The Thomas Merton Connection:
What Was the Christian Monk Looking to Find in His Dialogue with Buddhism?

Alan Altany

… going home, to the home where I have never been

Fall 2000 | NEAR THE END OF HIS LIFE, the American Christian monk, poet, social critic and mystic, Thomas Merton said that he wanted “to become as good a Buddhist as I can” (Steindl-Rast, 1969).

In the climate of the times, for a man born in France who was raised with no particular religious influence and used to a life of desires, for a passionate convert to Catholicism, for a monk of the cloistered Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), why did Merton say that? What did he mean?

The story leading to Merton’s comment is a model for and recapitulation of the emergent and still emerging Buddhist – Christian interreligious dialogue, perhaps one of the more obscure yet more significant events occurring today.

On October 15, 1968, with Merton aboard, a jetliner lifted off the ground in San Francisco bound for Tokyo and the Asia beyond:

Joy. We left the ground--I with Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny, of being at last on my true way after years of waiting and wondering and fooling around. ... May I not come back without having settled the great affair. And found also the great compassion, mahakaruna… I am going home, to the home where I have never been in this body. (Asian Journal, pages 4-5).

Merton would return to home, to Our Lady of Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, very differently than when he headed East that day to a monastic conference in Bangkok, Thailand. Very different. Paradox, freedom, compassion, contemplation, emptiness and mysticism would all play a role in Merton’s Asian homecoming.

Seeds and New Roots

THE SEEDS THAT WOULD grow and propel Merton into being an advocate for interreligious dialogue, especially between Buddhists and Christians, were planted before Merton’s conversion at the age of 23 to Roman Catholicism.

He had met a Hindu monk named Bramachari who advised Merton, to his surprise, not to read Hindu scriptures, but some of the Christian mystical literature, especially Augustine’s "Confessions" and the medieval devotional work by Thomas a Kempis, "The Imitation of Christ." Being told by a Hindu monk to look--or re-look--into the Christian spiritual tradition of his own culture made a profound impression upon Merton. It would begin his exposure to Christian mystical writings that would, in turn, be a main reason he was on that plane going to Asia, going to meet the religions of Asia, and particularly Buddhism, face to face.

The path swerved along the way. After his conversion and transformation into a monk, Merton was a triumphalistic Christian with little regard for other forms of Christianity besides Catholicism and little concern for other religions.

Other seeds needed to be planted before a memory was created deep enough to develop such roots. The pre-Christian Merton had come across Aldous Huxley’s book on mysticism, "Ends and Means," which sowed an attraction for not only mysticism in general, but for apophatic mysticism -- meaning a knowledge of God obtained by negation -- that would enable him to later relate to Buddhist teachings about the Void and Emptiness.

In time, the Christian mystical writings of people like Pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa, Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross would echo with the Buddhist mysticism he discovered.

But for some years these seeds lay dormant as Merton became a Trappist monk, one of the strictest religious orders in Catholicism. He would be told by his abbot to write his autobiography and, against any expectations, it became a national bestseller, "The Seven Story Mountain," in the years right after World War II.

But in the 1950s Merton’s earlier fascination with mysticism and other religions resurfaced as he began a long-term study of Buddhism, focusing upon Zen. He came into contact with the Japanese scholar on Zen, Daisetz T. Suzuki (1870–1966), who was greatly responsible for introducing Zen Buddhism to the West. They would correspond and some of their writings would become the essay collection "Zen and the Birds of Appetite," a discussion of the similarities and differences between Zen Buddhism and Christianity.

Gandhi was also influential upon Merton in saying that one can find the deeper roots of one’s own religious tradition by becoming immersed in other religions--and then returning “home” to see one’s own heritage in a transformed way, with a transformed consciousness.

Merton’s Catholicism was becoming inexorably more and more catholic--with a small 'c'--in its scope of possibilities for experiencing spiritual wisdom.

 THE TRAPPISTS WERE A cenobitic order focusing upon living in a community of monks under the prescription “God Alone” and an “ora et labora” (pray & work) way of life little changed over the past 700 years. Merton taught young monks and gradually would develop a contemplative imagination and mind, in spite of his tendency towards intellectualization. This contemplative attitude and practice would later link him, at the root level, with Buddhism and Buddhists that he met.

