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

November 30, 2008

Kandy Express

November 30, 1968
Colombo - Kandy
Kandy Express - Grayston Photo

Thomas Merton travels by train to Kandy on November 30, 1968. He is impressed by the low cost of train travel in Ceylon and the private compartment for "clergy".

Kandy Temple - Grayston Photo

Nyanaponika Thera

While in Kandy, Merton visits German-born, Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera. Bhikkhu Nyanaponika Thera is of the Theravada tradition and lives in a hermitage in the jungle near Kandy. Nyanaponika Thera is a co-founder of the Buddhist Publication Society and author of numerous books on Theravada Buddhism. Born Siegmund Feniger in 1901 in Germany, he died in 1994 at his forest hermitage outside of Kandy at the ripe old age of 93. Wikipedia. The Buddhist Publication Society continues its work today as a major publisher of books on Theravadda Buddhism. 2008 is its 50th Anniversary.

Merton was familiar with Nyanaponika Thera's writing including "The Power of Mindfulness: An Inquiry into the Scope of Bare Attention and the Principal Sources of its Strength".

TTFN... Rob

"Ceylon is incomparable!" Thomas Merton

On Love

A reflection on Love from Nyanaponika Thera, "The Four Sublime States".

Love, without desire to possess, knowing well that in the ultimate sense there is no possession and no possessor: this is the highest love.

Love, without speaking and thinking of "I," knowing well that this so-called "I" is a mere delusion.

Love, without selecting and excluding, knowing well that to do so means to create love's own contrasts: dislike, aversion and hatred.

Love, embracing all beings: small and great, far and near, be it on earth, in the water or in the air.

Love, embracing impartially all sentient beings, and not only those who are useful, pleasing or amusing to us.

Love, embracing all beings, be they noble-minded or low-minded, good or evil. The noble and the good are embraced because love is flowing to them spontaneously. The low-minded and evil-minded are included because they are those who are most in need of love. In many of them the seed of goodness may have died merely because warmth was lacking for its growth, because it perished from cold in a loveless world.

Love, embracing all beings, knowing well that we all are fellow wayfarers through this round of existence — that we all are overcome by the same law of suffering.

Love, but not the sensuous fire that burns, scorches and tortures, that inflicts more wounds than it cures — flaring up now, at the next moment being extinguished, leaving behind more coldness and loneliness than was felt before.

Rather, love that lies like a soft but firm hand on the ailing beings, ever unchanged in its sympathy, without wavering, unconcerned with any response it meets. Love that is comforting coolness to those who burn with the fire of suffering and passion; that is life-giving warmth to those abandoned in the cold desert of loneliness, to those who are shivering in the frost of a loveless world; to those whose hearts have become as if empty and dry by the repeated calls for help, by deepest despair.

Love, that is a sublime nobility of heart and intellect which knows, understands and is ready to help.

Love, that is strength and gives strength: this is the highest love.

Love, which by the Enlightened One was named "the liberation of the heart," "the most sublime beauty": this is the highest love.

And what is the highest manifestation of love?

To show to the world the path leading to the end of suffering, the path pointed out, trodden, and realized to perfection by Him, the Exalted One, the Buddha.

Nyanaponika Thera

All You Need is Love

A reflection on love from the Beatles, Yellow Submarine...

November 29, 2008

Madras - Ceylon

November 29, 1968
Galle Face Hotel - Colombo

Thomas has travelled from Madras to Colombo, Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. "As usual I am in hotel karma. My Karma. Nineteen twenties, British Raj-karma. The faded cream splendor of Galle Face Hotel." AJTM p.213

Patio at Galle Face Hotel (Grayston Photo)

Merton pilgrim Donald Grayston was in Colombo in 2000, following in the footsteps of Merton. He snapped this great photo of notables who have stayed at the Galle Face.

Notable notables include...

  • 60's sex symbol Ursula Andress,
  • Worldwide Church of God founder Herbert W. Armstrong,
  • sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke,
  • English actor Noel Coward,
  • Beatles guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,
  • World Bank President Robert McNamara,
  • Trappist Monk Thomas Merton, and
  • US President Richard Nixon.

...to name but a few.

Pretty swank company!!

