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

December 10, 2008

A Journey Complete

This marks, for me, the end of a significant journey with Thomas Merton. It has definitely been a pilgrimage of discovery and delight! Though this particular stage is over I look forward to Thomas being an ongoing mentor and companion on my own spiritual journey. Indeed, as Merton says of his pilgrimage a few days ago... "the journey is only begun".

Over the next little while I'll be editting this site, adding an index and tags for better navigation, and generally cleaning it up a bit. Then it will remain as a "cyber-memorial" both to Merton's incredible Asian journey and to the tumultuous historical context of his day.

Thanks to all who have visited over the past 8 weeks. It is always nice to have company on a journey! Special thanks to Donald Grayston, who has been a valued guide and companion on this e-pilgrimage (not to mention a great editor!).

Deepest blessings... Rob

"A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No one can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire." Thomas Merton

Merton and Barth

December 10, 1968
Thomas Merton and Karl Barth both died on December 10, 1968. I'm not sure what personal connection this monk and theologian had in life. Merton was obviously very familiar with Barth's work and certainly devotes considerable ink to writing about Barth, the opening chapter of "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander" is titled "Barth's Dream", but I don't know if he ever wrote to Barth.

In any event they share a significant date of passage and are featured together in an article in the December 20, 1968 edition of TIME.

The Death of Two Extraordinary Christians
"One was a Protestant theologian who labored quietly in university towns of Switzerland and Germany for half a century. The other was a Roman Catholic monk who worked hermitlike on his writings in the hills of central Kentucky. But while Karl Barth gave his life to scholarship and Thomas Merton to contemplation, both men were Christian activists who found in the Word a command to do. Barth stood courageously against Nazi totalitarianism. Merton drove himself endlessly in championing the cause of the poor and oppressed. On their journey toward their deaths last week, each brought to his age, and to his fellow man, a message of love that was ardently Christian." TIME read more...

TTFN... Rob

"Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation." Thomas Merton CGB p.12

The Death of Thomas Merton

January 31, 1915 - December 10, 2008
On December 10, 1968 Thomas Merton died of an accidental electric shock from a faulty electric fan in his cottage at the Red Cross Conference Center in Samut Prakan, Thailand. Merton had presented a paper at a conference of monastics that morning.

Merton's Death and Journey Home
For an excellent summary of the circumstances around Merton's death in Thailand and his journey home to Gethsemani I invite you to visit Beth at "Louie, Louie". She posted on this a couple of years ago and it is still a worthwhile read. Read more...

Grayston Reflects
International Thomas Merton Society President Donald Grayston provides the following reflection on Merton's death...

Merton dies at Suwanganiwas, the Red Cross Centre at Samut Prakan, 30 km outside Bangkok, accidentally electrocuted. It is 27 years to the day since he entered Gethsemani, and a mere eight days after his deep experience at Polonnaruwa.

Red Cross Center (Grayston Photo)

His Christian identity was expressed and symbolized for us by the fact that he said mass in Bangkok on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic calendar, two days before his death. I mention this because some commentators have said that towards the end of his life he abandoned Christian faith and became a Buddhist. On the contrary, he opened himself fully to Buddhist experience and understanding, which he much valued, as a fully-formed Catholic Christian.

Death of the Master
Both east and west share four kinds of death—natural causes, accident, murder, suicide. But in the east there is a fifth category, the death of the master. This involves the master gathering his disciples around him, giving them his last words, doing or saying something absurd, and then dying.

So I Will Disappear
The example of this with which we are most familiar is that of Jesus at the last supper, the “absurd” element being his strange words about the bread and wine of the meal being his body and blood. At the conference Merton was attending, all the Catholic participants had read Merton’s books, and were eagerly awaiting his words (pp. 326-43), at the end of which he said “So I will disappear”—this much in the AJTM (p. 343), and followed this with a classically Mertonian comment—“and we can all get a Coke or something” (not included in the AJTM, but clearly audible in the film of his talk).

The Great Compassion
The other monks and nuns who held a vigil after his death said that “In death Father Louis’ [his monastic name] face was set in a great and deep peace ….” (p. 346). He had fulfilled the intention with which he set out on his Asian pilgrimage. He had settled the Great Affair, and had found also the Great Compassion, mahakaruna (see p. 4).