The 1950s was also a time of crisis for Merton. He awoke to the notion that monastic life was not an isolated enclave of holiness, separate from and superior to the ways others lived. A compassion for people in distress also led Merton to begin writing on the social issues of the late 1950s and early 1960s, including civil rights, nuclear weapons, war and peace, and the Viet Nam War. If fact, his religious superiors silenced him because of his literary protests.

Some people wanted him to leave the monastery and join the movements for peace and social justice, but Merton felt his view from the monastery was both unique and indelibly his to retain. It was his Christian mysticism that he saw as the necessary foundation for anything of value he might have to say about suffering in the world and to people of other religions (my article “Thomas Merton: The Rediscovered Geography of an American Mystic” talks about that mysticism).

AS HIS STUDY OF BUDDHISM continued, Merton had no intention to abandon his Christian faith and tradition. Just as the early Church had to face the influence of Hellenistic thought and the later Church the rise of modern science, so too the contemporary Church had to take seriously the other religions of the world and the reality of religiously pluralistic cultures.

Merton was becoming actively involved in dialogue at a time when his Church was holding its Second Vatican Council (1962 --1965), a Council that would issue a decree in 1965, Nostra Aetate, which Wayne Teasdale says “may well be considered the most significant document of Vatican II because it has altered forever the church’s attitude toward and relationship with the other religions” (Wayne Teasdale: "Interreligious Dialogue Since Vatican II").

The decree said:

"The Church therefore has this exhortation for her sons: prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and cultures (NA 2)."

Merton’s own Church was now beginning to call for the kind of dialogue that Merton, and others, had been doing for some time. It was a major development in the Catholic Church’s understanding of the value and validity of other religions and the official beginning of a theology of interreligious dialogue. There seemed no return to a religious exclusivism that found no value in Buddhism, and thus no reason for dialogue--only reason for efforts at conversion.

 MERTON WAS A MAN OF PARADOX and that would fuel his fascination with Zen, the epitome of a paradoxical way of experience.

Being so deeply infused with his own spiritual tradition was what really allowed him to, paradoxically, appreciate people in other religions also so rooted and to appreciate their traditions, as from the inside--as vehicles of truth-telling and enlightening experience.

Thus, religious dialogue for Merton was not a syncretism or an eclectic accumulation that ignored real differences in an attempt to create a universal religion (without specific roots). Gandhi had spoken of “experiments with truth” and this describes Merton’s attitude towards his dialogue with Buddhism as well as other religions.

The dialogue was not a luxury, but a necessity. For Merton, if the West were to continue to ignore “the spiritual heritage of the East,” it would “hasten the tragedy that threatens man and his civilizations” ("Mystics and Zen Masters," p. 46).

Compassion and hope were the motivations for his immersion into Buddhism. He was not a formal theologian and found that compassion and shared spiritual experience, more than just analysis and the discursive intellect, encouraged dialogue which, in time, could include, but not be limited to, doctrinal and theoretical topics.

THIS BUDDHIST--CHRISTIAN DIALOGUE for Merton centered upon experience supported by an accurate historical, cultural, theological and phenomenological study of religion. He wanted to be the good Buddhist only because he found himself to be more Christian than ever. In those depths Merton found an ancient teaching that he started to take very seriously in his study of Buddhism. Ambrose, a 4th century Christian bishop of Milan, had said that “all that is true, by whomever it has been said, is from the Holy Spirit,” which can be related to the Buddhist Bankei’s “the farther one enters into truth, the deeper it is.”

Merton was manifesting a humility that had little room for his earlier contempt for the world and for religions not his own. In the preface to "Mystics and Zen Masters," Merton says that he has attempted not merely to look at these other traditions coldly and objectively from the outside, but, in some measure at least, to try to share in the values and experience which they embody. In other words, he is not content to write about them without making them, as far as possible, “his own.”

Merton was able, to some significant degree, to “see” Buddhism from the inside, to virtually be a real Buddhist. Or perhaps to really be a virtual Buddhist because of his contemplative imagination and his knowledge and experience of a kind of mysticism that resonated with the Buddhist meditative experience.

He did not construct a systematic structure for the dialogue, but as a poet and contemplative, his life, with all its strengths and weaknesses, came to be as a model for actually engaging in such dialogue (see George Kilcourse’s “When the Heart is Right: Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Contribution to Interreligious Dialogue”).

