Where East and West meet: Thomas Merton


Thomas Merton and Chatral Rinpoche November 16 1968

There are a number of spiritual seekers who have moved between Eastern and Western ways, and managed to hold aspects of both traditions in their search for deepening Reality. Is it possible to be open to other traditions and so learn?

The poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote in May 1932:

The night has ended.

Put out the light of the lamp of thine own narrow corner smudged with smoke.

The great morning which is for all appears in the East.
Let its light reveal us to each other who

            Walk on the same path of pilgrimage.

The place to begin this exploration is for me with Thomas Merton, who held an openness to all spiritual horizons, but remained rooted in the light of Christianity. His inclusive view meant that he could discover new aspects of truth in Hinduism and in Buddhism, in Zen and in Sufi mysticism. The same meditative silence and prayer found in the Western monastic tradition he found in the East. He called these devotional practice ‘constantia’ where ‘all notes in their perfect distinctiveness, are yet blended in one’.

Merton’s pilgrimage to Asia included speaking at an interfaith meeting held in Calcutta in mid-November 1968.  In his prepared notes for his talk, he wrote about coming as a Western monk, a writer and research scholar, but also ‘as a pilgrim who is anxious to obtain not just information, not just facts about other monastic traditions, but to drink from ancient sources of monastic vision and experience … to become a better and more enlightened monk.’ He added that it was possible at his stage of what he calls religious maturity, to remain perfectly faithful as a Christian, but to learn in depth from Buddhist discipline and experience.

Merton writes of one meeting with the Tibetan master, Chatral Rinpoche:

‘We had a fine talk … and soon saw that we agreed very well. We must have talked for two hours or more, covering all sorts of ground, mostly around the idea of dzogchen* but also taking in some points of Christian doctrine compared with Buddhist: dharmakaya … the Risen Christ, suffering compassion for all creatures, motives for “helping others” – but all leading back to dzogchen, the ultimate emptiness, the unity of sunyata and karuna, ‘going beyond the dharmakaya” and “beyond God” to the ultimate perfect emptiness. He said he had meditated in solitude for thirty years or more and had not attained to perfect emptiness and I said I hadn’t either.

The unspoken or half-spoken message of the talk was our complete understanding of each other as people who were somehow on the edge of great realization and knew it and were trying, somehow or other, to go out and get lost in it – and that it was a grace for us to meet. …

He told me, seriously, that perhaps he and I would attain to complete Buddhahood in our next lives, perhaps even in this life and the parting note was a kind of compact that we would both do our best to make it in this life. … he was surprised at getting on so well with a Christian …’

[Dzogchen – ‘the Great Perfection’, the way to discover transcendental awareness; Dharmakaya – the essence of all beings; Sunyata – the emptiness, the void; Karuna – compassion]