Chapter 2: Let the Christian Ship Drown
One day, on his way to see Ma Tzu, Tanka Tennen met an old man with a boy, and asked them where they lived. The old man answered, “Above is the sky; below is the earth!”
Tanka said, “How about if the sky crumbled away and the earth fell to pieces?”
The old man said, “Ah! Ah!”
The boy drew a deep breath, and Tanka said, “If there were no father, no child would be born.”
The old man and the child entered the mountains and were seen no more.
Once, Tanka Tennen was lying on the Tenshin bridge. Lord Teiko, who was in charge of the bridge, came out and warned Tanka that he had better move, but Tanka didn’t get up.
Teiko asked why he didn’t listen to him. After a few moments, Tanka said, “I am a monk of nothing.”
Teiko was taken aback by Tanka Tennen’s response, and from then on provided him with clothing and a daily meal.
After the incident, Tanka Tennen was venerated by the whole city.
The first question:
In Thomas Merton’s view:
“Zen is not a systematic explanation of life, it is not an ideology, it is not a world view, it is not a theology of revelation and salvation, it is not a mystique, it is not a way of ascetic perfection, it is not mysticism as it is understood in the West; in fact it fits no convenient category of ours. Hence all our attempts to tag it and dispose of it with labels like pantheism, quietism, illuminism, Pelagianism, must be completely incongruous.
“But the chief characteristic of Zen is that it rejects all systematic elaborations in order to get back as far as possible to the pure, unarticulated and unexplained ground of direct experience. The direct experience of what? Life itself.”
Has Thomas Merton got it?
It is a very sad story about Thomas Merton. Perhaps he was one of the persons in the West who has come closest to Zen. He had the sensibility of a poet; the others are approaching Zen from their intellect, their mind.
Thomas Merton is approaching Zen through his heart. He feels it, but he could not live the direct experience he is talking about. He would have been the first Zen master in the West, but he was prevented by the Catholic Church.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk under the Vatican. The Trappist monks are the most self-torturing ascetics in Christianity. Perhaps that’s why they are called Trappist - trapped forever.
Thomas Merton wrote beautiful poetry, and he asked again and again to go to Japan and to live in a Zen monastery to have the direct experience of Zen. But permission was refused half a dozen times; again and again he was refused.
If he had really understood Zen he would not have bothered even to ask for permission. Who is the Vatican? Who is the pope? A Zen master asking permission from unenlightened people is simply not heard of. And he followed the orders from the Vatican and from the abbot of his own monastery.