Good night, sleep tight... Rob

"The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of others! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else's imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real."

Thomas Merton

November 28, 2008

A Day in the Life of Asia

November 28, 2008
Merton's Asian pilgrimage touched primarily on Thailand (Bangkok), India (Calcutta, Delhi, Madras), Tibet (exiles in Dharamsala and Darjeeling) and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). I found it interesting that there was a convergence of significant BBC reports from all of these places over the past few days.

Thai Police Confront Protesters
Protesters force Thai police to abandon a checkpoint as security forces seek to end a blockade paralysing Bangkok's airports. The confrontation at Suvarnabhumi international airport, which came as police tried to prevent more protesters arriving, ended without violence. The police have said they will continue trying to regain control of the sites. But the protesters say they will not leave until PM Somchai Wongsawat resigns, which he has refused to do. BBC 11/28/2008

Police Declare Mumbai Siege Over

Indian officials have said the siege at Mumbai's Taj Mahal hotel is over, after the last few militants were killed. Police commissioner Hassan Gafoor said the hotel was now under their control. "All combat operations are over. All the terrorists have been killed."
Commandos began a new assault early on Saturday as fighting that has claimed at least 195 lives entered a third day
. BBC 11/28/2008

Tiger Leader Makes Defiant Speech
The leader of the Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka has said that the government is living in "dreamland" if it expects outright military victory. In his annual speech, Velupillai Prabhakaran said that it was "a dream from which they would soon awake. BBC 11/27/2008

China Condemns France Over Tibet
China says it had "no choice but to postpone" a summit with the EU because of the French stance on the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. China's foreign ministry said French President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to meet the Dalai Lama had "deprived the summit of a good atmosphere". Mr Sarkozy has said he will meet the Dalai Lama in Poland on 6 December. BBC 11/27/2008

TTFN... Rob

"Each one has to find his peace from within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances."

Which Way You Goin' Billy

More Canadian Content
Vancouverites Susan Jacks and Terry Jacks made a few hits in the late 60's and early 70's before splitting and going solo. Susan has a concert in Maple Ridge tomorrow night... You Go Girl!

November 27, 2008

Madras - Chennai

November 27, 1968
East India Company

"Some important dates in the history of the East India Company:
  • 1639 Fort St. George, which become Madras.
  • 1659 Fort William, a"factory" [trading post], to become the city of Calcutta.
  • 1661 The British acquire Bombay from Portugal.
  • 1686 The Company is at war with Aurangzeb, the Mogul emperor." AJTM p.194

Some important dates in the history of India:

  • 1996 Madras was renamed Chennai.
  • 2001 Calcutta becomes Kolkata reflecting Bengali pronunciation.
  • 1996 Bombay was renamed Mumbai reflecting Marathi pronunciation.
  • 1857 East India Company absorbed by British Government after "First War of Independence".
  • 1947 India gains independence from British rule after non-violent civil disobedience campaign led by Mahatma Gandhi.

San Thome

Merton visits San Thome, Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Thomas. Indian Catholic tradition holds that St. Thomas came to India in 52 AD. He is said to have built several churches and lived for a number of years in a cave on a local hill, now called St. Thomas Mount. The Basilica is believed to have been built upon the burial site of St. Thomas.

"Then we went to San Thome. Smaller than I expected, the cathedral is in an entirely Christian quarter. Its architecture is standard 19th century Gothic, spacious, full of old-style statues, and over the chancel arch the words "Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus." I find the inscription strangely touching. I kneel for a while looking up to the shadows of the sanctuary where all is still as it was before the Council. Then we depart." AJTM p.195

St. Thomas Mount

Grayston Photo

Merton also makes a pilgrimage up the mountain to say Mass at the small church on the summit... "Mass this morning at St. Thomas Mount... I entered the little church and found the high altar prepared. It was delightful, a perfect hermitage, with a few Indian women and a couple of Italians - a priest and a layman visiting their relative, the pastor. I said the Mass of St. Thomas, looking at the ancient gray carved stone that was found on the site... A very lovely little church, so quiet, so isolated, so simple, so fresh... One of the nicest things I have found in India or anywhere. I felt my pilgrimage to it was a great grace." AJTM p.196

Peace and grace to you... Rob

"A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history."
Mohandas Gandhi

What About Me

Here's a little Canadian Content. Anne Murray's debut album "What About Me" was released in 1968. Enjoy!

