Sunday, October 25, 2009

"How I Pray is Breath" (Merton on Zen)

Photo by Thomas Merton

[Through the early 1960s, Suzuki sent Merton annual illustrated calendars featuring images by the 18th century Zen priest and artist, Sengai. Suzuki printed commentary on each image, which made the calendar a book about the substance and style of Zen. Photographs of the interior of Merton’s hermitage show that the Sengai calendar had a place of pride.]

“How I pray is breathe.”

Back to Dr. Suzuki...

In the years following Merton’s letter of introduction to D.T. Suzuki, he would become one of the keenest students of Zen in the West. He published essays on Zen topics in a variety of journals.

“But more importantly still, Zen became a force in his life. It was a touchstone of truth, a code for consciousness, a description of the depths of reality and human nature, a way of being in Nature, a new kind of paradoxical wit and humor, a finger pointing not just at the moon but at a universe of meaning - it was all these things and more.”

- p. 10 from Roger Lipsey’s book, Angelic Mistakes - The Art of Thomas Merton

In 1962 Merton wrote to a friend in Asia:

“There are times when one has to cut right through all he knows and the Zen view of things is a good clean blade.”

- Merton letter to Paul Sih, January 2, 1962, The Hidden Ground of Love, p.551

Merton did not receive any formal instruction in Zen, his sangha were his brothers at Gethsemane. But his Christian practice of contemplative prayer had created layers of kinship and receptivity:

“What is really meant ... is continual openness to God, attentiveness, listening, disposability, etc. In terms of Zen, it is not awareness of but simple awareness.”

- Merton letter to a woman religious, March 27, 1968, Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis, edited by William Shannon, p. 197


  1. "how I pray is breath, what I wear is pants" isn;t that how it goes?

  2. Yes, that's how it goes.

    Zen saying:

    " ... before I grasped Zen, the mountains were nothing but mountains and the rivers nothing but rivers. When I got into Zen, the mountains were no longer mountains and rivers no longer rivers. But when I understood Zen, the mountains were only mountains and the rivers only rivers.

    "The point is that facts are not just plain facts. There is a dimension where the bottom drops out of the world of factuality and of the ordinary ...

    "The thing about Zen is that it pushes contradictions to their ultimate limit where one has to choose between madness and innocence. And Zen suggests that we may be driving toward one or the other on a cosmic scale. Driving toward them because, one way or the other, as madmen or innocents, we are already there.

    "It might be good to open our eyes and see."

    from Zen and the Birds of Apetite pp. 140-141

  3. I am very interested in this, Beth, and hope to be able to read more deeply into Merton's understanding of Zen over time. What intrigues me right here is pushing "contradictions to their ultimate limit", and Merton's conclusion that a choice has to be made. I am thinking of how often we come up against Holy Paradoxes in Catholicism, and how ultimately, we see the Truth in the Holy Paradox; the Truth is the paradox, and no choice has to be made for either side. I am rambling. I must ponder. :)

  4. I appreciate, very much, your visits and your comments, Gabrielle.

    I am reading much about Merton and Zen these days, and don't know if I can quite understand or interpret him, but this is the way it seems to me ...

    In terms of theology, Merton had no problem living with paradoxes - the suffering and joy of life, the sinfulness and salvation of humankind. These kind of contradictions were integral to his writing, and I don't recall Merton ever "taking a side" or suggesting that one should.

    What he's talking about in the madness vs. innocence statement, I think, is a tension of consciousness which revolves around ego-centeredness. It's a trap that we are all stuck in, and there really is no way out. THe more we TRY to detach from our ego-life, the more we entrench ourselves in its grip. Trying and effort get you nowhere. It's the CRAMP that Merton talks about in Conjectures. You will eventually become nothing but the cramp, desperate, and must make a choice to say NO to the cramp and YES to everything else. Merton says this all much better than I have. I'll look up his exact quote for you and give it to you in context.

  5. Gabrielle, I have found my tattered little paperback of CONJECTURES, and unfortunately, the very page I am looking for is missing. But this is what leads up to it:

    (page 224, CONJECTURES)

    "Man, thinking of himself secretly as a completely free autonomous self, with unlimited possibilities (after all he is taught by his society that this is what he is), finds himself in an impossible predicament. He is “as a god” and therefore everything is within reach. But it turns out that all that he can successfully reach by his own volition is not quite worth having. What he really seeks and needs - love, an authentic identity, a life that has meaning - cannot be had merely by willing and by taking steps to procure them. No amount of ingenuity can “buy” these - no psychological or sociological manipulation can encompass them, no inspirational religious self-help, no ascetic technique, no drug can do the trick!

    "The things we really need come to us only as gifts, and in order to receive them as gifts we have to be open. In order to be open we have to renounce ourselves, in a sense we have to die to our image of ourselves, our autonomy, our fixation upon our self-willed identity. We have to be able to relax the psychic and spiritual cramp which knots us in the painful, vulnerable, helpless “I” that is all we know of ourselves.

    "The chronic inability to relax this cramp begets despair. In the end, as we realize more and more that we are knotted upon nothing, that the cramp is a meaningless, senseless, pointless affirmation of nonentity, and that we must nevertheless continue to affirm our nothingness over against everything else, - our frustration becomes absolute. We become incapable of existing except as a “no”, which we fling in the face of everything. This “no” to everything serves as our pitiful “yes” to ourselves - a makeshift identity which is nothing."