With thanks again to Don Grayston

Peace and blessing... Rob

"Death is someone you see very clearly with eyes in the center of your heart: eyes that see not by reacting to light, but by reacting to a kind of a chill from within the marrow of your own life." Thomas Merton

December 9, 2008

Prelude to a Pilgrimage

I've been reading through some of Merton's 1968 journal entries and correspondence to get a sense of "where he is at" in the period before his pilgrimage. Throughout 1968 Merton expresses a clear yearning for "silence", "real solitude", "deepening", and "transformation". He often says that he is tired of "talking and writing". He also seems worn down by the violence and turmoil in the world. In the wake of Kings assassination he notes that "1968 is a beast of a year". And it was only early April!

I note the following passages from Mertons journals, from "The Intimate Merton" (IM).

March 14, 1968
"Every week now I refuse two or three invitations to meetings and conferences - important ones - but I do not think I can get mixed up in them or that there is any point in so doing... Still a question about Bangkok. This I should go to... But will Bangkok be a place one can get to in Decemeber? Or will the whole place be up in flames?" IM p.321

March 16, 1968
"Almost every day I have to write a letter to someone refusing an invitation to attend a conference or workshop or to give talks on the contemplative life, or poetry, etc. I can see more and more clearly how for me this would be a sheer waste, a Pascalian diversion, participation in a common delusion. (For others, no: they have the grace and mission to go around talking.) For me what matters is silence, meditation, and writing: but writing is tertiary." IM p.322

April 6, 1968
"The murder of Martin Luther King lay on top of the travelling car like an animal, a beast of the apocalypse. It finally confirmed all the apprehensions- the feeling that 1968 is a beast of a year, that things are finally and inexorably spelling themselves out." IM p322-23

April 18, 1968
"The problem of real solitude: I don't have it here. I am not really living as a hermit. I see too many people, have too much active work to do, the place is too noisy, too accessible. People are always coming up here... All I have is a certain privacy, but real solitude is less and less possible here. Everyone knows where the hermitage is, and in May I am going to the convent of the Redwoods in California. Once I start travelling around, what hope will there be?" IM p.323

May 14, 1968
Our Lady of the Redwoods, California: "How many incarnations hast thou devoted to the actions of body, mind and speech? They have brought thee nothing but pain. Why not cease from them" (Astravakra Gita). Reincarnation or not, I am as tired of talking and writing as if I had done it for centuries. Now is the time to listen at length to this Asian ocean. Over there, Asia." IM p.327

May 21, 1968
Gethsemani: "I, for one, realize that now I need more. Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read, to cultivate leisure -otium sanctum! There is a need of effort, deepening, change and transformation... But I do have a past to break with, an accumulation of inertia, waste, wrong, foolishness, rot, junk, a great need of clarification of mindfulness, or rather of "no mind" - to return to genuine practice, right effort, need to push on to the great doubt. Need for the spirit. Hang on to the clear light!" IM p.331

September 9, 1968
"I go with a completely open mind. I hope without special illusions. My hope is simply to enjoy the long journey, profit by it, learn, change, perhaps find something or someone who will help me advance in my own spiritual quest. I am not starting out with a firm plan never to return or with an absolute determination to return at all costs. I do feel there is not much for me here at the moment and that I need to be open to lots of new possibilities. I hope I shall be! But I remain a monk of Gethsemani. Whether or not I will end my days here, I don't know. Perhaps it is not so important. The great thing is to respond perfectly to God's Will in this providential opportunity, whatever it may bring." IM p.337

Until tomorrow... Rob

"The great thing is to respond perfectly to God's Will in this providential opportunity, whatever it may bring." Thomas Merton

December 8, 2008

The Last Posts

December 8, 1968
Journal Entry

Thomas Merton posts the last entry to his journal on December 8, 1968 from the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. For the most part it is a matter-of-fact post, summarizing some the days meetings, events, and preparation for the conference. Ordinary stuff in the duties and labours of a pilgrim!

