Chapter 1: Reflection 10 – The Stars in the Bright Sky

TM’s now famous meetings with His Holiness the Dalai Lama almost did not take place. Indeed, Harold Talbott shares that the Roman Catholic spiritual seeker was not – at least initially – in any way interested in wasting his precious pilgrimage time meeting hierarchs, regardless of their religious persuasion. Harold recalls a conversation he had with TM upon his arrival in Dharamsala. The exchange began with Harold sharing, “An audience is scheduled for you with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama,” to which TM responded, “I’m not going.” Taken aback, Harold asked, “Why not?” to which the Trappist monk retorted, “I’ve seen enough pontiffs.” 1 Adopting the posture of a firm, yet understanding, parent, Harold counseled, “Well … if you come to India to study with lamas, I think you’d be making a mistake not to meet with the Dalai Lama.” The patient guide also explained that His Holiness had “heard all about [TM] from the Canadian High Commissioner” and that the Tibetan leader had “taken the trouble of having a film shown to him of Cistercian monks and abbeys in France.” Harold then concluded his ultimately persuasive argument for the meeting: “He’s done his homework, and I think that you should show up and meet him,” to which the dubious monk barely conceded, “Okay, we’ll see.” 2

Well, November 4th arrived and with it the first audience with His Holiness. TM describes that morning as “a bright, sunny day – blue sky, the mountains absolutely clear.” 3 On the jeep ride up to the Dalai Lama’s residence, Harold remembers giving some gentle counsel to TM, “I said that I thought that it would be impolitic for Merton to refer to the Dzogchen school because it’s an entirely different school from that of His Holiness.” 4 When the two reached their destination and the meeting began, whatever misapprehensions TM may have had about meeting with the religious leader in exile would seem to have dissolved almost immediately: 

The Dalia Lama is most impressive as a person. He is strong and alert, bigger than I expected (for some reason I thought he would be small). A very solid, energetic, generous, and warm person, very capably trying to handle enormous problems – none of which he mentioned directly. There was not a word of politics. The whole conversation was about religion and philosophy and especially ways of meditation. 5

The conversation began with the Dalai Lama asking TM, “What do you want?” And completely disregarding the advice of his host, the Cistercian replied, “I want to study Dzogchen.” 6 His Holiness acknowledged that Dzogchen is indeed the highest yana, “vehicle,” of Buddhist practice. He also kindly offered this insight into the practice: “It is important … not to misunderstand the simplicity of Dzogchen, or to imagine it to be ‘easy,’ or that one can evade the difficulties of the ascent by taking this ‘direct path.’” 7 To help to prepare him for an engagement with Dzogchen, His Holiness graciously offered to use time during their days together to teach TM some “preliminary practices” that could offer him something of a foundation. 8 While His Holiness and TM would have two more very fruitful conversations, as the day of their first encounter drew to its close, the monk from Kentucky seemed to find a moment of reflective peace, as two worlds continued their encounter within his heart. The lights in his host’s cottage having gone out, TM “stood out in the moonlight … looking up at the stars.” Quietly he marveled at seeing the “same constellations as over the [Gethsemani] hermitage … opening in about the same direction, southeast towards Aquila and the Dolphin. Aquarius out over the plain, the Swan up above. Cassiopeia over the mountains … 9

