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Thomas Merton- The Catholic/Zen Priest

Bringing East and West together through spiritual wisdom


Q. Lewis, in my exploration of Zen I keep hearing about a priest named Thomas Merton, who is very respected in the Zen community. Who was he?

A. Thomas Merton was a priest as well as a great teacher and student of Zen Buddhism. He is an extremely important figure in the history of what we can simply describe as “East Meets West!” 


Originally Zen was a specific Japanese approach to Buddhism. Most schools and traditions in Buddhism present the basic teachings of a man named Siddhartha. However they often “bury” those teachings under rites, rituals, ceremonies, sutras, temples, a type of clergy class, and sutras (manuals and collections of aphorisms attributed to the Buddha or those that followed him).

One of the great pioneers in the introduction of Zen to the West was Thomas Merton. (January 31, 1915 — December 10, 1968). Merton was an influential 20th-century Trappist monk writer, mystic, poet social activist, and student of comparative religion. Merton wrote more than 70 books, as well as scores of essays and reviews, including his best-selling autobiography.

Zen, depending on the school, emphasizes rigorous self-control, meditation practice, and insight into the inherent nature that exists in all beings. In Zen practice, one is focused on Awakening or Enlightenment, a process of uncovering the inherent or transcendental nature of reality.

Zen, now often used separately from the term Zen Buddhism, is a very pragmatic spiritual practice. Not really a religion, a theory, or dogma, the fundamental idea of Zen is to surrender the need to find the truth in external people, places, and things and fulfill our spiritual needs internally.

The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them”
 ― Thomas Merton


A keen proponent of interfaith understanding,  Merton pioneered dialogue with prominent Asian spiritual figures, including the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki, and others. Merton was first exposed to and became interested in Eastern religions when he read Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means in 1937, the year before Merton’s conversion to Catholicism.

Throughout his life, Merton studied the sacred texts of the great religions in addition to his academic and monastic studies. Merton was not interested in what these traditions had to offer as doctrines and institutions, but was deeply interested in what each said concerning the depth of human experience. In keeping with this path of thought, he had a strong interest in Zen as a meditative practice rather than Zen Buddhism as religion.
Merton has been the subject of several biographies and is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on December 10.

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