The Thomas Merton Prison Project


“Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” – Pope Francis

Merton's Jesus 001.jpgChrist is always calling ― do we listen? He said faith even as small as a mustard seed could move mountains. To initiate this faith, we need to first till the field. We can do that by recognizing the suffering of others and honoring the other in ourselves.

Thomas Merton, born in the French Pyrenees in 1915 to an American mother and New Zealander father, both painters, began life as an outsider, the other. The sounds and smells of the First World War lingered close to his home. The Benedictine Abbey of Saint Michel-de-Cuxa, one of the first to spark young Tom’s imagination, was close by. Decades later, portions of the Abbey found itself reborn on the banks of the Hudson in upper Manhattan as the Cloisters. A tortured circuitous route also brought Merton to upper Manhattan and Columbia University in the years before the Second World War. (Drawing of Christ by Thomas Merton. Used by permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University)

Like Thomas Merton, I lived as an outsider in a foreign land. My father, an ESSO oil executive, had moved my family out of the US just before I was born. After growing up in Venezuela, where I was exposed to scenes of inequality and suffering, and in Libya, which provided me a first-hand view of Islamic culture and beliefs, coming to terms with social injustice and religious intolerance became my primary focus.

That focus continued through my adolescent years. In 1965, after my mother became ill, my family moved to Miami where I went to high school. In my senior year, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Several months later, two weeks before Christmas vacation, I was attending college in Switzerland when I learned my mother had lost her battle with multiple sclerosis and had passed away. That year of devastation prompted me on a lifetime search for spiritual answers and remedies.

That’s when Thomas Merton entered my world. Gandhi on Non-Violence ― a slim volume of Gandhi quotations edited by Thomas Merton — fell into my hands. I read Merton’s introduction, Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant, and was hooked. Here was a voice who clearly understood the complex interweave of international culture and common human community which defines the world today. His fearless openness to different cultures and beliefs was learned early and appeared to be a driving force in his inter-faith outreach. Many have mistakenly believed that Merton was seeking answers from other traditions because he was willing to explore them. The answer, I believe, is quite different. Merton personified the heart and intellect of Christ, the Hidden Ground of Love as he called it. He summoned the world spiritual community together, to heal and pray as one.

I resonated deeply with Merton’s writings, and he began to have a profound effect on my life. I read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain which depicted his human frailties as a troubled youth in search of truth — a narrative I could definitely relate to. His introspection, spiritual searching and mystical insights as well as his willingness to speak about his conversion to the Catholic faith and his own inner trials made him accessible. He was also outspoken about war, in particular the war in Vietnam, and since I was registered for the draft, his message of peace was all the more poignant.

Merton’s writings, I discovered, actually covered a wide range of interests. In addition to merton-dalai-lamabeing outspoken on issues of peace and non-violence, his observations made him a contemporary spokesman on key matters that are still driving communities apart today:  race, income inequality, and a decline in moral and religious values. In addition, Merton strongly supported interfaith understanding and pioneered dialogue with prominent spiritual leaders of various faiths. Although he followed a Christian path, Merton’s writings on Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and later Islam, are profound since he believed that all religious traditions are a search for ultimate truth. After meeting Merton in 1968 the Dalai Lama said, “This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity . . . It was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word Christian.(Photo used by permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the  Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University)

sophia-001Merton’s ability to reach above and beyond what is normally viewed as Christian is what makes him such an outstanding teacher. Merton said, “The Spirit of God speaks to the faithful in between the lines of divine revelation, telling us things that are not evident to the inspection of scholarship or reason.” But he knew how to communicate those subtle “in between the lines” truths in a timeless manner. The seeds of contemplation Merton planted in the spiritual heart of the world continuously yields new fruit. One book on Thomas Merton’s writings which gives great insight into his thoughts on Christ is Christopher Pramuk’s, SOPHIA: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton. Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s last secretary, called it “the best book ever written about Thomas Merton. SOPHIA provides an in-depth view of Merton’s understanding of the intuitive wisdom tradition.

As my study of Merton progressed, I found that ultimately, Thomas Merton’s greatest gift was his capacity to wrap whatever conversation he was engaged in around the message and meaning of Christ. He helped me, along with many other readers, to realize the moral necessitude of a spiritual life.

 That realization culminated in the fall of 2013 when I went to work for an electrical contractor inside a New York State medium security prison. At that point, forty years of Merton study took on new meaning. My wife Angelina broached the thought first. There must be a reason I’d been sent there. Why not offer them spiritual books, she suggested. Why not indeed?  Merton indicated that the prayers of one monk in his cell would be enough to prevent the destruction of the world. Why couldn’t that one monk be an inmate in a prison cell?

From her simple suggestion the Pure Vision Foundation’s Thomas Merton Prison Project was born. Through the project, I’ve come in contact with Catholics and Christians of different sects as well as Jewish and Buddhist leaders who wish to help those incarcerated heal and change. It’s an arena that I believe Merton would approve of ― providing books that assist chaplains of different faiths as they encourage spiritual growth, allowing inmates the opportunity to broaden their own perspectives and learn to resolve conflict within themselves and with others. Benefiting the correctional community can only have the wider effect of benefiting society at large, enabling inmates through the power of their spiritual beliefs, to redeem themselves and assimilate into a wider, more diverse world once they return to civilian life.

In fact, we must believe that redemption is possible. Pope Francis has indicated as much, blessing the world with his boundless love, a love that is inclusive and nonjudgmental. Visiting Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, the pontiff spoke directly to the prisoners:

“I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own.”

The heart of his message has reached other prisons as well. While at Cereso No. 3 Penitentiary in Juarez, Mexico, Pope Francis stated:

“Mercy means learning not to be prisoners of the past. It means believing that things can change. We know that we cannot turn back but I wanted to celebrate with you the Jubilee of Mercy, because it does not exclude the possibility of writing a new story and moving forward.  The one who has suffered the greatest pain, and we could say has experienced hell, can become a prophet in society.”

The bottom line is that none of us is in a position to judge. According to the pontiff, “there is no place beyond the reach of mercy, no space or person it cannot touch.” Following that vein, the inter-faith spiritual books we have donated to prison chaplains and inmates through The Thomas Merton Prison Project represent light and hope. They represent the prayers and aspirations of the donors who make our work possible. It has allowed us to bring Thomas Merton’s message of love and compassion directly into prisons where it’s needed most. Through this work, we aim to dissolve the veil that perceives the other as outside ourselves and in so doing, to unlock the Christ in our own hearts. Merton understood that armies and politicians cannot put an end to hatred and war, to violence and bitterness. Only our hearts and prayers can do that. For that we need all hands on deck ― people helping each other — praying and serving.

Amen, I say to you, whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, that you do unto me. —Matthew 25:40


Knockin’ on Heaven’s Illusory Door: Life & Death, East & West

Journey of Life & Death 001.jpgMama, take this badge off of me I can’t use it anymore. It’s getting dark, too dark to see I feel I’m knocking on heaven’s door. Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door. Mama, put my guns in the ground I can’t shoot them anymore. That long black cloud is coming down I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door. Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door.   Bob Dylan

Life’s journey will end in death we all know it, we all deny it, and few truly face it.

There has never been a more poignant view into the abyss than Sam Peckinpah offered in his 1973 film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. In the memorable scene Sheriff Garrett (James Coburn) accompanied by Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) and his wife (Katy Jurado) ride into an adobe homestead looking for Billy. In the ensuing gunfight Slim Pickens is mortally wounded, he staggers slowly toward the setting sun as Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door begins playing. Katy Jurado follows as Pickens sits holding his bleeding stomach by the side of a slow moving river. No words are exchanged as Pickens and Jurado look at each other, knowing it will be the last time.

