Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, New Directions paper back, 445 pp., $3.45.
Thomas Merton wrote the last entries in his Asian Journal on December 8, 1968, while attending a conference on Catholic monastic affairs in Bangkok, Thailand. He had not especially looked forward to this conference, as he had been in Thailand, India, and Ceylon for about two months prior to it, immersing himself in Buddhism (particularly of the Tibetan variety, to which he was more drawn than say “gauche” Hinduism with its ornate colors) and preparing himself, it seemed, for a break from Catholic orthodoxy (he was a Trappist monk). He had already experienced pressure from his superiors about his “waywardness” and was troubled perhaps by the nightmare of a quasi-inquisition held against him in the 1950’s for his then-radical lifestyle within the Church. In any event, he was looking forward to the conference coming to an end so that he might resume his inquiries into the religious Orient and its mystique.
Those last entries were some of the very few dispirited ones in the book, and two days later he was dead, having pulled a shorted-out electric fan over him after taking a bath in his room. It was a freak accident, and I remember hearing a newscaster announce his death on the late news back in 1968 (I had not read him then and knew him only by reputation as the accomplished poet and writer he was). It was in the papers too, and what struck me most about the event was the seeming precariousness of a tragedy snuffing out a sacred life, as if the other many deaths recorded every day were somehow bearable.
In India, he had found the Dalai Lama intelligent, energetic, compassionate, but removed from the events of the world, and gave him copies of Time and Life to “catch up.” The Tibetans emigreed in India around Darjeeling he found beautiful but living as though in a fairyland.
Merton leaves the reader of his Journal with the irony of the “in” in the East unbalanced by the “out,” as he saw it through western and somewhat worldly eyes. He was much too alive to leave the senses, too much the poet. But his mind was equally nimble, was open to profundity, as is marked by the numerous quotes that fill this book, largely of various and concise signposts along The Path. Enlightenment, one can judge from his selections, was foremost on his mind. It comes as no surprise that toward the end he was considering a retreat in Alaska, “to get as far away as possible.”
What is best in the Journal is its singular beauty and clarity of vision. Singular because not just the quotes from the Buddhist and Hindu sources but the day-to-day description of people and events are sharply defined, moving, and loveable. One would like to have known the man, to hear his warmth and wit convince his Abbot he was not becoming a Buddhist and that his studies of the East were merely for the sake of ecumenism, and then to see him turn and wink to a choir of angels behind him. And then the clarity of vision — he can be likened to a latter-day Erasmus, filled with passion for life and every minute a brilliant presence, finally breaking with dogma imposed by the dreary into the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Driving into any Asian city at night is like driving into, say Flushing, Long Island — except for the coconut palms. Colombo, evidently, is cleaner and better ordered than any of the others I have seen so far: Bangkok, Delhi, Calcutta. (Madras is not bad.) Neat houses, open to the night air, with people sitting peacefully talking inside. Good shops. Gardens. Flowers in the dark. Flowers in lighted shops. Piles of fruit. As usual I am in Hotel Karma. My karma. Nineteen Twenties, British Raj-karma. The faded cream splendor of the Galle Face Hotel. Everywhere I run into it: the big empty rooms, carpeted stairs, slowly turning fans, mahogany floors, where once the Cantabs walked grandly in black tie (at night) or blazer and flannels (afternoon). And the music, too — now American — but still the same songs (names I forget) they played in the Thirties. Meaningless songs that still disturb some dark residue of sentiment somewhere in me, enough to embarrass me, but not much.”
— The Asian Journal
(November 29, Ceylon)
“The path dips down to Gal Vihara: a wide, quiet, hollow, surrounded with trees. A low outcrop of rock, with a cave cut into it, and beside the cave a big seated Buddha on the left, a reclining Buddha on the right, and Ananda, I guess, standing by the head of the reclining Buddha. In the cave, another seated Buddha. The vicar general, shying away from ‘paganism,’ hangs back and sits under a tree reading the guidebook. I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in the wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything — without refutation — without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening. I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into the rock shape and landscape, figure, rock and tree. And the sweep of bare rock sloping away on the other side of the hollow, where you can go back and see different aspects of the figures.
“Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. . . .”
— The Asian Journal
(December 4, Ceylon)
One of a kind.