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RELN6001: Individual Honours Study Unit 1

The Contemplative Dimensions of Detachment and Solitude in Thomas Merton and

Shantideva: A New Dialogue in Experiential Monastic Convergences

Due Date: June 5th, 2009

Word Count: 10,000

Supervisor: Dr. Neil Pembroke

Raymond Lam


1.0 INTRODUCTION……………………………………………………………………………..3

1.1 THE CONTEMPLATIVE DIMENSIONS………………………………………………………..6

2.0 DETACHMENT…….………………………………………………………………………...9

2.1 SOLITUDE…….…………………………………………………………………………...16

3.0 CONCLUSION AND IMPLICATIONS…………………………………………………………24

4.0 BIBLIOGRAPHY…….……………………………………………………………………...27


Thomas Merton1 (known in his monastic community as Father Louis) and Shantideva2 (a
former prince named Shantivarman) are religious luminaries of their respective times, but the
corresponding periods in which they lived were so different, so disparate, that it is difficult to
conceive of any specific dialogue that could be established between their ideas on morality,
contemplation or religious belief. My contention is that a study of these two thinkers can
contribute significantly to a deeper understanding of shared Christian and Buddhist concepts.

It is commonly accepted that a central element in spiritual maturity is the transformation of

consciousness. Merton points out that the monk finds himself in an “ideal setting” for this

When I say “traditional monasticism,” I mean Buddhist monasticism as well as

Christian. 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.

… Christianity and Buddhism alike, then, seek to bring about a transformation of

man’s consciousness. And 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. Of course, the man par excellence
to whom this task is deputed is the monk. And the Christian monk and Buddhist
monk – in their sort of ideal setting and the ideal way of looking at them – fulfil
this role in society (Merton, 1974, pp. 326 – 343).

Here, Merton was addressing contemporary, fellow monastics. He was not addressing an
eighth century monk, and partly as a result, modern scholarship has focused on dialogues that
are closer in time to Merton. Examples of this are between him and Thich Nhat Hahn, or with
D.T. Suzuki, (Merton, 1968) or with Dogen and Jung (Gunn, 2000). Modern scholarship
lacks a systematic study conducted between Merton and Shantideva thus far.

To contribute to this potential field of study, this paper contends that a Merton-Shantideva
dialogue can be discovered in their contemplative dimensions of detachment and solitude.
These dimensions are not synonymous with (and do not serve the same purpose as) the
contemplative dimension as defined by the Vatican, which is “basically a reality of grace,

1 31 January 1915 – 10 December 1968

2 8th century C.E.

experienced by the believer as God's gift.”3 Rather, in this study I define the contemplative
dimensions as shared experiential rubrics of spiritual practice that are particular to
contemplative, monastic thought. Extending from that definition, it is suggested that the
dimensions of detachment and solitude are the main points of contact between the spiritual
philosophy and experience of Merton and Shantideva. Once detachment and solitude are
defined as experiential dimensions of the monastic life, it becomes possible to bring them to
the forefront to introduce a greater common understanding to the Buddhist and Christian
dialogue in the context of the religions’ monastic heritages. Therefore in this paper, the
construction of a dialogue between Merton and Shantideva is attempted through common
experiential encounters discovered within the contemplative dimensions of detachment and

However, without elaboration, these dual rubrics of detachment and solitude that Merton and
Shantideva are asserted to share might seem vague and arbitrary. Because this essay
expressly seeks to build a bridge between them, its introduction seeks to define the
components of these contemplative dimensions along with some of the primary and
secondary sources used, in order to set the scene for this fundamentally monastic, Buddhist-
Christian dialogue. In brief, the dimension of detachment is the inner distancing of oneself
from things unbeneficial or harmful to the spiritual path, leading to different aspects of
renunciation at play in the monastic life. These aspects will be elaborated in section 2.1 of
this paper. The solitary dimension is, firstly, different to that of the solitary individual.
Solitude is aloneness in the service of communion. It is the dimension that promotes
communion with others through, on the one hand, dismantling the artificial self that keeps
one apart from others, and on the other, approaching the Absolute in aloneness. Within these
largely experiential definitions of “contemplative dimensions,” the paper will accordingly
explore and critically analyse possibly legitimate ideas of rapport between the two spiritual

This study does not seek to force connections where none exist. The dimensions of
detachment and solitude were selected because they are unique to the heritage of monasticism
and contemplation, in particular the heritage of Merton’s Christianity and Shantideva’s
Buddhism. There is a risk of identifying dimensions that may be too broad in the scope of
religious practice, or dimensions that are too experientially dissimilar. Originally for this
study, the dimension of faith was included as one of Merton and Shantideva’s common
rubrics. However, as my research progressed, the institutional, metaphysical and doctrinal
irreconcilabilities of faith came to render any experiential commonality between the
contemplation of Merton and Shantideva too superficial to maintain.

In examining the primary text, authors, biographers and commentators alike have noted the
keen emphasis that Merton and Shantideva place on faith. However, “faith” is too general. It
serves more as a common prerequisite of any religion (Yamamoto, 1965, p. 5) than as an
experiential dimension for two monastic masters. Faith, for Merton, holds a special definition
in the Church and is most importantly an “intellectual assent,” (Merton, 1957, p. 44) “a
radical and total commitment to the truth of the Incarnation and Redemption as revealed in
God and taught by the Church” (Merton, 1989, p. 336). For Shantideva, the concept of faith

3 See Bibliography.

is quite different to that of Christian theology and involves a different worldview that is far
more separated from Merton’s experience as opposed to the rubrics of detachment and

As it is written in the Niyataniyatagatimudravatara-sutra, “Mañjushrî, if, for the

sake of argument, all the beings of the entire universes of the ten directions were
to lose their eyes and my noble sons and daughters, with their loving thoughts,
were to cause them to grow again, even such merit, O Mañjushrî, would be
unequal to that of my noble sons and daughters who watch with faith and
devotion the Bodhisattva devoted to the Mahayana.” (Pelden, 2007, p. 61)

It can perhaps be noted that Merton’s assertion of faith as the first step to contemplation
(1957, p. 49) runs parallels with Shantideva’s monastic conception of faith as “the guide, the
mother, the producer, the protector and increaser of all virtues” (Shantideva, Siksha-
samuccaya p. 3, 6). Nevertheless, their contemplative journeys, engendered alike by the
motivation of faith, can only continue on a common path through detachment and solitude.
The main concern of this essay is therefore of experiential, contemplative dimensions and not
dimensions of a general, doctrinal nature. However, examining the dimension of faith was
still helpful in consolidating the detached and solitary dimensions as more cohesive rubrics.

There has existed a varied and decently substantial body of literature studying the individual,
contemplative thought of Merton and Shantideva. Merton (having lived in a much more
recent era to ours) enjoys more mainstream exposure of his ideas and his works, especially in
his poems, journals, and meditations. By contrast, there are two primary texts that we can be
certain were historically written and compiled by Shantideva himself: The Way of the
Bodhisattva and A Compendium of Buddhist Doctrine. Further research depends on the
lineage of Buddhist schools that have translated and commentated on his work, treasuring his
expertise and reliability enough to treat his work as a milestone in Mahayana Buddhism.
Naomi Burton Stone, along with Brother Patrick Hart, have compiled many of Merton’s
writings on Christian contemplation and solitude along with the published works before his
death. Furthermore, biographers such as Lawrence Cunningham have highlighted his “vision”
of monasticism as a vibrant voice that rests in the silence of God, allowing the world to listen
to authentic morality. Shantideva’s vocation as a monastic is not ignored either, with many
commentaries having been written on his extolling of solitude, detachment and renunciation.