No death in history has been more analyzed and commented upon than Jesus’ death on the The Day the Revolution Began 001.jpgcross. In his new book noted Anglican theologian N.T. Wright approaches the subject anew with the question, “What would happen if, instead of seeing the resurrection (both of Jesus and of ourselves) as a kind of happy addition to an otherwise complete view of salvation, we saw it as part of its very heart?” The issue he suggests is, “That when Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as result of which the world is a different place . . . Jesus’s crucifixion was the day the revolution began.” Well said.

Wright continues, “At the heart of it all is the achievement of Jesus as the true human being who, as the ‘image’, is the ultimate embodiment (or incarnation) of the creator God. His death, the climax of his work of inaugurating God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, was the victory over the destructive powers let loose into the world not simply through human wrongdoing, the breaking of moral codes, but through the human failure to be image-bearers, to worship the Creator and reflect his wise stewardship into the world (and to be sure, breaking any moral codes that might be around, but that is not the focus).”

Wright’s examination of the many aspects of Jesus’ death is laudable. His conclusion that “Humans are made not for ‘heaven’, but for the new heavens and a new earth” is well stated.

We don’t need ‘Eschatology‘ which maps out an ultimate future (death, judgement, heaven and hell). Or ‘Atonement‘ which offers the death of Jesus as forgiveness or pardoning of our own sins through the death of Jesus. Really, as if clever philosophical phrases and arguments will guide us through our own death. The Gospel of Thomas has the proper response to these queries, don’t ask them. Focus rather on what Jesus taught. He offered us a way to navigate death successfully, we need only follow.

Reading The Day the Revolution Began I felt as if I was witnessing an effort to summarize the wide fabric of America’s culture by counting the stitches on the flag. The limits of theology are plain. The old axiom used to be if you want to convey the true experience of space flight you need to put a poet into orbit. Hence the mystic, combined with a grasp of theology the difference is palpable. To grasp the limits to Wright’s work read and compare with  SOPHIA, The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton.

Illusory Kalu Rinpoche 001.jpgYou live in illusion and in the appearance of things. There is a reality. You are the reality. If you wake up to that reality, you will know that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything. That’s all. –  Kalu Rinpoche

No culture has delved as deeply into death, in all its dimensions, than Vajrayana Buddhism. Karma Rangjung Kunkhyab (Kalu Rinpoche) was one of the first master yogis entrusted by Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa, to bring Vajrayana teachings to the west. karmapa-kalu-rinpoche-001Having entered his three year retreat for lama training at age fifteen and then spending twelve years in solitary retreat in the Himalayan mountains of Kham, Eastern Tibet, Kalu Rinpoche was an authentic master in the Kagyu tradition that dates its origin to Tilopa one thousand years ago. Rinpoche (shown here with the Karmapa in 1973) introduced the traditional three year retreat method of Jamgon Kontrul in France and then New York and Canada. Kalu Rinpoche was one of the Tibetans Thomas Merton met with shortly before his death in 1968. Their conversation is discussed in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton.

kagy-monlam-87-copyright-drolma-birneyIn 1983  Kalu Rinpoche, as head of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, presided over the first Kagyu Monlam (Aspiration Prayers) celebration in Bodhgaya, India. This event,  which lasted two weeks was attended by two hundred monks, nuns and lay people. The fifth monlam in 1987 lasted three weeks (shown here from left to right: Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, Situ Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche and Bokar Rinpoche). Many of the attendees were dedicated American lay students who also received three year retreat empowerments from Kalu Rinpoche. Lay practitioners are the the skeletal strength and backbone of any monastic system, these yogins are the ties which prevent the rails from coming apart. All structured religious systems combine appearance with illusion. The more hierarchical the more illusion, simple really, no choice. A yogi has no need of title or label.

Niguma 001.jpgActually Kalu Rinpoche’s esoteric roots were sunk in the eleventh century when a Tibetan adept named Khyungpo Naljor (Yogi of the Garuda Clan), dissatisfied with the level of experience his intensive learning had brought him, traveled to India  seeking answers. Find Niguma he was told. Niguma was a legendary rainbow bodied dakini and Naropa’s sister. Having received the teachings he sought Khyungpo Naljor was admonished to limit their transmission to one person for each of seven succeeding generations. Returning to Tibet he settled in the Shang  region and became the “Guru of Shang”, hence the Shangpa Kagyu. His lineage was revived by Jamgon Kongtrul in the late nineteenth century. Kalu Rinpoche received the teachings in the 1940’s and popularized them in the west. A distinguishing feature of advanced Tibetan Buddhist practitioners is the ability  to manifest a ‘rainbow body’, that is to dematerialize their physical form as shown in the picture of Kalu Rinpoche above. Illusory Body teachings are one of the Six Dharmas of Niguma. More on all of this can be found in Sarah Hardings excellent study, NIGUMA: Lady of Illusion. The current Kalu Rinpoche (yangsi) said about this book: Niguma is Niguma. A book is a book. If you read with discernment, however, and put what is written in practice, you just might meet Niguma face to face.Rainbow Body & Resurrection 001.jpg

The Catholic Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast, who has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and studied Zen Buddhism for many years, became interested in the phenomena of rainbow bodies. He requested one of his students, Father Francis V. Tiso, formerly Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, to investigate the relationship between the Buddhist tradition and Christianity, Rainbow Body and Resurrection explains Father Tiso’s findings. This is one of the most interesting efforts ever to explore spiritual phenomena and science without shortchanging either camp. Well done, and thanks to Brother Stendl-Rast and Father Tiso.

Tolstoy - Kingdom of God 001.jpg

When our flights of theology and rainbow dynamics have left us winded and wondering, what does this all do to improve the lot of suffering humanity, we can look to the answer provided by the author of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. He wrote The Kingdom of God is Within You after meditating on the life of Jesus and the failure of the Russian Orthodox Church to live up to the challenges Jesus laid down. The book was published in Germany after being banned in Russia. Tolstoy laid down the guidelines by which Gandhi and Martin Luther King revolutionized society. Tolstoy developed the radical concept of putting the words of Jesus into direct action. We allow tyranny only when we don’t confront it. Gandhi said The Kingdom of God is Within You was one of the three most important influences in his life.

Albert Schweitzer was a noted ProtestantAlbert Schweitzer - Strasbourg 001.jpg theologian, classical concert organist, pastor of St. Nicholas church and principal of St. Thomas College in Strasbourg, then in Germany. He was completing work on the book which would revolutionize contemporary views on Jesus, The Quest of the Historical Jesus and a critical analysis of Johann Sebastian Bach that led to the composer’s influence we feel today. Yet, he felt unfulfilled, he was describing faith not living it.

Let us see how Schweitzer himself describes his evolution. One brilliant summer morning at Gunsbach as I awoke, the thought came to me that I must not accept this good fortune as a matter of course, but must give something in return. While outside the birds sang I reflected on this thought, and before I had gotten up I came to the conclusion that until I was thirty I could consider myself justified in devoting myself to scholarship and the arts, but after that I would devote myself to serving humanity. I had already tried many times to find the meaning that lay hidden in the saying of Jesus: “Whoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospels shall save it.” What the character of my future activities would be was not yet clear to me. I left it to chance to guide me. Only one thing was certain, that it must be direct human service, however inconspicuous its sphere.

One morning in the autumn of 1904 I found on my writing table in the seminary one of the green-covered magazines in which the Paris Missionary Society reported on its activities every month. Without paying much attention, I leafed through the magazine. As I was about to turn to my studies, I noticed an article with the headline “The Needs of the Congo Mission”. The author complained that the mission did not have enough people to carry on its work in the Gabon, the northern province of the Congo colony. The writer expressed the hope that his appeal would bring some of those “on whom the Master’s eyes already rested” to a decision to offer themselves for this urgent work. The article concluded: “Men and women who can reply simply to the Master’s call, “Lord, I am coming, those are the people the church needs.” I finished my article and quietly began my work. My search was over.

