Chapter 1: Reflection 6 – Omnium Sanctorum & The Birth of the Blues

After spending some time in Bangkok, Calcutta, and New Delhi, it was on the first of November, the great Feast of All Saints – In Festo Omnium Sanctorum – that the TM arrived in Dharamsala, the northern Indian city on the edge of the Himalayas. 1 It was here that His Holiness the Dalai Lama and many Tibetans came to settle after fleeing Tibet and beginning their exile in 1959. TM was brought to Dharamsala by his pre-arranged guide Harold Talbott, an American studying there with His Holiness. And it was Harold who would host the Catholic monk in his “bungalow.” 2 After their arrival, TM wasted no time in venturing up into the mountains with his camera. From his first journal entry there, the reader can get an immediate sense of how this remote place – so far from his Kentucky monastery – captured his imagination. He writes of his “first real taste of the Himalayas”; of being “out alone in the pines, watching the clouds clear from the medium peaks;” looking down upon an “unforgettable valley with a river winding at the bottom;” gazing above at “pines twisted as in Chinese paintings;” and witnessing “Tibetans silently praying with rosaries in their hands.” He marvels that “the place was filled with a special majestic kind of mountain silence.” 3

It was on this first sojourn into the mountains to take photographs that TM happened to come upon Sonam Kazi, a man deeply learned in Tibetan meditative practices. 4 The two men had a conversation over tea, during which Sonam Kazi introduced the meditative practice of Dzogchen to the Cistercian monk. Immediately, TM was sold – ecstatic with excitement about the possibilities offered through this distinct approach to meditation. A significant amount of TM’s exposure to Buddhism up to this point in his life had been with Zen. And there are affinities between Zen and Dzogchen which could have been appealing to TM. In any case, TM was totally sold. His host and guide for his time among the Tibetans recounts how TM returned to his cottage after his meeting with the charismatic scholar and practitioner:

I knew [it] from his eyes before he told me. And that was the birth of the blues, the beginning of the Dzogchen teachings for Thomas Merton …. Sonam Kazi was the official interpreter assigned to the Dalai Lama by the government of India, the interpreter, for example, in the talks between Nehru, Chou En Lai, and the Dalai Lama. Sonam ran into Merton on the road, invited him to a teahouse and zapped him … Because Merton was in a state of utmost amusement, joy, and conviction that the best was yet to come: ‘We’ve got it … I knew there was something among these Tibetans.’ Sonam Kazi had zapped me a year before and I had gone out carefully holding on to a piece of furniture. 5

In the days after that initial visit at the teahouse, TM would share with Harold: “I came to Asia to study Zen in Japan and now I have changed my itinerary and I’m going to study Dzogchen in India with the Tibetans.” 6 One of TM’s translators in India, Lobsang Phuntsok Lhalungpa, describes the meditation practice which so captured TM’s imagination as:

… the simplest and most beneficial way to rediscover instantly for oneself the transcendental awareness that is within, whose all-inclusive qualities are either presently active or lying latent in human beings … Ever present attentiveness holds the vital key to the degrees and tempo of one’s attainment of illumination, instant and ultimate, leading to the All-inclusive Enlightenment through the total transformation of all forms of bondage … 7