November 26, 2008

Calcutta - Madras

November 26, 1968
Kolkata - Chennai

"Flying into Madras is lovely. The city is all self-evident, spread out along the ocean with its vast beach, its harbour, its rivers, its broad avenues. Then the plane swings inland over the hot fields, neat, cultivated, green flat land. Many coconut palms. Many huts made of palm-leaf matting. Poor as they are, they weather much better than the somewhat pretentious "modern style" houses that are shiny and bright for a month and go black or gray-green in the first monsoon." AJTM p.192

More Truly India
"Madras is a bright and leisurely city. The people are less desperate than the Bengalis. It is more truly India than Delhi or Calcutta (whatever "truly India" might be-as if I were capable of knowing and defining it!)." AJTM p.192

November 26, 2008 - Mumbai

A World in Travail

"Ten simultaneous terrorist attacks on 26 November 2008 occurred across Mumbai (Bombay), India's financial capital and largest city. At least 101 civilians, including at least six foreign nationals, have been confirmed dead, and at least 287 have been injured." wikipedia

Peace and blessings... Rob

"I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent."
Mahatma Gandhi

Colonial Madras

November 25, 2008

Calcutta - "A-a-a-a-chya!"

November 25, 1968

"It is a city I love. Flying out today was beautiful. I don't mean the bizarre, macabre beauty of the disintegrating slums, the old fallen splendor, but the subtle beauty of all the suburban ponds and groves, with men solemnly bathing in the early morning and white cranes standing lovely and still amid the lotuses and flying up in twos and threes against the fresh green of the coconut palms. Yet the city, too, its crumbling walls alive with Bengali inscriptions and palimpsets of old movie posters. And the occasional English spire, 18-century domes... I do not tire of Calcutta." AJTM p.171

Mail Call!
Merton catches up to his mail, or his mail catches up to him, in Calcutta. His list of correspondence is, of course, long..."There is one from Dom Leclercq... contact prints had come from John Griffin of the photos I had taken in Dharamsala... Mother Myriam Dardenne of the Redwoods... Father Flavian says "Come home if you get sick... Naomi Burton is going ahead with publication of "My Argument With the Gestapo"... The "Time-Life Bible" with my piece in it is coming out after all, so I will have some money. Dan Walsh has sent a big check for my travel fund. Most generous! Bob Lax says Emmett Williams wants some of my stuff for an anthology of concrete poetry. My talk in Bangkok is to be on December 10th..." AJTM pp.171-72

Moving On
With this the Himalayan portion of Merton's pilgrimage is over. He spends a couple of days in Madras, makes a visit to Ceylon, and is then off to Bangkok via Singapore for a talk he is scheduled to give on December 10th, just over two weeks.

November 25, 1963
Today was the state funeral for President Kennedy. We all had the day off school. I distinctly remember watching the funeral on our black and white TV. A sad day for all...

TTFN... Rob

"Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony."
Thomas Merton

November 24, 2008

On the Road Again

November 24, 1968

Merton has travelled from Darjeeling to Kurseong in readiness for tomorrow's flight to Calcutta. He is ready to move on and writes... "My mind turns to Ceylon, Thailand, and Indonesia. I want to see something else. I have seen the mountains and the gompas." AJTM p.167

Harold Talbott
Merton's companion through this stage of his journey has been Harold Talbott, an American student of Buddhism studying under the Dalai Lama. Merton writes of Harold... "Harold left this morning for Bagdogra, Calcutta, Delhi, and Dharamsala. He has been extremely helpful and generous; he paid my bill at the Windamere and shared all kinds of time, ideas, information and help." AJTM p.166