In a stunning act of faith and devotion Albert Scweitzer resigned his various positions and began a seven year course of study which resulted in his receiving a medical degree. His medical dissertation fittingly enough was, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus.

Scweitzer’s decision to embark on a medical career with the stated purpose of venturing to Equatorial Africa was met with outrage and derision by his friends and family. Again, in Albert and Helene Schweitzer 001.jpgSchweitzer’s own words: I had assumed that familiarity with the sayings of Jesus would give a much better comprehension of what to popular logic is not rational. Several times, indeed, my appeal to the obedience that Jesus’ command of love requires under certain circumstances earned me an accusation of conceit. How I suffered to see so many people assuming the right to tear open the doors and shutters of my inner self!

Albert Schweitzer was not alone. As is so often the case he was accompanied on his journey by an extraordinary woman, Helene Bresslau. (Photos from Schweitzer; A Biography) She was the one person who understood and supported his decision. Her family in Berlin was Jewish but converted to Christianity and moved to Strasbourg to avoid persecution. When Schweitzer made his decision to attend medical school she quit her job at an orphanage and studied nursing. They married in 1912 and on Good Friday in 1913 set out for Lambaréné, Gabon.

Following the Enlightened Mind path of Niguma and the Sacred Heart teachings of Jesus we can embark forward in the 21st Century marrying the complimentary visions of Buddhism and Christianity to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven. You can’t do Christ from the couch!

The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson


Jesus Yoga & Tilopa’s Mahamudra


Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden. I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me . .  for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.










Mind itself is self-liberated dharmakaya. Within which arises self-liberated mahamudra. This key to self-liberated experience I possess.





Great masters leave their mark on this world through their teachings and ultimately the lineage of followers who carry on their work. We are greatly blessed in this historical epoch to have access to two of humanity’s great spiritual yogins. Jesus personified compassion. His example and stories have fashioned a mind set that places ‘a love of neighbor as oneself’ at the cornerstone of behavior.

Tilopa was born in India one thousand years after Jesus. From Tilopa we have the quintessential teachings on mind known as Mahamudra. Tibetan Buddhism is predicated on the principal of Mahamudra. In Sanskrit Maha means ‘great’ and Mudra means ‘seal’.  When Tilopa’s lineage was passed on to Naropa and carried into Tibet by Marpa, Mahamudra became phyag-gya-chen-po. Not content with merely translating the literal meaning the Tibetan yogins went one step further and built into their dialogue a vocabulary that infused each particular word with additional significance. Phyag-gya means not only seal but ‘vast’.  Phyag also means ‘hand’ as well ‘cleaning tool’, i.e. a broom or sponge. Therefore, Mahamudra is a meditational system which purifies our mind of impurities. Our mind is left capable of of recognizing it’s own true nature: at once both vast and empty- Dharmakaya. This ‘recognition’ is ‘self-arisen’ therefore ‘self-liberating’ and the experience is complete, ‘sealed.’



Tilopa’s most famous expression has been I, Tilopa, have no human guru. My guru is mighty Vajradhara.  As Tai Situ Rinpoche (whose calligraphy is shown above) explains: Let us be careful not to misinterpret this declaration. It was made neither through pride nor through ingratitude to the many, often illustrious, teachers who had helped him in the earlier part of his life. It is certain that he appreciated all those scholars, mahasiddhas’ and dakinis’ help a great deal and that he continued to respect them. By this stage in his life, he had attained perfect realization and full mastery of vajra-like samadhi: he was totally inspired by Buddha Vajradhara (Bearer of the Thunderbolt) and possessed his power of absolute certainty — the extraordinary personal transmissions. It would have been a matter of course for his Indian disciples to inquire after his gurus and the traditions he represented. It was natural for him to reply as above, to impress upon them the power and freshness of his own direct realization and his first-hand link with enlightenment.dakpo-tashi-namgyal-001


Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (1511-1587) was responsible for codifying the techniques we refer to today as Mahamudra. His exhaustive and thorough treatise The Perfect Description of Moonlight that Illuminates the Stages of Ultimate Mahamudra was the first Tibetan text on meditation translated into English (at the behest of the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje).

Anyone stuck inside a human body should not consider going through life without the ultimate owner’s manual Clarifying the Natural State.  Concise and clearly written this is a practical, how-to on meditation (sort-of-like the old books on keeping your VW van alive). Consider Three key points: Remain fresh in unconcerned naturalness. Remain artless and uncontrived without judging. Remain unbound and uninvolved with striving.  For this there are Five Analogies: Elevate your experience and remain wide-open like the sky. Expand your mindfulness and remain pervasive like the earth. Steady your attention and remain unshakable like a mountain. Brighten your awareness and remain shining like a flame. Clear your thought-free wakefulness and remain lucid like a crystal.


In the middle of the twentieth century, shortly after the horrors of the second world war, Autobiography of a Yogi 001three events took place that rewrote our concept of Jesus, the man and his message. First the discovery at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945 of ancient Christian texts buried some 400 years after the death of Jesus. Included among the codices found was a complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas (the above quote is taken from that text). One year later (1946) Paramahansa Yogananda released Autobiography of a Yogi. On October 4, 1948 Harcourt, Merton-Seven Storey Mtn 001Brace published Thomas Merton’s seminal autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. Seventy years on both of these books have been among the top selling spiritual books. Yogananda and Merton charted parallel paths, one beginning in the West and turning Eastward, the other born in India brought yoga to America and has been instrumental in forging a fresh view on the meaning of Christ.

Thomas Merton was single-handedly responsible for an upsurge in Catholic vocations after SSM was released. His ability to communicate on issues of faith, conscience and inner flaws made him an icon for a generation. He became the public conscience for opposition to nuclear proliferation even when the Catholic Church tried to silence him. Even more importantly he was a one-man band  for inter-faith dialogue. Again the church tried silencing him, even threatening excommunication when he began a now famous exchange of letters with Zen Master D.T. Suzuki. Shortly before his death in 1968 Merton met, and impressed Tibetan lamas who had only recently found refuge in India. The Dalai Lama said Merton was the one who “introduced him to the real meaning of the word Christian.” He also cited Thomas Merton as one of the three most influential influences on his own life.

Christopher Pramuk points out in the best-ever study of Merton’s work, SOPHIA: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton the key element Merton focused on: the unity inherent in disparity. “What Zen realization shares with biblical-mystical faith is precisely the disarming experience of ‘a breakthrough . . . a recovery of unity which is not the suppression of opposites but a simplicity beyond opposites’.”

Thomas Merton calls us still to invest new energy and faith in our search for the Hidden Christ within — Christ has planted in the world the seeds of something altogether new, but they do not grow by themselves. . . For the world to be changed, man himself must begin to change it, he must take the initiative, he must step forth and make a new kind of history.

As Merton looked Eastward to expand his relationship with Christian Wisdom Paramahansa Yogananda emblazoned the ancient Indian science of yoga across the face of America, literally from sea to sea. Indian spiritual tradition both praises the human guru and holds their teaching and example as a beacon toward which the student strives and attains. Such is the inherent power in the Indian subcontinent’s message that the mystical path must result in the dedicated practitioners attaining the enlightenment they will then inspire in the next generation. It must be so or the lineage perishes.

