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Thomas Merton : mystic or mystique - an alternative view of a would-be mystic, reformer, Zen Master


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Schmittle, Mark Sax




Doctor of Philosophy in Religious Studies


Iwamura, Jane N.
Gabriel, Victor
Gauthier, Jitsujo


This dissertation examines Thomas Merton’s life and writings in relation to monastic renewal, interreligious dialogue, and Catholic/Zen dialogue. Thomas Merton was a Catholic monk and writer who was born in 1915 and died in 1968. His writings were highly influential, particularly in the development of Catholic monastic renewal and dialogue between Eastern and Western religions.

Utilizing Merton’s own writing, numerous biographies, and essays about Merton, I examine the basis for his enormous influence. In doing so, I draw out the relation between what is popularly believed about Merton and what the historical data reveals. Using the Counsels and Maxims of St. John of the Cross as a framework I will compare Merton’s life to his own stated spiritual goals. My thesis is that Merton’s failure to focus upon his central goal as a monk was a determining factor in his writings on monastic reform, Zen, and interreligious dialogue, which should be viewed in this light.

To many Christians, Merton’s views regarding monasticism, Zen, and other Eastern religions are widely accepted as a reliable representation of these complex traditions. To insure effective communication between faith traditions the endeavor to understand another religion must rely upon accurate representation of the religion whether in the form of doctrinal or lived expressions. A misrepresentation of Merton’s experience of Zen as well as his personal monastic experience, from which much of his authority arises, could lead not to a more profitable monastic renewal or greater mutual comprehension between the Catholic and Zen faith traditions, but to confusion regarding foundational aspects of the two religions.

Degree Granter

University of the West



Library Holding