the photography of thomas merton: seeing through the window

This is an expanded version of an essay that appeared in The Kyoto Journal, issue No. 47 in 2001.

The Photography of Thomas Merton: Seeing Through the Window

By Roy Hamric

Trappist Monk Thomas Merton, in his twenty-seventh year at Gethsemani Monastery, wrote to his friend novelist John Howard Griffin, in 1968, shortly after he received the gift of a camera: “It is fabulous.  What a joy of a thing to work with.The camera is the most eager and helpful of all beings, all full of happy suggestions.  Reminding me of things I have overlooked and cooperating in the creation of new worlds.  So Simply. This is a Zen camera.”

merton with his Canon

And so, Merton’s life as an amateur photographer intensified. One of the most spiritual and literary men of our times, Merton had been taking photographs of his friends and the surroundings at Gethsemani, near Louisville, Kentucky, for several years. He enjoyed using the clear glass of the camera lens and the frame of the viewfinder as tools to help him see and to understand the world. The mirror-like view of the camera, recreating whatever it is pointed at, was perfect for Merton’s practical blend of spirituality.

His spiritual path had evolved over the years, as he began to explore the spiritual connections with Zen, largely through the writings of D.T. Suzuki. He longed to become more deeply involved in the “ordinary.”

merton in a baseball cap

Many of Merton’s earliest photographs are similar in style to early Chinese painter-calligraphers who tried to capture the direct essence of form. Merton wrote to his friend, John C. H. Wu, the translator of one of the best English versions of the Tao Te Ching, that he was uncomfortable with “mystical writings.” He expressed his desire to go to Asia “to seek at the sources some of the things I see to be so vitally important–the Zen ground of all the dimensions of expression and mystery in the brushwork of Chinese calligraphy- painting, poetry and so forth.”

“On the contrary,” he wrote, “it seems to me that mysticism flourishes most purely right in the middle of the ordinary.  And such mysticism, in order to flourish, must be quite prompt to renounce all apparent claim to be mystical at all.”

It is no surprise that a monk who lived a life sequestered from society should be attracted to the still, and silent, photographic image.  Within that visual stillness and exchange between the seer and the seen lies a mystery–perhaps some of the spiritual mystery of why one would become a monk in the first place.

During the sixities, as Merton began to explore Asian philosophy, he also began to experiment with calligraphy, creating striking images. In 1958, he wrote in his journal that he had bought a copy of “The Family of Man,” Edward Steichen’s landmark photography book which established the power of photography to evoke universal truths. Merton saw the images as a form of “writing” in which “no explanations are necessary!” “How scandalized some would be if I said that this whole book is to me a picture of Christ, and yet that is the Truth..” This reaction to the visual came in the same entry in his journal in which he recorded what was later to be described as his “Louisville epiphany,” wherein he wrote that he had experienced  an overwhelming sense of “oneness” with other people on a street corner.

John Howard Griffin, the author of the civil rights classic Black Like Me, was also an amateur photographer. In 1963, he wanted to build a photographic archive of Merton and his life at Gethsmeni. He wrote to Merton mentioning his desire, and he visited him a short while later. While there, he said, “Tom watched with interest and wanted an explanation of the cameras––a Leica and Alpha.” Merton told Griffin, “I don’t know anything about photography, but it fascinates me.”

Merton had begun his first serious exploration of photography when in January 1962, he visited a Shaker village near the monastery. He found “some marvelous subjects,” he wrote in his journal, and his description of what he saw and photographed signaled that his search for subjects was part of a highly developed visual acuity that unfolded in a charged contemplative state of mind : “Marvelous, silent, vast spaces around the old buildings.” he wrote in his journal. “Cold, pure light, and some grand trees…. How the blank side of a frame house can be so completely beautiful I cannot imagine. A completely miraculous achievement of forms.”

