Forgotten words

Is there a sense in which we may safely forget even the greatest words? Do words contain inherent limitations that somehow keep us from the reality they may move us toward? Thomas Merton examines the nature of words in The Way of Chuang Tzu, his paraphrase of works by the fourth century BC Chinese philosopher who is credited with helping to transform Indian Buddhism into what we now call Zen.

Merton sees Chuang Tzu as his kindred spirit. Merton and Chuang Tzu both were hermits to some extent, and both spiritual philosophers of sorts, perhaps with Merton heavier on the spiritual side and Chuang Tzu more the philosopher. The content of their philosophies is similar, too. Merton assures us that his book “is not a new apologetic subtlety (or indeed a work of jesuitical sleight of hand) in which Christian rabbits will suddenly appear by magic out of a Taoist hat.” Yet Merton’s paraphrase demonstrates how Chuang Tzu’s writings closely resemble the apophatic thought of some Christian theologians and mystics that Merton writes about elsewhere.

Merton points out that Chuang Tzu’s Taoism is not “the popular, degenerate amalgam of superstition, alchemy, magic, and health-culture which Taoism later became.” Instead, Chuang Tzu’s Taoism values an inner unity, a hiddenness of the true man, and a practical asceticism that Merton also finds in Christian mysticism.

Merton believes that Chuang Tzu’s gift of “unknowing” is similar to Christian contemplation. A Chuang Tzu disciple loses his self-conscious “knowledge” and gains an inner “unknowing” by which he lives through Tao. The disciple in one Chuang Tzu story, for instance, prepares for the gift of unknowing through a patient emptying of desires, otherwise known as a “fasting of the heart,” much as Merton’s contemplative must go through John of the Cross’ Night of Sense, when the will grows tired of desire and reasoning. 1

[photo of Thomas Merton]

Because the themes and points in The Way of Chuang Tzu are found in Merton’s other writings, we may fairly ask if the book amounts to Chuang Tzu’s words or Merton’s. Of course, any paraphrase takes a certain degree of liberty with the original wording. The Way of Chuang Tzu may be even more about the translator than is the average paraphrase, however, since Merton admits to knowing almost no Chinese and instead puts his “readings” together by comparing four of his favorite western language translations. As a result, Merton says, his readings are “not attempts at faithful reproduction but ventures in personal and spiritual interpretation.”

Merton, then, has made Chuang Tzu his own, and it is not as if Chuang Tzu would care. Chuang Tzu saw words as constituting only a ladder to reality. When one climbs onto reality, one may push away the words he used to get there. To internalize great words is to climb the ladder.

To internalize great words is also the first step towards forgetting them. As Merton states in his book’s essay on Chuang Tzu preceding his paraphrase, “Chuang Tzu is not concerned with words and formulas about reality, but with the direct existential grasp of reality in itself.” Indeed, at the end of one reading, Chuang Tzu exclaims:

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.

Merton’s relationship with words and formulas is a bit more ambivalent than Chuang Tzu’s. Merton writes within, and struggles against, a Western philosophical tradition that is still largely foundational and analytical. A true grasp of reality, though, “is necessarily obscure and does not lend itself to abstract analysis,” Merton writes in the book’s essay. Chuang Tzu’s more anecdotal and meditative style seems to do a better job at approaching truth, Merton believes.

Merton is bound also to Christian theology, which, like Western philosophy in general, insists on expressing the ineffable. Because individual Christian experience is part of the broader experience of the Church, Merton says that individual Christian experience “must always be in some way reducible to a theological form that can be shared by the rest of the Church or that shows that it is a sharing of what the rest of the Church experiences.” 2 Zen, on the other hand, resists straightforward communication. 3

Merton’s ambivalent relationship to words, however, goes beyond his attempts to explain the ineffable in terms of Western philosophy, or even in terms of Roman Catholic theology. Merton’s ambivalence comes chiefly from his dual calling as a priest as well as a reporter in God’s contemplative temple. Merton’s reporting duties enhance but sometimes conflict with his priestly duties. Words sometimes just get in the way.

