Saturday, August 29, 2009

Thomas Merton and Zen

In my meanderings, I came upon an 6 "cyber page" article about Merton and his experiences with and study of Christian Buddhism.  On EU, it has been said that Buddhism is the "how" of Christianity meaning that Buddhist philosophy gives practical ways of achieving the death to "self" and non-clinging ....non attachment (dying to self) that Christianity talks about.

In the book How God Changes Your Brain, they present their findings that seem to prove that meditation and contemplation of just about any topic or thing causes actual changes in areas of the brain that promote compassion and empathy. The emphasis on meditation in Buddhist philosophy does spark real changes...positive changes in brain chemistry.  These changes are good. The world can certainly use more compassion and empathy but meditation by itself is incomplete.  It lacks the "who."  The who is God.

Following are a few quotes from the article about Merton.  A visit to the site would probably be worth your while.  There are some other interesting writings there written from a Buddhist Christian perspective.

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,”

Ibn al-Arabi a twelfth century Muslim mystic said it this way:

Do not attach yourself to any particular creed exclusively, so that you may disbelieve all the rest; otherwise you will lose much good, nay, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not confined to any one creed, for, he says, "Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah."

I think it is a big mistake to limit where truth can be found.  I have found Him in the most unlikely surroundings and I am always delighted to bump into him in out of the way places.  Merton was willing to look outside the boundaries of his "home" faith of Christianity...yet he never left Christianity. 

The article goes on to say:

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.

Yes...while researching this series of posts, I came upon several web sites that were sounding the apostasy warning about Merton (and Keating too...but he is the subject of tomorrow's post) Tonight on EU...Joan used a term that perfectly describes those who cling to doctrinal formulations; she called them "law livers."  Those who cling to the law...and theology...and rules and regulations do not trust direct experience. 

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).

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.

For more on Merton's view of Christianity/Buddhism, check out the google books limited preview of his book, "Zen and the Birds of Appetite"

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