In his best-selling biography The Seven Storey Mountain (published in 1948), Thomas Merton tells of his conversion to Catholicism and subsequent entry into Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Cistercian abbey in Kentucky. To a world savaged by war, Merton’s embrace of a Christian life was made all the more authentic by his Cambridge-educated intellect, stunning candor, and the New York street humor he acquired while attending Columbia University. Single-handedly, he restored credibility to the very possibility of contemplative virtue which had been long denigrated by liberal intellectuals and traditional Christians alike. His was a voice of sanity, filled with sacred wonder, and replete with inquiry and contradiction.

Merton appreciated perspectives refined by their distance from society and considered them essential to maintaining the health of the community. In fact, he spoke of the marginal view as an obligation for both monastics and artists. From his cloistered outpost, Father Louis (as he was designated by the Church) kept a vigilant eye on the Civil Rights movement and anti-nuclear efforts, and in the last years of his life, he watched with undisguised frustration as the United States lost its footing altogether in Vietnam.

Political concern was one of Father Louis’ many departures from monastic tradition. A voracious reader and legendary correspondent, Merton’s interests extended beyond Church conventions and, under the influence of Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki, came to include Buddhism. 

In 1968, after a quarter of a century of life in the monastery, and after repeated requests for permission to travel, the Order finally granted its most renowned and respected monk leave for an Asian journey for the purpose of delivering a paper (on Marxism and Monasticism) to Asian monastic leaders in Bangkok. But before and after the conference, he would have ample opportunity to meet Buddhist masters. 

Merton’s letters, made public in recent years, confirm that while he submitted to the rigors of monastic life, he was also a man of wild and sometimes whimsical enthusiasms: “a man of accomplished self-discipline,” as one visitor described him, “who sometimes acted like a ten-year-old in a candy store.” This is the Tom Merton who arrived in India—a monk out of habit, a spiritual traveler hungry for new ground. After nearly twenty years of reading and writing about Zen, he set out for Asia eager to meet Zen roshis, but Merton’s first direct encounter with the living traditions of Buddhism was with the Tibetan lamas; three weeks after meeting them, he was already planning to cut short his stay in Japan in favor of returning to Bhutan to begin Tibetan practice. But he never reached Japan. After addressing the conference in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, Merton returned to his cottage, showered, apparently fell, and was electrocuted by a whirling floor fan. He was fifty-three years old. 

Would he really have “settled down”—as he claimed—with a Tibetan guru? Or would he have ended up in the Alaskan hermitage or the California redwoods that had inspired similar claims? His sudden death spurred endless speculation about his future that continues to this day. 

When Father Louis arrived in New Dehli, by the prearrangement of Benedictine Prior Dom Aelred Graham, he was met by Harold Talbott. At the time, Talbott, a skinny, twenty-seven-year-old convert to Catholicism, was studying Buddhism with the Dalai Lama. Today, under the aegis of the Buddhayana Foundation, Talbott works with Tulku Thondup Rinpoche on translations of Nyingmapa scriptures which include Buddha-Mind (Snow Lion, 1989) and Enlightened Living (Shambhala Publications, 1991). This interview was conducted for Tricycle by editor Helen Tworkov. Recent photographs of Talbott were taken in his office in Marion, Massachusetts by Anne Converse.

Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, 1968. Courtesy of John Howard Griffin.
Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, 1968. Courtesy of John Howard Griffin.

 

Tricycle: How much did Thomas Merton influence your decision to convert to Catholicism?

Talbott: When people ask why I became a Catholic, I often answer, I’m ashamed to say, that it wasn’t The Confessions of St. Augustine, it was The Seven Storey Mountain.

Tricycle: Why ashamed?

Talbott: Because The Seven Storey Mountain is a terrific book, but it’s a paperback.

Tricycle: When did you first meet Merton?

Talbott: In 1957, I was working on a newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee during my summer vacation from Harvard and reading The Sign of Jonas, the journal Merton kept on his way to becoming a priest. And I went to Gethsemani to meet him but the world was beating a path to his door, and the abbot wouldn’t let me in. The next Thanksgiving I returned after being baptized. I had decided to take my first communion not with the Jesuits but with the Cistercians at Gethsemani. 

