Zen was Merton’s “touchstone of truth, a code for consciousness, a description of the depths of reality and human nature, a way of being with Nature, a new kind of wit and humor, a finger pointing not just at the moon, but at a universe of meaning …” (The Art of Thomas Merton, by Roger Lipsey, p.10)
Merton moved freely and with ease between Zen and Catholicism.
He was absorbed in the spirituality of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers), early Christian refugees from the confusions and politics of religion. Their wisdom and approach to life was immensely attractive to Merton, and he reached back to ancient sources to explore the essence of this desert spirituality.
Not to run from one thought to the next, says Theophane the Recluse, but to give each one time to settle in the heart.
Attention. Concentration of the spirit in the heart.
Vigilance. Concentration of the will in the heart.
Sobriety. Concentration of feeling in the heart.
(The Other Side of the Mountain, p. 97, Note: Theophane the Recluse was a nineteenth-century monastic pioneer in gathering and translating into contemporary language the traditions of the Desert Fathers.)
In Zen, Merton discovered what, in his view, had been lost from Christianity. The spirituality of the Desert Fathers still lived in the tradition of Zen Buddhism. Zen became a major force in Merton’s life and in his quest to recover the fullness of monastic practice.
“I have my own way to walk and for some reason or other Zen is right in the middle of it wherever I go. So there it is, with all its beautiful purposelessness, and it has become very familiar to me though I do not know “what it is”. Or even if it is an “it”. Not to be foolish and multiply words, I’ll say simply that it seems to me that Zen is the very atmosphere of the Gospels, and the Gospels are bursting with it. It is the proper climate for any monk, no matter what kind of monk he may be. If I could not breathe Zen I would probably die of spiritual asphyxiation.”
(letter to D.T. Suzuki, March 12, 1959, Encounter: Thomas Merton and D.T. Suzuki, p. 5-6)
Merton was not able to receive sustained instruction from a Zen teacher, but the Christian practice of contemplative prayer and his life with his brothers at Gethsemani, had created layer upon layer of receptivity. In many ways, Zen became the mirror for Merton’s Christian faith and practice, and he was able to see it in new light:
“What is really meant … is continual openness to God, attentiveness, listening, disposability, etc. In the terms of Zen, it is not awareness of but simple awareness.” (Day of a Stranger, p.41, written in 1965)
And then, through his art, Merton was able to find in traditional Catholic thought the basis for freedom he had discovered through his exploration of Zen Buddhism.
In some notes that Merton prepared for an exhibition of his calligraphic drawings, he writes:
“Neither rustic nor urbane, Eastern nor Western, perhaps can be called expressions of Zen Catholicism”. (from a notebook in the TMC collection)And that is something that I would like to explore more: Zen Catholicism! Evidently Merton coined this phrase from a book that he valued: Zen Catholicism: A Suggestion by Dom Ailred Graham.