Merton and the Tibetan Lamas
During this brief exposure to Tibetan Buddhism Merton was able to meet many significant teachers. Judith Simmer-Brown writes in "The Liberty that Nobody Can Touch" (found in "Merton & Buddhism:Wisdom, Emptiness & Everyday Mind") that Merton's experience amongst the Tibetan exiles had many of the classic characteristics of the "liberation stories" of the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition. She writes... "First he met a guru who pointed out the prerequisite for the view of Dzogchen, the change of motivation that entails the renunciation of "Spiritual materialism" [Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche]. Then he met two gurus who discussed the importance of the teacher and the essential nonconceptuality of Dzogchen [Khamtrul Rinpoche and Chokling Rinpoche]. Next he received the basic Tibetan Buddhist meditation instruction from His Holines the Dalai Lama. He met the guru who he felt would be his Dzogchen teacher and investigated the parameters of retreat [Chadral Rinpoche]. And then he went on a short retreat to reflect on his Asian pilgrimage, and to ask the question, should I practice Dzogchen?" MB pp.54-55

Not bad for 25 days in November 1968.

An "In the Footsteps" Footnote
Merton Pilgrim, Donald Grayston, recounts a powerful and transformative experience as he followed in Merton's Asian footsteps during a 3-month pilgrimage in 2000-2001. Grayston has an audience with Chadral Rinpoche, one of the great Tibetan masters that Merton met in Dharamsala. During this meeting Grayston finds himself "silently weeping". Ignoring the long list of questions he has prepared Grayston simply asks the great teacher "Do you have a teaching for me?" Chadral Rinpoche responds... "Yes. Decide for yourself what is the most important thing that Jesus ever said, and then take it as far as you can." Grayston carries this thought for several months before the words of Jesus arise within him "Let your yes be yes and your no be no" (Matthew 5:37), something he has been trying to take "as far as he can" ever since. Look for the fuller telling of this story in the winter issue of the Merton Seasonal or visit Don's website.

Calcutta Riots
Merton makes a journal reference to riots that have taken place in Calcutta around the visit of World Bank President, and former US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. Merton writes... "In Calcutta there has been a Marxist riot led by Maoist students. They burned McNamara in effigy and set fire to busses. Tomorrow I will be there." AJTM p.168

November 24, 1963
Here are a couple of events which I note in the wake of JFK's assassination 5 years earlier (Wikipedia)...
- Lee Harvey Oswald is fatally shot by Jack Ruby in the basement of Dallas police department headquarters. The shooting was broadcast live on television. [That didn't take long!]
- Vietnam War: Newly sworn-in US President Lyndon B. Johnson confirms that the United States intends to continue supporting South Vietnam both militarily and economically. [That didn't take long either!!]

Happy trails to you... Rob

"Kanchenjunga has been hidden for three days. I will probably not see it again." Thomas Merton AJTM p.168

You Say You Want a Revolution

This is an interesting video. The audio is Revolution 1 from the White Album. The video is the "single" version of Revolution, a much faster and louder version. Enjoy...

November 23, 2008

Back in Darjeeling

November 23, 1968
Merton's time amongst the Tibetan exiles is drawing to a close. In a couple of days he will be back in Calcutta and then off to Madras briefly before heading to Sri Lanka (Ceylon in Merton's day), Singapore, and finally back to Bangkok.

Kalu Rinpoche (1905-1989)

Today Merton visits Kalu Rinpoche, a Tibetan retreat master in Sonada. At the time of Merton's visit there were 16 Buddhist hermits in three year retreats with Karlu.

Merton writes..."Khempo Karlu [Kalu] Rimpoche invited me to come and make this hermit retreat at his place or, failing that, to write him with my questions. That was very kind of him. With my reaction to this climate at its best and with the noise of the Indian radio in the cottage across the road from the hemitage, I guess it is still Alaska or California or Kentucky for me." AJTM pp.166-67

Kalu Dharma Centers
Kalu Rinpoche went on to become a significant teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Kalu Rinpoche established over twenty 3-year retreat centers in Europe, USA, Asia, and Canada. There is a Tibetan Buddhist Dharma Centre, Kagyu Kunkhyab Chuling, in Vancouver which traces its origin and lineage to Kalu Rinpoche.

All My Life's a Circle

Kalu Rinpoche passed away in Sonada on May 10, 1989. Through reincarnation the lineage of his teaching is maintained. The Third Kalu Rinpoche (Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche) was born on September 17, 1990 and lives in India. This Fall, at the age of 18, Kalu Rinpoche completed the traditional 3-year 3-month retreat.