Merton and Griffin started a spiritual-literary friendship during a retreat Griffin made at Gethsemani. Griffin sensed that Merton’s mind innately took to the camera’s frame.  He served as a constant source of encouragement to Merton, volunteered to process Merton’s film and became a casual critic of his contact sheets.

They exchanged regular letters touching on Merton’s photography from 1965 through 1968–the year of Merton’s accidental death in Bangkok, following his epiphanic tour of Asia.  Merton’s Asian journal of his pilgrimage, and the inclusion of about 30 photographs that he took during the trip, were published as The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton–a work unlike Merton’s other books in its personal intensity. Upon finishing the book, you have a sense that Merton’s life was in a profound stage of evolution.

That revelation, for me, comes through most strongly in the journal entries chronicling the things he  photographed during his journey.  But his earlier photographs also offer tantalizing  clues to Merton’s spiritual journey in his final years.

By 1964, Merton had regular access to a camera and his reading of Zen books became an integral part of his life, no doubt stimulating his interest in the visual experience itself through its emphasis on “attention” and “experiencing the moment.” On September 24, Merton linked Zen and photography in another journal entry: “After dinner I was distracted by the dream camera, and instead of seriously reading the Zen anthology I got from the Louisville Library, kept seeing curious things to shoot, especially a window in the tool room of the woodshed. The whole place is full of fantastic and strange subjects––a mine of Zen photography.”

In the following years, he moved on to better cameras, eventually gaining  access to a Rollieflex owned by the monastery. When it malfunctioned in 1968, he immediately wrote to Griffin, who sent him a 35mm Canon FX with 50 mm and 100 mm lenses.

The new camera was the springboard to more sophisticated pictures, and Merton was soon comparing notes with Griffin on the ins-and-outs of photography. He never took any interest in developing his own film or printing his images, instead sending exposed rolls of film to Griffin, who with his son, Gregory, developed the film and sent back contact prints for Merton to select the images he wanted printed. Griffin recalls that he and his son were often frustrated that Merton seemingly skipped over “superlative” images and instead marked others that seemed ordinary to them.

“He went right on marking what he wanted rather than what we thought he should want,” recalled Griffin. “ Then, as he keep taking photographs, more and more often he would send a contact sheet with a frame marked and an excited notation: ‘At last––this is what I have been aiming for.”

Griffin soon began to appreciate Merton’s personal visual quest: “He focused on the images in his contemplation, as they were and not as he wanted them to be. He took his camera on his walks and, with his special way of seeing, photographed what moved or excited him––whatsoever responded to that inner orientation.”

Merton’s interest in painting and photography had taken a decisive turn in early 1965, after he read “The Tao of Painting” by Mai-Mai Sze, a work he called “deep and contemplative.” He began practicing Chinese brushstrokes in a freehand style, one of which he published on the cover of  Raids on the Unspeakable.  In August of that year, he moved to a cottage hermitage surrounded by woods on the grounds of Gethsemani where he found more solitude and where nature increased his awareness of flora and fauna. Writing in his journal of his early days at the hermitage, he said the hermitage lifestyle challenged him “to see the great seriousness of what I am about to do.”

“Contrary to all that is said about it,” he wrote, “I do not see how the really solitary life can tolerate illusion or self-deception.  It seems to me that solitude rips off all the masks and all the disguises.  It tolerates no lies. Everything but straight and direct affirmation, or silence, is mocked and judged by the silence of the forest.”

Merton’s  natural visual acuteness was intensified during his walks through the fields and woods at his monastery. As a band of deer appeared from out of the woods one day, he watched silently:

“I watched their beautiful running, their grazing,” he wrote in his journal. “Every movement was completely lovely, but there is a kind of gaucheness about them sometimes that makes them even lovelier, like girls. The thing that struck me most–when you look at them directly and in movement–you see what the primitive cave painters saw.  Something you never see in a photograph.  It is most awe-inspiring. The ‘spirit’ is shown in the running of the deer.  The deerness that sums up everything and is sacred and marvelous.”

