July 9, 2013

thomas merton and the dalai lamaAnyone who knows me or has read this blog for long knows I am a great admirer of Thomas Merton. I remember his name being mentioned to me at a Buddhist retreat some time around 2002 or 3, and then, in a quiet week during my MA in Buddhist Studies, I picked up his Asian Journal where, upon seeing the great Buddha statues at Polonnaruwa, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) he wrote:

“Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, halftied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. The queer evidence of the reclining figure, the smile, the sad smile of Ananda standing with arms folded (much more ‘imperative’ than Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa because completely simple and straightforward). The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no ‘mystery.’ All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya . . . 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. Surely, with Mahabalipuram and Polonnaruwa my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.”

Now an ambitious group of filmmakers has come together to bring you Thomas Merton, the film. Thomas Merton was a legend. He was one of the most important writers on faith and humanity in the twentieth century. His writing has changed my life and I really want to introduce Thomas Merton to my generation and younger” – Ben Eisner (screenwriter / producer).

This project has been years in the making already. Here is a 2010 pitch:


And now a 2013 campaign is underway to bring in just over $2 million, which will fund 1/4 of the film, enough to get the wheels fully in motion.

From the Indigogo campaign:

Plot Summary

In the summer of 1966, world famous monk and peace activist Thomas Merton falls in love with a nursing student half his age, plunging him into the most agonizing predicament of his life. As he endeavors to prevent his secret romance from being discovered by his abbot, James Fox, Merton realizes he must finally choose between serving himself or serving the world.

Why Are We Making This Film?

Like millions of people before me [Ben], I first encountered Thomas Merton through his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton invited me on a soul searching journey where I started to ask myself the tough questions about what Merton called the “true self”: the place of freedom within all of us that is unscathed by fear, insecurity and hurt we’ve accumulated from our past. Over the next seven years as I delved further into Merton’s life and writings, I became convinced his story must be told on the big screen.

Merton is the most relatable person I have ever read. He lived his life openly and honestly. Even though he died over 40 years ago, his writings on peace, social justice, and spirituality are more relevant than ever. My ultimate hope is that this film will introduce Thomas Merton to an entirely new audience who might have never heard his name or picked up one of his books. I’m excited to think how this homage to Merton’s legacy could potentially inspire millions of people from all generations, faiths and cultures to love the world in a deeper way.

If you’ve been impacted by Merton as I have, or if you would like to learn more about his brief but incredible life, I invite you to contribute to this project and help us share Merton’s vision to inspire a world in desperate need of unselfish love and indiscriminate compassion.

read more and support here

I want this film to make people laugh. I want them to cry. I want this to touch people at the depths of who they are with the longings to be at peace with themselves.” – Ben Eisner (screenwriter / producer)

Read more:

Follow along in Merton’s Asian Journey via the blog: Merton in Asia.

Visit the site of Kevin Miller (one of the filmmakers)

Read one of my blog posts from 2006: Buddhism: bodhisattva Thomas Merton (some of my other posts mentioning Merton)

And check out the film’s page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DivineComedyOfThomasMerton

March 22, 2009

Thomas Merton, Fr. Louis, meets with a young Dalai Lama in the fall of 1968

From his posthumous Asian Journal, describing his experience upon seeing the great Buddha statues at Polonnaruwa, Ceylon (Sri Lanka):

“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. The queer evidence of the reclining
figure, the smile, the sad smile of Ananda standing with
arms folded (much more ‘imperative’ than Da Vinci’s
Mona Lisa because completely simple and
straightforward). The thing about all this is that there is
no puzzle, no problem, and really no ‘mystery.’ All
problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply
because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all
life, is charged with dharmakaya . . . 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. Surely, with Mahabalipuram and
Polonnaruwa my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and
purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I
was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else
remains but I have now seen and have pierced through
the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the

From The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, ed. Naomi Burton, Bro. Patrick Hart, and James Laughlin (New York: New Directions, 1973), pp. 233-236.

