Zen and the Birds of Appetiteby Published 01 Jan 1970
|Zen and the Birds of Appetite.pdf|
"Zen enriches no one," Thomas Merton provocatively writes in his opening statement to Zen and the Birds of Appetite—one of the last books to be published before his death in 1968. "There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while... 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." This gets at the humor, paradox, and joy that one feels in Merton's discoveries of Zen during the last years of his life, a joy very much present in this collection of essays. Exploring the relationship between Christianity and Zen, especially through his dialogue with the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki, the book makes an excellent introduction to a comparative study of these two traditions, as well as giving the reader a strong taste of the mature Merton. Never does one feel him losing his own faith in these pages; rather one feels that faith getting deeply clarified and affirmed. Just as the body of "Zen" cannot be found by the scavengers, so too, Merton suggests, with the eternal truth of Christ.
"Zen and the Birds of Appetite" Reviews
This book has more personal significance for me than most others. Thomas Merton was a Catholic monk, poet, writer, and social activist. I highly reccommend this book for anyone interested in Christianity, Zen, or the spiritual experience. I read this when I was in high school, during a time when I had rejected a fundamentalist / literal interpretation of Christianity and was exploring eastern philosophy, but had not quite grasped the principles of eastern thought. Because I grew up indoctrinated in the Christian church, I found it easy to follow Merton's thought process and language. But what makes Merton special is that his spiritual life is grounded in experience, and not conceptual ideology. It is from this place, the place of direct experience, that he connects Christianity with Zen Buddhism. This book not only helped me understand Zen. It helped me reconcile my Christian upbringing. It helped me interpret Christianity metaphorically. It helped me understand that the spiritual experience is the direct experience of the unity of life, which is beyond thought, beyond conceptualization, and ultimately beyond religion.
"The Zen consciousness is compared to a mirror" Thomas Merton
"The mirror is thoroughly egoless and mindless" Zenkei Shibayma ,On Zazen Wasan
I take it for granted that if you want to understand Zen, then reading the work of a Catholic monk is probably not the way to do it. Merton's account of a Zen which is radically divorceable from the Buddhist context in which it developed is almost certain to be appropriative. So it goes.
That said, Merton's account of a Zen Catholicism nonetheless remains a powerful vision of what a (completely orthodox, and perhaps at times too completely orthodox) Christian theological praxis centered on mysticism might look like--and has looked like over the ages, as Merton provides an extensive (if not quite comprehensive) overview of Catholic mysticism throughout history, and discuses how their insights fall in line with what he understands Zen to be. I stand convinced that there is even more need for Merton's (and the Saints') brand of experiential Zen Catholicism today, in an era when the modernist systematic theology and premodern superstition inherent in other forms of Christianity no longer speak to our postmodern times, then when Merton was writing half a century ago.
And while Merton's Zen Catholicism is focused on personal experience, it does not fall prey to the sort of radical individualism (ultimately narrowly focused on personal sin and individul salvation) which riddles and plagues Protestantism. Instead, the Church itself is able to play a key role both as the mystic Body of Christ and as the source of the Sacraments. Merton recognizes that "faith is the door to the full inner life of the Church, a life which includes not only access to an authoritative teaching but above all to a deep personal experience which is at once unique and yet shared by the whole Body of Christ, in the Spirit of Christ."
This book did and does much to confirm, deepen, and enrich my understanding of the rightful place of mysticism and mystic experience at the very center of Christianity (and, in particular, my own brand of liberal Anglo-Catholicism).
How does Merton connect Zen (distinct from Buddhism) to the story of Jesus? What's "broken" and how does Merton suggest redemption and repair?
Musings Influenced by the Book:
Zen is not a thing; it's more of an absence. Within the Christian experience, it is the absence of resistance to Christ living in us and through us. Zen is not an obedience, but an alive-ness to what is, an absence of the question - it simply is.
Stripped of its Buddhist story, Zen as a reality fits within the Christian experience. Zen is the experienced reality of St. Paul's phrase, "It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me." The ancient Christians referred to this as "union" with God - an expression of life that lived from the core of the human person and seen from within as an inability to discern the origin of action: was it God or me who did this? This blur, this lack of question, and this free expression of what is (without resistance) is living "Zen."
My favorite quote:
“…liberation from his inordinate self-consciousness, his monumental self-awareness, his obsession with self-affirmation, so that he may enjoy the freedom from concern that goes with being simply what he is and accepting things as they are in order to work with them as he can.” *Zen and the Birds of Appetite* p. 31
The general take away:
Awakening is the goal. This is something Christians have always talked about. The Christian sense of awakening differs from the traditional Buddhist story with regards to what one awakens to.
For the Christian, awakening is coming to the sense of the Father's divine love and present care and seeing all things that would flounder that reality purge away. It is in the life of Christ living in us that we come to see this love and have it live through us.
For the Buddhist, the awakening is more of a coming to see that all things are life and that there is no individual "me" - I am the Life, you are the Life, and all things that exist are life in this moment.
I think that I've gone as far with this book as I can. Actually, I've read most, if not all, of it in bits and pieces over the past few years, but this time I thought that I should sit down and read it start-to-finish.
I didn't quite make it to "finish", but that really has nothing to do with Merton's writing. I've just personally reached a stage at which I'm put off by "theology" (in its definition as a "rational definition of religious questions" or a "system or school of opinions concerning God") in any form. Zen, in particular, seems ill-suited to such "study"--although it seems to me that Buddhism seems to get discussed a lot more than it's practiced at times--and Christianity has always depended much too heavily on words and doctrine for my taste (although I suspect that Jesus himself didn't "go on" nearly as much as the Gospels would lead one to believe, and taught more by example than by explanation).
Two quotes from the book that I particularly like are these:
"...the chief characteristic of Zen is that it rejects these systematic elaborations in order to get back, as far as possible to the pure unarticulated and unexplained ground of direct experience."
and (somewhat as a contrast)
"Christianity (runs the risk of being) in effect reduced to a world view, at times a religious philosophy and little more, sustained by a more or less elaborate cult, by a moral discipline and a strict code of Law...a sense of security in one's own correctness..."
Merton also says of Buddha that "His doctrine was not a doctrine but a way of being in the world. His religion was not a set of beliefs or convictions or of rites and sacraments but an opening to love. His philosophy was not a world view but a significant silence..." (I believe that this could also be a description of Jesus, regardless of all the religion-building that went on after his death.)
My own sense is that the spiritual relationship is absolutely personal and specific to the individual, and can manifest itself in an infinite number of ways (perhaps even in ways the individual himself would not necessarily think of as "spiritual"). There's really no point in discussing it, for the most part, and dissecting and debating it only diminishes it (not to mention, of course, the endless conflicts opposing views on what's "right" have caused throughout history).
What I AM interested in as far as Merton is concerned is his own personal journey, and his struggles. What was it like to be a Christian monk in the 1960's who seemed to find himself fascinated, and perhaps drawn to, spiritual traditions that his associates disdained and dismissed (almost a "forbidden fruit")? What direction would his life have taken had he lived? What was really going on in his mind, heart, and spirit, beneath the surface of all the philosophical inquiry? I guess I could go and read some of his later journals but, as I said in an earlier comment, that always seems like something of an invasion of privacy, or something (even if he meant to have them published at some point). But I do admire him a great deal for making the effort, which must have put him at risk of losing the secure standing within the monastic community that he'd no doubt worked hard to acquire. And I hate to see him derided for it, as he seems to be even now.