Recently I had the happy occasion to introduce two old friends whose lives had been informed by the Cistercian monk, Father Louis, better known as Thomas Merton. Both had grown up in Episcopalian families; one had converted to Catholicism and later became a Tibetan Buddhist, and the other is in training to be a Zen teacher while reaffirming her Christian heritage. The Catholic convert, Harold Talbott—interviewed about Merton in this issue of Tricycle—had introduced Merton to Tibetan lamas in the Himalayas in the weeks just prior to Merton’s sudden death in Bangkok in 1968. By that time, influenced by Zen adept D.T. Suzuki, Merton had read and written about Zen for years, and the original motive behind his Asian journey was to meet Zen roshis in Japan.
In our somewhat heated discussion, Talbott said, “Merton gave me permission to be a Buddhist”; to which the Episcopalian-Zen disciple replied, “Merton gave me permission to be a Christian.” Or, it might have been the other way around. But both the exchange itself, and the subsequent ambiguity about which Christian-Buddhist claimed what, aptly reflects Merton’s legacy.
In this same issue of Tricycle, Laurie Anderson speaks with composer John Cage. Considered the father of “chance music,” his compositions—to use Zen terms—allow what is to be heard and to become integral to the process of making, and listening to, sound. Dr. Suzuki was responsible for awakening the Zen spirit of both John Cage and Thomas Merton, two radically different men who, between them, broadened the way we think about art and religion.
As a Trappist monk, Merton’s daily life was structured by the Benedictine Rule, a form intended to starve the cravings for personal choice and allow “big mind” or “divine will” to take their place. Nowhere in his writings is Merton more lyrical or convincing than in his praises of monastic life. But that was not the whole story, for his quarrels with papal bureaucracy as well as his own abbot are a cautionary reminder of both how large and how small the Church can be.
Not content to recognize form as form, Merton returned “obedience” to its original meaning, which, as Brother David Steindl-rast has explained, is to “thoroughly listen” (from the Latin, ob-audire). And here again, Merton and John Cage cross paths.
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