Merton’s timeliness and the timeliness of the Asian Journal,  years after his death, present a challenge.

Part 1:

Let me admit from the outset that the invitation to write about Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal (1) in Monastic Studies is for me personally moving, challenging, and timely. I have just returned from India where I had been invited to participate in the second A.I.M. (2) congress of monastic leaders from all Asia, this time at Bangalore, a follow-up to the Bangkok meeting at which Thomas Merton spoke and died. A good many of the participants had been at Bangkok with Merton, and his spiritual presence at the Bangalore meeting was almost tangible.

Prior to the Bangkok meeting Merton had taken part in the Spiritual Summit Conference, convoked at Calcutta by the Temple of Understanding. (3) Now I found myself in “the elemental city” (p. 132), almost to the day five years after T.M. has written about it:  “The vast noise of Calcutta seems somehow to be a silence” (p. 132).(4) “It is a city I love – I do not tire of Calcutta” (p. 171).  And immediately after my return from abroad it was my own privilege to speak for the Christian tradition at another conference sponsored by the Temple of Understanding, this time at Yale University.

Trying to evaluate his experiences in India, Thomas Merton wrote:  “Meeting the Dalai Lama and the various Tibetans, lamas or ‘enlightened’ laymen, has been the most significant thing of all” (p. 148).  “I find that they Tibetans above all are very alive and also generally well trained.  They are wonderful people” (p. 324).  “The Tibetans have a very acute, subtle, and scientific knowledge of ‘the mind’ and are still experimenting with meditation” (p. 322).  “It does seem that the Tibetan Buddhists are the only ones who, at present, have a really large number of people who have attained to extraordinary heights in meditation and contemplation.  This does not exclude Zen” (p. 82).  Coming, like Merton, from Zen as my first encounter with Buddhism, I was surprised to find that my Tibetan contacts (5) too surpassed in significance my other treasured experiences in India.

Outstanding among the Tibetans Merton met was Sonam Kazi, “a lay Nyingmapa monk.  He has had several good gurus and seems far advanced in meditation.  He is of course full of information but also of insight” (p. 82).  “Sonam Kazi has often been the official interpreter in important meetings for the Dalai Lama, for instance at a dinner with Nehru and Chou En-lai.  He probably knows as much as any one person about the whole Tibetan question” (p. 119).  “The Dalai Lama told me that Sonam Kazi knows all about dzogchen (6) and could help me, which of course he already has” (p. 102).  There are in the Journal more references to exchanges with Sonam Kazi than any other person.  For a long time we had tried to get together, always unsuccessfully.  Now, as soon as I returned from India, we met effortlessly, through a remarkable concatenation of circumstances.  This encounter with Sonam Kazi and his wife, moving in itself, was made all the more so by the memory of Thomas Merton.

Such a series of posthumous contacts with “a rare and beloved person” (7) with whom deep mutual understanding had united me in life (8) proved not only personally moving for me, but brought home to me in many different ways the timeliness of Thomas Merton’s stance as a monk, a writer, a trans-cultural spokesman for overarching human concerns.  His timeliness and the timeliness of the Asian Journal,  years after his death, present a challenge.  I have written recollections of Thomas Merton’s last days in the West, (9) unforgettable autumn days we spent together under the giant redwoods of Northern California.  But this is not the moment for recollections.  The timeliness of the material at hand calls rather for an interpretation, one that stands with both feet in the present and keeps its eyes firmly on the future.

book Asian Journal

“Interpretation” is the term.  It keeps before us both the challenge and the limitation.  The Asian Journal is raw material.  It calls for an interpretation, but, by the same token, it allows for no more than an interpretation – with all the tentativeness that this implies.  The editors (10) deserve recognition and gratitude for having preserved and enhanced those characteristics which make the Journal raw material that stimulates the reader’s own creative approach to the book.  What one makes of the book will, of course, depend on the key one uses.  To arrive at a genuine interpretation the key must not be forced on the text, it must be found within the text itself.

Eager to read as much as possible out of the Asian Journal, and aware of the danger of reading my own ideas into it, this is how I, for one, proceeded to find a key.  After my return from India I read the book.  I had deliberately refrained from reading it before I left so that my own impressions would not be colored by it.  I read it slowly and let it sink in.  Then I waited for some central concern, some key concept to come up.  What emerged was the term “exposure.”  Clearly and simply it stood out.

Now I must admit that the notion of exposure had for some time been gaining importance for me.  It is my present lot to meet people from an amazing variety of cultural, ethnic, social, religious, and professional backgrounds, among them some truly remarkable persons.  I have made it a habit to ask men and women of vision, people with a sense of direction who stand out head and shoulders above their peers, the simple question, “What made you different?”  Though the answers vary greatly, the gist is usually this:  “Well, I have had the privilege of exceptional exposure, and I guess that accounts for the difference.”  To what a person has been exposed seems to matter less than the mere fact of exposure.  Was I, then, merely falling back on a pet concept of mine?

To test the term “exposure” as a key to the Asian Journal I had to return to the text itself.  And here a remarkable discovery awaited me:  Thomas Merton’s own term for his journey to the Far East is precisely “exposure to Asia” (p. 148).  Nor does it stop there.  Only a small part of the Journal deals with the author’s external experiences.   “Our real journey in life is interior” (p. 296), he writes, and so the most important entries deal with his inner experience.  But this aspect of his journey too – and here is where my real surprise came – is seen by Merton himself as a form of exposure.  In a remarkable passage, which we shall have to examine carefully later, he gives us a key to the interior journey in the term “exposed consciousness.”

Made explicit at these two decisive points in the Journal, the notion of exposure is implicit throughout.  As soon as we have become sensitized to it, a variety of otherwise unrelated elements begin to fall into place and to made sense.  In the process, the term “exposure” itself reveals its many layers of significance, from the bold act of leaving a sheltering home, to the most intimate disclosure, and from its technical sense in photography (not the least important sense for Merton), to the moral sense of exposure as a laying open to examination, censure, or ridicule.  And there is still more to it.  As we shall see, the term “exposure” covers a rarely explored area of the spiritual life, an area of which the author of the Journal is reflexively aware and in which he is keenly interested.

