Saturday, December 1, 2007

pollonnaruwa - gal vihara

Buddhas in Pollonnaruwa, Ceylon
Photograph by Thomas Merton
Thirty-nine years ago today – December 1, 1968 – Merton visited the Pollonnaruwa, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka. Within this city are a group of 4 giant Buddha Statues known as the “Gal Vihara” temple. It was here that Merton had an astounding insight. [also described in this blog here.]

Somewhat worried that he had spoiled the experience by trying to speak of it to acquaintances, he does not write about it in great descriptive detail until 4 days later (December 4th – pp. 322-324 “The Other Side of the Mountain”).
The place is remote, quiet, uncrowded:

“I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything – without refutation – without establishing some other argument …

“Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. … The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery”. All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life is charged with dharmakaya – everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. ….

"I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguises. This is Asia in its purity, not covered over with garbage, Asian or European or American, and it is clear, pure, complete. It says everything; it needs nothing. And because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered. It does not need to be discovered. It is we, Asians included, who need to discover it.”


  1. Hi Beth,
    Thank you for this post. Merton's insight into Buddhisim is so amazing. He lived fully the knowing of enlightenment that so many strive for.


  2. This experience becomes more powerful each time I read of it, Beth. I cannot seem to disassociate it from his death.

  3. It sounds a bit like reductionism, but I suspect God is alot simpler than we imagine. It seems that Merton experienced that at some deep level here.
    Am I the only one, but don't these images of the Buddha kind of look a little like Merton?

  4. Yes, Merton seemed to know that "enlightenment" is not in the realm of things that one strives for, Sean. Perhaps more in not seeking anything at all!

    The insight does seem strangely preminiscient of death, doesn't it Gabrielle? ... that he had seen what he was looking for ... and come to some kind of end of a road ...

    Barbara, it's just you :-) ... the only resemblance I see has something to do with the bald head ...

  5. Wow, you do so get it Beth.

  6. Remembering Fr Louis this day that marks his death. RIP and Deo Gratias.

  7. Beth, just wanted to pop back in to wish you a Merry Christmas! :)

  8. Thank you all for your comments. I am presently recovering from surgery for breast cancer. I hope to pick up on louie louie when I begin my research into the Jubilee magazines. I am also exploring, with Brother Patrick Hart, a new vision for monasticism "where do we go from here?". That may be the seed for a new blog ...

  9. Hi Beth,
    Good to hear that you are recovering and looking forward. You have popped into my mind at many different times in the past couple of months and I have held you in heartfelt good intentions.
    I am also a survivor. Malignant Melinoma in 98.
    I look forward to all of your work to come.
    Happy New Year
    Peace, Sean

  10. Beth,
    I was shocked and saddened by your news and pray for every grace and blessing for the coming year.

  11. I'm doing ok, nicholas. Thank you for your prayers.

  12. For those who may interested in a Sri Lankan Theravadin experience closer to home, there is the Bhavana Society in Highview West Virginia
    which happens to be close to a trappist monastery.

    Regarding Merton's death, a former friend, former trappist, now deceased (he was the director for the Center for Formative Spirituality at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh), told me that the buzz among the trappists was that the Vatican was involved in Merton's untimely death...

  13. Thanks for your comments, Marc.

    The Vatican? Hmmm - I'm more inclined to be paranoid about the CIA. This was 1968, after all, the year that Bobby Kennedy and MLK were assasinated.

  14. Yes, it does sound tantalizingly conspiratorial! That was Father Rick Byrne who told me that - he trained a lot of people for being directors of Catholic retreats.
    You have to admit, it is odd, wasn't that the first time Merton had been out of the monastery? And what a bizarre accident.

    I frequented the Bhavana Society some time ago. It's pretty cool - they don't even have a set price for visits but rely on generosity. If anyone happens to make it our there -tell Bhante G. "Nagasena" sent you.


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