 A path for tracing Merton's appeal to Zen can be found in his poetry. In particular, his "Emblems of a Season of Fury" shows how far his dialogue with Buddhism had led to a theology of "unknowing" and the insights of mystical experience where God is beyond knowing and how he was changing in what he understood was meant by "God" in Christianity and emptiness and nirvana in Buddhism. (I have analyzed that poetry in an article, “Thomas Merton’s Poetry: Emblems of a Sacred Season.”)


 IN 1965, MERTON, EVER DESIROUS of more solitude (even while communicating with people all over the world), was granted the unusual permission to live as a hermit in a building separate from the monastic enclosure at Gethsemani, but still on the monastic grounds. It was during his time in the hermitage that his dialogue with Buddhism would bloom and prepare him for unexpected contact with Buddhism and Buddhists in the future.

Canon A. M. Allchin would say in 1996 in the Presidential Address at the first general meeting of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland that:

“God’s heart could be his hermitage precisely because there was a hermitage, an unpretentious cinder-block building up there in the Kentucky woods, ten minutes walk from the monastery of Gethsemani. The hermitage could be everywhere because it was somewhere, the universal was rooted in the particular.”

That hermitage gave Merton an ever-deepening perspective into Buddhism because it also gave him a deeper insight into his own Christian faith.

“We must seek not merely to make superficial reports about the Asian traditions, but to live and share those traditions, as far as we can, by living them in their traditional milieu” (Asian Journal, p. 313).

Thus, Merton would go to Asia to be with Buddhists in Buddhist cultures.

Merton thought it was the contemplative Buddhist and the contemplative Christian who could best make contact with the other. He would even come to say that he felt more in common with such Buddhists than with noncontemplative Christians. It was Zen’s concentration upon direct experience instead of doctrinal formulations and its sometimes brutal rejection of the false self, or ego, that spoke directly to Merton, who believed God was experienced in the center of the true self.

The dialogue would therefore include a focus upon points of contact between the Buddhist teaching of anatta (no self) and what Merton understood by the true self in the context of his idea that “Zen is perfectly compatible with Christian belief and indeed with Christian mysticism (if we understood Zen in its pure state, as metaphysical intuition)” (Zen and the Birds of Appetite, p. 47).

Merton’s view of the sacred as becoming ever more manifested in human experience was informed by this study of and dialogue with Zen Buddhism. Where the Zen Buddhist could say, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him!,” Merton could (with Protestant theologian Paul Tillich) say that God is beyond “God,” that God as God is, is beyond conceptions. This is reminiscent of the words of the Christian, Gregory of Nyssa, in the 4th century: “Every thought grasped by the mind becomes an obstacle to those who search.”

Even the most profound ideas about “God” or Buddha nature can become idols. Zen’s pointing towards the void (sunyata) and emptiness had meaning for Merton in connection with the Christian mysticism of “unknowing” and the “divine dark.”

    See! See!

    My love is darkness!

     Only in the Void

    Are all ways one:

     Only in the night

    Are all the lost


     In my ending is my meaning.

(from “The Night of Destiny”)

IN ZEN HE FELT HE HAD found a way to see the Christian faith in its original spirit, before the theological formulations based upon Hellenistic philosophy became central. As he would say:

“This obsession with doctrinal formulas, juridical order and ritual exactitude has often made people forget that the heart of Catholicism, too, is a living experience of unity in Christ which far transcends all conceptual formulations." (Zen & Birds of Appetite, p. 39).

Merton had gone far beyond the Church’s old teaching of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation"). But he had not reached a definitive and comprehensive theology of religious pluralism or interreligious dialogue. Yet, the Buddhist--Christian dialogue had stimulated and further disclosed, in his view, his journey into the true self where God is, where “all is emptiness and all is compassion.” The night before his death Merton said to John Moffitt that “Zen and Christianity are the future.”

AS MERTON's 1968 TRIP TO ASIA continued in India, he met Hindu and Buddhist contemplatives with whom he shared insights gleaned from his own meditation. The very heart of his stay in India was his meeting with the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, at Dharamsala in the Himalayas. They would meet for dialogue three times and they seem to have quickly developed a warm personal relationship with each other. After the initial meeting, Merton wrote in his journal:

"The Dalai Lama is most impressive as a person. He is strong and alert… A very solid, energetic, generous, and warm person, very capably trying to handle enormous problems…The whole conversation was about religion and philosophy and especially ways of meditation… In general he advised me to get a good base in Madhyamika philosophy (Nagarjuna and other authentic Indian sources) and to consult qualified Tibetan scholars, uniting study and practice. (Asian Journal, p.101).

