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.
Nothing about Cage—except (ironically) his name—suggest confinement. Associated with those radical experiments in artistic freedom that marked the first wave of an American avant-garde, Cage stunned even his own sympathizers in 1952 with a piece called “4’33.“” In the same way that sitting on the meditation cushion can be misconceived as “doing nothing,” Cage created an opportunity for listening in which “nothing” happened for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. In the case of its premier performance, the only sound most of the audience could hear was that of its own heckling. In a very active non-move, Cage collapsed the usual duality between subject and object, performer and audience. In this way, with the subsequent acceptance of his work, the essence of Zen namelessly permeated con temporary theater until” process” and “performance” art became conventions for Laurie Anderson’s generation.
By using the I Ching to create “chance-determined” music, Cage, too, “obeys” a non-personal form. By choosing no choice—or reduced choice—the domain of the ego is diminished.
America’s sources for ego-killing practices are certainly not limited to Buddhist teachings. In “Giving Birth to the Ancestors,” also in this issue, Joan Halifax reorients time by placing the common ancestry of the Earth—ground, stone, water, trees—in front of us as a spirit wave that pulls us forward. And Sulak Sivaraksa, the exiled Thai activist, suggests that Buddhists in this country learn from Native Americans, whose cultures have always harmonized with the land. Which is another way of saying that they listened. And they obeyed. Our preoccupations with authority and surrender, hierarchies and democracy, have made “obedience” a dirty word. But several voices in this issue suggest that paying attention to the real meaning of obedience would serve us well, and might also provide for Buddhists in this country an authentic and inclusive ancestry.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
This is the first of your three free articles this month. Subscribe today to gain access to our award-winning publication plus all of our online offerings, including films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.