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Thomas Merton and the Buddhas

By Ken Silva


Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God. [1]


It is simply beyond question that the contemplative spirituality Living Spiritual Teacher Richard Foster is teaching your pastors is very influenced by the late Roman Catholic Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In his book A Time of Departing Ray Yungen offers this bit of personal testimony in an encounter with Guru Foster: "I attended a local seminar where Richard Foster was speaking. At the end of the meeting, I approached him. Wanting to know more about Foster's beliefs, I asked, 'What do you think about the current contemplative prayer movement?' Foster emphatically told me, 'Thomas Merton tried to awaken God's people!' "


The Unholy Ground Of Idolatry

What you are about to see is an account from Thomas Merton's own journal concerning his "total integration" as he observed the huge Buddha statues at Polonnaruwa. This event happened during the tour of Asia Merton was on in 1968 when he was accidentally electrocuted. I take the following section from the book Thomas Merton: My Brother by the late Spiritual Master M. Basil Pennington who was a fellow Trappist monk and a close friend of Merton's. It will be presented without comment, but as you read I ask you to consider that Merton's own account of awe while he stood before these pagan idols is coming from someone many evangelicals today consider to be a Christian."


Pennington writes: "At Polonnaruwa,…Merton was able to enter into the sanctuary with the solitariness he wanted. The pilgrim took off his shoes and let the dampness of the living earth speak to him. At this point it is not only best but necessary to let Merton speak for himself":


I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika [the "Middle Path" school of Buddhism], of sunyata ["emptiness, the Void" – a basic concept in Buddhism], that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything – without refutation – without establishing some argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening.


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 composed into the rock shape and landscape, figure rock and tree. And the sweep of bare rock slopping away on the other side of the hollow, where you can go back and see different aspects of the figures. 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, became evident and obvious. The queer evidence of the reclining figure, the smile, the sad smile of Ananda standing with arms folded (much more "imperitive" than Da Vinchi's Mona Lisa because completely simple and straightforward).


The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem and really no "mystery." All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life is charged with dharmakaya… 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. Surely, with Mahabalipuram and Polonnaruwa my Asian pilgrimage had become clear and had purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don't know what else remains, but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.


Basil Pennington then adds, "here through the aesthetic experience that Merton entered into and sought to express the mystical experience…quiet, isolation, simplicity and freshness. There is a wholeness. Merton said he could not express it adequately. He might have added, as did his Cistercian Fathers in speaking of such moments of total integration, that those who have experienced it know what he was talking about, and those who have not should seek the experience so that they will know."


"Merton did not return to this experience in the few journal entries that would follow. As I have said, a week later he would be dead." [2] 

[1] Exodus 20:4-5, KJV.

[2] M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Merton: My Brother, (New City Press, 1996), pp. 171, 172, 173.