Writing is a self-conscious act, while the gift of contemplation involves a love freed from self-consciousness. Merton’s priest must give up words, even words to be used for the most altruistic purposes, in order to experience God in intimate contemplation:

But before we come to that which is unspeakable and unthinkable, the spirit hovers on the frontiers of language, wondering whether or not to stay on its own side of the border, in order to have something to bring back to other men. This is the test of those who wish to cross the frontier. If they are not ready to leave their own ideas and their own words behind them, they cannot travel further. 4

Merton’s priest loses his words and his self-consciousness, but he slowly becomes everything the words point to anyway.

Chuang Tzu finds irony in the limited role words have in communicating Tao’s unknowing. In one story, Chuang Tzu compares a true Tao man to an old toothless disciple who falls asleep during his Tao lesson. The instructor’s unheard words concerning Tao are accurate and well reasoned. Yet the instructor could not have been happier with his sleeping student: “His body is dry…[h]is mind is dead… [h]is knowledge is solid, [h]is wisdom true!” Free of desire, the old man has no hint of self-consciousness, and no use for analysis.

Chuang Tzu’s unknowing leaves no place for written history or even written philosophy, ironically the two disciplines that have preserved Chuang Tzu’s words for our use today. In one story, a wheelwright calls his prince’s philosophy readings “the dirt [the philosophers] left behind.” Pressed by the prince for an explanation, the wheelwright compares the philosophers’ learning to his own expertise at fitting wheels. The wheelwright cuts short his brief explanation of his skills by saying:

You cannot put it into words.
You just have to know how it is.

Everything the philosophers really knew went with them to the grave, the wheelwright concludes. What they really knew, then, was “unknowing.” Their words end up as no substitute for what they knew.

“Tao cannot be communicated,” Merton says, “Yet it communicates itself in its own way.” The irony is that we’re reading the dirt Merton left behind, which includes, as a sort of play within a play, the dirt Chuang Tzu left behind. What does Merton hope to communicate, if Tao — and Christian contemplation — cannot be communicated?

Merton’s choices of his favorite and least favorite writings may help us with this riddle. Merton said that he enjoyed writing The Way of Chuang Tzu more than anything else he wrote. Perhaps he could sympathize with Chuang Tzu, who admired Confucius but pointed out the hollowness of his followers’ self-conscious efforts to obtain virtue. Some of Merton’s books address the hollowness of a pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, which professed to follow Christ but was largely preoccupied with exterior forms and rationalism.

More likely, Merton enjoyed writing The Way of Chuang Tzu because it represented something like a surrender of his attempts to communicate the path to contemplation directly. By using another philosopher as his own multifaceted anecdote, Merton comes as close to “unconsciousness” (that is, unselfconsciousness) as he ever does in communicating contemplation. In writing Chuang Tzu, Merton seems to stay protected within “the tower of his spirit”:

The unconsciousness
And entire sincerity of Tao
Are disturbed by any effort
At self-conscious demonstration.

In contrast, Merton’s least favorite of his books is The Ascent to Truth, a systematic (for Merton) defense of John of the Cross’ mystical theology. By writing theology, Merton opened himself up to the criticism of theologians, and at least twice in his journals he expressed his regret for writing the book. While Merton values theology — especially good mystical theology — highly, his attempt at writing theology was, for him, a “self-conscious demonstration” that took him away from the protection of his spirit’s tower.

In The Way of Chuang Tzu, Merton is communicating his own joy from his spirit’s tower. He has found a new friend who has taught him the irony of words as well as the value of irony. Like the best of Merton’s words, The Way of Chuang Tzupoints to an experience of contemplation, while it reverently and wisely backs away from providing or insisting upon such an experience. Just as Merton kicks away Chuang Tzu like a ladder after experiencing the unknowing Chuang Tzu describes, Merton invites us to climb his own words and to forget them as well.

1. Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951), 189.
2. Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions 1968), 46.
3. Id. at 46, 47.
4. Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955), 255.