In the practices of the First Person, Creator, Merton saw profound parallels with the Zen Buddhist meditation. In the 1950s Merton corresponded with the Japanese Zen scholar, Daisetz T. Suzuki (1870–1966), who introduced Zen Buddhism to the West. In several of Merton’s books, including Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Contemplative Prayer, Mystics and Zen Masters and The Asian Journal, he speaks about the kenotic (Greek: self-emptying) dimension of contemplative prayer, whereby the presence of God comes to a person who has detached from all that is not God. Christ’s kenosis (Philippians 2:6) is an actual experience of holiness that is available to all.
In his Journal, July 17, 1956, Merton prays, “Teach me to go to the country beyond words and names.”1 He seeks pure Presence in the land that abides before, after, beneath and within language and he notices with great interest a similarity with the Japanese Zen experience of shunyata (emptiness) and the Buddhist understanding of anatman (no self).
In Zen and the Birds of Appetite he writes,
The convenient tools of language enable us to decide beforehand what we think things mean, and tempt us all too easily to see things only in a way that fits our logical preconceptions and our verbal formulas. Instead of seeing things and facts as they are we see them as reflections and verifications of the sentences we have previously made up in our minds. We quickly forget how to simply see things and substitute our words and our formulas for the things themselves, manipulating facts so that we see only what conveniently fits our prejudices. Zen uses language against itself to blast out these preconceptions and to destroy the specious “reality” in our minds so that we can see directly. Zen is saying, as Wittgenstein said, “Don’t think; Look!2
Merton artfully blends his knowledge of modern psychology with scriptural and religious language when he equates the “old” self, spoken of in the New Testament to the conventional, false or ego self. For Merton, the false self is attached to thoughts, concepts, memories, images, stories, worries, planning, and so on. For him, the “new” self that is proclaimed in Scripture is accomplished by our intention to love God by the discipline of solitude and detachment, and also received from God by grace (Romans 6:6 and 7:22; Ephesians 4:22-24; Colossians 3: 9-10). Merton is careful to say that this practice can proceed while one remains active in the world. It does not require any sort of ongoing asceticism or monastic living. In this way, the contemplative discipline echoes God’s action of Incarnation. God empties Himself (Merton always used the masculine for God) into Creation and one is invited to empty oneself into God. All persons are invited to become incarnations of God by grace. Jesus Christ is the archetype—an interpersonal doorway to heaven on earth that is available to everyone and not just “Christians”. The new Self in Christ is detached in an open-hearted and open-handed love for self, neighbor, nature, and God while being actively engaged.
In his little book, Contemplative Prayer, Merton follows the guidance of his historic mentors, Eckhart and St. John of the Cross, as he brings the practice of detachment right into the Church and into all religious practices and ceremonies. He often quotes Eckhart, that eventually “we must let go of God for God’s sake.” He writes,
Contemplative prayer is, in a way, simply the preference for the desert, for emptiness, for poverty. . . .Only when we are able to “let go” of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire inner life. . . . In other words, the true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform his darkness into light. He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation.3
For Merton, when one becomes empty of all that is not God, one can finally know God by unknowing, thereby glimpsing the Source of all reality, infused with freedom and love.4 In Merton, this process of emptying is two-fold; as we “un-know” our old self (with one’s past habitual self-images) one also “un-knows” the God that one thought one knew. Merton sees our conventional ego selves, our “old” selves as having inherited a strong tendency to seek possession of experiences, identities and things. He writes, “The notion of ‘I’ implies the notion of ‘mine’. I am ‘my property.’ I am constituted by what separates me from ‘not I,’ that is, by what is mine ‘and not anybody else’s’.”5 This culturally fashioned “I,” composed of a vast web of interconnected, but relative causes, is not our real, true, and new Self in Christ. If we can spelunk our way beneath the country of causation we find that what we took to be an individual “self” is actually a limitless field of love and freedom to respond.
Merton’s True Self is limitless creativity and a boundless inclusionary dance with other people, creatures, and God. The True Self is the perichoresis, the dance of Love that God is and that God is always surrendering to the cosmos.
For Merton, Christian enlightenment is to become someone we cannot objectify. Now, no self- image is satisfying, meaningful or fruitful. Likewise, all of a person’s notions of God will have been dissolved. When one has this First Person experience of being No One, one is gifted with an all-pervading sense of objectless grace, “the dazzling darkness” of the Creator’s infinite Presence.
Ibid., p. 114.
Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, p. 48.
Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, NY: Doubleday, Image Books, 1971 paperback; pp. 89-90.
See Merton’s beautiful exposition on the unknowing of contemplative prayer in his New Seeds of Contemplation. NY: New Directions paperback, (1961), 1972, pp. 1 ff.
Thomas Merton. The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. Edited by Naomi Burton, Br. Patrick Hart & James Laughlin. NYC: A New Directions Book, 1973, 1975, p. 105.