Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Merton, Tolkien, Buddhism & Second Languages

Alongside Tolkien (Merton College, Oxford), at twelve I found Thomas Merton. "The Seven Storey Mountain" beckoned me into a realm nearly as remote as Middle-Earth: the last ties to the Western Middle Ages-- as its Dantesque purgatorial title hinted. Evelyn Waugh excised "Eternal Silence" as its British edition, a rare reversal of the usual assumption Americans won't grasp an allusion. But I doubt if they did.) By the time I'd read SSM, as with LotR, publishers had long promoted a proto-countercultural bestseller. Merton, like Tolkien, found his search turned a guidebook into exotic, romanticized, and misunderstood representations by the rest of us, who still yearned as they did for escape, facing modern tensions of withdrawal from the secular world into the more austere, yet wondrous and even mystical, terrain of the imagination.

"Merton & Buddhism," not only as a scholarly anthology I reviewed recently (I warn you: lots of self-referentiality today), but as ideological intersection, intrigues me. Merton battled his cravings for fame, the world's most famous hermit; I think now of the Dalai Lama as the globe's celebrity monk. It's hard to recall a time when Merton's fame outshone the Dalai Lama's, but this was true when Merton in his "Asian Journal" wrote "Our real journey is interior," three months before his sudden death.

Many argue over this complicated man's legacy, the Cistercian recluse who vowed to start Tibetan ritual homage during his final months of life. Yet, charity and a reading of "Merton & Buddhism" reveal a more nuanced picture of how Merton sought to reconcile his excitement with dharma against his commitment as a priest. Perhaps his death came at a merciful time, exactly half the span spent as a Trappist as he had before he entered the cloister. He returned outside to a part of the globe, however, unimaginable in 1941. Halfway across the world, he'd depart from it unpredictably.

"Not all who wander are lost," mused Tolkien. "The Monsters & the Critics," reviewed by me last March 2nd, reminded me on re-reading it about Tolkien's power to retrieve from "asterisk reality" the glimpsed sense of the intangible. As with Merton, Tolkien tapped a Catholic energy that stimulated his soul to write and dream and dazzle the rest of us. Even when Merton writes of Zen or Tolkien of elves, you glimpse the mystic within the shroud. They believed sacramental power charged our ordinary currents.

As I wrote last March:
[JRRT called this] "star-spangled grammar." (237) As his son and editor Christopher explains: "the reference is to enquiry into the forms of words before the earliest records; in those studies the conventional practice is to place an asterisk before hypothetical, deduced forms." (n. 3, 240)
Upon this structure he built his magnificent mythology. (He left lots of fragments for Christopher's excavation with a patience similar to the reassemblers of Dead Sea scrolls; Tolkienia perhaps often about as interesting as those outside the Essene circle would find shards and scraps among shredded drafts).

This accretion, so many pursuing and adding to a core text and a coherent narrative, reminds me now of Buddhism, as well as Catholicism. Christian recovery by tale-telling rooted in etymology fits what Tolkien argued, as I've summarized: it "liberates us and even provides glimpses of the 'eucatastrophe' of the Gospels, the happy ending of the Resurrection Story that men wish so much to be truly true." How can this be? Many scholars pursued this essay's conclusion back through Tolkien's stories and into vast theological legacies. By not contrast so much as progress, or academic need to find fresh excavation, a few have considered "Buddhist Tolkien"; medievalists and Christian literary critics who dominate Tolkien scholarship may have considered the underlying point Tolkien makes within the context of Buddhism and its lack of essentialism. This perspective's out of my ken, as a non-obsessed polite admirer of LotR, so I appended a few URLs for the curious.

Similarly, as Donald S. López in his 2008 book "Buddhism & Science" labors to prove, both our understanding of physics and that of the dharma rest on ground where we, unlike Dead Sea archaeologists or Tolkien dissertators, cannot burrow. We tend towards facile claims of "dancing Wu-Li masters," "Zen & the Art of---" phrases to equate sub-atomic particles with "shunyata," yet we forget the Buddha's warning that we cannot express the inexpressible, nor must we cling to such dual non-dualities. Maybe as with waves and particles, we need the binary life-death, on-off switch to power systems, mental or networked, electrical both, while the energy itself hums and Oms/ Ohms in a unnameable and inaccessible dimension beyond even the kabbalistic "ein sof" of "no limits." (See another unacknowledged influence on the account I discuss below by Jeffery Paine. Rodger Kamenetz explored the Ju-Bu junction in "The Jew in the Lotus," also reviewed by me on this blog and on Amazon US recently.)

It's the lack of this foundation, the ultimate changeability, impermanence, and evanescence beyond even terms such as "shunyata" or "emptiness" or waves of light on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and particles on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays that leaves us investigators, trained in asserting the empirical, the documented, the repeatable in a lab or the retrieved in an archive, silent. (Not sure what happens to light on the Lord's Day, but if He made it, He should know.)

