Being a genuine fake

Thinking of Merton that extraordinary energy of a man: monk and writer. A hermit who craved company; vowed to chastity, given to falling in love; and given to silence and charged with the burning need to communicate.

There is an essay by Alan Watts, a contemporary of Merton's, equally living in paradox, called, 'How to be a genuine fake.' I cannot remember its specific content but I have adopted it as a category of my own. I recall in Kuala Lumper being offered a 'genuine fake Rolex' and when I asked the difference between 'fake' and 'genuine fake' - I was told that the latter would actually work!

To return to Merton he strikes me as a' genuine fake'. A man with a real taste of the contemplative heart, a profound grasp of its intellectual credentials, articulate in its promotion and defence and yet by virtue of his position (and the projections of others) carrying a saintly image that often cost him his humanity, and the possibilities of his transformation. He was a victim of his own articulateness (as many of us are, especially me).  The modern world tends to imagine this as 'hypocrisy' but that seems to me the product of an impoverished sense of aspiration: we tend to outrun our own best selves - they are slower to engage - but that does not imply we should not try to embody them, and possibly in acting them out, imitating our best selves we move closer to them!

I remember lunching one day with Rembert Weakland, then Archbishop of Milwaukee, Benedictine monk and present at Merton's untimely death in Bangkok. He made a compelling contrast that day between Merton and Dom Bede Griffiths, monk and pioneer of a contemplative Christianity at home in Asia, infused with a deep response to Hindu patterns of thought and experience. This contrast was to suggest that it was Dom Bede who was the 'genuine article' that the wholeness/holiness that he represented went deep and permeated the whole of him. He was a man without sides.  Merton saw deeply but his seeing continually outstripped his capacity to absorb what he had seen and allow it to leaven him with new life.

The difference may have been of approach that Dom Bede peeled away slowly the layers towards the truth, each time shedding a confining skin. Merton went to the centre, plunged,  and the confining layers resonated with the centre tasted, loosened but not stripped away.

Maybe it was only a matter of time, Dom Bede's life was long and slow and held in a continuous frame of human warmth. Merton's life was broken by early loss and an accidental death when he was at the threshold of new life as his great experience at Polonnaruwa makes clear. This from the Asian Journal (the full text of which I would like read at my funeral)!

"I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in 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. (* the middle way; ** the emptiness of form)

The thing about this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no "mystery." All problems are resolved and everything is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya*… everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. 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. Surely with Mahabalipuram** and Polonnaruwa** my Asian pilgrimage has 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. (* the eternal nature of life; ** ancient towns in India and Sri Lanka, respectively)"


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