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Merton’s Wisdom: The Common Ground of Buddhist-Christian Interfaith Dialogue (1)

By Buddhistdoor Wong Weng Hon
Buddhistdoor Global | 2010-12-06 |
This article is a Buddhist response to Thomas Merton’s essay
 ‘Nhat Hanh is my Brother’ and Raymond’s article on ‘ Mindfulness and Love (2010.10.18). These two articles should be contemplated often in order to see the significance of Mindfulness in interfaith dialogue and understanding. Consider this article as a supplementary exegesis on the soteriological significance of Mindfulness (or contemplative prayer).
Thomas Merton wrote in his book ‘Zen and the Birds of Appetite’:
In other words, we begin to divine that Zen is not only beyond the formulations of Buddhism but it is also in a certain way “beyond” (and even pointed to by) the revealed message of Christianity. That is to say that when one breaks through the limits of cultural and structural religion – or irreligion – one is liable to end up, by “birth in the Spirit,” or just by intellectual awakening, in a simple void where all is liberty because all is the actionless action, called by the Chinese Wu-wei and by the New Testament the “freedom of the Sons of God.” Not that they are theologically one and the same, but they have at any rate the same kind of limitlessness, the same lack of inhibition, the same psychic fullness of creativity, which mark the fully integrated maturity of the ‘enlightened self’ (Merton, 1968a, p. 8).
After enlightenment (perfect right understanding of Reality), all actions of a Taoist Gnostic are designated as ‘Wu-wei’. Actions of Wu-wei (non-action of all actions) are ones that are not conditioned by the self-centric ego. Eliminating self-centric ego, one sees the Reality of the Presence or the Absolute. The Presence or the Absolute is the Reality that is in every step of our human life and environment. The Quran says, “ Wherever you turn, you see the face of God.” When one is really mindful non-dualistically, the Reality is with us all the time.
On the doctrine of Wu-wei, Neo-Confucianism has corroborated that there exists unity of soteriologiocal thought between Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. A multitude of brilliant Asian thinkers and intelligentsia working in various fields in the West and in the East are Neo-Confucianist thinkers. Neo-Confucianism has contributed to the rapid emergence of Asian economic tigers like China, Japan, Korea, city of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Likewise, the spiritual wisdom of India has contributed to its rapid economic rise.
The Wisdom of Wu-wei is the mindfulness of flowing with the Tao like the metaphor of water flowing unobstructively in between its obstacles. Wu-wei is consistent with the doctrine of Advaita (Non-duality) of Indian Vedas or Vedanta. They are essentially synonymous with the Christian and Buddhist contemplative science of Mindfulness of non-dual consciousness of the Reality. The modern Neuroscientists can explain through cutting-edge research findings pertaining to this wisdom of Mindfulness of Tao in terms of ‘Direct Experience Brain Circuitry’ of the non-reactive mind of perfect Equanimity (Upekkha) of Wu-wei (Non-selfish action) or Advaita (Non-dualism). Wu-wei or Advaita is the Reality. They can also   explain the ordinary mind of distractions and obsessions in terms of ‘Default Brain Circuitry’. The ordinary mind is carnal or sentient.
 From Buddhist perspective, Wu-wei is the non-volitional action of non-clinging or non-aversion. It is unconditioned by self-centric ego. Any spirit unconditioned by the self-centric ego is the Holy Spirit. Sakyamuni Buddha technically designates it as ‘Kariyas’ (Karmaless or selfless actions). Kariyas are supramundane actions that do not produce any more karma. They are actions of the Gnostics of all faiths. In Gnosis, all six sensual activities are directed ad empowered by the Truth Body (Dharmakaya). Thomas Merton intuitively perceived that the Truth Body of a liberated Buddhist (Gnostic) is synonymous with the Holy Spirit of a saved Christian (Gnostic). This communal Truth of soteriological wisdom made him acknowledge Zen Master Thick Nhat Hanh as his brother. Unfortunately mainstream religion is more ritual-centered rather than Wisdom-centered.
Ritualism does not train the faith adherents the felicity of elimination of self-centeredness. It trains them to adhere to rituals, ceremonies, doctrines, laws and standard practices. Unfortunately, they are attached to them and reverse the gear of spiritual travel away from the Reality. Worst of all, they make them conflict with others who are of different faiths with different ritualistic practices. 