Part 2:

[quote text=”We journey to get to the goal, but on a pilgrimage the goal is present at every step”]

Admittedly, the notion of exposure is merely one possible key to an interpretation of the Asian Journal.  There must be many others, some of which may unlock more profound insights.  But I am grateful to have found at least one key for an interpretation that helps me.  I am happy to share it with anyone else who finds it helpful for getting into a book that demands a certain amount of work from the reader.  A book in which “fancy as well as an artist’s composition may fling a Tamil word, a French quote, and a Tibetan mandala together, where excerpts from the local paper and a metaphysical discourse are juxtaposed,” (11) does not make for smooth reading.  But, surely, getting at Thomas Merton’s last recorded thoughts, though they might fall short of the final form intended by the author, will be worth some initial effort.

And a fascinating book it is, a book that grows increasingly more engaging.  With every page we turn, we seem to be drawn more deeply into an accelerating current rushing toward the hidden waterfall of Merton’s sudden death.  The accustomed situation is reversed in this book:  Here, it is not the author who knows the end and keeps the reader in suspense; rather we, the readers, know what it all is leading up to, and as we read, we catch ourselves trying to discover patterns among apparently random events in light of the final outcome, hidden from the author to the last.  This creates its own kind of suspense.  Normally in reading an account we are preoccupied with the final issue.  Here the final issue is known, and so our attention shifts to the steps that lead up to it.  An important shift.  It brings out the difference between a journey and a pilgrimage.  We journey to get to the goal, but on a pilgrimage the goal is present at every step. (12)

pilgrimage, Br. David

“An unusual pilgrimage” – this is what Amiya Chakravarty in his insightful preface to the Asian Journal calls Thomas Merton’s journey to the Far East, and Merton himself had referred to it as “my Asian pilgrimage” (p. 235) and stated clearly “I come as a pilgrim (p. 312).  In spite of its unusual features this venture remains a pilgrimage, peregrinatio, and this sets it squarely into the context of solid monastic tradition.  It remains a pilgrimage because the goal is present at every step.  And the goal of pilgrimage is exposure.  The pilgrim leaves home to present and to expose himself to the sacred presence, the judgment, the healing power, active at the holy place to which he journeys.  Yet, his exposure begins as soon as he passes the threshold of the home where he was sheltered, safe, protected.  In doing so, the pilgrim exposes himself in more than one sense:  He lays himself open to the risk of unforeseeable danger; but he also puts himself into the power of the sacred presence toward which he has set his course, and that is the greater risk.  There must be sacred places to remind us that every place is sacred.  There must be times and places for solemn confrontation with Ultimate Reality to remind us that we are always and everywhere exposed.  Because every page of Merton’s Journal bears witness to his awareness of this exposure, it is truly the record of a pilgrimage.

The most obvious and in some respects the most important part of Merton’s “exposure in Asia” consists of his personal contacts with spiritual leaders, especially Tibetan Buddhists, climaxing in three long interviews with the Dalai Lama “…very open and sincere, a very impressive person, deeply concerned about the contemplative life, and also very learned” (p. 178).  With the courage that springs from singleness of heart he exposed himself during these encounters, putting himself in a position of being acted upon, “open” (one of his favorite adjectives) and receptive.  Yet, with the same courage of simplicity he exposed, presented, interpreted, explained, “points of Christian doctrine…the risen Christ, suffering…” (p. 143).  “They seem very respectful of our own contemplative tradition in the terms in which I presented it to them,” he writes, “and one of them told me, after I had given an outline of our mysticism, that we had everything they had and even were parallel to some of their esoteric traditions (which are usually kept very secret)” (p. 179).  “In summary:  I can say that so far my contacts with Asian monks have been very fruitful and rewarding.  We seem to understand one another very well indeed” (p. 324).

Personal contacts during his “exposure to Asia” proved to Thomas Merton that “significant contacts are certainly possible and easy on the level of experience…among people who are seeking.  The basic condition for this is that each be faithful to his own search” (p. 307).  On this condition of perfect faithfulness Merton does insist:  “I think we have now reached a stage of (long-overdue) religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment, and yet to learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist or Hindu discipline and experience.  I believe that some of us need to do this in order to improve the quality of our own monastic life and even to help in the task of monastic renewal which has been undertaken within the Western Church” (p. 313).  Some must expose themselves so that all may profit.

Only the mature monk may undertake this task, for it demands “liberation…from conventions…which inhibit experience of the new, the unexpected” (p. 315).  Readiness for exposure, thus, becomes the touchstone for maturity.  The implications for monastic training are grave:  “Monastic training must not form men in a rigid mold, but liberate them from habitual and routine mechanisms.  The monk who is to communicate on the level that interests us here must be…wide open to life and to new experience because he has fully utilized his own tradition and gone beyond it” (p. 315).  The portrait Merton draws of monks qualified for “contemplative dialogue” (p. 316), as he calls it, bears some of his own features.  They must be “…seriously disciplined by years of silence and a long habit of meditation…in authentic contact with the past of their own religious community…open to the tradition and the heritage of…other communities” (p. 316).

Notice how often “openness,” “open,” “wide open” are used when T.M. talks about genuine exposure.  Yet he makes it clear that this openness is not an attitude “that admits everything and therefore takes nothing with full seriousness” (p. 316).  Thomas Merton’s openness is not an inability to say “no”; he can take a firm stand.  But his stance implies, above all, a clear and firm “no” to closed-mindedness in any of its forms.  This “no” to narrowness and exclusiveness is merely the negative aspect of T.M.’s “yes” to genuine catholicity.  His openness is catholic in the full sense.  Hence his implicit conviction that only genuine exposure will make Catholics truly catholic.  Hence also the disappointment one senses sometimes: “the vicar general, shying away from ‘paganism’, hangs back and sits under a tree reading the guidebook.  I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand” (p. 233).

