Saturday, July 28, 2012

"The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton": Book Review

The seven weeks of late 1968's passages are often dense with citations and musings from his studies, but in their midst, such entries as this from New Delhi leap out: "And yet I have a sense that this mandala business is, for me, at least useless. It has considerable interest, but there is no point seeking anything for my own enlightenment. Why complicate what is simple? I am reading on the balcony outside my room. Five green parrots, then eight more fly by shrieking over my head." (59)

He quotes the scholar on those mandalas, Giuseppe Tucci, a renowned Tibetologist, who sums up the Shaivite schools who divide men into three classes: the herd who need precision in what to do and not to do; the "heroes" wearied by their own laws and own contrariness against the herd; the holy souls who get beyond such struggles. One senses Merton's own tensions with his monastic community vs. his intense desire to stay a hermit, perhaps in Alaska or Asia, far from the Kentucky abbey full of factories, tractors, and a few tourists.

Can society change? His circular letter announcing his Asian visits notes his weariness with signing petitions, and he assures readers he is not going near Vietnam. He watches on the Hawaiian flight over a soldier and he prays for him from a distance. Soon, Merton's own body would come back on an Army plane for burial among his community, in the monastery he loved yet longed to get away from. This search, untimely terminated in its own mysterious way, underlies the journals he kept.

Meanwhile, this can be a dense read. Endnotes and the labors of a faithfully observant editorial team diligently record the authors, thinkers, contexts, and places he refers to, for this volume will be more academic than readers of his earlier works may expect; whether it would have been published if he had lived remains speculative. For those with some grounding in Eastern thought, which Merton sought to open up, it can reward. (See "Merton and Buddhism" also reviewed by me, for scholarly essays on the intersections.) It does appear, as he marveled at the massive stone figures of the Buddha and Ananda at Polonnaruwa in Ceylon that he found a breakthrough into a mystic state, "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." (235)

On the middle way of Madhyamika in Buddhist philosophy, he notes how the teacher plays off his opponent's "principles and arguments accepted by him" to show their contradictions. "However, when his supposed values are returned to him in irony, in static, he will not accept the implications. That is his problem." I wonder if Madhyamika's own rhetorical stance could undermine the teacher himself?

Merton examines his romantic tendencies. "Reassessment of this whole Indian experience in more critical terms. Too much movement. Too much 'looking for' something: an answer, a vision, 'something other.' And this breeds illusion. The illusion that there is something else." (148) Returning to the idea over and over that he could find a retreat here, permanently, he reflects on the landscape of the Mim Tea Estate: "A permanent post card for meditation, daydreams. The landscapes are ironic and silent comments on the apparent permanence, the 'eternal snows' of solid Kanchenjunga" which fascinate, even as over them, the Chinese armies occupy Tibet. (150)

One of the best passages is brief, when at Darjeeling he battles a cold. "Anatomy of nice thought rot. No use isolating consciousness and then feeding it, exacerbating it. The ruse of nourishing the self with ideas of self-dissolution. The 'perfectly safe' consciousness, put on a diet of select thoughts, poisons itself. The exposed consciousness is in less trouble. It relaxes. Is free in fresh air. Is perhaps a little dirtied--but normal or more normal. Less garbage. Select garbage, luxury garbage is the worst poison." (159-60)

He wonders in Colombo as he waits at the airport: "The 'selfless' world of the machine. A good angle. Are we really headed for a kind of technological corruption of Buddhism? A secular nirvana?" (212)

Merton reflects on the delusion along the journey inward. "The hazard of the spiritual quest is of course that its genuineness cannot be left to our own isolated subjective judgment alone. The fact that I am turned on doesn't prove anything whatever. Nor does the fact that I am turned off.) We do not simply create our lives on our own terms." This last appendix about the renunciation of violence in the Bhagavad-Gita concludes: "In following mere appetite for power we are slaves of appetite. In obedience to that truth we are at last free." (352-3)

The most haunting phrases were two. Out of an "International Herald-Tribune" he copies headlines. One: "Smiling boy dies of poison." Two, from the last sentence of his talk on Marxism and monasticism (where he astutely notes how the only possible place to realize "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" is in a monastery, not a Communist regime): "So I will disappear." A few hours later, he suddenly died from electrocution in his Bangkok hotel bathroom. (Amazon US 6-16-12)

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