A 40 Year "Retrospective Journey"

“Be good, keep your feet dry,
your eyes open, your heart at peace
and your soul in the joy of Christ.”
Thomas Merton

October 31, 2008

Night of the living Dead

October 31, 1968 - Halloween
Night of the Living Dead

From Wikipedia... Night of the Living Dead, directed by George Romero, is a 1968 important independent black-and-white horror film… Ben (Duane Jones) and Barbra (Judith O'Dea) are the protagonists of a story about the mysterious reanimation of the recently dead, and their efforts, along with five other people, to survive the night while trapped in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse.

George Romero produced the film on a $114,000 budget, and after a decade of cinematic re-releases, it grossed some $12 million domestically and $30 million internationally. In 1999, the Library of Congress registered it to the National Film Registry as a film deemed "historically, culturally or aesthetically important".

Night of the Living Dead had a great impact upon the culture of the Vietnam-era United States, because it is laden with critiques of late-1960s U.S. society; a historian described it as "subversive on many levels". Although it is not the first zombie film, Night of the Living Dead is the progenitor of the contemporary "zombie apocalypse" sub-genre of horror film, and it influenced the modern pop-culture zombie archetype.
They're coming to get you... Rob

"Eyewitness accounts described the assassins as ordinary-looking people, misshapen monsters, people who look like they're in a trance, and creatures that look like people but behave like animals."

LBJ Ends Bombing Campaign

October 31, 1968

From March 2, 1965 until November 1, 1968 the United States were engaged in a sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam under the code name "Rolling Thunder". On October 31, 1968, just days before the 1968 election, U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson announced an end to the bombardment.

During this period, at least...

- 300,000 attack sorties were flown by U.S.;
- 900 U.S. planes were lost;
- 1200 U.S. personnel were killed, captured, or missing;
Civilian death estimates range from 52,000 - 182,000.

"I have devoted every resource of the Presidency to the search for peace in Southeast Asia." Lyndon Baines Johnson October 31, 1968

Merton, Non-Violence, and Vietnam
Merton's commitment to peace and non-violence is rooted and grounded in his contemplative Christian faith; formed in the tradition of St. Francis, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dorothy Day; and lived out in the sixties context of the Vietnam War, nuclear bomb testing, Latin American liberation struggles, and U.S. civil rights issues. He writes extensively on themes of peace and non-violence in letters to friends and correspondents; in his poetry and journals; in books, essays, and articles for publication; and in unpublished papers passed amongst others involved in peace action in the sixties. Vietnam figures prominently throughout these writings.

Jim Forest, in "Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton" characterizes Merton as a "Pastor to Peacemakers". Forest writes... "While his vocation made an active role in the peace movement impossible, through correspondence and occasional face-to-face visits Merton played a pastoral role among peace activists that was perhaps even more important than his public role as an author, and one in which he could communicate without having to worry about getting his words past the censors." LWW p. 149

In this role Merton was able to both encourage and support peace activists as well as be a voice of "conscience" when protest action strayed from the principles of love, compassion, inner peace, and non-violence. Merton's network of friends and correspondents in relation to the peace issues of his day was extensive and included: Daniel and Phil Berrigan, Joan Baez, Wibur "Ping" Ferry, Dorothy Day, Jim Forest, Hildegard Goss-Mayr, John Heidbrink, and Thich Naht Hahn to name but a few.

Merton's call to be a witness to non-violence is beautifully shared in the preface to a Japanese edition of "The Seven Story Mountain". Merton writes... “It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and the injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole [human] race... and the world with [it]. By my monastic life and vows I am saying NO to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all it's fair words in favour of peace”. Thomas Merton 1966

In peace... Rob

"That's all nonviolence is - organized love.” Joan Baez

October 30, 2008

Towards Tibet

October 30, 1968

In New Delhi Merton is making contacts and preparation for his journey to the Himalayas and his meetings with the Dalai Lama and other exiled Tibetans there. More and more of his thought and writing is "Towards Tibet". He has the opportunity to meet some Tibetans on October 30, 1968 and notes... "The Tibetans seem to have a peculiar intentness, energy, silence, and also humor. Their laughter is wonderful." AJTM p.65

Merton has a conversation with some Tibetan Buddhist monks about the goal of monastic life; the notions of discipline and detachment; and the practice of meditation. They all affirm the value of monastic dialogue and understanding and the Tibetans encourage Merton to help Westerners understand meditation and lead more spiritual lives. Merton writes... "They laughed when I explained that the contemplative life was not exactly viewed with favor in the West and that monks are often considered useless." AJTM p. 66

Merton receives the gift of a mandala from Dr. Lokesh Chandra and dives back into reading Tucci's "The Theory and Practice of the Mandala".

I can almost sense his excitement and anticipation about the journey ahead. It's all I can do to restrain myself from reading ahead in his journal!!

TTFN... Rob

"We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have - for their usefulness."
Thomas Merton


October 29, 2008

1968 - A (not so) Distant Mirror

World Series

October 1968

Detroit Tigers

October 2008

Philidelphia Phillies

U.S. Presidential Campaigns

October 1968

Humphrey - Wallace - Nixon

October 2008

Obama/Biden - McCain/Palin

A World in Travail

October 1968 Vietnam

October 2008


Great Lookin' Cars

1968 - 2008

TTFN... Rob

"The more things change... the more they stay the same" Anon

Richard Nixon...