Gesthemani Abbey

True openness and the ability to take a firm stand belong inseparably together, as inseparably as exposure and rootedness, pilgrimage and home.  No one can be “outgoing” unless he has a home to which he can return.  Only because T.M. – as Father Louis—had found his home (in a deep sense) at Gethsemani was he able to “go out.”  Going out is an archetypal image of exposure of which Merton is strongly aware.  It is for him an image of the ultimate goal, of “the door…through which all the fires go when they have ‘gone out’” (p. 154).  He speaks of his meeting with Chatral Rimpoche as deeply moving because of “our complete understanding of each other as people who were somehow on the edge of great realization and know it and were trying, somehow or other, to go out and get lost in it” (p. 143).  Far from being a betrayal of his monastic vocation, “going out” was in its very essence.  He had entered the monastery in order to “go out.”  True, a monk who never left the monastic enclosure may have genuinely gone out into the great realization.  And one who leaves the monastery may, by doing so, dodge the challenge to really “go out.”  There is plenty of room for self-deception.  But it is of the essence of this going out that one can never foresee what form it will take.

“There is no problem of my wanting simply to ‘leave Gethsemani’”, T.M. wrote in hisJournal, less than a month before his death.  “It is my monastery, and being away has helped me see it in perspective and love it more” (p. 149).  This love for Gethsemani is reflected in many references throughout the Journal, subtly and touchingly at times:  “i stood out in the moonlight, listening to drums down in the village and looking up at the stars.  The same constellations as over the hermitage…” (p. 104).  “Today is Sunday also at Gethsemani, half around the world from here…” (p. 147).  “I do in many ways miss it” (p. 149).  And yet, “I have needed the experience of this journey…I have needed to get away from Gethsemani, and it was long overdue” (p. 104).  Can we dispose of T.M.’s expressions of this need by labeling it as restlessness?  It would seem more fruitful to understand statements like this in the larger context of exposure with its inherent polarity of withdrawal (13) and going out, solitude and togetherness. (14)  This polarity may find expression as destructive or as creative tension.  Both possibilities are indicated in the Journal.

Part 3:

[quote text=”Traveling does this to you. It forces you to face your exposure to impermanence.”]

The decisive point is that solitude and togetherness complement one another as integral aspects of exposure.  It would lead to grave misunderstanding were we to identify togetherness with exposure and solitude with its contrary.  Rightly understood, there is an interior exposure brought about by solitude, just as there is the external exposure through togetherness.  The two are mutually complementary.  They are inseparable.  Unless we have the courage necessary for the solitary exposure to painful honesty with ourselves, we won’t have the courage we need for true exposure to others.  We will be merely side-by-side with them.  The greatness of Merton’s “Asian pilgrimage” lies in the fact that it embraces both poles of exposure and thrives on their tension.

Examples of this can be found wherever exposure to new external experiences exposes him to solitary soul-searching, and this happens throughout the Journal.  “…The Mim Tea Estate, above Darjeeling…Landslides.  Hundreds of them.  The mountains are terribly gashed…. The place is a frightening example of anicca – ‘impermanence’.  A good place, therefore, to adjust one’s perspective…. I find my mind rebelling against the landslides.  I am distracted by reforestation projects and other devices to deny them, forbid them.  I want this all to be permanent.  A permanent postcard for meditation, daydreams” (p. 150).  Again and again it is the experience of impermanence to which his journey exposes him, and to which he deliberately exposes himself in moments of solitary reflection.  Sometimes this comes through ever so subtly, as in his farewell from Kanchenjunga, the mountain of which he had taken so many pictures, with which he had quarreled in his heart and been reconciled again, of which he had even dreamed by night: “Kanchenjunga has been hidden for three days.  I will probably not see it again…. True, Kenchenjunga was hidden as we drove out from Darjeeling…. I looked back as we swung into Ghoom, and that was the end of it” (p. 168).  Traveling does this to you.  It forces you to face your exposure to impermanence.  This belongs to the pilgrim’s spirituality.

But radical exposure demands that the exposure itself be exposed to scrutiny. Anyone who questioned the wisdom, the advantage, the justification of Thomas Merton’s unusual pilgrimage will find proof in the Journal that Merton himself raised these questions, and radically so. “Plenty of time to think.  Reassessment of this whole Indian experience in more critical terms.  Too much movement.  Too much ‘looking for’ something: an answer, a vision, ‘something other’.  And this breeds illusion…. I am still not able fully to appreciate what this exposure to Asia has meant” (p. 148).  “I am at a loss to know what one means by ‘the real Asia’.  It is all real as far as I can see.  Though certainly a lot of it has been corrupted by the West…” (p. 149f) “Or did I find an illusion of Asia, that needed to be dissolved by experience?  Here?”  (p. 150).  Can only exposure expose one to an honest questioning of exposure itself?

One wonders if he actually ever became a pilgrim among pilgrims in one of the crowded temples.

At a low point (T.M. was ill with “this bloody cold”) his assessment of the exposure to Asia is negative:  “I have a definite feeling it is a waste of time – something I didn’t need to do.  However, if I have discovered I didn’t need to do it, it has not been a waste of time” (p. 150).  His considered judgment is more positive:  “I am convinced that communication in depth, across the lines that have hitherto divided religious and monastic traditions, is now not only possible and desirable, but most important for [our] destinies…. I think it is above all important for Westerners like myself to learn what little they can from Asia, in Asia.  I think we must seek not merely to make superficial reports about the Asian traditions, but to live and share those traditions, as far as we can, by living them in their traditional milieu” (p. 313). (15)

However, to “live and share” a foreign tradition is a task that demands more than good will, more even than the courage for genuine exposure.  It takes a good deal of creative planning and a fair amount of good luck in finding ways of immersion (which implies more than contacts and sources of information).  This is one aspect under which one might find Thomas Merton’s venture a little disappointing by his own standards.  He does remain the tourist, and although his journey is truly a pilgrimage in a deeper sense, one wonders if he actually ever became a pilgrim among pilgrims in one of the crowded temples.  Surely he would have been deeply moved by the fervor of worship, the deep devotion, the living faith of the people.  I cannot find one reference to all this in the Asian Journal.