The Apostle Thomas carried the teachings of Jesus to India, he lived there, he died there. The Gospel of Thomas has awakened a long dormant element in the Christian tradition. For two thousand years Western Christianity presented Jesus as a being fromyoga-of-jesus-001 whom we could seek pardon and protection but not someone we could ever hope to approach face-to-face as equals.  Now we know that was not the message Jesus gave to his own followers: Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. . .  I am the light of the world which is before all things. From me all things come forth, and to me all things extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there, lift up the stone, and you will find me. . . Whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I myself will become that person, and the mysteries shall be revealed to them.” Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas continues: Jesus took Thomas and withdrew, and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?” Thomas said, “If I tell you even one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; and a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up”. The traditional Gospels state clearly that Jesus gave his close students teachings on a deeper level than presented in the New Testament. This is to be expected, a Master who could heal with extraordinary power, speak deep truths simply and clearly through parable and even indeed walk through his own death experience consciously and produce clear evidence of that experience transmitted some of his own power to others. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles has ample evidence of the disciples newfound powers. The Holy Face veil in Manopello, Italy (The Face of God) is total physical proof of the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus left us a trail and then buried the tracks for two thousand years, until now. It is up to those who believe to seize upon this moment and manifest the Consciousness of Christ through belief, prayer and mediation

Paramahansa Yogananda’s message is inseparable from his own relationship with Jesus. Yogananda wrote in THE SECOND COMING OF CHRISTTruth is no theory, no speculative system of philosophy, no intellectual insight. Truth is an exact correspondence with reality. For man, truth is unshakeable knowledge of his real nature, his Self as soul. Jesus, by every act and word of his life, proved that he knew the truth of his being–his source in God. Wholly identified with the omnipresent Christ Consciousness, he could say with finality, “Everyone that is of the truth will hear my voice”. . . The decipherment of this secret code is an art that man cannot communicate; here the Lord alone is the teacher.  Of course, Yogananda is not downplaying the role his own guru, Sri Yukteswar, played in his life. He is merely echoing Tilopa’s teaching, on the final mountain top we attain our own transfiguration and came face to face with reality in it’s most elemental form — a burning bush, Vajradhara or Moses and Elijah.

Which brings us full circle to the present practitioners of Christianity and Buddhism.

book-of-joy-001No dark fate determines the future. We do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet. This is the power we wield. Lasting happiness cannot be found in pursuit of any goal or achievement. It does not reside in fortune or fame. It reside only in the human mind and heart, and it is here we hope you will find it. Tenzin Gyatso/Desmond Tutu

Happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not. Desmond Tutu

Our human nature has been distorted. We are actually quite remarkable creatures. In our religions I am created in the image of God. I am a God carrier.rabble-rouser-for-peace-001 It’s fantastic. I have to be growing in godlikeness, in caring for the other. I know that each time I have acted compassionately, I have experienced a joy in me that I find in nothing else. Desmond Tutu, Rabble Rouser for Peace, a barefoot schoolboy from a deprived black township who became an international symbol of the democratic spirit and religious faith. The Bible is dynamite . . . nothing could be more radical. . . Prayer and social action is not an either-or proposition. Rather, prayer inevitably drove me off my knees into action.

The Dalai Lama visited Belfast in northern Ireland after the Troubles. He was invited to attend a private meeting where victims and perpetrators of violence were present. The atmosphere was very tense, as the suffering was practically palpable in the air. As the meeting began, a former Protestant militant spoke of how, when he was growing up, he was told by other loyalists that what they did in opposition to the Catholics was justified because Jesus was a Protestant and not a Catholic. Knowing that Jesus was, of course, a Jew the Dalai Lama laughed so hard that he completely changed the atmosphere. Able to laugh at the absurdity of our prejudices and our hatreds, everyone was able to communicate more honestly and compassionately with each other. THE BOOK OF JOY


“I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.” Thomas Merton

Danny Thomas/Arab American: Saint Jude’s Messenger

Ye shall know them by their fruits.ST Jude displays veil to King Abgar 001

Danny Thomas was born Muzyad Yakhoob on January 6, 1912 in Deerfield, Michigan, or as he liked to say “over Mrs. Feldman’s bakery in Toledo, Ohio.” Danny’s father,  Shaheed (the Witness) Yakhoob could read Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic and spoke some English. Danny’s mother, Margaret Taouk, like her husband, was a Maronite Catholic from Becheri (B’Sharri), Lebanon.

Danny grew up in Toledo listening to his father playing a wide variety of Lebanese string and wind instruments and telling stories of life in the mountains of Lebanon. Their landlady, Mrs. Feldman, was also a story teller, often involving life in the Polish shetl were she grew up. All his life, Danny maintained a genuine love of all people and cultures and an ability to relate their concerns with humor. He began his show business career as a saloon entertainer using his Anglicized name Amos Jacobs.

His wife, Rose Marie, in a Detroit hospital ready to deliver their first child Marlo, had been urging him to abandon show business and find a real job. The despondent entertainer entered the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul seeking consolation (this was during the Great Depression, a hard time for many). On the pew was a pamphlet for the forgotten saint, Jude Thaddeus, patron saint of the impossible, hopeless and difficult cases. Amos took his last seven dollars and dropped it in the donation box and asked St. Jude to return it ten-fold. A week later he earned seventy-five dollars doing a radio ad.

Shortly thereafter, he was offered a job with a Chicago radio station, so the young family moved from Detroit. In 1940, he took a one-week trial engagement in a new club. The club’s owner asked him what stage name he wished to use. Thinking quickly, he chose the names of two of his brothers and replied Danny Thomas.

Three years later, still at the 5100 Club, Danny was offered a partnership in the club with the proviso that he stay on permanently as master of ceremonies. Danny was torn between the promise of economic security and giving up on his goal of becoming a “big time” star. He again turned to St. Jude:

Help me find my place in life. Give me just a small sign of what road I must take and I’ll dedicate my life to perpetuating your name. Help me find my place in life and I will build you a shrine . . . where the poor, and the helpless and the hopeless may come for comfort and aid.

When the day arrived for Danny to give an answer to the club’s owner, Chicago was hit with a massive snow storm. All travel venues were shut down. Stuck in town, legendary theatrical agent Abe Lastfogel, upon the advice of a friend, decided to check out the young comic at the 5100 Club. He loved what he saw. The rest is history.

Danny Thomas was one of television’s most beloved figures on Make Room for Daddy which ran from 1953 to 1965. He also produced The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show and The Real McCoys. More importantly, Danny Thomas kept his promise to Saint Jude.

For us today, Jude’s story begins with the death of Christ. When the body of Jesus was removed from the cross and taken to a tomb it was dressed for burial in a traditional Jewish manner. Before the massive stone was rolled in place sealing the tomb, Mary Magdalene laid a small veil woven from expensive sea silk (threads of which are spun from fiber produced by clams) upon Jesus’ face. To this day Mary Magdalene can be identified in Christian art by her symbol, a sea shell. When she returned to the tomb on the First Easter Sunday the rock had been rolled away, she ran to tell the other disciples.

Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen wrappings lying there and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, John, entered and he saw and believed. What we can deduce is that he saw Jesus’ face, clearly visible on the sea silk cloth which came to be known as the Veronica Veil.

Any object which had come in contact with a dead body was considered defiled by Jewish tradition. So contact with such items was strictly forbidden. Hence the early Christians great dilemma was that the most tangible proof of Christ’s Resurrection could not even be discussed or displayed publicly. It remained hidden (in plain sight in a church in the Tuscan mountains) until Paul Badde wrote THE FACE OF GOD and THE TRUE ICON.

This was the so-called arcanum [closely guarded secret] of early Christianity, in which what was previously the most impure thing was suddenly revered as the purest of all. The light images of these cloths of light were immediately locked up so tight under this code of secrecy that it was centuries before the news was released from that secret space — while the beautiful rumor of an image “not made by human hands” of God’s countenance gradually filled the whole house of Christendom like incense.  Paul Badde

King Abgar of Edessa (now part of Turkey) had desired to meet Jesus. The king suffered from leprosy and was convinced Jesus could heal him. After the crucifixion, Jude Thaddeus displayed the veil to King Abgar, who was then cured instantly. This scene (taken from The Face of God) is depicted at the top of this article.