Merton described such deep perceptions as “contemplative intuition, yet this is perfectly ordinary, everyday seeing–what everybody ought to see all the time.”

“The deer reveals to me something essential, not only in itself, but also in myself,” he wrote.  “Something beyond the trivialities of my everyday being, my individual existence.  Something profound. The face of that which is both in the deer and in myself.”

thomas merton

Whenever Griffin visited Merton, the two men often took long walks in the woods and surrounding countryside looking for objects and scenes to photograph. A letter dated Dec. 12, 1966, refers to pictures Merton took of tree roots. “I signed them as you requested, and have sent back the ones you want,” he wrote to Griffin. “They are really splendid.  I find myself wondering if I took such pictures.”

His life at Gethsemani was isolated, yet he became friends with another most unusual photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who had photographed Merton and who lived in Louisville. Meatyard had already achieved great recognition as an exceptionally original and brilliant photographer. He was also interested in Zen, and he took many mysterious, haunting photographs of Merton. They exchanged 16 letters. Meatyard was not, unlike most people, awed by Merton’s reputation, and he seemed to see the man whole: “[I was] photographing a Kierkegaard who was a fan of Mad [magazine]; a Zen adept and hermit who droooled over hospital nurses with a cute behind…a man of accomplished self-descipline who sometimes acted like a 10 year old with an unlimited charge account at a candy store.”

One of Merton’s most personal photographs from that period is called “The Sky Hook.”  He wrote that the picture “is the only known photograph of God.” The picture’s composition is balanced between material and non-material space, cut through the center from the top by a steel hook, curled toward the sky–empty–holding nothing.

In January, 1968, Merton wrote to Griffin, “Unfortunately, the old Rolleiflex is just falling apart…. I guess the old box is shot.I ought to seriously consider your offer. It is justifiable for me to have a camera, since I do occasionally sell a picture and it is not just diddling.” When the new camera arrived, he wrote: “What a thing to have around. I will take reverent care of it.” In the same letter, he made a prophetic statement: “I will take good care to see that it goes straight back to you if anything happens to me.” Nine months later, Merton would die of electrocution in a freak accident in Bangkok.

Merton’s Asian pilgrimage had been an evolving dream, perhaps beginning with his earliest letteers to D. T. Suzuki,whom he corresponded with in the late 1950s.  In one of his first letters to Suzuki, he included a picture of himself.  “There is no law against my visiting Japan in the form of a picture,” he wrote.          A few days before Merton left for Asia in 1968, he had put the final touches on his manuscript for Zen and the Birds of Appetite, which is still an elegant introduciton to Zen and to the similarities and differences between Christianity and Zen, and how the two paths may merge. In the book, Merton quoted Shen Hui: “The true seeing is when there is no seeing.”

Prior to leaving Gethsemani, he wrote in his journal:  “I am going home, to the home where I have never been in this body….” He had a stopover in Bangkok for three days before flying to Calcutta and then New Delhi.  On Nov. 1, he was in Dharamsala where he met with the Dalai Lama three times. Later, near Darjeeling, he met Chatral Rimpoche, a lama who had meditated extensively for more than 30 years, and who, for Merton, “was the greatest rimpoche I have met so far.”They talked for more than two hours, always coming back to dzogchen (Zen). Upon leaving, they had “a kind of compact that we would both do our best to make it [“complete Buddhahood”] in this life.”

His diary entries during the next days are full of descriptions of the act of seeing new cities, new landscapes and new people. After viewing nearby Mount Kanchenjunga, which seemed to both repel and attract him at the same time, Merton made notes about its powerful force of nature. Kanchenjunga had been constantly surrounded by clouds, revealing itself to him only grudgingly. One night Merton dreamed about the mountain, pure white, and a voice said, “There is another side to the mountain.” He then realized, in the dream, that he was seeing the mountain from the other side and that, : “That is only side worth seeing.”––an image that parallels the concept that the true nature of reality cannot be experienced dualistically, but only through a unitive state of emptiness and limitlessness.