I have asked myself if the line that mentions “red flowers and/Goats” (p. 130) in a poem full of references to Calcutta and to Kali, the great Mother Goddess, could be a hint that Merton witnessed worship at the Kali Temple in South Calcutta, where black goats are wreathed with red hibiscus before they are slaughtered in sacrifice.  But could he have failed to mention this more explicitly?  (Someone who knew him well claimed jokingly that T.M. could hardly blow his nose without writing about it – another significant aspect of “exposure,” by the way.)  Is it possible that he spent more than a week in Calcutta and returned twice for short visits without going to see a temple where bloody sacrifices are still offered daily?  Is it conceivable that he went to embassy parties while missing the moving spectacle of cremation at the Kalighat, where a fresh pyre is lit as another one burns down, and the fire never goes out?  Have we here reached a definite limit of Merton’s exposure to Asia?

“I confess I am not very open to Hindu religion, as distinct from philosophy.  But I can’t judge yet.  Will suspend judgment until I get to Madras” (p. 70).  He got to Madras, but neither there nor afterwards is there any reference to living Hindu religion.  The closest approach to it in the Journal is Merton’s confrontation with the celebrated lingam that stands in the churning surf of the ocean at Mahabalipuram, one of the great holy places in the world.  But even here the entry in the Journalseems almost to dodge the head-on impact of the experience; it is overgrown by luxuriant references to poems by D.H. Lawrence and Vidyapati.  Maybe Merton would have needed more than this lingam washed by ocean spray and dried by the sea breeze in front of a long-abandoned rock temple.  Could he have witnessed the chanting priests in the dark innermost chamber of, say, the Shiva temple at Chidambaram, washing the lingam with milk and ghee, which pilgrims throng to lap up from the ancient stone troughs in which it flows down – maybe exposure to the full force of ritual would have opened him to Hindu religion.  But to intrude there as a tourist is inconceivable.  One must approach as a pilgrim.  And Thomas Merton had accepted the role of a tourist as his fate.

“As usual I am in Hotel Karma.  My Karma:…the faded cream splendor of the Galle Face Hotel.  Everywhere I run into it:  the big empty rooms, carpeted stairs, slowly turning fans, mahogany floors…. And the music, too…” (p. 213).  “…rock music in the Laguna where we stopped first on the way, and the live Muzak at the Oberoi Intercontinental – appalling! (p. 126).  Sometimes he groans a little under the burden of his karma:  “the follies of tourism” (p. 212).  “The meals are too heavy” (p. 63).  “…the importunities of a guide…” (p. 63).  “…my solemn tourist duty of perpetual motion…” (p. 167).  Sometimes he takes it all with good humor and a certain air of well-being:  “I went to the Imperial Hotel, older, less expensive, and quieter than the Ashoka.  A bath and tea and the newspaper…” (p. 126).  “I paid only 6/55 for the three-hour journey, second class, and had a compartment (‘For Clergy Only’) all to myself, though expecting a bunch of bhikkhus to move in on me at any station” (p. 216).  Do we sense a half-admitted hope that those bhikkhus would indeed move in on him?  It surely would have enriched his experience had he travelled third class.  But he accepted his limits and exposed himself to the resulting ambiguities.

Part 4:

Merton opens an informal talk in Calcutta by facing these ambiguities straightforwardly:  “First, let me struggle with the contradiction that I have to live with, in appearing before you in what I really consider to be a disguise, because I never, never wear this (a clerical collar).  What I ordinarily wear is blue jeans and an open shirt: which brings me to the question that people have been asking to a great extent: Whom do you represent? …I am supposed to be a monk…I may not look like one….The monk in the modern world…is essentially outside of all establishments…. He…withdraws deliberately to the margin of society” (p. 305).  The monk, as Merton sees him, belongs to the “people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social routine and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk” (p. 308): a state of exposure.

In any situation that looks like a “setting” Thomas Merton begins to question himself:  “Am I part of it?  Trying to fit into an interrelation, but on my own terms?  Trying to find a dogmatic solution to this contradiction?  Learning to accept the contradiction?  One must, provisionally at least, experience all roles as slightly strange, ridiculous, contrived” (p. 116).  This holds true for Merton even with regard to the role of the monk, as role.  Since he sees the monk as the marginal person, wearing a monastic habit smacks of establishment to him.  The tourist is at least a little less clearly labeled, and so slightly more marginal.  T.M. bows to good advice and wears his monastic habit for the interview with the Dalai Lama.  “Yet, recognizing that it is at odds,” he complains, “with my own policy of not appearing as a monk, a priest, a cleric, in ‘the world’.  The role of ‘tourist’ is less offensive” (p. 116).  However, a role is a role, and the monk, the marginal man, will not fit into any predetermined role.

Tourists take pictures.  “Have I failed in my solemn duty as a tourist by not taking a photo of a woman of Ghoom, sitting by the roadside, delousing the head of her eight-year-old son?” (p. 167f).  “The situation of the tourist becomes ludicrous and impossible in a place like Calcutta.  How does one take pictures of these streets with the faces, the eyes of such people…?” (p. 25).  One is grateful to Merton for not taking these pictures.  But one is grateful also for the ones he did take.  Some are unforgettable.  So the coy smile of the little ten-year-old tulku (p. 98), “petulantly rolling down his sleeves to be more ceremonious” (p. 97) before he went into his cell and sat cross-legged on his seat to receive his visitors with poise and formality.  One cannot help wondering, on the other hand, from how many genuine exposures Merton was barred by the mere fact of wearing a camera slung across his shoulder, emblem and shield of the tourist.  Yet he did not slide into this.  He consciously accepted the given reality of his situation, all the limitations, all the ambiguities that being a tourist of sorts included, and this acceptance constituted a more profound exposure.  Thus, he remained a pilgrim.  For exposure is, after all, the essence of pilgrimage.

[quote text=”The way to integrity is not the censorship of experience, but integration.”]

