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Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Ed Peters

I'll go easy on Merton (as if I could really assess him in any case) until I get the final story on his allegedly repeated resistance to his superior's orders commanding him to write (and publish), when he told them it dangerous to his soul.

Justin Nickelsen

I have to admit that I do think that people are too hard on Merton, and that I shared and anti-Merton bias when I hadn't read any of his works and had simply trusted the opinions of other Catholics.

That said, not everybody is in a position to, perhaps, separate the "wheat from the chaff" in theological, spiritual, philosophical writings. Thus, perhaps being safe than sorry is a good thing.

However, if one hasn't read any of Merton or other authors, or, worse, hasn't read anything at all, they must be careful: Slander is applicable to "dead theologians" as well.

I used to bring that up on class (studying theology at Franciscan University). Somebody would say some sarcastic (slanderous) remark about Karl Rahner for example. I would turn to the student and ask in front of the class, "What have you read of Rahner's that you didn't particularly agree with?"

Dead stares.

Of course, one could disagree with points of Rahner and Merton (not that they are even comparable), and I have my problems with both. BUT, if you have never actually informed yourself through primary sources, it is better to say, "Such and such a person or such and such a periodical that I trust had said that such and so a person is dangerous, but I haven't actually read any or much of their work."

Back to Merton... I have actually read a lot of his work, and I would say that he is one of my favorite authors. That said, I don't agree with everything that he says. I still find him quite helpful and enjoyable.

If you want to stay "safe", then work with is older material.

I think bringing up his “dream” is pretty cheap for the article. I think that most people have probably had “dreams” that are … you fill in the blank.

If I recall, there is material in his works that offer just criticism of Buddhist spirituality. Does that come out in the article? I would hope so.



The answer to the question -- Can you trust Thomas Merton? -- is "no." Trust only Christ, and beware of false prophets.

Carl E. Olson

I think bringing up his “dream” is pretty cheap for the article.

But, Justin, I think saying that mentioning the dream is "pretty cheap" is itself pretty cheap since you don't explain why it is "pretty cheap," nor does Tony, from what I can see, misuse it. Read the entire article!


I read the full article. I was a Buddhist and I'm not sure the writer of the article understands Zen.
Not that Merton was orthodox, but some of the points he is trying to make don't fly because he misstates the Buddhist teaching.

"But what Buddha is saying here is precisely what Merton insists he isn’t. Buddha, in his first sermon in the Deer Park, had already denied the possibility of a personal ego, and he had rejected any truth other than the lack of truth—what the Western tradition calls the "liar’s paradox." The Buddha’s assertion is exactly what it appears to be: We can rely on nothing but ourselves and our own discovery of our lack of self and truth to become enlightened."

This is wrong. Yes, Buddha denied the existence of an cohesive self though this doctrine has several interpretation and is just about the most difficult and subtle doctrine in Buddhism, Clark's understanding of it misses the mark entirely.
The Buddha taught the dharma, the word itself means truth, so certainly he didn't deny the existence of truth.

"This is why Zen refers to enlightenment as an "awakening," experienced like a "thunderclap." Zen Buddhism, as Fr. Merton understood well, was influenced by Daoism, from which Buddhism largely derives its doctrine of non-duality. In fact, one of Merton’s favorite thinkers was the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, whom he wrote about in his The Way of Chuang Tzu (1969)."

This is just bizarre. Buddhism originates in India about 100 years prior to the typically accepted lifetime of Lao Tzu, the founder of Daoism and came to China in the 7th century A.D. Nonduality is a teaching of Buddhism that predates the Ch'an interpretation of Buddhism. It's found in Mahayana prajna paramita ("Perfection of wisdom") scriptures which are dated to the first century A.D.

"The Boddhi tree is not like a tree,
The clear mirror is nowhere standing.
Fundamentally not one thing exists:
Where then is a grain of dust to cling?
Huineng is here denying the reality of Buddhism itself: The Bodhi (enlightenment) tree does not exist; the mirror (mind) does not exist; and grains of dust (thought) do not exist.͑

This is just a total misquote out of context. This writing is part of a story of how Huineng became the 6th patriach. It is a refutation of a particular school of Buddhism in the time of Huineng which taught that the Buddhist should engage solely in the practice of dhanya (meditation) in order to "wipe away the dust" on the mind. Huineng championed what became the orthodox Ch'an view of enlightenment as a sudden insight as opposed to a gradual process.