Endnotes

  1. The word “pontiff” appears to have been a word populated with layers of conflicted meaning for TM. In a journal entry of January 19, 1961, a few months before he seems to have begun reading “bits” of Julian’s writings, he writes: “Someone accused me of being a ‘high priest’ of creativity. Or at least of allowing people to regard me as one. This is perhaps true. The sin of wanting to be a pontiff, of wanting to be heard, of wanting converts, disciples. Being in a cloister, I thought I did not want this. Of course I did and everyone knows it. St. William, says the Breviary this night, when death approached, took off his pontifical vestments (what he was doing with them on in bed I can’t imagine) and by his own efforts got to the floor and died. So I am like him, in bed with a mitre on. What am I going to do about it? One thing from which I must free myself is the popular Catholic image in this country. I am not at all that kind of a Catholic and why should I be giving all these people the idea that I am an inspiration to them? I am not. And the clergy that have opposed me will realize it. There is an abyss between us. At the same time, the subtler temptation, the temptation of the French avantgarde Catholic, to want to be on good terms with the proletarian left. To want to be ‘part of the future.’ But that is another myth. In many ways a worse one. The temptation is pragmatic, for that myth is likely to be the more successful. I have got to face the fact that there is in me a desire for survival as pontiff, prophet and writer, and this has to be renounced before I can be myself at last.” (Emphasis TM’s. Thomas Merton, Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years. The Journals of Thomas Merton. Volume Four 1960-1963. Edited by Victor A. Kramer. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996, page 87.) Another aspect of the layered meanings of the word “pontiff” can be seen in the following excerpt from TM’s poignant 1965-ish poem commemorating the great Alexandrian theologian, Origen (185-254): “To the same hell was Origen then sent / By various pontiffs / To try the truth of his own doctrine. / Yet saints had visions of him / Saying he ‘did not suffer so much’: / He had ‘erred out of love.’ / Mechtilde of Magdeburg knew him altogether pardoned / (Though this was still secret / The Curia not having been informed).” (Thomas Merton, The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton: New York, NY: New Directions Books, 1997, pages 640-641.) Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/collectedpoemsof00thom_0/page/640/mode/2up
  2. Helen Tworkov, “The Jesus Lama: Thomas Merton in the Himalayas: An Interview with Harold Talbott.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Summer 1992. Retrieved from: https://tricycle.org/magazine/the-jesus-lama-thomas-merton-himalayas/ See also Harold Talbott, Tendrel: A Memoir of New York and the Buddhist Himalayas. Marion, Massachusetts: Buddhayana Foundation, 2019, page 273.
  3. Thomas Merton, 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, page 100. Internet Archivehttps://archive.org/details/isbn_0811205703
  4. Harold Talbott, Tendrel: A Memoir of New York and the Buddhist Himalayas, pages 170.
  5. Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, pages 100-101. Harold captures something of the extra-ordinary quality of the encounters between His Holiness and TM: “I thought that the Dalai Lama’s robe and Thomas Merton’s white Cistercian habit with its black scapular looked almost Giottosque. It struck me that these two figures deserved to wear their robes, which were part and parcel of the worlds they represented. There was so much good humor, so much laughter and camaraderie, and so much understanding between them that there was no need for any explanation.” (Tendrel, page 171.) Among his memories of the meeting, His Holiness recounts: “For his part, Merton wanted to know all he could about the Bodhisattva ideal.” (Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990, page 189.) Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/freedominexileau0000bsta/page/188/mode/2up?view=theater In a May 25, 2010 op-ed in the New York Times entitled, “Many Faiths, One Truth,” His Holiness reflects on the importance his meetings with TM: “An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions. A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering. I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.” (Emphasis mine. Retrieved from the official website of “His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.” Web address: https://www.dalailama.com/news/2010/many-faiths-one-truth
  6. Harold Talbott, Tendrel: A Memoir of New York and the Buddhist Himalayas, page 170.
  7. Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, page 102.
  8. Harold Talbott, Tendrel: A Memoir of New York and the Buddhist Himalayas, page 278. 
  9. Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, page 104. In the later 1950’s and the early 1960’s, TM was seeking more and more solitude. This longing of the heart and the actual pursuit of it represented a complex challenge within his monastic tradition. The Trappists, as a reform of the Cistercians, are “cenobitic ” and living a common life – with regard to work, meals, liturgy and prayer – is fundamental to its expression. TM was basically asking to live and practice a manner of living that was much more “eremitic,” much more like that of a “hermit.” Over time, and in stages, TM was granted incrementally more and more solitude, until finally, in August 1965, his Abbot granted him “permission to live ‘full time’” in a separate structure on the property of Gethsemani Abbey, a space he refers to in the quotation above as “the hermitage.” (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: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997, page xiv). For additional information on TM’s understanding of these issues, please see: Thomas Merton. “Solitary Life in the Shadow of a Cistercian Monastery.” The Merton Seasonal 37 (2012), pages 3-8. Retrieved from: http://merton.org/ITMS/Seasonal/37/37-4Merton.pdf

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