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.
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