Chapter 1: Reflection 9 – A Broken and Happy Heart

There is a maxim among those who have long served people in need that when engaging someone who is confused, agitated, and even traumatized, you try to speak softly, but clearly; you simplify as much as possible, without being condescending; you strive, as best you can, to convey your kind regard and respect for them; and you focus – at least at first – on only that which is essential. Such an approach can help to begin to calm the inner storms of the overwhelmed Other, cool a bit their feverish minds, and maybe allow them the space, dignity, and opportunity to receive the care they so desperately need. Atisa seems to have innately understood and practiced this tender wisdom in his care of the people of Tibet in the moment in which he encountered them. 

In his Lamp for the Path, Atisa sought to simplify and consolidate the Buddhist path into a comprehensive and yet comprehensible program of the essentials. It focused on the reestablishing a sure foundation, an ethical form of living that had compassion at its heart, and a way of contemplation and meditation intended to clear away obstructions from true spiritual vision, and therefore, from wisdom. It is a path composed of a “gradual” or “graduated” series of “stages,” sensitively conscious of the varied needs and capacities of so many different types of people. 1 By opening oneself to and by practicing it, one enters into a process of transformation, the vision and apex of which is the figure of a Great Being, the Bodhisattva.

Drawing upon the words of earlier Indian Sanskrit texts, Atisa describes the Bodhisattva as one who “loves all creatures … As one loves an only child / Ever desiring to seek its good.” 2 With such abundant and expansive compassion, the Great Being extends to “every creature” the affection of a dove who “loves her own chicks best, / Sitting to brood them beneath her breast.” 3 Citing another Indian scholar, Atisa further portrays such an egoless and equanimous exercise of care:

The holy man, because sufferings exist in his own [mind] stream, has the sole care to turn aside the very basis for others’ suffering and give them happiness; for he suffers on account of their suffering … Those who suffer because others are suffering, and who rejoice and are happy at the happiness of others belong to that class of men for whom there is no ‘My’. They do not look to their own happiness, but rather make great effort, thinking ‘I am able to save others from the great river of suffering.’ By its very nature their compassion rejoices both in their own suffering and at the happiness of others because of the strength they have cultivated in compassion. 4 

In her brief introduction to the tenth “showing,” Julian describes how “our lord Jhesu sheweth by love his blisseful hart even cloven on two, enjoying” – which has been translated as “…his blessed heart, split quite in two, rejoicing.” 5 Earlier medieval women mystics were prominent pioneering figures in spiritual practices focusing on the Heart of Jesus, which would evolve over many centuries into the enormously popular devotion to the “Sacred Heart.” 6 In her Spiritual Exercises, the Cistercian Abbess Gertrude of Helfta (1256-c.1302) makes repeated references in her prayers to Christ to “[y]our most sweet heart broken on the cross through love,” “your deific heart broken by love …”; and “your heart pierced-through … broken for love.” 7 Including the word “enjoying” in her initial depiction of Jesus’ heart, Julian builds upon this tradition and again affirms the joy, the happiness, and the rejoicing which are intimately a part of the expression of selfless and self-sacrificing love – a love that emanates from the heart of the triune life of God. 


