Friday, January 27, 2012


Chuang Tzu

Thomas Merton

As we can see from their apparel, both of these men were spiritual contemplatives. The first, Chuang Tzu, lived in China more than two thousand years ago and is considered to be the greatest Taoist writer whose existence can be verified (the existence of Lao Tzu, the presumed author of the Tao Te Ching, has not been verified).  The second, Thomas Merton, was a 20th century Trappist monk who wrote extensively on matters of spirituality, comparative religion, and social justice.

In the later years of his life, Merton became increasingly ecumenical in his spiritual philosophy.  During this period, he studied Chuang Tzu extensively, and he eventually published a book of poems—The Way of Chuang Tzu—which he regarded as interpretive readings of the classic works the Taoist master. Anticipating criticism from those Christians who are more exclusive than inclusive in their world view, Merton introduced the book by declaring:
If St. Augustine could read Plotinus, if St. Thomas could read Aristotle and Averroes (both of them certainly a long way further from Christianity than Chuang Tzu ever was!), and if Teilhard de Chardin could make copious use of Marx and Engels in his synthesis, I think I may be pardoned for consorting with a Chinese recluse who shares the climate and peace of my own kind of solitude, and who is my own kind of person.
Elsewhere in the introduction, Merton shows us why he related so much to Chuang Tzu:
[T]he whole teaching, the 'way' contained in these anecdotes, poems, and meditations, is characteristic of a certain mentality found everywhere in the world, a certain taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence, and in general a refusal to take seriously the aggressivity, the ambition, the push, and the self-importance which one must display in order to get along in society.  This other is a 'way' that prefers not to get anywhere in the world, or even in the field of some supposed spiritual attainment.

One of Merton's interpretive poems—titled The Man of the Tao—is set forth below. I've chosen this poem because it seems to incorporate two spiritual themes that are woven deeply into both eastern and western spiritual traditions.  The first theme, which is embodied in the title of this post, is that the conditioned, egotistical self is a false self that must ultimately be put aside if we are to become—and fully experience—our authentic selves.  The second theme, which to some extent is premised on the first, is that we must be wary of spiritual hubris.  According to Merton's interpretation of Chuang Tzu, the truly spiritual person "does not take pride in himself [or herself] on walking alone."  Nor does he or she judge those who "follow the crowd."


                                               The man in whom Tao
                                               Acts without impediment
                                               Harms no other being
                                               By his actions
                                               Yet he does not know himself
                                               To be "kind," to be "gentle."

                                               The man in whom Tao
                                               Acts without impediment
                                               Does not bother with his own interests
                                               And does not despise
                                               Others who do.
                                               He does not struggle to make money
                                               And does not make a virtue of poverty.
                                               He goes his way
                                               Without relying on others
                                               And does not pride himself
                                               On walking alone.
                                               While he does not follow the crowd
                                               He won't complain of those who do.
                                               Rank and reward
                                               Make no appeal to him;
                                               Disgrace and shame 
                                               Do not deter him.
                                               He is not always looking
                                               For right and wrong
                                               Always deciding "Yes" or "no."
                                               The ancients said, therefore:

                                               "The man of Tao
                                               Remains unknown
                                               Perfect Virtue
                                               Produces nothing
                                               Is 'True-Self.'
                                               And the greatest man
                                               Is Nobody."

Merton worked tirelessly to bridge the spiritual traditions that often separate peoples and cultures.  He died as a committed Christian monk, but he is remembered as someone whose ideals transcended his own personal identity.  Speaking at Merton's funeral, the Dalai Lama said, "I always consider myself as one of his Buddhist brothers."  In a similar vein, the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has said that Merton was "an artist, a Zen."


  1. Merton's "Seeds of Contemplation" changed my spiritual life forever, and I am extremely grateful for finding him. Thanks for the good reminder of how a true ecumenical can continue to influence us all. Best to you. EFH

  2. A fellow blogger recently emailed a link to a blog on Christian Taoism, which really speaks to me. I like the blending of ideas they both contain. I occasionally post poems attributed to Lao Tzu. I've had no problem with the possibility of "him" being a composite of others who wrote similar ideas during that time. It is the timeless (and ultimately author-less) ideas that matter, though I am very grateful to those who have elucidated them for others, such as Chuang Tzu and Thomas Merton, and I'm always glad to see your posts on such topics, George. I love what Merton says about simplicity, humility and self-effacement, and about not judging others. It's a lesson that bears repeating often. I have begun a practice of simply saying, 'It's none of my business.'

    It's a wonderful poem you've included here.

  3. Thanks so much for your comments, EXPAT. Yes, "Seeds of Contemplation" is a great book! My life, like yours, has also been impacted strongly by Merton's writings. Like Chuang Tzu, Meister Eckhart and others before him, Merton was always trying to break the shell and get to the heart of things. He agreed, I think, with the following quote from St. Augustine that he used in "The Way of Chuang Tzu."