Hubert Humphrey...

George Wallace...

New Delhi Dawn

October 29, 1968

"Early morning in New Delhi.
A soft rose light, vast gentleness of sky.
Kites hopping around on the flat roofs
of very modern houses.
The domes in the smoky distance.
The distant throbbing of a drum."
AJTM p.56

Thomas Merton notes in his journal that he has much to read. "Tucci's "The Theory and Practice of the Mandala", Desjardins' "Message des Tibetains", the Dalai Lama's pamphlet on Buddhism, essays by Marco Pallis, Trungpa..."

The Mystical Mandala
Merton seems most fascinated with the Mandala and makes extensive notes from Giuseppe Tucci's book. I've looked at a number of definitions and descriptions of the Mandala and find that Wikipedia is a pretty good start

Mandala (Sanskrit "circle", "completion") is a term used to refer to various objects. It is of Hindu origin, but is also used in other Dharmic religions, such as Buddhism. In the Tibetan branch of Vajrayana Buddhism, they have been developed into sandpainting. In practice, mandala has become a generic term for any plan, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically, a microcosm of the Universe from the human perspective...

Yamantaka Mandala

...In various spiritual traditions, mandala may be employed for focusing attention of aspirants and adepts, a spiritual teaching tool, for establishing a sacred space and as an aid to meditation and trance induction. Its symbolic nature can help one "to access progressively deeper levels of the unconscious, ultimately assisting the meditator to experience a mystical sense of oneness with the ultimate unity from which the cosmos in all its manifold forms arises." The psychoanalyst Carl Jung saw the mandala as "a representation of the unconscious self," and believed his paintings of mandalas enabled him to identify emotional disorders and work towards wholeness in personality." Wikipedia

Thomas Merton quotes Tucci in describing the Mandala as a map of both the cosmos and the soul... "the disintegration of the One to the many and the reintegration from the many to the One..." AJTM p.59

Be whole... Rob

"From the body of the unborn essence arises the sphere of light, and from that sphere of light arises wisdom. From the wisdom arises the seed syllable and from the seed syllable arises the complete Mandala, the deity and the retinue." Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche


Sand Mandala

October 28, 2008

Calcutta to New Delhi

October 28, 1968

Thomas Merton travelled from Calcutta to New Delhi on October 28, 1968. His journal records the excitement he felt at seeing the Himalayas... "At first it was very stormy and cloudy. and then, all of a sudden I looked out and there they were the Himalayas - several hundred miles away, but an awesome great white wall of the highest mountains I have ever seen. I recognized the ones like Annapurna that are behind Pokhara, and could pick out the highest ones in the group, though not individually. Everest and Kanchenjunga were in the distance."

Wow, pretty good sense of geography for a newcomer to the area!

Huston Smith - Remembering Merton
Huston Smith shared the flight with Thomas Merton. Smith shared a few stories about his connection with Merton in India in a 1992 interview with Mark Keniston.

We were both invited to what was pretentiously called a 'Spiritual Summit Conference' in Calcutta. I went at some considerable inconvenience because I was teaching at MIT, but when I saw that Thomas Merton would be there, I knew that I would move Heaven and Earth to go.

It was a glorious week. Well, (laughs) conferences aren't glorious - anything but glorious. But because of his presence it was so colorful.
I arrived at the hotel and in the evening went down for hors d'oeuvres before dinner. I entered the dining room and there was Merton all by himself. He was alone at a table with his fruit punch and so I went over and right off I had about half an hour with him before anyone else arrived.

I can still remember the first real question I asked him after a couple of preliminaries. I said that I had recognized a very sizable monastic pull in me, but it was also clear that it wasn't for this incarnation. The man/woman thing, family, and the life of a householder clearly outweighed that other. Nevertheless, it was really there and I was drawn to it. So to come to the point right away, I asked him 'What's it like to be a monk?' And his answer really just swept me away. He said 'You know...it's very nice.' (laughs) And my thought was, 'Very nice?' It's about as difficult a 'way' as I can imagine.

Later on, I came across what he said about his three vows. Poverty, he said was a snap - a cinch. Chastity is more difficult but manageable. But obedience is a bugger! And we know from his life how that weighed upon him.

I really liked the guy; he was just wonderful. We ended the week by flying together from Calcutta to Delhi...

I still remember that ride to Delhi. He said he always wanted to do this trek from Kathmandu to Pokhora. He said 'Come on, let's do it!' We were fantasizing that I would wire my dean to say 'Fire me if you must but I won't be home for another ten days!' And he would cancel his schedule-it was all fantasy, but it was fun.

Blessings on this day... Rob

October 27, 2008

Personal Post - Looking Ahead

Good Bye Calcutta
There is so much more that I'd like to reflect on from what I've read of the presentations made at the 1968 Spiritual Summit Conference in Calcutta (and I've really only read a few). I would like more time to follow the common "perennial philosophy" threads that run through the presentations of Seyyed Hossain Nasr, Huston Smith, Thomas Merton and others. I want to draw some material from Merton's presentations and a few of his letters to pull together a brief summary of his approach to interfaith relations. I'd like to reflect more on the whole question of "relevance". So much...