Tolkien's gift of invention grounded him yet allowed him to take flight. He was able to be the tenured linguist by day and the fervent creator by night, scribbling on the back of those blue book exams he graded for extra money. I find that he ruined me for other modern fantasy. For me, C.S. Lewis falls far short in Narnia of the genius his fellow coalbiter and Inkling who drank beside him at the Eagle & Child. Still, both men as with peers such as Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers shared in true love of the sources "Tollers" used as the inspiration around which to create his Middle Earth. Yet, he knew as a devout Catholic that he could only make a Secondary World, and bowed to His Maker in homage.

For Merton, bowing and meditating for twenty-seven years before he made his pilgrimage to Asia in search of Buddhist dialogue, the substitution of prostrations before a statue or icon may not have smacked of the idolatry that, say, a Quaker or a beatnik might have attributed to such a posture, physically or spiritually. I've written about Merton on my blog here in scattered fashion. I realize how much SSM at twelve alongside LotR formed me.

So, without gallivanting into previously contemplated matters, but in search of lively comparisons, I'll return to the passage that started me thinking again about Merton, Buddhism, Catholicism, Tolkien, language, medievalism, and me. I reviewed Jeffery Paine's "Re-Enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West" on Amazon US and this blog. Many previous reviewers of Paine uncritically praised this popular account. Although I found woeful typos and underdocumented discussions discouraging me despite the blurbs by breathless admirers on book jacket and as posted on Amazon, I did admire the metaphors Paine often employed.

He opens his narrative reminding us: in 1968, the Dalai Lama was still so relatively obscure that Merton initially dismissed even meeting with a man he regarded as the equivalent of a curial flunky, a Vatican puppet. His liaison, Harold Talbott, whose own story rivals Merton's or His Holiness (the lama not the pope this time around) for sheer surprise, was with Robert Thurman at that time probably the only American seeker who'd been initiated into Tibetan monastic practice. Paine stresses appropriately even as of late '68, despite Maharashis and Beatles, how comparatively isolated continued Tibetan teachings, remote from even the counterculture who'd taken Merton to heart and, for a while in postwar America, filled Trappist novitiates with eager dropouts frustrated with war, nukes, Frigidaire, and Ford.

He then segues into the vast difference fifty-odd years later. Merton's insight that he could stay a Catholic while becoming a Buddhist-- as Talbott's own testimony quoted in "Merton & Buddhism" insists he was intent on doing in these crucial months before his eerie electrocution in Bangkok not long after he'd received suddenly advanced "phowa" teachings on death from the lamas he met and immediately connected with beyond the limits of language-- sparked others to similar boldness.

Thomas A. Tweed, in an essay "Night-Stand Buddhists and Other Creatures" ("Westward Dharma," eds. Charles S. Prebish & Martin Baumann, U Cal P, 2002: 17-33), classifies on page 21 the titular varietal apart from converts or adherents but also separate from dabblers or posers. (Yes, I reviewed it too on Amazon and will on this blog.) Bookish sympathizers at a discreet distance hearken back to the Theosophists and New Age pioneers of a century ago; see Rick Fields' "When the Swans Came to the Lake" for much more on how America imports Buddhism's productions exporting the ineffable and impermeable in packaged, labelled, commodified fashion. Inevitably.

Paine makes an helpful analogy on pg. 15 to second-language learning here. (He does not mention Fields, Tweed, Baumann, or Prebish: leading historians on Buddhism's dissemination; such omissions or lacunae Paine defends for the general reader's ease, but I restore references however pedantic for any unenlightened reader stumbling upon my lonely blog post.) Paine discusses how we know language's workings better if we speak more than one. If we speak just one language, we tend not to think about this; it seems our "natural" voice. Yet, if we learn another language, "you likely won't consider it the only tongue God speaks." (Me on more of this: "Kissing Through A Veil? Prayer in Another Language.") My wife, writing to Jewish prisoners, told me that one of her correspondents heard from a Chabad chaplain that "G-d only hears Hebrew for prayers."

Elaborating this metaphor, and echoing Merton's ecumenical quest in Asia, a believer may find that he or she can benefit from the other religion without converting or making obesiance to statues or burning incense. That rabbi may disagree with such translation skills on behalf of Adonai, but worldlier readers, myself included, turn to "spirituality" beyond that denomination into which we were born (or baptized as me) for instruction. This may be a form of "practice," Paine suggests, even as one persists in being a native speaker-- or adherent or skeptic or shopper. A second language speaker may lack a monolinguist's (or monologist's?) conviction that he or she boasts a better language than any other; but this learner gains by openness.

The "night-stand" accidental Buddhist defines a Princeton lit-crit feminist post-deconstructionist who did not want her real name used in Paine's account for fear of her reputation. She sets aside, probably by her own bed, her Buddhist reading for the morning, to sample slowly, as opposed to the novels she devours nightly. She remains hesitant from asserting any public form of identification. Meditating as learned from books, Paine opines, "may be like learning to swim while in a desert by reading a manual," but it does ease her irascible nature. I reckon this trait may be endemic to anyone today in hectic academia; however, I lack "Christine's" Ivy League tenure. Meanwhile, she wonders if it's a passing fad or an ultimate, life-shattering transformation that even if it takes a million lives to ripen, is worth her wait.

