Mystics and Zen Masters

Mystics and Zen Masters

by Thomas Merton


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ISBN-13: 9780374520014
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/28/1999
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 345,455
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, is perhaps the foremost spiritual thinker of the twentiethcentury. His diaries, social commentary, and spiritual writings continue to be widely read after his untimely death in 1968.

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Mystics and Zen Masters

By Thomas Merton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1967 The Abbey of Gethsemani
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4400-7



A rather unexpected point of departure for a discussion of Zen, and its relevance in the crises of modern society, is furnished by a recent book by Professor R. C. Zaehner. Matter and Spirit, as his work is called, is a lively defense of Teilhardian evolutionism. Its explicit aim is to "see the religious situation today through Teilhard de Chardin's eyes." Therefore, of course, it goes back to the beginning of conscious life; and this, for Zaehner and Chardin, was man's "fall." From this beginning it traces the growth of consciousness and spirituality through the ages of religious individualism up to the point of crisis where we stand today — on the threshold of a "new era," which will be one of "convergence" or the "noösphere."

The "dying civilization" in which "individualism was dominant" is now at an end. Its spiritual death throes are expressed in the despairing pessimism of the existentialists. But their hopelessness is not something Professor Zaehner takes seriously. It is little more than an expression of our economic and social chaos. It is a confession of incapacity to face the future, and a masochistic collapse into defeat and self-pity in the present. Note that no distinction is made between the various kinds of existentialism. Not all are negative!

Marxism, on the other hand, says Zaehner, has dared to face the future and (as he argues with the help of some interesting and little-known quotations from Marx and Engels) it has already created a mystique of the "convergence of spirit and matter." This gives Marxism right of citizenship in that new world which is to come and to which individualism, existentialism, and "passive forms of mysticism" cannot gain admittance.

But Marxism itself has, as Zaehner observes, fatal weaknesses. Its ideal of ultimate solidarity of a "sum total of human minds working together in space and time and converging in an infinite mind" (Engels) cannot be realized, because Communism has no personal "center" on which to converge. The mystique of "convergence" demands a human and indeed a divine cornerstone on which to build the structure of (redeemed) Man. Zaehner is not unwilling to give a polite nod in Stalin's direction, admitting that Stalin did his best to be the kind of god-man on which everything could be built. ("Old Stalin was no fool when he established himself alone as such a center," p. 195.) But, in fact, Communism has no human and personal center. It is looking for one, and though the Soviets have not yet woken up to the fact, the center that Marxism is looking for is the one true cornerstone, Christ.

This is what the Church, for all its palpable defects and frequent stupidities, stands for and offers: the ultimate solidarity of each in all — the ideal of Marx which the Marxists themselves can never achieve — an organism of persons in all their variety united around the Person who is the center of circumference of them all, Christ. (p. 205)

It is not my intention to discuss Teilhard de Chardin, or Marx, or even to take up what might be considered controversial points in this interesting book of Zaehner's. The book itself is characteristic of avant-garde Catholic thought in the era of the Second Vatican Council: it abounds in the awareness that man and the Church are passing into a new era, a brave new world where one must face the risks and challenges of technological society, and seize this decisive opportunity to attain the adulthood of man and of Christianity. This implies, according to the Teilhardian view, a recognition that Christianity itself is the fruit of evolution and that the world has from the beginning, knowingly or not, been converging upon the Lord of History as upon its "personal center" of fulfillment and meaning. Hence we are on "the watershed between a dying civilization based on individualism, once arrogant, now abject, and a collective civilization yet to be formed in which 'the free development of each will be the condition for the free development of all.'" We are thus in "the passage from an epoch of individual despairs to one of shared hope in an ever richer material and spiritual life."

The quotation about the "free development of each" as a "condition for the free development of all" comes from the Communist Manifesto. And we note that the Christian is now no longer assuming that the condition for a richer spiritual life is rejection of material abundance. We approach the time of "shared hope in an ever richer material and spiritual life."

As I say, I have not quoted these passages in order to quarrel with them, or in order to agree with them either. What is important is that they represent the new attitude today toward "spirituality" and "mysticism." In his other books, Zaehner has made an important contribution to the history of Christian and non-Christian mysticism. He sees an evolution in mysticism from the contemplation that seeks to discover and rest in the spiritual essence of the individual nature, to a higher personalist mysticism which transcends nature and the individual self in God together with other men in the Mystical Christ. In its highest form, then, this convergence of all with all in the personal center which is Christ demands a dying to the individual essence. The personalist mystique is in fact basically existentialist, because centered not in a static apprehension of essence but in the leap beyond essence into freedom and act "in the Spirit" together with all whom freedom and love made one in Christ.