But Merton's off to New Delhi tomorrow and I've got to get some sleep so I can keep up with him there as he prepares for his pilgimage to the Himalayas. This is a busy week coming up... it's the last week of campaigning, Nixon, Wallace, and Humphrey in 1968 - Obama and McCain in 2008. There are campaigns to cover, votes to cast, and electoral colleges to consider. Merton explores New Delhi, discovers the Mandala, and heads into the Himalayas. There will be new music hitting the charts and headline news to share of "a world in travail", and it's Halloween to boot!! Next weekend, as Merton heads into the mountains I'll be heading off for a short contemplative retreat with Cynthia Bourgeault.

Pass it On
I started this journey as a way to remember Merton and the world he lived in. If you know of anyone who might appreciate this site please pass it on. It's easy to do.

Please feel free to leave a comment. If you're not a "blogger" just choose "anonymous" as your identity. You can still leave your name in the comment.

TTFN... Rob, in Vancouver

October 27, 1968

The Spiritual Summit Conference ended in Calcutta on October 26, 1968. October 27th was Merton's last day before he travelled on to New Delhi. He celebrates mass at a private home and notes later that the "air-raid sirens were being tested - for the imaginary war with Pakistan".

Suez Canel and Yugoslovia
Merton makes a couple of journal notes in reference to world events:

"There is a firing at Suez and Tito says there will be a Third World War if the Russians try to take over Yugoslovia, etc., etc. Everyone has long ceased to listen to any of it."

At the time Egypt, the PLO, and Israel were engaged in a limited "War of Attrition" along the Suez Canal. Just one of the many "hot-spots" of the day. In Eastern Europe things had been pretty tense since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. NATO was becoming increasingly concerned that Soviet "interventions" in Romania and Yugoslovia were imminent (Tito was probably right about the likely consequences!). Fortunately for all these further "interventions" did not take place.

TTFN... Rob

"The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less." Vaclav Havel

Czechoslovakia - 1968

Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Over the past week I have been sharing a little of what was said at the Spiritual Summit Conference attended by Thomas Merton in Calcutta in October 1968. I am doing so to give a sense of the milieu of interfaith thought and dialogue that Merton was immersed in during his time there.

Sufi scholar and perennial philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr was unable to attend the 1968 Spiritual Summit Conference in person but was able to present a paper in absentia. Responding to the conference theme of "relevance" Nasr presents the paper "The Pertinence of Islam to the Modern World".

On Relevance and Irrelevance
In framing the question of relevance Nasr writes: "Whatever is not fashionable in this whirling pace of superficial change is suddenly declared outmoded and irrelevant, whereas in actuality what is trivial and irrelevant is precisely that world or climate of thought which rejects and ignores the perennial and permanent truths, the truths which have always had meaning for men because they appeal to something permanent in man."

Depleting the Spiritual Significance
Nasr speaks of Islam, and other authentic religions, as a necessary remedy for one of the great maladies of the modern world, namely over-secularization... "a process which is nothing else than depleting things of their spiritual significance". He sees this "depletion" processing through politics and governance, fields of thought and philosophy, the arts, science, and even religion. The irony, for Nasr, is that this apparent pursuit of freedom ultimately leads to the loss of "the only real freedom open to man, the freedom of spiritual deliverance".

Integration and Disintegration
Nasr also speaks of the essential unity of God and of the purpose of religious and spiritual life as "the complete and total integration of man in all his depth and amplitude". He laments the excessive compartmentalization of modern science and education; the fragmentation of community; and the disintegration of personality and sees Islam as a means of healing. With language that conjures up the grace and beauty of Sufi dance Nasr describes the human predicament as being caught in whirling "centrifugal tendencies" which dissipate our souls and energy towards the periphery. The teachings and disciplines of Islam allow the soul to regain the Center.

Nasr and Merton
Seyyed Nasr was in contact with Merton indirectly through mutual friends. He helped to make plans for Merton to visit Iran after Thailand in early 1969. Unfornately, since the Iranian leg of the journey never came to pass, Merton and Nasr did not get to meet in person. Nasr recently wrote the preface to the Fons Vitae publication "Thomas Merton and Sufism: the Untold Story" in which he says: "Let it be said first of all that Merton's knowledge of Sufism was authentic and genuine... What would have happened if Merton had been able to come to Persia and to continue his study of Sufism, only Heaven knows. In any case that was not to be. Perhaps he would have written major works of Sufism in its relation to Christian spirituality. But even what he did write and the thoughts he did express to friends reveal the inner sympatheia he had towards the Islamic spiritual universe."

Peace be with you... Rob

"Peace in the human order results from peace with God and also with nature." Seyyed Hossein Nasr

October 26, 2008

Early Morning Rain

Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" in 1965. It continued to make the rounds on the pop and country charts for the rest of the Sixties and beyond. Is was recorded by at least... Peter, Paul and Mary, George Hamilton IV, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, the Kingston Trio, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, the Travellers, Josh White, AND... Gordon Lightfoot.
Here's Peter, Paul and Mary in 1966. Enjoy...

