Monthly Archives: December 2018

The Fiftieth Anniversary of Thomas Merton’s Death – the Bangkok Talk 3

Merton sees that what is essential is nothing to do with structures and institutions, what one is told to believe in or do  – the essence of it all is as Merton says: ‘not embedded in buildings, is not embedded in clothing, it is not necessarily embedded even in a rule. It is concerned with this business of total inner transformation.’ Once we have reached that last quest for total inner transformation, and Merton quotes Saint Paul, “there is no longer slave or free-born, there is no longer Jew or Gentile,” and there is no longer Asian or European, but we have transcended these divisions.  ‘This kind of monasticism,’ Merton said in his last talk, ‘this kind of monasticism cannot be extinguished. It is imperishable; it represents an instinct of the human heart.’

All those seeking realization whether from the East or the West share the same critical quest, the contemplative quest of the human heart, in which we are all united.  Standing on our own feet, using, but not relying on, structures we go beyond division to an inner liberty which no one can touch. This from Merton is exciting stuff urging us to break out from the structures that separate us; for him it was breaking out from the enclosed shell of a Trappist, Christian, monastic structure into universal monasticism. Merton says: ‘Christianity and Buddhism, too, in their original purity point beyond all divisions between this and that.’ So one can respect the plurality of things but you don’t make them ends in themselves. I quote Merton again: ‘We accept the division, we work with the division, and we go beyond the division.’ For the moment any of us stand on our own two feet, the moment we find contemplative life at the root of our life, deep down in our own hearts, we go beyond division.

Merton’s final message to us is this: ‘if you once penetrate by detachment and purity of heart to the inner secret of the ground of your ordinary experience, you attain to a liberty that nobody can touch, that nobody can affect, that no change of political circumstances can do anything to … this kind of freedom and transcendence is somehow attainable … It is imperishable. It represents an instinct of the human heart … full and transcendent liberty which is beyond mere cultural differences and mere externals – and mere this or that.’

This is ‘knowing the score’ – this is ‘standing on our own feet’ and this is ‘the experience of the ground of our being’. The light from Merton’s legacy is ultimately personal and Merton scholar Jonathan Montaldo writes, ‘Continuing our own inner journeys toward spiritual liberty is more important than any bows we make to the dead spiritual master. Honouring Thomas Merton’s compassionate transparency demands that we, who claim to hear his voice, should stand on our own feet, find the pitch of our true voices, open our lips, and sing.’



Here’s hoping for times of spiritual liberty in 2019

The Fiftieth Anniversary of Thomas Merton’s Death – the Bangkok talk 2

A second theme or ‘essential’ from Merton’s Bangkok talk is transformation of consciousness; this is ‘a transformation and a liberation of the truth imprisoned … by ignorance and error’. The monk is anyone ‘who has attained, or is about to attain, or seeks to attain, full realization.’

‘[Someone] who dwells in the centre of society as one who has attained realization – they know the score. Not that they have acquired unusual or esoteric information, but they have come to know the secret of liberation and can somehow or other communicate this to others.’

This is a transformation of learning to live by love: from self-centred love into an outgoing, other-centred love. With the first theme it is about being critics in the sense of not entering some sort of already established worldly frame of reference and doing what has always been done, but instead being awake and alert to what is happening around and within us. This allows the process of transformation to take place and Merton speaks about living in a constant state of conversion – of renewal and conversion progressing dynamically. For during this process of change, this transformational journey from death to life, the illusory ego is replaced by the Christian person – Christ dwelling in each one – open to all others because ultimately all others are Christ.

Linked to this is a critique of structures that surround and apparently uphold us. Merton says that the time for relying on structures that may alienate us and frustrate our potential has come to an end. He illustrates this with a story about his meeting with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche a then young Tibetan lama who had to escape from Tibet to save his life from the Chinese invasion.

When he was faced with the decision of leaving his country, he did not quite know what to do. He was absent from his monastery on a visitation to some other monastery, and he was caught out in the mountains somewhere and was living in a peasant’s house, wondering what to do next. He sent a message to a nearby abbot friend of his, saying: ‘What do we do?’ the abbot sent back a strange message which I think is very significant: ‘From now on, Brother, everybody stands on his own feet.’

Merton tells his audience that this is of extreme importance … saying: ‘If you forget everything else that has been said, I would suggest you remember this for the future: “From now on, everybody stands on their own feet.”’ In other words don’t rely on structures – use them but don’t rely on them. This is the high point of his talk illustrated with a Zen saying; ‘where do you go from the top of a thirty-foot pole.’ In other words, if you just sit with, and on something nothing will happen and you can go nowhere. Similarly if you set off as Trungpa Rinpoche initially did with a train of yaks and a cellarer and a lot of provisions to cover the next twenty years it won’t work out – he ended up escaping from the Chinese communists who had spotted the train of yaks and swimming alone across a river to safety leaving behind all his possessions.

