As I finished reading the last of the many appendix chapters of The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, I was struck by the way his death pervades the book. Because the reader knows that the journal ends at the time of his death, one cannot help but read in light of it. For example, many times in the journal Merton talks about where he would like to go after the Bangkok conference at which he was due to speak—Merton says he’d like to return home via Europe so as to visit some monastics there. But the reader knows that that trip will not be happening. Thus, Death becomes a sort of character in the book, always lurking in the margins and reminding readers of there alleged powerlessness in light of his presence.
But death is not the end, and Merton, of course, knows this.
The journal drips with life and life affirmation. Traveling along with Merton, one gets a sense of the deep relationships he was building with the people he met along the way. Early in his visit to Asia, Merton finds himself receiving several audiences with H.H. the Dalai Lama. And the two become fast friends, growing in awareness of their kindredness of spirit.
Merton also met a hermit named Chatral Rimpoche, who says he was surprised by how well he was able to get along with Merton, a Christian. Merton reflects, “The unspoken or half-spoken message of the talk [with Chatral Rimpoche] was our complete understanding of each other as people who were somehow on the edge of great realization and knew it and were trying, somehow or other, to go out and get lost in it—and that it was a grace for us to meet one another. . . . He told me, seriously, that perhaps he and I would attain to complete Buddhahood in our next lives, perhaps even in this life, and the parting note was a kind of compact that we would both do our best to make it in this life” (143–144). (Here again, for example, the looming specter of Merton’s imminent death lurks in the reader’s mind.) Chatral even calls Merton a sangay, which Merton translates as “a natural Buddha.”
Merton met other spiritual experts in Tibetan Buddhism while he was there and reports on their devotions and their lives as hermits. Indeed, time spent with various hermits helped Merton gain appreciation for his hermitage at Gethsemani, but it also helped him desire a more remote hermitage perhaps in Alaska or in one of the Asian dioceses. At one point a butterfly floats past him, and he says that he is “glad . . . not to be in any city” (87). It’s interesting to see him in a context outside of the monastery and long to be back inside it, or at least to be back in his hermitage whether at Gethsemani or elsewhere as a satellite of Gethsemani.
The book’s climax, if you will, takes place during Merton’s visit to the statues at Polonnaruwa, Ceylon. There, in the shadows of the immense reclining Buddha, Merton says,
[T]he silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of . . . [having] seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything—without refutation—without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence can be frightening. . . .
Looking at these figures, I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. . . . I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in on aesthetic illumination (233, 235).
Later but still while in Ceylon, Merton comes across some Catholic statues that look vaguely Hindu, and he thinks it a bit odd, saying, “Suddenly, there is a point where religion becomes laughable. Then you decide that you are nevertheless religious” (238). Amen. And yes. For whatever reason, perhaps in light of my extended journey into the sometimes very religious world of Roman Catholicism, this statement resonated very deeply with me.
Merton died four days after writing this.
It will never be totally clear what happened to him. Did he have a heart attack? Did he get fatally electrocuted by a fan? Or both? Or did one cause the other? We won’t know. But what we do know is that Merton was interred by his fellow religious. Keeping vigil for him there in the hotel where he died and saying the requiem Mass before his body was flown home to Gethsemani, OCSC monastics took care of him.
I have visited his grave site many times. There beside the abbey church, Fr. Louis Merton rests in the quiet, very much not in a city, with other deceased members of the order that gave his life meaning, that wrestled along beside him as he journeyed to the God who gives life, who gives the new life of resurrection.
Taking a cue from the journal, I wanted to include a few quotes that struck me just as Merton included excerpts from things he was reading at the time:
“What is important is not liberation from the body but liberation from the mind. We are not entangled in our own body but entangled in our own mind” (90).
“The three poisons: craving, hatred, ignorance” (100).
“When you begin each day by giving small Indian coins to Tibetan beggars with prayer wheels and to the old faceless lady from Lhasa, you are simply entrenching your own position in the wheel of birth and death” (161).
“Mass this morning at St. Thomas Mount. . . . A very lovely little church, so quiet, so isolated, so simple, so fresh. It stands on an abrupt hill overlooking an army camp and the airport. One of the nicest things I have found in India or anywhere” (196).
“A Muslim commentator on the Qur’an, Abu Ishaq al-Zajjaj (died 922 A.D.), says some Christians, ‘unable to bear the conduct of their kings, fled to caves and cells and instituted this form of life’ [the monastic life]” (263).
There are many Appendices included at the end of the journal. Appendix III features an “informal talk delivered at Calcutta, October 1968” and is titled “Thomas Merton’s View of Monasticism.” In it, Merton talks about how monastics are marginalized and intentionally so. Merton’s final paragraph from this talk goes like this:
And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is who we are (308).