Tricycle: And you saw him then? 

Talbott: This time the abbot said yes. Merton took me into a room and said, “I’m always very glad to meet someone who has just come into the church because they are full of grace and the grace overflows from the person who has just been received. And I have only one thing to say to you: the Church is a very big place. Always remember to go your own way in it.” Ten years later in India I reminded Merton about that remark and he said, “Did I say that? That’s pretty good. And look at where we both are.” 

Tricycle: What was the effect of that first encounter?

Talbott: It was the first time I had met a great man—which always clarifies your path. They raise you to their level. Shantideva (a celebrated eighth-century Mahayana master of India) says that if an ordinary tree grows up in a sandalwood forest, the nearness to the sandalwood makes it smell like a sandalwood tree. And if you encounter a true spiritual master and you recognize it, the recognition disposes your mind to a state which hints every now and then at what good practice will do for you. 

Tricycle: How did you get from Catholicism to Buddhism? 

Talbott: I had gone to Asia as secretary to Dam Aelred Graham who had just retired after sixteen years as Prior in Portsmouth Priory in Rhode Island. He had already written Zen Catholicism and had gotten permission from the Benedictine Order to spend a year in Asia and the Middle East. The Vatican Council then asked him to be peritus—or expert—on Buddhism for the Council that was writing a decree on the relationship of the Church to Buddhism. Aelred had said that the encounter between Buddhism and Catholicism cannot take place at the level of the Magisterium, it can only take place at the level of two contemplatives talking together in private. For that reason Dom Aelred refused to be the peritus for the Vatican Council.

Tricycle: Peritus is a Vatican term? 

Talbott: Yes. The Periti were the experts, for example, on Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, etc. Dom Aelred Graham had been tremendously influenced by Ramakrishna’s writings; he had studied Buddhism, and was deeply moved by the Vedanta tradition. When the Vatican learned that he was going to Asia, Pope Paul VI asked him to be his personal envoy to heads of non-Christian religions in Asia and in the Middle East. He was practicing yoga and zazen and he wanted to meet the roshis of Japan and the lamas of Tibet and sufi teachers and rabbis and Orthodox leaders of the Christian East. He needed a secretary to pack his bags, deal with the tape recorder, write the letters and get him to appointments on time. So when Merton wrote to Aelred and asked how he could meet the lamas in India, Aelred explained that I was there studying with the Dalai Lama and that I could introduce him to the lamas. 

Tricycle: Did Merton give the impression that he came with a specific sense of what he was looking for?

Talbott: The fifties were the first time you could buy Buddhist studies. He had spent years reading drugstore paperbacks on Buddhism. You didn’t have to be Alexandra David-Neel and go in disguise to Tibet. Merton had studied Buddhism in translations. Finally, he managed to finagle a trip.

Tricycle: When Merton arrived in Dharamsala (the seat of the Tibetan government in exile), did he ask you to arrange an audience with the Dalai Lama?

Harold Talbott. Courtesy of Anne Converse.
Harold Talbott. Courtesy of Anne Converse.

 

Talbott: No. I said, “An audience is scheduled for you with His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” and he said “I’m not going.” And I said, “Why not?” He said, “I’ve seen enough pontiffs.” And I said, “Well I think, Tom—as you want me to call you—if you come to India to study with lamas, I think you’d be making a mistake not to meet the Dalai Lama. And furthermore, Tom, the Dalai Lama has heard all about you from the Canadian High Commissioner, James George, and he’s taken the trouble of having a film shown to him of Cistercian monks and abbeys in France. He’s done his homework and I think you should go up there and meet him.” So he said “Okay, we’ll see.”

Tricycle: What was this attitude based on? 

Talbott: He didn’t trust organized religion and he didn’t trust the big banana. He did not come to India to hang around the power-elite of an exiled central Asian Vatican. But despite his misgivings, he went. 

Tricycle: Merton stayed with you? 

