A meeting with the Dalai Lama was arranged by Harold Talbot, a Catholic and an American student of Buddhism who was baptized at Gethsemane. The first meeting was to be on the morning of November 4th, 1968, at the Dalai Lama’s home-in-exile near Dharamsala, India. As the date of the meeting approaches, Merton makes many notes in his journal about Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the mandala and tantras; he is impressed with the Tibetan lamas that he meets. He is well aware of how special the Dalai Lama – just 33 years old – is to the Tibetan people:
“The Dalai Lama is loved by his people – and they are a beautiful, loving people. They surround his house with love and prayer, they have a new soongkhor [barbed wire fence] for protection along the fence. Probably no leader in the world is so much loved by his followers and means so much to them. He means everything to them. For that reason it would be especially terrible and cruel if any evil should strike him. I pray for his safety and fear for him. May God protect and preserve him.” (Nov. 3, 1968, The Other Side of the Mountain, p. 245)
After their meeting on November 4th, it is clear that Merton and the Dalai Lama are kindred souls:
“The Dalai Lam is most impressive as a person. He is strong and alert, bigger than I expected (for some reason I thought he would be small). A very solid, energetic, generous, and warm person, very capably trying to handle enormous problems – none of which he mentioned directly. There was not a word of politics. The whole conversation was about religion and philosophy and especially ways of mediation. He said he was glad to see me, had heard a lot about me. I talked mostly of my own personal concerns, my interest in Tibetan mysticism. Some of what he replied was confidential and frank. … One gets the impression that he is very sensitive about partial and distorted Western views of Tibetan mysticism and especially about popular myths. He himself offered to give me another audience the day after tomorrow and said he had some questions he wanted to ask me.” (p. 251, The Other Side of the Mountain)
In a letter to his abbot, Dom Flavian Burns, Merton wrote:
“He did a lot of off-the-record talking, very open and sincere, a very impressive person, deeply concerned about the contemplative life, and also very learned. I have seldom met anyone with whom I clicked so well, and I feel that we have become good friends."
Of his 2nd meeting with the Dalai Lama on November 6th, Merton writes:
“… It was a very lively conversation and I think we all enjoyed it. He certainly seemed to. I like the solidity of the Dalai Lama’s ideas. He is a very consecutive thinker and moves from step to step. His ideas of the interior life are built on very solid foundations and on a real awareness of practical problems. He insists on detachment, on an “unworldly life,” yet sees it as a way to complete understanding of, and participation in, the problems of life and the world. But renunciation and detachment must come first. Evidently he misses the full monastic life and wishes he had more time to meditate and study himself …” (p. 258-259, The Other Side of the Mountain)Two days later, November 8th, 1968, Merton met with the Dalai Lama for the 3rd and last time:
“My third interview with the Dalai Lama was in some ways the best. He asked a lot of question about Western monastic life, particularly the vows, the rule of silence, the ascetic way etc. …
“It was a very warm and cordial discussion and at the end I felt we had become very good friends and were somehow quite close to one another. I feel a great respect and fondness for him as a person and believe, too, that there is a real spiritual bond between us. He remarked that I was a “Catholic geshe”, which Harold said, was the highest possible praise from a Gelugpa, like an honorary doctorate!” (p. 266, The Other Side of the Mountain)
The Dalai Lama comes to Gethsemane
In July, 1996, 28 years after their meeting in India, the Dalai Lama visited Merton’s home - the Abby of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The Dalai Lama was participating in a monastic inter-religious dialogue, a gathering in which saffron-robed Buddhist monks and nuns, gray-robed Zen monks and nuns prayed and shared spiritual insights with black-robed Benedictine and white-and-black-robed Cistercian monks and nuns. The Dalai Lama, a world religious leader, sat as a monk among monks, not separately on a dais. (St. Anthony Messenger article, Jan, 1997)
"Now our spirits are one," the Dalai Lama said after praying at Merton's grave along with Abbot Timothy Kelly.
[note: NPR's Fresh Air interviewed journalist, Pico Iver, yesterday. Iver is the author of a new book, "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama", which is based in part on his conversations with the Buddhist monk over the last 33 years.
The interview focused on how the nonviolent philosophy of the Dalai Lama defines the way that he leads the Tibetan people, both spiritually and politically.]