October 25, 2008

A Baha'i Viewpoint - 1968

Over the past few days I have been sharing a little of what was said at the Spiritual Summit Conference attended by Thomas Merton in Calcutta in October 1968. I am doing so to give a sense of the milieu of interfaith thought and dialogue that Merton was immersed in during his time there. Today, a perspective from a noted Indian Baha'i.

Dr. H.M. Munje, of the National Spiritual Assembly of Bahai's of India, was invited to present "A Baha'i Viewpoint" at the conference. Dr. Munje is, among many other things, the author of a book entitled "The Whole World is But One Family" or "Vasudaiva Kutumbakam".

Dr. Munje notes that it is fitting for the Spiritual Summit Conference to be held during the year in which Baha'is are celebrating the "centenary" year of the proclamation of Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i faith (1867). He goes on to say that...
"the most important and emergent question of the world today is a planetary solution for the whole of mankind, for a living peace and justice in action."

Dr. Munje frames the important question of "relevance"...
"Indeed, the lessons of two world wars have not sufficed to bring mankind to its senses. We are numbed with fear and do not want to dwell on the awesome reality of atomic warfare. Philosophies, economic systems, and politicians have led us nowhere. It is crucial for mankind to find out whether religion has the answer. Hence the question of relevance to modern society; the economic plight of the world and the injustices we see everywhere. How powerful is religion to revive the failing fortunes of a harassed humanity?"

Prophetic Lament
Munje quotes prophetic passages of lament from the writings of Baha'u'llah to underscore the relevance of religious teachings to a "world in travail". He sees in the 19th century words of Baha'u'llah a relevance to the tumultuous issues of 1968.

How Long?
"The world is in travail and its agitation waxeth day by day. Its face is turned toward waywardness and unbelief... How long will humanity persist in its waywardness? How long will injustice continue? How long is chaos and confusion to reign amongst men? How long will discord agitate the face of society?" Baha'u'llah

The Winds of Despair
"The winds of despair are, alas, blowing in every direction, and the strife that divides and afflicts the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appears to be lamentably defective." Baha'u'llah

To my own thinking the words of Baha'u'llah echo the even more distant words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah who laments...
"The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant." Isaiah 24

Hope in Unity
In truly prophetic style Munje then goes on to proclaim a message of hope for world peace and unity "through divine love". He speaks of healing and reconciliation founded on the Baha'i understanding of the essential unity of God, religion, and humanity. He quotes Shoghi Effendi:
"The Baha'i Faith upholds the unity of God, recognizes the unity of His Prophets, and inculcates the principle of the oneness and wholeness of the entire human race."

Munje says, in effect, that for religion to be relevant it must be a cause for unity amongst humanity and in harmony with science and reason. He also notes, wisely I believe, that it is the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of scripture that has caused division and wreaked havoc.

An interesting Baha'i viewpoint on this day in history.

Peace be with all... Rob

"The religion of God is for love and unity; make it not the cause of enmity and dissension."
A Sixties Lament - Barry McGuire

October 24, 2008

October 24, 1968

Merton visits the Ramakrishna mission in Calcutta on October 24, 1968. He is touched by the warmth of the Ramakrishna monks. He doesn't attend the conference today, "much talking yesterday", but does take in a social evening with conference hosts, the Birla's. He meets and has a wonderful conversation with Vatsala Amin, a young Jain woman who had presented at the conference.

Merton has received a telegram from Tenzin Geshe, secretary of the Dalai Lama, setting up a meeting for November 4th in Dharamsala.

Another very full day...

Why Merton?

Some folks may wonder... "Why the interest in Thomas Merton?" What relevance can the musings of a medieval monk living in monastic solitude in the middle of the 20th century possibly have for the post-modern church and world today?

For myself, I find in Merton an expression of insight and wisdom that is relevant to many of the inter-related issues and needs we face today. Specifically, and briefly...

Interfaith Dialogue and Action

Merton helps to show us a way towards living and loving in a pluralistic world. His approach to interfaith relations is founded on a deep sense of compassion and an honest love of neighbour which translates into an ethic of sensitivity and respect in relation to others. He also shares with us a conviction of the importance of collaborative work towards engaging and resisting "the powers".

Merton writes... "It is my belief that all those in the world who have kept a vestige of sanity and spirituality should unite in firm resistance to the movements of power politicians and the monster nations, resist the whole movement of war and aggression, resist the diplomatic overtures of power..." to Abdul Aziz September 21, 1961 TMLL

Non-violence and Peace

Merton leads us in a way of seeking justice and making peace from a place of deep non violence.

Merton writes... "I am against war, against violence, against violent revolution, for peaceful settlement of differences, for nonviolent but nevertheless radical changes. Change is needed, and violence will not really change anything: at most it will only transfer power from one set of bullheaded authorities to another."

The Ecological Consciousness

Merton opens us to a depth of ecological consciousness which is rooted and grounded in both a love of nature and a critical awareness of our brokenness in relation to the natural world.