April 18, 2008

Last night I watched a beautiful and moving documentary: Merton: A Film Biography. To be honest, the film quality, editing and whatnot were all quite mediocre, it was the subject that made viewing so exquisite. Thomas Merton, a Trappist (Catholic) Monk, lived a life of fierce spirituality, struggling to the very heart of what it meant – and means – to live a life of both amazing spiritual depth and passionate social commitment.

My own love and amazement with Merton began when I was in England three years ago studying for my MA in Buddhism. His “Asian Journal” was sitting in an odd corner of the tiny departmental library where I often went to relax after class. It is an amazing read: effusive and joyful, contemplative and poetic… hopeful and yet grounded.

His biography is likewise inspiring, perhaps especially to me because I see so much of myself in his life. I see how he molded his intelligence and rambunctious youth into one of our century’s most prolific religious figures and I can only hope to live out some shred of that simple spiritual greatness. In any case, here are some bits from the movie (mostly excerpts from his writings) to ponder:


Solitude is not found so much by looking outside the boundaries of your own dwelling as by staying within. Solitude is a deepening of the present. And unless you look for it in the present, you will never find it.


In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of a shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, a world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The conception of separation from the world that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion, the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being. – from “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander


While non-violence is regarded as somehow sinister, vicious, and evil, violence has manifold acceptable forms in which it is not only tolerated, but approved by American society.


One would certainly wish that the Catholic position on Nuclear war was as strict as the Catholic position on birth control.

It seems a little strange that we are so wildly exercised about the murder of an unborn infant by abortion, or even the prevention of conception, which is hardly murder, and yet accept without a qualm the extermination of millions of helpless and and innocent adults.

(from an interview about Merton) …When a nuclear war comes, it will not be because of the insane, a psychotic getting to the button. It will be because sane persons have accepted sane commands, coming all down the chain. And [Merton] felt that we were really on a very perilous course because of the insanity of thinking that you could win a nuclear war… or that you could limit a nuclear war, that 20 million people were expendable. Merton saw all of that and cried out against it.

In the last weeks of his life, he traveled to India to meet with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan monks and then on to Sri Lanka before finally attending a conference in Bangkok, Thailand. It was in Sri Lanka that, according to the movie, Merton had “the most moving religious experience of his life.”

There he visited the great statues at Polonnaruwa, some of the largest and most ancient depictions of the Buddha in existence today. Of his experience he wrote:

I am able to approach the Buddha barefoot and undisturbed. Then, the silence of the extraordinary faces, the great smiles, huge yet subtle, filled with every possibility. Questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing.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. Surely, with Polonnaruwa, my Asian Pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know, and have seen what I was obscurely looking for.

Days later he died in a tragic accident in Bangkok. It was December 10, 1968.

August 26, 2006

This is the quote I was trying to track down. I think it is from the Asian Journal, but the page number I copied (p.162) doesn’t match up – could be a different edition, could be another book… Let me know if you know where this is from:

“I think that we suffer (not least I myself) from the disease of absolutes. Every answer has to be the right answer an, not only that, the final one. All problems have to be solved as of now. All uncertainties are intolerable. But what is life but uncertainties and a few plausible possibilities?…. Perhaps our problem here is that we prefer the security that can be gained by screwing everything down tight and keeping it that way, to the risk of letting people really discover themselves.”

I’m reminded a bit of a recent post at WoodMore Village, where Nacho asks, “Are Buddhists the only ones seemingly content with radical uncertainty?”

February 24, 2006

“The heresy of individualism: thinking oneself a completely self-sufficient unit and asserting this imaginary ‘unity’ against all others. The affirmation of the self as simply ‘not the other.’ But when you seek to affirm your unity by denying that you have anything to do with anyone else, by negating everyone else in the universe until you come down to you: what is there left to affirm? Even if there were something to affirm, you would have no breath left with which to affirm it.

The true way is just the opposite: the more I am able to affirm others, to say ‘yes’ to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone. “

From Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, selected with an Introduction by Christine M. Bochen
(Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books 2000), Page 142.

Originally published in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton
(New York: Doubleday, 1966) Pages 128-29.