The real goal of Thomas Merton’s unusual pilgrimage was exposure of – the other side of reality, “the side that has never been photographed and turned into post cards.  That is the only side worth seeing” (p. 153).  It is worth keeping this in mind when looking at the photographs Merton made.  “A camera cannot…see a real mountain.  The camera…captures materials with which you reconstruct, not so much what you saw as what you thought you saw.  Hence the best photography is aware, mindful, of illusion and uses illusion, permitting and encouraging it – especially unconscious and powerful illusions that are not normally admitted on the scene” (p. 153).

Thomas Merton, Dalai Lama

This is the point at which T.M.’s idea of photographic exposure connects with this notion of “exposed consciousness.”  The best photography in his estimation captures and brings into focus material not normally admitted on the scene of consciousness.  Thus is provides, or teaches us to provide, urgently needed supplementary nourishment for a consciousness suffering from malnutrition:  “The ‘perfectly safe’ consciousness, put on a diet of select thoughts, poisons itself.  The exposed consciousness is in less trouble.  It relaxes.  Is free in fresh air.  Is perhaps a little dirtied – but normal or more normal.  Less garbage.  Select garbage, luxury garbage is the worst poison” (p. 159f).  A whole spirituality is contained in this brief statement, a spirituality of exposure.

What really matters, Merton seems to say, is not the quality of the material you admit into your consciousness, but the way you deal with it.  Don’t select!  A well-rounded diet will be the healthiest, if you learn to digest, to absorb, to assimilate it, to integrate it into your system.  The way to integrity is “not the censorship of experience” (p. 68), but integration – “the balancing of experience over the void” is Merton’s own pregnant expression (p. 68).  But here we are approaching the deepest meaning of exposure, that exposedness of our condition which our illusory little self fears to face.  Rilke speaks of it in his poetic fragment “Exposed on mountains of the heart,” (16) and John Cage celebrates is in a poem which might provide a better comment on Merton’s “balancing of experience over the void” than anyone could hope to give in prose:

“If you let it
it supports itself.
You don’t have to.
Each something
is a celebration
of the nothing
that supports it.
When we
re-move the world
from our shoulders
we notice
it doesn’t drop.
is the responsibility?” (17)

Part 5:

The Asian Journal contains a good many traces of the process by which Thomas Merton integrates his experience, examples of how his own method of exposed consciousness works.  Some are playful examples.  In fact, all of them are playful in a way.  That’s the point.  Wisdom does not labor.  Wisdom plays. (18)  Exposed consciousness doesn’t labor over its proper diet, etc.  “It relaxes.  Is free in fresh air” (p. 159).  In other words “it” has a good time.  Merton certainly did.  I have known few people as capable as he was of having a plain good time.  “In the next room of the hotel…my neighbor now talks loudly on the telephone: ‘Hallo! Hallo! Hallo! I am going to Agra!” (p. 66).  A hundred pages further on (three weeks later) this little experience appears nicely balanced over the void by the power of rasa, (19) of creative imagination wedded to compassion (a healthy kind of compassion that can laugh, the real kind):

Man tortured by telephone (below thin floor).  Cries louder and louder, until he screams high “hellos” that fly beyond Kanchenjunga.  Gasps.  Despairing cockcrows.  Yelps.  Hound yells.  Pursues a distant fading voice.  Over far wires speeds the crazed hound, pleading for help, challenging the victim to turn around and come back.  Falls off the wire in despair.  Telephone, chair, desk, office, whole hotel, all come crashing to the ground” (p. 160). 

(It is not necessary to have had the exasperating experience of attempting a long-distance phone call in India to appreciate the humor of this little masterpiece, but it helps.)

While this example does not yet go very deep, we have at any rate reached the other side of experience, the side which photographic exposure can’t capture.  Its more superficial layers constitute the landscape of our psyche, but, beyond that, it expands toward “a certain universality and wholeness which have never yet been adequately described – and probably cannot be described – in terms of psychology” (p. 310), as T.M. expressed it in a similar context.  The furthest realm of “the other side” is the abyss of compassion – Karuna.  Obviously more than an emotion, karuna is an existential position, or rather the existential renouncing of any position, perfect detachment, emptiness.  “Compassion is proportionate to detachment; otherwise we use others for our ends under the pretext of ‘love’.  Actually we are dominated by illusion (p. 157), the illusion of our separate little self over against the other one who becomes the object of our so-called compassion.   In reality, “we are already one.  But we imagine that we are not” (p. 308).  Detachment destroys our illusion.  When I give up my own position, my standpoint, I have nothing to stand on; when I suspend judgment, I am in suspense.  “Supportless is the great compassion,” (20) and this is the deepest meaning of the monk’s “free floating existence.”

Last night I had a curious dream about Kanchenjunga…

One of the dreams Thomas Merton records in his Asian Journal belongs here.  He had mentioned “the view of Natu-la Pass, where the Chinese stand armed and ready, from the toilet of room 14 at the Windamere Hotel Private Limited.  View of Tibet from a toilet” (p. 146).  A quite definite point of view!  But two days later:  “Last night I had a curious dream about Kanchenjunga.  I was looking at the mountain and it was pure white, absolutely pure, especially the peaks that lie to the west.  And I saw the pure beauty of their shape and outline, all in white.  And I heard a voice saying – or got the clear idea of:  ‘There is another side to the mountain.’ I realized that it was turned around and everything was lined up differently; I was seeing it from the Tibetan side” (p. 152).

In this dream Merton’s unconscious swept him off that toilet of room 14, not to provide him with a different standpoint, but to expose him to the great compassion which is incompatible with any “private limited” point of view.  After nearly three weeks of exchanges with Tibetans he suddenly could view the mountain in his dream “from the Tibetan side”!  What the dream exposes in an image, T.M.’s awake consciousness expressed in more abstract terms when he said:  “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion….Not that we discover a new unity.  We discover an older unity…our original unity” (p. 308).  “My brothers,” he exclaimed, “we are already one!” (p. 308).

