Where there is carrion lying, meat-eating birds circle and descend. Life and death are two. The living attack the dead to their own profit. The dead lose nothing by it. They gain too, by being disposed of. Or they seem to, if you must think in terms of gain and loss. Do you approach the study of Zen with the idea that there is something to be gained by it?… Where there is a lot of fuss about “spirituality,” “enlightenment,” or just “turning on,” it is often because there are buzzards hovering around a corpse. This hovering, this circling, this descending, this celebration of victory, are not what is meant by the Study of Zen…
Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the “nothing,” the “no-body” that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey.
Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite
More than any other quote, I struggled with this one — probably because I struggled with Merton’s interest in Zen and eastern mysticism. It seemed like a betrayal of Christ.
John Coleman, in his article “Thomas Merton and Dialogue with Buddhism“, said,
Merton who early on in his career showed a keen interest in dialogue with the religions of Asia (Hinduism, Sufism as well as Buddhism) tended to think such dialogue should, primarily, focus on practice and experience and less on doctrine or beliefs, as such.
Yes, that’s what I was hoping. As part of Thomas Merton’s search for contemplative experience, he stepped outside Christian tradition, but not Christian faith. It wasn’t about doctrine; it was about experience.
Goodreads said about Zen and the Birds of Appetite, “Never does one feel him losing his own faith in these pages; rather one feels that faith getting deeply clarified and affirmed. Just as the body of ‘Zen’ cannot be found by the scavengers, so too, Merton suggests, with the eternal truth of Christ.”
Below are two pages from Day of a Stranger, a book where Merton tries to describe a typical day in his hermitage. The book contains musings, thoughts, an imaginary conversation, and, best of all, some of his photographs. If you read these two pages, though, you’ll see that he doesn’t directly answer the questions regarding Zen — and it makes me think that, like the scavengers not finding the carrion because it wasn’t the right prey, perhaps we aren’t asking the right questions.