Thomas Merton—Conjectures of a Modern Bystander
“The ecological crisis is the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced. If Buddhism cannot respond to that, Buddhism is not what the world needs right now.”
David Loy, Remarks at the International Western Dharma Teachers Gathering, 2015
When Thomas Merton wrote his collection of essays in 1965 entitled “Contemplation in a World of Action,” he gave voice to the relevance of his position within a traditional monastic structure in the midst of one of the most turbulent periods of American history. Times have become no less turbulent in the decades since then, and the role of contemplatives no less relevant.
From issues of racial oppression to the ecological crisis, the stakes have steadily grown to the point at which our personal, societal, and global response to the issues at hand will have repercussions far beyond anything we have known ourselves to have faced as a species. Spiritual practitioners of all faiths are necessarily stepping up to address these crises in ways that are also historically unprecedented. From the recent Papal Encyclical to the emergence of “Engaged Buddhism,” the essential question of the interplay between contemplative wisdom and social action is now not just a topic for doctrinal exegesis, but a matter of the survival of the species.
The interrelationship between contemplation and action, between timeless wisdom and its timely expression, is at the core of every contemplative tradition. It is practiced and articulated in different ways in different cultures at different times, but the burden of spiritual practitioners to bring the fruits of their practice into contact with others is always necessarily present. At the risk of falling into materialism or patent pragmatism, the value of spiritual practice is measured by its effect on both the individual and the social spheres. Whatever benefit results from one’s practice for cultivating wisdom and compassion, these benefits affect the environment in which one is practicing. And further, one’s own success in cultivating these qualities is very much contingent upon the ability to express them and include others in an ever widening circle of care and awakening.
Materialism and pragmatism are subtle specters, however, and if the fruits of contemplative work are to be sustainably and effectively shared, it is imperative that the motivation of our actions in the world is framed within an appropriate view. For those of us who have taken the steps out of nihilistic indifference, denial or paralysis in the face of social crisis, there is still a tremendous amount of care that must be taken that our actions do not reinscribe the same harmful causes we are intending to dismantle.
From the Buddhist point of view, and here I speak generally from the Indo-Tibetan tradition, the view that ensures sustainable conduct in the world is that in which wisdom and compassion form an interdependent union. This view of union is seamlessly joined with contemplative practice, and practice flows directly into conduct in the world. To the extent that one’s view is free from distortion and one’s meditation practice is stable, one’s conduct in the world will be effective and sustainable. Before talking about “Engaged Buddhism” and the necessary conversations about how our practice is relating to issues of social justice, I think it is important to reflect on our motivation, our view, and our practice.
Wisdom without compassion is inert, compassion without wisdom is wasted action, or as the opening quote from Thomas Merton shows, potentially harmful. Compassion is a path to wisdom, and it is also the expression of wisdom. Compassion is essentially method: the compassionate actions of social justice, environmental activism, or any channel of bringing harmony and sustainability into the relative world with an altruistic motivation can be included in the notion of “method.” And like the two wings of a bird, method is always paired with “wisdom.” Running through the entirety of Buddhadharma is this fundamental pairing of wisdom and method; the realization of whatever is ultimately true, and the way that realization is approached and then expressed through contingent phenomena and experience. Method includes everything from the human body, sense experience, language, conceptual thought, to all the infinite details of phenomenal experience that can be directed into formal methods of spiritual practice.
Method takes these elements of human experience and refines them into sublime experience, in order to go beyond experience all together and rest in pristine awareness. And then method is re-employed to express pristine awareness in myriad forms of open-hearted goodness, expedient truths, and sublimely transparent artistic works of beauty in order to benefit beings.
Method is only ultimately effective to the extent that it exhausts itself in its own work. The elements of experience are harmonized and refined through method, but method itself must also be transformed along the way. The way one works and what one is working on are interdependent and therefore both must exhaust one another. Like a knife being sharpened on a rock, both the sharp edge of the knife and the rock find their effectiveness through a process of mutual exhaustion. Whatever tool one uses on the path for opening the heart and mind must be dropped or exhausted in its use, or it risks becoming another object of fixation and clinging. Like running on water, each step on the path gives a farewell kiss to the very surface that supports it. Using one tool, we risk becoming attached to it, and so the method of one moment is the object of the method that follows it.
