Thomas Merton and the Synergy of Christianity and Buddhism


Michael Orion Deschamps (Powell) I Spirituality & Religion I Commentary I December 20th, 2014



I had a very interesting conversation with a good friend recently. My friend is a lifelong Catholic who has attracted more recently to evangelical faiths of the "personal savior" variety. I mentioned to him Thomas Merton, who he had never heard of, much to both my surprise and his.

My friend is more on the fundamentalist spectrum of things, which is okay - unlike many progressive Christians, I don't think fundamentalism is completely out of bounds. I told my friend about the parallels between Buddhism and Christianity, and he began to say he was "worried" that Merton was trying to equivocate the two faiths when Christianity is the "ultimate truth." As a whole, however, my friend was receptive and was very interested in the idea that Buddhism, founded in a much different part of the world at a much different time, formed very similar theological practices and outlooks.

In Merton's last address, in Bangkok, Thailand, he said that as Western Christians who have an "openness with Buddhism, with Hinduism and with great Asian traditions, we learn more about the potentiality of our own traditions because they have gone from the natural point of view so much deeper in to this than we have."

When Merton met with the Dalai Lama in the late 1950s, His Holiness was the subject of vicious international bullying and harassment - as Merton put it in his last address, the Dalai Lama "made every effort to coexist with the Chinese government and he failed." He had been expelled from his own country, Tibet, and met with the most baseless forms of disrespect from Chinese politicians. Much of Western notions of Buddhism may have been shaped around that experience. The Buddhists of Tibet became a pet project of many American celebrities, and the 1990s were a crescendo for Western sympathy with Tibetan Buddhists. Perhaps due to the fall of the Soviet Union and a general lack of problems at home in the United States, there was a renewed focus on Chinese mistreatment of Tibet. Buddhist convert Richard Gere campaigned quite a bit for the cause, and films and fundraising occurred, with the Dalai Lama receiving a great deal of adoration. One of my favorite film portrayals is Seven Years In Tibet - in that film, we see the Dalai Lama put an extra effort in to provide olive branches for Mao Zedong, only to see those branches stomped out. It is hard not to sympathize with the story of Tibetan Buddhism; and, to some level, Buddhism as a whole has entered a narrative similar to that of Native Americans and their spirituality - unable to fight back against a more powerful force of exclusion and modernity.

Many new age mystics seem to approach Buddhism as some sort of unitary philosophy, free of the rough edges and exclusion of other faiths. Buddhism almost seems like the "safe" religion - not demanding a belief in any one God or divinity. The Buddhist notion of suffering and of loss is not for everybody, however. It is quite blunt and harsh. It talks very somberly about certain realities, preaches restraint on many levels, and doesn't provide some of the more hearty promises found in other religions.

In Christianity and Buddhism, a late 1960s book by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Bhikkhu says that neither the Buddha nor Christ sought to create utopia. They both accepted that the world and mankind were imperfect. He cites scripture - "Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets: I did not come to abolish, but to complete." (Matthew 5:17)

In a recent book by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman, Glassman, a Zen master, cites that Buddha proclaimed very bluntly that life is suffering. Siddhartha Gautama lived a life of privilege before he attained enlightenment, and his seclusion and meditation was in no small part a response to the inequality that he saw. It is hard not to see similarities between Gautama's disgusted response to inequality and his participation in it and Christ's proclamation to his followers that "what you do to the least among you, you do to me." It also is not difficult to see a similarity between Buddha's proclamation that 'life is suffering' and one of the narratives most critical to Christianity - Original Sin.

Buddha says that life is suffering and, in Christianity and Buddhism, Bhikkhu says that the most desirable outcome for which humans who realize this must strive for is "overcoming evil or mental impurity or defilements." In the Buddhist narrative, evil can be easily pinpointed as whatever causes suffering. Christianity doesn't combat this narrative but actually gives it a basis that Buddha, who never claimed to be any sort of messiah, did not provide. The notion of Original sin explains that: while not all people are necessarily evil, they all have evil and the capacity for evil in them. Bhikksu reiterates this critical theological point when he says "each individual professing any religion has the problem of overcoming the evil." In other words, a central theme between the two is that evil is something all people of all nationalities and origins are faced with and must reconcile for themselves.

Beyond just simple theology, the similarities between Buddhism and Christiniaty go much deeper, including but not limited to their respective origins. Its place of origin, India, Buddhism is the fourth most popular religion. This rejection of Buddhism naturally pushed its adherents up through China and throughout Asia, where it enjoyed much more success. Christianity, likewise, proved much more successful in Europe than it did in its place of origin, the Middle East.

If you've ever been in a Buddhist temple, you may have noticed some eerie similarities with Catholicism in particular. The decorative robes, the shaved heads, chanting, and prayer beads all are quite similar, as are the institutions of monasteries as productive cooperatives in which a pursuit of truth is married with production for the community at large.

Merton never completed his exploration of eastern religion. This likely was not because he felt unfulfilled by his own faith, but rather because he recognized that the search for truth was universal and had been explored much similarly and to similar conclusions throughout the world. Far from negating the truth of Christianity, Christians should look to Buddhism for enhancement.