It is hoped that this dialogue between the two spiritual masters will offer a new, shared
perspective for Buddhist-Christian interfaith appreciation of the transformative contemplative
consciousness. It now falls upon this essay to examine exactly what concepts within the
introspective rubrics of these two monastic writers form legitimate common ground.
Referring back to Merton’s address to the Buddhist monks, it is apparent that the strongest
connections between him and Shantideva will most likely be related to the experiential, deep-
psychological level of religious contemplation that lead to a transformation of consciousness.
The exact nature of these connections within detachment and solitude will be examined in a
brief overview, elaborated on throughout the course of this paper, and summarized in its


As posited in the introduction, the contemplative dimensions function as rubrics of rapport
between the writing of Merton and Shantideva, whether they be similarities in thinking or
experiential parallels. More specifically, these rubrics are particularly developed and refined
in the monastic tradition of Buddhism and Christianity, although they have an important
application in the totality of the religions in question. This essay draws from many of his later
works, such as his posthumously compiled Asian Journal, Zen and the Birds of Appetite and
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, where he recognizes the importance of a sincere Christian
dialogue with Asian religion and that spiritual, interior and personal freedom are not foreign
to the other faiths (Merton, 1989, pp. 89 – 90). This is in contrast to his older, more
traditional works like the first edition of Seeds of Contemplation, where he flatly denies the
possibility of authentic contemplative experience outside the Catholic Church. So it was
perhaps a surprise to Merton himself when he discovered a powerful affinity with the monks
of the Dharmic traditions before and during his travels in Asia. The agreements and
friendships were brisk, keen and reciprocal. His use of vocabulary – especially when he
spoke of the “way” and “wisdom” – struck chords of agreement in Asian contemplatives and
helped Christian monks and Buddhist thinkers alike to “reach the experience of inner unity”
(Merton, 1973, pp. 16 – 17). Merton himself discerned several important general
commonalities between himself and his Eastern brothers. He applied the term “monastic” in a
broad way to those forms of special contemplative dedication that included:

(a) A certain distance or detachment from the “ordinary” and “secular” concerns
of worldly life; a monastic solitude, whether partial or total, temporary or
(b) A preoccupation with the radical inner depth of one’s religious and
philosophical beliefs, the inner and experimental “ground” of those beliefs,
and their outstanding spiritual implications.
(c) A special concern with inner transformation, a deepening of consciousness
toward an eventual breakthrough and discovery of a transcendent dimension
of life beyond that of the ordinary empirical self and of ethical and pious
observance (Merton, 1974, pp. 309 – 310).

The contemplative dimensions of detachment and solitude should therefore correspond to (or
can simply be) these central features that characterize the monasteries and brotherhoods
Merton has in mind when relating to Buddhist monks. The contemplative spirit not only
features a special concern with maintaining the austere tradition of silence, detachment and
solitude (Merton, 1957, 1974) but also aims at subverting what renders man “less than man.”
What is most important to the monk’s quest is “…true self-transcendence and enlightenment.
It is to be sought in the transformation of consciousness in its ultimate ground, as well as in
the highest and most authentic devotional love of the bhakti type” (Merton, 1974, p. 309). It
is apparent that Merton found much in common with his own contemplative adoration of
Christ and the devotional meditation of the Buddhist schools, in particular those of the
Mahayana traditions (Ch’an and Vajrayana). Therefore, we can see that he establishes this
existential common ground with his Buddhist contemporaries on well-reasoned ideas and a
keen, thoughtful spirit.

But this friendly hand should – and can – be extended to a significant religious writer from
another epoch: that titan of the Mahayana tradition, Shantideva. There are many possible

benefits to such a dialogue. Merton’s writings, which embrace a commitment to justice and
individual experience, are unique in their monastic orientation but also address a broad
audience. They can provide a refreshing lens through which to apply Shantideva’s teachings
in a contemporary setting, where balance is sought between stilling the frenetic, deluded
mind and engaging sincerely in modernity’s ethical debates (Shantideva tends to emphasize
the former). This is not to say that the concept of righteousness or social change and justice is
absent from the Buddhist movement, but there is considerably less emphasis compared to that
of the Jewish prophets and the dramatic messages of Jesus (it is a well-known peculiarity that
the Buddha often enjoyed the support of Indian kings and vice versa, which is a stark contrast
to Jesus’s criticisms of the Roman worldly powers). This is understandable given that the
heritage of the prophets belongs to the Near Eastern and Western religious traditions as
opposed to the Indian and East Asian traditions.

Speaking more personally from Merton’s perspective, it has already been noted that he
directly criticized the moral excesses of his era, whereas Shantideva identified the illness of
humanity more generally, with relatively little interest in direct societal reform (the problems
of society, after all, were problems generated by the mind). It is an interesting and powerful
observation that Merton’s detachment and solitude as a contemplative monastic did not,
especially in his later years, impede what can be called the prophetic dimension of his
writing. Through a dialogue with his liberal and open-minded school of contemplation, the
traditions that claim pedagogical loyalty to Shantideva can draw ideas and inspiration from
the emphases on social justice and active advocacy (Gross, 1993, p. 183) that are
characteristic of a prophetic religion. This will provide monastic Buddhism with more
formidable tools of addressing spiritual ailments that are brought about by life in the modern
world today. In turn, due to the popularity of Buddhist ideas in contemporary Western
culture, Shantideva’s subtle and multi-faceted understanding of psychology and meditation
can add new nuances and depth to the Christianity that Merton envisioned. The emphasis
Shantideva places on interior cultivation (and his Buddhist insight into subtle states of the
human mind) can reinforce Merton’s contentions that authentic Christianity requires more
than external productivity. This “quiet,” self-aware, love-centred Christianity understands
that the voice of God is most clearly heard in silence, and is consequently a form of monastic
faith open to intimate dialogue. Therefore, in this particular exchange between Merton and
Shantideva, discussion on the detached and solitary dimensions will help to illuminate the
contemplative level of reality that they share.

Whilst the idea may seem obvious that the contemplative rubrics find their most eloquent
expression in the monastic context, another important observation is that they are also
universal dimensions; that is, they are absolutely essential to the thoughtful, healthy religious
life. Ideally, contemplative dimensions cannot be superficially boxed and compartmentalized
into categories that are progressively struck off in a spirit of utility. Overlapping and
coinciding segments of detachment and solitude will be identified on various occasions
through this essay. This is part of the underlying harmony that has been uncovered in the
contemplative thought of Merton and Shantideva. And while it is a common caution that one
does not “seek out” detachment and solitude for the intended purpose of religious
transcendence, there is certainly a degree of immersion that should be recognized as
necessary: an immersion into what Merton and Shantideva saw as immeasurably significant

to the spiritual nourishment of the individual adherent. Practically, it is unhelpful for
practitioners to bracket the ideal of contemplation from everyday religious life. Taking all
this into account to set the scene, it is now possible to proceed with an analysis of the
contemplative dimensions between Merton and Shantideva to identify the common ground of
dialogue. We will begin with detachment.


In the history of monastic traditions there has always been a heavy emphasis on detachment.
Detachment is the inner commitment of the contemplative to distance herself from thoughts,
speech and actions that cause suffering and alienation. It is, for Shantideva and Merton, the
secret of interior peace. The idea of detachment has been developed to the greatest degree in
the monastic traditions, beyond that of priests and devout laymen, rendering it a crucial
dimension of the contemplative life. However, the approach to detachment shared by these
spiritual masters is not that of mere withdrawal (Merton, 1964, p. xiii) or a life-denying flight
from human happiness. Such an illusory attempt to escape history and time is not only
impossible, but would be a caricature of detachment’s true purposes. Authentic detachment is
better expressed as “liberation” and the refined capacity to distinguish morality from
corruption of the human conscience in any form. This capability of discernment is celebrated
in monastic Christianity and Buddhism, through which contemplatives attain the joy and
serenity of emptiness that is radically different to the ephemerality of the absurdity of
pleasure seeking in society (Merton, 1961, pp. 178 – 9). It can be noted in passing that
detachment also entails disengagement from attachment to deficient human ideology in order
to experience a religious encounter with the transcendent. In this sense, Merton’s care of
separating a false sense of piety from deep religious adoration of God shares similarities to
Shantideva’s Madhyamaka philosophy, in which human concepts – even Buddhist concepts
created by humans – are all proved to be refutable and to have no grounding in ultimate
reality (The Way of Bodhisattva, 9). And it is the “renunciation” feature of detachment that
eventually leads to the experiential component of solitude, the second contemplative

But in order to identify the exact commonalities within the detached dimension, it is
necessary to set the scene for how detachment functioned in Merton and Shantideva’s
thought. In the introduction to this paper, it was noted that in his dialogue with Eastern monks
Merton portrayed a characteristic of the monastic life as a certain distance from the ordinary
concerns of worldly life. Therefore, the essence or basis for detachment in Merton and
Shantideva is to attain something far greater than the attachments that tend to be destructive
to interior spirituality.