Danny Thomas, determined to keep his vow by building a hospital for children, sought assistance from two quarters: Samuel Cardinal Stritch of Chicago (left) who had confirmed Danny many years earlier when he was Bishop of Toledo, and the Arabic speaking community of the United States.

He came to them, his people, because never in the history of this country had people of their ethnic back ground joined together as a group to honor their forefathers who had come to America seeking a new world for their children. Nor had they done anything as a group to say “thank you” to America for letting their forefathers come to this country, establish themselves in the business and professional community and raise their children to enjoy the full benefits the country had to offer.” (From A DREAM COME TRUE The Story of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and ALSAC).

St Jude & Danny Thomas 001With the devoted assistance of LaVonne Rashid (left) and Michael Tamer St Jude & Danny Thomas 002(right) Danny Thomas founded the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities on October 10, 1957 in Chicago. Since then ALSAC has raised more than $500 million annually of which 85% goes directly to St. Jude’s Hospital. According to Wikipedia, “Discoveries at St. Jude have completely changed how doctors treat children with cancer and other catastrophic illnesses. Since St. Jude was established, the survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common type of childhood cancer, has St. Jude & Danny Thomas 001increased from 4 percent in 1962 to 94 percent today. During this time, the overall survival rate for childhood cancers has risen from 20 percent to 80 percent. St. Jude has treated children from across the United States and from more than 70 countries. Doctors across the world consult with St. Jude on their toughest cases. Also, St. Jude has an International Outreach Program to improve the survival rates of children with catastrophic illnesses worldwide through the transfer of knowledge, technology and organizational skills.” St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital was also the first fully integrated hospital in the south.

Today, St. Jude is well known for his works. Anonymous newspaper ads across America attest to Jude’s faithful response to requests for his aid. May the Sacred Heart of Jesus be honored, loved and praised throughout the world, now and forever. Sacred Heart of Jesus pray for us. St. Jude, worker of miracles, pray for us. St. Jude, helper of the hopeless, pray for us.

Danny Thomas intended that St. Jude’s Hospital never turn away a child due to the family’s inability to pay, ethnic origin or religion. Danny Thomas’ belief in St. Jude has made the world a better place. Let us all pray to St. Jude for healing and light to overcome bigotry and hate. May all peoples live in harmony, our common prayers reaching the heaven within our hearts and reflect onto the faces of all we meet.

Standing before a ten foot marble statue of St. Jude, his personal gift to the hospital, Danny Thomas told the crowd, To those of you who are Catholic, this is a symbol of our faith in St. Jude as the patron saint of hopeless causes and our dedication of this hospital as a shrine fulfilling a promise made to him.” He paused, then continued, “To all of you who are of different beliefs, it’s still a pretty nice statue.”
Lawrence Birney, along with his wife Angelina Birney, is co-founder of The Pure Vision Foundation, a non-profit organization which donates inter-faith spiritual books to New York prisons through its Thomas Merton Prison Project. Lawrence and Angelina have also written two spiritual novels, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation and TARA THUNDERBOLT and the Sky Dancer Cat.

Prophetic Voices: Martin Luther – William Barclay – Robert Lax

Luther's Fortress 001On October 31st, 2016 Pope Francis will take part in a joint ceremony with the World Lutheran Federation in Lund, Sweden. This marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s attack on the Roman Church which launched the Protestant Reformation. The Pope released a statement, “I want to ask for mercy and forgiveness for the behavior of Catholics towards Christians of other churches which has not reflected gospel values.” Even for a man known for radical departures from traditional norms, this is a quantum leap which can only benefit us all. Martin Luther was a true prophet, his vision embarked many in the Christian community in a new direction. He saw clearly the dangers inherent in a strictly celibate priesthood and the blatant corruption involved with selling indulgences.  Luther’s Fortress by James Reston, Jr. captures the pivotal year in Luther’s life that resulted in his greatest triumph.

Luther's Cell - Wartburg 001.jpgIn 1521 Martin Luther was hiding, under sentence of death, holed up in a tower room at Wartburg Castle which he referred to as “his Patmos.” It was in this room, for the next ten months, Martin Luther began his Bible translation, bringing a discordant collection of Latin versions into a coherent German comprehensible to the average man, albeit many of whom could not read. An English priest, William Tyndale, journeyed to Germany and met with Luther. Tyndale translated Luther’s Bible into English. Copies had to be smuggled into England, over 90% of the King James Bible derives from Tyndale’s translation. Luther’s Reformation led to a mass revolt of peasants in Germany and Austria against the societal constraints that left them in perpetual misery. Thousands of the revolutionaries were slaughtered and the leader,  Thomas Müntzer beheaded. Martin Luther threw his support behind the ruling class.

Likewise Jorge Mario Bergolio swung the Roman axis on its heels when he became the first Pope Francis - Vallely 001Pope from the America’s and the first Jesuit ever so honored.  When he also, of his own choice, became the first Pontiff to take the name Francis the world was served notice that the Catholic community now had a leader fearless enough to face the Lords of Capitalism and call them by their rightful name – Shameful. In our insular American bubble television poses as culture and a ‘reality’ show host a politician. Growing up in Venezuela in the 1950’s the disparity of wealth between the haves and the poverty of the have-nots seared itself into my mind stream. What is tragic is now that disparity has become the norm in the United states. Like frogs in boiling water we have watched society morph into a Dickens tragedy without notice. Thank God, literally Thank God, Pope Francis notices. For a clear accounting of Bergolio’s route from chemical technician to priest-archbishop-cardinal and then Pontiff read Paul Vallely’s masterpeice, POPE FRANCIS: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.

William Barclay - Ordination 001.jpgWhen God has told you what you ought to do, he has already told you what you can do. William Barclay lived his life based on the tenets of this quote from Walter Savage Landor. I am indebted to my good friend Reverend Alfred Twyman, Ministerial Program Coordinator for the New York State Department of Corrections, for introducing me to Barclay. Born in Wick, Scotland in 1907 by the time he died in 1978 William Barclay was one of the world’s most widely read and studied religious personalities. His New Testament Commentaries, The New Daily Study Bible, are exemplary in their combination of faith and scholasticism. Trained at the Church of Scotland’s Trinity College Barclay was solidly grounded in classical theology, versed in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He understood, and fought for, the belief that we lose our spiritual umbilical cord when we toss aside the linguistic roots that led to our present beliefs. Likewise, there can be no true practice of Vajrayana Buddhism if we lose our facility with Sanskrit and Tibetan.

Robert Lax (1915-2000) is most commonly remembered as the friend and classmate of Thomas Merton who brought clarity to Merton’s life with one famous question. In a quiet moment when Merton wasn’t banging on a piano, or bongo drums or the sensibilities of his house mates Lax queried, “What do you want to do, anyway?” Merton responded, “I want to be a good Catholic.” As Merton tells us in THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN:  The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all. Lax did not accept it. “What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.” A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said: “How do you expect me to become a saint?” “By wanting to,” said Lax, simply.

This exchange captures eloquently the noble complexity of Robert Lax’s mind that found Pure Act - Robert Lax 001.jpgtrue expression in simplicity. Michael McGregor’s new biography, PURE ACT: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, is a wonderful read. More importantly it is an indispensable read for anyone who is drawn to a writer’s life, and we are blessed by the author’s personal friendship with Lax who he met on the island of Patmos, Greece made famous as the home of the Apostle John when he wrote the Book of Revelations.

