Near the end of his posthumously published Asian Journal, Thomas Merton described a remarkable visit he made in December 1968 to Gal Vihara, a Buddhist shrine in central Sri Lanka. Scribbled in a notebook, his account breathes with the anticipation that the American Trappist monk felt on this leg of his journey, his first extended trip after spending twenty-seven cloistered years at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. “I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed,” he wrote, “my feet in wet grass, wet sand.”
Gal Vihara is one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites, set within the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, and Merton-well grounded in Buddhist thought and practice-had looked forward to this day. That Merton would die only four days later, accidentally electrocuted at a conference center outside Bangkok, gives his experience on that sun-drenched afternoon an even greater poignancy.
I had first been to Polunnaruwa in 1982, while filming the PBS documentary, Merton: A Film Biography. At that time, I was reasonably familiar with Merton’s writing, having first devoured his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, as a somewhat wild, searching high-school senior. (I had immediately driven six hundred miles from Cleveland to Gethsemani, at terrifying speeds, in the hope of meeting the famous monk.) Captured at once by Merton’s elegant, yet human and accessible style, I went on to read most of his works. So, I knew the outlines of his life and the crucial place that Polunnaruwa occupied in it. But on my first visit, over twenty years ago, I was more concerned with photographing Gal Vihara than with experiencing it.
On a recent trip to Sri Lanka with my wife, Tracy, I wanted to revisit the place. More a sentimental journey than anything else, I hoped to take in the Gal Vihara statues to better understand Merton’s cryptic journal notes, which, had he lived, would certainly have been expanded on.
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is a gem in itself, which I had either overlooked on my initial visit or simply forgotten. The capital of Singhalese kings from the eleventh to the twelfth century, Polonnaruwa witnessed the rise of an advanced Buddhist culture that produced exquisite palaces, temples, and reliquaries. It had a massive reservoir system, as well as a sprawling monastic complex and libraries. The newly excavated and rebuilt remnants are breathtaking in their scope, artistic beauty, and diversity.
The statues at Gal Vihara, set within a hollow surrounded by trees, bear testimony to the desire of the people of Polonnaruwa to present their beloved Buddhas so eloquently that current residents and future generations might stand in their presence and know that the journey toward enlightenment is worth the struggle. As the expressions on the statues’ faces so profoundly embody, fulfillment awaits the pilgrim. That Gal Vihara has remained a site for continuous worship is evident in the indentations in its rocks, where wooden enclosures once framed each statue, creating an intimate, grotto-like tableau.
In his journal, Merton notes “the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing.” Carved into a massive outcropping of granite that sharply rises out of the otherwise gently rolling terrain, there are three exterior renditions of the Buddha and a smaller, seated Buddha within a cave. On the far left, Buddha sits in the classic lotus position, one hand upon the other in his lap. Next, following the cave opening, there is a huge standing Buddha, twenty-three-feet tall. To its right is a reclining Buddha, stretching forty-five feet.
When I visited Gal Vihara years ago, the statues were open to the air. Today, a metal roof protects them from the effects of sun and rain. But this recent addition quickly drops out of focus as you approach the statues, barefoot as Merton did, in the quiet of a sultry, tropical Sri Lankan afternoon.
As Merton’s eyes passed over the statues, he was first struck with the face of the standing figure. Initially he described its “smile, the sad smile,” but went on to say that notwithstanding its simplicity and straightforwardness, it was even more “imperative” than the Mona Lisa. Indeed, there is something quixotic in the expression, dramatically accented by the lines of black segment ingrained in the rock that streak across the nose and cheeks, almost like lines etched in the skin, expressing emotion wrought, perhaps, from either a moment’s recognition, or, alternately, from years of experience. The sixth-century BC Siddhartha Gautama had, like Merton in the twentieth century, struggled for years to find a path that reaches beyond human suffering and cupidity. For the young nobleman, his search necessitated a wandering, itinerant life. For Merton, the orphaned, cosmopolitan writer, the eventual choice was to remain in place, within a Trappist cloister in the American heartland.
“Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious,” Merton goes on, the words almost palpably picking up pace.
If we might extrapolate those words, it appears Merton, who had a rich sense of irony and humor, as well as a deep understanding of both Eastern and Western mysticism, intuited a profound insight in the immense statues’ at once sad, sly, and knowing smiles. Merton’s hand-wringing days were over, the myriad questions now rendered irrelevant, the once precisely delineated steps to enlightenment-or union with the Almighty-were now but a feeble ladder that would soon be kicked away.
It is apparent that it was not Merton’s keen intellect that had finally decoded this higher power. Rather, his heart and soul were so completely subsumed on that day at Gal Vihara that there was no longer any need to do anything. He could simply rest in the simplicity of it all. Everything and nothing were but different words for the same reality. The venerable stages of the contemplative life had worked their mysterious power in Merton: the purgative-through decades of an ascetic life-had yielded to the illuminative-revealed in so many of his books and journal notes-and now, the final stage-the unitive-was at hand.
I approached closer to the huge reclining Buddha. Its head lies gently on an outstretched hand, which in turn rests on a pillow. Though made of stone, the pillow looks soft and comfortable, as if beckoning to the pilgrim to find rest. For some reason, I found my eyes drawn to two small details that I had certainly not noticed on my first visit. The Buddha’s left leg is ever so slightly bent, the knee giving a gentle, almost imperceptible rise to the sculpted stone robe that covers the figure from neck to ankle. Because of this, the massive toes on the left foot are similarly askew, just inches (on the scale of the statue, just a hair’s breadth) behind the right. As Buddhists know, that position represents the pregnant moment just before the Buddha received enlightenment.
It is pure speculation, but I wonder whether Merton, with his exquisite sensitivity and deep knowledge of this venerable tradition, might not have paused at those misaligned toes, that extended knee, before his eyes rose to take in again the serene face of the standing Buddha, towering above this reclining image. As I wrote in the script for Merton: A Film Biography, “he had struggled long and hard to find his God.” These inadequate words attempted to synthesize Merton’s years at Gethsemani; his millions of written words, the intimations of transcendence experienced (as his soaring portrayals of one night’s fire watch in a tower on the monastery grounds, and his later street-corner revelation in Louisville demonstrate); his journals’ countervailing moments of crushing darkness, doubt, and conflict, and-I’m sure-his confessions: the roiling sea that marks any true spiritual quest.
Then something truly remarkable happened at Gal Vihara. Although Merton was given to overstatement and sometimes-ephemeral enthusiasms (he once vowed to live in Russia, so that if a nuclear bomb were dropped, he would be among the victims), he had never before claimed what he wrote in his journal that day: “an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves became evident and obvious....I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination.”
And then a simple line that speaks volumes: “I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for.”
Here was a thoroughly Catholic Trappist monk, who had thousands upon thousands of times prayed the Divine Office, offered Mass, immersed himself in the richness of Scripture and Lectio Divina, only to have that astonishing moment before what-at the time, and perhaps by some even today-might be considered mere idols. In fact, Merton notes in his journal, his host, the local vicar from Kandy, “shying away from ‘paganism’” as he sits off to the side, reading a guidebook.
But, to Merton, such parochialism was irrelevant. He had burst through traditional boundaries of belief. The God he sought in the cloister, in prayer, in ascetic practices, the God he tried somehow to address, describe, and quantify in his writing, was a God of a subtle, knowing smile, a God everywhere, in everything.
That Merton would die only days after this epiphany may seem tragic, but in the cosmic economy of life and death-of which we know little or nothing-he may have already reached his goal. He had glimpsed, if only for that instant, the face of the Divine. Who knows what more years of life might have brought? Surely, Merton would have written more books. He probably would have remained a monk of Gethsemani-there is nothing to indicate he wanted anything else. For certain, his capacious mind would have caused him to continue to address both the issues of the day and the issues of the soul.
But as my own eyes took in those massive stone toes and then rose to look into the face of the Buddha, I could begin to understand the sense of rest that Merton must have felt, standing exactly where I stood. “I don’t know what else remains,” he wrote, “but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.”