Talbott: I was living in a bungalow and I gave my room and study to Merton and I bedded down on sort of a wooden sofa. There was no furniture at all, and we were freezing and Merton had the most colossal cold and was sick. He was sick a lot during his later life. He had been maintaining a crushing schedule as a contemplative Trappist working monk, and had also written shelves of books. He burned the candle at both ends to a frightening degree. I would see him at two o’clock in the morning because I was so cold I couldn’t sleep and so fascinated that behind that wall was Merton. The light would go on at two o’clock and he would do his prayers and then I would see the light go on in the study at four in the morning. 

Tricycle: Was his meeting with the Dalai Lama the high point of his visit to Dharamsala?

Talbott: Two or three very significant things happened there. He was taken to meet Rato Rinpoche, who was the head of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This was his first official appointment with the exiled government, a momentous event for all of Dharamsala. They knew perfectly well who he was and that Merton would be a great advantage for them, spiritually and politically. They knew that Merton would write about them with an absolute outpouring of love and appreciation and it would advance their cause enormously.

Tricycle: But the significance of this meeting was not political, was it?

Talbott: No. In their meeting, Rato Rinpoche told Merton that one way to get into meditation is to recognize that there is always an aspect of the mind that is watching the watcher—that is watching the meditative mind. There are two basic practices common to all Buddhist meditation: first you learn to calm the mind, and when the mind is sufficiently calm, you use it as an instrument for insight. This is how I was being trained at the time. Merton came back from his first meeting with a lama and said, “This guy says that there’s a meditative mind and then there’s a part of the mind watching you meditate. We know that already, and we don’t want the watcher to watch it, so that’s of no use to us. So let’s see what is useful around here.”

Tricycle: From his Gethsemani experience, he’s dismissing the fundamentals of Buddhist meditation? 

Harold Talbott. Courtesy of Anne Converse.
Harold Talbott. Courtesy of Anne Converse.

 

Talbott: Yes. I was very shocked because I considered all Westerners infants spiritually. I thought the Rennaisance had destroyed all of the good work of the contemplative Middle Ages; and that we were hopelessly deficient and that we should go hat in hand to masters in Asia. And here is Merton saying, “We know that already and we don’t need it.” 

Tricycle: And even having converted to Catholicism, this surprised you? 

Talbott: I was not aware that within the contemplative methodology of the West that survived the onslaught of the Renaissance that this knowledge of a watcher watching the mind existed. And also the knowledge that we don’t need that.

Tricycle: How did Merton go about finding what was useful? 

Talbott: He went out to take photographs and met Sonam Kazi. I knew this from his eyes before he told me. And that was the birth of the blues, the beginning of the dzogchen (The philosophical standpoint, meditation, and ethic of the Nyingmapa, the Old School of Tibetan Buddhism founded by Padmasambhava in the ninth century C.E. The teachings start with the assertion that our true nature is already enlightened.) teachings for Thomas Merton. Sonam Kazi was the official interpreter assigned to the Dalai Lama by the government of India, the interpreter, for example, in the talks between Nehru, Chou En Lai, and the Dalai Lama. Sonam ran into Merton on the road, invited him to a tea house and zapped him.

Tricycle: How did you know from looking into Merton’s eyes that he had encountered Sonam Kazi?

Dom Aelred Graham, the Dalai Lama, and Talbott, 1967.
Dom Aelred Graham, the Dalai Lama, and Talbott, 1967.

 

Talbott: Because Merton was in a state of utmost amusement, joy, and conviction that the best was yet to come: “We’ve got it; we’ve had this non-event so far and now we’re going to get it; I knew there was something among these Tibetans.” Sonam Kazi had zapped me a year before and I had gone out carefully holding on to the furniture. I hate to use these words but I’m too lazy not to: Sonam can put a person in an “altered state of consciousness” and believe me, I was not used to altered states of consciousness. But Merton was a ripened and ready object of a visit from Sonam Kazi and he got it. He said to me occasionally after that, “I came to Asia to study Zen in Japan and now I have changed my itinerary and I’m going to study dzogchen in India with the Tibetans.”

Tricycle: Did he know the difference between Zen in Japan and dzogchen in India?