He says a little more about his "excess baggage" on the fight from Singapore... "They made me weigh my hand luggage, which put me overweight for the economy class allowance, so instead of just paying more for nothing I paid the difference for a first-class ticket, thus covering it with a bigger baggage allowance. And had a very comfortable ride, overeating, drinking two free, and strong, Bloody Marys, and talking to a diplomatic courier for the State Department..." AJTM p.253

Thomas Merton's last journal words... "Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In a little while I leave the hotel. I'm going to say Mass at St. Louis Church, have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation, and then on to the Red Cross place this afternoon." AJTM p.254

December 8, 1968
Letter Home

Patrick Hart and Thomas Merton

Brother Patrick Hart notes in the Postscript that Thomas Merton also wrote to him on December 8th. In the conclusion of what was to be his last letter Merton writes... "I think of you all on this feast day and with Christmas approaching I feel homesick for Gethsemani. But I hope to be at least in a monastery - Rawa Seneg (in Indonesia). I also look forward to being at our monastery at Hong Kong, and may be seeing our three volunteers there (or is it two?). No more for the moment. Best love to all. Louie." AJTM p.257

Peace and blessings... Rob

“It is in the ordinary duties and labors of life that the Christian can and should develop his spiritual union with God.”
Thomas Merton

John Lennon

October 9, 1940 – December 8, 1980

December 7, 2008

Singapore - Bangkok

December 7, 1968
Merton has traveled from Singapore to Bangkok. His last remarks on December 6th reflect his mood and hopes at this stage of his journey. Merton writes... "My next stop will be the Bangkok meeting to which I do not especially look forward. Then Indonesia, a whole new journey begins there. And I am not sure where it will take me or what I can or should plan on. Certainly I am sick of hotels and planes. But the journey is only begun. Some of the places I really wanted to see from the beginning have not yet been touched." AJTM p.238

Excess Baggage
In Bangkok Merton confesses to being "secretly enraged and humiliated by the fact of having overweight baggage yesterday." He engages in a ruthless purging of his belongings and eliminating of everything he won't be needing in the next stage of his journey... (if only he knew!!) "Stupid books I bought can be discarded here or somewhere. I make a desperate plan to finish several books here in Bangkok." AJTM p.248

Herman Hesse - Steppenwolf
Merton appears to be reading "Steppenwolf" by Herman Hesse. It is probably one of the books he is desperately trying to finish!! He quotes from it in his journal on both the 6th and 7th of December. He was reading "Siddhartha" by Hesse at the start of his Asian journey.
He quotes from "Steppenwolf"...
  • "Most men will not swim before they are able to." Novalis, quoted with approval by Hesse's "Steppenwolf".
  • "The human merry-go-round sees many changes: the illusion that cost India the efforts of thousands of years to unmask is the same illusion that the West has laboured just as hard to maintain and strengthen." Herman Hesse: "Steppenwolf"

Bye for now... Rob

“Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” Hermann Hesse

Steppenwolf - Trilogy

Steppenwolf - "Born to be Wild"
And finally to complete the "Steppenwolf Trilogy"... here's "Steppenwolf" with the classic 1968 Hit "Born to be Wild" as made famous in the 1969 film "Easy Rider". Note that at the time of recording this song the band "Steppenwolf" had really no idea of what the book "Steppenwolf" was about! (See Below) Enjoy Anyway!

About the Name
John Kay of "Steppenwolf" notes... ''Steppenwolf" was originally a book written by Herman Hesse (a German author), and it was a book I was totally unfamiliar with when the band that became Steppenwolf was in its infancy. The young man who lived next door to where Steppenwolf started to rehearse... had read the book. When it came time to put a name on the demo box that was going to go to the first label, he said... 'Well look, how about Steppenwolf? I think it's a word that looks good in print, and it denotes a certain degree of mystery and power and you guys are kind of rough and ready types." Everybody said that sounds pretty interesting and if we don't get a deal we can always scrawl another name on the box and send it to somebody else, so let's go with that for now. Well, that's what it's been now for many years and, to be honest, it's been a very good name." Steppenwolf Website

Pretty superficial inspiration! "Born to be Wild" seems to resonate with the theme though... coincidently or not!
TTFN... Rob
PLEASE NOTE: There is no truth to the rumour that Donald Grayston is leading a Harley Davidson pilgrimage from Vancouver, BC to Gethsemani, Kentucky in 2010!

