Sunday, February 13, 2011


My previous post ended with a provisional definition of a spiritual journey as “any enduring spiritual practice undertaken with the intention that it bring about transformation.” At the time I left largely unexplored this thing called transformation, so that will be the focus of today’s post. I’ll provide some theoretical context later on, but for now let’s begin by diving right into the words of two of the most revered figures in their respective religious traditions: Thomas Merton, a modern day Trappist monk (now deceased), and Dogen Zenji, a 13th century Japanese monk and founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism.

Thomas Merton describes the Christian experience of transformation as an emptying out of personal ego from the vessel that is this human form so that God can inhabit it to the fullest. Merton (1968) writes:
This dynamic of emptying and of transcendence accurately defines the transformation of the Christian consciousness in Christ. It is a kenotic transformation, an emptying of all the contents of the ego-consciousness to become a void in which the light of God or the glory of God, the full radiation of the infinite reality of His Being and Love are manifested. (p. 75)
Dogen Zenji, in perhaps his most quoted of all passages from the Shobogenzo’s Genjokoan (as translated in Okumura, 2010) writes:
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization.

Now, it is not my objective at the present time to explore the universality of transformative experience. However, if I can plant the seed of wonderment as to whether that just might be the case then I will have paved the way for what will almost certainly be the topic of an entire post down the road. So, in order to whet your appetite for such a future post, as well as to make the most of the fact that I have your attention in the present moment, I will point out (just in case it is not already obvious) the similarity between Merton’s ‘emptying out the ego-consciousness’ and Dogen’s ‘forgetting the self.’ Furthermore, I’d like to put forth the possibility that Merton’s concept of ‘becoming a void in which the glory of God can be manifested’ and Dogen’s concept of ‘being verified by all things’ just might be – depending upon your willingness to look beyond the mere surface appearance of words to the reality underlying them – the same thing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to digress for a moment and state that, while the decision to consider these two particular quotations in sequence is my own, my inspiration for doing so comes from the writings of Thomas Merton. You see, it was Merton, a Christian, who first reached out to this Zen Buddhist (and erstwhile Christian) with his book Zen and the Birds of Appetite in which he attempts to find common ground between Eastern and Western religious experience. Merton, in turn, was similarly influenced by Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki and his book Mysticism: East and West. As usual, we stand on the shoulders of giants. I feel especially indebted to Merton for allowing me to integrate my Christian heritage into my Buddhist practice (or at least to begin the process of integration). You see, changing religions can be fraught with difficulty. It involves a pushing away of one thing and an embrace of another. Of course, my Buddhist practice has subsequently brought me to the realization that pushing away and pulling towards are merely different manifestations of attachment – both of which hinder the realization of true freedom. Okay, back to the matter of transformation!

Ken Wilber is a contemporary theorist in the field of human development and transpersonal psychology who has pored over an abundance of the world’s religious, psychological, and philosophical literature looking for that which is universally human. Just as stage theorists such as Freud, Piaget, and Erikson posit that human development progresses through various developmental levels, Wilber posits that human consciousness progresses through various developmental levels. However, unlike most stage theories that culminate with healthy adulthood, Wilber’s model of the levels of consciousness reaches above and beyond what we commonly think of as normal and healthy adult consciousness. Some critics contend that this model is not as universal as is suggested – that it follows too closely the Hindu conception of metaphysical reality to the exclusion of alternative views of reality. Regardless, his exposition of the two important functions of religion – translation and transformation – resonates deeply with me. In Wilber’s model, translation refers to that which takes place at each given level of consciousness. Transformation, however, refers to the movement from one level of consciousness to another (Wilber, 1980, 1998).

Wilber finds religion to be uniquely suited to the late egoic level of consciousness (on which the vast majority of us reside) for both the process of translation and the process of transformation. For instance, the search for existential meaning, the determination of that which is of value, and the need for consolation as we face the various trials of existence are all well served by religion. These are all translational processes. However, for those adherents who avail themselves of its potential, religion can provide a path towards transformation. Oftentimes transformation is not so much a chosen activity (as with a spiritual journey, perhaps) as it is something that commences when the process of translation begins to falter – when meaning breaks down, when value begins to erode, and when consolation can no longer be found (Wilber, 1980, 1998). Wilber (1998) states that “authentic transformation is not a matter of belief but of the death of the believer; not a matter of finding solace but of finding infinity on the other side of death. The self is not made content; the self is made toast” (p. 141).

Speaking of “authentic transformation,” let me return to the writings of Merton in order to touch on the potential pitfalls along the road to transformation. While transformation is indeed a break from an old way of being, a discarding of an old and outmoded sense of self, it is also true that transformation can be real or it can merely be perceived as real. It can be the case that various transitory experiences of transcendence might actually serve to strengthen the ego rather than signal its demise. Merton (1968, p. 73) says:
These [transcendent experiences] become the crowning glory of egohood and self-fulfillment. We doubtless admit that in transcending itself the ego does indeed go “beyond” itself, but in the end this proof of spiritual elasticity is all to its own credit. The further it can go without snapping, the better and more respectable an ego it is. In fact, the ego trains itself to be so completely elastic that it can stretch to the vanishing point and still come back and chalk up another experience on the score card. In this case, however, there is no real self-transcendence. The “trip” that is taken is ultimately a release for and an intensification of ego-consciousness.
So, it seems that the importance of a teacher or a guide as one negotiates his or her path toward transformation cannot be discounted. A close and intimate community of practitioners might also serve this function of encouraging the practitioner to keep their ideas and experiences in proper perspective. I’m thinking of the format of the Quaker Meeting (Religious Society of Friends), for instance, wherein the individual who feels called to speak (ostensibly) by that of God within himself/herself can have the veracity of that calling tested as his or her words are heard by the broader community.

At this point, let me close this already heavily Merton-influenced post with another quote that reveals the potential for a Christian to understand Buddhism even better than a Buddhist and the potential for a Buddhist to understand Christianity even better than a Christian. (Mind you, I am not including myself in this latter camp of which I speak.) Merton (1968) writes of the potentially dangerous road toward transformation: “That is why a St. John of the Cross is so hostile to visions, ecstasies and all forms of ‘special experience.’ That is why the Zen Masters say: ‘if you meet the Buddha, kill him’” (p. 77).

Merton, T. (1968). Zen and the birds of appetite. New Directions.
Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing genjokoan: The key to Dogen’s shobogenzo. Wisdom Publications. p.2. (Original work published 1233)
Wilber, K. (1980). The atman project: A transpersonal view of human development. The Theosophical Publishing House.
Wilber, K. (1998). The essential Ken Wilber: An introductory reader. Shambhala Publications, Inc. 140-143.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. Lovely post, thank you for sharing! As a scholar of Thomas Merton, I especially enjoyed the opportunity to read his work in this context. You want to know something funny? Every time I get online, that Dogen quote appears somewhere. Talk about a coincidence!

  2. Hello K! Feel free to jump in with any Merton gems or Merton-inspired insights (or any gems or insights for that matter). Merton is a man appreciated by many, regardless of religious heritage. Also, I'm glad you've been stumbling upon the Dogen quote. Different translations lend it slightly different flavors. The one that I thought I was going to find in my personal library as I was composing this post reads "to forget the self is to be verified by all dharmas." I actually like that a little better given that 'dharma' carries with it connotations of 'truth' as well as 'all phenomena.' To my eyes that brings the words of Merton and Dogen even more closely in line. Alas, though, I wanted to be able to cite the source and give credit appropriately. Shohaku Okumura is considered one of the premier Dogen scholars in the world, however, so I'm just going to leave it at that!

  3. Hello to you too! You've inspired me to dig out my copy of Merton's autobiography. It's called "The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith", in case you hadn't heard of it. He is quite the writer, isn't he? My favorite translation of the Dogen quote (so far, anyway) reads "to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things." I found myself drawn to the idea that the ten thousand things and the self are unified. Although I have to say that I agree with your personal translation - it does bring the two authors' words together.

  4. Hello again! I read Merton's autobiography a few years ago and loved it. Thanks for mentioning it. I've not seen the Dogen translation that you quote. It is nice. The use of a phrase like "the ten thousand things" pre-dates Dogen. I recall it being used in the Tao Te Ching. Essentially such phrases are pointing to all things. The use of the term "enlightened" certainly lets the reader know that Dogen is talking about something transformative, and it seems also to bring Dogen's and Merton's words even more closely together (in my mind). I must say, however, that I am a bit partial to "verified". (Gosh, I'm just full of preferences, aren't I?) The reason I like the use of the word "verified" is because 'cultivation and verification' is such an important aspect of Dogen's teaching. Cultivate practice, be verified by it. I really appreciate your close reading, K. Thanks!

  5. Thank you for this post. Where I have heard of Merton and have read excerpts of his work, here and there, I have never actually read any full bodies of work by him. I am intrigued and will have to search for a title that resonates with me. I would love to some way tie my very strict catholic upbringing into my current Zen view of the world/reality.

  6. Hey Stacey! Good to hear from you. On one hand, I don't want to get in the way of a good search. Searching is good. On the other hand, I happen to know of a title that you might like - Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton. It even has an introduction by Thich Nhat Hanh! Here is an Amazon link. I'm not sure whether it will be "live" or not.

    Yes, as I allude to in the post, reconciling different aspects of who we are can be difficult. I'm wishing you a future of seamlessness.