The Fiftieth Anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton – the Bangkok talk

In the next few posts I am summarising some aspects of Merton’s talk given on December 10th 1968 the day he died. (A complete version of the Thomas Merton Society presentation, minus powerpoint,  I gave in Leominster last Saturday December 8th 2018 on this Bangkok talk can be accessed under publications on this website) 

Thomas Merton gave a talk to a small conference in Bangkok, Thailand on December 10th 1968, on the morning of the day he died. Br David Steindl-Rast a Benedictine monk involved in Christian-Buddhist dialogue was in brief correspondence with Thomas Merton that year and he sees Thomas Merton’s last talk in Bangkok as a ‘cracking-open’ of the contemplative life, of monastic life from the inside. Merton, he says, is a prophetic watchman for a new dawn – he belongs to the ‘crack of dawn’. In the talk Merton says that the purpose is ‘to share with you the kind of thing a monk goes through in his, shall we say, identity crisis.’ It is about the personal journey and the going through involved in the spiritual life. It is about this that Br David Steindl-Rast uses the term ‘the transitus’ taken from the ecclesiastical Latin referring to the time of passage through death to life which is the ultimate crisis of identity – noting Merton is talking about this a few hours before his own final passage, his transition to God.

By identity crisis Merton means having a sense of where one stands, what our position is and how we identify ourselves in the world, and Merton brings a sense of urgency to his questions ‘What are the essentials of monastic life?’  ‘What are really the essentials of any life?’ ‘What is life for?’ The crisis is to sift out the essence of our identity, and Merton starts to use the word ‘essential’ and ‘essentially’ over and over again.

What does identity as a monk mean? After all who and what is a monk? It is here that Merton refers to a meeting in California before he set off for Asia where in conversation with some students Merton introduced himself as a monk: a French revolutionary student replies to him; ‘We are monks also!’ To Merton it sounded like the student saying ‘We are the true monks’ because as Merton analyses: ‘The monk is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures.’ He goes on to say: ‘In other words, the monk is somebody who says, in one way or another, that the claims of the world are fraudulent’. The difference with the revolutionary, he points out is that they are criticizing the externals and wanting to change the economic structures, and the monk is criticizing the inner world and seeking to change people’s consciousness. The Buddhist monk might refer to avidya or ignorance whilst the Christian uses the ‘myth of original sin’ (here Merton refers to Jung’s use of the term myth as a psychological factor in the way we adapt to reality). At this point Merton says you are a monk if you live with great alertness, criticizing, sifting out what is essential, and changing life accordingly; where you live or whether or not you are under vows is not the essence of it.



Questioning and poetry – Margaret Little’s inner world part 3

After Margaret Little’s stay in the mental hospital during her summer break in analysis with Donald Winnicott the treatment moved towards termination. During this time Winnicott gave her the helpful interpretation about her fear of annihilation. It belonged to an annihilation that had already happened; ‘I had been annihilated psychically, but had in fact survived bodily, and was now emotionally reliving the past experience … it was some time before I could assimilate this and use it. Even now I tend to forget it in times of stress, but as soon as I recall that interpretation the anxiety is relieved.’

She had not been a person in her own right, only an appendage of someone else. The last verse of Little’s poem The Goldfish, goes:

How can I leave the enclosing bowl?

How learn to live where I must breathe,

To move among strange things,

Distortion gone,

All altered, all things new?

And I, alone, a child again,

Bewildered and confused.

The character of the sessions in the analysis changed after so much grief and pain and anger had been worked through so creativity and play could take its place and the relationship develop. Winnicott ‘believed in the value of a relationship which could also be encouraging and enjoyable’.

‘Jokes, stories and nonsense … bits of gossip, information and serious discussion about analysis. But these things were not used to defend against anxiety, to ward off anger and excitement, or to deflect pain or unhappiness by making me laugh. Being human was the all-important thing and play as an essential part of human life at any age… Above all, D.W. became a real living person with whom I had a relationship born years earlier and no longer based only on transference.’

Ending analysis in 1955 Little returned once a week for about eighteen months in 1957, ‘at the end of which he told me plainly that it was time I took over my own responsibilities and got on with my life – “be yourself”, but now for me, not for him.’ After that Little continued in self-analysis, for she writes that of course ambivalence and anxiety remained, but her overriding feeling was ‘one of deep and lasting gratitude for D. W. enabled me to find and free my “true self”, my spontaneity, creativeness and ability to play; he restored my sanity without leaving me “only sane.”’

Taken from a poem written in 1949 and then reworked in 1966 called Relationship:

So, you and I, by natures long determinate,

And circumstance,

Meet with each other, and can do

That we can do;

Bring to each other what we have,

We can do no more.


But where we meet, fuse, and are satisfied,

(or part in wrath, with bitter words and blows,

Failure of love, or cold indifference),

From action, interaction, and reaction,

New forces spring and flow;

New fire is born, laughter and tears,

Birth and creation new.


Let us go on then

Together, and apart;

Not seeking fear, nor yet denying it,

But travel through our fears and pains

To Zion – Babylon- World’s End.