I don't think Buddhism and Christianity are compatible at a basic level, but that argument should be made from a true understanding of both faiths, not strawman arguments

Ed Peters

Dan, platitudes are not helpful. Else, I might ask, why should we trust you?

Ed Peters

Right, Carl. I drives me nuts when people comment on an excerpt of my blog, obviously without having the blog post itself. Arrrrgggghhhh.


I appreciated this article. As a young Catholic, it is easy to have a hard time distinguishing or knowing, as subtly as it may be, a twist and mix of things that just can't be; namely Buddha/Christ. I have heard many attest to his "great" works, obviously earlier ones, and other say "NO WAY" to any. I think I will pass for now on his works till I have a more solid foundation.
This is something that is taken for granted. Even when we are asking priest for advice on books like these, they shrug and basically we are on our own.

Sandra Miesel

Merton's accidental death on the trip to Asia was perhaps a Severe Mercy to prevent his full renunciation of Christianity.

I read and enjoyed several of Merton's books in the 50s. I also own what may be his most obscure book, a life of St. Luitgard of Aywieres which is interesting. But Jesus of the Gospels rather fades out of the later works, doesn't he?

Irrelevant datum: some of Merton's poems were beautifully set to music by John Jacob Niles, the Kentucky folk singer.


Ed, I am not asking anyone to trust me and I would not recommend it either. I understand
“trust” to be where we place our ultimate faith and confidence. It is unwise to place it in a person, other than Christ. This is much more than a platitude; it is, ultimately, part of the essence of being a Christian, who is a follower of Christ and no other. And it is just the problem with Thomas Merton. He seems not to have placed full trust in Christ but instead to have gone off and looked for the truth elsewhere. How else can one explain his dalliance with Eastern religion? There is an intermediary step that my initial post jumped over, and that is that we do place a sort of penultimate trust in popes and saints because they reliably point to Christ. I jumped over that step because I think it is not even debatable that Thomas Merton does not merit that sort of trust.


I read “The Seven Storey Mountain” when I was in an initial phase of returning to the Church and at the time I didn’t know who Thomas Merton was (I happened to come across "The Seven Storey Mountain" on the discount table at a bookstore). While I admired a number of beautifully written passages in “The Seven Storey Mountain,” I came away from the book with the impression that Merton was a not entirely mature and fairly self-centered “spiritual seeker.” Accordingly, when I learned that he subsequently went wobbly and was flirting with Buddhism, I was completely unsurprised. Around the time I read “The Seven Storey Mountain,” I also read Karl Stern’s “The Pillar of Fire.” That book is spiritual autobiography that was written by a German Jewish professor of neuropsychiatry who converted to Catholicism and was written around the same time as “The Seven Storey Mountain.” Although “The Pillar of Fire” is a much less well known book, it reflects, in my opinion, a much more mature, and more profound, understanding of Catholicism.

Deacon Harold

I've benefited greatly from Merton's works written during his time in Gethsemane. "The Waters of Siloe," "Praying the Psalms," and "No Man is an Island" are among my favorites. His later writings where he delves into Zen Buddhism I consider experimental, kind of like Queen's "Hot Space" album, with the same dreadful result.

Ed Peters

I'm cool with that Dan. I just think the readers (and esp. the posters) here don't "trust" in men to begin with, etc., so your advice came across, well, oddly. Cheers.

Justin Nickelsen

Actually, Carl, I did read the entire article. I appreciated it as a whole, though I would have left out the bit on the reverie. Perhaps we could leave it as, " that is my personal opinion".

The "Side Bar" recommendations are helpful to people, and for those who have expressed reservation to the point of not reading Merton, I would ask you to reconsider: if you use the "Recommended Reading" list from This Rock Magazine ( they offer most of Merton's best material.

You will doubtfully get a list of "Recommended Reading" by Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, or Karl Rahner--even though such a list could be compiled, especially for the latter two. Interestingly, their “recommended” list would, like Merton, be generally reserved to their older material. Schillebeeckx’ "Christ, the Sacrament of the Encounter with God" is quite lovely, to provide but one example.

I mention this in no way as a critique of This Rock—a Catholic periodical which has helped transform American Catholicism for the better—but to tell those who have "concerns" about Merton to note that This Rock Magazine (which is "safe" to be sure) wouldn't give a list of anything if they felt that he was too dangerous.