Mt. Kenchenjunga

Also connected with Kanchenjunga is another splendid example of T.M.’s power to expose the other side of reality:  “I was thinking of the evening in San Francisco…we sat for a couple of hours at a sidewalk café drinking wine, while an interminable line of Dixie tourists – Alabama, Tennessee – filed slowly by into a topless joint upstairs” (p. 155).  This feeling reminiscence came to him while drinking tea in his bungalow, and now, looking at the Himalayan peaks, he integrates it in a most remarkable way with the vision of Kanchenjunga, the mountain that had come to mean so much to him (p. 155):

Kanchenjunga this afternoon.  The clouds of the morning parted slightly…peaks appearing and disappearing with the top of Kanchenjunga remaining the visible and constant president over the whole slow show…there were a few discreet showings of whorehouse pink but most of it was shape and line and shadow and form.  O Tantric Mother Mountain!  Yin-Yang palaces of opposites in unity!

“Nice thought rot” (p. 159) is a term Merton might have applied to super-daydream like this, just as a gardener might speak affectionately of nice leaf rot on this compost heap, humus.  The linguistic link between humus and humility is not accidental, of course.  One phase of spiritual life is that humble breakdown which yields fertile soil for inner growth. (21) Neighbor to the key passage about “exposed consciousness,” we find in the Journal a sketchy poem full of compost heap imagery: “And to dissolve the heaps…..Man holds basket of green leaves.  Going.  Gone…Tibetan boss explains garden…. Gone basket of foliage…. Send aid ideas to dissolve heaps – to spread their freight” (p. 158f).

In the context of “thought rot” and of a well-balanced diet for our consciousness through exposure, Merton speaks of “the ruse of nourishing the self with ideas of self-dissolution” (p. 159). (Possibly those “aid ideas to dissolve heaps.”) But the point seems to be that these are not specific ideas of select thoughts about self or non-self.   Rather, genuine exposure to experience (un-censored experience) will effect dissolution of the illusory self.  The reason is this:  “Experience…is not mine.  It is ‘uninterrupted exchange’.  It is dance…. The self is merely a locus in which the dance of the universe is aware of itself” (p. 68).  Since exposure to experience always offers me an opportunity to become conscious of this, such exposure can, in this perspective, become “the ruse” for “transcending the limits that separate subject from object and self from not-self” (p. 310).

All this is so central to Thomas Merton’s thought because “self-dissolution” (rightly understood) is, in his view, the life task of the monk, his “going out.” He demonstrates with great clarity how this has been expressed all along in Christian tradition under the image of “putting on the new man” (Eph. 4:24).  The simple, popular formula for it in the West “was the Augustinian formula of the translation of cupiditas into caritas, of self-centered love into an outgoing, other-centered love.  In the process of this change the individual ego was seen to be illusory and dissolved itself, and in place of this self-centered ego came the Christian person, who was no longer just the individual but was Christ dwelling in each one.  So in each one of us the Christian person is that which is fully open to all others persons, because ultimately all other persons are Christ” (p. 334).  Thus the quest of the monk (the Christian monk, too) “is not merely an individual affair…. Its orientation is in a certain sense suprapersonal” (p. 310).

Thomas Merton’s catholicity showed itself in the fact that he was able to go with such simplicity to the heart of traditional Christian doctrine and at the same express the same truth in a form inspired by Tantric Buddhism and its use of the mandala.(22)  Originally T.M. showed a certain skepticism: “I have a sense that all this mandala business is, for me, at least, useless.  It has considerable interest, but there is no point in my seeking anything there for my own enlightenment.  Why complicate what is simple?” (p. 59).  Yet only two days later he exposed himself so radically to the new experience that he can understand his whole life as the process of constructing a mandala.  This is expressed in a key passage which we have quoted in part and are now ready, I presume, to appreciate in full:

Everything I think or do enters into the construction of a mandala.  It is the balancing of experience over the void, not the censorship of experience.  And no duality of experience – void.  Experience is full because it is inexhaustible void.  It is not mine.  It is ‘uninterrupted exchange’.  It is dance…. ‘Myself’.  No-self.  The self is merely a locus in which the dance of the universe is aware of itself as complete from beginning to end – and returning to the void.  Gladly. Praising, giving thanks, with all beings.  Christ light (23) – spirit – grace – gift.  (Bodhicitta) (24) (p. 68).

Thomas Merton seems to have been led to this understanding of the mandala and its meaning for his own life by Sonam Kazi:  “What is the purpose of the mandala?  Sonam Kazi said one meditates on the mandala in order to be in control of what goes on within one instead of ‘being controlled by it’.  In meditation on the mandala one is able to construct and dissolve the interior configurations at will.  One meditates not to ‘learn’ a presumed objective cosmological  structure, or a religious doctrine, but to become the Buddha enthroned in one’s own center” (p. 82).  Or, in Christian terms, in order to be able to say with Saint Paul “I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20) and “to understand the length and the breadth, the height and the depth….,” (25) a passage in which T.M. discovered “a Christ mandala” (p. 99).

Part 6:

[quote text=”In the metaphor of constructing a mandala, grace…creates that magnetic field which makes everything fall into place. “]

What matters in the construction of a mandala is to find the Center.  In Merton’s Christian terms, this Center is the Christ-life within him or simply “grace”.  It is highly significant, therefore, to discover that he copied in his Journal the following passage from Marco Pallis’ essay, “Is There Room for ‘Grace’ in Buddhism?”:

The word grace corresponds to a whole dimension of spiritual experience; it is unthinkable that this should be absent from one of the great religions of the world.  The function of grace…[is] to condition man’s homecoming to the center from start to finish.  It is the very attraction of the center itself…which provides the incentive to start on the Way and the energy to face and overcome its many and various obstacles.  Likewise grace is the welcoming hand into the center when man finds himself at long last on the brink of the great divide where all familiar human landmarks have disappeared. (26)

This understanding of grace as “the attraction of the Center” explains how Merton can perceive his spiritual life as the process of constructing a mandala.  There are two basically different ways of striving for interior order.  The one attempts to sift out whatever does not seem to fit.  (He calls it the “censorship of experience.”)  The other can admit everything, because it is not based on the principle of a sieve but rather on that of a magnetic field.  (He calls it “the balancing of experience over the void.”)  In the metaphor of constructing a mandala, grace, the power of Christ dwelling in the monk’s heart, creates that magnetic field which makes everything fall into place.  Grace is the power which balances his free-floating existence over the void.  It is “through faith” (Eph. 3:17) that Christ is said to dwell in our hearts, for it is through the courage and trust of faith that we open our hearts to the power of the divine grace.


