Thursday, June 11, 2009

"Merton & Buddhism": Book Review

This anthology collects scholarly essays; it's an accessible volume that, like its inspiration, wears its learning lightly. Merton's example of enthusiasm, earnestness, and erudition finds fitting followers in those tracking his geographical and spiritual searches eastward.

Roger Corless begins with a brisk overview of Buddhism, and Bonnie B. Thurston follows with a survey of the book's subject. James Wiseman treats Merton's engagement with Theravada Buddhism, and Judith Simmer-Brown with Tibetan. Ruben Habito's Zen essay teaches the reader first what Zen is, and then he and John P. Keenan examine Merton's limited understanding, dependent on his 1960s reading of D.T. Suzuki's over-intellectual, under-spiritual emphasis.

Articles on Merton's artistic incorporation follow. Roger Lipsey looks at the Merton-Suzuki-Zen triangle from the calligraphic angle, the drawings Merton admired and then made himself. Photography gains similar treatment from Paul Pearson, and poetry from Thurston. Footnotes from those who had visited with Merton on his final Asian journey the fall of 1968 and a bibliography complete this work.

More than one contributor wonders if Merton achieved "satori" or the awakening he desired very shortly before he died. Most writers here assume that Merton would have gone for an extended retreat and Dzongchen practice under Tibetan auspices; I wonder how this would have been approved by his Trappist order? Perhaps Merton departed at the right moment for him if too soon for the rest of us. He appears, after overcoming the temptation to court nurse "M." in later 1966, to have recovered his balance and the Buddhist encounters he undertook, that fulfilled so much he'd been studying for and meditating upon in the 60s, seem to have been his dream come true. Still, as his companion on the trip Harold Talbott told "Tricycle" in 1992: "he would have never left the Church." (qtd. 22) The tension, however, between his longing to enter advanced Tibetan practice and the Catholicism within which he still vowed himself to fidelity must have been difficult for his situation around him, even as within himself, as Lipsey's essay with its careful quotes from throughout Merton's writings over the decades documents best, Merton may have solved the conundrum beneath theological distinctions between theism and apophatic "awareness."

Throughout, this volume rewards the careful reader and subtle scholar. Those eager to find out what Merton knew and could not know about Buddhism under the conditions of his time and place will welcome these reflections. Despite some inevitable repetition of points from overlapping observers, essays that often in their tone go on a bit too long or too casually, and a few typographical (Keenan's essay lacks vowels for transliterated terms, perhaps intentionally, but they loom quite foreign on the English page) errors, this collection corrects and complements the "Zen and the Birds of Appetite" Suzuki-focused volume Merton wrote along with "Mystics & Zen Masters" before his sudden death on his Asian pilgrimage.

P.S. It's listed on Amazon US with the same ISBN & pagination but a different cover variation and subtitle: either "Realizing the Self" or "Wisdom, Emptiness & Ordinary Life." (Review already posted 5/22/09 on Amazon US.)

1 comment:

nobodhi said...

Thank you for your review! and your life!