Talbott: He hadn’t been to Japan and I don’t even know if he’d been in zendos in America, but he knew something through his own past lives about Buddhist meditation. It’s outrageous to say that but that’s what I believe. He was sensitive to Zen and his sensitivity had been confirmed by Dr. D.T. Suzuki. When he encountered the flavor of dzogchen through a conversation with Sona Kazi, he said, “what you’re callingdzogchen—that’s what I want.”

Tricycle: Did your encounter with Sona Kazi lead to your your own dzogchen studies?

Talbott: I had wanted to remain faithful to the commitment that I had made to the Dalai Lama to study in the tradition of training and scholarship and meditation of Tsongkhapa, who founded th Gelugpa School (The newest of four surviving schools of Tibetan Buddhism, founded in the fourteenth century. It emphasizes study of the sutras and tantras, as well as the development of logical rigor and dialectical skills to aid the attainment of enlightenment. The Dalai Lama belongs to this lineage.) The change was precipitated by the personality and spiritual impact

 Harold Talbott. Courtesy of Anne Converse.
Harold Talbott. Courtesy of Anne Converse.

of Sonam Kazi and followed by the insistence of Merton that if he was my age he would be here studying Tibetan Buddhism. “That’s what I would be doing with my life. But you’ve got to get it straight kid: what the Tibetan tradition has to offer us is dzogchen and that’s where it’s at and the sooner you get out of the Himalayan Vatican the better. If you want to spend the rest of your life being trained to be a curial diplomat and reading sutras and tantras for the next forty years before you even get to start really practicing shamata (calming-the-mind meditation) go right ahead and stay in Dharamsala. But if you want to know where it’s at, find a dzogchen yogi.”

Tricycle: Were there other significant encounters independent of the Dalai Lama?

Talbott: Yes. His visit with Chogling Rinpoche—a way-out yogi, a very wild man who was an incredible kick-over-the-traces, irresponsible-type person, a tremendous troublemaker, and extremely rollicking in an unpredictable way, a top-flight, wonderful Nyingmapa yogi. He said to Merton, “When Sonam Kazi brings someone, I know I’ll be able to talk to them and that it’ll be okay.” He asked Merton “Do you believe in karma and rebirth?” Merton said, “Well, I think it’s a very, very fascinating, persuasive proposition, but I wouldn’t say I believe it, no.” So Chogling said, “Okay, well then I can’t teach you because the whole thing is predicated on you having faith in karma and rebirth. So let’s say that you have faith in karma and rebirth, and this is what I have to tell you. A human being has a srog—a life force. He has a consciousness and when he dies, in order to ensure the proper destination of the consciousness, it’s very useful to be able to practicephowa.

Tricycle: Is phowa a yogic practice? 

Talbott: There’s a fontanel on the top of your head. At birth, it’s a soft, big space between the head bones, and as babies grow, it closes. Through yogic training you can reopen it and then when you die, you can shoot the consciousness out the fontanel and then it goes straight to the paradise of Amitabha Buddha.

 Harold Talbott. Courtesy of Anne Converse.
Harold Talbott. Courtesy of Anne Converse.

Tricycle: What is the view expressed in Amitabha’s paradise?

Talbott: At an enlightened level the universe is viewable as a boundless number of Buddha fields—areas of enlightened consciousness. The field around a Buddha and his enlightened bodhisattvas resonates as what we might call, figuratively, a paradise. And the teachings of thephowa—yogic teachings about how to direct the consciousness at death and to go to rebirth include the capacity to send the consciousness straight to the buddha realm of Amitabha. The reason Chogling Rinpoche taught Mertonphowa practice—say I—is that he saw that Merton was going to be dead in a couple of weeks. He needed the teachings on death. He did not need teachings of karma and suffering, calming the mind, insight meditation. He needed to be taught how to dispose his consciousness at the time of death because this was the time of death for him. And Merton scribbled in his journal: “I’m not sure about all this consciousness and shooting it out the top of the head. I’m not sure this is going to be very useful for us.”

Tricycle: All these encounters took place prior to Merton’s visit with the Dalai Lama?