The ever wider openness in faith to the “attraction of the Center,” the ever deeper penetration of all spheres of life by its influence, that is what Merton meant by the process of constructing a mandala.  Thomas Merton’s “homecoming to the center” was conditioned by this process “from start to finish,” from the start across the Pacific when he wrote, “I am going home to the home where I have never been in this body” (p.  5), to the “brink of the great divide,” “the edge of great realization” (p. 143), “the door of light, the Light itself” (p. 155).  Long before he formulates it in Tantric terms, Merton understands his whole life as the construction of a mandala, and only this understanding makes radical exposure for him.  It allows him an openness that can admit everything, because he – or rather Christ in him – is “in control of what goes on within…instead of ‘being controlled by it.’”  He needs no “censorship of experience,” because he is able to decompose and to recompose the organic matter of his imagination, “to construct and dissolve the interior configurations at will.”  To what extent this can ever be achieved in this life remains an open question.  Still, Merton was able to describe the life he lived simply as “a life that is openness” (p. 307).  (27)


Openness is delicately poised between dissipation and compassion.  So was Thomas Merton’s life.  There are passages in the Journal which, to some, might sound like dissipation rather than openness.  “The French cooking at the French Embassy was excellent, and two very nice wines.  I must say I rather like embassy parties…” (p. 70).  “There were two little girls in miniskirts, Schotzi and Pattie, very sweet and naked…” (p. 37).  “We were tearing red chickens with teeth and fingers to the sound of drums and accordions…” (p. 126).  “I ordered attack in the Mascarella Room but the waiter told me, in horror, they could not carry it.  ‘…There would be no respect for the hotel’….I drank some local rum, with profound sentiments of ‘respect for the hotel’” (p. 213).  Anyone who starts judging his neighbor can find material without going to the trouble of looking up passages in a diary.  What matters for us here is the fact that only craving and greed turn openness into dissipation.

The same openness can nourish compassion, if it has become “supportless” openness through detachment.  “Compassion is proportionate to detachment” (p. 157).  But detachment is not achieved without discipline.  Monks must “put in a lifetime of hard work training their minds and liberating themselves from passion and illusion” (p. 324). (28)  This is part of the process by which one’s whole life becomes the construction of a mandala.  The monk can be open to the world in all its fullness.  “The world belongs to him,” but – and this is the decisive condition – “insofar as he has dedicated himself totally to liberation from it, in order to liberate it (p. 341).  The accomplishment of this liberation is “the balancing of experience over the void,” and this is compassion.  “Supportless is the great compassion”;  ultimate exposure.

Part 7:

It seems that Thomas Merton caught a glimpse of this [liberation] in an experience that made him stammer that “everything is emptiness and everything is compassion”(29)
(p. 235).  A few days before his death, as he stood before the colossal, stone-carved figures of Buddha at Polonnaruwa, an ancient ruined city in central Sri Lanka, his exposure to Asia reached its peak:  “Polonnaruwa was such an experience that I could not write hastily of it and cannot write now, or not at all adequately…” (p. 230).  “The great figures, motionless, yet with the lines in full movement, waves of vesture and bodily form, a beautiful and holy vision” (p. 236).  (What a privilege to find some of the powerful photographs Merton took there incorporated in the Asian Journal!)  Toward this “beautiful and holy vision” Merton’s pilgrimage had been moving since the take-off when he “left the ground…with Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny…. May I not come back without having settled the great affair.  And found also the great compassion, mahākaruna” (p. 5).

I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies…. Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, because evident and obvious…everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.  I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination…. My Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself.  I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for (pp. 233-236).

carved figures of Buddha at Polunnaruwa

What further degree of exposure remained there to be experienced?  Exposure to “the basic irrelevance of the human condition, an irrelevance which is manifested above all by the fact of death” (p. 306).  What remained to be experienced was passage through the “door without aim…. There is no threshold, no step, no advance, no recession, no entry, no non-entry.  Such is the door that ends all doors; the unbuilt, the impossible, the undestroyed, through which all the fires go when they have ‘gone out’” (p. 154).  His last recorded words were “I will disappear” (p. 343).

It seems significant that Merton’s disappearance took place between his Bangkok talk on “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives” (30) and the scheduled discussion of his talk.  “I believe the plan is to have all the questions for this morning’s lecture this evening at the panel.  So I will disappear” (p. 343).  And he left us with the questions.  He left us with homework to do, and this homework concerns exposure of monks to Marxist insights.  He addresses himself to monks who are “potentially open to contact” (p. 328), but (and he seems to speak tongue-in-cheek) “who have not been meditating on Marxism recently, and who have not really done much homework on Marxism, which I think would be important for monks” (p. 330).  It seems that this exposure will remain an important task for some time to come.

But Thomas Merton has left us with a still greater task.  By what he taught and by the way he lived, he has confronted us with the challenge to radical openness.  In hisAsian Journal, more stirringly, maybe, than in other writings, he has put before us a spirituality of openness – not of dissipation, but openness of compassion.  It is not a neatly wrapped-up system.  How could a spirituality of openness remain other than open-ended?  But it is coherent and comprehensive.  And it works.  It hinges on “exposed consciousness” (p. 159).  It aims at “total inner transformation” (p. 340).  And the challenge of this task will always remain valid.  For “this kind of monasticism cannot be extinguished.  It is imperishable.  It represents an instinct of the human heart” (p. 342).



1)  Published in New York by New Directions (1973); 445 pp.

