The invitation came suddenly only a few days before the trip, and Merton was apprehensive and reluctant to accept. He had only been on a plane once before, and rarely left the monastery. He never expected his Abbot to grant permission, but, surprisingly Dom James did, and the flight was booked. Merton was shaken up a bit - “I can think of nowhere I would less rather go than New York”, - but once the trip got underway, he loved it:
“ - these are my people for God’s sake! - I had forgotten - the tone of voice, the awareness, the weariness, the readiness to keep standing, an amazing existence, the realization of the fallible condition of man, and of the fantastic complexity of modern life.About his meeting with Suzuki, Merton had this to say:
“I loved being here, seeing familiar houses and places and unfamiliar huge apartments yet knowing where I was ...” (Dancing in the Water of Life, pp. 109-114)
“I sat with Suzuki on the sofa and we talked of all kinds of things to do with Zen and with life ... For once in a long time I felt as if I had spent a few moments with my own family.” (Dancing in the Water of Life, pp. 116-117)Later Merton said in a letter to a friend:
“One had to meet this man in order to fully appreciate him. He seemed to me to embody all the indefinable qualities of the “Superior Man” of the ancient Asian, Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist traditions. Or, rather in meeting him one seemed to meet that “True Man of No Title”, that Chuang Tzu and Zen Masters speak of. And of course this is the man one really wants to meet. Who else is there? In meeting Dr. Suzuki and drinking a cup of tea with him I felt I had met this one man. It was like finally arriving at one’s own home.” (Zen and the Birds of Appetite, p. 61)
“Without contact with living examples, we soon get lost or give out .... He really understands what interior simplicity is all about and really lives it. This is the important thing.” (Letter to Anglican priest, Fr. Aelred, Dec. 8, 1964, The School of Charity, p. 254)Of course, Merton experienced the meeting in multiple ways. This is how he recounted it to Lax:
“I was to visit Suzuki, yes Suzuki, you heard me right. I was to visit with him very old, but secretary young and spry make the tea ceremony and Suzuki with the ear trumpet propose many koans from a Chinese book and in the middle they gang up on me with winks and blinks and all kinds of friendly glances and assurances and they declare with one voice: “Who is the western writer who understand best the Zen IT IS YOU” they declare. You in this connection means me. It is I in person that they have elected to this slot and number of position to be one in the west. First west in Zen is now my food for thought.” (Letter to Robert Lax, July 10, 1964, When Prophecy Still Had A Voice, p. 280)Merton was able to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Guggenheim while in New York and the evening before he left, he splurged on a very good dinner with a couple of glasses of wine and some Benedictine.