McGregor tells us, “Merton was a man who needed answers, while Lax was content with questions . . . Lax told me once that whenever the two of them went to a new place, Merton would set off immediately to explore and get his bearings, while Lax would find a coffee shop and contemplate the place from there . . . Where the two met was in their thirst for understanding, their desire to do good, their intelligence, and their humor. McGregor calls, “pure act, a natural living out of one’s God-given abilities and potentials without the splitting-off of consciousness that might question or judge.”

Robert Lax outlived Merton by thirty-two years, a living exemplar of Merton’s notion of one monk in his cell praying being the sole thread preventing the dissolution of the yarn the world is spinning.

Martin Luther based his revolution on faith. For Luther faith alone held the key to salvation. For I say none of the saints, no matter how holy they were, attained salvation by their works. Salvation does not lie in our works, no matter what they are. It cannot and will not be effected without faith.

Referring to the Bible, Sir Walter Scot said, “there is but one book for the true Scot.” Wlliam Barclay was certainly a true Scot. Clive Rawlins who authored the definitive, authorized biography of William Barclay states that Barclay “was first and foremost a Bible preacher. His power derived from logically arrayed detail, delivered eloquently with reverence, a Love of God and deep respect and Love for Man his creation.” Like Martin Luther William Barclay spent his life seeking every available means to share his faith and bring the message of Jesus to life for common people.

Zeffirelli - Jesus & Centurion 001.jpgWhen the classic Franco Zeffirelli film JESUS of Nazareth (1977) was released William Barclay was asked to write a companion book replete with photos from the film. My favorite Jesus story on the subject of faith concerns the centurion who asked Jesus to cure his servant. As Barclay tells the story: “Lord,” said the centurion, “I would like to ask you a great favor. I have a servant in my house who is very dear to me, more like a son than a servant. He is very sick, dying I fear. Lord, in all humility I ask . . .” Jesus broke in, “. . . that I should come to your house? Very well, I will come.” “No, Lord,” the centurion said. “I am unworthy that you should enter under my roof. I know that if you say the word my servant will be healed. I am a man who knows all about discipline and authority. I myself have authority over 100 soldiers, and if I say to one, ‘Do this’, I know that he will do it. If I say to another, ‘Go there’, I know that he will go. I need not see, I know. So it is enough that you give your word, and it will be done.” Jesus was deeply moved. He turned to all to those present and pointed at the centurion. “Did you hear this man? I say to you all, I have not found faith like this among many in Israel” . . . He laid a friendly hand on the centurion’s shoulder. “Go home,” he said “your faith has cured your servant.”

William Barclay wrote, “It would be both possible and natural to hold that ‘Thy Kingdom come’ is the central petition of the Lord’s Prayer, for it is quite certain that the Kingdom of God was the central message and proclamation of Jesus . . . The announcement of the Kingdom was nothing less than the purpose for which Jesus came into the world . . . The initial message of Jesus was a summons to repent . . . literally, a change of mind (metanoia) a turning round and facing the opposite direction . . . The Kingdom of God starts with the smallest beginnings. Men do not enter in crowds, they must enter as individuals . . . That is why the growth of the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, into a tree symbolizes the Kingdom.” From The Lord’s Prayer by William Barclay.

Let us all go forward with our lives, day by day, and see the face of Christ in all those we meet, and pray they see the face of Christ in ours.


Tibetan Buddhist center in Columbus, Ohio, Karma Thegsum Chöling, struck by arson. Please help the rebuilding effort.


Thomas Merton & The Islamic State: The One-Eyed Giant

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The Great task of magnanimous men:- to establish with truth, justice, charity and liberty, new methods of relationships in human society — the task of bringing about true peace in the order established by God. We publicly praise such men and earnestly invite them to persevere in their work with ever greater zeal. It is an imperative of duty: it is a requirement of love.  POPE JOHN XXIII



It is an article of faith in political circles to posit that the candidacy of Donald Trump is the logical conclusion to years of Republican derision about the United States government. Ronald Reagan loved to opine that , “Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.” The popularity of Trump and his ilk are inheritors of this scorn directed at the vital shards of our society.

It might also be stated that The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, is the inevitable conclusion of hundreds of years of European and American intervention and exploitation of Middle Eastern and African cultures. Hence; The One-Eyed Giant. In his introduction to GANDHI ON NON-VIOLENCE Thomas Merton drew upon a quote by Laurens Van Der Post who said, “The white man came into Africa like a one-eyed giant, bringing with him the characteristic split and blindness which where at once his strength, his torment and his ruin.” Merton expounds on this theme with his comments that the one-eyed giant swaggered into the Arabesque crystal shop of Eastern culture full of bluster and military might and precious little sensitivity and no spiritual insight Our hammer-headed blindness still looks upon all problems as a nail.

Herein strides Donald Trump, a gas filled balloon that he himself has let go off so it careens across the stage disparaging anything and everyone. There is a great danger here. The Islamic State will take his rhetoric and use it with savage precision. Young people around the world look to America for leadership. If that leadership shows itself blind to their vThe Year of Fear - Urschel 001alues and heritage they will answer the jihadist call. Lest we think terrorism is a new phenomena in America, read Joe Urschel’s excellent study of America in the 1930’s, THE YEAR OF FEAR: Machine Gun Kelly and the Manhunt that Changed the Nation. Homegrown terrorism, rooted in violence, awash in blood, robbing banks, kidnapping businessmen, not for an ideology but for money and thrills. Nevertheless terrorism. From this era our modern concept of policing was born without which we live in chaos.

To defeat The Islamic State we must first defuse our own explosive arrogance. The legacy of the East/West fault lines run deep. We cannot heal foreign societies without first  healing our own inner wounds. America’s obsession with guns speaks to a deep disassociation with our own inner ‘Christ’. This is the front line battle against terrorism, our own desperate need to seek a violent solution to all our frustrations. The answers won’t be only legislative, we must publicly call out those ‘stalwarts of society’ that sit in the board rooms and occupy the executive suites of money making monstrosities that live only to make money destroying lives.. The number of guns in American homes speaks to a lack of Christ in America’s heart. When we turn to violence we breed more Monks of Tibhirine 001violence. Facing an Arab insurrection in the French colony of Algeria in the 1950’s and early sixties, French settlers and veterans of World War II formed the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS; Secret Army Organization). During one five month period in 1962 these French ‘patriots’ were assassinating one person every six minutes. Viewed through this lens the chaos in today’s North Africa takes on a sharper focus. In 1996, seven monks from the monastery Notre-Dame de l’Atlas of Tibhirine in Algeria, belonging to the Roman Catholic Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists) were kidnapped and later beheaded. In contemplating Algeria’s troubled relationship between Islamic nationalists and Christian practitioners we can begin to grapple with the seriousness of the problems. 

Jesus speaks clearly to us, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ In confusion we answer, “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?”  Jesus’ reply contains the summation of his life’s message, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Today 47 years after his death on December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton’s voice calls us clearly forward. Forward, into the inner sanctum of our personal spirituality. As Christopher Pramuk. Associate Professor of Theology at Xavier University, said regarding Merton’s companionship on the path, “He is a faithful companion, indeed, one of the very best, who still has much to teach us, not only about the human condition but also about the mystery of God unveiled in Jesus Christ, the One who radically shapes our image of what it means to be human.”

Pramuk gave us an excellent view into Merton’s heart with Sophia: The Sophia 001Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton. No less an authority than Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s secretary, called this,  “The best book ever written about Thomas Merton.” Merton called Sophia, the Feminine Face of God, “At once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thoughts and Art within me.” Now Dr. Pramuk has a new treasure to share with us, AT PLAY IN CREATION: Merton’s Awakening to the Feminine Divine.

