Review by Justin C. Maaia, 2002
Merton, Thomas. Thoughts on the East. New York: New Directions Books, 1995. 84 pp.
Thomas Merton was a Cistercian Monk, one of the strictest monastic orders of the Catholic religion. However, his many and diverse publications had a readership that was anything but strict, as George Woodcock relates in his introduction to Thoughts on the East. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that Merton, while never straying from the orthodox beliefs of the Catholic Church, nonetheless nurtured a great interest and respect for religions that were very different from his own, including Taoism, Hinduism, and different varieties of Buddhism, especially Zen. This small, eighty page book is a collection of Merton’s reflections on these diverse traditions.
While reading Merton’s definitions, characterizations, reflections, and sometimes evaluations of various religions, one is struck by his appreciation of them. Sometimes he writes as if he is a genuine practitioner, as he does in his treatment of Zen. Here, he speaks out against many of the false misconceptions of Zen. They are false precisely because they are conceptions. Even if he never claims to know what Zen is, he nevertheless understands what it is not. His correctness in this is confirmed by Daisetz Susuki, who once remarked that no Westerner had ever understood Zen as well as Merton.
In other places, Merton’s fascination with different religions manifests itself. In these essays, such as the one on Sufism, he does not speak as an insider. Instead, he is struck by the “solidity and intellectual sureness” of its followers. He writes, “ There is no question that here is a living and convincing truth, a deep mystical experience of the mystery of God...” Merton, undoubtedly in touch with what is true and pure in his own religion, seems able to detect what is pure and true in all religions.
Merton does not attempt to integrate all of these diverse beliefs, practices, and experiences into a coherent theory. He is not concerned with the perennialist-contextualist debate of religious experience, nor with the pluralist, exclusivist, or inclusivist poistions of various philosophers, nor with the “reductionist” theories of psychology or sociology. He is far from unreflective, though. Merton is concerned with the experience of what is ultimately real, whether that ultimate be described as God or dharmakaya. He seems to be so struck by his own and others’ experiences that there is little time left for theory. Wonder, awe, and reverence are the reactions that occupy this mystic’s mind, and we are left to piece together what type of a theory he may have held regarding religious experiences. Perhaps he meant to have no theory. Perhaps this in itself, along with his enthusiasm and respect, have something to say about the nature of religious experience. He was certainly not a mindless practitioner or believer, as is evidenced by this book. Consequently, one finds not only information about various religions here, but also an attitude with which to approach religion and possibly even a “theory” of religious experience. Whether that theory is a kind of pluralism without the details worked out, or a fideism, or a bracketing out of all theories, is a matter to be sorted out by researching Merton’s other books and dialogues with religious leaders like the Dalai Lama.