The man who served as TM’s host in Dharamsala, Harold Talbott, was interviewed in Louisville, Kentucky in December 2000 to mark the 32nd anniversary of TM’s death. After his 1968 encounter with the Trappist pilgrim, Harold continued his sincere study and generous practice of Tibetan Buddhism. 1 And his gracious practice, his “gentle, humorous, insightful generosity,” touched many lives. 2 During the Kentucky interview, Harold was asked to explain “the Bodhisattva ideal” to the gathered audience. In his response, he turned instinctively to one of the Jataka Tales, the stories of the previous lives of The Buddha, whom the Tibetans generally refer to as Buddha Shakyamuni. 3 To provide a context for the story, Harold explained to his audience that “we have a very historically centered appreciation of things, and so the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ is in a historical context for us.” 4 And, he continued, “stories that appear to us [as] mythic have … [a] very powerful effect on the Buddhist mind. It doesn’t have to be historically centered …” 5 The tale to which Harold turned is called “The Story of the Tigress,” and it appears in a collection of such stories gathered by the 4th century Indian Sanskrit poet, Aryasura. The story begins with the maxim: “Even in former births the Lord showed His innate, disinterested, and immense love toward all creatures, and identified himself with all beings.” It also reverently affirms that “the Bodhisattva, who afterwards became our Lord [Buddha], benefited the world by manifold outpourings of his compassion …” 6 Thus, one day, the Lord saw a tigress, with new-born cubs, who was so terribly exhausted and hungry after her labor: “On seeing her, the Bodhisattva, though composed in mind, was shaken with compassion by the suffering of his fellow-creature, as the lord of the mountains … is by an earthquake.” And he exclaimed, “’My dear, my dear.’” 7 Then after reflecting on how he might best bring benefit to others at this moment, he made up his mind, and “he gave up his body” to the tigress as food. 8 In his own reflection on this story, Harold observes: “Well, that’s very, very much in the spirit of the Christian Bodhisattva, the Lord Jesus Christ – to give everything, everything …” 9
In the first chapter of her A Revelation, Julian introduces the fourth showing by referencing a particular moment in the Passion of Jesus, namely, “the skorging of his tender body, with plentuous sheding of his precious bloud.” 10 Now, it would be almost impossible to overstate the emphasis that medieval devotional writers and religious artists placed on the bleeding of Christ. In countless poems, lyrics, plays, treatises, and sermons as well as paintings and sculptures, Jesus sheds unimaginable amounts of blood. As a 14th century English Christian, Julian would have been immersed in and saturated by this culture of piety. 11 And indeed, such language and imagery permeate Julian’s own text and are critical to her message, method, and teaching, as she re-forms the tradition in which she herself was formed. However, these intensive devotional expressions can feel strange and alienating to a contemporary reader and can complicate the ability to appreciate the subtle and skillful ways in which Julian re-presents what she has received. Therefore, it is critical for a reader today to find a way to push through possible disorienting – and even repellent – reactions to truly engage the text. One possible way to do this – specifically regarding Jesus’ bleeding – is to focus on the action, energy, and “plentuous” quality of the verb, “shed,” rather than on the substance being shed. The verb Middle English word “sheden” bears many of the same meanings, and sets of meanings, that it’s modern English descendent bears, including “to disperse, spread, extend, distribute”; “to pour, pour out, pour forth”; “to emit, shine, illuminate,” and even, “to empty.” 12 This dynamic verb then can be a conduit through which we can begin to sense how Julian explores and re-presents the gracious and generous kenotic love of Christ – “to give everything, everything …” 13
- Harold Talbott’s spiritual yearnings emerged early in life, and they manifested from his heart-center throughout the entirety of his earthly pilgrimage. He was born in the Episcopal Church. And yet, the call of Tibetan Buddhism emerged very early: “I first became interested in religion when I was five and my mother showed … me photographs in National Geographic of Tibet before the Chinese invaded the country and everything changed for the Tibetan people. I was so captivated, I vowed that I would go to Tibet when I grew up and study Buddhism with Tibetan lamas.” (64). This sense of captivation developed in his youth: “Later, when I read Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrick Harrer to my mother, we both cried at the account of the Dalai Lama’s flight … Leaving Lhasa in the dead of night just ahead of the invading Chinese, he escaped over the mountains to Yatung, near the Indian border. This account only increased my fascination with the country.” (64) In the latter half of the 1950’s, Harold continued to pursue his interest in Buddhism, and he was also baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. His reading in these years reflected the distinct stirrings of his heart: “I did a lot of reading in Dr. Daisetz T. Suzuki’s books on Zen. I also read The Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Theresa de Lisieux, first published in 1898. She was named by the church the Little Flower, and her teaching of a method of sanctity was and still is called the Little Way.” (65-66). He also read “some of Thomas Merton’s works, including The Seven Storey Mountain and The Sign of Jonas,” and, he confesses that, through TM, he “fell in love with the monastic life.” (66). After his baptism in 1958, Harold traveled to TM’s Kentuckey abbey: “I went to Gethsemani over Thanksgiving vacation and I had my confirmation in the Catholic Church and took Holy Communion at the monastery. I was staying in a room in the guesthouse near the church, when Father Merton, who was the novice master at the time, knocked on my door and came in. He said to me, ‘I’m always very glad to meet someone who has just come into the church because they’re full of grace, and the grace overflows on me. I have only one thing to say to you, the church is a very big place. Always remember to go your own way in it.’” (72). Later, through his friendship with the spiritual writer Alan Watts, Harold reached out to and connected with the English Benedictine monk, Dom Aelred Graham, who was pursuing Christian-Buddhist dialogue through his writing and relationships. Harold served as Dom Aelred’s assistant and secretary for the monk’s year-long trip to Asia to meet leading figures of the world’s non-Christian religions. On this trip, Harold met His Holiness the Dalai Lama and began a discussion with him that ultimately resulted in Harold’s return to Dharmsala to study with the Buddhist leader. It was Dom Aelred who referred TM to Harold when the Trappist was planning his own Asian tour. In addition to His Holiness, Harold studied with a Tibetan yogi named Lama Gyurdala, who guided him onto the path of Dzogchen, and Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, with whom he formed a deep friendship and edited many books on Tibetan Buddhism. When he died peacefully from complications of Parkinson’s Disease in 2019, Harold had clearly fulfilled his childhood dream to “study Buddhism with Tibetan lamas.” The page numbers above reference Harold’s autobiographical reflections in Tendrel: A Memoir of New York and the Buddhist Himalayas. Marion, Massachusetts: Buddhayana Foundation, 2019.
- The quoted words are those of Wulstan Fletcher, translator and scholar of Tibetan Buddhist texts. They are taken from the first pages of Harold’s Tendrel: A Memoir of New York and the Buddhist Himalayas. The scholar who conducted the just-referenced 2000 interview with Harold, Professor Bonnie Thurston, also adds her fond words to the back cover of Harold’s book: “Below the glittering surface run deep waters. Beneath the savoir-vivre and intellectual brilliance (both considerable), Harold Talbott’s life is one of spiritual seeking, a pilgrimage of prayer. From this arose a generosity of heart, extraordinary compassion, and an immense gift for friendship that many treasure …” Professor Thurston also wrote a very tender and helpful review of Harold’s memoir: “A Link between Beings: Review of Tendrel: A Memoir of New York and the Buddhist Himalayas By Harold Talbott.” The Merton Seasonal. Winter 2019, 44(4), pages 34-36. Online: http://merton.org/itms/Seasonal/44/44-4ThurstonRevTalbott.pdf
- The Jataka Tales “illustrate how the Buddha dedicated himself to the bodhisattva’s way of life through the various skillful ways in which he worked for the well-being of other sentient beings in his previous lives. In the Tibetan Buddhist canon is an anthology of these tales composed by Aryasura, entitled the Jatakamala.” (His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus. Translated from the Tibetan and Annotated by Geshe Thupten Jinpa. Edited and with a Preface by Robert Kiely. Somerville, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications, 1996. page 182.) Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/goodheart0000bsta/page/182/mode/2up?view=theater Aryasura’s Jataka Tales, which as also called Garland of Birth Stories, was an important text for the early followers of Atisa, the Kadampas. Indeed, when Potowa Rinchen Sel (1027–1105) served as the abbot of the Kadam school’s founding monastery at Radreng, he “established the tradition of taking Atisa’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment as the principal text of practice and complementing it with six other Indian Buddhist texts,” including Aryasura’s Garland of Birth Stories. (Wisdom of the Kadam Masters, Translated, edited, and introduced by Thupten Jinpa, Somerville, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications, 2013, page 53.)
- It is interesting and poignant to note that, although at the time of the interview, Harold had been deeply engaged with Tibetan Buddhism for many years, he naturally uses the words “we” and “us” when talking about the understanding and meaning of “the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.” And this seems so appropriate, since one truly gets the sense that he held and cherished both the Tibetan Buddhist and Christian traditions. Indeed, as but one expression of this reverence, his memoir ends with both the Latin and the English versions of the much-loved medieval Christian prayer, “Salva Regina,” which he notes is attributed to Adhemar de Monteil, Bishop of Le Puy (c.1080), with the final invocations added by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The prayer has been a comfort and a refuge to millions over the centuries, and it marks the end the day in a Trappist monastery: “Hail, holy queen, mother of mercy; hail, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to thee do we send up our sighs mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us; and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.” (Harold Talbott, Tendrel: A Memoir of New York and the Buddhist Himalayas, page 287.)
