Thomas Merton was one of the most influential spiritual figures of the 20th century. In his own time, he became a legend; since his death, there have...moreThomas Merton was one of the most influential spiritual figures of the 20th century. In his own time, he became a legend; since his death, there have sprung up various foundations and centers devoted to promulgating his ideas. His many books are widely read.[return][return]However, as in all things, there is a beginning. The Seven Storey Mountain, formally an autobiography until his 33rd year, was published in 1948; it� s multi- [return]layered book. As William Shannon points out in the excellent Introduction to the 1998 edition, it� s really 3 books in one.[return][return]First, it� s a record of his life: his birth in 1915 in France, his early life and schooling, his education at Cambridge and Columbia and so on. But as Shannon points out with great insight, it� s also a memory of his life; while the memories and his interpretations of them lift the book up from a dry accounting, memory is also selective. The third and most useful of Shannon� s explanations is that it� s also a monk� s judgment of his early life, and Merton was harsh indeed on his younger self; Merton is remorseless in documenting his flaws, his sins.[return][return]But for most people, what is important is really a 4th book� Merton� s spiritual journey which took him finally to the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1941 at age 26. While it is true that the monk Father Louis was very hard on the young Thomas Merton, it is within this context that Merton struggled with his desperate need to find a meaningful direction to his life, one that led to conversion to Catholicism and eventually to a life as a contemplative. That struggle and the insights and religious/spiritual experiences he had on his way are what make the book a powerful read and an inspiration to so many. As Giroux, an editor, says in his essay, 50 years later, the book is still selling steadily.[return][return]Another reason for its popularity is that Merton makes those experiences so accessible. He was a poet as well, and that� s obvious, not just in the ease and smoothness of this prose in his description of his life. It is especially evident in his lyricism in portraying his exaltation, his love for God, Mary and the saints, and his joy, his gratitude for all the mercies and grace bestowed upon him. Because I feel it is nearly impossible to do justice to this aspect by description, I tried to find one of the many passages like that in the book in order to quote them here� but in fact, they really can not be taken out of context. That is the best indication of how integrally Merton� s faith is woven into his story. I suspect that that is one major reason why the book is so popular and why so many people of all faiths have found it so inspirational.[return][return]However, this is the early monk, not the later one. Even in the latter part of the book, one can still see the religious intolerance, flashes of smugness, arrogance, and sexism, as well as the judgmental way in which he views � the world� . The Catholic church of 1948 was pre-Vatican II, and Merton definitely shows that in his dismissal of all religious expression except Roman Catholicism. But what is truly ironic about the young monk is that in dismissing what he calls oriental religion and practices, even in this earliest of his works one can see that his insistence on staying with the present moment, his belief in meditation, and many of his observations can be taken right out of Zen Buddhism; it� s the clearest sign pointer to the fact that in his last years, he was indeed drawn to that way of expression� integrated, of course, with his Catholic faith.[return][return]Also, there is humor in the book� gentle, sometimes a little difficult to see, but definitely there.[return][return]Despite all the flaws, the reason why the book is so powerful is that Merton, like all mystics, penetrates to the heart of the dissatisfaction, unhappiness and longings of everyday people. He is able to express, in terms Westerners can understand, how those yearnings for direction and our fears and denials lead us to lives that are empty and filled with self-loathing. He has also shown, in an accessible and extremely powerful way, how he, a most imperfect person, worked his terribly painful way up the seven storey mountain of this struggle and his gratitude and exaltation to have reached the summit.. Few thoughtful people, especially in today's world, can fail to be affected by his story.(less)
My manual for Zen meditation and understanding. [return][return]The format of Everyday Zen is a series of transcripts of talks that Joko has given to...moreMy manual for Zen meditation and understanding. [return][return]The format of Everyday Zen is a series of transcripts of talks that Joko has given to students during intensive meditation retreats or during regular Saturday morning programs at the Zen Center of San Diego, which she heads.[return][return]Joko is a rarity in American Zen--American, not Asian; female; mother of 3 children; she had an independent career from which she retired. She started Zen when a mature adult. As a result, she brings a different, practical perspective to Zen, not always found in American zendos; I can speak from personal experience to that. [return][return]Beck lives in today's world, not 11th or 13th century Japan. She understands, as the Introduction puts it, that the "chop wood, carry water" idiom of medieval Eastern practice has to be translated, for Westerners, into "make love, drive freeway." She can speak to a modern, Western student in a way that those following the monastic model of Japanese Zen can not or find difficult.[return][return]Beck is a practical, no nonsense teacher. One of her objectives is to destroy in her students the romantic notions that many people bring to Zen. While psychological change probably will occur, it's not the object of Zen, nor or special "powers". Joko is relentless in refusing to give her students what she calls "cookies"--false hopes or pretenses for starting what is really a way of life. Joko is excellent, as a result, in defining what Zen is NOT, which turns out to be remarkably useful to a student. She understands that Americans, in particular, want to be "fed" enlightenment, preferably by listening to a teacher tell them how to live or by reading it in a book. Joko constantly demolishes these notions.[return][return]The book organizes the essays (for that is what they turn out to be) into sections: Beginnings, Practice, Feelings, Relationships, Suffering, Ideals, Boundaries, Choices, Service. Each gives practical advice on meditation and living. While she is insistent that no book can take the place of practice, still this one is invaluable as a manual for those of us who do not have access to a teacher. It really is a "how to" book rather than a series of inspirational messages. I have found it invaluable in my own life. [return][return]Too bad there is no rating higher than 5 stars.(less)
Anyone who thinks that Tibetan Buddhism is somehow the path of airy-fairy mysticism is dead flat wrong. In fact, the subtitle of the book--Faith Groun...more
Anyone who thinks that Tibetan Buddhism is somehow the path of airy-fairy mysticism is dead flat wrong. In fact, the subtitle of the book--Faith Grounded in Reason--gives far more of an indication of what Buddhism really is. I have often thought that the Shakyamuni Buddha was the first and possibly the greatest systems analyst/process engineer. All the deification and ritual was superimposed, much later. Underneath, the foundation of Buddhism is process analysis: the origin of suffering, cause and effect, and the way to go about extinguishing the causes of suffering.
In The Middle Way, the Dalai Lama expounds on what he considers two crucial texts in the development of Buddhism: Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Stanza’s on the Middle Way and Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path. I had trouble understanding significant parts of the section on Nagarjuna, even though I am no stranger to Buddhism. I think the problem lies in the terminology although the concept of emptiness is difficult to grasp all on its own.
I’m not sure I’d recommend this to a beginner, who wants to find out what Tibetan Buddhism is all about. There must be some other books that give a simpler explanation. I think this book is aimed at those who have some knowledge and who are looking for a solid philosophical basis for understanding. Even so, I think that, while it certainly provides insights and clarity on the first reading, to get the fullest benefit possible from this book will require several readings. Certainly, that proved true for me-- I certainly gained from it. But there is too much that I didn’t understand, struggling as I was almost word by word in some sections to absorb the densely-presented concepts. I’ll return to it, probably several times, to see what else I can glean from this closely-reasoned presentation. (less)