Negative attachments are especially harmful when carried into excess, as Merton’s example
illustrates. Before his life as a monk, he constantly and directly suffered the repercussions of
his immoderate cravings during his studies at the University of Cambridge. The culmination
of this was the moral disaster of impregnating a woman he was unable to care for
(Cunningham, 1999, p. 6). Then, as early as twenty-one, he came to a stark recognition that
the fleeting fulfilment he clung to had all but vanished, leaving him in despair, guilt, and
existential voidness. He had been grasping at what was, in Shantideva’s words, unwise and
destructive things with unwise and destructive motivations. He had conceived of ransacking
and robbing the world of all its pleasures and satisfactions. But at the climax of it all, he
realized: “I had done what I intended and now I found that it was I who was emptied and
robbed and gutted. What a strange thing! In filling myself, I had emptied myself. In grasping
things, I had lost everything” (Merton, 1978, pp. 163 – 65). After his conversion to
Catholicism, he decided to turn away from pleasure-seeking and devote himself entirely to

the religious vocation. For this reason, Robert Gunn notes that Merton’s formal entry into
Gethsemani entailed a detachment from external things, people and results of action, as well
as internal desires, preferences and feelings (Gunn. 2000, p. 146). Merton actually nurtured a
need to be nothing, to surrender everything to attain union with God.

Shantideva, in his chapter on Meditative Concentration, similarly employed a pedagogical

attitude to counteract the idea that there is anything more preferable to cultivating religious
virtue and merit. As a monk, Shantideva’s instructions were rigid and rigorous in its rules for
those who aspired to follow the monastic path. He ridiculed the copious efforts common
people wasted in chasing things like material wealth, secular achievements and sex when he
could attain Buddhahood itself with a fraction of the struggle and a dash of common sense
(The Way of Bodhisattva, 8: 43 – 68). Of particular concern to him were undisciplined
monks. To encourage monks lagging unacceptably behind due to their craving for
impermanent things, he utilized the technique of “dismantling” objects of attachment into
their component parts, which inevitably led to some unpleasant but perhaps valid conclusions
about the body’s ephemerality. Despite some of the slightly morbid reflections on the
impurities and impermanence of the human and its orifices, several observations keep
modern judgement of Shantideva as a cynical, embittered ascetic in check. His meditations
on the “distinction of mundane and transcendent things” (Schroeder, 2001, p. 82) were
directed towards instructing monks who suffered from particularly unruly minds and were
overcome by passion. His dry humour was also intended to reduce to absurdity the
conventional, societal conceptions of “love:” love that is superficial and dependent on an
individual’s externalities rather than her inner qualities, and hence not true love. He is
startlingly forthright in his refutation in this and many other passages throughout his poem.

Is it not best to have no lust / For something that by nature stinks? The worldly crave beside
their purpose – / Why do they anoint their flesh with pleasant scents? / For if this scent is
sandalwood, / How can it be the perfume of the body? / How is it that the fragrance of a
thing / Induces you to crave for something else? (8: 66 – 7).

Yet it is impossible for a contemplative to realize great compassion if she engenders any kind
of resentment against the human body. Shantideva liberally extols compassion as the
bodhisattva’s central calling throughout Chapters 1 – 5 and 10 of his poem, and praises the
“precious human form’s” rarity, inherent goodness and capability for virtue (4: 15, 17, 20).
Therefore, it is arguable that detachment should be moderated by a distinctly affirming care
for living beings: Merton actively sees sexuality as a positive drive whilst Shantideva
honours the human body through a slightly sublimated approach.

At first, Merton initially seemed to struggle with the concept of “world” and how a Christian
could love those within the world whilst somehow detaching himself from that which brought
sin, ignorance and death. Cunningham notes that as his spiritual intelligence and maturity
grew, he realized that the old monastic stance of fuga mundi (flight from the world) or
contemptus mundi (detachment from things of the world) had to evolve as well. He realized
that monastic detachment from the world is an invitation to be close to the world, but in a
different way: to understand the world as God’s place for him and to understand his task
within it (Cunningham, 1999, p. 192). This would eventually lead to his awareness of a
danger, from the Christian monastic perspective, to devolve into “angelism,” or contempt for

the human in the name of a higher and more Gnostic perfection. In his short essay on World,
in which the later maturity in his religious thought is evident, he outlines the Christian’s
dialogue with the world (1985, p. 123) as one that is similar to the Buddhist’s, which attempts
to benefit it whilst retaining an element of detachment from it. If this was authentic
detachment, then it was extremely difficult to achieve. In his typical honesty, he writes:
“There are aspects of detachment and refinements of interior purity and delicacy of
conscience that even the majority of sincerely holy men never succeed in discovering”
(Merton, 1957, p. 73).

As early as No Man Is An Island, Merton was already abandoning traditional notions of

contemptus mundi, and highlights that monastic asceticism “is not supposed to make us
weary of a life that is vile. It is not supposed to make our bodies, which are good, appear to
us to be evil… The real purpose of asceticism is to disclose the difference between the evil
use of created things, which is sin, and their good use, which is virtue” (Merton, 1955, pp. 92
– 3). This resonates with the previously mentioned fact that Shantideva stresses the extreme
rarity and preciousness of obtaining a human body in this life and the opportunity to practice
virtue (The Way of Bodhisattva, 4: 17, 20). At the same time, he teaches his monks to
counteract lust by reflecting on the body’s inherent unreality and the futility and self-
deception of activities centred on craving, which is subtly distinct from love (8: 1 – 187).
Such an approach to detachment is not contradictory. In their spiritual maturity, Merton and
Shantideva share a “middle way” of viewing bodily and spiritual matters to create a coherent
identity of a detached monastic. This reflects their preferences for moderation in the monastic
discipline. This can be expanded further as a shared view of matter/spirit or
individuality/unity between Christianity and Buddhism. While detachment and discipline
refine the capacity to distinguish between morality and the corruption of conscience, it does
not entail an aversive or negating opinion of the world and its corporeality. Robert Gunn
relates the belief that God became incarnate in human form with the idea that the all-loving
God affirms matter and spirit alike: in Jesus Christ, “the infinite emptied itself into the finite”
(Gunn, 2000, p. 138). It is evident that in his writing, the mature Merton attempted to
articulate something of this divine love and cherish the world in the same way that God loves
it. From the Mahayana perspective, the celebrated teaching of the crucial Heart Sutra is
extremely significant for the monastic vocation: “Form does not differ from emptiness,
emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, and emptiness is itself form”
(Heart Sutra, from Ven. Hua, 1980, p. 1). In meditating on this pliant interaction, the
contemplative endeavours to live out a balance between the relative and the absolute (Gunn,
2000, p. 138), since an inexpressible purity4 is inherently discoverable in all phenomena.
Therefore, an appreciation of the intrinsic compatibility between detachment and loving the
world is understood by the two traditions to be very important.

Detachment is closely related to another monastic aspect that is commonly associated with
the vocation of a contemplative: renunciation. In the context of this dialogue, it is defined as
renunciation of one’s own delusions and the delusions of others. Brassard notes that from
Shantideva’s perspective, renunciation means “disengaging one’s mind from whatever keeps
it busy… there are the discourses on the causes of one’s distraction from the skilful things,

4 Specifically for Shantideva and the Mahayana schools, this would be the potentiality of Buddha-Nature (The
Way of Bodhisattva, 7:18).

that is, basically that which has to be renounced in order to progress spiritually” (Brassard,
2000, p. 105). This resonates very closely with Merton’s own ideals of renunciation, which is
given in Disputed Questions. For him, self-denial delivers people from their passions and
from selfishness, along with a superstitious attachment to the ego as if it were a god, an idol
(Merton, 1955, p. 92). Renunciation, in its relation to detachment, is much more complex
than giving up meat, alcohol, and a sex life. For Merton and Shantideva, the ego is renounced
in order to embrace something higher—namely, Ultimate Reality. The false self must leave
the individual in order to experience the fullness of the true self, which is done by
abandoning all contingent things in devotion to the Absolute (Merton, 1941 – 1952). In
renouncing temporality, infinity is attained.

