Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Honoring Thomas Merton

A few of us gathered on Saturday at Star Cottage, a guest house at the Red Cross conference center south of Bangkok where Thomas Merton died on December 10, 1968. We all wanted to honor the end of the journey of the monk who had meant so much to us, to the Catholic Church, and to millions of anonymous spiritual seekers everywhere. The pilgrimage was organized by Lance Woodruff, an American expat and journalist, to coincide with the visit of my friend, monk and musician Cyprian Consiglio, and our trip to Suanganiwas in Samut Prakan 30 km from Bangkok was joined by several other friends, including Emilie Ketudat, leader of the local chapter of the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM).

Merton's writings were crucial to the trajectory of my spiritual search. I converted to Catholicism as he did, because any church that could accept the prolific writer who had led a desolute youth similar to my own was a club I wanted to join. I still recall my shock on hearing about his death at 53 by electrocution when he touched an ungrounded fan after taking a shower during a break in the ecumenical conference in Thailand, his first major trip out of the monastery after 27 years as a Trappist monk. After delivering a morning talk on "Monasticism and Marxism" to the conference, Merton ended with, "So I will disappear from view and maybe we call all have a coke or something." His body was found several hours later. It was the end of his life as well as of his Asian journey which was recorded in a published journal. In addition to meeting the Dalai Lama in India, Merton traveled to Sri Lanka to see the giant Buddhas at Polonnaruwa. There, he records being "knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into the rock shape and landscape, figure, rock and tree." Then he experienced, a week before his death, a final epiphany: "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." Thirty-eight years later, I went myself to Polonnaruwa to gaze on the inscrutable smiles of the three huge Buddha figures and to try and see what Merton saw.

The cottage in which Merton died has been lived in for many years by a Thai family who pay the Red Cross $170 a month rent. Lance did not want to tell them why we were there, since Thais are acutely sensitive to ghosts, but they allowed us to stand for a few moments in the downstairs hall. Cyprian chanted an English translation of the traditional prayer for the dead which he suspected had been said 40 years before in that very house. Then we went to a park across the street for a short ceremony that included music and readings from the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, as well as this marvelous passage for Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander in which which Merton writes of his earlier epiphany on a rare trip outside the monastery in Kentucky:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream…I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Several years ago I helped start Sangha Shantivanam, a small group in Santa Cruz, California, dedicated to the study of world religious texts and inter-spiritual dialogue and practice, with the Camaldolese monk from Big Sur. Fr. Cyprian is a composer and singer who has recorded numerous CDs and can be seen and heard doing recent songs on YouTube videos. Two years ago, our group traveled to Shantivanam, the ashram in Tamil Nadu, India, where the British monk, Bede Griffiths, who died in 1993, brought Hinduism and Catholicism together. This year Cyprian interrupted his busy schedule of retreats and performances in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia to come and see me in Bangkok, his first visit to a Buddhist country. Besides the Merton memorial, I took him to experience a selection of Buddhist temples, from Wat Pho with its golden reclining buddha and yoga images, to Wat Suthep and Wat Saket with its Golden Mount. We also rode in a boat taxi on the Chao Phraya river and went for a walk in Lumpini Park where we had a picnic with vegetarian fare purchased from a streetside stall. We also joined Emilie for an early Sunday mass in Thai at the Jesuit center near Victory Monument. It was my first Eucharest in over a year.

On Cyprian's final day in Thailand, I took him to meet my friend, the British monk, Phra Cittasamvaro, also called Pandit Bhikku. We traveled by two different buses across the city to Wat Pak Nam, a very large temple on the other side of the river in southwest Bangkok. I knew that Cyprian and Pandit would hit it off, and they immediately began talking about issues in common to monks everywhere. Pandit was also able to answer Cyprian's many queries about Theravadan Buddhism and immediately corrected some of the misconceptions that I had passed on innocently. (Buddhism did indeed first come to southeast Asia from Tibet, although the southern version later imported from Sri Lanka was ultimately more influential.) We had coffee and tea in a shop front outside the temple and then joined several hundred laypeople clad in white for Monk's Day (each of the four phases of the moon is Wan Phra) to eat with the monks in a large hall. Only our table at the back held men and they patiently showed us how to serve ourselves from the wide selection of food (which Cyprian had to sift for meat; one dish contained hidden fish that he couldn't avoid). We sat close to the group of fresh-faced novices and there were numerous chants before and after the meal. We went to Pandit's small room to continue our conversation and later were given a tour of the temple grounds.Then we took a trip across the river to Coffee World for the liquid snack permitted monks who only eat one meal a day. And finally we went to nearby Wat Yannowa to see the cement Chinese junk with its fat, smiling Buddha in an upstairs altar room and to tour an exhibit of "relics" which look like mostly small stones.

Cyprian left this morning to continue his Asian journey. We may meet up again next December and January at Shantivanam in India for the Abhishiktinanda celebration which might include a contingent of folks from California. I missed the Academy Awards to take him to meet Pandit but it was worth it. I loved the conversation they had about various perspectives on ultimate reality (even if there is one or not). What is the difference between "telos" and "scopos," goal and methodology? Is there a place for God in Buddhism? Can a Christian believe in karma and reincarnation and, if not, how can we progress with only one life to live? Pandit is particularly fond of Teresa of Avila and much taken with Christian mystics in general, and Cyprian has studied deeply Fr. Bede's anthropology of spirit, soul and body, so influenced by Hindu thought. I'm sure they both were affected by the encounter.

As for me, I continue to muddle through, looking for salvation by immersion in the world. I tuned out of their discussion of the universal monk's vow of celibacy. It was wonderful seeing Cyprian again and we avoided any talk of how far I'd fallen from the faith. On the last evening we met Sylvia and Jerry Deck who had stopped in Bangkok on their way home to California from a tour of Vietnam. We found a riverside restaurant not far from the backpacker ghetto where Cyprian had a run, and feasted on Thai food. Sylvia had been a catechist when I was becoming a Catholic twenty-five years ago, still wet behind my ears from an enthusiastic reading of Merton's works. It seemed so easy then, as it did to Merton when he first entered Gethsemane Monastery in 1941. His autobiography, Seven Story Mountain, captured the public imagination, but he later criticized it as immature and overly conservative. The later Merton resurrected an early strain of mysticism from the buried tradition and reached across borders to inform and dialogue about non-Christian religions with a sensitivity and wisdom unique to Catholic clerics. His discoveries I think made Vatican II possible. But, as the Buddha taught, all is change, and the present occupant of the Seat of St. Peter would like to recapture eternal Christian certainties that all but gag inter-religious dialogue. Would I still be going to mass if a disciple of Merton were in charge?

(Cyprian's own account of his trip can be found in his blog listed on the right, talks, notes & travelogues. Marcus also mentions the Merton ceremony in his journal. Below is my photo of Gal Vihara in Sri Lanka with two of the Buddha figures that so affected Merton right before his death.)


Roxanne said...


Thank you for the picture of the Buddha figures. They are wonderful. There is something so peaceful about them, isn't there?


Janet Brown said...

Never mind my last comment--as you can probably tell I'm reading your posts in reverse order.