Pema Chodron might agree. We are alone, she says. Merton agrees. So does the Buddha. We're on our own. (Our own what?)
Trying to find a buddha or enlightenment is like trying to grab space. Space has a name but no form. It's not something you can pick up or put down. And you certainly can't grab it. Beyond this mind you'll never see a buddha. The buddha is a product of your mind. Why look for a buddha beyond this mind?I will be staying closer to home. I suspect the return home nears. I find little reason to leave home.
- Bodhidharma (d. 533)
And yet, I have no home.
Just feet. And boots. Along with what remains of breath.
Thomas Merton had a way of annoying some people and enchanting others:
His visit with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan monks impressed Merton more than all other Asian encounters. Of course, these Tibetans have experienced Marxism as a force that destroyed much of their monastic structure. And Merton is confronting Marxism also as a political force that destroyed all structures. What happens when these structures are destroyed? In the future, he says, we will not rely on structures. We cannot be sure whether any of the structures with which we are familiar will outlast even our lifetime. What then are we supposed to do? What is the essence of monastic life?
Here is the high point of his whole Bangkok talk, the background of which is the story of Trungpa Rimpoche, who moved to the U.S. and founded a number of lively, prospering meditation centers. Merton met him on his Asian journey and was impressed. When the communists invaded Tibet, Trungpa Rimpoche was abbot of a large monastery, but was out on a visitation and got caught by the invasion at some farmhouse. Now the question was, what should he do? Should he go back to his own monastery, or should be flee across the border? He sent a message to a nearby abbot-friend to ask, “What shall we do?” The abbot sent back a message which Merton found most significant: “From now on, Brother, everybody stands on his own feet.”
Merton goes on to say, “To my mind, this is an extremely important monastic statement.” (Remember, this man is now speaking in the last hours of his life!) “If you forget everything else that has been said, I would suggests that you remember this for the future: ‘From now on, each one will have to stand on his own feet.’” He throws everything back on each monk personally: “Don’t rely on structure; stand on your own feet.” Then Merton expresses his relationship to structures: “Yes, we do need structures; we are supported by structures. But they may be destroyed at any moment by a political power or a political force. We cannot rely on structures. Use structures, but do not rely on structures.”
The moment we stand on our own two feet, the moment we find contemplative life at the root of monastic life, deep down in our own hearts, in our own center, we go beyond division. That is the third essential that Merton sifts out in facing the monastic identity crisis: that the Christian monastic calling is one that unites us with all monks. There again is this crack where he breaks out from the enclosed shell of a Trappist, Christian, monastic structure into universal monasticism. Monks East and West share the same quest, the contemplative quest of the human heart, in which we are all united. We go beyond division to an inner liberty which no one can touch.
Merton sees the essence: “What is essential in the monastic life is not embedded in buildings, not in a habit, not necessarily even in a rule.” (That must sound like enormous heresy to some.) “It is somewhere along the line of something deeper than a rule. It is concerned with this business of total inner transformation.” Once we have reached that last quest for total inner transformation, to quote Saint Paul, “there is no longer slave or free-born, there is no longer Jew or Gentile,” there is no longer Asian or European, but we have transcended these divisions. “This kind of monasticism,” Merton said in his last talk, “this kind of monasticism cannot be extinguished. It is imperishable; it represents an instinct of the human heart.”
(from, Thomas Merton, Now at the Crack of Dawn, by Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB, http://www.gratefulness.org/readings/dsr_merton-crack2.htmThe Heart Sutra, chanted at this morning's practice, has a section that says:
Therefore, O Sariputra,
in emptiness there is no form nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness ;
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind ; No forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables or objects of mind ; No sight-organ element, and so forth, until we come to :
No mind-consciousness element ; There is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so forth, until we come to : There is no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path.
There is no cognition, no attainment and no non-attainment.
(trans. by E. Conze)