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

Jesus Yoga & Tilopa’s Mahamudra

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.’

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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

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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.

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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

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