Eventually, due to the sweeping implications of these shared ideas of detachment, a distinctly
moral aspect begins to grow from the dimension. To cultivate a heart conducive to the
contemplative spirit, Shantideva urges one to detach oneself from the overlooked and
neglected excesses that characterizes his criticisms of the “world”: the excess of defiled
emotions (The Way of Bodhisattva, 4: 41 – 3). Along with the passion for unreality that
characterizes the impatient men that do not see the value in contemplation and detachment
and only in the triumphant affirmation of their own will and power,5 anger fills the world
with violence, hatred and an insane, cunning fury that threatens existence itself (Merton,
1968, p. 219, 224). The afflicted passions that a contemplative seeks to detach herself from
are not pleasurable and pleasant emotions in themselves – they lead to a literal Hell on Earth
thanks to their dwelling within the mind: no other enemy is able to endure for so long (The
Way of Bodhisattva, 4: 32). Shantideva astutely observes that the true problem is not that
defilements occur in human minds,6 but that too often people are not aware that said
defilements are present. The detached dimension specifically aims at severing the reflective
mind’s bonds from the conscious and subconscious afflictions that characterize an
unreflective society (or one that is insufficiently reflective). The consequences of these
unchecked defilements destroy many potential and existent fruits of virtue (Kelsang Gyatso,
2000, p. 128), whether it is in the monastery or in the world. Merton and Shantideva alike
recognize this insidious danger. To go further, the contemplative is a person who renounces
and detaches himself from society’s mistakes (perhaps not their consequences), from
“arbitrary social imagery:”

When his nation is rich and arrogant, he does not feel that he himself is
more fortunate and more honest, as well as more powerful than the
citizens of other, more “backward nations.” More than this: he is able to
despise war and to see the futility of rockets to the moon in a way quite
different and more fundamental from the way in which his society may
tolerate these negative views. That is to say, he despises the criminal,
bloodthirsty arrogance of his own vocation or class, as much as that of
“the enemy.” He despises his own self-seeking aggressitivity as much as

5 Merton names specifically: money, power, publicity, machines, business, political advantage, and military
strategy. (Merton, 1968, p. 219)

6 Defilements are merely thoughts. Through analysis and patient skill, they can be dispels by the eye of

that of the politicians who hypocritically pretend they are fighting for
peace (Merton, 1961, p. 187).

If renunciation implies an abandonment of this radical sort, it will also suggest the
renunciation of certain kinds of human company, which is a characteristic commitment of
monastics. Meditation on detachment from things, ideas, and people is common in Merton’s
later as well as early thought, and gains an exalted status in Shantideva’s religious poem The
Way of the Bodhisattva. Shantideva stresses this quite emphatically; indeed, his entire
philosophy as a totality is centred on becoming beneficial for others by first, paradoxically,
becoming detached from the sentient beings one hopes to benefit (6: 122). He reserves a
harsher term, “childish folk,” for the beings that a practitioner must distance herself from.
These are the people who lead one to a state far from virtue, so immersed are they in the
delusions and suffering of samsara7 (8: 9 – 15) that as she is, a contemplative must first
detach herself from their scrambles and wants if she is to become educated, tranquil and
practiced enough to truly benefit them. This runs a parallel with Merton’s criticism of the trap
modern society has fallen into:

Our own society prefers the absurd. But our absurdity is blended with a
certain hard-headed, fully determined seriousness with which we devote
ourselves to the acquisition of money, to the satisfaction of our appetite
for status, and our justification of ourselves as contrasted with the
totalitarian iniquity of our opposite number (Merton, 1961, pp. 178 –

He goes further, noting that contemplation will be denied to a man in proportion as he

belongs to the world (1975, p. 93). In this context his use of “world” signifies “those who
love the things of this world.” Spiritual things “cannot be appreciated or understood by the
mind that is occupied with temporal and merely human satisfactions” (1975, p. 93).

Occupation with temporal satisfactions like riches, reputation and renown (The Way of
Bodhisattva, 8: 20) is also common in Shantideva’s childish beings. He identifies their
afflictions as laziness, an inclination for unwholesomeness, defeatism and self-contempt (7:
2), which are the contraries of joyful diligence in spiritual practice. This laxity snares them
in defiled emotion (7: 4) and inevitably tarnishes their worldly behaviour: “Jealous of
superiors, they vie with equals, / Proud to those below, they strut when praised. / Say
something untoward, they seethe with rage. / What good was ever had from childish folk?”
(8: 12). He notes that they will scorn those who are poorer than them in material wealth; yet
envy those richer than them (8: 23). He urges contemplatives to see through such irrational
cravings and anguish. This shares parallels with many of Merton’s criticisms of the
American society of his day, namely the bad faith that worships a marketing and affluent
society more so than the Lord (Merton, 1968, p. 201), the inability to see the home-spawned
threats of social injustice and inauthenticity (1968, p. 138), and collective guilt for its
violence and prejudice (1968, p. 181). For the contemplative, refusing to relinquish this kind
of interaction stunts spiritual growth and compromises her balance between monasticism
and social action, between insight and illusion, and between participation in the community
and the quiet, thoughtful life (Cunningham, 1999, p. 79). It can trap the reflective believer

7 The Sanskrit word samsara denotes the world that is marked by suffering, greed, hatred and delusion.

into the thinking of the group, and induce a passion for conformity with society that is
harmful to the contemplative life (Cunningham, 1999, p. 78).

A monk must therefore, inevitably, renounce such negative company to facilitate

detachment from the lower aspirations of common society. As unfortunately inevitable as
this kind of distancing may be, Shantideva and Merton are assured that this is the way to
cultivating a deeper, more tranquil basis of compassion for precisely those that ordinary
beings find great difficulty in loving: those they are indifferent to, and their enemies.
Contemplatives, in Merton and Shantideva’s spirit, will engage in ordinary pleasures to be
of comfort and emotional benefit to people. Things such as indulgent, petty chitchat,
dancing, the magicians’ tricks beggars perform for money: wise sages engage in these with
others while casting aside all interest and taste for them (5: 45). Since detachment is an
active renunciation of the pursuits that the false ego enjoys, an individual true to herself
finds less pleasure in such pursuits, though such a lessening of pleasure is certainly not due
to a negative faculty of mind.

Perhaps there is inevitably a certain austerity and harshness shared between Merton and
Shantideva in their witnesses to irreligious lives that lack contemplation and detachment.
But Merton’s unique spin on a common criticism of society notes that beyond the transient
pursuits of business and pleasure, the devotion of lives to an invisible God is in fact quite
normal (Merton, 1957, p. viii). Those immersed in society fail to see the importance of
contemplation, and inevitably return to their restless ways of pleasure-seeking,
entertainment, and numbness. Merton often criticized the general moral excesses and
contradictions of the 1960’s, while Shantideva took it for granted that all the roots of the
problems in conventional human interaction are based on some form of samsaric self-
grasping and delusion. Even those that attempt to abandon this self-grasping and delusion
realize, in retrospect, that they have not possessed the diligence to even persist beyond
several minutes (Kelsang Gyatso, 2000, p. 212). Such is the sombre state of general society
that the monastics have borne witness to.