Talbott: Yes. The days were going by with Sonam Kazi taking us to see Nyingmapa lamas, drinking scotch in taverns, and talking, talking. Merton is now saying “Dzogchen is where it’s at and that’s what I’m going to do.” I became very officious. We were about to go up the hill to meet the Dalai Lama. It seemed to me that it would be impolitic for Merton to refer to the dzogchen school because it’s a different school from that of His Holiness. In the Jeep, as we are going up the hill to McLeod Ganj—the Dalai Lama’s residence—I explained all this to Merton. He was wearing his white robe with black scapular to meet His Holiness. We arrived and after a flurry of exchanged courtesies, the Dalai Lama looked at Merton and said, “What do you want?” And Merton said, “I want to study dzogchen.” And the Dalai Lama said, “It’s true that dzogchen is the highest yana (vehicle for Buddhist study), but if you want to study dzogchen, I propose a series of meetings in which I will teach you the preliminary practices at the end of which I should hope that you will be ready to go on to dzogchen.”

Tricycle: How many times did they meet?

Talbott: Three times. The first meeting was used to get to know each other. They devoted much of the third meeting to conversations about Catholicism, the Western tradition, and the situation in the world. But the second time, to my astonishment, the Dalai Lama—who of course had sat on an extraordinary elevated throne in Tibet—now, with us still sitting on the sofas, got down on the floor and showed Merton the lotus meditation posture and the hand position and the posture of the back, and taught him meditation. He remained on a level lower than ourselves—for practical purposes—for the rest of the teaching. And he gave us very, very clear, sound meditation instructions that would be completely familiar to vipassana practitioners. He was leading up to teachings on emptiness and compassion and then went on to a gentle explanation of tantra as a field of Mahayana Buddhism that is a very very strong practice throughout history. And then at some point he gave a summation of the schema of Nyingmapa Buddhism starting with some Theravada teachings.

Tricycle: How did the meditation instruction that Merton received from the Dalai Lama differ from that given to him by Rato Rinpoche, which, as you describe it, did not interest him?

Talbott: The Dalai Lama didn’t get into technical, methodological questions. He showed us posture and how to dispose the mind and how to get yourself into basic meditation practice by calming the mind and there was nothing technical. Of course, it was masterfully taught and there is an inexpressible gravity about the person of the Dalai Lama. He was—and still is—the supreme man holding the tradition together, the man who has been giving the Tibetan nation an identity and engaging in endless maneuvers for his people amidst the destruction and the torment. And here he was showing us posture and breathing!

Thomas Merton with Chatral Rinpoche in the Darjeeling, 1968. Courtesy of John Howard Griffin.
Thomas Merton with Chatral Rinpoche in the Darjeeling, 1968. Courtesy of John Howard Griffin.

 

Tricycle: Was the atmosphere very formal?

Talbott: The Dalai Lama’s robe and Thomas Merton’s white Cistercian habit with the black scapular looked Giottoesque. It was an image of two figures encountering each other who deserved to wear those robes, who were part and parcel of the world represented by those very robes. So that one really had a surfeit of visual inspiration. Both men were very solid. Unornamental, compact, strong, hard beings. Now the Dalai Lama has an external joviality and graciousness which is appropriate to a sovereign. To put you at your ease, to make it possible for beings to be in relation to him, he plays down the radiance, the dignity, the charisma, the persona that the West has developed a romantic myth about, but who in himself has his own distinct presence and radiance. There is no presumption about him. He’s a person who draws a heart-breaking reverence from the people who are devoted to him, and to see him in this room with a man to whom we don’t need to apply adjectives, but if we were, it would be things like mensch, authentic…

Tricycle: Merton?

Talbott: Yes. Mensch—manly, authentic. No gestures. No artifice. No manner. No program, no come-on—just, “Here I am folks”—and folks happened to be the Dalai Lama. And they encountered each other and, appropriately enough, there was utter silence. And then the Dalai Lama challenged him or greeted him by saying, “What do you want?” and he said, “I want to study dzogchen.” I was about to clobber Merton. I couldn’t take it. But I was very glad to be aboard. It was the generosity of Merton that made it possible for me to attend those meetings. He said, “You’re here studying with the Dalai Lama. I want you present.” Whereas it might have been delightful to be alone with just the Dalai Lama and the interpreter. It’s my good karma that I was there. There was so much good humor and so much laughter and so much camaraderie and so much confidence of understanding and so much no need for explanation and build-up and equipping themselves on their parts, you see. They had done their homework.