Merton writes that the "wrongs" we inflict on the world can be prevented by... "a deepening of the ecological sense and by a corresponding restraint and wisdom in the way we treat the earth we live on and the other members of the ecological community with which we live." to Barbara Hubbard February 16, 1968 TMLL.

The Prophetic Voice

Merton speaks from a place of freedom, humility, and grace, naming difficult truths which are as relevant today as they were yesterday and as they probably will be tomorrow. He is the voice of one who stands in the midst of our culture and community and tells it like it is.

Merton writes... "I have sought only to speak the truth as I see it, and to bear witness to what I have discovered by living in the world of the twentieth century, both without the light of Christ and with it. There is a difference, and I have experienced the difference, and I have endeavored to say so. That is all." CWA

Contemplation and Spirituality

Merton reveals to us the fruits of a contemplative life lived in simplicity, restraint, and faithfulness. He is a foundational figure in the reclamation of an engaged and meaningful Christian spirituality and the renewal of the church in this day.

Merton writes... "When I speak of the contemplative life I do not mean the institutional cloistered life, the organized life of prayer... I am talking about a special dimension of inner discipline and experience, a certain integrity and fullness of personal development, which are not compatible with a purely external, alienated, busy-busy existence. This does not mean that they are incompatible with action, with creative work, with dedicated love. On the contrary, these all go together. A certain depth of disciplined experience is a necessary ground for fruitful action." CWA

These are some of the areas where I find that Merton intersects most closely with my life and passions. So that's why I'm doing this "e-pilgrimage", quest, blog-thing!!

Travelling on... Rob

"I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floatin' around accidental-like on a breeze. But I, I think maybe it's both."
Forrest Gump

October 23, 2008

The Relevance of the Irrelevant

Thomas Merton's turn to address the Calcutta Spiritual Summit Conference came on October 23, 1968. Merton had prepared a talk on "Monastic Experience and the East-West Dialogue". The notes for this presentation are published in "The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton" and in the conference proceedings, where it is described by the editors as "a working document giving a singularly lucid picture of one of the clearest of contemporary poetic minds at work."

Merton uses the term "monastic" in a broad way to describe various forms and elements of contemplative life including:
  • some level of detachment in relation to the secular concerns of the world;
  • a deep appreciation for the inner life of faith and wisdom; and
  • a "special concern with inner transformation, a deepening of consciousness toward an eventual breakthrough and discovery of a transcendental dimension of life beyond that of the ordinary empirical self and of ethical and pious observance."
Instead of presenting his prepared talk Merton speaks extemporaneously on the question of "relevance". He begins by describing the monk in America as a "marginal person" with much in common with the hippy and the poet.

"Are monks and hippies and poets relevant? No, we are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being. The marginal man accepts the basic irrelevance of the human condition, an irrelevance which is manifested above all by the fact of death. The marginal person, the monk, the displaced person, the prisoner, all these people live in the presence of death, which calls into question the meaning of life. He struggles with the fact of death in himself, trying to seek something deeper than death; because there is something deeper than death, and the office of the monk or marginal person, the meditative person or the poet is to go beyond death even in this life, to go beyond the dichotomy of life and death and to be therefore, a witness to life."

Merton goes on to speak of the reality of doubt in the midst of faith and of the need to break through the doubt and pierce the "irrelevance" in order to experience true "relevance" in God, the ultimate reality.

Whew... lots of deep stuff there!! Way too much to address meaningfully in a short and shallow blog like this. I will say that I am very intrigued by this theme. Particularly as it relates to our culture of "pragmatism" which values most things by their "relevance" to the cycle of producing and consuming. Perhaps I'll reflect more on it later. For now I think I'll go find a totally irrelevant song or video clip to post instead!

Irrelevantly yours... Rob

"Poetry often enters through the window of irrelevance,"
Mary Caroline Richards

"May we agree that private life is irrelevant? Multiple, mixed, ambiguous at best - out of it we try to fashion the crystal clear, the singular, the absolute, and that is what is relevant; that is what matters."
May Sarton - Poet

October 22, 2008

Merton and Khan - Kindred Spirits

I share a few snippets from the Spiritual Summit Conference (Calcutta 1968) that speak of a particular affinity between Sufi Mystic Vilayat Inayat Khan and Trappist Monk Thomas Merton.

The Common Denominator of Spiritual Experience

"...we will be defeating our purpose if we present the the various dogmas of each religion... But when we seek, beyond the formal differences, the underlying human experience of the divine, then something happens which may have a snowball effect, for it is moved by the power of conviction." Vilayat Inayat Khan

"Even where there are irreconcilable differences in doctrine or formulated belief, there may still be great similarities and analogies in the realm of religious experience." Thomas Merton

On Syncretism

"We do not advocate syncretism or any new form of proselytism, for syncretism is a jumbled juxtaposition of exogenous dogmas." Vilayat Inayat Khan

"...there can be no question of a facile syncretism, a mish mash of semi-religious verbiage and pieties, a devotionalism that admits everything and therefore takes nothing with full seriousness." Thomas Merton

On Communion and Unity

"Where human thought, lifted to its apogee, meets itself in the thought of another in reverential communion, then new perspectives open up by the miracle of the interfusion of souls." Vilayat Inayat Khan

"At the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond speech and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers we are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is who we are." Thomas Merton

Jamini Roy
Merton and his freind Amiya Chakravarty had the chance to visit the home and studio of Indian artist Jamini Roy on October 22, 1968. Merton shares his impression in his journal...
"Jamini Roy himself, a warm, saintly old man, saying: "Everyone who comes into my house brings God into it."...All the faces glowing with humanity and peace. It was a great experience." AJTM 32

I would imagine that these days of the conference were very full of "great experiences" for Merton.

