Thomas Merton was a seeker all of his adult life for his spiritual homeland. The Abbey of Gethsemani became his home and the hermitage a place for spiritual growth and the development and deepening of his spiritual practice of contemplative prayer. In the months before Merton set off for Asia he visited Alaska and California – searching further for the ideal spiritual homeland. For somewhere he could move to – the perfect place. There seemed some possibilities, but it is as he is in the plane setting off for Asia that he writes this:
‘I am going home, to the home where I have never been in this body, where I have never been in this washable suit (washed by Sister Gerarda the other day at the Redwoods), where I have never been with these suitcases … where I have never been with these particular books …’
Asia had been a goal for him as far back as his time at Columbia University and an ever more urgent goal in later years. Michael Mott notes that Merton even had a sense of having once been in Asia, a feeling he wrote about in The Sign of Jonas. ‘The junk wagon I saw in Louisville comes back to me like the memory of something very precious once seen in the Orient’. Two months before actually leaving for Asia, Merton writes in his journal looking forward to eight weeks’ time when he leaves:
‘And who knows- I may not come back… Really, I don’t care one way or another if I never come back … if I can find somewhere to disappear to, I will.’ These words prefigure Merton’s last words before his death after speaking at the Bangkok conference: ‘So I will disappear from view.’ Two months before Merton is writing that he expects little or nothing from the future, ‘what really intrigues me is the idea of starting out into something unknown, demanding and expecting nothing very special, and hoping only to do what God asks of me, whatever it is.’ But at the moment of the plane taking off that has changed. He is really excited about what might lie ahead.
‘The moment of take-off was ecstatic … Joy. We left the ground – I with Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny, of being at last on my true way after years of waiting and wondering and fooling around. May I not come back without having settled the great affair.* And found also the great compassion, mahakaruna.’
And it seems that he did find this in front of the huge Buddhist statues in Polonnaruwa. He achieved what Michael Mott calls ‘the step over “the edge of great realization”. Is this then the spiritual homeland – perhaps for everyone, the almost unsayable experience of oneness and incredible beauty where ‘everything is emptiness and everything is compassion’.
*The great affair in Zen Buddhism: This affair is like the bright sun in the blue sky, shining clearly, changeless and motionless, without diminishing or increasing. It shines everywhere in the daily activities of everyone, appearing in everything. Though you try to grasp it, you cannot get it; though you try to abandon it, it always remains. It is vast and unobstructed, utterly empty. Like a gourd floating on water, it cannot be reined in or held down. Since ancient times, when good people of the Path have attained this, they’ve appeared and disappeared in the sea of birth and death, able to use it fully.