Thomas Merton is a
Catholic monk and mystic who, perhaps more than anyone else in
the 20th century, is associated with opening up a dialog between
the spiritual traditions of East and West. He himself studied
many Eastern spiritual practices deeply, particularly Zen
Buddhist meditation and philosophy.
He is best known today for his essays on the spiritual life,
especially his first book, The Seven Storey Mountain, but he was
also a gifted poet. Many of his later poems reflect his own
There is no
where in you a paradise that is no place and there
You do not enter except without a story.
To enter there is to become unnameable.
Whoever is nowhere is nobody, and therefore cannot exist
except as unborn:
No disguise will avail him anything
Such a one is neither lost nor found.
But he who has an address is lost.
They fall, they fall into apartments and are securely
They find themselves in streets. They are licensed
To proceed from place to place
They now know their own names
They can name several friends and know
Their own telephones must some time ring.
If all telephones ring at once, if all names are shouted
at once and all cars crash at one crossing:
If all cities explode and fly away in dust
Yet identities refuse to be lost. There is a name and a
number for everyone.
There is a definite place for bodies, there are pigeon
holes for ashes:
Such security can business buy!
Who would dare to go nameless in so secure a universe?
Yet, to tell the truth, only the nameless are at home in
They bear with them in the center of nowhere the unborn
flower of nothing:
This is the paradise tree. It must remain unseen until
words end and arguments are silent.
This poem by
Thomas Merton shows his profound understanding of the
inner meanings of Zen tradition. What does Merton mean
when he talks about being "nameless" and
To be "nameless" is a state experienced by many
deep mystics, and it is particularly emphasized in
nondualist traditions, like Zen. In ecstatic communion,
the mind subsides so completely that the ego, the
"I"-sense, thins or fades out completely. The
bliss that results is a profound awareness of witnessing
life everywhere, but with no "me," no witness.
You could say that there is still a point of perception,
but no perceiver.
This radical state is the loss of your name. How can you
have a name when there is no "you" there? What
is there to be named? A name is a reference to an object
with an identifiable form -- but you have become
formless, unnameable! A chair is named a
"chair" only so long as it has the form of a
chair; but if the object flowed naturally through all
possible patterns and forms without stopping on one
shape, could you still call it a chair? Of course not. It
has lost its identity with a single form, it has lost its
"apartment," its fixed address, and therefore
cannot be named.
Yet, surprisingly, it is the "nameless who are at
home" in the universe. In identifying with a single
and limited sense of "me," the little self
rejects the vast majority of existence. Through being
nameless, we find all things within ourselves. There is
no other way to be at home in the universe.
Having no "apartment" that the ego can call
home, we find "the center of nowhere" within
ourselves. Having no fixed "me" with a start
and an end, we become the "unborn flower of
nothing" -- that is, unborn and not trapped by
Often this sort of description sounds rather bleak or
negative, but it is not. It is a source of indescribable
joy and freedom. It is truly the "paradise
tree." In settling into this state, the
"world" -- the experience of the exterior
environment as separate, an agitated projection of the
ego -- stops or "ends." Perception continues --
it is enhanced! -- but it is no longer of an exterior
world; everything is seen as being within, a part of
one's Self. This is only truly known, however, when the
mind settles, when "words end and arguments are
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
to speak your
to the living walls.
Who are you?
are you? Whose
silence are you?
Who (be quiet)
are you (as these stones
are quiet). Do not
think of what you are
still less of
what you may one day be.
be what you are (but who?)
be the unthinkable one
you do not know.
O be still, while
you are still alive,
and all things live around you
speaking (I do not hear)
to your own being,
speaking by the unknown
that is in you and in themselves.
I will try, like them
to be my own silence:
and this is difficult. The whole
world is secretly on fire. The stones
burn, even the stones they burn me.
How can a man be still or
listen to all things burning?
How can he dare to sit with them
when all their silence is on fire?