It gives her, Paine interprets, a jolt that commentaries upon critiques about texts after authors over centuries in the well-trodden path of humanist academia can no longer provide. She recalls, as an English professor, C.S. Lewis' warning: "A Christian should not manufacture hypothetical tragedies and then imagine his faith insufficient to withstand them." (240) Lewis, as Oxford's other renowned medievalist, might have welcomed her acknowledgment. For, in the West, Tibetan teaching's the last medieval, so to speak, transmission of an entirely preserved and intact line of thinking isolated for a millennium or more. Perhaps, Tolkien could liken this time-travel ("from the Abbey of St. Denis to downtown Manhattan" [Paine, 13]) to hearing Caedmon, or Merton to listening to Bernard of Clairvaux. I add that not even "Christine"'s favored mentors, Camille Paglia for all her charm or Michel Foucault for all his transgressions, might convey such a marvelous frisson as the lysergic revelations dharma may hold for Tibet's adepts.

Can the adoption, gently and cautiously, of this dharma survive the shock of the move? Does its tragic fate at the hands of Communist China and its necessary flight beyond the Himalayas now fulfill the prophecy of its introducer into Tibet, Padmasambhava, who predicted in his own early Middle Ages that "when horses run of wheels" that his teaching would enter the West? I wondered in my review of "Re-Enchantment" if this would really happen, or like the more austere discipline of Zen (or the Trappists for that matter), it would after an initial splash of boho novelty settle, as I suppose Merton's readers of SSM in a post-Vatican II era must have found, into a mundane series of compromises.

For, as Sam found when returning to the Shire, the machines had entered Middle-Earth. No less than the trains to Lhasa today, full of Han Chinese immigrants brought to overwhelm the natives, where Tibetan cannot be taught in schools after 1500 years of the dharma and a nation where its people legendarily at least lived as peacefully as hobbits. Sauron or Mao, Wal-Mart or celibacy, "Zen" as the label on my wife's room freshener and Trader Joe's coffee or "Frodo Lives!" buttons: ideals always meet commerce in a world where consumers look for enlightenment's coy wink.

URLs: I typed in "Buddhism" & "Tolkien"; the best I found: "A Buddhist Reading of J.R.R. Tolkien" as a brief essay from Arrow River Forest Hermitage. Wisdom Publisher's page on David Loy & Linda Goodhew's "The Dharma of Dragons & Daemons: Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy." David Loy's printed version of a 2004 talk: "The Dharma of the Rings: A Myth for Engaged Buddhism?". Finally, "Dark Zen" muses on his own meditation practice and refers to sensory overstimulation while lauding LotR's incorporation, if unwittingly, of accidental dharma even as such entertainment also adds to the problem of too much to see and do, too little time spent "just sitting" and asking why we must see so much, do it-- and I guess then to read about it!

Photo of Merton & the Dalai Lama via "Against the Grain" blogpost on same. I had written this three months ago but let it sit. I figured it's ripened now after my own "Kissing the Veil" and this entry by "Bo" on "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" (a closed blog; sample his open counterpart of sorts, "The Cantos of Mvtabilitie"). In his "Chanting the Arwen" (27 Sept. '09) "Bo" discusses Sindarin, based on Welsh, and the power of language and myth to captivate and inspire literary creation by medievalists today.


harry said...

Merton at age 12 indeed. And unfairly, where-there's-smoke-there's-fire charges of Falangist sympathies for Tolkein might explain and trace your own political development to a twelve year old's delight in the Shire and its "order." I question whether the D.Lama was so obscure in 1968. I think of Merton as one of the original Beats. I am sure he was quoted in coffee houses in the late 50's along with D.T.Suzuki. Alan Watts drunk on Kerouac and port. Bongos and black turlenecks and West Coast jazz as Seven Storey Mountain is cllimbed. Indeed, for me his poetry (Cables to the Ace et. al.) is the arena where "reconciliation against", the dharma bum and the romanist, is played out. That is the land of the language that describes the territory far under both. The Geography of Lograire. But to you, this may be sloppy thought. As you say the difference... at twelve I was reading poetry not Lord of the Rings.

Fionnchú said...

Bob, I've never been called a Falangist-- inspired by Bolano, or is it Garcia Lorca? Gramsci? I too wondered about Paine's claim of the D.L's minor league status as of '68, but I think immediately after, by two years, is when Chogyam Trungpa's "Crazy Wisdom" tickled Ginsberg and accelerated into the whole Naropa scene.

There was a time lag between Maharishis and Tibetans making it big. The latter lacked an impact on the West until the early '70s exiles. From what Talbott who was in Dharamsala tells, even by the late '60s, the counterculture had not discovered yet HH DL XIV.

Merton would've savored and satirized "Shambhala Training." I kept thinking of him as I actually read, more or less ("it's not writing it's typing") Kerouac's "Some of the Dharma" (1953-6; review to follow)-- I don't think Fr. Louis was yet allowed into poetry, was he? Lograire-- good eye!

(I asked HRH to put this on my blog for posterity as well as Facebook; he did, and so do I my reply to him from over there.)