Book Note: Zen and the Birds of Appetite

From James Pike it’s now time to take a look at Thomas Merton, a convert to Roman Catholicism who, strangely enough, ended up creating a sort of liberal Catholicism from inside a monastic cell in Kentucky. Perhaps it is significant that his journey to Catholicism took him through many other religious bodies, including liberal churches such as the Quakers. The first book of his to consider is Zen and the Birds of Appetite, which well demonstrates that his turn to Catholicism was not a turn away from appreciation for other forms of religion as well.

Zen and the Birds of Appetite is a somewhat unusual book—a collection of favorable essays about Buddhism by a Catholic monk. Nowadays, partially as a legacy of Merton’s work, we find a number of such books. But back in 1968 it is natural to ask why someone would undertake such a project, which seems to conflict with the sectarian motivations one would expect.

The first thing to be said about ZBA is that Thomas Merton’s understanding of Buddhism and Zen is far less than he seems to think it is. Statements such as “To define Zen in terms of a religious system or structure is in fact to destroy it—or rather to miss it completely (p. 3)”, “Buddhism itself . . . demands not to be a system (p.4, italics in original)”, and “by Zen we mean precisely the quest for direct and pure experience on a metaphysical level (p.44)” demonstrate the sort of Orientalizing and projection characteristic of Western encounters with Buddhism in the fifties and sixties. If anything, Buddhism is a far more systematic religion than Christianity, which took several centuries to organize itself into the coherent doctrines and institutions we are familiar with; whereas the Buddhist “church” (the monastic Sangha) was instituted with its numerous rules by the Buddha, and his first sermon laid out a system of eight progressive trainings designed to bring about religious liberation. Zen too is inherently systematic, with its structured advancement through set sequences of koans and rigid adherence to clearly defined lineages. Merton’s ignorance is most clearly revealed when he states “Zen is not easily classified as ‘a religion’ (it is in fact easily separable from any religious matrix and can flourish in the soil either of non-Buddhist religions or no religion at all) (p.45).” In an absence of exposure to anything except poorly translated textual sources centered on meditation techniques, he has mistaken one strand of Zen (meditation) for the whole tapestry, not an uncommon misapprehension in this time period. Nonetheless, it shows that Merton is not talking about Zen itself, but his idea of what Zen is. Therefore, it is to this idea and its implications that we must look.

His quote from p. 44 provides a pretty good window into what his purposes are for using Zen: “the quest for direct and pure experience on a metaphysical level.” Here his agenda comes into focus, for Merton’s religious journey has been characterized by a desire for such experiences, to be lost in God, soaked in grace, overwhelmed by glory and thus to escape the troubles and limitations of his purely mortal life. He creates a Zen other in order to argue for the place of such mysticism in the face of a “developing Christian consciousness [that is] activistic, antimystical, antimetaphysical (p.29)” and a “Western tendency to focus not on the Buddhist experience, which is essential, but on the explanation, which is accidental and . . . completely trivial and even misleading (p. 38, italics in original).” That scholars no longer feel that experience is privileged in Buddhism any more than in Christianity is beside the point: Merton is not asserting the primacy of Buddhism, but creating a Buddhist doppleganger with which to examine the place of experience in Christianity (and argue for its necessity).

What are the implications of Merton’s call for direct religious experience? He suggests that one needs a “metaphysical intuition of Being [as] an intuition of a ground of openness, indeed of a kind of ontological openness and an infinite generosity (pp. 24-25).” This contact with openness is advocated as a solution to the Cartesian dualism that creates the neurotic self-awareness that Merton feels is characteristic of modern life and all its negativities. He lays this out plainly as the fourth and most important “great need” of humanity: “On the contrary, I might suggest a fourth need of modern man which is precisely liberation from his inordinate self-consciousness, his monumental self-awareness, his obsession with self-affirmation, so that he may enjoy the freedom from concern that goes with being simply what he is and accepting things as they are in order to work with them as he can.” (p. 31, italics in original)

Here we find the heart of Merton’s ZBA project. It is not that he wants us all to forsake Christianity and become good Zen Buddhists, nor that he wants to create some sort of Christian-Buddhist amalgam. Rather, he sees reflected (as in a mirror, seeing his own face) in Zen the image of a religious system that offers a release from the self-centered malaise that he himself suffers from (see Seven Story Mountain), a purifying purgation of the Cartesian cogito that haunts him (and, arguably, all of modern Western society and religion) like a devil ever perched on his left shoulder.

He seeks not conversion, but reform: for Western religion to return to pure experience rather than dogma, for Catholic monasticism to embrace internal mysticism over activism, rite, or comfort: “It is essential to true Christianity that this experience of the Cross and of self-emptying be central in the life of the Christian so that he may fully receive the Holy Spirit and know (again by experience) all the riches of God in and through Christ.” (p. 56, italics added)

In this quest for reform he is surprisingly close to Pike, even though he proceeds in the opposite direction: both feel a deep disease operating within Christianity and seek to revitalize their tradition. While Merton’s emphasis on experience and interest in Eastern religion is similar to that of Leary et. al., his motivation is to restore the health and relevancy of his mainstream religion, not to break with the past in favor of a New Age.

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2 Comments

Filed under Book Notes, Buddhism, Defining Liberal Religion, Liberal Religious History

2 responses to “Book Note: Zen and the Birds of Appetite

  1. Edward G.

    I found your essay interesting and provocative. However, it is not as strongly supported as it could be. For example, if you think Merton’s reading of Zen, and the goals of Zen, are his own invention, then what is the aim of Zen?
    It is hard for me to evaluate how you came to some of your conclusions without more elaboration, or perhaps additional source material.
    Reading your article, I can’t help but feel as if you have presupposed a “sectarian motivation” (as you say) on Merton’s part, perhaps unfairly.

    After all, if everyone’s actions and thoughts are considered as merely the product of their own inner drama, as you portray Merton’s examination of Zen, then language itself is useless – merely putting one’s psyche on display. Someone who thinks this way should be wary of giving away more of themselves than they intended to.

  2. In response to Edward, I’d say while bibliographical reference to the advances in Zen studies since Thomas Merton’s time would be wonderful, a fairly cursory exploration of the current literature supports Transient’s thesis that Merton had limited access to what Zen is actually about.

    If one is not familiar with the literature, John McRae’s scholarly overview “Seeing Through Zen” might be an interesting place to start. My considerably less scholarly effort “Zen Master Who?” also has some material that might be useful in situating the development of western understandings of Zen.

    The rest of the Transient’s thesis, regarding what Merton did with what he knew of Zen is, of course, debatable. I did not come away from it, however, with the feeling that Transient is writing from a purely subjective place, as it seemed Edward was suggesting. Rather, I found it compelling, and for me, cautionary…

    I’m so grateful for this site. I look for more on liberal Buddhism…

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