By the time he boarded the Pan American flight that began his journey to Asia, TM had already been engaged in dialogue with the continent’s spiritual traditions for many years. And on that Tuesday, October 15th, the 53-year-old Trappist monk was filled with an almost dreamlike excitement:
The moment of take-off was ecstatic. The dewy wing was suddenly covered with rivers of cold sweat running backwards. The window wept jagged shining courses of tears. Joy. We left the ground – I with my Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny, of being at last on my true way after years of waiting and wondering and fooling around. May I not come back without having settled the great affair. And found also the great compassion, mahakaruna …. I am going home, to the home I have never been in this body. 1
Given the topic of Julian’s Revelation and further, given the extent to which TM identifies “great compassion” as being central to his Asian pilgrimage, it might be beneficial to reflect on the meaning of the word “mahakaruna.” 2 It is a Sanskrit word made up of two parts, “karuna” meaning “compassion” and “maha” meaning “great.” 3 And it can convey a sense of “taking personal responsibility to free all sentient beings from misery and leading them to enlightenment.” 4
One of the primary Buddhist figures with whom TM began a significant dialogue – in 1959 – was the Japanese scholar, D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966), 5 who was, among other things, “a prolific translator of Chinese, Japanese, and Sanskrit literature.” 6 In 1932, Dr. Suzuki published a translation of The Lankavatara Sutra, a Sanskrit Buddhist text dating perhaps from the time of Christian writers such as Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, and John Chrysostom. The following excerpt is taken from a section of the sutra which Dr. Suzuki entitles, “The Buddha as Love.” It begins to offer a sense of that for which TM was seeking:
[It is the] great love (mahakaruna) of all beings, which never ceases until everyone of them is happily led to the final asylum of Nirvana; for he refuses as long as there is a single unsaved soul to enjoy the bliss … to which he is entitled by his long spiritual discipline. The [Buddha] is indeed the one who, endowed with a heart of all-embracing love and compassion, regards all beings as if they were his only child. 7
This depiction compliments beautifully the divine love that Julian’s introduces in Chapter One of her text. It too is a state of ego-lessness, manifested dramatically in the work of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, but expressive of the entire triune life of God. While possibly jarring to our contemporary spiritual sensitivities, Julian even speaks of the “liking” and the “joy” that the Blessed Trinity has “in the hard passion of Christ after his rueful dying.” 8 At first, it might appear that Christ’s actions were at some level separate or detached from the other Persons of the triune God. But Christ’s selfless actions are clearly not his own alone. They are naturally, seamlessly consistent with the divine love which flows out from the very heart of God. Pleasure and even “joy” are then the result of such love freely and abundantly expressing itself. As Professor McGinn affirms, Christ’s “redemptive work” is thus “a manifestation of the trinitarian love that is the root of all existence.” 9
- The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. Edited from his original notebooks by Naomi Burton, Brother Patrick Hart & James Laughlin. New York: New Directions Books, 1975, pages 4-5. Scanned copy via Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/isbn_0811205703
- The theme of love embraces the entirety of Julian’s text, with the word “love” itself occurring “more than four hundred times” in the Long Text alone. See editors’ note in Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, page 123.
- Geshe Lhundub Sopa with Beth Newman, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, A Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, Volume 3, The Way of the Bodhisattva. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008, page 56.
- Geshe Lhundub Sopa with Beth Newman, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, A Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, Volume 3, The Way of the Bodhisattva. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008. page 57. Geshe Sopa expands upon this sense of personal responsibility, teaching that such love and compassion does not “consist of merely thinking how wonderful it would be if all sentient beings had happiness and were free of suffering … it is taking up the burden to make it happen oneself … it is deciding, ‘I must remove all sentient beings from samsaric misery. I must provide them with happiness.” (Page 56; Geshe Sopa’s emphasis.)