2)  A.I.M (Aide à l’implantation Monastique):  an international Benedictine group, organized to help implement monastic renewal throughout the world.  Through the two congresses at Bangkok (1968) and Bangalore (1973), A.I.M began to have considerable influence on the direction of the development of Christian monastic life in the Far East.

3)  The Temple of Understanding:  an organization with a worldwide membership of religious leaders and concerned lay people, established 1960 in Washington, D.C.

4)  Direct quotations from Thomas Merton’s own texts in the Asian Journal are followed by the number of the page from which they are taken.  I have refrained from quoting other writings by Merton in this essay so as to bring out with great purity his thought during this period of his life.  I have made no effort, however, to discriminate between the main body of the Journal and the various appendices, since T.M.’s writings belong throughout to the same period.It was my special privilege to have extended contact with the Ven. Lama Samdhong Tulku (Rimpoche), head of the Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies at the sanskirt University in Varanasi, and with the Ven. Lama Sherpa Tulku, a personal aide to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

6)  Dzogchen; Tibetan, “great perfection.”   The esoteric tradition of the Nyingmapa order of Tibetan Buddhism.

7)  Amiya Chakravarty’s felicitous expression (p. ix).

8)  Although T.M.’s reference on p. 85 sounds somewhat critical, he took considerable interest in the early development of the Center for Spiritual Studies, and supported me with his encouragement.  It so happened that the Center was legally incorporated on the very day of his death. 
[Editor’s note:  We were astounded to read this footnote, since A Network for Grateful Living, began under the auspices of the Center for Spiritual Studies.  Here is the Merton quote to which Br. David refers, from page 85 of the
Asian Journal:  “Brother David Steindl-Rast’s idea (of bringing together Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Sufis, and Christians) perplexed me a little — as being first of all too academic.  But I had wondered about some different approach:  a mere dream.  And certainly no good in my own life.”  We hope that our interactive, community-building approach to interfaith dialog carries some elements of this dream which Merton knew he could only begin to fulfill in his lifetime.  Our debt to him runs deep.]

9)  “Recollections of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West,” published in Monastic Studies, 7 (1969), 1-10.  For the full text online, please click here.

10)  The Editors are Naomi Burton, James Laughlin, and Brother Patrick Hart, a monk of Gethsemani, whose Foreword and Postscript somehow seem to represent the hands of T.M.’s monastic community, holding his Asian Journal with a gesture of tender reverence.  Consulting Editor:  Amiya Chakravarty.

11)  From Professor A. Chakravarty’s Preface (p. ix).

12)  L. Tolstoi’s tale of “The Two Pilgrims” beautifully develops the idea that openness and responsiveness are the real goal and essence of a pilgrimage.

13)  “Withdrawal” sounds a little negative.  The German word “Einkehr” suggests a more positive going forward.

14)  Compare my chapter on “Solitude and Togetherness” in Exploring Inner Space by Sr. A.E. Chester and Br. David (Monroe MI, 1969)

15)  The 1973 A.I.M. Congress at Bangalore resulted in an urgent encouragement of Christian monks and nuns, not only to study other traditions from a distance, but to expose themselves to these traditions, to enter into them through worship and meditation, to spend some time in monasteries of other religions and to invite their members in return (hospitality is one form of exposure).  Few people have singlehandedly contributed as much to this important development than Thomas Merton.  The passage here quoted is one of the clearest formulations of his approach.

16)  “Ausgesetzt auf den Bergen des Herzens,” Rainer Maria Rilke, Sämtliche Werke (Wiesbaden, 1963), II, 94-95.

17)  John Cage, Silence (Cambridge MA, 1967), p. 139.

18) Proverbs 8:30.

19) rasa: Sanskrit.  In Hindu aesthetics “flavor, taste, that which distinguishes a work of art from a mere statement” (Webster’s II).  Under the heading “G.B. Mohan on rasa,” T.M. wrote:  “Rasa is compassion and creative imagination” (p. 285).

20) From S. Dasgupta Indian Idealism (Cambridge, 1962).  Merton copied this passage from p. 94 into his Journal (p. 284).

21) Note in this context the importance of humbly exposing one’s thoughts to a Master in the spirituality of the Desert Fathers.

22) mandala: Sanskrit, in both Buddhism and Hinduism, “a diagrammatic picture and as an aid in meditation or ritual; sometimes a symbol of the universe….” (Ross).

23) This final outburst is one of the countless indications in the Journal of how deeply Merton was rooted in his Christian faith. He didn’t “become a Buddhist,” as some suspected.  If anything, he discovered how much of a Buddhist he had always been by being the Christian he was.  And this discovery made him all the more devoted a Christian – all the more Christian a Buddhist, if you want.

24) Bodhicitta:  a key term in all sects of Buddhism, often translated by “Buddha-mind” or “Buddha-nature.”  By its position in this passage, T.M. might have intended to indicate its close relationship to the “Cosmic Christ” in Catholic theology.

25) “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17-19).

26) Marco Pallis “Is There Room for ‘Grace’ in Buddhism?” in Studies in Comparative Religion, August 1968 (Pates Manor, Bedfont, Middlesex, England).

27)  “The kind of life I represent is a life that is openness to gift:  gift from God and gift from others” (p. 307).

28)  Of the Dalai Lama, T.M. says, “He insists on detachment, on an ‘unworldly life’, yet sees it as a way to complete understanding of, and participation in, the problems of life and the world.  But renunciation and detachment must come first” (p. 113).

29)  According to S. B. Dasgupta, bodhicitta comprises sunyāta (emptiness) andkaruna (compassion).

30)  Printed as Appendix VII, pp. 326-343.  T.M. developed in this talk his contention that both monks and Marxists take a critical attitude towards the world and its structures.  With a view to changing the situation, Marxists start with the external structures of society; monks (both Buddhist and Christian) start with the problem within people themselves, aiming at total transformation from the inside, which would eventually change the outer structures too.  T.M. believed that the ideal society for which Communism strives can only be fully realized in a monastery.


Br. David Steindl-Rast Trust
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.