The heresy of individualism is perhaps the heresy of our times. Will the violence and hardship it necessarily causes be its own demise? It seems so painfully obvious, as we wage a war in Iraq and export our jobs to China, that we are not any unity of self-sufficiency in this world. We are a product of it all, both historically through primarily Western culture (and its imperialism) and globally in this moment (food many of us will eat next week is no doubt being harvested & packaged in several 3rd world countries right now). Merton wrote this forty years ago, but it is still so true today. So too with his solution, a wonderful dose of simple, timeless wisdom.

I first stumbled across Thomas Merton last year in Bristol, finding his “Asian Journals” in the Centre for Buddhist Studies library. I have two blog posts from then (Butterfly, and Artists-Art-Life) and remember a great sense of enthusiasm and inspiration from reading this holy man’s private thoughts. He seemed forever warm and kind, never sharp or judgmental, always inquisitive and yet confident and sturdy.

I lost touch with him when I left England, too busy, but I hope to come back to him soon and perhaps even (back) to Catholicism through him (in some strange way).

November 30, 2015

Dorothy Day died on November 29, 1980. She lived a truly remarkable life, but one that has not earned the recognition it deserves.

PBS created a wonderful short documentary on her life and work in 2013, available here: The Life of Dorothy Day. I have written about her before but feel that the battles she fought are still very much with us today. As with many people I admire deeply, she took from her religion a strong conviction to help those around her, taking seriously the Christian commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” And as the shopping holiday season settles in upon us once more, let us think first about the humanity in the world connected to all of the material goods around us, the people suffering near and far for whom a few dollars or a sympathetic ear can bring respite.

If you don’t already subscribe to PBS’s Religion and Ethics News Weekly, I highly recommend that you do. This story alone is worth it.

It focuses on the life of Dorothy Day, a devout Catholic, a socialist, an anarchist, and, perhaps one day a Saint.

Dorothy Day has always loomed large in the back of my mind. Growing up Catholic, to two very liberal parents (my mother marched with and had dinner with a member of the Chicago Seven), I was drawn to the idea that Catholics could also be radicals. My parents faded away from the Church, sometimes recalling that the most vicious people they had ever encountered were Catholic nuns in primary schools. And as they faded they focused on direct action through social work for my mother and volunteering and simply helping those who needed it for my father – sometimes including giving cars away to people who needed one. Meanwhile, I faded as well drawn to science, atheism and existentialism, then humanism, and eventually Buddhism, all the while doing volunteer work of one sort or another on the side.

The very name of Day’s movement, the Catholic Worker Movement, clearly echoes her Communist sympathies (or at least shared interests) – noting that we humans are workers as much as anything and that work deserves respect and the recognition of the dignity of each and every one of us. Of course this is distinguished from the way we all are typically described, as consumers. Here our value is determined by how much we take, not by what we give.

I’m no orthodox Marxist, but I believe Day was on to something. We need balance, and these days things seem far from balanced.

At Day’s Catholic Worker soup kitchen I am heartened to see (in the video) that one of the volunteers interviewed openly admits to not being a Christian. Yet his ability to work, to give, is still valued. He is accepted based on that, on his practices rather than his beliefs.

Others, Christian and not, Socialist and not, were drawn to her  “pacifist anarchist movement” through their own conscience as much as to holding any particular beliefs, and it has been this common conscience, a shared sense of the rightness of helping those in need, which has kept the movement alive for 83 years now.

When I mentioned this on facebook, a friend reminded me of Thomas Merton and Simone Weil, two fellow radicals and inspirations to all of us from the 20th century.

If you would like to pray for Day’s intercession, a website has been set up to guide you. But keep in mind this is the woman who reportedly said, “Don’t trivialize me by trying to make me a saint,” and in her own words about miracles in 1934 wrote:

Our lives are made up of little miracles day by day. That splendid globe of sun, one street wide, framed at the foot of East Fourteenth street in early morning mists that greeted me this morning in my way out to mass was a miracle that lifted up my heart. I was reminded of a little song of Teresa’s, composed and sung at the age of two.

“I’ll sing a song,” (she warbled)
Of sunshine on a little house.
And the sunshine is a present for the little house.”