His diary entries during the next days are full of descriptions of the act of seeing new cities, new landscapes and new people. After viewing nearby Mount Kanchenjunga, which seemed to both repel and attract him at the same time, Merton made notes about its powerful force of nature. Kanchenjunga had been constantly surrounded by clouds, revealing itself to him only grudgingly. One night Merton dreamed about the mountain, pure white, and a voice said, “There is another side to the mountain.” He then realized, in the dream, that he was seeing the mountain from the other side and that, : “That is only side worth seeing.”––an image that parallels the concept that the true nature of reality cannot be experienced dualistically, but only through a unitive state of emptiness and limitlessness.

Over the next few days his diary entries are discerning analyses of the processes of discrimination and the subject-object dance of mind. Describing his feelings about his frustrating  attempts to photograph the mountain while it was shrouded in clouds, he wrote:

“I took three more photos of the mountain. An act of reconciliation? No. A camera cannot reconcile one with anything.  Nor can it see a real mountain.  The camera does not know what it takes: It captures the materials with which you reconstruct––not so much what you saw as what you thought you saw.

“Hence, the best photography is aware – mindful, of illusion and the uses of illusion–permitting and encouraging it – especially unconscious (and powerful) illusions that are not normally admitted on the scene.” The last reflection is an affirmation that the photographic process of seeing has the  potential–at least for some people –to be a powerful stimulant to the unconscious.

Finally, the clouds lifted from around Kanchenjunga.  Merton wrote: “The full beauty of the mountain is not seen until you too consent to the impossible paradox: it is and is not. When nothing more needs to be said, the smoke of ideas clears, the mountain is seen.”  *Footnote 1

After completing his visit to Mount Kanchenjunga, Merton returned briefly to Calcutta where a package of his contact prints from Griffin awaited him. “The one of the Dalai Lama is especially good,” Merton wrote. He arrived in Kandy, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), on Dec. 2 and a car took him to Polonnaruwa, the site of an assemblage of large stone Buddhas carved out of a hillside, and “the most impressive things I have seen in Asia.”

Two days later, he wrote in his diary, “Polonnaruwa was such an experience that I could not write hastily of it and cannot write now, or not at all adequately.” During the visit, Merton’s spirit seemed to have opened to the point of bursting forth upon seeing the languid, relaxed forms of the Buddhas in peaceful repose.

“I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, 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. 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. I mean I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for.  I don’t know what else remains, but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.”

buddha sculpture in Polonnaruwa

Merton’s  widely discussed Polonnaruwa diary entry describes an overwhelming moment loaded with the nuances of Zen experince. In Zen, such moments are sometimes of such depth that they are called kensho experiences, a moment in which one experiences–in Zen terms– the ground of being. Earlier, Merton, in trying to find an equivalent phrase for kensho in Christian terms, in his conclusion to Zen and the Birds of Appetite, suggested “divine grace,” or “perfect clarity.”  Zen history is full of stories recording moments when a particular sight of an object strikes a cord in the seer, snapping the ordinary relationship between seer and seen. The physical presence of the large reclining Buddhas seemed to have touched Merton at this deepest level. He wrote in his journal:

“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….The things about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery.” All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matteris is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya…everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.  I don’t know when in my life I have every had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination.”

This illumination came a week before his death. On Dec., 7, he arrived in Bangkok, where he was scheduled to deliver a paper titled “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives” at a religious conference at the Red Cross Center on the outskirts of town. He stayed at the renowned Oriental Hotel, known for its association with writers traveling through Asia. From his hotel room window, Merton took his last photograph, which looked out through the room’s window onto Thailand’s sacred Chao Prayo River and a section Bangkok lining the other side of the river. Later, he took nine rolls of exposed film to the nearby Borneo Studio on Silom Road.  After his death, Griffin wrote to the photographic studio, obtained the rolls of film, and found the window photograph, the last picture on the last role of file exposed. It is a simple, ordinary, yet–for me–haunting image.  I can only attempt to touch on the power that resonates around the photophraph by referring to a dream recorded by Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and then to an early essay by one of his early Buddhist mentors, D.T. Suzuki.