Peace... Rob

"We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves."
Thomas Merton

November 22, 2008

The White Album

November 22, 1968
The "White Album", released today, is a true classic. It was standard fare at any of the gatherings with my best buddies through highschool. I can still remember every song although I haven't heard most of them for 30 years!

A Little Background
Most of the songs that would end up on "The Beatles" [White Album] had been conceived during the group's visit to Rishikesh, India in the spring of 1968. There, they had undertaken a transcendental meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Although the retreat, which had required long periods of meditation, was initially conceived by the band as a spiritual respite from all worldly endeavours – a chance, in Lennon's words, to "get away from everything" – both Lennon and McCartney had quickly found themselves in songwriting mode, often meeting "clandestinely in the afternoons in each other's rooms" to review the new work. "Regardless of what I was supposed to be doing," Lennon would later recall, "I did write some of my best songs there." Close to forty new compositions had emerged in Rishikesh..." Wikipedia

Some Memorable Tracks

"Back in the U.S.S.R."
"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"
"I'm So Tired"
"Rocky Raccoon"
"I Will"

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"
"Happiness Is a Warm Gun"
"Why Don't We Do It in the Road?"
"Sexy Sadie"
"Helter Skelter"
"Revolution 1"
"Honey Pie"
"Cry Baby Cry"
"Revolution 9"
"Good Night"

Ob-la-di.... Rob

“And in the end, the love we take will be equal to the love we make.”
The Beatles

Back in the USSR

From the "White Album"

Released November 22, 1968

JFK Assassination

November 22, 1963
Houghton, Michigan
I was a first grader at the public school in Houghton, Michigan on November 22, 1963, the day that John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. I remember that the teacher came into our classroom and simply told us that class was dismissed and we were all to go straight home. The images of this tragic event and the ensuing days are etched in my mind... the slow-motion Dallas motorcade, the shooting of Oswald, the flag-draped casket and riderless horse, a child's salute, a family in grief, a nation in mourning.

November 22, 1963
Our Lady of Gethsemani, Kentucky
Merton writes... "When I came down to the monastery from the woods this afternoon one of the novices met me in the door of the novitiate and told me that President Kennedy had been shot and had died, in Dallas, Texas, an hour and a half before. At first I could not believe it. I told him it must be an irresponsible rumour. No, it was quite true... The whole thing leaves one sick. Sick at the madness, the useless ferocity, the aimless violence that marks so much of the life of this country. No matter who killed the President or what his motives were, this act was simply one more in a whole long series of senseless, brutal, stupid, pathological killings." CGB pp.343-44

Merton responds personally with letters to both Jackie and Ethel Kennedy expressing his grief and condolences.

Unfinished Business
The John F. Kennedy Assassination remains one of the great wounds of the American psyche. 45 years later it continues to give rise to powerful emotions and lingering questions. In grief work with individuals and families we often refer to these persisting conditions as "unfinished business". The reality of this unresolved grief and unfinished business is reflected in the ongoing search for truthful answers to the questions of why Kennedy was killed, and by whom. The latest contribution to this work is a book by Catholic peace activist, and Thomas Merton friend, James Douglass.

JFK and the Unspeakable:

In his 2008 book, "JFK and The Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters" James Douglass revisits the Kennedy Presidency in search of his own answers to these unresolved questions. He examines President Kennedy's response to the CIA's "Bay of Pigs" invasion of Cuba, the October 1962 "Cuban Missile Crisis", the Vietnam War, and the Nuclear Arms Race and the resultant relationship with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA, and the corporate leaders in the American Military-Industrial Complex.

Douglass sees a President who is undergoing a significant personal "turning" towards peace on a number of fronts and who has the courage to resist the pressure towards greater military escalation exerted by the military establishment. Kennedy is charting a course towards nuclear disarmament, disengagement in Vietnam, dialogue with Cuba, and peaceful coexistence with Russia. This turning towards peace was enough, in Douglass's view, to mark him for assassination.

Thomas Merton - A Guide and Witness

Thomas Merton figures prominently in Douglass's work. Douglass poses the reader's question... "The reader may wonder why the perspective of a contemplative monk, Thomas Merton, figures so prominently in a book about the JFK assassination. Why is the Trappist monk Thomas Merton my Virgil on this pilgrimage?"

