Thomas Merton: Abiding In Christ

Last year in the May 23 issue (“The Refiner’s Fire,” pp. 21–24) we printed an article by John Leax about the poetry of Thomas Merton; his writing and contemplative lifestyle have become important to many young evangelicals. After that article was published we received several enquiries about Merton’s shift in later life from Christianity to Buddhism. Here is Leax’s reply.

Following the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton was continually beset by the rumor that he was, for one reason or another, abandoning his monastic vocation. When he left Gethsemani, his Kentucky monastery, in October, 1968 to visit the Orient, this rumor gained a specificity it had previously lacked: Merton was converting to Buddhism. As unlikely as such a conversion sounds, one must consider the testimony of Merton’s last years carefully before discounting the possibility. Not only had he been studying Oriental religions for some years, his essays on Buddhism had seemed to many far too sympathetic to have been written by an orthodox Catholic monk.

Merton probably intended to edit the three journals he had kept while in Asia. If he had lived to do so, many of the ambiguities that puzzle his readers would have undoubtedly been removed. But his accidental death by electrocution in Bangkok left the journals incomplete. Wisely Naomi Burton, Brother Patrick Hart, and James Laughlin, his editors, concentrated on arriving at an accurate text of the journals and studiously avoided guessing at Merton’s sometimes obscure intentions. This unfortunately creates difficulties for the reader of The Asian Journal seeking to understand the full depth of Merton’s involvement in Buddhism.

Merton’s comments on the possibility ...

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