. It’s the equivalent of our doing it for the love of God, really, purely doing it purely for God’s love." (“Yoga: The Prophetic Vision”)
And finally, this prayer, composed while traveling from Redwoods to Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico (Merton’s journal, dated May 12, 1968):
I am the utter poverty of God. I am [God’s] emptiness, littleness, nothingness, lostness. When this is understood, my life in [God’s] freedom, the self-emptying of God in me is the fullness of grace. A love for God that knows no reason because [God] is the fullness of grace. A love for God that knows no reason because [God] is God; a love without measure, a love for God as personal. The Ishvara [Lord] appears as personal in order to inspire this love. Love for all, hatred of none is the fruit and manifestation of love for God – peace and satisfaction. Forgetfulness of worldly pleasure, selfishness and so on in the love for God, channeling all passion and emotion into the love for God.” (Other Side of the Mountain, 102)
General Editors Gray Henry and Jonathan Montaldo – and Fons Vitae – have carried the message of Thomas Merton forward – and have encapsulated such expansive spiritual horizons into their multi-volume and now complete Inter-faith series. In doing so, they have done a great service to preserving the religious and spiritual heritage of the world, and offered a potent salve to the unique and often terrifying circumstances of our times.
To bring together humans of varying backgrounds, denominations, and faith commitments – and include those without faith commitments – is to ignite the flame of consciousness in some of the darkest places known to humankind: violence, persecution, nationalism, fundamentalism, and terror – all too-often proclaimed and provoked in the name of “religion.” In this capacity, Fons Vitae and the Thomas Merton Inter-faith series serve as torchbearers of a uniquely brilliant, dare I say soteriological, kind of light. A light that Merton intimately – and intensely – knew, tended, fiercely guarded, kept sacred, and most importantly, shared with the world.
Due to the existential violence Merton knew only too well, coupled with his intense love and desire for God, he could write these lines in an early poem, and I leave for you to consider today as a light cast upon these dark times:
Geography comes to an end,
Compass has lost all earthly north,
Horizons have no meaning
Nor roads an explanation: I cannot even hope for any special borealis
To rouse my darkness with a brief “Hurray”!
O flaming Heart,
Unseen and unimagined in this wilderness,
You, You alone are real, and here I’ve found You.
Here will I love and praise You in a tongueless death,
Until my white devoted bones,
Long bleached and polished by the winds of this Sahara,
Relive at Your command,
Rise and unfold the flowers of their everlasting spring.
May you know peace.
May those you love know peace.
May our friends and enemies alike know peace.
Om shanti shanti shanti