Sunshine in the middle of January is indeed a present.

Indeed. Sunshine any time is a present.

October 3, 2015

With just under a month to go, the illustrated graphic novel of the Dalai Lama’s life is now less than $3000 short of its crowdfunding goal of $25,000.

In his latest update on the progress of this biography of the Dalai Lama, Robert Thurman announces that they are just 2-3 months away from completion, needing to color and polish the last set of pages. Then the book will be sent to the printer for its first edition, with the goal that it is out before the coming Losar (Tibetan New Year), February 8.

In the video you can see some images from the life of the Dalai Lama, including a young Robert Thurman seeking ordination along with the Dalai Lama’s encounter with Thomas Merton, who, according to the text, “confirms in the Dalai Lama his growing conviction that his most important purpose living in exile is to improve the mutual understanding among all world religions.” Below I have pulled out just one of the particularly intricate and beautiful images displayed in the video.

(if the youtube video doesn’t display below, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_Oq6dg7CLc )

As Thurman describes, the graphic novel brings you not just the life of the Dalai Lama but also to Tibet in the years of his absence, where massive destruction took place during and following the Cultural Revolution and where currently religious freedom is not recognized. Further correctly noted by Thurman, the Chinese Communist Party’s long-standing propaganda war against the Dalai Lama continues to this day, making this work an important potential corrective to the misinformation they are spreading.

To find out more and support Man of Peace: the Illustrated Life Story of the Dalai Lama visit https://fundly.com/man-of-peace-the-illustrated-life-story-of-the-dalai-lama

(still from above video)
(still from above video)
December 21, 2014

As Christmas and the New Year approach, and the darkest days come and pass, many people across the world continue to hold Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) in their hearts. The latest update from Plum Village, sent out last week, tells us that he is still in a coma but showing signs of wakefulness. The update continues, “There have been times when Thay had his eyes open for more than two hours, and is responsive, but he is not yet showing clear signs of communication.” While all hope and energy is committed to ensuring Thay’s recovery, thoughts for some have turned toward the eventuality of the 88 year-old’s death. In a poignant commentary on his life and legacy, Buddhist Door editorial staff writes:

Plum Village is hopefully finding ways to creatively build on Thay’s immense philosophical bequest: the greatest danger to a movement as vibrant and adaptable as Engaged Buddhism is being paralyzed by its founder’s legacy. For the sake of both those inside and outside their communities, Plum Village has probably begun to envision what a world without its founder would look like. A spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral titan of Western Buddhism, the last few decades have been nothing less than the era of Thich Nhat Hanh—in Thomas Merton’s words, “the Zen monk who sees beyond life and death.”

In the same commentary they write that, “Centuries from now, he may well be remembered as a monk whose role in transmitting Buddhism to different regions of the world and successfully adapting it to local needs was as important as that of the Central Asian and Indian translators and their Chinese collaborators in imperial China.” Indeed, his transformative effect on humanity itself may also be the topic of such discussion, as his work has won him not only deeply devout followers around the world, but also a broader circle of admirers among fellow workers for peace and justice. Most notable among these was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said of him:

I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam.

This would be a notably auspicious year [1967] for you to bestow your Prize on the Venerable Nhat Hanh. Here is an apostle of peace and non-violence, cruelly separated from his own people while they are oppressed by a vicious war which has grown to threaten the sanity and security of the entire world.

Because no honor is more respected than the Nobel Peace Prize, conferring the Prize on Nhat Hanh would itself be a most generous act of peace. It would remind all nations that men of good will stand ready to lead warring elements out of an abyss of hatred and destruction. It would re-awaken men to the teaching of beauty and love found in peace. It would help to revive hopes for a new order of justice and harmony.

read on

But this, of course, was in the past, and what comes in the future for Thay is completely unknown. Gary Gach, writing here at Patheos earlier this month, brings us to Thay’s life and legacy in the here and now:

Earlier this year, Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh accepted an invitation from His Holiness Pope Francis to visit the Vatican, in support of a global initiative to end slavery. Having experienced a severe brain hemorrhage since the invitation, a delegation of twenty-two monks and nuns of his core community are in Rome today, realizing his wish.