Merton described his dream: “I dreamt I was lost in a great city and was walking toward the center without quite knowing where I was going.  Suddenly, I came to a dead end, but on a height, looking at a great bay, an arm of the harbor.  I saw a whole section of the city spread out before me on the hills covered with a light snow, and realized that, though I had far to go, I knew where I was: because in this city there are two arms of the harbor and they help you to find your way, as you are always encountering them.”

Suzuki also used a window image in a short essay he read on the “Supreme Spiritual Ideal” before the World Congress of Faiths, an assembly of religious leaders, in London in 1936. Suzuki began the essay with a description of his home in Japan and his windows looking out into his garden. He made the point that in Japan when windows are opened, very often “one side of the house is entirely taken away….There is no division between the house and the garden. The garden is a house and the house is a garden; but here [in England] a house is quite separate.  A house stands by itself, and so does its occupant. There is nature, here I am; you are you, I am I; so there does not seem to be any connection between those two–– nature, natural surroundings and the occupants of the house.”

thomas merton

Suzuki ended his essay by referring to Chao Chou’s  stone bridge [Case No.42 in The Blue Cliff Record] and the awareness of being thankful that all things and beings are passing over the bridge at every moment “from the beginningless past to the endless future.”

On the day Merton died, Dec.10, 1968, he read his conference paper at the Red Cross center and afterwards retired to rest in a cottage on the grounds. His body was found about two hours later.  Apparently, after taking a  shower he had reached for a large standing fan and was electrocuted. The fan was found lying across his body.

Merton would have relished the poetic irony that can be read into his final photograph, a view of the Chao Phaya River. The photograph closely mirrored his earlier dream image––the “snow” being replaced by a tropical day, a “bay” by a river and the “two arms of the harbor [the relative and the absolute]” by the two banks of the sacred river. It is easy to make too much––or perhaps not enough––from the above description and speculation.

This is only my personal reading of Merton’s spiritual journey during his Asian pilgrimage, and the role of vision in his meditative life. No one will ever know for sure the dimension of his spiritual experience and awakening in Asia, except through his words and photographs. But it is clear that Merton, one of the 20th century’s greatest spiritual souls, had ultimate respect for the beauty and mystery of seeing and experiencing the world as it is, and for the mysterious space that unites the seer and the seen.

But that is not the end of the story. There’s one more photograph, a photograph of Thomas Merton. While Merton was in Darjeeling and experiencing his on-and-off-again affair with Mount Kanghenjunga, he was staying as a guest in a house on a tea plantation. The owner had allowed Thugsey Rinpoche to build a hermitage monastery in the forest near the plantation. The story goes that after Merton’s death, his friend, Harold Talbott, saw the rinpoche, who asked him for a photograph of Merton. Asked why, the rinpoche said Merton had liked the hermitage, and he wanted to put a photograph of Merton on a shrine and say prayers to encourage him to take rebirth as a monk at the hermitage. Time passed. Later, Talbott asked the rinpoche about Merton. “He is here, but I can’t say anything more,” said Thugsey Rinpoche.

Footnote 1: That Merton’s visual intellect was brilliant can be seen in an earlier passage from his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: “Nothing resembles substance less than its shadow.  To convey the meaning of something substantial you have to use not a shadow but a sign, not the imitation but the image.  The image is a new and different reality, and of course it does not convey an impression of some object, but the mind of the subject: and that is something else again.”

One Comment on “the photography of thomas merton: seeing through the window”

  1. ted says:

    Great review.

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