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Thomas Merton's Meditation Practice: A Fusion of Christian and Eastern Contemplative Practices

I. Introduction

Thomas Merton, a 20th-century Trappist monk, remains a guiding light in the realms of spirituality, interfaith understanding, and contemplative practice. Recognized for his deep insight and eloquent writings on Christian mysticism and Eastern spiritual traditions, Merton made significant contributions to modern contemplative practices. His fusion of Christian and Eastern contemplative practices stands not merely as a theoretical construct but a practical guide to spiritual practice, offering invaluable lessons on meditation, contemplative prayer, and living a contemplative life.

II. Merton's Contemplative Foundation

Merton's spiritual journey began firmly rooted in the Christian monastic tradition, where he embraced the contemplative life within the walls of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. His contemplative practice was grounded in traditional Christian mysticism, with a particular emphasis on contemplative prayer, a practice that involves quieting the mind and opening the heart to the divine presence.

III. Influence of Eastern Spirituality

Merton's spirituality evolved over time as he was deeply influenced by Eastern religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, Hindu philosophy, and Sufi mysticism. In Zen, Merton found a parallel to his Christian contemplative practices, with its emphasis on direct experience of the present moment, transcending the boundaries of conceptual thinking. Hindu philosophy, especially Advaita Vedanta, influenced his understanding of non-dualism, the belief in the fundamental unity of all existence. From Sufism, Merton gleaned insights into the transformative power of divine love, mirrored in the Christian mystic's longing for union with God.

IV. Fusion of Christian and Eastern Practices

In his writings and teachings, Merton wove together elements from these diverse traditions, creating a unique contemplative practice that transcended religious boundaries while remaining deeply rooted in his Christian faith. His meditation practice, for instance, combined the Christian tradition of lectio divina (divine reading) with mindfulness techniques drawn from Buddhism. He advocated for a form of contemplation similar to what later became known as centering prayer, involving sitting in silence and using a sacred word or phrase to refocus attention whenever it wandered.

V. Merton's Approach to Meditation

Merton's approach to meditation emphasized direct, experiential understanding. He taught that meditation is not about achieving a certain state or having a particular experience, but rather, it is about being present and open to whatever arises. Merton's meditation practice involved a gentle awareness of thoughts and feelings without judgment or resistance, a principle that echoes the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.

VI. Living a Contemplative Life

Beyond meditation, Merton taught the importance of living a contemplative life. This involved carrying the stillness and awareness cultivated in meditation into everyday life. He emphasized the need for silence, solitude, and simplicity, seeing these as the fertile ground in which the contemplative life could flourish.

VII. Conclusion

In conclusion, Thomas Merton's unique fusion of Christian and Eastern contemplative practices provides a profound and practical guide for spiritual seekers. His writings offer invaluable insights into meditation and contemplative prayer, as well as guidance on how to live a contemplative life. Merton's legacy continues to enrich and inspire those seeking to deepen their spiritual practice, reflecting his enduring relevance in contemporary spirituality.

Keywords: Thomas Merton, meditation, contemplation, Christian mysticism, Eastern spirituality, interfaith dialogue, contemplative life.


The author appreciates the invaluable contributions of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University for preserving and promoting Merton's teachings.

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