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.