In 1959 Merton began his correspondence with D.T. Suzuki. Since 1956, he had been reading everything he could find by the Japanese Zen Buddhist scholar.
Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki is credited with the introducing “Zen” to the Western world. He lived in a cottage on the grounds of monastery near Tokyo, but traveled often to the West. Merton would eventually collaborate with him on published dialogues and meet him in person in New York in 1964. His first letter to Suzuki, dated March 12, 1959, is worth noting:
“Perhaps you are accustomed to receiving letters from strangers. I hope so, because I do not wish to disturb you with a bad-mannered intrusion. I hope a word of explanation will reconcile you to the disturbance, if it is one. The one who writes to you is a monk, a Christian, and so-called contemplative of a rather strict Order. A monk, also, who has tried to write some books about the contemplative life and who, for better or worse, has a great love of and interest in Zen.
“I will not be so foolish as to pretend to you that I understand Zen. To be frank, I hardly understand Christianity. ...
“Not to be foolish and multiply works, 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. But I still don’t know what it is. No matter. I don’t know what the air is either.”
“... Enclosed with this letter are a couple of pages of quotations from a little book of translations I have made. These are translations from the hermits who lived in the Egyptian deserts in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. I feel strongly that you will like them for a kind of Zen quality they have about them ... I believe that you are the one man, of all modern writers, who bears some resemblance of the Desert Fathers who wrote these little lines, or rather spoke them ...”
Letter to D.T. Suzuki, March 12, 1959, The Hidden Ground of Love, pp. 561-562