Tricycle: What did the Dalai Lama ask Merton about Christianity?

Talbott: If I’m not mistaken, it was about how you live the contemplative life in the West and what you do to make it possible in this modern world to live the life of a monk in the West. How do you stave off spiritual annihilation? These conversations were very much Merton equipping himself with the transmission of Buddhism from the Dalai Lama and very much the Dalai Lama equipping himself with the low-down from a reliable guide. This was not a papal legate. This was not someone setting up a conference for the Pope. This was not a front man. This was an embodiment of something which another embodiment—a tulku—who needs to function in the world, was drawing upon as a resource.

Tricycle: Did Merton have a daily meditation practice?

Talbott: I have no idea, but I asked him once, like a very fresh kid, “What is your meditation practice? And what do you think of this stuff?” He said, “My meditation practice is largely walking in the woods in a state of meditative absorption.” 

Tricycle: It sounds like the Dalai Lama was providing a transmission to be carried forth to all of Christendom. 

Talbott: The Dalai Lama is saying to him, “I want with my own eyes and ears and speech to assure myself that you have the faith firmly grounded” and—let’s be daring—let’s think that there are certain beings who do not have to come every day and attend Zen or vipassana retreat. This could be a romantic projection but I have to say what I think: Merton had thirty years behind him and when he walked into a room or the cell of a meditator, monk or lama, he was greeted with a recognition. I’ve never seen a Western person received by a lama the way that he was received. 

Tricycle: Did the Dalai Lama feel personally responsible that Merton get it right? 

Talbott: That’s how I see it. Dzogchen is the primordial state of mind, it’s the enlightened mind, that has never been anything but enlightened. We are living in a world, it is said, which is a product of our own unenlightened experience, our ma rigpa, our ignorance of the true nature of reality, absolute and relative.Dzogchen is the practice of the primordial enlightenment but it is also a view or standpoint towards reality. Its meditation is to sustain and deepen this. That’s a contradiction because dzogchen is the presence of fulfillment, not a process. We already are in primordial—or original—enlightenment in dzogchen. That’s the starting place. 

Tricycle: In Asian Journal, Merton refers to the dzogchen Nyingma lama Chatral Rinpoche as the person he would choose as his teacher.

Thomas Merton at Our Lady of Gethsemani just prior to leaving for Asia, photographed by his friend Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
Thomas Merton at Our Lady of Gethsemani just prior to leaving for Asia, photographed by his friend Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

 

Talbott: He was Merton’s man. Chatral Rinpoche really gives the flavor of the Tibetans. I wouldn’t dream of studying with him, or anybody remotely like him, because he is totally and completely unpredictable. He is savage about the ego and he will put you on the spot and I am not prepared to up the ante to that degree.

Tricycle: Why did you choose to introduce Merton to him? 

Talbott: I wanted to make sure that Merton met all the outstanding lamas that I could dig up. In Dharamsala he met Avelokiteshvara—the Bodhisattva of Compassion—in the person of the Dalai Lama. And I think okay, I’m doing my job, I’m getting him the whole spectrum of the force field. But of course he must meet Chatral Rinpoche, too, and of course that will be an opportunity for me to hide behind Merton’s skirts and also meet Chatral Rinpoche who I’m terrified of. He could throw stones at you—as he does do—and so I will use Merton as the front. We caught up with Chatral Rinpoche down the road from Ghoom in Darjeeling. He was painting the nuns’ house and he put some planks on some bricks and we sat and talked with the help of an interpreter. Chatral Rinpoche started by saying “Ah, a Jesus lama; you know I have never been able for the life of me to get a handle on Christianity so I’m real glad you came this morning.” 

Tricycle: Did he know who Merton was? 