A Christian is pervasive with Holy Spirit when a Christian ceases to sin and his or her life is God-centered and not carnal-mind centered. Such a Christians is peaceful and friendly towards fellow Christians and non-Christians. This is the original function of religion. Thomas Merton opined that soteriologically, a son or disciple of the Buddha and the son or disciple of God or Jesus Christ are communal in nature of the Spirit of the Reality. To him, a saved Christian and a liberated Buddhist see a Reality beyond space and time. There is only one Reality for all faiths. Most importantly, a holy Christian or Buddhist friend is socially non-discriminative towards others. Furthermore, a holy Christian or Buddhist employer or head administrates the subordinates non-discriminatively. A non-discriminative bureaucrat serves all people non-discriminatively.
Common Ground
At this summit of communal Buddhist and Christian spirituality, the pure, infinite consciousness of a liberated Buddhist and a saved Christian is the Essence of the one and only Reality. The Gnostics of all worlds’ major religions see the Reality of Interbeing of Oneness of Being that transcends the concept of past moment, present moment and future moment. Zen Master Thick Nhat Hanh advocates Mindfulness practice while Thomas Merton advocates Christian contemplative practice. Both practices converge at a pointed destination. The destination is the inner Heart in which the Reality dwells in Man. Both a delivered Christian and Buddhist experience the same immediate tasting of the Spirit of Reality.
In the inner Heart, these two dissimilar religious Christian and Buddhist meditational practices finally produce a spiritual station of freedom of deathlessness. Freedom is liberation from imprisonment of self-centric ego. Freedom is Nirvana or Kingdom of Heaven within that transcends all forms of discrimination. The arrived destination of mature mindfulness or contemplative practitioners is the abode of being in the world but not of the world. The Gnostic is engaged with mundane world with supramundane wisdom. Freedom is not withdrawal from the world. Freedom is living in the world and undefiled by the world. This is the highest fruit of Mindfulness or Contemplative practice of these two traditions. Dwelling in Nirvana is dwelling in the Pure Land while one is still living in this terrestrial world. Pure Land is the Kingdom of Heaven of God within. Zen Master teaches Mindfulness of the present moment of here and now to dwell in this Reality. The Mindfulness practice of Zen is none other than the skillful execution of the four establishments of mindfulness (cattaro satipatthana).
Human Transformation
The soteriological common ground of the highest spiritual fruit is communal. The communality is the complete annihilation of self-centric ego. Both soteriological meditational practices of insightful contemplation of these two traditions produce the same human transformation from the small self (false self of atta) of a sentient or carnal being into the Great Self (True Self of Non-self) of a Gnostic. Such transformation is human resurrection of self-redemption. The transformation consummates the original human perfectiveness in wisdom and love. The communal purpose of human life is to redeem one’s Original Self of the fullness of Man’s innate perfectiveness (the potentiality to become perfect in vision and thought).
The Original Self is the Godhead or Buddha-nature, which gives man the primordial potentialities to become increasing perfective. Whoever knows the Original Self of Man knows the Lord. There is only one eternal Lord for all mankind. Economic transformation ensues more effectively from human transformation. The global 2008-2009 financial crisis is a teaching moment for all of us. It mirrors that we have not perfected ourselves sufficiently to avert the systemic risks. We are greedy and morally lax because we idolize hedonistic materialism. We are ignorant or heedless of the Reality! Greed and laxity are systemic risks resulting in the systemic financial crisis.
Interfaith Intersection
As a result of a full empathy of the Zen mind of the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, who was a Christian mystic contemplative born of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit, declared warmly that Zen Master Thick Nhat Hanh was his spiritual brother. The Chinese Ancient says, “ The Wisdom Eye cognizes a hero.” In other words, an accomplished Mindfulness Buddhist meditator does not differ soteriologically from a saved Christian Contemplative.
The world is the multiplicity of selves and the Reality is the Unity of Non-self. The ontological common ground between Christian thought and Buddhist thought is communal truth of Wisdom. When a Sufi master and a Zen Master meet, usually tears wet their eyes because God meets the Buddha in a real life. We are all brothers and sisters originally. Many dramas of life are really unnecessary. What is to be sought is the felicity of Dharma. Dharma is actually Gospel or Tao.

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