And responds... "Einstein said, "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift towards unparalleled catastrophes." Unless we turn our thinking (and acting) away from war, we humans have had our day. Thomas Merton said it again and again at the height of the Cold War, as did Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy. What the contemplative Thomas Merton brought to that fundamental truth of our nuclear age was an ontology of nonviolence, a Gandhian vision of reality that can transform the world as we know it. The contemplative knows this transforming truth from experience." JFKU p.xi

Douglas further writes... "Thomas Merton has been my guide through a story of deepening dialogue, assassination, and a hoped-for resurrection. While Kennedy is the subject of this story, Merton is its first witness and chorus from his unique perspective in a monastery in the hills of Kentucky." JFKU p.xi

"The Unspeakable"

The concept of "The Unspeakable" is drawn from Merton's "prologue" to his book "Raids on the Unspeakable". Thomas Merton writes... "The Unspeakable. What is this. Surely, an eschatological image. It is the void we encounter, you and I, underlying the announced programs, the good intentions, the unexampled and universal aspirations for the best of all possible worlds. It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said; the void gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss... One of the awful facts of our age is the evidence that it is stricken indeed, stricken to the very core by the presence of the Unspeakable." ROU pp.4-5

James Douglass sees "The Unspeakable" as a kind of "systemic evil" that defies speech. He describes it as "the vacuum of responsibility and compassion" that allows us to deny our complicity in, and to evade our accountability for, the great horrors that are perpetrated in the name of the national interest.


Whew! When I started this pilgrimage with Merton I had no idea of where it would lead. I sure didn't expect to be drawn into ongoing speculation and analysis in relation to the JFK assassination and various conspiracy theories related to it! But there you have it. You can pick up Douglass's book if you want to learn more of his perspective.

What is made clear to me from Douglass's book, from what I've read so far, is that the search for truth and reconciliation in relation to the "unfinished business" of Kennedy's assassination, and many of the traumatic events of the sixties, is far from over...

Remembering and reflecting... Rob

"A man does what he must - in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures - and that is the basis of all human morality." John F. Kennedy

JFK Tribute

November 21, 2008

A Life in Letters

November 21, 1968
Merton notes today that he he has written cards to Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, long time friend Sr. Therese Lentfoehr, Kentucky friends John and Rena Niles, and Tom Jerry Smith and letters to Richard Chi and Nyanaponika Thera.

A Life in Letters
I am absolutely astounded at the volume of letters that Thomas Merton wrote and received. I have a very small sample of these letters in "Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters", recently edited by William Shannon and Christine Bochen; "Cold War Letters", a collection of letters written in 1961 and 62; and various excerpts in other Merton books.

The collection of Merton's letters at the Thomas Merton Center includes over 10,000 letters! They reflect his thoughts on a wide range of interests including everything from peace, politics, and the environment to religious life and contemplation. They also reveal the incredible depth of trust and friendship which developed between Merton and many of his correspondents over the years.

William Shannon and Christine Bochen, in their introduction to "Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters" give an overview of the importance of letters in Merton's life. They write... "Merton's one and only way of reaching his friends was, normally through his writing... Although he chose a solitary life (and reveled in it), he loved people and craved human contact. His letters helped to fill that need and, in the process, created and extraordinary record of Merton's life and the development of his thought." TMLL p.viii

Of course it was a two-way street. Shannon and Bochen further note..."Without question Merton enjoyed receiving letters, as he admitted in one he wrote to Sister Therese Lentfoehr on September 25, 1956: "I do not hesitate to confess that letters from my friends have always and will always mean a great deal to me." TMLL p.viii

Merton himself, in his November 1958 letter to Pope John XXIII describes his letter writing as an "apostolate of friendship".

John Jacob Niles

John Niles, Jackie Roberts, Thomas Merton, Janelle Dishman
(click picture for Niles-Merton information)

One of Merton's Kentucky friends, to whom he writes on this day, is noted American folk music historian and balladeer John Jacob Niles. Niles has written music for a collection of Merton's poems which has come to be known as the "Niles-Merton Song Cycle". Merton made a couple of visits to the "Boot Hill Farm" of Niles in 1967 and 1968 to hear some of the songs but wasn't able to hear them all before he left for his Asian journey.