In turn, the Dalai Lama would later say about Merton that “more striking than his outward appearance which was memorable in itself, was the inner life which he manifested. I could see that he was a truly humble and deeply spiritual man. This was the first time I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality by anyone who professed Christianity." (cf. Canon Allchin’s Address).

The Franciscan priest and author Murray Bodo relates that “the Dalai Lama credits Merton with opening his eyes to the truth that Tibetan Buddhism does not hold the world’s only truth. ‘As a result of meeting with him, my attitude toward Christianity was much changed… Thomas Merton is someone we can look up to. He had the qualities of being learned, disciplined and having a good heart’”

 At that same gathering where Merton met the Dalai Lama, Bodo also says that “the Dalai Lama (encouraged) each of us to remain faithful to our own tradition. He says, ‘We need to experience more deeply the meanings and spiritual values of our own religious tradition--we need to know these teachings not only on an intellectual level but also through our own deeper experience. We must practice our own religion sincerely; it must become part of our lives.’”

At this very time Merton would write in his personal journal:

“Last night I dreamed I was, temporarily, back at Gethsemani. I was dressed in a Buddhist monk’s habit, but with more black and red and gold, a ‘Zen habit,’ in color more Tibetan than Zen… I met some women in the corridor, visitors and students of Asian religion, to whom I was explaining I was a kind of Zen monk and Gelugpa together, when I woke up” ("The Other Side of the Mountain," p 255.)

After his second meeting with the Dalai Lama, Merton wrote that “most of the audience was taken up with a discussion of epistemology, then of samadhi. In other words, ‘the mind…’ We got back to the question of meditation and samadhi. I said it was important for monks in the world to be living examples of the freedom and transformation of consciousness which meditation can give. The Dalai Lama then talked about samadhi in the sense of controlled concentration” ("Asian Journal," p.112).

 Merton wrote that the third and final meeting was the best of all:

“He asked a lot of questions about Western monastic life, particularly the vows, the rule of silence, the ascetic way, etc… It was a very warm and cordial discussion and at the end I felt we had become very good friends and were somehow quite close to one another. I feel a great respect and fondness for him as a person and believe, too, that there is a real spiritual bond between us. He remarked that I was a ‘Catholic geshe,’ which Harold said, was the highest possible praise from a Gelugpa, like an honorary doctorate!” ("Asian Journal," pgs. 124-125).

 Later in November, 1968, Merton was thinking about his now being in Asia:

"I am still not able fully to appreciate what this exposure to Asia has meant. There has been so much – and yet also so little. I have only been here a month! It seems a long time since Bangkok and even since Delhi and Dharamsala. Meeting the Dalai Lama and the various Tibetans, lamas or “enlightened” laymen, has been the most significant thing of all, especially in the way we were able to communicate with one another and share an essentially spiritual experience of Buddhism which is also somehow in harmony with Christianity. "("The Other Side of the Mountain, p. 281").

Nearly a month after his meetings with the Dalai Lama in India and shortly before Merton would go to Thailand for the monastic conference which was supposed to be the reason for his journey to Asia, he was in Sri Lanka (then, Ceylon). Along with another priest, he visited the Buddhist shrine at Polonnaruwa, but unlike the other priest who did not enter the actual shrine complex because of its “paganism,” Merton took off his shoes and walked barefoot towards the enormous statues of the Buddha. What was about to happen to Merton was a pivotal, dramatic turning point of his life, a mystical moment for a Christian at a Buddhist shrine. Always the paradox.

MERTON'S OWN WORDS say it best as he relives approaching the Buddhas at Polonnaruwa:

“Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything… For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening…

 Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious…

 All problems are resolved and everything is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya… everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely… my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.

 The whole thing is very much a Zen garden, a span of bareness and openness and evidence… a beautiful and holy vision.” ("Asian Journal" pgs. 233 -236)

This experience is for Merton not only a hierophany -- a breakthrough of the sacred into human experience -- but also the epitome of his love of paradox and mysticism. On another side of the world from his old Kentucky home at the hermitage, at a Buddhist sacred place, Thomas Merton embodied the dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity that he had so sought. His very life was a living experience, experiment and nexus for that dialogue.

Shortly after Polonnaruwa, Merton was in Thailand for the monastic conference at which Buddhists were to also attend.

