Sunday, November 1, 2009

Meeting D.T. Suzuki in NYC, 1964

In June of 1964 Thomas Merton met with D.T. Suzuki in New York City. Dr. Suzuki was 94 years old.

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.

“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)
About his meeting with Suzuki, Merton had this to say:
“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)

“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)
Later Merton said in a letter to a friend:
“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.

Pure Merton.


  1. Don't forget the Bloody Mary and reading Hesse on the airplane ride. Nice photo: looks like it would be fun to hang with them.

  2. Wasn't it the trip to Asia where he was reading Hesse?

    This plane ride it was specifically when the stewardesses brought out the shrimp that Merton began getting excited about the trip! And when they announced NEW YORK that he realized that was his home.

  3. Quite right - the trip to Asia.

  4. I never thought of Merton having a home: from the 7 story mtn., he was so rootless. Sometimes I've wondered if that was part of what propelled him into the monastery: not having a stable home when he was growing up.

  5. You're right, Gunter, Merton was rather rootless. I think that the death of his mother when he was a young child, and then his father's death at the age of 15, did more to affect his sense of homelessness than all the moving around, though.

    He certainly relished in the brotherhood of his fellow monks.

    It seems to me that as far as geographic locations, Merton identified himself with Gethsemane, New York City (and Long Island), and France.

  6. He seems more France to me than American. It was one of his blind spots, I think, he didn't quite get the American thing, judging from what I remember reading. I can't remember much about his New York Days other than his flirtation with Communists and Harlem.

  7. and Columbia of course

  8. NYC is where he entered the Catholic Church, and so many of the Churches there have meaning for him. Besides Columbia, he worked with the Franciscans in Harlem. Both of his grandparents in Long Island died before he entered the monastery, and he was with each of them when they died.

    I know what you mean about him not getting America, and he was quite blase, even dismissive, of American politics. But much of his later writing had to do with specifically American issues, perhaps especially the struggle for civil rights and the introduction of the nuclear bomb into the equation.

    For sure, though, he didn't get the cherry pie stuff.

  9. Probably because, as a child, he never identified himself as an American. His artist father was from New Zealand and his early education took place in Europe (mostly France).

  10. Hello. I found this page while looking for a photograph of Thomas Merton and D.T. Suzuki for a quotation blog post. It looks like we share an affinity for Merton's writings, and Merton the person. I will definitely return to spend some time with your rich collections!




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