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Christian Contemplation and Chinese Zen-Taoism

Christian Contemplation and Chinese Zen-Taoism: A Study of Thomas Merton’s Writings
by Ekman P.C. Tam, PhD
Hong Kong: Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre, 2002.
247 pages
Reviewed by Laurie W. Basile

(Note: This book is not listed in Amazon.com. A two page article published in Cistercian Studies Quarterly is offered by Amazon.com. It is in HTML format and may be downloaded for $20, click here. To contact the publisher, email taosheng@elchk.org.hk, the Taosheng Publishing Hse., HK.)

In sixteen years of practicing centering prayer, I have meditated with countless people who have studied Zen, but it never occurred to me that this Eastern practice could offer me more than the gift of other meditators to pray with. I never dreamt that Zen could enrich, strengthen, or broaden my own Christian contemplative journey—that is, until I read Ekman Tam’s Christian Contemplation and Chinese Zen-Taoism: A Study of Thomas Merton’s Writings.

Tam explores the question intrinsic to understanding Merton’s spiritual journey and his legacy to us: “How did Zen and Taoism influence Merton’s view of contemplation?” Tam answers this question in a very logical manner, showing step-by-step how Merton’s knowledge and practice of Zen-Taoism impacted his Christian spirituality. He shows how Merton changed his view of two essential elements of the contemplative journey: the concept of union with God and the way the contemplative arrives at that union. In particular he looks at the development of Merton’s understanding of the classical Christian concepts of “union with God,” “flight from the world,” and prayer life in general.

This book, based on Tam’s doctoral thesis and extensively footnoted, is divided into three parts. Part one focuses on Merton’s study of Zen-Taoism and his later writings about Zen in The Way of Chuang Tzu, Mystics and Zen Masters, and Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Part two explores Merton’s early traditional view of contemplation inWhat Is Contemplation, Seeds of Contemplation and The Ascent to Truth. Finally, part three brings these two threads together to reflect on Zen-Taoism’s impact on Merton’s later holistic view of contemplation in The Inner Experience, New Seeds of Contemplation and Contemplative Prayer.

Tam writes, “Merton was excited to find in Zen-Taoism the language to verbalize the mystical experience in contemplation” (p.169).

This book is useful in a roundabout way for spiritual directors. Besides deepening one’s understanding of the experience of contemplation, and Zen and Taoism, it presents a great case study of the spiritual journey of Thomas Merton. While Merton vehemently rejected Zen-Taoism in his twenties, he later embraced it as a means of integrating and resolving his mid-life crisis. It was comforting to see that even someone as esteemed as Merton only developed bit by bit through chance encounters and everyday difficulties. The book also invited me to reflect on my own contemplative journey to discover what might had impacted me, just as Zen-Taoism had for Thomas Merton. Taking this long view of the journey offered me the opportunity to reflect on the interplay among outside forces, inner urgings, and grace in one’s spiritual development. I finished the book with the simple joy of knowing that Zen-Taoism offers a wisdom which can strengthen and ground the Christian experience of the contemplative life.

Laurie Basile is a spiritual director and retreat leader who has recently moved from Seattle, Washington, USA, to Paris, France. Her centering prayer practice grounds and sustains her through the challenges of this transition.

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