Merton was born in Prades, France, on 31 January 1915, though his father came from New Zealand and his mother from the US, the two having met at art school in Paris. After the family moved to the US, Thomas’s mother bore a second son, but then she died when Thomas was only six. Thereafter, he was moved around a lot during his childhood (the US, France and the UK), and was often separated from his father.
Abbot Frederic Dunne encouraged the young Frater Louis, as he was known in the monastery, to translate works from the Cistercian tradition and to write historical biographies to make the order better known. He also urged him to write his autobiography, published in 1948 as The Seven Storey Mountain. This became a best-seller and remains a classic of the genre.
In the 1960s, Merton became increasingly political and a strong supporter of the civil rights movement. His writings on the subject triggered frequent criticism, especially from other Catholics. He also became interested in Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue. This led to him being praised by the Dalai Lama, and then to meeting him on a tour to Asia in 1968. Tragically, Merton died during that journey - as a result of an accidental electrocution. Further information can be found from Wikipedia, the Abbey of Gethsemani, The Thomas Merton Center, New Directions, or Catholic Answers.
Merton kept a diary for much of his life, especially after entering the Abbey of Gethsemani. However, he did not publish a first selection of diary entries until 1953, when Harcourt, Brace and Co. brought out The Sign of Jonas. The diary extracts were written between 1946 and 1952, and the book’s purpose was to introduce readers to the daily life of a monk. A further selection from Merton’s diary - pre-Gethsemani and before he was a Catholic or a monk - followed in 1959, published by Dell Publishing, entitled The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton. No further diaries were published in his lifetime (although Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander in 1966 was composed from notebook jottings), and it would not be until the 1990s that all his diaries were put into a print, in a seven volume series. This started with Run to the Mountain - The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume One 1939-1941, and concluded with The Other Side of the Mountain, The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Seven 1967-1968. Both books can be previewed at Amazon (one and seven).
However, the very last diary Merton kept, during his fatal trip to Asia, was published by New Directions, as a stand alone volume, much earlier, in 1973 -
The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton was edited by Naomi Burton, Brother Patrick Hart and James Laughlin, from three separate notebooks kept by Merton. Much of the book can be read online at Googlebooks, and a detailed review can be found at The Healing Project. In his ‘Editor’s Notes’, Laughlin explains how Merton kept a ‘public’ journal which he intended for publication, a ‘private’ journal, largely duplicating the first but with occasional intimate notes and spiritual self-analyses, and a small ‘pocket notebook’ in which he jotted quick and immediate notes. According to instructions left behind by Merton, only the first - the public journal - was to be published, and no one other than his authorised biographer was to have access to the private journal.
The editors also explain how editing Merton’s diary was a complicated business, since he wrote quickly, guessing at spelling, using other languages, and missing out many verbs and connecting words. Taking as their guide the journals published in his own lifetime, however, they polished and edited the text into sentences: ‘Readers will judge for themselves our degree of success or failure in this effort to identify and produce a known style by comparison with such earlier journals as The Sign of Jonas or Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.’ The book concludes with a generous spread of appendices - lectures and letters to friends - and a long glossary, a detailed bibliography and an index.
24 September 1968
‘At the far end of a long blue arm of water, full of islands. The bush pilot flies low over the post office thinking it to be the Catholic Church - to alert the priest we are arriving.
The old town of Valdez, wrecked by earthquake, tidal wave. Still some buildings leaning into shallow salt water. Others, with windows smashed by a local drunkard. I think I have lost the roll of film I took in Valdez & the mountains (from the place).
Most impressive mountains I have seen in Alaska: Drum & Wrangell & the third great massive one whose name I forget, rising out of the vast birchy plain of Copper Valley. They are sacred & majestic mountains, ominous, enormous, noble, stirring. You want to attend to them. I could not keep my eyes off them. Beauty & terror of the Chugach. Dangerous valleys. Points. Saws. Snowy nails.
