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I’m not sure when I first met Tom Merton. It was probably in the middle of my college years at Columbia. Merton had graduated a few years before (1938), but as a part-time English instructor and half-serious graduate student he continued to hang out with other former and current editors of Jester, the College humor magazine, in their office on the fourth floor of John Jay Hall. The “Jester crowd” included the poet Robert Lax; Robert Gerdy, later an editor at the New Yorker; and Edward Rice, who created Jubilee magazine. Robert Giroux went on to the publisher Farrar, Straus and later published Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain . This lively, fun-loving crowd liked to clown around in John Jay and do “stunts” they could write about in Jester. We shared a strong enthusiasm for the jazz then thriving in nearby Harlem at the Apollo Theater and the Savoy Ballroom, in midtown at the Roseland, and in the Village at Nick’s. The college quad echoed to the jazz emanating from Rice’s phonograph in the first floor of Livingston Hall.

I was of a somewhat different sort—active in the Debate Council and later one of its presidents, and active also in student government. In that connection it was Bob Gerdy, leader of the Fusion Party and my political mentor, who listed me on the Jester masthead even though I did not actually write for it.

In this group what probably recommended me as a freak along with the other Jester clowns was the fact that I studied Chinese, one of just two undergraduates in a Chinese-language class that included two missionaries, the singer Paul Robeson, and a German spy who used her studies at Columbia as a cover for her espionage. Columbia was one of the few American colleges that offered Chinese in the 1930s. It was only much later that Merton got around to studying Chinese—and then mostly the mystics.

Whether Merton’s interest in Asian religions arose from an ecumenical impulse is a real question. He did not pay much attention to the distinctive characteristics of other religions in their ritual, doctrinal, ecclesiastical, or social forms, nor did he engage them too much on levels other than the contemplative. In the introduction to the Japanese edition of his The New Man , his first words bespeak his singular focus: “You must be born again.”

Merton goes on to explain: “These mysterious and challenging words of Jesus Christ reveal the inner meaning of Christianity as life and dynamism.” More than that, by Merton’s way of thinking, spiritual rebirth is the key to the aspirations of all the “higher religions,” as he calls them. “Man seeks to be liberated from mere natural necessity,” Merton writes, explaining the spiritual dynamic that made the “higher religions” so attractive to him, “from servitude to fertility and the seasons, from the round of birth, growth, and death. Man is not content with being a slave to need: making a living, raising a family, and leaving a good name to his posterity. There is in the depths of man’s heart a voice that says: ‘You must be born again.’”

There can be little doubt that being reborn is central to the theme of crucifixion and resurrection in Christianity, and Merton goes on to explain how this theme can be understood in the religions he puts into the “higher” category. They are defined by their supernatural character, their capacity for spiritual freedom from the limits of natural life, something achieved in most cases through a meditative or contemplative practice along the lines that Merton had very early committed himself to as a Trappist monk.

The criteria by which religions qualify among the “higher” ones are already prefigured in some of the titles of his books: Seeds of Contemplation , and especially The Ascent to Truth. To his mind, Hinduism and Buddhism fit this pattern, as do Judaism and Islam, all of which have a contemplative, upward thrust. Among the “higher” religions of Asia, however, and the major systems of Asian thought, there is one striking omission: Confucianism.

One could explain this as simply a matter of definitions. Many people think of Confucianism as a worldly or secular teaching, merely a social ethic. Indeed there are some grounds for this insofar as Confucianism does not fit the conventional notion of religion as a cult of devotional worship in the Indo-European or Semitic mold. But that is not enough to explain Merton’s failure to consider Confucianism among the traditions he refers to approvingly as the “higher religions.”

In Merton’s case there is at least one particular circumstance that led him to turn away from Confucianism rather than engage it as he did other Asian religions: his obsession with the evils of “modernity.” The world he sought to liberate himself from was a world of modernization—thoroughly corrupted by industrialization, capitalism, and war. His revulsion at the modern world provided a powerful incentive for him to turn toward a life of contemplation, a turn that he saw as the common characteristic of the “higher religions.” This same characteristic he did not recognize in Confucianism, however. It did not measure up to his lofty, liberating ideal.

Indeed, Merton saw much of Confucianism as devoted to satisfying those “natural necessities” and worldly entanglements”“making a living, raising a family, leaving a good name”—from which Merton says we should be liberated. In this respect Merton anticipated the Beats, who followed him at Columbia, “beaten” by a corrupt world and driven by revulsion at it into revolt and escape.

