Marxism and Monastic Perspectives
Thomas Merton’s Final Lecture, Bangkok, December 10th, 1968
I cannot possibly pretend to be an authority on Marxism. My purpose is perhaps to
share with you the kind of thing a monk goes through in his, shall we say, identity
crisis. . . the monk, I mean, who questions himself in the presence of the Marxist –
who has certain answers and certain views of the world that are not necessarily those
of the monk – trying to find where he stands, what his position is, how he identifies
himself in a world of revolution. And in speaking of this, I hope I will be able to give
you at least a minimum of information about the kind of thought we stand up against,
and against the light of which we try to identify ourselves.
I am addressing myself to the monk who is potentially open to the contact with the
intellectual, the university student, the university professor, the people who are
thinking along lines that are going to change both Western and Eastern society and
create the world of the future, in which inevitably we are going to have to make our
I think it gets around to one of the things which is most essential to the monastic
vocation, which we have to some extent neglected.
The monk is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude towards the world
and its structures. . . If one is to call himself in one way or another a monk, he must
have in some way or other reached some kind of critical conclusion about the validity
of certain claims made by secular society and its structures with regard to the end of
man’s existence. In other words, the monk is somebody who says, in one way or
another, that the claims of the world are fraudulent.
The difference between the monk and the Marxist is fundamental insofar as the
Marxist view of change is oriented to the change of substructures, and the monk is
seeking to change man’s consciousness.
Buddhist and Christian monasticism start from the problem inside man himself.
Instead of dealing with the external structures of society, they start with man’s own
consciousness. Both Christianity and Buddhism agree that the root of man’s problems
is that his consciousness is all fouled up and he does not apprehend reality as it fully
and really is; that the moment he looks at something, he begins to interpret it in ways
that are prejudiced and predetermined to fit a certain wrong picture of the world, in
which he exists as an individual ego in the center of things. This is called by
Buddhism avidya, or ignorance.
Instead of starting with matter itself and then moving up to a new structure, in which
man will automatically develop a new consciousness, the traditional religions begin
with the consciousness of the individual, seek to transform and liberate the truth in
each person, with the idea that it will then communicate itself to others. . . .
The monk is a man who has attained, or is about to attain, or seeks to attain, full
realization. He dwells in the center of society as one who has attained realization – he
knows the score. Not that he has acquired unusual or esoteric information, but he has
come to experience the ground of his own being in such a way that he knows the
secret of liberation and can somehow or other communicate this to others.
We come now to the ideas of Marcuse. I am not going to develop him at great length.
I would simply recommend quite strongly that you make yourselves acquainted, in
one way or other, with Marcuse’s very important book, One Dimensional Man. This
book is much more important for the west than it is for the East because Marcuse’s
theory is that all highly organized technological societies, as we have them now, all
so-called managerial societies, as found both in the United States and in the Soviet
Union, end up by being equally totalitarian in one way or another.
I spoke of this to the Dalai lama, and I asked his ideas on this whole question of
Marxism and monasticism. I suppose there are few people in the world more
intimately involved in this question than the Dalai lama, who is the religious head of
an essentially monastic society. The Dalai lama is very objective and open about this
kind of thing. He is in no way whatever a fanatical anti-Communist. He is an openminded
reasonable man, thinking in terms of a religious tradition. He obviously
recognized the problem of a ruthless communist takeover, a power move that had to
get rid of monks, that had to drive monks out of Tibet. The Dalai lama himself made
every effort to coexist with Communism, and he failed. He said frankly that he did not
see how one could coexist, in the situation in which he had been, with Communism –
on an institutional level, anyway. He then went on to admit the blindness of the abbots
and communities of the great, rich Tibetan monasteries, who had failed to see the
signs of the times and had absolutely failed to do anything valid to meet the challenge
of Communism. They refused to do anything, for example, about giving land to
people who needed it. They simply could not see the necessity of taking certain steps,
and this, he said, precipitated the disaster, and it had to happen.
We can no longer rely on being supported by structures that may be destroyed at any
moment by a political power or a political force. You cannot rely on structures. The
time for relying on structures has disappeared. They are good and they should help us,
and we should do the best we can with them. But they may be taken away, and if
everything is taken away, what do you do next?
What is essential in monastic life is not embedded in buildings, is not embedded in
clothing, is not necessarily embedded even in a rule. It is somewhere along the line of
something deeper than a rule. It is concerned with this business of total inner
I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian
traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our
own traditions, because they have gone, from the natural point of view, so much
deeper in this than we have. The combination of the natural techniques and the graces
and the other things that have been manifested in Asia and the Christian liberty of the
gospel should bring us all at last to that full and independent liberty which is beyond
mere cultural differences and mere externals – and mere this and that.
I will conclude on that note. I believe the plan is to have all the questions for this
morning’s lectures this evening at the panel. So I will disappear.