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Zen and the Birds of Appetite

4.10  ·  Rating Details  ·  693 Ratings  ·  39 Reviews
"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 ...more
Published July 27th 2010 by New Directions (first published January 17th 1968)
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"The Zen consciousness is compared to a mirror" Thomas Merton

"The mirror is thoroughly egoless and mindless" Zenkei Shibayma ,On Zazen Wasan
Joseph Dunn
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 ...more
Cole J. Banning
Jan 25, 2011 Cole J. Banning rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Cole J. Banning by: Mark Shiner
Shelves: favorites
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 mystic
Benjamin Vineyard
Apr 19, 2013 Benjamin Vineyard rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Initial Question:
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 th
Nancy Bevilaqua
Jun 11, 2013 Nancy Bevilaqua rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 Go
Jul 13, 2016 Scott rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
This is a wonderful book for those seeking a more mystical approach to the tenets of Christianity. Merton does an amazing job of simplifying the core differences (and similarities!) between Zen-Buddhism and Christianity. He does a god job of documenting some of the more "radical" theologians in the Church's history and "New Consciousness."

Some of the passages benefit from re-reading; not because they are difficult to comprehend, but because of the meditative nature of some of messages. This is n
Sep 09, 2010 Ronny rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy, religion
The title's deceiving. From the title, I expected this book to cover how Zen deals with desire. Instead, I got a book that was more concerned with finding common ground between Christianity and Zen for fruitful dialog without falling into syncreticism.

The author's approach is interesting. He is very sympathetic to Zen and acknowledges a commonality to mystic experience, but still manages to avoid the "all religions are the same" message of some other books.

The author still manages to teach a fe
Erik Akre
Feb 21, 2016 Erik Akre rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: students of Zen, practicioners of Zen, students and practiciouners of Catholic mysticism
It became so obvious, by the end of Thomas Merton's life, that he had fully absorbed the lessons of Zen Buddhism. It was a relatively small step, really, from his earlier writing (examples can be found in the stern statements in New Seeds of Contemplation). It appears to me that all that time living in a hovel in the woods removed "religion" from Merton's approach to life, and left him simply empty of the world. This book is the final celebration of how he transformed from a strict Catholic myst ...more
Mar 19, 2014 Troy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm note even quite finished, but I can't help myself from giving it 5 stars. Every page has contained treasures. A Trappist Monk like Thomas Merton is able to give me a form of Christianity that embraces Taoist or Buddhist principles like Zen in a way that allows me not only to keep my Christianity and desires for religious identity, but gives room to expand and deepen those by bringing this way of seeing within the Christian tradition. Zen is not, after all, a system or dogma. "Zen explains no ...more
Laura Cowan
Dec 13, 2014 Laura Cowan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book could have been written about the last few years of my life experiencing the wisdom of Buddhism and other old wisdom traditions--if I could have put such articulate words to the discovery--but to find this from a Catholic.... Having been raised evangelical Christian in an ecumenical Catholic Protestant community that despite its strides made a lot of big mistakes, this heals some wounds and gives me hope for my fellow Christians.
Mar 08, 2013 Susan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting book. Merton alleges that Zen is the art of truly seeing oneself and reality in the moments before the mind tries to abstract and objectify what it sees. The concept of Zen (exclusive of all religious thought), is the art of appreciating what truly IS, rather than what we want it to be, according to Merton. The further Zen Buddhist goals of emptying oneself to appreciate the infinite, is also of value to the Christian, Merton says, in that we also need to release our egos wants ...more
Feb 03, 2014 Jo rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Merton at his most pioneering leading the way in drawing comparisons between Christianity and Zen, with the aid of St Augustine and the Desert Fathers, and also in dialogue with the amazing DT Suzuki. "God's own suchness..", just one of the bits I underlined.
Boris Gregoric
Very dated. In 1968 the book might have been relevant, even provocative, despite Merton's cloying writing style that is painful to read. One thing is for sure, Merton was a very productive writer.
Jul 05, 2016 Brian rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: personal
I wasn't surprised that Taoism is compatible with Catholicism because I came to the same conclusion, but I was surprised to see it articulated, especially so long ago. For lack of a better word, I have a better "understanding" of Zen now. The newest insight, however, was reconciling true poverty (not even keeping an empty space inside yourself for God like when Jesus was on the cross) and enlarging your capacity for the gifts God wants to give you. I think that on our spiritual journeys, enlargi ...more
Pam Mcmahon
Jun 30, 2013 Pam Mcmahon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I am only 1/4 of the way through this marvelous book and I already have to give it a 5 star rating. Zen is something you experience; but try to explain it? Try to explain it in its purest form...for instance, Merton gives the example that, to place Zen in the context of Buddhism, is like making Spanish Baroque essential to St John of the Cross; he may have lived in that era, but is inconsequential to who he was - the perfect clarification of an otherwise commonly misconstrued notion. And on, and ...more
Camille McCarthy
Dec 29, 2013 Camille McCarthy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting book of essays written by a Trappist monk on the connections between Zen and Catholicism. It was not an easy read but it was interesting and clarified a lot of things about what Zen actually is, which was helpful, looking back on "the Dharma Bums". It confirmed my suspicions that "the Dharma Bums" didn't really know what Zen was and were just using it as an excuse to get drunk every night and not care, even though they might have understood bits and pieces of what they were preachin ...more
A good book concerned with approaching Zen and its affinities to Western Religious traditions. Merton makes a wise distinction between Zen and Buddhism, and a further distinction between Zen and the Christian Mystics. This is not an intellectually lazy book, yet it does not get trapped in the usual circular explanations of Zen "thought".
The book is broken into sections of a manageable size. And the last portion is a dialogue between Father Thomas Merton and D.T. Suzuki. Their tone is amiable, bu
Jan 20, 2015 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Without sounding too much like Bruce Lee, the art of seeing without seeing
Apr 16, 2014 Mike rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thomas Merton links Zen and Christian Mysticism, which is, to say the least, a supreme challenge. Finding the common ground isn’t the challenge. The challenge is to get Western readers to think non-dualistically. For example, to Christians the phrase “from God” implies a hypothetical center of all being, what T.S. Elliot calls “the still point of the turning world.” For Buddhists what implies a hypothetical center of all being is the phrase “the Void”. The void and the point—they are one in the ...more
Oct 23, 2009 Nancy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I think Merton was far above me in intelligence and obviously also had training in philosophy which I have not. That said, I still plod through some of his writings because they still contain some pearls of wisdom even ignorant ones like me can use. However, it is work! So if someone asked me to recommend one of Merton's books, I'd probably steer clear of this one. "No Man is an Island" would be a better choice, but also not easy to read and sometimes aimed at the monk's life rather than life in ...more
Rodrigo J
Feb 25, 2013 Rodrigo J rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you will only read one book on mysticism, this may be the one. It's so powerful to see a Christian monk talk of Oriental mysticism. It will change your spiritual concepts, it will open you to the orient, your idea of God, religion, etc.