Peace and Blessings... Rob

Thy Light is in all forms,
Thy Love in all beings:
in a loving mother, in a kind father,
in an innocent child, in a helpful friend,
in an inspiring teacher.
Allow us to recognize Thee
in all Thy holy names and forms:
as Rama, as Krishna, as Shiva, as Buddha.
Let us know Thee as Abraham, as Solomon,
as Zarathustra,
as Moses, as Jesus, as Mohammed,
and in many other names and forms,
known and unknown to the world.
Hazrat Inyat Khan

"Religious Relevance"

Thomas Merton attended the The Spiritual Summit Conference in Calcutta from October 22-26, 1968. The overall theme of the conference was the question of "religious relevance" (an oxymoron to some!) in the modern world. The following questions were posed to participants to stimulate thinking.
  • How does religion contribute to the growth of humanity in an age which features scientific development, material advancement, political power, and indifference towards the spirit.
  • What lessons does religion have to offer those who have put their faith in the computer and its offspring, the inter-continental ballistic missile, the moon rocket, and the miracles of telecommunication.
  • What can religion say to the countless young people in every land who have seen how unable we are to cope with injustice, war, famine, racial and religious prejudice and therefore are tending to pull away from religious institutions.

Noted scholar Huston Smith presented a thoughtful paper at the conclusion of the conference (it is included in the written proceedings as the "introduction" and is dedicated to Thomas Merton). Smith reflects on the transcendental, personal, and social dimensions of religion through the ages. He argues that religion must include all three of these components in various ways and that to remain relevant religion must become socially active and to remain religious such action must retain its ties with the transcendental and personal dimensions. He suggests that Eastern traditions can alert those of the West to the dangers of neglecting the personal and transcendental roots of religion and becoming "unrelievedly secular". He wraps up with this interesting quote from Timothy Leary's "High Priest".

"They have lost their fire somehow. They have lost the pulse. Their thing was dying and they new it. The Protestants just weren't religious. Their great thing was their social instinct, their sense of equality. But in their protest against the superstition and authoritarian priesthood they had lost the magic. When they threw out the statues and the incense and the robes and the chanting (all sensory), it became social and rational and senseless."

TTFN... Rob

"Never question the relevance of truth, but always question the truth of relevance." Craig Bruce

Space Races - Then and Now

October 22, 1968: Apollo 7 Splashdown

The Apollo 7 splashdown took place without a hitch on October 22, 1968. Launches and splashdowns were a big event when I was a kid. We watched them all. A big space race between the U.S. and Russia.

October 22, 2008: Chandrayaan Lift-Off

It's interesting to note that 40 years later, to the day, India has launched it's first moon mission! Check out the story and videos here. Chandrayaan-1 Launch India's now in a space race with China. Some things just don't change!!

Live Long and Prosper... Rob
"Judging by the pollution content of the atmosphere, I believe we have arrived at the late twentieth century."
Spock in 'The Voyage Home'

October 21, 2008

Spiritual Summit Conference

Calcutta - October 22-26, 1968

(find Thomas... click to enlarge)

Merton was in Calcutta to attend, and present at, the Spiritual Summit Conference, an interfaith gathering being organized by the Temple of Understanding. The conference ran from October 22-26, 1968 and was attended by leaders from many traditions. Attendees at the conference included Merton's good friend Amiya Chakravarty and M.I.T. professor Dr. Huston Smith, who was part of the editorial committee of the conference.

The theme of the conference was "The Relevance of Religion in the Modern World" (Still a pretty good question!). Religious perspectives shared around the table at this conference included: Baha'i; Buddhist; Christian; Confucian; Islamic; Jain; Judaic; Hindu; Sikh; and Zoroastrian.

The proceedings were published under the auspicious title: "The World Religions Speak on "the Relevance of Religion in the Modern World". The World Academy of Art and Science published the works. With the help of my daughter Kelly, I was able to find a copy in the UBC Library. I have been reading it and am finding it to be an excellent snapshot of the global religious community addressing some vital questions in 1968. I'll share a few "snippets" from the conference over the next few days, including a summary of Merton's presentations. Merton had a prepared paper to present but tossed it aside and spoke extemporaneously when his time came. This is wonderful, of course, because we now have two presentations from Merton instead of just one!

TTFN... Rob

Without going outside,
you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window,
you may see the ways of heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.
Tao Te Ching - Lao Tzu - chapter 47

The Beatles in India - 1968

(find Thomas)

The Beatles were in India in 1968 too! Well, who wasn't! They recorded a few songs in Bombay including "The Inner Light", written by George Harrison and based on the Tao Te Ching (above). It was released as a single on the reverse side of "Lady Madonna" in March 1968. Enjoy!!