A Lost Art of Relationship
One cannot help but to note with sadness how much we have lost this wonderful art of relationship. The brevity and haste of the e-mail doesn't come close to establishing the depth of connection established in long term written correspondence. It is ironic that we live in a age with more ways of being connected, e-mail, cell phones, blackberries, etc, and yet are more isolated...

Yours very truly... Rob

"Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company." Lord Byron

November 20, 2008

Happy Birthday Bobby

November 20, 1925
Robert Francis Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925. He died on June 6, 1968 in one of the pivotal events of this violent and tumultuous year, an event that touched Thomas Merton deeply.

In a letter to Kennedy's wife Ethel, Merton writes... "Really it is hard to say anything that is capable of measuring the shock and sorrow of Bobby's tragic immolation. Nowadays we tend to expect almost anything. But there is something particularly awful and traumatic about this, just because Bobby represented the very real hope for the whole country and for the world. He was the only one with a real chance who might have done something very definite for peace. And now it looks like we will be faced with a completely illusory choice at the polls - so much that I wonder if I'll vote at all. At least for the Presidency." TMLL pp.222-23

Merton - Kennedy Connection
Ethel Skakel Kennedy was the daughter of Anne Skakel, "Big Anne", a generous contributor to Gethsemani and Thomas Merton's secretary for a number of years in the early fifties. Merton maintained a correspondence with both Anne, who died in a plane crash with her husband George in 1955, and Ethel.

Ritual Cycle of Violence
Merton was asked by several magazines to write a piece on the assassination of RFK. He declines, writing in a midsummer letter to friends..."I am a bit suspicious of what seems to me to be a growing ritual cycle: murder, public acts of contrition, deploring violence, gestures of appeasement, then everything goes on unchanged and presently there is another assassination. The cycle continues. The sickness seems to be so deep that ritual expressions of sorrow, horror, astonishment, etc., have just become part of the general routine. At such a time perhaps silence is more decent." TMLL p.223 .

Letter of Lament
In the same letter Thomas goes on to lament the critical state of violence in American society which he sees as a systemic infection rooted in fear, "...more especially in the establishment itself, the military, the police, the established forces of order..."

It is in this 1968 letter of lament that Merton writes this familiar and oft quoted piece... "I am against war, against violence, against violent revolution, for peaceful settlements of differences, for non-violent but nevertheless radical change. Change is needed, and violence will not really change anything: at most it will only transfer power from one set of bull-headed authorities to another..." TMLL p.224

Forgetfulness of God
True to his prophetic call, Merton locates the root of the problem of violence in the "forgetfulness of God and prayer". He reveals much about the direction of his vocation in this crucial pre-pilgrimage period when he writes..."I realize more and more that in my own vocation what matters is not comment, not statements of opinion, not judgements, but prayer. " TMLL p.224

Remembering and reflecting... Rob

"Let us pray for one another and try in everything to do what God asks of us." Thomas Merton

If I Had a Hammer

November 19, 2008

A Man and A Mountain

November 19, 1968
Mim Tea Estate

An interesting facet of Merton's time in Darjeeling is his relationship with Mount Kanchenjunga which takes on the role of a character in his journal. Donald Grayston, who made a pilgrimage to Asia "in the footsteps of Merton" in 2000/2001, shares the following "guest post" on the unique relationship of a man and a mountain...

(Grayston photo)

"Merton on his journey practised what his friend David Steindl-Rast called “exposed consciousness,” spiritual openness to all experience, and developed thereby a deep capacity for integration. A notable example of this is Merton’s “quarrel” with Mount Kanchenjunga, regarded as a goddess by Buddhists (AJTM pp. 146-61). He had a magnificent view of the great mountain from the window of the guest wing of the manager’s bungalow at the Mim Tea Estate, where he made a retreat.

