"Zen enriches no one," Thomas Merton provocatively writes in his opening statement toZen and the Birds of Appetite--one of the last books to be published before his death in 1968. "There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while... but they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the 'nothing,' the 'no-body' that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey." This gets at the humor, paradox, and joy that one feels in Merton's discoveries of Zen during the last years of his life, a joy verymuch present in this collection of essays. Exploring the relationship between Christianity and Zen, especially through his dialogue with the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki, the book makes an excellent introduction to a comparative study of these two traditions, as well as giving the reader a strong taste of the mature Merton. Never does one feel him losing his own faith in these pages; rather one feels that faith getting deeply clarified and affirmed. Just as the body of "Zen" cannot be found bythe scavengers, so too, Merton suggests, with the eternal truth of Christ.
A trappist monk once told that Merton would not have stayed in the Catholic church if he had not died. I don't know about that, but reading this and the Asian Journals gives an interesting picture of a man whose intelligence had a wide scope, and whose piety (that is a good word) an even wider scope.
While most of the book elucidates Zen philosophy and relates it to western Christian thinking, a chapter on Zen and art rounds things out nicely. For anyone interested in Zen or Christianity this book will definitely be of interest. It has, in my opinion, the added benefit of pointing out the many parallels between Christian mystical and ascetic practices and Zen without confounding or conflating them.
That said, Merton's account of a Zen Catholicism nonetheless remains a powerful vision of what a (completely orthodox, and perhaps at times too completely orthodox) Christian theological praxis centered on mysticism might look like--and has looked like over the ages, as Merton provides an extensive (if not quite comprehensive) overview of Catholic mysticism throughout history, and discuses how their insights fall in line with what he understands Zen to be. I stand convinced that there is even more need for Merton's (and the Saints') brand of experiential Zen Catholicism today, in an era when the modernist systematic theology and premodern superstition inherent in other forms of Christianity no longer speak to our postmodern times, then when Merton was writing half a century ago.
And while Merton's Zen Catholicism is focused on personal experience, it does not fall prey to the sort of radical individualism (ultimately narrowly focused on personal sin and individul salvation) which riddles and plagues Protestantism. Instead, the Church itself is able to play a key role both as the mystic Body of Christ and as the source of the Sacraments. Merton recognizes that "faith is the door to the full inner life of the Church, a life which includes not only access to an authoritative teaching but above all to a deep personal experience which is at once unique and yet shared by the whole Body of Christ, in the Spirit of Christ."
This book did and does much to confirm, deepen, and enrich my understanding of the rightful place of mysticism and mystic experience at the very center of Christianity (and, in particular, my own brand of liberal Anglo-Catholicism).