Sunday, May 2, 2010


When I grow weary with the world, I find myself going to the bookshelf that holds my volumes of Alan Watts, Henry Miller, and Thomas Merton, three seekers who would have surely enjoyed each other's company. I find comfort in the mere titles of their books, e.g., Behold the Spirit and Still the Mind by Watts; The Wisdom of the Heart and Stand Still Like a Hummingbird by Miller; Seeds of Contemplation and Mystics and Zen Masters by Merton.  When I pull down any one of these volumes and open its covers, I find myself at peace instantly, knowing that I will soon be transported back to my center, the still place that is my ground of being.

Recently, I returned to Merton's Zen and the Birds of Appetite, a fascinating book that explores the author's study of Zen and its relationship with various structural systems, especially religion.  The title itself raises a variety of questions.  What does Merton have in mind when he refers to "Zen," a word that is extremely difficult to define and is often misused?  Who are the "birds of appetite"?  And what do the birds of appetite have to do with the world with Zen?  These questions are answered by Merton, of course, but the reader must first spend a few moments reflecting on the author's brief opening note, from which the title of the book is drawn:  
Where there is carrion lying, meat-eating birds circle and descend.  Life and death are  two.  The living attack the dead, to their own profit.  The dead lose nothing by it.  They gain too, by being disposed of.  Or they seem so, if you must  think in terms of gain and loss.  Do you then approach the study of Zen with the idea that there is something to be gained by it? This question is not intended as an implicit accusation.  But it is, nevertheless, a serious question.  Where there is a lot of fuss about "spirituality," "enlightenment" or just "turning on," it is often because there are buzzards hovering around the corpse.  This hovering, this circling, this descending, this celebration of victory, are not what is meant by the Study of Zen -- even though they may be a highly useful exercise in other contexts.  And they enrich the birds of appetite.
     Zen enriches no one.  There is no body to be found.  The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be.  But they soon go elsewhere.  When they are gone, the "nothing," the "no-body" that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen.  It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey. 
  At first glance, this opening note always appears cryptic and vexing. Reading it slowly, however, I begin to see where Merton is going with this. He is essentially stating that most of us are "birds of appetite," who are circling the skies constantly in search of a visible form that appears to offer the spiritual nutrition we require. Sometimes it's a  religion or some other belief system; sometimes it's a defined philosophy; sometimes it's a new kind of spirituality or a new "ism."  In almost every case, however, we appear to be seeking sustenance from something that has form and structure -- something that can be easily understood, measured, defined, and labeled by the analytical machinery of our conditioned minds.  And whatever that something is, our egos expect to be enriched by it, to gain something from it, just like the birds of prey that hover around the corpse of a dead animal.

Merton is not calling upon us to abandon all forms and structures; he recognizes that words, rituals, traditions, and other cultural systems are appropriate in certain contexts.  He fears, however, that our increasing obsession with forms is blinding us to the ultimate reality that lies beyond those forms -- the mystical experience of life itself, the formless, nameless, mysterious wonder that underpins everything.

This is where Zen can be useful.  In its purest sense, Zen is simply a heightened state of consciousness that is not dependent upon any kind of form or structure -- religious, cultural, or otherwise.  Since it is neither a form, a structure, nor a system, it does not stand  in opposition to any form, structure, or system.  It is not contrary to any religious or cultural traditions; nor is it contrary to the forms through which those traditions are practiced.  As Merton says, it is "trans-religious, trans-cultural, and trans-formed."  In short, Zen permits one to see and experience the ultimate reality that lies beyond the forms and structures.

If this sounds esoteric -- and I think that it does -- it is probably because Zen, by it very nature, does not lend itself to either systematic thinking or verbal expression. It can only be experienced, personally and directly. Paradoxically, one must be both mindful and mindless -- mindful in the sense of paying attention to what is actually happening in the present moment, and mindless in the sense of not judging and labeling what is happening.  As an old Zen saying goes, "better to see the face than to hear the name."

Zen can be practiced anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances. "Everyday Zen," say the masters, is the best.  At a minimum, Zen returns us to a place where the ultimate reality of life, in all of its complexity, can be fully experienced and accepted, with neither judgment nor resistance. Under the best of circumstances, one might even experience  occasional moments of transcendence.  "To attain this experience," writes Merton, " is to penetrate the reality of all that is, to grasp the meaning of one's own existence, to find one's true place in the scheme of things, to relate perfectly to all that is in a relation of identity and love."


  1. A thoughtful, insightful interpretation. I am much in sympathy with it. And, actually, very much related to my last post. Interesting I included the Shantideva quote about the crows and the carrion! Blogging is full of such 'coincidences'.

    Beyond forms to the formless, beyond structure to the structureless, beyond what is, to what is not, which is also what is. Yes, Zen is understood best when the logical, rational mind is, with relief, laid aside for a while, and we experience things 'directly', without the mind's incessant mediation and analysis. Zen is always 'explained' best with story, poem, koan, paradox - or just plain action (or non-action!) rather than speech - these things get closest...

