Monthly Archives: July 2019

Insights from Thomas Merton’s ‘The Way of Chuang Tzu’

The Way of Chuang Tzu written by Thomas Merton is an attractive text where he brings to the Western reader Merton’s appreciation of an influential Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu (399 – 295 BCE). Chuang Tzu writes in parables but in an accessible and easy style and Merton’s interpretations of different translations helps the reader accept the surface but also look deeper at the latent meaning. It all seems rational but underneath it is mystical. The writings are full of the meeting of opposites and their complementarity which is at times transcended although always grounded in everyday life. Chuang Tzu is at peace whilst at the same time as Merton explains moving through the world. This is Tao which passes through ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ and ‘I’ and ‘Not-I’ where all is in flux and everything is continual development and change.

This is Thomas Merton’s interpretation of:  Great and Small

When we look at things in the light of Tao,

Nothing is best, nothing is worst.

Each thing, seen in its own light,

Stands out in its own way.

It can be seen to be ‘better’

Than what is compared with it

On its own terms.

But seen in terms of the whole,

No one thing stands out as ‘better’.

If you measure differences,

What is greater than something else is ‘great’,

Therefore there is nothing that is not ‘great’;

What is smaller than something else is ‘small’,

Therefore there is nothing that is not ‘small’.

So the whole cosmos is a grain of rice,

And the tip of a hair

Is as big as a mountain –

Such is the relative view.

So in Chuang Tzu’s writing he is putting up positions as if they can be endorsed and then reflectively taken down again. Merton says what should we do with this? Is it that the answer is to remain indifferent and treat right and wrong, good and bad as if they were the same? But no, Chuang Tzu, despite the above, would be the first to deny that they were all the same, but in his doing so he would refuse to grasp one or the other and cling to it as if it were an absolute.

The underlying message here is in line with the thinking of Carl Jung too which is that if we hold on to a limited and conditioned view of what is ‘good’ then it becomes in our minds raised to the level of an absolute. Once in this position it immediately becomes an evil, because it excludes certain complementary elements which are required if it is to be fully good – here Jung would see that for it to be whole it has to include the good and the bad. Merton writes:

‘To cling to one partial view, one limited and conditioned opinion, and to treat this as the ultimate answer to all questions is simply to “obscure the Tao” and make oneself obdurate in error.’

Gerard Manley Hopkins – at one with nature

Gerard Manley Hopkins brought a tactile, physical intimacy to his observations of nature and it is perhaps his praise to creation that so delights the reader:

‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’

His study of nature was to bring his full attention to it, breaking down all possible physical, mental or emotional barriers of understanding so that he seemed to merge with what he was studying. He said ‘what you look hard at seems to look hard at you.’ Here is openness and receptivity and generosity towards what he loved both for its own sake and for its reflection of Divinity.

At times the poet seems through his writings at one with nature. The Robert Bernard Martin biography looks at how Hopkins wrote about coming home from confession one night:

‘In returning the sky in the west was in a great wide winged or shelved rack of rice-white fine pelleted fretting’.

Here the words ‘in returning’ refers to Hopkins himself – not the sky but somehow the use of the words serve to achieve a kind of obliteration of distinction between self and sky.

And again writing about watching the river water he wrote:

‘by looking hard the banks began to sail upstream, the scaping unfolded, the river was all in tumult but not running, only the lateral motions were perceived, and the curls of froth where the waves overlap shaped and turned easily and idly.’

So here the external view of the river becomes the viewpoint of the water and then the mind of the observer Hopkins; this then Martin thinks is Hopkins’ recurrent theme of the unity of the human and nature as parts of Divine creation. For Hopkins, if you look hard enough at a river or a flower or an animal then that which is studied radiates back a meaning – one that is unique. This is about inscape – the inner meaning, the inner coherence of the individual. This is perceived only through close examination or through empathy; it’s not dependent upon being recognized,  instead the extraordinary thing is that it is inherent in everything in the world, whether we notice it or not.

I am reminded here of Thomas Merton speaking about the transparency of God shining through everything – through absolutely every part of creation. Hopkins used the word inscape to indicate the essence of something, arrived at by love and assiduity (meaning close or constant attention). To grasp or perceive inscape was to know what was essential and what was individual in whatever one contemplated. It was a form of identification. For Hopkins nature was not divorced from God, it was a symbol of God and ultimately a part of God,  ‘For Christ plays in ten thousand places.’

This then made the destruction of nature deeply painful (imagine how Hopkins would respond now as we decimate creation). Apparently he was especially sad and desolate whenever he saw a tree being felled. So from his poem Binsey Poplars (trees felled in 1879):

O if we but knew what we do

When we delve or hew –

Hack and rack the growing green!

            Since country is so tender.

And:  from Inversnaid:

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.


(NB Away myself for a holiday in the ‘wet and wildness’ of Scotland – so a short break from the postings)

Gerard Manley Hopkins – feeling the fell of dark

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night!

Much of the wonderful poetry of the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins sprung out of the certainty of his religious belief and his joy in God’s creation, but in the collection known as the Terrible Sonnets, or the Sonnets of Desolation, we read and experience the feelings about his emotional state. They express no doubt about the existence of God, but, rather as the biographer Robert Bernard Martin puts it, something much more terrifying – the certainty that God does exist and an almost equal certainty that God’s mercy does not extend to the poet himself, or, that God is unaware of the individual or careless of their fate. The inspiration to write the sonnets is born from terror and here religion does not offer comfort. Hopkins in a letter to Robert Bridges about the sonnets says that ‘four of these came like inspirations unbidden and against my will.’

The poetry could be seen as one way that Hopkins could contain his mental dread and hold on to his sanity by accommodating the chaos of his unconscious through the composition and order of writing the verse. Martin writes:

‘It seems part of a recurrent pattern in his life, the necessity to give rigorous shape to what was frightening and dimly understood, just as he had chosen the most demanding of orders when he became a Jesuit. The sonnets did not quell the rebel emotions that disturbed him, any more than his vocation removed temptation; both, however, made the ramping beasts tractable.’

Any suggestion of suicide and self-destruction is resisted and in this verse Hopkins seems to touch rock bottom and then turn to life:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort. Despair, not feast on thee;

Not untwist – slack they may be – these last strands of man

In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;

Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.


And in a later poem Hopkins turns to the comfort of the Resurrection that transcends depression and insanity:


Enough! the Resurrection,

A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.

                            Across my foundering deck shone

A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash

Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:

                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

                            Is immortal diamond.