Zen Abbot's Journal Vol 49 June 3, 2005

by Norman Fischer | June 03, 2005 at 7:35 PM

From Zen Abbot's Journal Vol 49 June 3, 2005 Charlotte's Way, Muir Beach

Merton's conclusion to "The Inner Experience," in which he talks about the need for contemplation in our time, and the problems, challenges, and opportunities of the contemplative, is inspiring. The people in the Dharma seminar liked this part a lot more than they liked the earlier talks, which were much more focused on the sense and flavor of the Christian mystical path, which sounded to them quite dualistic and sexist. In fact the sexist dimension was not a key part of the book, but the women members of the seminar, understandably, focused strongly on this, and were hurt by it. As a man, I notice these sections (particularly, for instance, the discussion of the garden of Eden story in which "woman" is temptress, that side of humanity that must be tamed and protected against), can see they are objectionable, and cheerfully go on, without much ado. But the women point out that such passages (and such attitudes, which they assume the church to hold, though they're not much emphasized in the book) really are destructive, hurtful. Beyond this, there were objections to Merton's strong distaste for the "secular," his valorization of the "sacred," and his dualistic viewpoint generally, which is, I think, a legitimate feature of Christian mysticism, much more than Buddhist mysticism (if you can call Buddhism a "mysticism"). That and the attendant drama of the Christian path (which is related to the dualism) were not to people's liking. Our Zen way- especially the way in which I emphasize it in Everyday Zen — is much more forgiving and soft, not wanting to set up labels and draw distinctions, at least distinctions that are permanent or "real." Possibly the most important of all Zen teachings is that all conceptual systems are provisional and all dualisms inaccurate and the of cause suffering. Merton sees this and knows it, yet the Christian framework in which he moves can't help but make him sound dualistic. I hear the unity beyond the rhetoric, but most members of the seminar (not all, but most) do not.

The last sections of the book make crucial and useful points. Merton sees "sin" not as transgression but as soul sickness; not, in other words, a matter of doing this or that that one must atone for, but rather the being radically out of sorts with one's essential humanity. A great hater of the modern era and its values (having grown up with the rise of fascism in Europe) Merton passionately feels our time is the worst of all historical periods. It calls then, he feels, especially strongly for the contemplative to be one who rather than withdrawing from the world, identifies its sin within himself or herself, works to purify it, and does this on behalf of the world in need. So the contemplative becomes in Merton's view a kind of spiritual filter for the world, purifying the social atmosphere. This is very much like the bodhisattva view of working toward awakening for the benefit of all beings. In his section on how to be a contemplative in our time Merton discusses contemporary Christian monasticism in very unfavorable terms. It's too large, too rule bound, too corporate and thus too bound up with ecclesiastical and worldly concerns. He considers most contemporary Christian monastics to be "juridical" contemplatives, that is, to follow the rule book in their spiritual endeavors, but to have very little inner creativity and aliveness. The reason for this, he feels, is that the monasteries do a very poor job of monastic formation. Confused and soulless people come seeking spiritual comfort (they are soulless because they are conditioned by a soulless world) and rather than being given a chance to discover their real selves before they undertake a committed path of contemplation, they are indoctrinated immediately into a rule or form, taught that this is itself the absolute, and so become juridical contemplatives, without realizing that this is what they are doing. Merton feels the ideal monastic community is small (no more than twenty) and flexible though disciplined, led by a Superior who is "more than an official." He can cite no modern examples of such a community, so quotes St. John and Theresa of Avila, whose communities seemed to be the sort Merton is recommending. The Zen Center does better on all these accounts than Merton feels the Catholic monastic establishments do. But the Zen Center can possibly be faulted for not being serious enough. It allows all sorts of people to come to find out who they are, without asking them necessarily for a clear religious commitment. They are allowed to easily come and go. This probably does make for a less intense or anyway a less clear cut atmosphere. On the other hand, it provides a good service to many people, an outlet, place for a "time out" from society that is accessible to many people, from any religion, at all levels of commitment, or from none. 

Merton's discussion of contemplative practice in the world is especially good. It sounds like a blueprint for Everyday Zen: join a group of likeminded souls led by a priest "who is interested in contemplation." "But don't expect to be spoon-fed the contemplative life." Be creative and energetic. The group should not be too well organized. Practice meditation in the early morning, because dawn and pre-dawn are quiet times, undervalued by the world and so left clear for the contemplative, even in the midst of busy cities. Take Sabbath and retreat days. Take on your personal and social duties and obligations not as onerous tasks, but as elements of your contemplative practice (including, especially, your marriage).


Norman Fischer