 Suffering, Unknowing, Freedom and Death

D.T. SUZUKI HAD WRITTEN that “Zen teaches nothing; it merely enables us to wake up and become aware. It does not teach, it points” ("Introduction to Zen Buddhism," p. 38). Merton was able to encourage and participate in dialogue with Buddhism because he reached the point of not only accepting, but embracing a necessary ambiguity about ultimate concerns.

He was able to live with what the 19th century poet, John Keats, called “negative capability,” a not reaching for too easy or too ready rational answers when hard questions pressed down hard, but to live the questions and live them well. Implied here is that the Buddhist--Christian dialogue for Merton was not about arriving at decisive answers, but calmly and passionately allowing oneself to become the questions, to be breathing koans.

Merton was deeply attracted to Buddhism’s long and persevering tradition of compassion and nonviolence, especially in a world of persistent and profound suffering. He would say that:

Suffering, as both Christianity and Buddhism see, each in its own way, is part of our very ego-identity and empirical existence, and the only thing to do about it is to plunge right into the middle of contradiction and confusion in order to be transformed by what Zen calls the “Great Death” and Christianity calls “dying and rising with Christ” ( "Zen and the Birds of Appetite, p. 51").

The anguish of the modern person, for Merton, was often based upon an addiction to a false self, one’s ego-mind, that only a realization of the no-self (Buddhism) or dying to one’s self (Christianity) could transform.

Thus, the dialogue was not to be only an intellectual exercise, but a vital and compelling way to directly address the absence of freedom, compassion and meaning in contemporary living and society. And only people authentically free could really value and beneficially contribute to the dialogue since the purpose of it was to free people from the wheel of causation and suffering.

On December 10, 1968, at the conclusion of a talk at the conference, Merton said he was going to disappear for a while before the afternoon session. Later, he was found in his room, dead, evidently electrocuted by a faulty fan. His body was flown back “home” from his Asian “home” in a B-52 bomber, along with the bodies of American soldiers who had died in the Viet Nam War, a war he strongly opposed.

IN THE DECADES SINCE HE DIED, the Buddhist--Christian dialogue has proceeded and continues. Thomas Merton himself was a seed for that dialogue. He overcame youthful religious fervor and exclusivism to become a more maturely spiritual man who was not afraid to seek truth wherever it may be found, no matter how difficult or long the search. He would have liked what the Muslim, al-Bistami, said long ago: “This thing we speak of can never be found by seeking, yet only seekers find it.”

One of the continuing gatherings for dialogue took place in 1996 at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani where Merton (“Father Louie”) is buried under a simple white cross like generations of other monks who have lived and died at the Abbey during the last 150 years.

To this East-West gathering of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, arriving by helicopter under heavy security because of threats upon his life, comes the Dalai Lama. He kneels at the grave of his old friend, Merton, along with Abbot Timothy Kelly, and prays. When he rises from the ground, he says: “Now our spirits are one; I am at peace.” ("The Dalai Lama Visits Gethsemani").

For Thomas Merton the Buddhist-Christian dialogue was as simple and complex as that: spirits converging. Merton was an aspect of the nascent Buddhist-Christian dialogue in person, integrating contradictions, embracing emptiness and reaching for the vision of the Ultimate, with his fallible and full heart, wherever it may be found, or wherever it might find him.

The dialogue, and Merton, were as a lotus, that powerful symbol of the spiritual life for Asians. The lotus flower may bloom on the surface of the water in the spontaneous beauty of the light, but it is the intricate complex of roots reaching into the unseen and unknowing mud that makes the fruition of the lotus possible.

Merton's life, a perseverance in contemplation, gave a unique personality to the Buddhist - Christian dialogue by showing how the transformative flower of spirit can emerge from the muddy, but necessary, roots of daily life, a rare bloom opening in silence to the dawn.

For Merton, being as good a Buddhist as he could meant being a Christian more profoundly than ever which, to his delight, enabled him to be as good a Buddhist as he could.


Merton, Thomas.

1. (1967) Mystics and Zen Masters. New York: Noonday Press.

2. The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions.

3. The Other Side of the Mountain, ed. Patrick Hart, OCSO. New York: HarperSanFrancisco

4. Zen and the Birds of Appetite. New York: New Directions

Steindl-Rast, David:

(1969) “Recollections of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the
West,” Monastic Studies 7:10.

Suzuki, D. T.:

(1991) Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Grove Press.


[© Alan Altany and used with permission.]

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