I really appreciate Merton's ability to take works of great mystical saints, such as St. John of the Cross, and distill their material in a "modern yet reverent" manner. He did that in "The Ascent to Truth". I have read the complete works of John of the Cross and value them, but it is doubtful that I would read them again. Not my taste. Though I will read him in the eyes of Merton many more times in my life--God help me.

His ability to bring great saints to modern ears in a style that is still classical and reverent is something that he does in a lot of his works, actually. One of my favorites is "Life and Holiness", which was written in the early 60's. Unfortunately, this is not in the recommended reading section that Catholic Answers provided. His first words:

"Every baptized Christian is obliged by his baptismal promises to renounce sin and to give himself completely, without compromise, to Christ, in order that he may fulfill his vocation, save his soul, enter into the mystery of God, and there find himself perfectly 'in the light of Christ'." It gets quite good.

The entire point of the book is to break down the dichotomies between the life of prayer and action on the part of the Christian--that the two go together. His comments about the lay apostolate are quite helpful. I think that there are few books that does what he does in “Life and Holiness”. The only other worthwhile book that I can think of is “The Soul of the Apostolate”, which was given to me as a gift by the wonderful Rosalind Moss—best of luck, Ros, in St. Louis!

I would say that This Rock was right to put "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander" in the "Read with Caution" list, and its description is quite right: "Here Merton begins the part of his life that is critical of the West. While his criticisms of Western materialism and pragmatism ring loudly, especially in today’s world, one senses here a new interest in Eastern religion—and here is where his works become most problematic".

Actually, it is for his expansive outlook on Catholic social teaching, and his just criticism of the way in which American capitalism and democracy had gone, was going (and would go!), that I like this book.

It is also in "Conjectures" that we receive one of Anthony Clark's choice quotes from the This Rock article:

"It would be unfair to call Merton an unfaithful Catholic, or to insist that he became a Buddhist before his death. In his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he explained:

"I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot "affirm" and "accept," but first one must say "yes" where one really can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it."

This piece was actually highlighted in my own copy of "Conjectures", and I think Clark's introduction to it was good: published not long before he died, it would be unfair to say that Merton completely crossed the line. To Clark's introduction, I would add only the following: it is extremely unfair to insist that if he hadn't died when he did that he would have become a Buddhist: as such, I reject the "conjecture" of Sandra Miesel in the comments section above—that is, if I am reading Miesel’s comments correctly. Either way, I have heard people say, “Merton died before he could become a Buddhist,” and I find such comments completely uncalled for, pessimistic, and uncomfortably close to slanderous (see the Catholic Encyclopedia on “slander” I don’t want to seem too sensitive, but I certainly appreciate facts as opposed to “conjectures” and slanderous remarks: yes, even ones regarding dead theologians.

Moving on…

Regarding the quote above: I highlighted it because it made me think of my own concerns with apologetics in general. I came into the Church, like many, through the 1990's American Catholic apologetics enterprise: a great gift to many and to the Church. That said, even Mark Brumly has taken pains to note of the dangers in apologetics and the "apologetic approach" in his book, "How Not to Share Your Faith: the Seven Deadly Sins of Catholic Apologetics and Evangelization" (published by Catholic Answers). I might note that this book really stands alone on the subject, and I actually used it extensively in a eight week apologetics class that I taught last fall. Long before reading Brumley's book I had come to the realization that, for me, my conversion was sort of "incomplete" until I could move away from an approach to my faith that wasn't completely defensive—one that wasn’t “the opposite of something else”. If I read Merton right, he seems to be saying, "Catholicism isn't the opposite of something: not Mormon, not Lutheran, not JW, not Buddhist, not Muslim... Catholicism is something to be lived, and breathed, and approached for what it IS and not for what it isn't."

Actually, this happened for me the first time I read Henri de Lubac’s “Splendor of the Church”. It was assigned to me in a course on ecclesiology, along with his “Catholicism”, and Congar’s “Lay People in the Church”. If you have yet to have your epiphany that “apologetics is good, but understanding my faith through the lens of defense isn’t good for my faith”, then I strongly recommend taking a bite out of de Lubac, Congar, von Balthasar, Danielou, Bouyer, Ratzinger, etc. Essentially: the founding reasons for Ignatius Press.