October 20, 2008

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

October 20, 1968
Merton had a "quite by chance" meeting with Tibetan Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa on October the 20th, a few days before the beginning of the conference. Naturally they hit it off quite well!

Chogyam Trungpa was instrumental in bringing Tibetan Buddhist teaching to the West. He established a meditation center in Scotland in the late 60's and then moved to the U.S. in 1970 where he continued to teach, eventually founding Shambhala. He established Gampo Abbey in Pleasant Bay, Nova Scotia (Cape Breton) in 1984. One of Chogyam Trungpa most prominent students, Pema Chodron, is now the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey.

This Day in History: October 20, 1968
Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis were married on this day on Onassis's private Greek Island Skorpios. Merton notes this in his journal. He was particularly close to the Kennedy's and corresponded at with both Ethel and Jacqueline on the occasion of JFK's assassination.

Peace and blessings... Rob

"Apart from experience, there is no religious life, so satori is an occurrence of daily life with its joys and sorrows." Dom Aeled Graham

Top of the Charts in October 1968

Calcutta 1968

Merton's first impression of Calcutta is shock. I can only imagine the experience of one who has spent much of the previous 27 years in a rural American monastery as they enter into the "big, beat up, hot, teeming, incredible city." Overwhelming!! In a letter written later to friends he writes...
"My first contact with India was Calcutta. which, no matter how pepared you can be is always a shock. the poverty and misery are overwhelming there..." TMLL p.38.

Later, when Merton returns to Calcutta in November, he has a different impression.
"Returning to Calcutta I have a completeley new impression: greater respect for this vast, crumby city. There is a kind of nobility in its sordidness: the sheer quantity of everything... Calcutta is overwhelming: the elemental city, with no room left for masks. Only the naked truth of overpopultaion, underemployment, hunger, disease, a mixture of great vitality and permanent exhaustion... Before, when I was here first I was too shocked: the trauma made me see the city as a big blur. Now I see detail and contrasts, the infinite variety of light and shade." AJTM p.131-132

Still later he writes... "It is a city I love." AJTM p.171

October 19, 2008

Bangkok to Calcutta

October 19, 1968

On October 19, 1968 Merton makes the trip from Bangkok to Calcutta, where he will participate in, and present at, the first Spiritual Summit Conference of the Temple of Understanding. The Temple of Understanding is an interfaith education and advocacy organization established in 1960 and still active today.

Merton shared this prayer with the conference...

O God, we are one with You
You have made us one with You.
You have taught us that if we are open to one another, You dwell in us.
Help us to preserve this openness and to fight for it with all our hearts.
Help us to realize that there can be no understanding where there is mutual rejection.
O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, completely, we accept You, and we thank You, and we adore You, and we love You with our whole being, because our being is in Your being, our spirit is rooted in Your spirit.
Fill us then with love, and let us be bound together with love as we go our diverse ways, united in this one spirit which makes You present in the world, and which makes You witness to the ultimate reality that is love.
Love has overcome. Love is victorious. Amen.

--Thomas Merton AJTM p.318

Sunday Blessings... Rob

I am part and parcel of the whole and cannot find God apart from the rest of humanity.
— Mahatma Gandhi

Thomas Merton and the Wombat

During the past few days I've been getting to know a little more about Thomas Merton and his thoughts on interfaith relations and the unity of all things. It struck me that his wisdom resonates strongly with the wisdom of The Wombat. Possibly a new area of study!! Enjoy!

October 18, 2008

Interfaith Merton

One of the areas in which Merton's message remains vital and relevant for today is in the realm of interfaith dialogue and action. In this Merton was truly a pioneer. His words to Dona Luisa Coomaraswamy in January 1961 express his conviction...
"I believe that the only really valid thing that can be accomplished in the direction of world peace and unity at the moment is the preparation of the way by the formation of men [and women] who... are able to unite in themselves and experience in their own lives all that is best and most true in the various great spiritual traditions. Such men [and women] can become as it were "sacraments" or signs of peace, at least. Our task is one of very remote preparation, a kind of arduous and unthanked pioneering."
Merton speaks of the "the preparation of the way" and sees himself, and his many interfaith friends and correspondents, as part of an advance movement towards greater religious unity. I like his use of the word "sacrament". Merton's interfaith community becomes an outward and visible symbol of the inward and invisible truth of our unity in God's love.
The Unity of God is a focus of some of the correspondence between Merton and his Sufi friend Abdul Aziz. On October 18, 1963 he writes...
"The one thing which we must absolutely confess without any hesitation is the supreme transcendent Unity of God..."
Merton is able to enter this dialogue in a way which allows him to find common ground with Aziz, while at the same time respecting the differences that exist between their respective traditions.
It is inspiring to reflect on the interfaith message of Thomas Merton and his many friends as we engage in our own processes of interfaith dialogue and action today. We are truly surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses!!