19 October 1968
‘The situation of the tourist becomes ludicrous and impossible in a place like Calcutta. How does one take pictures of these streets with the faces, the eyes, of such people, and the cows roaming among them on the sidewalks and buzzards by the score circling over the main streets in the “best” section? Yet the people are beautiful. But the routine of the beggars is heart-rending. The little girl who suddenly appeared at the window of my taxi, the utterly lovely smile with which she stretched out her hand, and then the extinguishing of the light when she drew it back empty. I had no Indian money yet. She fell away from the taxi as if she were sinking in water and drowning, and I wanted to die. I couldn’t get her out of my mind. Yet when you give money to one, a dozen half kill themselves running after your cab. This morning one little kid hung on to the door and ran whining beside the cab in traffic while the driver turned around and made gestures as if to beat him away. [. . .] Calcutta is shocking because it is all of a sudden a totally different kind of madness, the reverse of that other madness, the mad rationality of affluence and overpopulation. America seems to make sense, and is hung up in its madness, now really exploding. Calcutta has the lucidity of despair, of absolute confusion, of vitality helpless to cope with itself. Yet undefeatable, expanding without and beyond reason but with nowhere to go. [. . .]
A sign in Calcutta: “Are you worried? Refresh yourself with cigars.” ’
24 October 1968
‘A visit to the Narendrapur-Ramakrishna Mission Ashram. College, agricultural school, poultry farm, school for the blind, and orphanage. Ponds, palms, a water tower in a curious style, a monastic building, and guesthouse. Small tomato and cucumber sandwiches, flowers, tea. We drove around in a a dark green Scout. Villages. Three big, blue buffaloes lying in a patch of purple, eating the flowers. Communists arguing under a shelter. Bengali inscriptions on every wall; they have an extraordinary visual quality. Large and small cows. Goats, calves, millions of children.
The Temple of Understanding Conference has been well organised considering the problems which developed. It could not be held in Darjeeling, as planned, because of the floods. Instead it has been put on at the Birla Academy in South Calcutta. It is more than half finished now. I spoke yesterday morning, but did not actually follow my prepared text. There were good papers by two rabbis, one from New York and one from Jerusalem, and by Dr. Wei Tat, on the I Ching. Also by Sufis, Jains and others.’
8 November 1968, Dharamsala
‘My third interview with the Dalai Lama was in some ways the best. He asked a lot of questions about Western monastic life, particularly the vows, the rule of silence, the ascetic way, etc. But what concerned him most was: 1) Did the “vows” have any connection with a spiritual transmission or initiation? 2) Having made vows, did the monks continue to progress along a spiritual way, toward and eventual illumination, and what were the degrees of that progress? And supposing a monk died without having attained to perfect illumination? What ascetic methods were used to help purify the mind of passions? He was interested in the “mystical life,” rather than in external observance. [. . .]
I asked him about the question of Marxism and monasticism, which is to be the topic of my Bangkok lecture. He said that from a certain point of view it was impossible for monks and Communists to get along, but that perhaps it should not be entirely impossible if Marxism meant only the establishment of an equitable economic and social structure. Also there was perhaps some truth in Marx’s critique of religion in view of the fact that religious leaders had so consistently been hand in glove with secular power. Still, on the other hand, militant atheism did in fact strive to suppress all forms of religion, good or bad.
Finally, we got into a rather technical discussion of mind, whether as consciousness, prajna and dhyana, and the relation of prajna to sunyata. [. . .]
It was a very warm and cordial discussion and at the end I felt we had become very good friends and were somehow quite close to one another.’
1 December 1968, Kandy
‘It is hardly like any December or Advent I have ever known! A clear, hot sky. Flowering trees. A day coming. I woke at the sound of many crows fighting in the air. Then the booming drum at the Temple of Buddha’s Tooth. Now, the traffic of buses and a cool breeze sways the curtains. The jungle is very near, it comes right to the top of the city and is visible a bare hundred yards from this window. Yet I am on a very noisy corner as far as traffic is concerned!’
The Diary Junction