‘Merton is a mystical theologian because he moves beyond discursive theology to appeal directly to this “always already” experience, and to shape it, in the responsive imagination of his readers . . . we must try to keep in view Merton’s insistence that when the mystical tradition is properly understood — that is, when it is integrally lived — that tradition is far from abstract, divorced from history, or alien to the body. At its best the mystical tradition forms and affects the whole person; “intellect, memory, will, emotions, body, skills (arts) — all must be under the sway of the Holy Spirit.” To do theology under the light of Wisdom is to open oneself to the whole of reality and allow something to break through, an inner music to be heard in the breathtaking overture that is the whole world, and not just the Catholic condition’  . . . Connecting with an audience steeped in doubt and skepticism, yet still yearning for something beyond what society today Buddhist Merton - Robert Lentz 001packages (and sells) as “reality,” is one of Merton’s most enduring gifts as a spiritual writer and mystical theologian.’   C. Pramuk

“If I can unite in myself, in my own spiritual life, the thought of the East and the West of the Greek and Latin Fathers, I will create in myself a reunion of the divided church and from that unity in myself can come the exterior and visible unity of the church. For if we want to bring together East and West we cannot do it by imposing one upon the other. We must contain both in ourselves and transcend both in Christ.”  Thomas Merton

Buddhist image of Thomas Merton by Robert Lentz from Bridge Building Images. The Greek inscription reads ‘Holy Thomas’.

The Miraculous 16th Karmapa – Rangjung Rigpe Dorje

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Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa, was born in eastern Tibet in September 1923. His arrival followed the particulars laid out in A Dying Song — The Hidden Significance of a Bamboo Flower, An Ornament for the People by Khakhyab Dorje, the 15th Karmapa.

Miraculous 16th Karmapa 001THE MIRACULOUS 16TH KARMAPA, edited by Norma Levine is a compilation of first hand accounts of life changing encounters with Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. His first visit to the West in 1974 preceded the Dalai Lama by five years. The visit was initiated by an invitation from the Dharma Center of Canada at the behest of Lama Namgyal Rinpoche (shown below with the Karmapa, Kinmount, Ontario 1974). Namgyal had been the Canadian seeker George Leslie Dawson before starting to practice Theravada Buddhism in 1956. He traveled to Burma and studied under U Thila Wunta. First he became a monk then an Acharya (Dhamma teacher). He met the Karmapa at Rumtek in 1968. It was his inspired vision that prompted the Mahabodhi Society of the UK to offer Johnstone House, an old hunting lodge in Eskdalemuir, Scotland to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Akong Rinpoche. So began Samye Ling, Vajrayana Buddhism’s beachhead in the West.

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Trungpa and Akong both played pivotal roles while implementing the Karmapa’s visionFreda Bedi for Western Vajrayana Buddhism, albeit while exercising their own totally different styles. In any case none of this would not have been possible without the foresight and wisdom of Gelongma Karma Kechog Palmo, the first Western woman to take ordination in Tibetan Buddhism. Freda Houlston was born in Derby, England, February 5, 1911  She married an Indian man, taking the name of Freda Bedi. She moved to India and took an active role in Gandhi’s freedom campaign. She was invited by Prime Minister Nehru to work for the Central Karmapa, Chogyam Trungpa,FredaBedi, Akong, C. Bedi 001Social Welfare Board. This took her to northern India where she established a school for Tibetan tulkus, Young Lama’s Home School. She took a particular interest in Trungpa and Akong, even inviting them to live in her home. (At left: Chögyam Trungpa, Freda Bedi, Karmapa, Baba Pyare Bedi (Freda’s husband) and Akong Rinpoche – Delhi 1961). It was her insistence that led Trungpa to Oxford to pursue his studies in classical Western philosophy. Freda Bedi 001Akong supported his friend by taking work as a janitor. In 1964 the Karmapa ordained her as a nun, she frequently served as his translator, including his first visit to the West in 1974. Gelongma Palmo was a central figure in Rangjung Rigpe Dorje’s mandala when she died in 1977. Vicki Mackenzie has written an excellent new (March 2017) biography, The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi: British Feminist, Indian Nationalist, Buddhist Nun. Let us give praise to this blue eyed, English accented woman who transformed Vajrayana Buddhism.

Lion's Roar - DVDThere is a Hopi legend that states the Hopi and Tibetan people were once one. During the Karmapa’s first visit to America he expressed a desire to visit the Hopi, a meeting with tribal elders was arranged at the reservation near the Grand Canyon.  When he exchanged his turquoise, silver and coral ring with one worn by Chief White Bear the rings were identical. During the meeting Sun Chief Dan told the Karmapa the land was enduring a long drought. “I will pray about it,” was Rangjung Rigpe Dorje’s reply. When the group began driving to Phoenix the sky was cloudless, upon arrival at the motel the skies darkened, thunder rumbled and a deluge of rain followed. The drought was over. The Lion’s Roar, narrated by James Coburn, is an excellent film account of Rangjung Rigpe Dorje’s life with a focus on his first visit to America.  DHARMA KING (shown below) is a stunning photo biography of the 16th Karmapa prepared under the guidance of the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje.

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Dance of 17 Lives 001Karmapa - Mahakala 001Many excellent books have been written on the Karmapa. A superb view of the complex story surrounding the 17th Karmapa’s discovery and journey to India is found in Mick Brown’s The Dance of 17 Lives. Mick is of course the author who introduced us to the indomitable Mr. Creme in his fascinating overview of the world spiritual community in The Spiritual Tourist. Now out of print but available in limited supply is Karmapa The Black Hat Lama of Tibet. The authors, Nik Douglas and Meryl White offer an in depth look at the Karmapa lineage. The photos alone make it a must have. The author’s were privileged to receive a private tour of the treasure room at Rumtek monastery in Sikkhim. The photos and descriptions tell it all. The Situ Tulku lineage dates from Drogon Rechen who lived at the same time as Dusum Khyenpa, the First Karmapa. The 16th Karmapa’s greatest legacy lives on in the masterful presence  of the Situ, Gyalstap and Jamgon Kontrul tulkus.The photo below shows a young Rangjung Rigpe Dorje and Padma Wangchuk Gyalpo, the 11th Situ Rinpoche (1938).

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16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje and 12th Situ Rinpoche, Pema Tönyö Nyinje -1958 (below)

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Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, New York is the Karmapa’s seat in the West, founded by the 16th Karmapa in 1976. KTD has been under the continuous guidance of Abbot Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche (left) ever since hisKhenpo Karthar - 1976 001Situ Rinpoche & Khenpo Karthar 001 arrival in America.(with Tai Situ Rinpoche above) [Taken by my friend Tsulzang/Steve on the occassion of his ordination at Karma Triyana in 1998] Khenpo Karthar’s loving care is a continuous tide of kindness and wisdom washing the minds of seekers who arrive in Woodstock, New York from around the world hoping to establish, re-discover or invigorate their connection with the Karmapa’s mind stream.

Chogyam Trungpa & Jamphel Drakpa 001.jpgJamphel Drakpa, (left with Chögyam Trungpa) Akong Rinpoche’s brother, served as trangu-tsedrup-khenpo-karthar-lama-yeshe-beard-2016private secretary for the Karmapa at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim and then as the secretary and treasurer of Karma Triyana in Woodstock. He became a monk, named Yeshe Losal by Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, and did a five year retreat in a tiny cottage behind the main shrine building in Woodstock. He then became abbot of Samye Ling Monastery in Scotland. Below, Khenpo Karthar tugs on Lama Yeshe’s beard at the first Thrangu Tsedrup-Long Life Puja held at Karma Triyana in 2016. On this occasion Khenpo Karthar said, “I want to say how happy I am and how fortunate I feel that Lama Yeshe Losal was able to join us for this event. Lama Yeshe Losal is someone who was very much loved and trusted by the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa. And therefore when KTD was first established, the Karmapa placed him here as an assistant or deputy to Lama Tenzin Choyni. At that time he was instrumental in the very founding and proper functioning, creation and maintenance of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra.”

