Thoughts on the East
Thomas Merton
Introduction by George Woodcock New Directions, New York, 1995. 
75 pp.,  $6.00 (paper).


Given the views on Buddhism offered recently by Pope John Paul 11 in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, it is ironic that so much of my liter­ary introduction to the philosophies of Asia came from the pen of a monk in one of Catholicism’s strictest orders, the Cistercians (more commonly known as Trappists). Before Thomas Merton began writing on Asian phi­losophy and spiritual practice in the mid-sixties, he rarely ventured out from his monastery in Kentucky. He had, however, already established him­self not only as an original thinker whose prose works—like Seven Storey Mountain and New Seeds of Contem­plation—had a wide general reader­ship, but also as a very fine poet. This aspect of Merton’s great body of work remains neglected in our time.

Thomas Merton, courtesy of John Lyons.
Thomas Merton, courtesy of John Lyons.


Merton began his short series of works on Asian religious traditions as late as 1965, less than four years before his death, although he had been in touch with D. T. Suzukias early as 1961 and had also been reading Aldous Huxley and others on mysti­caI traditions. He was a peculiar monastic, and one who refused to con­fine his world behind monastery walls. He greatly admired both Gandhi and Martin Luther King and, having worked briefly as a social worker in Harlem, was deeply concerned with the civil rights movement of the six­ties. And it was through his interest in nonviolent resistance that he even­ tually turned to the Bhagavad Gita and began his Asian studies.

Drawing from all of Menon’s Asian books, George Woodcock has editedThoughts on the East, a concise intro­duction to Merton’s oeuvre, with chap­ters on Taoism, Zen, Hinduism, Sufism, and on “Varieties of Buddhism,” including Merton’s notes on conver­sations with the Dalai Lama. Like Mer­ton, however, Woodcock died before completing his work,and several of the chapter introductions were prepared by the staff at New Directions.

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