Many heroes are active this very moment. Visible and invisible. Known and anonymous. Actually, we all encounter heroes every day, over the phone, on the street, at the grocery store, on the bus, everywhere. Yet, some human beings live with such intensity of meaning and nobility, they elevate all who come in contact with their presence. Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh is such a human being in my life. Maybe yours, too.

Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2014 accomplishments include a retranslation of the Heart Sutra, Buddhism’s pithiest nondualist teaching. Earlier, this summer, he led a summer retreat dedicated to the topic “What happens when we die?” (Hint: what happens when we live?) But I cannot separate any one year’s contributions from his immeasurable living legacy—pacifism, engaged Buddhism, interfaith, mindfulness, poetry, and more. Please note, these aren’t separate, like ice cubes in a tray, but, rather, all coined from a common ore.

Shortly after that, tricycle posted an excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s forthcoming book Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of NoiseThe excerpt, and no doubt the book, is worth reading in full, but what caught me was the further exhortation to return to the present:

Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.
(In. Out.)
Breathing in, my breath grows deep.
Breathing out, my breath grows slow.
(Deep. Slow.)
Breathing in, I’m aware of my body.
Breathing out, I calm my body.
(Aware of body. Calming.)
Breathing in, I smile.
Breathing out, I release.
(Smile. Release.)

Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment.
Breathing out, I enjoy the present moment.
(Present moment. Enjoy.)

This brought me back nearly 15 years to my first retreat. It was winter in Montana, and Bodhipaksa and Alan Sponberg (Saramati) of the Triratna Buddhist Order had taken a group of young university students for three days in the woods far from town. I went on several such retreats over the years, so my memories of them might mix and mingle, as memories do, but I recall a walking meditation where we used this mantra, shortened to:

In, out

Deep, slow

Calm, ease

Smile, release

Present moment, wonderful moment.

The mantra had the effect of bringing such enormous depth to the meditation that I can recall parts of it today as if I were still there. It was freezing cold, for one thing. I was bundled up in my good Montana clothes and had a blanket draped over my shoulders and I can remember how cold my toes got, even as my attention flowed with each step: cold air in through the nose to the belly, extending the leg, “in”, slowly releasing the air, foot coming down and the crunch of snow, “out”… I remember that Bodhipaksa was out with his camera for the meditation, snapping pics for a possible upcoming book or for his Wildmind meditation website, which was then just getting started.

The mantra stuck with me, and I know I used it frequently in my meditations over the years. I used it when I was running my first half-marathon in 2007. I also used it to help frame my discussion of mental illness for a post here in 2013. And in 2009, on a retreat with one of Thay’s students, I was given the Dharma name, “Sublime Dwelling of the Source,” linking me, in the complex and tangled way that only lineage and tradition can, again to the past through the life and works of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Some might misconstrue and misuse the mantra to promote excessive passivity in life, but the purpose is to ‘regain’ one’s balance in a life out of balance, to gain that moment of silence, as Thay’s book suggests, in a world of noise. When we have our balance, we then go forward in a sane and healthy manner, whether we’re running a half-marathon, writing about a difficult subject, or – as some of my Buddhist friends in the U.S. are now – protesting societal injustice.

At this moment, the mantra brings me back to my noisy little corner of Bodhgaya and the end of a tough but rewarding semester of teaching, my full belly (today was spaghetti day for lunch at the Vihar), and my gratitude for the first real stretch of free time I’ve had in ages – gratitude also, of course, to Thay, to this teaching, to all of the people between him and me and those beyond who have kept the spirit of the teachings alive. December really is gorgeous here, as the oppressive Indian heat gives way to cool, dry days and crisp nights. The town has been abuzz with monlams (Tibetan prayer festivals), Western tourists, and celebrity teachers can be seen most days at the Mahabodhi Temple and out at the Be Happy Cafe in the evenings.

Where ever the mantra brings you, I hope it is a place of gratitude and balance and calm.

Bodhgaya december 2014
Bodhgaya sunset from the Burmese Vihar, December 2014.
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