Thomas Merton took a fifteen-day trip to the northern California coast and high New Mexico desert in May 1968. He hadn’t spent much time away from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky during the previous twenty-six years. However, his books were bringing more people to the abbey to see the celebrated Trappist monk. His hermitic life disrupted, he needed the offerings of a different topography. In preparation for his journey to Our Lady of the Redwoods Monastery and the Monastery of Christ in the Desert he wrote
Presence and witness but also speaking of the unfamiliar…speaking
of something new to which you might not have access.
An experiment in openness.
Charitable to the unknown within himself, Merton’s seeking echoed astrophysicists’ search for dark matter, the hypothetical undetectable glue holding the universe together. With no measurable physical attributes, you look for its consequences. Standing at the Pacific Ocean, gazing towards Asia, he watched song sparrows in the twisted trees and quoted the Astavakra Gita, “Neither accept or reject anything.” He ran out of black & white film photographing odd volcanic rocks at Ghost Ranch and bought color in Abiquiu. The actions of an enlightened tourist? Perhaps, but they comprise only a sliver of Merton’s pilgrimage. After returning to his Gethsemani hermitage he continued writing field notes.
I dream every night of the west.
Merton had more on his mind than an imagined west. He held a deep appreciation for eastern religions and traditions, including Zen, for their understanding and descriptions of the human experience. With the above line he reached back through time and touched Bashō.
Even in Kyōto – hearing the cuckoo’s cry – I long for Kyōto
I embrace Merton’s dream as the kernel of a koan illustrating experiential longing. The awareness that knows also yearns for the fleeting and passing – loved ones, seasons, mountains. The food dehydrator humming – squash, carrots and red peppers for my next backpacking trip – my hunger for the imagined west I dwell in receives the nourishment of memories of landscapes and cultures I pine to return to. My aging body seeks harmony amongst a Utah canyon’s fractured cliffs. This wavering mind seeks ease with the help of dungchens trumpeted by Tibetan Buddhist monks at the Maha Bodhi Temple.
Dried apple slices
And too, revelation arrives without having to seek. One evening during a Grand Canyon backpacking trip as I looked for fossils a bumblebee tagged along for thirty minutes. With each step she hovered before me. Small puffs of air from her rapid wingbeats alighted on my face. Following when I knelt to examine rocks, she rose when I did. Her compound eyes focused on my relatively limited ones. Curiosity glued us together. Our desire for connection transcended experiment. I do not claim cross-species communication or understanding. Rather, I felt mutual respect and acknowledgment of being seen by something older and wiser than I. She would zip away, only to zip back minutes later. Thinking my red t-shirt attracted her, I returned to camp during an absence to experiment with a change of clothes. As I tugged a gray pullover past my face, the bee found me. I resumed fossil hunting. Neither accepting nor rejecting me, she neither followed nor led.
past fading gravestones
footsteps of others
Author’s notes: Merton’s journal of his western trip was the last he approved for publication. Accompanied by his photographs, the journal was published as Woods, Shore, Desert, (Museum of Santa Fe: New Mexico Press, 1982). The lines quoted are from the Prelude (p. 5), and the May 13th (p. 14) and May 22nd entries (p. 42).
There are many translations of Bashō’s haiku. I quote Robert Hass’.