Thursday, March 27, 2008

the dalai lama connection

Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama, 1968

Before his trip to Asia, Merton was not especially interested in Tibetan Buddhism. Like the Buddhism of Nepal, he considered it “… ferocity, ritualism, superstition, magic. No doubt many deep and mysterious things, but maybe it needs to disappear.” (The Other Side of the Mountain, p. 145, July 23, 1968).

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.]


  1. Hello Beth,
    It's Sean. Thank you so much for putting up this info about the connection between the Dalai Lama and Merton. For me personally my entire spiritual knowledge and practice came together through the two of these great Teachers.
    I was at Rutgers Univ. stadium in July 2003 for a talk by the Dalai Lama. In front of about 40,000 He inspired me with his humility and humor as he spoke of the "American monk, Thomas Merton" and how this monk changed his own predjudices and mis understandings of christianity in the West. He said that before he met Merton, he thought that "Buddhisim best" After, he said that he knew different. This candid talk from the dalai lama started the conversion that I myself have gone through in the last 5 years. (from buddhism back to my roots of catholisism) I was thrilled when I read about the visit of HH to Gethsemani. My visit is coming up in May. I feel very connected.
    Anyway, thanks again. I have been really busy and have not had much time to catch up with my blog reading. I'm glad I took a minute here catch your latest post.
    btw, I have stayed on land, and did not go back to commercial fishing. I am a carpenter, and that is what I do.
    Peace be with you

  2. Good to see you here, Sean.

    The Merton-Dalai Lama connection seems to be a very important bridge. I think that Merton was surprised at how *relevant* Tibetan Buddhism was to his own journey. Shortly after meeting with the D.L. he had a dream that he was back at Gethsemane, dressed in a monk's robe that was black and red and gold (the Tibetan colors). And, of course, the D.L. was surprised to find, in Merton, a level of spiritual maturity that he didn't think existed in the West.

    Enjoy your visit to Gethsemane in May. I hope to get there in June.

    And I'm glad you stayed with carpentry :-)

  3. I came across your site after looking at some Thomas Merton sites on the web. This is a nice job you've done here. I found it fascinating that Thomas Merton could open up to some of what Buddhism was saying and that the Dalai Lama could do the same for Christianity. Perhaps the whole monks in the West Dialoge at Gethsemani had its roots in the meetings between Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama so many years ago.

    I am through and through a Theravada Buddhist but I must say I really like Merton and his writings. He puts a whole different perspective on Christianity for me. At any rate, I wish you and your readers well.

  4. Thanks for your visit and your comment, Dhamma81.

    I know what you mean about Merton putting a different slant on the usual understandings of Christianity. For me, his writing redeems Catholicism.



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