December 6, 2008

Another Snapshot in TIME

December 6, 1968

TIME Magazine's December 6, 1968 edition provides a snapshot of the world in this week preceding Merton's visit to Bangkok.

Poised for the Leap
"This month, fulfilling the yearnings and predictions of untold generations, man will attempt to propel himself across 230,000 miles of emptiness in a bold voyage toward a shining and beckoning target: the moon." TIME

Chicago Examined:
Anatomy of a "Police Riot"

"In Chicago, during the Democratic National Convention last August, two American rights collided headon: the acknowledged right to dissent within certain limits, and the equally valid right of a city to protect its citizens and its property... Months after the event, the conflict remains significant and symbolic of the deep divisions, the warring judgments in American society." TIME

Normalization, Almost
"The Russian invaders have almost succeeded in "normalizing" Czechoslovakia to their satisfaction. Last week one of the few remaining and most popular of Alexander Duběek's reforms vanished when the government announced sweeping new controls on foreign travel. From now on, Czechoslovaks are prohibited from taking trips to the West "not conforming with state interests." TIME

Keeping Biafra Alive
TIME has an interesting article on the ongoing war between Nigeria and the break-away state of Biafra. The situation in Biafra is typical of the tragic violence of post-colonial Africa... a brutal violence involving an intersection of tribal rivalries, colonial powers, super-power politics, famine, and lucrative resource development, in this case oil. The Biafrans are being armed by the French (and others) the Nigerians by the British, starvation strategies and civilian massacres abound. From out of this chaos would emerge a new international aid organization that remains active today, "Médecins Sans Frontières" (Doctors without Borders).

More Ferment
Another story speaks of the continued unrest in Pakistan with President Ayub Khan ordering the arrest of "Pakistans Peoples Party" (PPP) leader Zufikar Ali Bhutto. TIME notes: "...last week, in one of Pakistan's most turbulent periods since independence in 1947, thousands of angry citizens, mostly students, surged through the streets virtually every day in protest against Ayub's rule."

Footnote:Bhutto would eventually become the leader of Pakistan before being executed in 1979. His daugther, Benazir, served twice as Pakistans Prime Minister and was seeking another term before she was assassinated in December 2007.

Miscellaneous Chaos
Other TIME stories on this day include...
  • civil unrest and protests in Egypt,
  • the 1968 currency crisis,
  • challenges facing Nixon in Vietnam and the Middle East,
  • an epidemic of airline hijackings,
  • plans for a new US "super-sonic" bomber, and
  • a review of a new book on the JFK assassination.
Just a few of the stories from December 6, 1968...


"Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land... he is the harbinger of death." Planet of the Apes 1968

Beware the Beast Man

Planet of the Apes - 1968

December 5, 2008

Merton's Three Epiphanies

Gary Commins wrote a wonderful piece in "Theology Today", "Thomas Merton's Three Epiphanies", in April 1999 describing three significant epihanies in Thomas Merton's life. He summarizes these three events as follows...

  • Havana, Cuba, 1940: Thomas Merton goes to church and sees heaven.
  • Louisville, Kentucky, 1958: He goes to town and sees the human race.
  • Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, 1968: He goes to Asia and sees creation.

St. Francis - Havana

"One experience came as a "thunderclap," another woke him "from a dream," the third "suddenly, almost forcibly" yanked him into a deeper level of awareness. The events and his interpretation of them are markers of his personal transformation, stations on his journey with Christ, icons through which to gaze into Merton's personal eternity." Gary Commins

Fourth and Walnut

After some insightful analysis of each of these events Commins goes on to say...