On one hand, if the methods one uses are not eventually exhausted, they will become a fixed part of one’s experience, and their effectiveness in facilitating total openness will be limited. And on the other, if one’s experience is not opened and refined into pristine awareness through the methods one is using, they cannot be said to be effective methods. Both the method and the substantial objects of experience must be liberated. In this way, method is a means of deliberately and substantially refining one’s relationship to experience in order to move beyond deliberate action and substantial experience to rest in substanceless essence.
This substanceless essence is not an isolated metaphysical reality, entity, or experience. It is the wisdom of the abiding nature of mind and all phenomena, always already present and full of qualities of knowledge, power, and compassion. Method is the way to approach this wisdom, to recognize it, to connect with it, but it is also not separate from it. In every moment of using the tools of method, one is ideally aware that it is merely expedient, merely a gesture, a helpful trick that is permeated with spaciousness, with humor, with play, with the understanding that the method itself, the one using it, and the result are all transparent to one another: open, empty, and without fixed points of reference. And because of this openness and transparency, the methods are more precise, more effective, and more powerful. This may seem like a paradox, but it is the nature of method being an expression of pristine wisdom itself, the form that wisdom takes in order to reveal and celebrate itself.
Method then is both the means to wisdom, and the expression of wisdom. All of the tools one has left behind or exhausted are taken up again and employed in whatever way is necessary to benefit beings of different capacities and dispositions, meeting their infinitely diverse habits of clinging to reality with appropriate words, expressions, actions, and concepts that refine and release those habits into open-hearted openness.
I feel that for the conversation about bringing wisdom and compassion into the world to be fruitful, these considerations are essential. The time is overdue for spiritual practitioners to address the issues of the world, particularly issues of social justice and the ecological crisis, but for these actions to be truly fruitful, they must come from a grounded understanding of the union of compassion and wisdom, wisdom and method. Furthermore, on the basis of this view, deep personal and interpersonal practice is essential. Only on the basis of deep practice grounded in the view can action be anything other than another complication.
In terms of the view, we must check if our meditation practice is seeking to achieve something other than what is already present, or if it is overly leaning on the crutch of the method we are using to go beyond support and rest in pristine awareness. And we must see whether our practice is straying into a type of quietism or inert peace, or whether it is falling to the other extreme and is being used as fuel for zealousness.
In terms of action, we must be able to act from a place of deep attunement to one another and ourselves. We must be able to fully rest in and acknowledge the depth of the pain of the earth and our fellow humans while not straying for a moment into believing that there is anything that needs to be fundamentally altered. And on the basis of that attunement, we unleash the pure passion of altruistic action that does whatever needs to be done.
Vigilant that our methods are not becoming weapons, that we are not becoming tools of our tools, and that at no moment we fall into the false belief that what we are devoted to actualizing is anything other than what is always already fully present, the woundedness of our own hearts, of the earth, and of those around us is acknowledged as it is, and recognized as-and-through the tender courage and passionate power of a broken-hearted warrior working tirelessly in a land that is tearing itself apart.
This ability to laugh and cry at the same time, to rest and act at the same time, to be at peace and yet devote one’s life to justice, these are the fruits of deep practice born of a balanced view. The practice of wisdom and compassion in union is then open to the recognition of the world as mandala, as a sacred world that fully transcends any materialistic notions of ecology or psychology, opening into and empowering ever more expansive and powerful dimensions of being that have the capacity to clarify confusion and actively benefit the world. What intransigence that needs to be destroyed can be effectively dismantled, and what ground needs to be enriched will be filled with potency.
How this may manifest is largely dependent upon the details of each individual and community’s situation. Sustainable living in every dimension, social justice in every theatre, the ways in which these will be actualized will naturally and appropriately arise according to circumstance. In moving forward, we are not lacking in ingenuity and agency, but the conviction and ability to rest in the view that provides the space and passion for genius to express itself effectively. We do not lack the passionate intensity to act, but the inner conviction of the sacred nature of our mind and the world. Sacred outlook is not dependent upon positive or negative conditions. It is not a product of circumstance and therefore it is not something to “engage” in. The sacred is simply recognized and embodied, one delicate step at a time.