Review by Justin C. Maaia, 2002
Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1948. 412 pp.
“No Westerner has ever understood Zen as well as Thomas Merton.” This is a remark made by Daisetz Suzuki, the great Japanese Zen master and scholar. It was not made because of Merton’s ability to grasp abstract concepts–it is well known by students of Zen that the essence of Zen is experience, not conceptualization. Nor was it made because Merton had devoted time to practicing Buddhism. Merton had the experience which allowed him to understand Zen, but it was an experience obtained by means much closer to the Western heart than Zen practice. It was an experience gained in a Catholic monastery.
In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton gives the account of his outward and inward journey from life as a worldly, self-indulgent teenager, to his contemplative existence as a Trappist monk. It is this spiritual journey which gave Merton insight into the truths of Zen. If ever an argument can be made for the unanimity thesis of mystical religious experience, it is embodied in the relationship of Merton and Suzuki. On the surface, their traditions are as distant doctrinally as they are geographically. However, the dialogue that ensued between this Christian contemplative and his Buddhist counterpart makes a strong argument for the existence of a “perennial philosophy.”
The book begins by relating all of Merton’s childhood and adolescent experiences that are relevant to an understanding of his development and the spirit of the age in which he lived (and in which we may still live). After this foundation is laid, the events that marked his struggle toward salvation are narrated. It is the story of a struggle to find freedom, and, once obtained, to use it properly; it is the struggle to be an individual, and to be an individual worthy of his/her existence; it is the struggle to find God in a godless world. At times, Merton is ruthless in his criticism of the society in which he lives. However, he does not blame this society, nor pass judgment on it. He only criticizes it because he is a part of it and indeed he embodies it. His transcendence of this state of being in the world, his attainment of a higher level of consciousness, and his ability to embrace the world in a new way are the result of his adversity. Some of this adversity is handed to him, but he admits that most of it is created by him. This self-induced ‘hell’ seems to be all the more dangerous because it is internal and because there is no scapegoat. However, its transcendence through religious experience, and the heaven that follows, are all the more intense because of their dire origins.
At the least, it can be said that the overall structure of such a spiritual journey is the element shared by all of the sages, the mystics, the saints, the bodhisattvas of the many religious and philosophical traditions. How else could Merton have been able to converse so meaningfully with the adepts of so many different faiths? How was he able to help establish the religious dialogue that is so vital today? By reading about Thomas Merton’s life, one may be able to get sense of what lies at the heart of this dialogue. But it is only through one’s own journey that one may be able to truly understand it.