  1. In New Delhi, on Thursday, October 31, 1968, on the eve of his arrival in Dharamsala, TM wrote in his journal, “I read the Vespers of All Saints in my hotel room. Tonight I’ll go by train to the Himalayas.” (Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions Books, 1975, page 69.) The book from which TM read his prayers was in all likelihood the Cistercian Breviary. Image One below represents the first two pages of the breviary’s section on the Feast of All Saints. (Breviarium Cisterciense Reformatum, Pars Autumnalis, 1951, pages 424 and 425.) The Benedictine Saint Andrew Daily Missal introduces the Feast of All Saints, “In Festo Omnium Sanctorum,” employing majestic imagery from The Book of Revelation: “During the year the Church celebrates one by one the feasts of the saints. Today she joins them all in one festival. In addition to those whose names she knows, she recalls in a magnificent vision all the others ‘of all nations and tribes standing before the throne and in the sight of the Lamb, clothed in white robes.’” On the page opposite this introduction, there is a black and white graphic depicting a Lamb with a scar on its chest, the “four living creatures,” the symbols of the four Gospels, surrounding the Lamb. Before the wounded One there are large candles, crowns, and small crosses. Unfurling at the forefeet of the Lamb is a scroll that bears the Greek letters Α and Ω and between the Latin words: Ego sum Primus et Novissimus [“I am the First and the Last”]. (Dom Gaspar Lefebvre, O.S.B. and the Monks of St. Andrew’s Abbey, Saint Andrew Daily Missal with Vespers for Sundays and Feasts, New York: DDB Publishers, 1958, 1962, pages 1542 and 1543.) The great feasts of the church year are not celebrated on just one day, but an “Octave” of eight days. In this way, it is poignant to note that TM’s first journal entry in Dharamsala is recorded on November 1st and his last entry from that city is dated November 8th – a period covering the entire Octave of that great feast. The Trappist monk seems to have sensed the blessing of the visit, for on November 4th he writes: “The way in which I have been suddenly brought here constantly surprises me. The few days so far in Dharamsala have been extremely fruitful in every way: the beauty and quiet of the mountains, my own reading and meditation, encounters with lamas, everything.” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, page 103.)
  2. Harold’s dwelling was quite modest, as TM himself testifies: “We came to the cottage Talbott lives in – everything very primitive.” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, page 78.) Regardless, the young American seeker gladly hosted the towering spiritual figure he had admired for so long. Harold “had become a Catholic in his first year in Harvard (1959) and was confirmed at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where he went to receive Merton’s blessing. Later he became a friend and student of the Benedictine theologian Dom Aelred Graham, who, some ten years afterward, urged Merton to look up Talbott in India, where he was then studying under the direction of the Dalai Lama.” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, page 71, note 1.) In his book, Tendrel: A Memoir of New York and Buddhist Himalayas, Harold offers some glimpse into his initial moments with “Tom”: “I gave my room and study to Merton and bedded down on a sort of wooden sofa in the front room. There was hardly any furniture, we were freezing, and Merton was sick with a terrible cold. He had often been ill in later life, no doubt because he kept up the crushing schedule of a working Trappist monk, as well as staying up late to write countless books. He burned the candle at both ends to a frightening degree. At the bungalow I would see his light go on in the bedroom at two in the morning, when he would begin his prayers; then at four in the morning I would see the light go on in the study. I was delighted when I read his Asian Journal to discover that he had been reading some of the books on my shelf, including Edward Conze’s Buddhist Thought in India.” (Harold Talbott, Tendrel: A Memoir of New York and the Buddhist Himalayas. Marion, Massachusetts: Buddhayana Foundation, 2019, page 169.) TM references Edward Conze’s book several times in his Asian journal entries. A scanned copy of Buddhist Thought in India is available via Internet Archive:
  3. Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, pages 78-79.
  4. The editors of TM’s Asian Journal offer some words of introduction to Sonam T. Kazi, stating that he was “born into one of Sikkim’s leading feudal families, [and] he lived in Tibet for many years prior to the Chinese take-over. As a young man he attended the Scottish Mission College in Kalimpong and St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, but his most extended study was under several of the Nyingmapa Buddhist masters in Tibet, from whom he received advanced meditational and spiritual instruction qualifying him to become himself a teacher of Tantric Buddhism.” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, page 172, note 3.)
  5. Helen Tworkov, “The Jesus Lama: Thomas Merton in the Himalayas: An Interview with Harold Talbott.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Summer 1992. Retrieved from: The article is reprinted in Harold’s memoir, Tendrel. See specifically pages 274-275. Harold also shared his memories of hosting TM in 1968 in a 2017 Wisdom Publications podcast entitled: “Harold Talbott: Remembering Thomas Merton’s Encounters with the Dalai Lama.” (Posted April 24, 2017). Retrieved from: Harold was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2013, and he died at home in Marion, Massachusetts in 2019.
  6. Harold Talbott, Tendrel: A Memoir of New York and the Buddhist Himalayas, pages 169-170.
  7. Lobsang Phuntsok Lhalungpa (1926–2008) offers this description in a private letter to the editors of TM’s Asian Journal which is quoted in its Glossary under the entry for “Dzogchen.” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, page 373.) For more information on Lobsang Phuntsok Lhalungpa, see his biography on the website, The Treasury of Lives: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia, and the Himalaya:

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