Due to these observations and their own vocations, the interior but compassionate denial of
these delusions becomes the only way to distinguish benefit from harm and realization from
regression. Detachment from excessively clinging states of mind is therefore a shared
dimension of experience between Merton and Shantideva. It has been demonstrated that in a
context of monasticism, this is an imperative undertaking and can be pertinent even for lay
contemplatives who require a conducive environment and good company to develop their
spiritual maturity. Such detachment is based on premises of religious hope. As emphasized
already, neither gives in to ascetic morbidity or puritan self-castigation, for those, too, are
inner afflictions and psychological extremes. Shantideva observes that defilements are not
intrinsic to humanity’s true nature, and that the courage to detach oneself from them is all
that is needed to identify their empty properties and banish them (The Way of Bodhisattva,
4: 47). The two contemplatives both recognize that within this dimension of detachment
hides the essence of shared monastic principles. In other words, detachment in Merton and
Shantideva is characterized by the deliberate and systematic distancing from childish
company (The Way of Bodhisattva, 8: 15) or the bread and circuses of society (Merton,
1961, p. 178). What follows from this distancing is their enthusiastic renunciation of the

“old life” of falseness within themselves and in their interaction with the world for the sake
of a higher calling and experience infinitely more beneficial and prudent to themselves and

Thus far, their journey of dialogue begins in the “stepping forth” into the exclusively
religious life, which is, from their perspective, the only choice of life that can encompass all
others in a silent witness to the suffering and self-destruction of the world. The common
thread of detachment is woven through their experiences of renunciation as they endeavour to
separate themselves from the world’s delusion and inauthenticity whilst remaining genuinely
loving and compassionate towards the sentient beings within it. Here, the concept of
detachment denotes a philosophical and spiritual experience that has not yet been completed.
It is important to remember that the fundamental authenticity of contemplative detachment
comes from a rooted, still, tranquil centre of being oriented towards the Absolute. This centre
of being is the second thread that weaves another tapestry between the messages of Merton
and Shantideva. The centre is the dimension of solitude, a distinctly contemplative and
monastic practice that possesses many a deep, transformative significance in this dialogue.
The practical fulfillment of contemplative detachment is the realization in solitude that this
ego that inflicts so much pain on the world is inherently false and nonexistent (The Way of
Bodhisattva, 9: 77), and is not distinct from the rest of the world in its suffering. This is not
an academic realization but a “monastic” insight cultivated in a paradoxical environment of
aloneness. To truly alleviate suffering, the radical reorientation (Anacker, 1978) of
detachment must be taken further through solitude, and this can be said to be the next step
after detachment between Merton and Shantideva.

Shantideva’s moderate and judicious conception of detachment shares many commonalities

with Merton’s, but he also shares with him intricate elements of this dialogue’s second
dimension. They consist of the shared acknowledgment of death’s power to unite men
through their shared solitude, the confrontation with the deluded self, and its absurd grasping
at transient things to the detriment of spiritual nourishment. But these grim reflections also
provide the common liberation from existential falsehood, where the presence of the
Absolute and transcendence is paradoxically encountered within solitude and its confines.
These facets, as will be demonstrated in the essay’s next section, form the uniting,
transformative dimension of solitude for Merton and Shantideva.


One of the most complex facets and commonalities of their religious life is found in the
dimension of solitude, in the practice of “aloneness” that Merton and Shantideva extol. This
experience of physical and spiritual solitude, which can be said to be the deepest and most
complex practice of a contemplative, is a general term for the activity of the stilled, tranquil
mind in the presence of the Absolute.8 The two aspects of internal motivation (a
psychological imposition upon the physical limits of one’s spatial and social boundaries) and
external motivation (exterior entities and events that prompt withdrawal) characterize
solitude more specifically than the dimension of detachment. An example of external

8 Solitude is an interior attitude, first and foremost. It is always possible to experience solitude amidst the buzz
of the city.

motivation is the concept of withdrawing into the natural wilderness as a sign of
contradiction, to be heard as a voiceless, prophetic cry (Merton, 1961, p. 204). But this is
where an interesting, minor divergence occurs between Merton and Shantideva. Whereas
Merton uses the desert as the central locus of all Christian contemplation since the time of
the first Desert Fathers (Merton, 1956, p. 18), Shantideva’s ideal of solitude and withdrawal
is in the forest, where the extent of contentment and potential for spiritual attainment
exceeds all the riches of pleasures found in worldly dwelling (The Way of Bodhisattva, 8: 34
– 38, 85 – 89).

In both locales lies the ancient concept that these sacred environs offer an ideal witness to
the illusions and immorality of the world (Cunningham, 1999, p. 78), transmitted through
the monastic tradition of solitude. The desert is an uninhabited wasteland, and because of its
lack of value to men, it is of supreme value to God. It is the dwelling place for a Christian
contemplative seeking to encounter God9 as a solitary individual, because it was created to
be itself, not to be transformed by humans into something else (Merton, 1956, p. 56 – 8).
The solitary is dependent on no one but God in the desert, with no distracting project
standing between herself and the Creator. Similarly, meditating in the cave, empty shrine or
spreading tree (The Way of Bodhisattva, 8: 26), Shantideva is rhapsodic of the peaceful
woodlands that are haunt of stag and bird (8: 25), and where his attention will not be
diverted by worldly folk (8: 34 – 36). Here, no dissension jars him (8: 25) and fear and
attachment to things (8: 28, 27) are naturally absent.10 For reasons such as these, a
contemplative’s orientation to interior solitude becomes more fruitful when she experiences
the exterior conditions of the desert and forest.

However, it is interior solitude that is the most important and difficult aspect to cultivate, for
solitude does not entail mere physical isolation. Rather, the interior facet constitutes the much
more important “forgetfulness of the self” (Cunningham, 1999, p. 79). Interior solitude is
completely different to the “meaningless, chaotic atomized” solitude of mass society
(Merton, 1968, p. 52). The latter is a matter of alienation that consists of “attachment to
material things for their own sake, love of wealth and power” (1968, p. 54), something that
Merton and Shantideva already warn against in the dimension of detachment. This alienation
results in either the arrogance of the powerful, or the passive servility of “functionaries” who
participate in a power structure as “utensils” in order to enjoy a glimpse of the power they
crave. “Modern man,” or the unreflective man who refuses to see the value of interior
solitude, surrenders himself to be used as an instrument, and becomes centred on his
alienated, empty self, no longer alive with passionate convictions or compassion. (1968, p.
54) His instinctual life becomes a life of either fear or cruel perversity. More commonly,
through alienation, it is shocked into insensitivity. In this meaningless solitude, numbness and

9 “The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone.
They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was
that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the
desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.” (Merton, 1956, p. 18)

10 Throughout his life, the Buddha Shakyamuni also enjoyed an affinity for the forest. As Gautama, he
attained enlightenment under the refuge of the Bodhi tree and spent much of his teaching life in natural
environments of similar serenity.

inertness overwhelm spiritual creativity, leading to the materialist “untruth” (1968, p. 54) that
all contemplatives warn against adamantly.

By contrast, interior solitude is the possibility to recover “mysterious sources of hope and
strength” (1968, p. 53). To use Christian metaphor, it is the ability to hear the “voice in the
wilderness” (1968, p. 52), or to become aware of the suffering and potential of the human
condition. The practice of solitude can even be an invisible expression of love to provide a
mute witness to society over the acceptance of social fictions (Merton, 1961, p. 193). In fact,
only when a person truly encounters the dark, inner solitude of her own troubled heart, is she
empowered to reach out to all people and the world in tranquil love and freedom. Therefore,
both Merton and Shantideva, while conceding the importance of physical solitude (it
certainly helps contemplatives and monastics), it is the interior facet of solitude that provides
the most urgent and crucial messages to the deeper religious life. As this chapter of the essay
shall attempt to demonstrate, in respect to abandoning the layers of deceptions and masks of
the conflicted, egotistic self, Merton and Shantideva’s objectives within the dimension of
solitude are strikingly similar in ambition and scope.

As already observed, “solitude” is a term with multi-faceted meanings and denotes more than
a physical state of aloneness, although that is an important facet. In the contemplative
traditions, the aspect of solitude is similar to the more “basic” rubric of detachment insofar
that they are interconnected, although there is, as already noted, a physical absence that is
realized in solitude as opposed to detachment, where there is only an intellectual resolution to
engage in physical absence. Solitude is also not merely a hallmark of contemplative religion
(although it occupies a unique place): it is pertinent to a spectrum of religious practices. Still,
Merton cautions that solitude is by definition a difficult task, because it entails interior and
exterior aloneness, the foremost being “the disconcerting task of facing and accepting one’s
own absurdity” (1961, p. 179). His most important observations of solitude come from his
essay “Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude,” in his book Disputed Questions (1961, pp. 177 –
207). Within it, he explains how solitude provides the foundation for a contemplative’s
insight into reality and the transcendent.