  2. 'the "nothing," the "no-body" that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey.'

    As I look at this quote I wonder if it is important that nothing was THERE rather than NOT THERE.

    A lot of what I see and feel I marvel at but a feeling of understanding comes when I least expect it.


  3. To Solitary Walker,

    I know what you mean by the "coincidences." I had the same sense after reading your piece on "Winning and Losing." The Shantideva quote about the crow thinking it is an eagle when it consumes a snake is interesting in the context of Merton's statement that "this hovering, this circling, this descending, this celebration of victory, are not what is meant by the Study of Zen." Zen permits us to see through the phony classifications of winners and losers; it doesn't take much imagination to see that the "winners" are often the "losers," and the "losers" are often the "winners."

  4. To Tramp,

    Notice that the "no one" and "no-body" referred to by Merton are in quotes, reflecting the perception of the birds of appetite, but not reality. In reality, something is there -- the pure essence of life behind the dead carcasses perceived only by the eye. If your "understanding" of things seen and felt comes when, as you say, you least expect it, you are obviously working with the intuitive right side of your brain, versus the analytical left side. That, too is, part of Zen -- experiencing every moment before it is analyzed and judged.

  5. George, What a pleasure to read your beautifully expressed insights on the writings of Merton.

    It is such a paradox how the ego seems to work in opposition to its ultimate ground of being. To transit into the vast nothingness within ... to be with no thing terrifies it. The attachment of ego to its very existence seems to preclude any transit into transpersonal realms. Moving from the personal (ego) to the transpersonal (beyond ego) is as you say the 'mystical experience of life itself'. Our constant challenge is knowing how to transcend ego mind.

    I do love your blog! It is so good to find something with some meat on the bones (a weird analogy for a vegetarian!!). Keep up the good work.

    P.S. What do you think of the works of Ken Wilber? Have you read him? I was considering rereading a few of his books - however, I think revisiting Merton would be more edifying and inspiring. Thanks for the nudge.

  6. To Bonnie --

    Thanks for the nice comments. It's great to find people in the world who understand the tyranny of the unconscious ego and the need to transcend it. Yes, I have read some of the books of Ken Wilbur, my favorite being "Grace and Grit," which was written while he shared his wife's journey through cancer and, ulitmately, death. The intimacy of the situation seemed to strip some of the intellectual sheathing from the narrative, leaving one with a clear picture of what Wilbur has learned in his many years of study and reflection.

    I also love Merton, of course. What intrigues me most is the fact that he never became complacent in his journey. When one layer of conditioned thinking was removed, he never said, "Aha, here is the truth!" Instead, he continued to explore, removing one layer of form and structure after the other, always open to growth and a better union with ultimate reality.

  7. I enjoyed Grace and Grit too for the same reasons. It was interesting to read how they applied their beliefs and practices to the challenge of Treya's illness. "No Boundary" was also a little more readable than some of his other works.

    Healing, unfolding, growth, connection does seem to happen in layers. This is also true of psychological work. It proceeds layer by layer - hopefully each time at a higher level of understanding and consciousness.

  8. Good to read this, and understand more of what's behind you, and that we are on similar paths, even though I haven't read Merton, Miller or Watts yet. (I have read most of Wilber's A Brief History of Everything.)

    As a person who has wanted to get at the spirituality beneath religion since I was 7, but who received only dogmatic answers from my Baptist minister father and equally zealous mother, it has been nothing but daily relief to unlearn man made structures and practice living in the eternity of the moment.

  9. I grew up in the Baptist church as well, Ruth, so I can empathize with your frustrations. It sounds as if you survived, however, and are now on a rewarding path in your spiritual journey. Glad you enjoyed this posting.

  10. Hello, George! I just read The Seven Story Mountain, and wish to continue my study of Thomas Merton and his studies into Zen. What book would you suggest I read first? Mystics and Zen Masters, or Zen and the Bird of Appetite?

    Jose C.

  11. To Jose,

    Thanks for the comments, Jose. The answer to your questions depends upon your interests. The Seven Story Mountain was Merton's first book, as I recall, and it tells you nothing about how his views evolved through the years. The books whose titles refer to Zen were written in the latter part of his life, after he had begun to understand the mystical connections among various spiritual traditions. I find these to be the most interesting because they show his thought at a mature level. Other books such as "Seeds of Contemplation" and "Thoughts in Solidtude" are also enlightening. The latter book is quoted from in the current posting on my blog. Hope this is helpful. Please visit again.

  12. Thanks, George! Any help I get is enough help. I suppose what I am really interested in is learning to pray, and reading books that will point me in the right direction. As a Devout Catholic with a respect and interest in Buddhism, I felt that Thomas Merton would be a great start. Though it seems he may be more than a rookie like me can chew just yet.

    Jose C.