The Dalai Lama meets a Christian

'Merton and Buddhism: Wisdom, Emptiness and Everyday Mind' is a volume in the excellent Fons Vitae Thomas Merton Series. It began as a series of papers delivered at a conference in Louisville, Kentucky and then has been shaped into an illuminating and, with its sensitive selection of photographs and quotation, a beautiful book.

I came away from reading it with the phrase 'embodied practice' running through my mind - not only the practice of spiritual living that is (or can be) monasticism (both Buddhist and Christian) but critically that of the arts too. Merton was an accomplished artist, photographer and poet and the discipline of each was put at service both of itself and illumination.

As here, with one of his ink brush drawings, a fish eagerly swallows you up. The only thing to do now is to surrender and lose yourself in the belly of the whale! It is utterly itself - a fish of gaping mouth - and yet one with which you can interpretively play - of Jonah and the whale, of Christ as the fish who is the only place in which life can be found.

What I most liked about the book was the way in which it filled out, supplemented Merton's Asian Journal. A book whose importance to me I cannot measure. For here were considerations of how those that he had met, considered by him in the fleeting texture of his notes, considered him.

Three things emerged.

The embodiment of open, vulnerable, sincerity, a man carrying questions rather than answers, questions that lived. Merton, himself, said that you could judge a person by the questions they asked, not by the answers they carried.

That he conveyed what it meant to be a Christian to several people that he met, that they recognised its potential and reality for the first time. This is what the Dalai Lama felt - this was the first person that he had met that gave him a real insight into what Christianity is.

The man on the threshold of illumination - teetering on the edge of 'getting lost' in the reality that finds you. As Simone Weil pointed out, with regards to the New Testament, the story is never about you finding God but of God finding you, often, I might add, when you shed the illusion that there is a something to be found rather than an everywhere to fall into.

I loved the shimmering, tantalising thought of the Tibetans that after Merton's shattering, sudden death (in Bangkok, electrocuted by a fan) he might be reborn amongst them - and find the next stage in his journey towards enlightenment there. Whatever its 'actuality', it shows the high regard in which they held him.

And here is the man with whom Merton made the deepest connection on that journey: Chatral Rinpoche - a great teacher of the Dzogchen (a strand of Tibetan Buddhism that emphasises the tasking simplicity of realising that you are, right and now, enlightened). They saw each other immediately as vulnerable and open and on the threshold: what might not emerge from that encounter?

I love this photograph - the guru with the packback  - it is so Merton like full of ordinariness and humour. 


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