For him and Shantideva, the reality of solitude begins from the unavoidable reality of death.
Of course, all religious and philosophical movements reflect on death and its profound
implications, but the contemplative traditions infuse this inevitable phenomenon of life with a
significance of spiritual solitude and religious self-discovery. To put it starkly, human beings
are born alone into a troubled world and shall die alone. Every individual person, no matter
how connected he or she may seem, is really a solitary, “held by the inexorable limitations of
his own aloneness” (1961, pp. 180 – 1). Merton further points out that each person must not
only die alone, but also, ultimately, live alone (p. 181). This poignant fact is echoed very
strongly by Shantideva (The Way of Bodhisattva, 2: 40, 61). He points out the reality of
solitude in a stark, confronting manner, not forgetting to list the moral hindrances that
accompany the timeless existential questions:

“The thought came never to my mind / That I too am a brief and passing thing. / And so,
through hatred, lust, and ignorance, / I have committed many sins. / Never halting night or
day, / My life drains constantly away, / And from no other source does increase come. / How
can there not be death for such as me?” (2: 38 – 39).

He argues, like Merton, that we discover solidarity in the solitude of death (Merton, 1961, p.
181). The contemplative acknowledges that the universal impermanence of the body reflects
the inevitable parting of company: “This body, now so whole and integral, / This flesh and
bone that life has knit together, / Will drift apart and disintegrate, / And how much more will
friend depart from friend?” (The Way of Bodhisattva, 8: 31). The milestone of death and
parting, somewhat ironically, unites human beings and their experiences, leaving nothing
save their virtuous or unmeritorious consciences at the end of life (2: 36 – 37). Shantideva
notes that the dreamlike nature of living unites people in the urgency for spiritual freedom (6:
57 – 59). He uses the following analogy: even if one person experiences a long, happy dream
and the other a mere instant’s joy, both will eventually awake, and their happiness
subsequently extinguished. This is a comparison to the united condition of mortality: rich or
poor, happy or unhappy, we all die alone and walk naked to the afterlife with nothing by our
side, except for our merit and our sins: “Alone we’re born, alone we come into the world, /
And when we die, alone we pass away” (9: 32). Therefore, Merton and Shantideva’s strong
and consistent emphases on the common condition of death, as well as its implications of
solitariness, is a shared thread in their contemplative experience of solitude.

Because Disputed Questions is an earlier work than his later reflections on the common
strains between Christian and Buddhist thought, Merton’s distinction between “pagan”
conceptions of contemplative solitude and Christian solitude is sharper and perhaps sterner
and harsher (1961, p. 192). This, along with many of his other ideas, undergoes evolution in
his essay Rebirth and the New Man in Christianity. In Rebirth he proposes that the interior,
contemplative aspect of Christianity will be intelligible to Asians familiar with their own
traditions’ deeper facets – more so, in fact, than the Western “spiritual will-to-power,” which
has “tended toward an over-emphasis on will, on action, on conquest, and on ‘getting things
done.’” This has resulted in a sort of religious restlessness, pragmatism, and the worship of
visible results” (1985, p. 202). And ultimately, he too acknowledges the common experiential
possibilities between contemplative Christianity and Eastern schools: “For the religions of
Asia have also sought to liberate man from imprisonment in a half-real external existence in
order to initiate him into the full and complete reality of an inner peace which is secret and
beyond explanation [my emphasis]” (1985, p. 202). Many more examples can be found in his
writing that details this change of heart. This change of heart comes from his contemplative
core, which acknowledges dimensions such as detachment and solitude to be experiential
threads running through various traditions.

The later Merton, perhaps, would also have had less qualms in touching common ground
with Shantideva, especially when one refers back to Shantideva’s chapter entitled
“Confession.” Shantideva not only acknowledges his ultimate solitariness in the paradoxical
presence of the Buddhas, but also connects their transforming teachings with his own
vocation to the world as a monastic (The Way of the Bodhisattva, 2: 8 – 9). Furthermore, in a
more general sense, the attainment of prajna is to attain a mental stillness in which
conceptual elaboration is dismantled, which brings an insight beyond thought construction.
This is the ground for the experience of shunyata, or emptiness (9: 34). Emptiness, in the
Buddhist experience, does not denote a sense of nothingness or nihilism, but is the profound
realization of suchness (tathata), or ultimate truth, beheld as the realm of reality in which

one sees the total cosmos’s radical interpenetration of all that is.11 This experience is a
feature of the solitary dimension in which the lone struggle leaves one with no
intellectualizing questions and disputes (Merton, 1955, p. 223). It entails a consistent action
or habit of finding one’s solitary centre of being amidst the hurly-burly of a violent and
impatient world driven by base impulses and deluded thoughts. This can be said to be the
concrete aspect of living within the walls and gardens of the monastery.

The way to contemplation is an obscurity so obscure that it is no longer even

dramatic. There is nothing left in it that can be grasped and cherished as heroic or
even unusual. And so, for a contemplative, there is supreme value in the ordinary
routine of work and poverty and hardship and monotony that characterize the
lives of all the poor and uninteresting and forgotten people in the world (Merton,
1957, pp. 97 – 8).

It has become apparent that the search for the “true self,” for Merton, was another
fundamental facet of contemplation. He used true self as a contemporary synonym for the
Pauline metaphors of dying to the old and rising in the new. The change indicates a new way
of being in the world, or a new perspective on life (Cunningham, 1999, p. 81). It was to be
found by discarding the conventional, inauthentic self through a persistent and profound
engagement with God in solitude (Merton, 1961, p. 206).

Shantideva was also concerned with liberating the individual from her false self and exposing
her to the interconnectedness of all beings, which is an entirely different and broader
perspective of the universe’s being. He taught many different techniques of meditation for
this purpose. His most systematic and complex method, exchanging self and other, touches
experience directly, with relatively little reference to Buddhist metaphysics or doctrines.12

“[verse 90] Two things are to be practiced on the level of relative bodhichitta: meditation on
the equality of self and other and meditation on the exchange of self and other. Without
training in the former, the latter is impossible. This is why Shantideva says that we should
first meditate strenuously on the equality of self and other; for without it, a perfectly pure
altruistic attitude cannot arise… As it is said, “Whoever casts aside the ordinary, trivial view
of self, will discover the profound meaning of great ‘Selfhood’” (Pelden, 2007, pp. 282 –

This exchange is furthermore seen by Shantideva to be the most important aspect of the
contemplative’s path, in which wisdom and compassion unite to bring bodhichitta, the
enlightened state of mind, to fruition. “Those desiring to be / A refuge for themselves and
others, / Should make the interchange of “I” and “other,” / And thus embrace a sacred
mystery” (8: 120). As his most significant contribution to the contemplative dimensions of

11 I choose to also use the Chinese term of “interpenetration,” although it is absent in Indian terminology,
because it is the “positive” emphasis of the word “emptiness.” They are one and the same, but the word
“emptiness” alone does not necessarily emphasize the matrix of interconnection that is envisaged in the
contemplative traditions.

12 By contrast to his meditation on compassion, in which it is assumed that the meditator has accepted the
teaching of rebirth, and accordingly reflects on the poignant idea that all suffering beings have at one time been
one’s loving mother.

detachment and solitude, the self-other-exchange’s sacred mystery results in the culmination
of that which is beyond explanation. This wordless experience is “experiential emptiness,” in
which one experiences the suffering of others as one’s own, very real pain (Introduction to
The Way of the Bodhisattva, 2006, p. 18). Empathy naturally and instantly arises for the
contemplative who is able to realize this universal truth. The language that he uses to describe
this liberation from the false self and into the freedom of inner peace is virtually identical to
Merton’s when he relates his being to other people. He writes: “My solitude however is not
my own… when I am alone they are not “they” but my own self… If only they could all see
themselves as they really are” (Merton, 1989, p. 140). For him, the soul that manages to find
itself in solitude gravitates towards the desert yet does not object to staying in the city,
because it is already alone everywhere. Like Shantideva, he saw in solitude an interior unity
of which the mass of humanity was ignorant. For even the most connected of people in the
modern world, this unity was unknown. Even those who entered and knew it by

