Wheels within Wheels

Thomas Merton, in his preface to his collection of essays titled “Mystics and Zen Masters” (1961-1967, The Abbey of Gethsemani, 1967 FS&G), suggests a closeness in claims of those across cultures attempting contemplative lives:

The great contemplative traditions of East and West, while differing sometimes quite radically in their formulation of their aims and in their understanding of their methods, agree in thinking that by spiritual disciplines a man can radically change his life and attain a deeper meaning, a more perfect integration, a more complete fulfillment, a more total liberty of spirit than are possible in the routines of a purely active existence centered on money-making. There is more to human life than just ‘getting somewhere” in war, politics, business – or “The Church” (viii).

Entering the Church, apparently, does not guarantee a contemplative future. And when Merton asks, “What, exactly, is Zen?” (12), he already knows there can be no satisfactory answer. Writing in the 1960s, Merton was in tune with his Catholic audience under the influence of John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council, which called for an aggiornamento, a modernization, bringing the church up to date.

Merton even suggests Zen, having lost, like Christianity, its Medieval “living power” (254), is in need of an updating. Today, we might ask, What, exactly, is Christianity?

In Christianity the revelation of a salvific will and grace is simple and clear. The insight implicit in faith, while being deepened and expanded by the mysticism of the Fathers and of a St. John of the Cross, remains obscure and difficult of access. It is, in fact, ignored by most Christians (254).