"In Havana, he had seen heaven; God belonged to him. In Louisville, he had seen the human race; they belonged to one another. At Polonnaruwa, the inert rock pulsated with divinity, reality, life: all matter was charged with compassion, the cosmic body of Buddha, the essence of all things. He had seen emptiness (sunyata) and compassion (karuna), the primary elements of enlightened-mindedness, the All and the Nothing of St. John of the Cross. Theologically, he had written, there were differences, but psychologically, there was "an exact correspondence between the mystical night of St. John of the Cross and the emptiness of sunyata." All religions, Merton had said, end up "with the simplest and most baffling thing of all: direct confrontation with Absolute Being, Absolute Love, Absolute Mercy or Absolute Void." Gary Commins


Regretably Merton was not afforded the opportunity to subject his Polonnaruwa experience to the kind of reflection, interpretation, and presentation that he applied to the Havana and Louisville experiences. Perhaps that is how it should be. We are left with the simple yet profound remarks of a person who has realized in large measure the goal of a great quest, to "settle the great affair" and find "the great compassion".

Holy Ground

As a minister I am often blessed to hear personal stories of "epiphanies" and experiences of "The Absolute", in whatever way they choose to name it. Often a person will relate a story of an experience, a dream, or a sense of "presence" which they clearly know connects them with God, the Holy, the Spirit, the Ancestors... For some, they will choose not to share this experience with friends or family because they feel it will not be believed, understood, or respected. But for most of them the common result is a deeper faith grounded in an experience which lets them say with confidence "I KNOW", or "I HAVE SEEN", or "I BELIEVE". When I find this in a person I am always inspired by how much a single "epiphanic episode" can sustain a lifetime of faith and compassion in the midst of trials and suffering. Merton's contemplative gaze on all things helped him to live in a place that most of us experience only fleetingly, if ever. We are truly blessed by what he has written and shared of his experiences!

Advent Peace and Blessings... Rob

"Buddhist words such as compassion and emptiness don't mean much until we start cultivating our innate ability simply to be there with pain with an open heart and the willingness not to instantly try to get ground under our feet." Pema Chodron

The Fool on the Hill

A clip from the Magical Mystery Tour movie...

December 4, 2008

Colombo - Singapore

December 4, 1968
"Today I fly to Singapore and the long day of sitting around has begun..."

Asian Kites

"Outside on Galle Face Green the kites rise and dip in the strong sea wind - wild and happy Asian kites - two like big black dishevelled and long-legged birds that flap and jump in the wind. Others with long spotted tails twist in the air like freckled dragons or serpents. Others have unidentifiable shapes. Asia is a kite-loving continent; there were wrecks of small Tibetan boys' kites on all the roofs and wires of Darjeeling." AJTM pp.228-229

The Beatles in Vancouver
December 3, 2008

(where's Thomas)

Last night I had a great opportunity to do a "historical context" fieldtrip as part of this "e-pilgrimage". My daughter Morgan (22) and I took in the "Classical Mystery Tour" as it passed through Vancouver. The "Classical Mystery Tour" is a Beatles tribute band who play with symphony orchestras (Vancouver Symphony in this case) to create an incredibly AWESOME concert experience. I had to imagine everyone there as 40 years younger but otherwise it was a great trip to 1968. The evening included 37 songs from throughout The Beatles history. We enjoyed every one of them from our front-row seats!!

TTFN... Rob

"Life is very short and there's no time, for fussing and fighting my friend."
The Beatles

The Beatles - 1968

December 3, 2008

Kandy - Colombo

December 3, 1968
"The mountains are all buried in rain-mist. The valleys are full of it..."

Merton takes the "Kandy Express" back to Colombo and the coast. A piece of his poetry from this day...

Rattling down the mountain
the Kandy Express sings
Tsongkapa, Tsongkapa, Tsongkapa
Praise of Yellow Hats.
Mirigama East.
Pink orchids among coconuts.

That which grew slowly toward me on Friday
Flies rapidly away from me Tuesday.
I have seen that buffalo before
I have seen that boy before.

No man twice crosses the same river.

I have seen that felled coconut trunk before.