(Grayston photo)

Before his retreat, in Darjeeling, he says that the mountain was “a lovely sight but hard to photograph” (p. 135). He then launches into a conversation between himself and the mountain in which he struggles with how his camera had become an instrument of western technological domination (he wanted a good photograph but the mountain was hidden by clouds, i.e., was not co-operating or submitting). Then he had a dream, in which he “saw” the mountain from “the other side,” the Tibetan side, the side he couldn’t see with his physical eyes (p. 152).

This dream, which brought the two sides of the mountain together, ended his “quarrel.” Man and mountain had revealed their true natures to each other; no separation remained." Donald Grayston

About Kanchenjunga (from Wikipedia)
"Kangchenjunga (कञ्चनजङ्घा) is the third highest mountain in the world (after Everest and K2), with an elevation of 8,586 metres (28,169 ft). Kangchenjunga translated means "The Five Treasures of Snows", as it contains five peaks, four of them over 8,450 metres. The treasures represent the five repositories of god, which are gold, silver, gems, grain, and holy books." Wikipedia

Kangchenjunga 1857 painting

"Kangchenjunga was first climbed on May 25, 1955 by Joe Brown and George Band of a British expedition. The British expedition honoured the beliefs of the Sikkimese, who hold the summit sacred, by stopping a few feet short of the actual summit. Most successful summit parties since then have followed this tradition." Wikipedia

TTFN... Rob

"There is another side of Kanchenjunga and of every mountain - the side that has never been photographed and turned into postcards. That is the only side worth seeing." Thomas Merton AJTM p.153

Sikkim Snow Lion Dance

"The "Singhi Chham" or dance of the snow lion, pays homage to the Kangchenjunga peak in the Himalayas, the guardian diety of the Sikkimese and the five smaller peaks that surround it. Bathed in sunlight on tis flanks, the Kanchenjunga takes on the look of a lion with fiery mane - the snow lion of Sikkimese legend. The dance with its enormous masks brings the mythic figure to life as it enacts the legend around Singhi Chham. It is performed at harvest time, ushering in the new year and is especially associated with the Bhutias of Sikkim." (from youtube introduction)

Rocky Mountain High

He was born in the summer of his 27th year
Comin' home to a place he'd never been before
He left yesterday behind him,
you might say he was born again
You might say he found a key for every door
Now he walks in quiet solitude
the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself
to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake

November 18, 2008

Alone on the Mountainside

November 18, 1968

"I'm glad I came here. All morning alone on the mountainside, in the warm sun, now overclouded. Plenty of time to think. Reassessment of this whole Indian thing in more critical terms. Too much movement. Too much "looking for" something: an answer, a vision, "something other". And this breeds illusion. Illusion that there is something else. Differentiation - the old splitting up process that leads to mindlessness, instead of the mindfulness of seeing all-in-emptiness and not having to break it up against itself. Four legs good; two legs bad..."

"...Hence the annoyance with Kanchenjunga, its big crude blush in the sunrise, outside my bungalow window at 5:45. What do I care for a 28,00-foot postcard when I have this bloody cold?"AJTM p.148

Another Day of Discernment

Thomas again takes advantage of a time of silence and solitude to reflect on his pilgrimage and to discern his future.

"I am still not able fully to appreciate what this exposure to Asia has meant. There has been so much - and yet so little... Meeting the Dalai Lama and the various Tibetans, lamas or "enlightened" laymen, has been the most significant thing of all, especially in the way we were able to communicate with one another and share an essentially spiritual experience of "Buddhism" which is also somehow in harmony with Christianity." AJTM p.148

Here or There?
Merton wonders about his future and weighs the options of remaining in the hermitage at Gethsemani, becoming a hermit in India, or doing likewise in Alaska or around "the Redwoods". He indicates that he is not sensing a particular call to Asia, that he does feel it's time to leave Gethsemani, and that things do seem to point towards Alaska or the Redwoods.

Gethsemani is My Monastery

"Another question: would this move be temporary or permanent? I do not think I ought to separate myself completely from Gethsemani, even while maintaining an official residence there, legally only. I suppose I ought eventually to end my days there. I do in many ways miss it. There is no problem of my wanting to simply "leave Gethsemani." It is my monastery and being away has helped me see it in perspective and love it more." AJTM p.149

Have another great day... Rob

"We have what we seek, it is there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.”
Thomas Merton