Finally, there is a compilation by Rober Inchausti titled, "Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing". It is a compilation of Merton's work (quotes, etc.) on writing. It is justly broad: don't think you are going to get constant quotes with the words "writing" or "book" in them. I recommend it for those who love to write, and those who imagine that they love to write as well. ;)~


Justin Nickelsen

Anthony E. Clark

I have enjoyed reading the various comments here about my article on Merton; it is a rare privilege to see one’s own work inciting the “great conversation” discussed by Robert Maynard Hutchins. Let me add a bit to the conversation. First, in response to Kevin’s note that I have “mistaken Buddhist teaching”: Just now I am living in China doing, among other things, research on authentic Buddhist teaching. In fact, I just returned from living in a Tibetan Buddhist village in the Himalayas, where I visited monasteries and discussed Buddhist doctrine with monks. One of the recurring themes I hear is that many in the West have conceived a reconstituted vision of Buddhism that misrepresents authentic Buddhist beliefs. This is something I diligently work to avoid. Kevin’s assertion that I have “missed the mark entirely” regarding Buddha’s teaching in the Deer Park about “truth” demonstrates that he has been misguided by a common misprision in America. The subtlety in the Sermon’s discourse on the Dharma (the Sanskrit word Dharma धर्म does not, in fact, mean “truth,” but to “uphold”) is that the only truth is the ultimate lack of truth. Buddhism welcomes such paradoxes as a form of upaya (“expedient means”); I don’t think Kevin will find a Buddhist priest, monk, or abbot here in Asia who will agree with his argument that Buddha did not deny the existence of truth, unless we are referring to the “truth of no truth.” Second, that I have misunderstood Huineng’s gatha (recall that Huineng was illiterate) is absurd; Huineng’s gatha was not at all merely “a refutation of a particular school of Buddhism,”as Kevin implies, but a doctrinal assertion that Buddhismism itself a form of upaya. The Chan (Zen) premise postulated my Huineng holds that we are all already enlightened (Foxin), and that Nirvana (recall that the Sanskrit etymology of this term implies extinction) is already attained. The “thunderclap” Kevin describes is defined as the realization of the Buddhist truth that there . . . is no truth, no "I." On Zhuangzi: yes, when Buddhism first entered China during the Eastern Han it relied heavily on the terms of Laozi and Zhuangzi; but this, too, was merely upaya. Daoist ideas of polarity conveniently correspond to the Buddhist attachment to paradox. Viz, the opening passage of the Laozi/Daodejing implies that for there to be truth there must also be un-truth (“Dao ke dao feichang dao 道可道非常道 . . .). P.S., scholars agree that there was no historical Laozi; he was merely a literary trope, an intellectual foil to set against Rujia (Confucianism). If my statements about Buddhism are “strawman arguments,” as Kevin implies, then my Buddhist colleagues here in Asia, like me, are guilty of misunderstanding an authentic vision of Buddhism that we have not yet grasped. I also very much enjoyed Justin’s comments – I think we agree more than disagree. In the end I agree that we should all seek to be better informed about the religions we discuss, our own included. I admire Merton’s effort to do just this!


I have actually stayed many times at a Trappist Monastery. Given their bookstore collection, and the numerous conversations with monks there, some appear to have too closely fused Buddhism and Catholicism. Unfortunately, many have done this in the name of Merton.

That said, I have also had conversations with Buddhist monks that have come from Asia to say there for retreat...

If interpreted right, and taken with a critical eye, I can understand how many would find aspects of Buddhism welcoming and encouraging.

Some would say, "all that is true in Buddhism is a truth we already hold."


But are not the truths that are in lay apostolates, such as Opus Dei, already truths that Catholicism holds? While there is a weakness in this analogy, there is also a strength: namely, people look for more nuanced states of life, apostolates, "visions" and private revelations (approved or not), to help them live out particular aspects of the Catholic faith more fully.

Can somebody, with a critical eye, do this with Buddhism. I don't see why not. It isn't for me, but as long as the "critical eye" is in play, and lines are not crossed, I see no problem

Lines, by the way, can be crossed in Catholic lay apostolates: even ones approved by local ordinaries and the Vatican.

Anthony: in any case, your largely balanced piece is great for the This Rock audience--good to challenge them a bit. :)



Anthony: have you read any of de Lubac's treatments of Buddhism?


I found the article extremely helpful -- along with the This Rock sidebars -- and thought it displayed a strong effort to be fair and balanced. Hopefully it will find its way in expanded form into book format at some point. Thanks to Clark.

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