We rush blindly
In a Runaway train Through great estates
Headlong to the sea...
AJTM p.227


Peace and blessings... Rob

"Wisdom can be found traveling." Sri Lankan Proverb

December 2, 2008


December 2, 1968

Grayston Photo

Thomas Merton visited the ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa on Monday December 2nd, 1968 and wrote about it on Thursday, December 5th. (AJTMpp. 231-236) With another "guest post" Donald Grayston provides the following reflection, and accompanying pictures, regarding this significant day in Thomas Merton's pilgrimage and life. (For the fuller meaning of this event it needs to be read in conjunction with Don's post regarding Merton's visit with Chadral Rinpoche several weeks ago in Dharamsala link here)

I Have Now Seen...
Merton’s time with the great statues of the Buddha at Polonnaruwa, carved out of the living rock, was the high point of his journey. He says that he was “knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures,” “jerked clean out of the habitual half-tied vision of things” (p. 233).

Grayston Photo

Merton speaks of his Asian pilgrimage as having come clear and purified itself. “I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don't know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise. This is Asia in its purity ….” (p. 236).

Grayston Photo

Emptiness and Compassion
By experiencing the union of “emptiness” and “compassion,” Merton had reached what Buddhists would call the first level (there are nine more) of bodhisattvahood—the bodhisattva being the realized human being who, having been enlightened, postpones his enjoyment of Nirvana until all other beings can join him or her in that enlightened state.
With thanks to Don Grayston... Rob
"I don't know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination."
Thomas Merton on Polonnaruwa

2001 A Space Odyssey

2001 was released in April 1968. It's a fitting post for today in that Arthur C. Clarke lived in Colombo, Ceylon during the time of Merton's visit, and until the time of his death earlier this year. No wonder he is a noted guest at the Galle Face Hotel!! This brief clip also fits Merton's "epiphany" experience in Polonnaruwa... Enjoy!

December 1, 2008


December 1, 1968
"He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." Prophet Isaiah

"Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." Matthew 24:42


Advent in Kandy

"It is hardly like any December or Advent I have ever known! A clear, hot sky. Flowering trees. A hot day coming. I woke at the sound of many crows fighting in the air. Then the booming drum at the Temple of Buddha's Tooth. Now, the traffic of buses and a cool breeze sways the curtains. The jungle is very near, it comes right to the top of the city and is visible a bare hundred yards from this window. Yet I am on a very noisy corner as far as traffic is concerned." AJTM p.219

Merton spends the first Sunday of Advent with Bishop Nanayakkara. They visit a local monastery, a seminary, and an Anglican ashram. He has some quiet time in the afternoon - "...I walked a little by the lake in the cool breeze, thinking of my Advent sermon to be preached in the cathedral where I said the most crowded evening Mass." AJTM p.220

Advent Prophets
Advent is, of course, a wonderful time of the year to remember the prophets. Merton would be familiar with the cycle of Advent readings, including the two above, which likely would have been the readings for the First Sunday in Advent in Kandy in 1968. Thomas Merton lived and wrote in the tradition of the Prophets.

Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr describes the prophet not so much as "one who sees into the future", but rather as "one who sees clearly in the present". It's less about "foresight" and more about "insight". The prophet is one who stands in the midst of the community, tells it like it is, and says WAKE UP! Merton was such a prophet.

Fiery Words
Merton's passion for the prophets is reflected in a short piece he wrote about a "typical day" in the Gethsemani hermitage. In "Day of a Stranger" Merton writes..."There is the deep vegetation of that more ancient forest than mine: the deep forest in which the great birds Isaias and Jeremias sing. When I am most sickened by the things that are done by the country that surrounds this place I will take out the prophets and sing them in loud Latin across the hills and send their fiery words sailing south over the mountains to the place where they split the atom for the bombs in Tennessee." WTSN p. 170

Advent with Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton will be my companion through Advent thanks to a little book published by the Redemptorists "Advent and Christmas with Thomas Merton." A sample...

"Many of the Zen stories which are almost always incomprehensible in rational terms are simply the ringing of an alarm clock, and the reaction of the sleeper. Usually, the misguided sleeper makes a response which in effect turns off the alarm so that he can go back to sleep. Sometimes he jumps out of bed with a shout of astonishment that it is so late. Sometimes he just sleeps and does not hear the alarm at all..." Thomas Merton - Zen and the Birds of Appetite

Good night... Rob

"To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion—all in one."
John Ruskin

Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

A beautiful version sung by Loreena McKennitt. I also love the forest scenes!!

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