You get the feeling that he goes as far AA he could before be oping a heretic, since dogmas have no place in spirituality.

It's so moving, so beautiful to sense a monk going to the limits, and inviting you to go farther, where he could not go (in written form)
Jan 30, 2013 Peter rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Open minded Christians or adventurous Buddhists

Vintage Merton!
My second revisit and therefore third reading.
Open minded, erudite, curious and honest yet not a hint of syncretism, pluralism nor any other feather-brained-fusion for that matter. As far away from Western Supermarket Spirituality as you can get. The essay 'A Christian Looks at Zen', as a work of comparative religion, is as good an introduction to both true Christian mysticism and Zen Buddhism as you will find anywhere.
Aug 03, 2011 Debbie rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Way over my head! I didn't know what I was getting into when selecting this book. I think I will need to find something more basic, and then re-attempt this book at a later date -- Admittedly, I am just shallow in this subject area, so my rating says more about my inability to understand the book, versus the quality of the book/writing.
A better cure for insomnia than any pill I have ever taken. The prose is practically unreadable and I didn't find Merton's arguments or conclusions particularly compelling. This book is mostly just fawning over D.T. Suzuki, and given his checkered past, it's hard to believe Merton's admiration goes unqualified in the text.
Mar 17, 2010 Kelly marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those interested in ways of approaching daily life, comparative religions
Recommended to Kelly by: college prof.
I first read it in college. As I've rediscovered an interest in Buddhism, I immediately thought of this book for the fascinating comparisons Merton draws between the practice of the life a monk be it Catholic or Buddhist as well as the commonalities/divergences he sees in the two world-views.
Jim Gero
Feb 21, 2010 Jim Gero rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Merton in his final year, on his Eastern journey. Not to be missed, if you have any interest in the story of Roman Christianity encountering Eastern Wisdom (and some dross, too; the eastern world is still as human and fallible as the western Church is).
Oct 23, 2012 Keith rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One of the great Catholic thinkers writes about how bad ass Zen is? Pretty bad ass. Would be five stars if it wasn't for a moderately meh last chunk, a chunk that's essentially Merton dickering with D.T. Suzuki.

Thin, old, an amazing little book.
Dec 17, 2009 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think it is interesting that early followers of Jesus called themselves "people of the way" and that coincidentally the word "zen" means "the way."
A Catholic monk goes deeper into spiritual connectivity between western and eastern practice and presence .
Oct 27, 2009 Esther rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I didn't get a chance to finish this book before I had to return it to the library. That said, the parts that I did read were amazing and very thought provoking. I'm going to have to buy the book when I get the opportunity.
Tygh Walters
Jul 26, 2011 Tygh Walters rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent book! Good point of view from a "Christian Westerner". Read/finished this on a New York train to Carmel, NY, before my weekend retreat at Zen Mountain Monastery.
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  • Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series
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  • Encounters With Silence
  • The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind
  • An Inquiry into the Good
  • The Essential Writings
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  • Markings
  • Cold Mountain: One Hundred Poems by the T'Ang Poet Han-Shan
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  • Christ the Eternal Tao
  • The New Being
Thomas Merton was one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, in the American state of Kentucky, Merton was an acclaimed Catholic spiritual writer, poet, author and social activist. Merton wrote over 60 books, scores of essays and reviews, and is the ongoing subject of many biographies. Merton was also a proponent of int ...more
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“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.” 7 likes
“As long as this “brokenness” of existence continues, there is no way out of the inner contradictions that it imposes upon us. If a man has a broken leg and continues to try to walk on it, he cannot help suffering. If desire itself is a kind of fracture, every movement of desire inevitably results in pain. But even the desire to end the pain of desire is a movement, and therefore causes pain. The desire to remain immobile is a movement. The desire to escape is a movement. The desire for Nirvana is a movement. The desire for extinction is a movement. Yet there is no way for us to be still by “imposing stillness” on the desires. In a word, desire cannot stop itself from desiring, and it must continue to move and hence to cause pain even when it seeks liberation from itself and desires its own extinction.” 1 likes
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