The ideas Merton was drawn to in Buddhism provide inspiration for readers of any practice. We are introduced to the masters and their teachings which most affected his thinking: The Dalai Lama, Chatral Rinpoche, Karlu Rinpoche, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Khamtrul Rinpoche, as well as Thich Nhat Hanh.
This book contains a plethora of previously unpublished photography as well as new material from persons who were with Merton in Asia in the weeks preceding his untimely death in 1968. A profusion of places and people in his life’s journey, as well as images from a variety of cultures which made up his Buddhist sojourn, invite us into a wider experience, closer to what Merton himself saw.
I wish I could have met Thomas Merton during his lifetime. I suspect many of us feel the same way. Probably the next best thing, however, is meeting him in a volume such as this. Those of us acquainted with the figure of Merton have more than likely come to meet him through his association with Buddhism. Bonnie B. Thurston and the eminent authors she has assembled to contribute to this volume are to be congratulated for having “fleshed out” (viii) Merton through a panoramic sampling of his multiplex network of connections with Buddhist teachers and leaders of just about every tradition.
In her own essay, “Unfolding of a New World: Thomas Merton and Buddhism,” Thurston both sets the tone and summarizes her quest in producing this volume by asserting that “the aspects of Buddhism which particularly attracted Merton were its articulation of the paths of spiritual development, its ‘cultural alternative,’ and its contribution to monastic renewal” (22).
But far from being a dry, academic read, this book is replete with witty and penetrating Merton anecdotes. The initial “Overview of Buddhism” by scholar Roger J. Corless provides a cogent introduction to those new to Buddhism, and a welcome refresher for us all.
While the authors of the various essays provide a rich context for understanding Merton’s motivations and the circumstances surrounding his involvement with Buddhism, they are careful not to stifle his own voice. To the contrary, we frequently “hear” Merton speaking in his own words—expressing opinions, voicing objections, venting emotions—through the use of many selections from his own letters, diaries, and journals.
But our meeting with Merton in this volume is not in words only. Liberally laced with black and white illustrations and photographs, it gracefully rounds out our personality portrait of Merton through artistic media, too. Such artwork certainly depicts and enlarges upon the text and Merton’s own statements, but it also demonstrates how Merton himself was an artist—photographer, calligrapher, painter—whose works creatively manifested the multifaceted influences of Buddhism.
Moreover, the set of color-plate reproductions of buddhas and bodhisattvas in the midsection of the book give us a real feel for the Buddhist aesthetic that likely touched Merton himself.