  1. Geshe Lhundub Sopa provides further context for Atisa’s Lamp for the Path: “All of the teachings of sutra and tantra exist for the purpose of liberating sentient beings. There are many, many details and different methods to purify negativities, gather positive potential, and gain wisdom. In writing this text Atisa took the essence of all these teachings and rolled them up into a comprehensive and practical system for practicing the core trainings of the path.” (Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, A Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, Volume 1, The Foundation Practices. Translated by David Patt. Boston: Wisdom Publications, page 38. Geshe Thupten Jinpa writes: “Atisa is perhaps revered most for his genius in distilling the essence of all the teachings of the Buddha within the framework of a single aspirant’s path. His Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment organizes the entire corpus of the Buddhist teachings into what he calls the practices relevant to ‘the persons of three scopes’ or ‘three capacities’ – initial, intermediate, and great. This revolutionary approach enabled the Tibetans to understand the heterogeneous literature of the Indian Buddhist sources in their appropriate contexts and to integrate that knowledge meaningfully within meditative practice.” (The Book of Kadam: The Core Texts. Attributed to Atisa and Dromtönpa. Translated by Thupten Jinpa. Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2008, page 4.)
  2. Atisa, The Complete Works of Atisa, Sri Dipamkara Jnana, Jo-Bo-Rje. The Lamp for the Path and Commentary, together with the newly translated Twenty-five Key Texts (Tibetan and English). Translated and annotated by Richard Sherburne, S.J. Foreword by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2000, page 29. Here is the full stanza: “The Bodhisattva loves all creatures / From the bottom of his heart; / As one loves an only child, / Ever desiring to seek its good.” This quotation and the following two are taken from Atisa’s own commentary, his “autocommentary,” on his text, which is entitled “Commentary on the Difficult Points of the Lamp for Enlightenment Path.” The translator, Father Richard Sherburne, encountered TM in Darjeeling, and he is mentioned in the Trappist’s journal entry of November 14, 1968: “A friend took us to the Tibetan Refugee Center today and it seemed, relatively, a happy and busy place. This afternoon, Jimpa, a Tibetan monk who is teaching with the Jesuits, will come to talk about interpreting. Fr. Sherburne also.” (Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions Books, 1975, page 135.) The Jesuit was also one of those who accompanied TM on November 16th, the day of the monk’s important conversation with Chatral Rinpoche: “We started out early on a cold morning, about 7:45, in our friend’s jeep with Jimpa Rimpoche and his big picturesque Tibetan type as guide to find other rimpoches. Also, Fr. Sherburne and Harold Talbott … We went looking first for Chatral Rimpoche at his hermitage …” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, page 142.) The editors of “The Asian Journal” introduce the Roman Catholic priest who would later translate the complete works of Atisa from Tibetan into English in the following manner: “Fr. Richard Sherburne, S.J., is preparing a doctoral dissertation on an 11th-century Indian source of later … meditational practice at Seattle University. When he met Merton in Darjeeling, he was studying Sanskrit and Tibetan in preparation for his work in Buddhist studies.” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, note # 57, page 182.)
  3. Atisa, “Commentary on the Difficult Points” in Atisa, The Complete Works of Atisa, Sri Dipamkara Jnana, Jo-Bo-Rje, page 29. Here is the full stanza: “As a dove loves her own chicks best, / Sitting to brood them beneath her breast; / So like her, with aversion overcome, / Treat every creature with affection.”
  4. Atisa, “Commentary on the Difficult Points” in Atisa, The Complete Works of Atisa, Sri Dipamkara Jnana, Jo-Bo-Rje. page 29. Atisa identifies the source of this quotation as the 4th/5th century Indian philosopher, Vasubandhu. Apart from Atisa’s own citation of Indian Sanskrit sources, the relationship between Tibetan Buddhism and Sanskrit Buddhist texts generated in the monasteries of India should be noted. Indeed, Tibetan Buddhists are in many ways the heirs of that rich spiritual tradition. And it is because of the staggering commitment of Tibetan Buddhists to reverently seek out and devotedly translate the riches of that textual tradition that it remains available to the world today. The greatest of these monastic institutions, Nalanda, thrived for centuries until it was destroyed by foreign invaders in 1198. See Peter Harvey. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices. Second Edition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013, page 194. Internet Archive: I am grateful to the Wikipedia article, “Decline of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent,” for citing Professor Harvey’s work: See also UNESCO’s World Heritage List webpage: “Archaeological Site of Nalanda Mahavihara at Nalanda, Bihar”:
  5. 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 27-28, page 123. The modern English translation is that of Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins appearing on page 122 of the same edition.
  6. See “Sacred Heart,” Wikipedia:
  7. I am grateful to Bernard McGinn for the first of these quotations, which he offers in Bernard McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism – 1200-1350. Volume III of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: A Crossroad Herder Book, 1998, with the English translation on page 271 and the original Latin text in Note 23 on page 447: “… [y]our most sweet heart broken on the cross through love …” [… in cruce cor tuum dulcissimum prae est ruptum …] The second and third quotations are taken from Gertrud the Great of Helfta, Spiritual Exercises. Translated, Introduction, Notes and Indexes by Gertrud Jaron Lewis and Jack Lewis. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1989, pages 116 (lines 659 and 660) and page 143 (lines 619 and 622) respectively. This English language translation is available online at Internet Archive:  A scanned version of the Latin text – although seemingly not without errors – was accessed at: Other early Cistercians who are important in the history of the devotion to the Heart of Jesus include Lutgarde of Aywieres (1182-1246) and Mechtilde of Helfta (1240/41-1298). TM invested a great deal of time and energy early in his monastic experience in studying and writing about the lives and the teachings of such early Cistercians. One book to emerge out of these efforts was What Are These Wounds? The Life of a Cistercian Mystic, Saint Lutgarde of Aywieres. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2014, first published in 1948. Of this work, a young TM wrote: “This book was written with no other purpose than to help American Catholics to love the Sacred Heart …” page xi. Another set of related writings is contained in the collection of lives entitled, In the Valley of Wormwood: Cistercian Blessed and Saints of the Golden Age. Edited with an Introduction by Patrick Hart, OCSO. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2013. In this latter text, TM offers the followings words about Gertrude of Helfta: “The love of the divine Heart for all is indeed the theme which dominates all others in the mysticism of Saint Gertrude of Helfta  …. [T]he contemplation of the Divine Heart filled the heart of this saint with nothing but confidence and trust. Her visions are all supremely optimistic, and her teaching exalts the mercy of God by repeated reminders to souls that they must not allow themselves to become discouraged by their faults and imperfections. The infinite tenderness of Christ will swallow up all their mistakes if they only abandon themselves to his Love and to his Mercy,” page 402. TM words of praise resonate with those he would later use to celebrate a 14th century East Anglian anchorite: “The theology of Julian of Norwich is a theology of mercy, of joy, and of praise. Nowhere in all Christian literature are the dimensions of her Christian optimism excelled.” (Thomas Merton, “The English Mystics.” Mystics and Zen Masters. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967, page 143. Internet Archive: For additional information and insight regarding TM’s engagement with early Cistercian material, please see: Chrysogonus Waddell, “Merton and the Tiger Lily.” The Merton Annual 2. (1989), pages 59-79, which can be accessed at: For his part, noted scholar Wolfgang Reihle identifies “a certain theological affinity between Julian and Gertrude of Helfta” in his chapter on the former in his book, The Secret Within: Hermits, Recluses, and Spiritual Outsiders in Medieval England. Translated by Charity Scott-Stokes. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018, page 211. Indeed, Professor Reihle writes: “In a sense Julian harks back to earlier times … The more closely one looks, the more one is reminded of the great Continental visionary women, especially of those connected with the [Cistercian tradition] nunnery of Helfta” (page 208.)  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: