Merton's Enlightenment

What He Found in Asia

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...

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About the Author

Paul Wilkes, writer, director, and coproducer of the documentary Merton: A Film Biography, is the author of numerous books, including Merton: By Those Who Knew Him Best.