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Tenzin Chonyi (center above with Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the17th Karmapa) was eleven years old when his family fled Tibet and joined the Karmapa. In 1974 Rangjung Rigpe Dorje named Tenzin-La his personal representative to the West. He was the president of Karma Triyana for 38 years. Chojor Radha (right) translated for Rangjung Rigpe Dorje at Rumtek Monastery before studying in England at Cambridge. He joined KTD in 1981 and translated for many great teachers. His death in 2008, shortly after the 17th Karmapa’s first visit to Woodstock, deprived the Vajrayana community of a  precious gem of unparalleled sweet sincerity. I miss my friend.

Thinley Chojor was much loved and respected in the Vajrayana community for his knowledge of the Dharma and his meticulous skill in maintaining the traditional elements of Buddhist Temple art. He came from a long line of Tibetan artisans, his family helped build the Potala during the Fifth Dalai Lama’s reign. He was the shrine master at KTD until his death shortly before the Karmapa’s visit in 2008. We honor his many contributions and his graciousness.

Karmapa's Tara 2 001Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, is nudging the Kagyu lineage forward which is not easy with a monastic tradition thrust into a jet stream data driven world from a Tibet that had changed little in the 900 years since the death of the 1st Karmapa Düsum Khyenpa. His artistic talent is evidenced by the Tara painting at left. The attention and insight he brings to environmental awareness is inducing a paradigm shift in the relationship between mystical and earthly reality. Today the Karma Triyana community in America is addressing social issues with an openness heretofore unseen in Vajrayana Buddhism. I fully expect Ogyen Trinley Dorje to elevate female practitioners to their rightful place in the Kagyu mandala which arose spontaneously from Tilopa’s first encounter with Vajrayaogini, Mother of the Buddhas. Tilopa and Naropa both gained enlightenment under the tutelage of dakinis, now the Kagyu lineage will turn full cycle and restore the feminine wisdom foundation of this supreme tradition.

Karma Triyana 001 Bodyless Dakini 001Dorje Chang Thungma 001As the Kagyu has moved Westward from Tibet it has been strongly served by the deep reserve of profound transmitted teachings held by great masters and the dedicated faith, steeped in study, of Western students such as Tony Duff of the Padma Karpo Translation Committee.

Situ Rinpoche - Lineage Blessings 001Devotion is the head of meditation and non-distraction is the body of mediation.’  The Dorge Chang Thungma, written by Benkar Jampal Zangpo over five hundred years ago, is a profound aspiration prayer dedicated to the Kagyu lineage of Gampopa. It’s recitation is a fundamental practice forming a bedrock for understanding the nature of thought. Tai Situ Rinpoche has provided us with unparalleled commentary on the life and teachings of Tilopa as well as the Dorje Chang Thungma. This classic prayer can be experienced on the Power of Lineage Blessing CD/DVD recorded at Sherabling in October 2009. Enlightenment is a continious evolvement of our relationship with the Dharmakaya which is mind’s true nature. This state of mahamudra can never be attained without heeding the voice of the dakinis and the blessings of a teacher.

Stones to Shatter the Stainless Mirror 001Several commentaries on the life and teachings of Tilopa have been published in recent years. Situ Rinpoche’s classic TILOPA published by Samye Ling in 1988 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Tilopa’s birth best captures the essence of Tilopa’s timeless message: The Voice of the Dakini. Yet, Tilopa’s spirit has survived as a distinctive voice with a message that resonates with each new generation of students. Kiley Jon Clark’s STONES TO SHATTER THE STAINLESS MIRROR:: The Fearless Teachings of Tilopa to Naropa clearly articulates Tilopa’s voice. Kiley Jon Clark‘s work involves bringing Dharma teachings to homeless people.

What follows are excerpts from Situ Rinpoche’s teaching on Tilopa and the origin of the Kagyu  – ‘The unbroken lineage of profound and intimate guidance in the four forms of transmitted mastery’. It all began with Tilopa’s encounter with an aged dakini while he tended his families buffalo as a young boy. Throughout his life wisdom dakinis guided Tilopa’s path.

Tilopa was well advanced on the path when he ventured to Orgyen to receive the lineage transmission showing the way to authentic realization from the faultless wisdom dakini. That dakini issued three challenges to Tilopa before sharing her secrets. The value of re- obtaining these teachings directly from their source would be in the freshness and directness they would have and which Tilopa could pass on, via his own students, to future students of his lineage.

1- For the general wish-fulling gem one needs the key of experience and guidance. Without that guidance, it can never be disclosed.

2- For the wish-fulfilling gem of samaya one needs the profound key of transmitted mastery: without the remedies, it can never be disclosed.

3- For the wish-fulfilling gem of true nature one needs the key of deep supreme awareness: without realisation, it can never be disclosed. 

Tilopa responded to her challenge with his own three assertions. First, The discrete terms of the dakini, teachings revealing mind, The lamp of essence awareness dispelling ignorance’s darkness, Known of itself, occurring by itself and lucid in itself; This key of prophetic guidance and experience – I possess.

The teachings of the dakini, revealing the nature of mind, are couched in their secret speech: ‘secret’ in the sense of self-secret, naturally discrete, because it only makes sense to those sufficiently awakened to understand.Their discrete terms reveal jnana, the bright lamp of essence-awareness which automatically dispells the darkness of ignorance.Essence-awareness totally transcends duality. Knowing itself simultaneously with anything, it is auto-cognisant. Occurring all by itself, it is a spontaneous manifestation that was never produced by causality and conditioning. Naturally clear and therefore scintillatingly intelligent, it is lucid in itself. That is the key of prophetic guidance and experience which he possesses..

Tlopa’s second reply, concerning the wish-fulfilling gem of samaya: Without any production whatsoever, mind itself is the self-liberated (rangdrol) dharmakaya within which arises  self-liberated mahamudra: this key, of self-liberated samaya, I possess.

Tilopa - Rangdrol 001Mind itself is not a product. No process of causality or conditioning has produced it. Therefore mind itself needs no freeing. There is no process to undo or modify, nothing to be liberated and no need for a related causal liberator. The self-liberated character of mind is called dharmakaya. It is really like that and because that is precisely the way it is, the natural radiance and expression of its freedom – the advice of mahamudra pointing to the self-liberation that is already there – occurs in those who become aware of this, mind’s inherent condition.

Of the third key, concerning mind, Tilopa replied: By not making any mental objectification and not creating even an iota of recollection, mind’s essence, everything’s essence, is seen as dharmakaya; this key of realization, I possess.

Tilopa also possessed the third key, that of realization — insight within an undifferentiated dharmakaya, mind as it really is, the essence of everything. He had gained such a profound vision of things through devloping skill in non-speculation; neither making mental objectification (contrived conceptual activity) nor even one iota of recollection. The jnanadakini concluded her transmission to Tilopa with these final words of guidance:

One wishing to acheive a perfect body must strive in the visualization stages. One wishing to achieve ultimate speech must recite the essence mantras. One wishing to achieve nobility of mind must strive in mahamudra.Now go to Cudamani hermitage — there care for Naropa. You will nourish many disciples and bring benefit to many sentient beings.

Having said these verses, the dakini all melted into light and disappeared.

Situ Rinpoche - Samye Ling 001The above teaching on Tilopa were given by Tai Situ Rinpoche at Samye Ling in Scotland in 1988 to mark the 1000th anniversary of Tilopa’s birth. Unfortunately, Rinpoche’s book on these teachings is out of print. Perhaps Dzalendra Publishing and Samye Ling will once again make this masterpeice available.