- In a journal entry dated, “March 15, 1959, Passion Sunday,” TM notes, “Wrote a letter on thin paper, with two pages of quotes from the Desert Fathers and sent the lot to Suzuki in Japan. I hope it all reaches him, and that he will write a preface to the little D.F. [Desert Fathers] book. No one else is either so worthy or so capable of doing it.” The editors of TM’s journal of this period offer the following note for this entry: “Suzuki’s preface, in fact, did not appear in The Wisdom of the Desert, but did appear in an appendix to Zen and the Birds of Appetite.” Thomas Merton, A Search for Solitude: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Three 1952-1960. Ed. Lawrence S. Cunningham. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996, page 267. TM met Professor Suzuki in New York City in 1964. In a journal entry about this encounter, TM reveals something of the depth of the friendship: “I sat with Suzuki on the sofa and we talked of all kinds of things to do with Zen and with life … These talks were very pleasant, and profoundly important to me – to see and experience the fact that there really is a deep understanding between myself and this extraordinary and simple man whom I have been reading for about ten years with great attention … For once in a long time I felt as if I had spent a few moments with my own family” Thomas Merton, Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage. The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Five 1963-1965. Edited by Robert E. Daggy. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997, pages 116-117. I am grateful to the blog “louie, louie” for drawing my attention to this quotation, and for presenting a photo of TM and Professor Suzuki together. See Image One below: “louie, louie” – [A blog] Exploring contemplative awareness in daily life, drawing from and with much discussion of the writings of Thomas Merton, aka “Father Louie”: http://fatherlouie.blogspot.com/2009/11/meeting-dt-suzuki-in-nyc-1964.html ) TM scholar, Christopher Pramuk, introduces the relationship between the Trappist monk and the Buddhist scholar in the following way: “Nowhere is Merton’s effort to bring together seemingly disparate truths of religious experience better illustrated than in his dialogue with Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki, a conversation that began in 1959 and continued until the year of Suzuki’s death in 1965. Their dialogue was of such a depth and honesty that both men were changed for it; certainly on Merton’s side the experience planted seeds that would bear fruit in his pilgrimage to Asia, in his conversations with the Dalai Lama, and perhaps symbolically, in his unexpected death in Bangkok in December of 1968, just a few days after his much-discussed ‘realization’ at the Buddhist shrine of Pollanaruwa” (Christopher Pramuk, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009, page 133.
- “D. T. Suzuki.” Wikipedia. Page last edited on “3 November 2021, at 04:35 (UTC).” Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D._T._Suzuki
- For additional context, here is a larger excerpt from Dr. Suzuki’s translation: “The Buddha’s love is not something ego-centered. It is a will-force which desires and acts in the realm of twofold egolessness, it is above the dualism of being and non-being, it rises from a heart of non-discrimination, it manifests itself in the conduct of purposelessness (anabhogacarya). It is the Tathagata’s great love (mahakaruna) of all beings, which never ceases until everyone of them is happily led to the final asylum of Nirvana; for he refuses as long as there is a single unsaved soul to enjoy the bliss of Samadhi to which he is entitled by his long spiritual discipline. The Tathagata is indeed the one who, endowed with a heart of all-embracing love and compassion, regards all beings as if they were his only child. If he himself enters into Nirvana, no work will be done in the world where discrimination (vtkalpa) goes on and multitudinousness (vicitrata) prevails. For this reason, he refuses to leave this world of relativity, all his thoughts are directed towards the ignorant and suffering masses of beings, for whom he is willing to sacrifice his enjoyment of absolute reality …” The Lankavatara Sutra. A Mahayana Text. Translated for the first time from the original Sanskrit by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. Original Edition Published in London in 1932. Retrieved from: http://lirs.ru/do/lanka_eng/lanka-nondiacritical.htm
- Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Chapter 1, Lines 24-26, page 123.
- Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism – 1350-1550. The Presence of God. Volume 5. A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: Herder & Herder, 2021, page 436.
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