Thomas Merton's Encounter with Buddhism and Beyond

His Interreligious Dialogue, Inter-monastic Exchanges, and Their Legacy

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Jaechan Anselmo Park
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , April
     2019.
     320 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780814684740.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Thomas Merton’s Encounter with Buddhism and Beyond by Jaechan Anselmo Park, a Korean Benedictine monk, grew out of his doctoral dissertation and offers an overview of Merton’s encounter with Buddhism in the course of his life up until his untimely death in 1968. It also addresses the significance of Merton’s encounter for the ongoing interactions between Christians and Buddhists, and especially those in monastic and contemplative orders, and ends with focusing on the author’s own Korean context.

While Merton’s encounter with Buddhism has been the subject of both full length and briefer studies, it remains the focus of ongoing interest. Park covers most of this ground but what remains to be more seriously addressed is the degree to which Merton’s understanding of Buddhism was an accurate reflection of Buddhist practice in its traditional Asian settings. In particular, Merton’s understanding of Zen as mediated through D. T. Suzuki’s version that essentialized the goal of practice in the attainment of enlightenment.

Park highlights the constraints that Merton felt Christianity was under due to the Hellenistic conceptual framework that informs its theological underpinnings. In his view, it is Buddhist methods of disciplined practice and the attainment of experiential knowledge of inner states of development that might constitute a basis for a renewed Christianity. Merton’s pilgrimage to Asia in order to encounter Buddhist practitioners in situ among the Tibetans and Theravadins is briefly recounted with hints as to what his next steps might have been at the time of his death. It seems that he considered taking up the practice of dzogchen (Great Perfection) under a Tibetan teacher, perhaps Chantral Rinpoche, who had so deeply impressed him.

While Park is clearly familiar with Merton’s encounter with various practitioners, including the Dalai Lama, and though he emphasizes the contemplative and experiential dimension as central to his mission, he does not elaborate on any of the practices.

For those familiar with Merton’s writings, including his letters, journals and diaries, it goes without saying that he was not a systematic thinker, nor offered a consistent perspective on Buddhism or, for that matter, other religious traditions, including his own Catholicism. Merton’s own restlessness that put him at odds with his order’s superiors was finally capitulated to in the agreement to sponsor his pilgrimage to Buddhist Asia. His experiences captured in The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton (New Directions, 1973) are drawn upon by Park and have influenced the ongoing dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism. The task that Merton never took up, namely to consider a more systematic approach to the encounter between these two traditions, is now being assumed by others. Park describes this in the latter part of his book, including the efforts he is part of in the context of South Korea.

About the Reviewer(s): 

F. X. Charet is the coordinator of the Consciousness Studies concentration in the Graduate Institute, Goddard College.

Date of Review: 
August 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jaechan Anselmo Park is a member of St. Benedict Waegwan Abbey in South Korea, where he has been vocation director and director of the Monastic Experience program.

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