Now Zaehner admits that in the Oriental religions there have been various foreshadowings of this development which is becoming clear in Christianity. He has specialized in Zoroaster, who has had sight of the promised land. So too has Mahayana Buddhism. Yet all these "ancient cosmic religions" have evidently had their day, according to this line of thought, since they are "steeped in a pessimistic and passive mysticism" and can hardly adjust themselves "to the precise immensities nor to the constructive requirements of spacetime" (p. 184). Little is said of Zen in particular. It is mentioned only in passing. For instance, Zaehner says that Zen and Neo-Vedanta "may satisfy some individuals for a short time [but] they plainly cannot be integrated into modern society" (p. 185).

My purpose in thus preparing my question has been to show that I intend to answer the question in quite other terms. While I can easily see, with Zaehner, that the pragmatic importance of Zen Buddhism at the present time is probably minimal, I still intend to consider it as something that might have a certain depth and intelligibility of its own which are not invalidated by the passage of time or even by the transition into a new age. But I would also like to examine whether Zen is by its very nature committed to a search for "rest in the inmost essence" of one's individual self. Is Zen meditation aimed at a purification of the self by rejection of the material world and of external concerns in order to seek fulfillment in pure interiority? Does it exalt "that inmost essence which original sin could not slay and which so often claims identity with God — FOR IN THIS ESSENCE REST IS 'SUFFICIENT AND GREAT' (ZOROASTER) AND NO NEED OR DESIRE FOR ANYTHING OR ANYONE IS ANYMORE FELT ... Comfortably ensconced outside space and time, he no longer cares how the world is pushing forward to a common destiny in which all mankind is being knit together in an ever increasing coherence around its common center: Christ" (p. 198). Is this Zen? Is Zen incompatible with Christianity?

It is certainly true that for Zen there is absolutely no evidence of a personal center of convergence in the New Testament sense. (Though the concept of the Buddha-nature as central to all being might be considered in some way analogous to this. Yet I think the analogy would remain hemmed in by serious ambiguities.) What I intend to question is simply the idea that Zen meditation is simply a rest in individual "essence" which abolishes all need for and interest in external and historical reality, or the destiny of man.


One of the most thorough recent attempts to explain Zen by tracing its history is the work of a Jesuit scholar who has spent years in Japan. This book is very clear, full of new material. It is probably the best and most comprehensive history of Zen that has yet appeared in any Western language.

Father Heinrich Dumoulin is no novice in the study of Zen Buddhism. For over twenty-five years he has been publishing articles in learned Oriental journals on this subject, and in 1953 an English translation of a preliminary study, of which the present book is a full development, was published by the First Zen Institute of America. Hence it is clear that we are dealing with a widely recognized Western authority on Zen, and one who, besides having a profound insight into Japanese religion and culture, is a Christian scholar and theologian. This book makes it possible for the average Christian student to advance, with a certain amount of security and confidence, into a very mysterious realm.

Some fifteen years ago I had occasion to speak with a European member of a contemplative order who was on his way back from China (where his life was endangered by the advance of the Communist armies). I asked him, in passing, if he knew anything about Buddhist contemplatives and contemplation. He shrugged, made a gesture in the air, and said: "Dreams! Dreams!" This is not an unusual response. It is a cliché generated by familiarity with apologetic texts, in which Buddhism is dismissed with two tags: "pantheism" and "nirvana." Nirvana is generally interpreted to mean something like a state of catatonic trance — a total withdrawal from reality.

Buddhism is generally described in the West as "selfish," even though the professed aim of the discipline from the very start is to attack and overcome that attachment to individual self-affirmation and survival which is the source of every woe. The truth is that the deep paradoxes and ambiguities of Buddhism have led most Westerners to treat it as a mixture of incomprehensible myths, superstitions, and self-hypnotic rites, all of it without serious importance.

The first Jesuits in Japan made no such mistakes. They had a very healthy respect and curiosity for the thought and spirituality of "the bonzes." St. Francis Xavier wrote:

I have spoken with several learned bonzes, especially with one who is held in high esteem here by everyone, as much for his knowledge, conduct and dignity as for his great age of eighty years. His name is Ninshitsu, which in Japanese signifies "Heart of Truth." He is among them as a bishop, and if his name is appropriate, he is indeed a blessed man ... It is a marvel how good a friend this man is to me.

Though Japanese religion was then in a state of decline, the Jesuits quickly found that the Zen temples were still (in spite of serious abuses) the centers of a very real spiritual life. It is true that the many-sided manifestations of Buddhist life and thought were not always easy to grasp or entirely congenial to the Christians. Nor was it possible to expect men trained in scholastic theology and Aristotelian logic to take kindly to the outrageous paradoxes of Zen, which is aggressively opposed to all forms of logical analysis. A genuine dialogue between the Jesuits and the Zen masters was no simple matter, especially on the highest level, which Father Dumoulin does not hesitate to qualify as "mystical."

