He was a man whose spirit could not be contained by a monastic way of life and though he followed the life faithfully his interests were wide and varied, ranging from concerns for social justice and spirituality to interreligious dialogue. He met with important people in other faiths such as the Dalai Lama, Tich Nhat Hanh whom he regarded as brothers and corresponded with Dr Suzuki, the expert in Zen Buddhism. He explored the wisdom of the Zen masters, Hindu holy figures, Sufi mystics and Taoist sages, translating some of their scriptures and reflected on the relationship of Christianity to these faiths. He did all this from his monastery. He had taken a vow of stability but his heart was as wide as the world. He had a real sense of solidarity with other human beings and in his autobiography describes how " in Louisville, at the corner of the Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of a shopping district I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realisation that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs" For him there was no separation between himself and others.
Towards the end of his life he was invited to give a talk at an interfaith gathering in Bankok and, having got permission from his Abbot, his journey there gave him the opportunity to dialogue with others and visit some significant pilgimage sites. Having delivered his talk at the Bankok gathering he returned to his hotel room and tragically was accidentally electrocuted. He was 54 years of age. Forty six years on he is still remembered as an inspiration to those involved in social justice and interreligious dialogue - a universal man as a recent publication is called.
On his trip to Thailand he visited Pollonaruwa in Sri Lanka, a visit which happened just nine days before his death. I've been to Pollonaruwa and it's a remarkable place. There are three enormous, majestic statues of the Buddha, one sitting in meditation, one standing and one reclining in sleep or death. There is an atmosphere of awe and wonder and as one stands before these magnificent statues a realiation of one's smallness and unimportance, one's nothingness in the face of such focussed compassion. After standing some time before the reclining Buddha, Merton wrote: "..... I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don't know what else remains but I have now seen and pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise"
Commentators have speculated about whether this profound experience would have led Merton to become a Buddhist. Well who knows but I doubt it. Thomas Merton was someone who had pierced through the surface of religion to find the pearl of great price which is at the heart of all of them. To a certain extent he belonged to all of them because he respected their wisdom and insight while recognising that they all had institutional aspects which could reveal or obscure their central message. Earlier in Zen and the Birds of Appetite he had written " Now if we reflect for a moment, we will realise that in Christianity, too, as well as Islam, we have various admittedly unusual people who see beyond the "religious" aspect of their faith." He was such a one. He recognised a Reality that transcended religions' cultural, social and even religious structures. It would seem at Pollonaruwa that he had found this pearl of great price and knew it with the whole of his being. There would have been no need for Thomas Merton to convert to another religion.