    The VERY next page (page 225) is where Merton says that we have to make a choice, and say NO to the CRAMP and YES to everything else - otherwise we will perish in our despair and/or madness. It seems to me to be very similar to what he is saying in the passage above from ZEN AND THE BIRDS OF APPETITE.

  6. Beth, it makes perfect sense to me now, after your explanation that Merton was not speaking of living comfortably with paradox, but was speaking of consciousness, individual and global, related to the ego. I appreciate the trouble you took to find the Merton passage in Conjectures for me - and since I have it here too, I will continue with some of your missing pg. 225, in case anyone else looking in might like to read it:

    "It is at this point that the logic of the cramp begins to demand one final solution. Since the cramp itself is intolerable, and since he cannot relax it, he can only destroy it. And since he has reduced himself, narrowed himself down to the point where he is nothing but his miserable cramp clutched on to itself, when the cramp destroys itself it destroys him.

    The important thing, then, is to be able to stop refusing and "cramping" before it is too late. One must learn to say "no" to the cramp, and "yes" to everything else.

    I see no other way than the clear recognition of the nature of this "cramp". This "refusal" is fundamentally a refusal of faith. Not necessarily of theological and Christian faith in the full sense of the word, but at least a refusal of the natural readiness, the openness, the humility, the self-forgetfulness that renounce absolute demands, give up the intransigeant claim to perfect autonomy, and believe in life. Belief here means also trust, the ability to take risks, to advance into the unknown trusting that life itself can and will take care of us if we let it. Yet to my mind a mere "faith in life" is precarious and misleading. Today there are too many errors and confusions about "life". The mentality of suicide is built into our technological society - the mass media, focused always on violence and crisis, destroy sane hope, keep everybody in a cramp of fear and suspicion.

    There is only one remedy - the surrender that seeks faith in God as a gift that is not our due, and that is willing to suffer great indigence and peril while waiting to receive it.

    This means in fact recognizing that one is not absolutely alone, and that one cannot live and die for himself alone. My life and my death are not purely and simply my own business. I live by and for others, and my death involves others."

  7. THANKS, Gabrielle!

    For some reason, that is one of Merton's most poignant insights, and one that I come back to again and again. That must be how I lost the page in the book!

  8. Hi Beth, it's Sean here. I have been wanting to get back to this post for a while now. I had to take a trip to Vero bch. last week and sell a house and drive back to jersey with my u-haul full of "Stuff" as George Carlin would put it. So 20 hours of driving gave me a great time to think and not think. I have been reading,the training of the zen buddhist monk by D.T Suzuki,and zen mind, beginner's mind by Shunryu Suzuki.
    For me, I see Zen in so much of what I read in Merton's books. I thought during my drive could I reduce everything down to one book?
    One line? One word.
    For me right now. The book would be Thoughts in Solitude. The line would be, I am a transient expression of Your inexhaustable and eternal reality. The word would be Love.
    Of course each day is a gift that grants us continuation of the lives that we lead. Separate, and united.
    Another favorite line regarding Zen from Alan Watts: In a certain sense, Zen is feeling life, instead of feeling something about life.
    Thanks for letting me ramble on.


  9. Hi Sean,
    I wish I had known you were down this way! Maybe we could have met for coffee/tea or something.

    I am reading Suzuki's book about the training of a Zen monk, too! Actually I have been dipping into it for quite some time, never really reading it straight through. And yes, I know what you mean about Thoughts in Solitude. In many ways, that's all you need from Merton.

    Sounds like that ride was good for you, even if very long. Hope you didn't get too overloaded with "stuff".

  10. Hi Beth,
    You're right, the ride was good for me, and we will spread the "stuff" around so that everyone gets to add a little stuff to the stuff that they already have too much of!
    I did actually think to let you know that I would be in your area, but it really was just down and back. So coffee talk will be another time maybe.
    I wanted to share some thing with you regarding Zen and Merton in my life.
    In "Zen mind Beginner's mind" there is chapter titled "Believing in Nothing"
    The first paragraph goes: "I discovered that it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in nothing. that is, we have to believe in something which has no form and no color--something which exists before all forms and colors appear. No matter what God or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based more or less on a self-centered idea. In constantly seeking to actualize your ideal, you will have no time for composure. But if you are always prepared for accepting everything we see as something appearing from nothing, knowing that there is some reason why a phenomenal existence of such and such form and color appears, then at that moment you will have perfect composure."
    Pretty cool stuff no?
    I was mulling this over for a couple of days, and it was really kind of settling in with me.
    Then last Monday, the 16th, I opened up
    my Weekly Reflection, from The Merton Institute, and Bamm! Merton nailed it home for me.
    "We are not perfectly free until we live in pure hope. For when our hope is pure, it no longer trusts exclusively in human and visual means, nor rests in any visible end. He who hopes in God trusts God, Whom he never sees, to bring him to possession of things that are beyond imagination.
    Nice moment, the stars are out tonight.

    Take care Beth

  11. Very cool stuff, Sean.

    It's really the only way I can approach anything concerning religion/spirituality anymore - from that place of emptiness / silence.

    I still have to keep a "diary" - I call it my daily visit with the shrink - to deal with all the wordings of things that I have to do, but the purpose of all these words is to bring myself to a place of emptiness.



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