Merton & Buddhism Wisdom, Emptiness & Everyday Mind
Bonnie Bowman Thurston
In 1968, Harold Talbott introduced Merton to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. Finally all the pieces of Merton’s life and work seemed to fall perfectly into place, and this volume of essays is a true summing up of his varied talents and his spiritual transformation. Included samples of his photography, poetry and painting help to flesh out a more complete portrait.
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This book contains a plethora of previously unpublished photography as well as new material from persons who were with Merton in Asia in the weeks preceding his untimely death in 1968.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.
“A beautiful, rich and well considered dialogue of mystics, artists and scholars. Merton would be pleased.”
“I’m just in bliss over what has been achieved for the further understanding of Merton and Buddhism. I think this volume reveals a path or a means Christians can use to understand Buddhism, and for everybody to better understand both Buddhism and Christianity. The book, with its photographs of Buddhas, is one of the finest works on Buddhism to have been published in the past decades.”
“Thomas Merton is the saintly man who caused the Dalai Lama to come to admire Christianity as the equal of his beloved Buddhism. This book finally gives us a clear look at how that happened, how Merton understood Buddhism, how it moved him, and how tragically his premature death cost us the feast of insight he would surely have provided us. This book has solid scholarship, beautiful illustrations, and enlightening commentary. It is a rare door to deeper understanding of both Buddhism and Christianity and a pleasant companion on the great way!”
This book gifts us with a masterful and multidimensional view of Buddhist influence in the life, work, and ultimate goal of Thomas Merton. It would certainly be a welcome addition to our libraries.