Chapter 3: Reflection 1 – The Possibility of Death Was Not Absent

And when I was thirty yere old and a halfe, God sent me a bodily sicknes in the which I ley for three days and three nightes, and on the fourth night I toke all my rightes of holy church, and wened not to have liven till day. 1

In his Asian Journal, in an entry dated November 3rd, which he penned while he was still in Dharamsala, TM makes the following entry:

Yesterday Sonan Kazi, Harold [Talbott], and I drove to Palampur to meet some lamas at the Tibetan camps there. It was a fine drive on a bad road, with great views of the mountains. We went beyond Palampur to the camp, on a tea plantation, where the Tibetans are newly established, some in tents among the tea gardens, with prayer flags flying, some in buildings of the village. We had a talk with a Nyingmapa lama, Chhokling Rimpoche, who wanted to know if I believed in reincarnation before answering questions concerning enlightenment. 2

In this account of this encounter, TM’s guide and host, Harold Talbott remembers:

[W]hen we were meeting Chokling Rinpoche, he said to Merton, ‘Do you believe in karma and rebirth?’ And Merton said, ‘Well, I think that it is a very interesting perspective.’ And Chokling Rinpoche said to him, “Well, let’s say that you believe in karma and rebirth, and then I can teach you.’ And what he taught him was powa. In a very impressive way. And I thought, ‘How strange that he has not started with the ground-work of Buddhism, but has gone right straight to teaching him powa. 3 

  A “practice for advanced meditators,” “powa” involves the “transference of consciousness” when one is dying into “the enlightened mind of the Buddha of Infinite Light,” Amitabha Buddha. 4 Harold, again reflects on the unusual teaching the Lama gave to TM:    

I was surprised that Chokling Rinpoche immediately gave Tom such a very esoteric Tantric teaching. Perhaps Chokling Rinpoche felt that Merton did not need teachings on karma and suffering, calming the mind, or insight meditation but rather needed to be taught how to dispose his consciousness at the time of death … [I]n ten days Tom was dead, and it occurred to me that perhaps Chokling Rinpoche was clairvoyant, as many lamas are. 5

In embarking on his pilgrimage to Asia, TM was not unaware of the possibility that he might not return. And in charactering TM’s spiritual journey and witness as one of “seeking God,” Father Flavian, who was elected abbot of Gethsemani in 1968, explained TM’s trip to Asia as another expression of that very seeking – and one which was worth whatever sacrifices it might involve:

Father Louis undertook this trip to Asia in the spirit of this same quest for God. His letters to me from there were buoyant with hope for further progress in his quest. The possibility of death was not absent from his mind. We spoke of this before he set out – first jokingly, then seriously. He was ready for it. He even saw a certain fittingness in dying over there amidst those Asian monks, who symbolized for him man’s ancient and perennial desire for the deep things of God. 6

In reflecting on the beginning of the third chapter of Julian’s text, it helpful to note the profound way in which the reality of dying and death contextualizes this chapter, and in many ways the entirety of A Revelation. Scholar Vincent Gillespie writes:

Julian of Norwich’s description of the onset of her life-threatening illness in May 1373 is the point of departure for the most remarkable rumination on the process of dying in Middle English. Her text is transfused not only with extraordinary honesty about her responses to the process but also her remarkable ability to use language to construct for her readers performative simulacra of those death-bed experiences and the dialogue and revelations from God that accompany them. 7


  1. Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Chapter 3, Lines 1-3, page 129.
  2. Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. Edited from his original notebooks by Naomi Burton, Brother Patrick Hart & James Laughlin. Consulting Editor: Amiya Chakravarty. New York: New Directions Books, 1968, page 97. It is hoped that the difference between TM’s spelling of the Lama’s name, “Chhokling Rimpoche,” and the other spelling of the same, “Chokling Rinpoche,” is not too disconcerting. In this instance, and throughout these reflections, I will honor TM’s spelling of such names when quoting him directly but use the now more common English spelling of those names in most other instances. Also, “Nyingma” is one of the four primary schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and it is the oldest, tracing its origins to the 8th century. The other schools include Kagyu and Sakya, both founded in the 11th century, and Gelug, the school to which the 14th Dalai Lama belongs, which was founded in the early 15th century. See “The Four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism.” Tibetan Nuns Project: Of the Nyingma school, James Laughlin notes in the “Glossary” of TM’s Asian Journal: “Not all Nyingmapa lamas take monastic vows; they wear a special habit, but are permitted to marry and need not reside in monasteries.” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. Edited from his original notebooks by Naomi Burton, Brother Patrick Hart & James Laughlin. Consulting Editor: Amiya Chakravarty. New York: New Directions Books, 1968, page 390.)
  3. “Harold Talbott: Remembering Thomas Merton’s Encounters with the Dalai Lama.” Minutes: 1:09.52-1:10:39. Posted April 24, 2017. Retrieved from: The “groundwork” to which Harold refers here is sometimes called the “preliminary practices”: “The preliminary practices are those undertaken by an aspiring practitioner of the tantras … There are both outer, or common, preliminaries, and inner or uncommon, preliminaries. The former are the four analytical meditations which turn the mind of the practitioner away from the worldly distractions and toward the sacred teachings, namely those focusing: on the nature of the precious opportunities afforded by human birth; on death and impermanence (anitya); on the dynamics of past actions (karma); and on the sufferings of beings within cyclic existence (samsara). (“Glossary of Key Terms.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation. Translated by Gyurme Dorje. Edited by Graham Coleman with Thupten Jinpa. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006, page 500.)
  4. Harold Talbott, TendrelA Memoir of New York and the Buddhist Himalayas. Marion, Massachusetts: Buddhayana Foundation, 2019, page 172. See also: Judith Simmer-Brown, “Ambivalence in Shangri-La: Merton’s Orientalism and Dialogue.” Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 37, 2017, page 96. 
  5. Harold Talbott, TendrelA Memoir of New York and the Buddhist Himalayas. Marion, Massachusetts: Buddhayana Foundation, 2019, page 172.
  6. Flavian Burns, “Epilogue: A Homily.” in Thomas Merton / Monk: A Monastic Tribute. Edited by Brother Patrick Hart. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1983, Page 266.
  7. Vincent Gillespie, ‘Seek, Suffer, and Trust: “Ese” and “Disese” in Julian of Norwich.’ Studies in the Age of Chaucer 39 (2017): 129–58. The quotation was taken from Page 2 of a January 2017 Revision of this essay retrieved from: download_file (

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