Talbott: No. But he explained his perplexity about Christianity. He said, “The center of your religion is a man who comes back to life after death and in Tibetan Buddhism when you have one of these people, a rolog, or a walking corpse, we call our lama to put him down. So I want to know what kind of a religion is Christianity which has at its center a dead man coming back to life.” So Merton explained the Resurrection in tantric terms about the overcoming of fear and the utter and complete power of liberation which is the center of Christianity. And this satisfied Chatral Rinpoche. 

Tricycle: Freedom from fear? 

Talbott: Freedom from all constraints and restraints. A man has died and he has come back in a glorious body and he has freed us from fear of death and fear of life. That’s freedom. 

Tricycle: Because it’s eternal? 

Talbott: No. If the universe is a place where a man can live again in a glorified body and teach the truth, then the world is a free place. And Chatral Rinpoche says “At last I understand Christianity. Thank you very much.” And then Merton says “I would like to study with you.” And Chatral says “Right, we can work together. And so you’ve got to do your ngon dno (the preliminary practice of dzogchen, which usually takes a Tibetan about a year). We’ll get you a hermitage in Bhutan and that is where you should do your retreat. And I challenge you: see, I’m not enlightened yet, so let’s work together and see which one of us can get enlightened first.” And so Merton said, “it’s a deal.” And so then we split and Merton says “That’s the greatest man I ever met. That’s my teacher.” But they weren’t his exact words. 

Tricycle: In Asian Journal he says that if he took a teacher, that’s who it would be. 

Talbott: Yes, but he would never have left the Church.

Tricycle: One of the persistent myths among American Buddhists has been that Merton was just about to leave the Church to pursue Buddhist studies. But Merton seemed to have said yes to everyone. He had people around the world expecting him on their doorsteps all on the same day.

Talbott: He told Ernesto Cardenal and his brother, “I’m coming down to Nicaragua to make revolutions with you.” And he planned to retire in Alaska as well as California and do a three-year retreat in Bhutan, and someone had given him land in Santa Fe where he’d proposed to set up a Catholic-Tibetan meditation center.

Tricycle: What did you think he might do? 

Talbott: Having encountered Chatral Rinpoche he might have curtailed his trip to Japan but he was certainly going to go there and talk to Zen roshis. My distinct impression was that this was a man who had found what he wanted in India and was going to round out his experience in Asia as he planned but he was going to modify it in order to go back and study with Chatral Rinpoche. How were Nicaragua, Alaska, and Canada, California, and New Mexico going to fit into that, and how could he be an active member of the Civil Rights movement, of the Peace movement, a poet and a writer and all the rest of it? I don’t know. To my distinct certainty he was going to study dzogchen and do his preliminary practice with Chatral Rinpoche. I’m convinced of it, but he would never have left the Church.

Tricycle: Why do you say that?

Talbott: He had reached a point—unrecognizable to me and perhaps to you—where the Judeo-Christian theistic tradition of the Mother Church of Christendom and dzogchen of Nyingmapa Tibetan Buddhism were not in contradiction. Furthermore he had grown up in a Catholic village in France that had so deeply affected him that it had planted a seed which had caused him to enter the Church. He was a man who had spent thirty years in a Cistercian abbey. His training came from the Church. He was a generous man and he was a just man and he acknowledged what he owed to the Church. It was his formation. It was not his cocoon. It was not his prison. It was himself and it was a very good self and he needed to uphold it. 

Tricycle: Why do you make so much of the fact that the school of Tibetan Buddhism that most attracted Thomas Merton was dzogchen

Talbott: It is significant because, of all of the methods of introducing humans to their primordially enlightened nature, I am betting that the power and effectiveness and depth of all depths lies in dzogchen. Merton came home when he found dzogchen and that is my assertion. 

Tricycle: But why is it significant that dzogchen attracted Merton? 