Peace and blessings... Rob
"We are one, after all, you and I. Together we suffer, together exist, and forever will recreate each other." Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

October 1968

I turned 11 in October 1968. We were living in Houghton, Michigan,a small town in the Upper Peninsula. I was a sixth grader at Houghton High School. I remember going to see "The Yellow Submarine" at the local theatre for my birthday party. Another movie at the top of our hit list for that fall was "Planet of the Apes".
Some Magazine Covers...
Life Magazine October 18, 1968
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

Esquire Magazine October 1968

Some of the pop music hits of that month include...
  • “Hey Jude” by the Beatles
  • “Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C Riley
  • “Little Green Apples” by O.C. Smith
  • “People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals
  • “I Say A Little Prayer” by Aretha Franklin
  • “Revolution” by the Beatles
  • “Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud” by James Brown
  • "Abraham, Martin and John" by Dion

Abraham, Martin, and John was a comeback single for Dion after recovering from a heroin addiction. This clip fits well for this day in history.

TTFN... Rob

October 17, 2008

Good Morning Bangkok

October 17, 1968
Thomas Merton arrived in Bangkok around 1:00 am on Wednesday October 17, 1968. He missed most of October 16th when he crossed the International Date-line earlier in the trip. After catching up on some sleep at the Oriental Hotel Merton was off to Wat Bovoranives to meet with the English Buddhist Monk Bhikkhu Khantipalo and the Abbot, the Venerable Chao Khun Sasana Sobhanna. In his journal Merton makes reference to a short paper by forest monk Acariya Maha Boowa Nanasampanno which he describes a "spiritual masterpiece".

It is important for me, as a novice student of Merton, to recognize that Merton comes to Asia after many years of study, practice, dialogue, and correspondence in relation to Buddhism and other eastern religious traditions. In his recent book on Merton's letters, "Signs of Peace: The Interfaith Letters of Thomas Merton", William Apel describes Merton as a "pioneer in interfaith understanding". Apel's book touches on Merton's letters with interfaith correspondents such as:

  • Abdul Aziz - Sufi scholar and long-term correspondent from Pakistan;

  • Amiya Chakravarty - Indian teacher and professor with wisdom from both the Hindu and Buddhist perspectives;

  • John Wu - Catholic convert and Chinese scholar who collaborated with Merton in the writing of "The Way of Chuang Tzu";

  • Abraham Joshua Heschel - Noted Hebrew scholar and activist.

  • D.T. Suzuki - Japanese Zen teacher;

  • Glenn Hinson - Baptist professor;

  • Thich Nhat Hanh - Vietnamese Buddhist monk;

  • June Yungblut - American Quaker and peace activist;

  • Dona Luisa Coomaraswamy - Interfaith pilgrim and wife of Indian art historian and philospher Ananda Coomaraswamy.
In his preface to "The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton", Amiya Chakravarty writes... "Readers of Thomas Merton know that his openness to man's spiritual horizons came from a rootedness of faith; an inner security led him to explore, experience, and interpret the affinities and differences between religions in the light of his own religion. That light was Christianity..."

Peace and Blessings to All.... Rob

“Only when we have the courage to cross the road and look in one another's eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God
and members of the same human family.
Henri Nouwen

"What a Wonderful World" 1968

Louis Armstrongs classic "What a Wonderful World" was a hit in 1968. It was written specifically for Armstrong by Bob Thiele as an intended antidote to the racially and politically charged climate of the day. "What a Wonderful World" was featured in the film "Good Morning Vietnam" so I thought this would be a fitting clip for today.


October 16, 2008

Soul Searching

Thomas Merton Leaves for Asia

This is a short clip from Morgan Atkinson's "Soul Searching: the Journey of Thomas Merton".

October 15, 2008

The Journey begins

October 15, 1968
The Asian Journey of Thomas Merton began in earnest when he took off from the San Francisco airport on Tuesday October 15, 1968. He began the trip with the excitement of a child embarking on a long awaited and much anticipated trip.

"The moment of take-off was ecstatic... We left the ground - I with Christian Mantras and a great sense of destiny, of being at last on my true way after years of waiting and wondering and fooling around. May I not come back without having settled the great affair. And found also the great compassion, mahakaruna." AJTM p.4

A little historical context - 1968:
For me these photo's are indelibly inked in my childhood memory.
They need no captions...

To these we could add a host of other pictures that reflect a world in travail... The Derry Civil Rights Marches marking the beginning of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Mai Lai Massacre in Vietnam, The pre-olympic Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico, Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia, Atmospheric Nuclear Bomb Tests... Phew!!! What a year. It's no wonder Merton was in search of the great compassion!

Merton's journey began during the flight of Apollo 7 and the Mexico City Summer Olympics. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was the newly elected Prime Minister in Canada and the U.S. was in the midst of a presidential election to replace LBJ. I remember these events distinctly as a sixth grader in small-town Houghton, Michigan.

Merton wrote to his friends before leaving on his trip to let them know his purpose and hopes in travelling to Asia. His plans were to attend a couple of meetings, visit some monastaries, and learn something of Buddhist monasticism "first-hand". He was clear that his trip was non-political and not linked to the war in Vietnam. He concluded his letter with this thought...

"Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action." AJTM p. 296

Peace and Blessings... Rob

“Be good, keep your feet dry, your eyes open, your heart at peace and your soul in the joy of Christ.” Thomas Merton