Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Following Chuang Tzu With Thomas Merton

The Way of Chuang Tzu
By Thomas Merton
New Directions, $11.95 paper
ISBN: 978-0-8112-1851-1

What does it mean to listen? His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, writes in a tribute to Thomas Merton, well known Trappist monk, Catholic philosopher and author of The Way of Chuang Tzu, that the qualities of hearing included study, contemplation, thinking about the teachings, and meditation. Thomas Merton did all of these things.

Merton is best known for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. He was a prolific writer, composing more than seventy books on philosophy, social justice, war and peace, and the spiritual life.

Born in 1915 in France to a Quaker mother and an artist father, Merton lost his mother early on from cancer. His father moved in and out of young Thomas’ life, leaving him in the custody of family members and boarding schools. He learned quite early on to fend for himself.

Merton was an inconsistently religious person in his early life. At one point, he even professed to be an agnostic. Throughout his quest to find the true way, one constant was his burning desire to learn. He attended many different schools in his formative years, and had many experiences with a number of religious and spiritual groups, but nothing seemed to stick. Losing his mother made him paranoid about his father’s health, and his worst fears were realized at the age of sixteen when his father died of a brain tumor. The next year, Thomas himself nearly died from blood poisoning.

The transformative moment for Merton occurred on a trip to Rome in 1933. He found himself drawn to churches, cathedrals, and basilicas, and had several mystical experiences while traveling. He decided to become a Trappist monk of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. His dedication was short-lived. He left the order to continue his restless search for answers.

While attending Columbia University, Merton had an epiphany that reignited his interest in Catholicism. After much thought and deliberation, he rejoined the Trappists and adopted the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky as his home base

Merton’s interest in philosophy extended beyond western and Catholic ideals. He was deeply interested in Eastern thought, and studied Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions and schools of philosophy extensively during his lifetime.

This slim volume contains Merton’s translation of the fourth century Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu. Merton explains in his introduction that the work is “the result of five years of reading, study, annotation, and meditation.” He goes on to make clear that his work is not a literal translation, but “free, interpretive readings” of this most spiritual of Chinese philosophers.

Chuang Tzu is part of the classical period of Chinese philosophy taking place between 550-250 B.C. Merton tells us that his life can be “verified,” unlike that of Lao Tzu, a more famous philosopher and contemporary of Chuang Tzu. The values outlined in the text demonstrate a witty and moral writer. Chuang Tzu is concerned about love for others and the plight of his fellow humans. He writes about justice, responsibility, and obligation to others. Merton explains that “The mark of the ‘Noble Minded Man’ is that he does not do things simply because they are pleasing or profitable to himself, but because they flow from an unconditional moral imperative.” Embodied in the teachings of Chuang Tzu are the vows taken by those in Catholic religious orders. “The life of riches, ambition, pleasure,” Merton writes, “is in reality an intolerable servitude in which one ‘lives for what is always out of reach,’ thirsting ‘for survival in the future,’ and ‘incapable of living in the present.’” It is clear that Merton finds common ground with this ancient writer.

Merton takes great pains to validate his reading, which according to pre-Vatican II theology, would be considered pagan literature by the Catholic Church. “If St. Augustine could read Plotinus,” he writes, “if St. Thomas could read Aristotle and Averroes…I think I may be pardoned for consorting with a Chinese recluse…” It is clear that Thomas Merton had a sense of humor and a clear vision of the overlapping morals, values, and theology between Buddhism and Catholicism.

In his other work and writing, Merton can often be a difficult writer, forcing the reader to parse apart the twisting philosophical strands in his thinking. That is not the case in this book. He captures the clarity and simplicity of Chuang Tzu’s voice, and the message rings through loud and clear:

“Pleasure and rage
Sadness and joy
Hopes and regrets
Change and stability
Weakness and decision
Impatience and sloth
All are sounds from the same flute…”

Duality and contradiction inhabit all philosophies and world religions. Merton revels in them here. These dualities, the holding of two divergent ideas, this is what many of us struggle with each day. We seek clarity of mind through absolutes and concrete answers, yet impermanence is the only certainty. There are no absolutes in life, and often truth is illusive. Merton plays with this paradox: “The possible becomes impossible; the impossible become possible…the flow of life alters circumstances and thus things themselves are altered in their turn.”

Merton includes an excellent essay at the start of the book that delves into the nuances and history of Chuang Tzu’s life and work. He places the philosopher in the pantheon of Chinese thinkers, and fills in the philosophical lineage of the work. When appropriate, he connects Chuang Tzu’s ideas to Western thinking and allows readers to make connections between Judeo-Christian ideals and Eastern philosophy. He closes the book with a glossary of terms, a bibliography, and notes offering additional reading and study.

Thomas Merton does an excellent job of translating and explaining Chuang Tzu’s work. The book serves as a good sampler of the philosophy, and therefore the volume will serve to introduce the West to the great writer’s thinking. The book is by no means a full study. Rather, it is a doorway connecting two rich worlds, two vibrant cultures, exposing the shared mystery of human existence.


  1. Thanks for the insightful review. I plan on reading this work that I had never heard of before.
    Thanks again!

  2. It is well worth the effort, and I appreciate the comment.

  3. I second what Anonymous said. I have the Seven Storey Mountain but have not read this one. I have come, over the years, to begin to rediscover Merton. Thank you for this.

  4. I don't think there is a better time to rediscover his work. Although he spoke out against the Vietnam War and the need to end racism and segregation, his words could apply equally to the issues of today. He transcends religious and cultural boundaries too.

    Thanks for the comment, Annie.


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