Talbott: Because Merton stood for the contemplative life the way—to make a vulgar and irrelevant analogy—Picasso stands for art. For contemplatives there are illuminated beings, there are hidden yogis, but as far as how ordinary people come into touch with the great spiritual heritage of the West—including the apophatic tradition, the Via Negativa—it’s through the mystical teachings from St. Paul and St. John, St. John’s gospel, Dionysius the Areopagite, the great medieval mystics Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Avila—and that’s just about it, folks—that’s it for the big league contributions to spirituality at the contemplative level in the West. And every now and then you get somebody who says “Wait a minute, I know the chips are down and the circumstances are against us, but let’s get in there once more and try to stay alive spiritually.” And that’s Merton for twentieth-century Westerners. Despite all of his manliness, Merton was a man of the old moment before the Second World War, a man of enormous personal and cultural refinement. He belonged in a French salon as well as in a forest in Kentucky. There is no question about it. He had the qualities we’re losing. Gaining, gaining other wonderful ones but losing, losing something. Merton had this consummate worldly culture as well as this jewel of spirituality. He was a gift to humanity, with the naivete and the nerve to take the writings of mystics seriously. 

Tricycle: Everybody wants to claim Merton. The Zen Buddhists emphasize the Zen connection, and the Gelugpas want to claim him for their camp, and you want to claim him for dzogchen. So it becomes somewhat political. 

Talbott: The fact is that he told the Dalai Lama that he wanted to study dzogchen so the Dalai Lama spent hours preparing him to find a dzogchen guru. And he found him in Chatral Rinpoche. He went down to Sri Lanka where he convinced himself that he had the experience of the dharmakaya (emptiness), seeing the statues of the Shakyamuni Buddha and Ananda. Then he was electrocuted and died and we are left to sit here and talk about how dzogchen was the final bestowal on Merton by a divinely compassionate savior. 

Tricycle: Do you mean the Dalai Lama? 

Talbott: No. The Holy Trinity. If we do not deny the existence and virtue of the Judeo-Christian tradition and yet acknowledge that Merton found his path, we have to say that from the standpoint of his spiritual presence in the West, he was vouch-safed one final gift and was shown the path. And that the very last things that he was enabled to do were to talk to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, to see the traditions of the Rinpoches in India; and to hear about the conditions of the life of a sacred people in Tibet. Then he went and addressed the heads of contemplative communities in Bangkok. The conclusions he reached were conclusions that the late Trungpa Rinpoche had drawn too: in Merton’s words, “It’s every monk for himself now.” Structures can no longer be relied on to provide protection to foster the spiritual life. Everyone—ordained or not—for himself, through his practice or her practice. And one of the most congenial means for going on your own is dzogchen

Tricycle: In retrospect what was Merton’s effect on your life? 

Talbott: He seduced me into leaving the Gelugpa schools of Tibetan Buddhism and spending the rest of my life studying with dzogchen yogis. Also, I told him I was in a lot of confusion at that moment in my life. Merton helped me by telling me that when he was at an English university he had an affair with the girl who made the beds in his dormitory, and she had a baby, and he said to me, “You know my son would be such and such an age right now and I don’t know whether he survived the blitz or not.” And he carried that with him. That was on his mind. And he let me know that this was the key to his life. 

Tricycle: I thought he had been shuttled out of England by his guardian while the young woman was still pregnant. 

Talbott: He said, “My son,” and I don’t know why he said it. The impact was like that of St. Augustine who had been a sinner before his conversion. Merton saw himself as a man who had to purify himself of something that was a very heavy load to carry. But by the time he came to India, whether or not findingdzogchen was central—that’s my organization of significance in his life—it turns out that he had lived his life and this was the Mozart finale and he was in a state of utmost exuberance, engaged, and absorbing, and eating with delectation every moment of every experience and every person that passed. He tipped Sikh taxi drivers like a Proustian millionaire. He was on a roll, on a toot, on a holiday from school. He was a grand seigneur, a great lord of the spiritual life. He radiated a sense of “This is an adventure, here I am folks,” and he woke people up and illuminated them and enchanted them and gave them a tremendous happiness and a good laugh. But also there was always a communication from him that he was a representative of the religious life whether he was wearing a windbreaker or a habit. The Indian people greeted him as a pilgrim, a seeker, and that was the basis on which he s met by everybody and congratulated valiantly whether they recognized his public identity or not. People knew his spiritual quality. People in planes knew it. There was no question about it. Merton was not an object of scrutiny, he was an event.

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