    "That which is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients and never did not exist from the beginning of the human race until Christ came in the flesh."

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, TERESA. One of the things I love most about eastern spiritual traditions is that their adherents do not regard their traditions as mutually exclusive with the western traditions. Buddhist writers such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have stressed, for example, that Buddhism can be used in conjunction with Christianity and other western religions. Oh how I wish that the religions of the west were equally tolerant.

    I, too, like Merton's caution that we be careful about judging others who follow the crowd or the herd. To judge others is to yield to the egotistical, false self that stands in the way of our spiritual progress. I'm reminded of the old Buddhist adage to the effect that he who claims to be "enlightened" is the least enlightened of all.

  5. I know Merton and I know Chuang Tzu, but I didn't know about this version of Chuang Tzu. I just remedied that by ordering it.

    Thanks for posting the poem.

  6. The Tao always spoke/speaks to me, but I don't read much in the way of spiritual contemplation/reflection since I've gotten older. Somewhere along the line, things just started making a kind of sense to me and I don't really care enough to pursue spiritual texts about what others think any longer. However, it is nice to read ideas such as your post here when I do have the privilege of coming upon what others think.

  7. Great, Loren! I think you will enjoy the book. Thanks for dropping by.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Rubye Jack. Glad enjoyed this post.

  9. Wonderful, George! I, too, love it when you create posts about the contemplatives, because you emphasize the common stream of spirituality that runs within various faith traditions. I especially appreciate finding out more about those who are Christian, because of my own path away from the church, and the joy in discovering those who have found true spirituality within that faith. (I love the paragraph starting with "If St. Augustine could read Plotinus . . . "!)

    It occurred to me while reading your words, and Merton's, that when we simply be . . . allowing our essence to just live unshelled, the truth of these words flows naturally from within, where no judgment for how another lives comes forth. But it takes, at least for me, much contemplation and practice to get down to the place of essence, who I truly am, apart from my ego-self.

  10. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, RUTH. I'm delighted to know that this post resonated with you.

    I have long believed that the search for spiritual truth begins with a willingness to break through the outer forms—the shells—in order to discover the inner cores. As the old Hindu veda proclaimed, "The truth is one, the wise call it by many names."

    Merton would have agreed with this sentiment. It's remarkable, in fact, that his introduction to the Chuang Tzu book quotes St. Augustine with approval: "That which is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients and never did not exist from the beginning of the human race until Christ . . . "

    Your words, "allowing our essence to live unshelled," really get to the heart of things, Ruth. This, I think, is the task of a lifetime.

  11. Great post George. Merton was one of the rare adepts of a religious perspective who, in accord with his learnings from The Tao, did not categorize one as right, another as wrong. He was able to say "yes" to principles found in all. This is so much easier to do when we are not invested in defending our ego self's preferred point of view.

    So simple, but not always easy.

    Your posts are like gems that twinkle with illumination and depth. Thank you.

  12. Thank you so much for your comments, BONNIE. Through the years, I have always trusted Merton, and I think you have put your finger on the reason for my trust, specifically, that he makes no harsh judgments about other spiritual traditions, but, instead, always finds a way to say "yes" to the common, life-affirming principles that underpin all traditions. And you are absolutely right: It is much easier to be non-judgmental about others when one is not heavily invested in the defense of the "ego self's preferred point of view."

  13. To shed the ego and cultivate acceptance is a spiritual practice that I must reaffirm daily. I enjoyed this insightful post, George. You open new avenues of learning/being for me.

  14. This is a richly rewarding post, George, and I've read it several times. It seems to me that almost everything of value we need to learn, to know and to practise is here, enshrined in the lives and writings of Merton and Chuang Tzu: humility, non-judgementalism, open-mindedness, tolerance, the value of solitude, the value of society, simplicity, the suppression of the conceited ego, authenticity, kindness, nonsectarianism.

    I intend saving this whole post as a Word document so that I can easily trace it in the future and refer back to it.

  15. Thanks for your comment, BARB. Yes, the cultivation of acceptance and the shedding of the ego are daily challenges. The fruits of meeting those challenges, however, are great. I would argue that this is the only true path to peace.

  16. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, ROBERT, and I'm delighted to learn that this post resonated deeply with you. Yes, I quite agree that everything of value we need to learn can be found in the writings of Chuang Tzu and Thomas Merton. Two different men from two different traditions and separated by more than two thousand years—in spirit and temperament, however, there appears to be no significant difference. Their lives and writings vividly demonstrate the old Hindu wisdom about the truth being one, even though it goes by many names.

    I've always been struck by the fact that Merton's accidental death in Bangkok in 1968 came during an Asian trip in which he was seeking to find common ground among Christian and non-Christian monastics. I wonder who, if anyone, is filling his shoes today.