This particular manner of solitude that abandons the false self is grounded, as already
mentioned, in the contemplative’s relationship with the Absolute. This may seem similar to
the previously mentioned and largely untenable connection of faith, but rather than existing
as a set of philosophical and institutional declarations, this experiential approach to
contemplating the divine or transcendent uniquely belongs to monastics or contemplative
observers immersed in the solitary dimension. It is an intimate confrontation with the infinite
unknown. In Shantideva’s example, the only way to overcome his deluded nature and
suffering itself is to abandon all other artificial forms of safety in the world and take refuge in
the Buddhas, the guardians of beings (The Way of the Bodhisattva, 2: 47). His chapter on
Confession admits his sins and misdeeds in endless past lives in the presence of the Buddhas,
because there is a direct relationship with the absolute and the relative: “The great
compassionate lords consider as themselves / All beings – there’s no doubt of this. / Those
whom I perceive as beings are Buddhas in themselves; / How can I not treat them with
respect?” (6: 126). The transcendent is that which is already master of the perfect exchange of
self and other, so his relationship to it in solitude opens the contemplative to not merely an
aesthetic extrapolation of intellectual principles and dogma (Merton, 1968, p. 222), but a
transcendent union of consciousness that is characterized by an intensification of total
awareness, not properly contained in a particular vision but in non-vision, that attains the
totality of all meaning (1968, p. 223). In Shantideva, this is attained systematically and
outlined throughout The Way of Bodhisattva, in which the exchange of self and other,
preceded by confession and concluded by dedication, is the “method” by which this
consciousness is attained.

But like Merton, Shantideva stresses that the practitioner is always in aloneness as well as
communion. Merton argues that the “dying Christian is one with the Church, but also suffers
the loneliness of Christ’s agony in Gethsemani” (Merton, 1961, p. 181). Merton adds to this
the idea of silence, which composes a part of the solitary path to the hidden, living God. He
writes that God is best understood as Love found in solitude, which is the spatial and inner
gate to receiving the will of God. This silence resonates with the Zen Buddhist idea of
abandoning words to listen to the interior stillness of truth that lies beyond conceptual
knowledge. It also highlights the central importance of love in religious solitude and silence,

disproving the idea that solitude is something that is practiced independent of a
contemplative’s relation to the world.

Christianity is a religion of the Word. The Word is Love. But we sometimes

forget that the Word emerges first of all from silence. When there is no silence,
then the One Word which God speaks is not truly heard as Love. Then only
“words” are heard. “Words” are not love, for they are many and Love is One.
Where there are many words, we lost consciousness of the fact that there is really
only One Word. The One Word which God speaks is Himself. Speaking, he
manifests Himself as infinite Love… So silent is His speech that, to our way of
thinking, His speech is no-speech, His hearing is no-hearing… Even though one
may be a learned man and may have profound knowledge of many subjects, and
many “words,” this is of no value, it has no central meaning… if the One Word,
Love, has not been heard. That One Word is heard only in the silence and
solitude of the empty heart, the selfless, undivided heart, the heart that is at peace,
detached, free, without care (Merton, 1985, pp. 1 – 19).

A lack of silence beyond the words of religion can mean that God, despite his eternal
presence, is not always heard. In silence, God’s Word is clearer and can be attended to more
mindfully. Without silence, there is little God and Love. Only words and actions prevail, and
there is no religion but mere religious ideology (Merton, 1985, p. 20). Through silence and
solitude the contemplative is capable of abandoning “all falsity and all illusion and all
pretense and all sham.” They abandon themselves, transcending their self and rising beyond
themselves, where they hear the voice of God. It is an experience (Introduction to The Way of
the Bodhisattva, 2006, pp. 18 – 19) of contemplation, a mind that has ceased to cling to not
only defilements, but also lingering concepts through the wisdom of emptiness (The Way of
Bodhisattva, 9: 47 – 8). It is the experience of a voice “no longer the voice of a philosophical
intuition, no longer the echo of the words of divine revelation, but the very substance of
reality itself” (Merton, 1957, p. 171).

The practice of solitude is an implicit acknowledgement of true religion’s danger of being

distorted by whimsical, blind intuition or frenetic, emotional submission to charismatic
leaders or ideology. The vocation of a monk, in a manner similar to the detachment rubric,
prohibits him from selecting the choices the world has to offer, or the chances to choose sides
(1957, p. 174). They are but temptations; the objective is solitude alone. The contemplative’s
cultivation of faith in the solitary dimension also signifies that pure interior solitude is found
in the virtue of hope: religious hope that brings the contemplative out of the world whilst she
remains in it bodily (Merton, 1955, p. 223). This communication is the essence of all religion,
and this is ultimately oriented towards the Absolute. For Shantideva, his solitude is practiced
in homage and gratitude to his spiritual guardian, the bodhisattva of wisdom, Mañjushrî. In
his final chapter of Dedication, his final acknowledgment before he completes his
magnificent poem is to the bodhisattva that transmitted the Dharma to him.

“And till, through Manjughosha’s perfect kindness, / I attain the ground of Perfect Joy, / May
I remember all my lives / And enter into the monastic state. / Thus may I abide, sustained / By
simple, ordinary fare. And in every life obtain / A dwelling place in perfect solitude” (The
Way of Bodhisattva, 10: 52 – 3).

The similarity found here is the liberation found within loneliness, through which a
monastic’s self-disclosure and resolve are witnessed by the presence of their subject of
devotion (Introduction to The Way of the Bodhisattva, 2006, p. 8). It indicates that the
presence of the Absolute is found more intensely in solitary devotion as opposed to other
environments of scattered attentions and desires. “The way of prayer brings us face to face
with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone” (Merton, 1996,
pp. 24 – 5). In the same way, Kunzang Pelden comments on the practice of confession that:

Shantideva, henceforth and for all his lives to come, makes a constant and
uninterrupted offering of his own body, which is so dear and necessary to him.
He begs the supreme heroes, the Buddha and Bodhisattvas… to accept him
completely and to adopt him as their own. Having thus become their respectful
subject in body, speech and mind, he pledges himself to fulfill their wishes.
[verse 9]… although he is himself still in samsara, he will work for the benefit
of others, undaunted by the suffering of existence. He promises to accomplish the
welfare and happiness of beings (Pelden, 2007, p. 69).

The intense devotion of Shantideva is why Brassard asserts there is no substantial difference
between devotion and meditation, nor are devotional practices a prerequisite for meditation
on emptiness (Brassard, 2000, p. 136). Consequently, it is important to note Shantideva’s idea
of approaching the sacred reality in relation to his vocation as a monk (The Way of
Bodhisattva, 2: 8 – 9). This is the shared vocation between monastics, and between Merton
and Shantideva in particular: to draw closer to transcendence amidst all the facets of
aloneness they experience.

Solitude ultimately culminates in self-loss. For Anne Carr, self-loss means the loss of the
deluded self that believes itself to be separate from and independent of other people or God
(Carr, 1988, p. 125). Ultimately, she stresses that the outcome of this shared overcoming of
the false self is found in the theological level of the Christian mystical tradition, or the
metaphysical level in Buddhist Nirvana (Carr, 1988, p. 125). This is a powerful and
significant statement, and one that would radically change one’s understanding of the
religious experience, should one agree with it. At an extreme level, there may even occur a
re-evaluation of traditional understandings of comparative contemplation in meditation or
prayer. This is, however, treading the ground of speculation and is not the main thrust of this
essay. It is enough to have established that the experiential facets of the solitary dimension
runs deep in both masters and that they hold important significance currently not recognized.


