Saturday, October 17, 2009

Merton and Zen, the beginning ...

Dr. D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966)

“I have my own way to walk, and for some reason or another, Zen is right in the middle of wherever I go.”

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


  1. In this letter Merton' humility shines through and the light is warming. D.T. was old school Rinzai, which denied him a larger popular audience in the West where we seem to prefer Soto and crazy wisdom.

    From my reading of him I remember two things: Zen lacks the poetry of love found in Christianity, and that religion must grow like a plant, with many different branches and shoots in order to be alive, which is why Zen differs so much from the Buddha's original teaching.

    My wife and I both have trouble with the baroque quality of Japanese and Chinese Buddhism. Zen has always seemed to me something quite different from what the Buddha was talking about.

  2. When Merton met Suzuki in NYC in June of 1964, Merton says that the thing Suzuki insisted on the most - in Christianity and in Buddhism - was love more than enlightenment.

    Also, Merton says that all religions are simple, and that all religions tend to lavish them.

    But Zen is not a religion.

    I've been reading from the different Merton books about Zen this morning (The Desert Fathers, The Way of Chuang Tzu, Zen and the Birds of Apetite, Dancing in the Waters of Life) - Zen and the Birds of Apetite is where Merton discusses Zen/Buddhism/Christianity in the most detail.

    I trust Merton's explanations of Zen more than anyone else's. He is able to use the language that I understand.

  3. These are Merton’s words for what I was trying to say above:

    from Zen and the Birds of Appetite pp. 61-62

    “... I should also speak as a Catholic, as a man formed by a certain Western religious tradition but with, I hope, a legitimate curiosity about and openness to other traditions. SUch a one can only with diffidence hazard statements about Buddhism, since he cannot be sure that he has a trustworthy insight into the spiritual values of a tradition with which he is not really familiar. Speaking for myself, I can venture to say that in Dr. Suzuki, Buddhism finally became for me completely comprehensible, whereas before it had been a very mysterious and confusing jumble of words, images, doctrines, legends, rituals, buildings and so forth. It seemed to me that the great and baffling cultural luxuriance which has clothed the various forms of Buddhism in different parts of Asia is the beautiful garment thrown over something quite simple. The greatest religions are all, in fact, very simple. They all retain very important differences, no doubt, but in their inner reality Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism are extremely simple (though capable, as I say, of baffling luxuriance) and they all end up with the simplest and most baffling thing of all: direct confrontation with Absolute Being, Absolute Love, Absolute Mercy or Absolute Void, by an immediate and fully awakened engagement in the living of everyday life. In Christianity the confrontation is theological and affective, through word and love. In Zen it is metaphysical and intellectual, through insight and emptiness. Yet Christianity too has its tradition if apophatic contemplation of knowledge in “unknowing”, while the last words I remember Dr. Suzuki saying (before usual goodbyes) were “The most important thing is Love!” I must say that as a Christian I was profoundly moved. Truly PRAJNA and KARUNA are one (as the Buddhist says), or CARITAS (love) is indeed the highest knowledge.”


The Merton Center

I don't know why it took me so long to get to The Merton Center in Louisville. I've been in and out of KY several times over the yea...