- These two quotations are taken from a segment of Harold’s interview which appears on YouTube under the title, “The Almost Final Days of Thomas Merton: The Role of Suffering.” YouTube. Posted February 9, 2010, minutes 4:09-4:24 and 4:24-4:37 respectively: The Almost Final Days of Thomas Merton: The Role of Suffering – YouTube The full audio version of the interview can be accessed through the “Merton Center Digital Collections” section of the website of The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, where it is entitled: “The (Almost) Final days of Thomas Merton: a conversation with Harold Talbott with an interview conducted by Bonnie B. Thurston.” Webpage: https://merton.bellarmine.edu/s/Merton/item/52494
- Aryasura, Jatakamala or Garland of Birth-Stories. Translated by J.S. Speyer. First Published London 1895. Electronic Edition 2010, page 3. Available through the website, Ancient Buddhist Texts: https://www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net/English-Texts/Garland-of-Birth-Stories/Garland-of-Birth-Stories.pdf The phrase “disinterested love” held a foundational importance for TM which can be seen in his earliest spiritual writings. Indeed, in the last chapter of The Seven Storey Mountain, TM reflects on the monastery as a “school”: “What has to be healed in us is our true nature, made in the likeness of God. What we have to learn is love. The healing and the learning are the same thing, for at the very core of our essence we are constituted in God’s likeness by our freedom, and the exercise of that freedom is nothing else but the exercise of disinterested love.” Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1948/1998, page 409.
- Aryasura, Jatakamala or Garland of Birth-Stories. Translated by J.S. Speyer, page 6.
- Aryasura, Jatakamala or Garland of Birth-Stories. Translated by J.S. Speyer, page 9.
- “The Almost Final Days of Thomas Merton: The Role of Suffering.” YouTube. Posted February 9, 2010, minutes 6:03-6:19.
- Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Chapter 1, ll. 13-14, page 123.
- I borrow here and modify very slightly, the phase used of Professors Bartlett and Bestul: Cultures of Piety: Medieval English Devotional Literature in Translation. Edited by Anne Clarke Bartlett and Thomas H. Bestul. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999. In their “Introduction,” these editors very briefly provide a helpful historical perspective on the spiritual tradition which Julian received: “The twelfth century is marked by the growth of affective piety, or a form of spirituality that differed from that of previous centuries by placing much greater emphasis on self-examination, the inner emotions, and the cultivation of an interior life. This form of piety was typically anchored in devotion to Christ in his human form, with special attention to the events of the Passion. The movement was led first by the Cistercians Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) and Aelred of Rievaulx (d. 1167); by the thirteenth century, the movement came to be closely identified with Franciscan religiosity, as shaped especially by Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) and Bonaventure (d. 1274). The flamboyant piety of the late fourteenth century and fifteenth century developed from these roots” (Ibid., page 2). Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/culturesofpietym00unse/page/2/mode/2up?view=theater
- “sheden,” “Middle English Dictionary” at Middle English Compendium: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary/MED39826/track?counter=1&search_id=19274430 The quotations that the dictionary generously offers also reveal the extent to which Middle English translators used some form of the verb “shede” to translate the Latin word, “fundo,” and its many variants. Many examples from the Wycliffe Bible give evidence of this practice: “And so Moises took half the part of the blood, and sente in to grete cuppis; forsothe he schedde [fudit] the residue part on the auter.” (Exodus 24.6); “And Y schal schede [effundam] out clene watir on you, and ye schulen be clensid …” (Ezekiel 36.25a); “Rise thou togidere, herie thou in the nyyt, in the begynnyng of wakyngis; schede out [effunde] thin herte as watir, bifore the siyt of the Lord …” (Lamentations 2.19a); and “And hope confoundith not, for the charite of God is spred abrood [diffusa] in oure hertis …” (Romans 5.5a).
- In closing this reflection, I wish to express my sincere gratitude for the scholarship of Professor Vincent Gillespie. In multiple articles he clearly and helpfully presents “kenosis” as at the heart of Julian’s theological work. He and Maggie Ross also reveal the generative way in which Julian re-presents the devotional tradition she has received, in no small part because of the life events out which her writing flows: “The compassion Julian receives take her far beyond … tinkering with emotive pictures into something closer to the Pauline kenotic mind of Christ.” (Vincent Gillespie and Maggie Ross, “The Apophatic Image: The Poetics of Effacement in Julian of Norwich,” The Medieval Mystical Tradition, 5. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1992, page 61.)
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