In this paper’s introduction and its overview of the contemplative dimensions, it was
emphasized that detachment and solitude are common rubrics shared by Merton and
Shantideva according to the definitions of monasticism that Merton initially set the scene of
dialogue with. These definitions are: a “detachment from the concerns of worldly life and a
monastic solitude,” a “preoccupation with the inner depth of one’s religious beliefs,” the
experimental “ground” of those beliefs, and a “deepening of consciousness toward a
discovery of a transcendent dimension of life beyond that of the ordinary empirical self and
of ethical and pious observance” (“Marxism and Monastic Perspectives:” talk delivered at
Bangkok on December 10, 1968 from Merton, 1974, pp. 326 – 343, and Notes for a paper to
have been delivered at Calcutta, October 1968 in Merton, 1974, p. 309 – 310). It has been
demonstrated that the common ground between Merton and Shantideva correspond directly
to these demarcations of dialogue, and that through the contemplative dimensions, these
spiritual masters indeed share deep and multifaceted religious ideas that are robustly in

In this conclusion, it is ideal to summarize the rubrics to clarify their significance in

abandoning falsehood and discovering a transcendent consciousness. The dimension of
detachment has already been defined as the inner distancing of oneself from things
unbeneficial or harmful to the spiritual path, leading to different aspects of renunciation at
play in the monastic life. The first quality that Merton and Shantideva share is their deliberate
and systematic disassociation from the “bread and circuses of society” (Merton) or “childish
company” (Shantideva). This is followed by a subsequent renunciation of falseness, in all its
forms, towards oneself and in relation to others. From this detachment, the practical
dimension of solitude becomes the rubric that dismantles the artificial barriers that keep the
individual from communion with his or her fellow sentient beings. The ground shared by
Merton and Shantideva consists of the acknowledgment of the aloneness of death and its
confrontation of the fundamental absurdity of the deluded self, which is the beginning point
of the liberation from this falsehood that results in a transformation of consciousness. The
presence of the Absolute is also approached and discovered within solitude, so that by
withdrawing from the world, one may serve it better.

In this dialogue, the two spiritual masters communicate to two spheres: to the sphere of the
religious monastic, and to the sphere of the pious practitioner: a believer who, while not
necessarily a monastic, has been drawn into these deeper dimensions of religion in order to
devote herself to her faith more authentically. From the Christian perspective, Merton
expresses beautifully the importance of contemplation as a mark of the fully mature spiritual
life (Merton, 1976, p. 12). It is the summit of life, the perfection of love, knowledge, and the
sudden, intuitive penetration of what really is – or who really is (1976, pp. 9 – 10). The
significance of contemplation’s role in providing dimensions of authentic and honest spiritual
maturity can never be underestimated. This is a shared reality in Buddhist and Christian
monasticism, from which some of the most subtle and complex teachings of the two
traditions emerge.

It is important to understand that the detached and solitary dimensions are not the only means
of rapport between Merton and Shantideva. There currently exists what I would identify as an
“affinity of absence.” A crucial difference between the two writers that has become more
pronounced after this study is that they both lack certain dimensions, and these dimensions
can be opened or at least proposed in their religious traditions on the basis of this harmonious
dialogue. For example, as I explained earlier in the paper, the writing of Shantideva lacks a
prophetic dimension. The ideas of Merton, which address the most urgent issues of the
modern age, place great weight on the righteousness of the prophetic tradition and its timeless
protests against the world’s injustices. He wrote and advised things that were, in many
senses, intimate to the entire Christian story and beyond. His powerful reflections on healing
the wounds of injustice can bring out a new emphasis of Shantideva’s compassion to the
forefront of Buddhist practice.

At the same time, however, Merton saw in Buddhism a deep dimension of self-awareness that
was missing in the American Christianity of his time. It was apparent that while he remained
true to the Catholic tradition, he identified many things that were wrong with the American
Catholicism of his culture, and did not hesitate to criticize these shortcomings in his writing
(Cunningham, 1999, p. 198). The experience of American Christianity, for him, had not only
become the experience of an Anglo-Saxon, Western, imperialistic “civilizing” culture, with
structures that were Christian in name only (Merton, 1976, p. 106), but of a perverse
phenomenon of a deplorable cult of modern idols (1968, p. 202). He lamented Americans’
lack of spiritual and Christlike awareness in the same way he lamented the stereotypes of the
only practice that could liberate them from their complacent ignorance: “Why do we think of
the gift of contemplation… as something essentially strange and esoteric reserved for a small
class of almost unnatural beings and prohibited for everyone else?” (Merton, 1975, p. 95). He
wrote frequently of contemplation in a world that had lost control, and much of it was
directed against what he saw as prejudices, contradictions, confusion and violence in
American society. He believed that the Christian mind of his day needed more sources of
nourishment, expansion, and education. This may have partly contributed to his expanded
appreciation of non-Catholic forms of Christianity and non-Christian religions, and such an
expanded appreciation was the foundation for a heightened consciousness of common
experiential dimensions. It can be recalled that he greatly admired two Buddhists, D.T.
Suzuki and Thich Nhat Hahn, whose dialogue with Christianity uncovered for them their own
interesting parallels in religious experience, such as the resonance of mindfulness with the
Christian vocabulary of the purity of heart (Cunningham, 1999, p. 150). He saw in Zen
experience a crucial rubric of self-awareness that transcended Buddhist doctrines and that
could be realized in Christian thought. As the rubrics of detachment and solitude
demonstrated, the contemplation of Shantideva offers dimensions of self-awareness that are
different in emphases to Zen, and can offer new perspectives to the deeper psychological
depths already discovered in Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

In summarizing, Merton already shares the contemplative dimensions of detachment and

solitude with Shantideva, but Shantideva’s monasticism can benefit from a “prophetic”
dimension whilst the conventionally unfamiliar tradition of Christian contemplation benefits
from a dimension of “self-awareness.” These unique rubrics can undoubtedly form the basis
for continued dialogue between Merton and Shantideva, and from what this paper has

hopefully demonstrated, the possibilities seem promising indeed. Contemplation remains
significant to the authenticity and life of religious practice, and within the dimensions of
detachment and solitude, there blossoms a legitimate, powerful and urgent call to dismantle
the falsehood and delusions that authentic religions seek to shatter. Merton and Shantideva
both refer to this as the attainment of a superior human potential. Coming full circle back to
the Buddhist and Christian interfaith premises of this dialogue, it is the monastic
contemplative’s task in the world to articulate this level of reality that is not merely a
healthier psychological state, but an inner transformation and deepening of consciousness
(Merton, 1974, pp. 309 – 310).


List of works by Shāntideva and Madhyamaka Buddhism

Shāntideva (2006) The Way of the Bodhisattva. Trans. Padmakara Translation Group. Boston,
London: Shambhala

Shantideva (1971) Siksha-samuccaya: A Compendium of Buddhist Doctrine. Translated from

the Sanskrit by Cecil Bendall and W.H.D. Rouse. Bungalow Road, Delhi: Motilal

List of works by Thomas Merton

- (1941 – 1952) Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and a Writer (The Journals, Vol. 2).
San Francisco: Harper

- (1955) No Man is an Island. London: Hollis and Carter

- (1956, 1958) Thoughts in Solitude. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

- (1957) Seeds of Contemplation. London: Burns and Oates

- (1957) The Silent Life. New York: Farrar, Staus and Cudahy

- (1961) Disputed Questions. Originally published in 1953. London: Hollis and Carter

- (1964) Seeds of Destruction. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

- (1967) Mystics and Zen Masters. New York: Farrar, Staus and Cudahy

- (1968) Zen and the Birds of Appetite. New York: New Directions

- (1968) Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Indiana:
University of Notre Dame Press

- (1973) Contemplation in a World of Action. Gordon City, New

York: Image Books

- (1974) The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, e.d. Naomi Burton, Brother
Patrick Hart and James Laughlin. London: Sheldon Press

- (1975) Spiritual Direction and Meditation and What is Contemplation?.

Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire: Anthony Clarke

- (1976) The New Man. London: Burns and Oates

- (1978) Seven Storey Mountain. New York: Harcourt Brace

- (1985) Love and Living. San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt Brace

- (1989) Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Fifth Avenue, New York: Image

Books, Doubleday

- (1996) Contemplative Prayer. Broadway, New York: Doubleday

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Beyer, Stephan (1974) The Buddhist Experience: Sources and Interpretations. Encino,
California and Belmont, California: Dickenson Publishing Company, Inc.

Brassad, Francis (2000) The Concept of Bodhicitta in Santideva’s Bodhicaryavatara. Albany:

State University of New York Press

Clayton, Barbara (2005) Moral Theory in Shantideva’s Siksasamuccaya: Cultivating the

Fruits of Virtue. Madison Avenue, New York: Routledge

Carr, Anne E. (1988) A Search for Wisdom and Spirit: Thomas Merton’s Theology of the
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