"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Friday, May 20, 2011

Thomas Merton: An Encounter with Buddhism

According to the Lotus Sutra, one of the most revered of the Buddha's teachings, "If there are living beings who hear the Law, believe and accept it, and put forth diligent effort, seeking wisdom that comes of itself, taking solitary delight in goodness and tranquility, and profoundly understanding the causes and conditions of all  phenomena, they shall be called pratyekabuddhas," or the independently enlightened.

Thomas Merton
at Abbey of Gesthemani
circa 1968
In 1968, the Trappist monk and prolific writer, Thomas Merton would journey to Asia, furthering his comparative study of Bhuddist, Jain and Hindu teachings. In the end, it was a short trip, as Merton was accidentally electrocuted in his Bangkok hotel room. Before his death, however, he would meet with a host of ardent spiritual seekers and contemplatives like himself, the most famous of these being the Dalai Lama.

Yet, the most influential contact he made was with the Buddhist teacher, Chatral Rinpoche, a monk who had spent more than thirty years in the solitary contemplation that was Merton's only real home in this world. It was Chatral Rinpoche who identified Merton as a pratyekabhudda, and with whom Merton would take a variant of the Boddhisatva's vows, in which he dedicated himself to do all he could to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, in this lifetime or the next.

Merton was already far along that path, as the following entry written in his journal several months before he set out to Asia demonstrates:
"I am the utter poverty of God," he wrote. "I am His emptiness, littleness, nothingness, lostness. When this is understood, my life in His freedom, the self-emptying God of me, is the fullness of grace. Love for all, hatred of none, is the fruit and manifestation of love of God, peace and satisfaction."
The following little-viewed videos tell the story of Merton's journey to South Asia, his meeting with Chatral Rinpoche, and Chatral Rinpoche's identification of Merton as an independently enlightened being. In doing so, they highlight the Buddhist acceptance of ultimate teachings, irrespective of what religious or spiritual tradition in which they arise.

The Buddha consistently said that his path was not the only path to enlightenment, and that every being must find his own path. His teachings, he noted, were meant only to be guides, and he encouraged all to investigate for him or herself the truth of what he said, rather than merely taking his word for it.

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