Sunday, May 22, 2011

Thomas Merton and Buddhism
Maimon Schwarzschild

First Things has published a fascinating piece about the monk and mystic Thomas Merton and his relation to Buddhism.  The article is by William Theodore de Bary, who knew Merton as an undergraduate at Columbia in the late 1930s.  de Bary himself has had a long career in Asian Studies at Columbia: I remember him as a formidable character on campus when I was at Columbia in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Now older than 90, de Bary is still teaching at Columbia.

The article is interesting in lots of ways.  First, there is Thomas Merton himself, probably the most famous American monk and Catholic mystic of the 20th century, noted for his sympathetic promotion of "Eastern" religion.  At Columbia, Merton and de Bary and their friends were a "fun-loving crowd" with "a strong enthusiasm for the jazz then thriving in nearby Harlem at the Apollo Theatre":

In this group what probably recommended me as a freak along with the other Jester clowns was the fact that I studied Chinese, one of just two undergraduates in a Chinese-language class that included two missionaries, the singer Paul Robeson, and a German spy who used her studies at Columbia as a cover for her espionage. Columbia was one of the few American colleges that offered Chinese in the 1930s. It was only much later that Merton got around to studying Chinese—and then mostly the mystics.

de Bary's article beautifully evokes the bygone Columbia which produced such diverse characters as Merton, Robeson, and a little later, Allen Ginsburg (all well before the New Left apotheosis of Columbia 1968).

But the real point of the article is that de Bary thinks Merton misunderstood Buddhism.  Merton wanted Buddhism to be mystical and "other-worldly" - just as he wanted Christianity to be.  That's why Merton disliked and ignored Confucianism: it is too worldly.  But de Bary shows that the Buddhist classics, too, had a strong element of worldly ethics and wisdom.  This side of Buddhism wasn't sympathetic to Thomas Merton, with his bent toward mysticism and "spirituality", and Merton couldn't or wouldn't recognise it.  The result was that Merton, who helped to popularise "Eastern spirituality" in the West, really misconstrued and misrepresented Buddhism.

Right or wrong, one thing de Bary clearly demonstrates is that "Eastern Religion" doesn't have to be a woolly, nebulous, and soft-minded topic.  de Bary writes (and reminisces) charmingly, but he is incisive and analytically sharp: a model of intellectual clarity.  It's a lovely article.  Read the whole thing.

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Maimon Schwarzschild


Odd, but gratifying to read. In response to a challenge, I tried to read some historical Buddhist literature in the early 90's and had the impression it was different from what its Western exponents said it was. I discarded the thought, thinking it was just my own ignorance.

I think American Buddhism is going to remain woolly, nebulous, and soft-minded. That's a feature, not a bug, so far as I can see. It is quite delicious to always be able to veto anything others say about your beliefs as ignorant, because they just don't have the deep understanding you do.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot | May 23, 2011 5:07:47 PM

the Buddhist classics, too, had a strong element of worldly ethics and wisdom

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