On the cultural level, however, the encounter was relatively easy. The Jesuits were entirely charmed with the subtlety, the refinement, the perfection of taste, and the good order that reigned even more in the Zen temples than everywhere else around them. Hence they did not hesitate to exercise their characteristic flair for adaptation and model the outward forms and ceremonies of their community life in Japan on those of the Zen monks. Indeed, it was altogether logical for them to do so, since they were not blinded by the illusion of so many others who tended to identify the accidental outward forms of Oriental culture with "pagan religion" or those of European culture with essentials of Christian piety. St. Francis Xavier, who seems to have been free from illusion in this respect, did not hesitate to say of the Japanese in general: "In their culture, their social usage, and their mores, they surpass the Spaniards so greatly that one must be ashamed to say so."

The famous Jesuit Visitator of the Oriental province, Valignano, strongly urged the missionaries to associate with the Zen monks. This meant participation in the quasi-religious "tea ceremony," in which the Jesuits not only took a keen interest, but which they practiced with a relatively consummate artistry, sharing with their Zen friends a real appreciation of its spiritual implications.

The uninitiated Western reader might imagine, at first sight, that the "tea ceremony" is a hieratic social formality, an external ritual without inner significance or life. Not if it is practiced as it should be. It is in the true sense an "art" and a spiritual discipline: a discipline of simplicity, of silence, of self-effacement, of contemplation. But it must be noted that it is all these things in a setting of communality and, one might say, of "convergence." The tea ceremony, properly understood, is a celebration of oneness and convergence, a conquest of multiplicity and of atomization, a liturgy that is not without certain spiritual features in common with the Eucharistic repast, the primitive Christian agape. To begin with, all who participate in the tea ceremony must first put off (as far as possible) their artificial social and external persona and enter in their simplicity, one might almost say "poverty," into the oneness of the communion, where there is no longer any distinction of noble and commoner. There is, incidentally, a kind of Franciscan simplicity in the spirit of the tea ceremony.

It is true that in speaking of the tea ceremony we are speaking of its spirit and ideal, which may not always be perfectly realized, just as the spirit and ideal of the liturgy are not always realized in practice either. The fact remains that the tea ceremony is a contemplative exercise (rather than a religious rite) which does not manifest a spirit of individualism, withdrawal, and separation, but rather of communality and "convergence" at least in a primitive and schematic sense.

There are several instances of Zen masters who became Christians in the early days of the Japanese mission, along with some of the "tea masters," who were not always members of the Zen sect.

One early Jesuit has left us a moving account of his impressions of the tea ceremony in a sixteenth-century Portuguese manuscript, an excerpt of which has been published for the first time by Father Dumoulin. We reproduce it here, for it summarizes the ideas of Zen that the Jesuits acquired in this first encounter. The writer's emphasis is on what appeared to him to be a quasi-monastic simplicity and silence in the tea ceremony, which he calls a "religion of solitude" — adding later, "cenobitic solitude."

[The "art of tea"] was established by the originators in order to promote good habits and moderation in all things among those who dedicate themselves to it. In this way they imitate the Zen philosophers in their meditation, as do the philosophers of the other schools of Indian wisdom. Much rather they hold the things of this world in low esteem, they break away from them and deaden their passions through specific exercises and enigmatic, metaphorical devices which at the outset serve as guides. They give themselves to contemplation of natural things. Of themselves they arrive at the knowledge of the original cause in that they come to see things themselves. In the consideration of their mind they eliminate that which is evil and imperfect until they come to grasp the natural perfection and the being of the First Cause.

Therefore these philosophers customarily do not dispute or argue with others, rather allowing each person to consider things for himself, in order that he may draw understanding from the ground of his own being. For this reason they do not instruct even their own disciples. The teachers of this school are also imbued with a determined and decisive spirit without indolence or negligence, without lukewarmness or effeminacy. They decline the abundance of things for their personal use as superfluous and unnecessary. They regard sparsity and moderation in all things as the most important matter and as being beneficial to the hermit. This they combine with the greatest equanimity and tranquillity of mind and outer modesty ... after the manner of the Stoics who thought that the consummate person neither possesses nor feels any passion.


Excerpted from Mystics and Zen Masters by Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1967 The Abbey of Gethsemani. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
PLEASANT HILL - A Shaker Village in Kentucky,
THE OTHER SIDE OF DESPAIR - Notes on Christian Existentialism,
Copyright Page,

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