It is directly against this predicament of modern man and modern society that Merton poses the need for a radical spiritual transformation. He found parallels in Asian religions that put spiritual liberation ahead of the impulse to reform society. One can understand then why, for him, Confucianism failed to qualify as a higher religion: It sees self-improvement as integrally bound up with this-worldly social obligation and social melioration. Spiritual or religious transformation remains intertwined with social existence.

In judging Confucianism in this way, Merton was not unaware of the prominence of Confucianism among the major Chinese traditions. He knew that Confucianism is widely referred to both in China and abroad as among the “Three Teachings” (san jiao) of China, often referred to as the “Three Religions of China,” a formulation that accentuates the links between Confucianism and Daoism and Buddhism, thus cutting against his own inclination to identify an essential spiritual difference between “higher religions” and more worldly ones.

Although Merton’s writings on the whole have little to say about Confucianism, in a short section in Mystics and Zen Masters he does attempt to deal with this seeming contradiction. There he refers to major Confucian texts under the headings of “The Great Traditions of China” and “The Sources of Classical Thought.” It’s an approach that accords with his general tendency to disembody and spiritualize religious realities.

Speaking of “Confucian humanism” as found in these classic texts, he says: “The foundation of the Confucian system is first of all the human person and then his relations with other persons in the society,” and “Confucianism is therefore a humanist and personalist doctrine, and this humanism is religious and sacred.” He continues in an appreciative vein: “Confucianism is not just a set of formalistic devotions which have been loosely dismissed as ‘ancestor worship.’ The Confucian system of rites was meant to give full expression to that natural and humane love which is the only guarantee of peace and security in society.” For Merton, the true and essential Confucianism as seen in the Analects and Mencius “continued to be the most vital and effective spiritual force in China.”

In view of this positive assessment, one naturally asks, why did or does Confucianism not rank among the “higher religions”? Why does it not stand on a par with the other two of the Three Teachings: Daoism and Buddhism? Merton does not address this question directly, but we get clues along the way as to how, despite this enduring, vital essence of Confucianism as seen in the classics, the teaching, in Merton’s view, came to be vitiated by powerful decadent forces.

As I say, we get only clues, not a full explanation, but these clues fall into a pattern. Explaining the unification of China by the totalitarian Legalist movement, a crucial historical development in the third century b.c. , Merton says that it “brought the most vital and productive age of Chinese thought to a close and perhaps did more than anything else to create a society that would guarantee the formalization and even the ossification of Chinese thought for centuries to come. At any rate by the third century the really great development of Chinese philosophy ceased.”

In this way, Merton explains the increasing decadence of Confucianism in terms of external forces and circumstances, the influences of worldliness, if you will. But Merton also hints that Confucianism itself acquiesced in or succumbed to this process of ossification when the Confucian ideal that had been basically personalistic yielded to “the rigid formalism of Confucian ethics and became, over two thousand years, a suffocating system.” All was not lost. Some aspects of the earlier humanism remained. “In spite of this corruption, the iniquity, and the perversion of human nature that were able to flourish in this climate of official cynicism,” Merton writes, Confucian “scholars . . . remained untouched by what was around them and the Confucian tradition remained pure.”

What are we to make of these contrasts: an original integrity, two thousand years of decadence and a suffocating system, and yet a surviving purity? I believe what Merton means is that the institutionalized forms of Confucianism, especially as sponsored by the state, were corrupted, and yet individual Confucians, drawing directly on the inspiration of surviving classics, remained true to the original teaching.

At this point one begins to wonder if Merton’s contradictory representation of Confucianism reflects not just the “facts” but some common assumptions in modern Western thought. One of these sees religions in general as tending to fall away from their original inspiration and succumbing to a process of inevitable corruption in the all-too-human hands of those who claim religious sanction for their own self-interested uses. Another tendency draws from this the further conclusion that organized religion is inherently corrupt as compared to personal “spiritualities” that rely on direct intuitive experience won through forms of contemplative practice that transcend religious dogma and sectarianism. Fortunately, we have more than suppositions to help us in arriving at a fair judgment of Merton’s background assumptions. A consistent juxtaposition between the social embodiment of religion and its spiritual truth characterizes many of the disparate thoughts collected under the upside-down umbrella of Merton’s Mystics and Zen Masters.

Merton reflects, for example, on the famous history of the Jesuits in China. Drawing mostly on the work of George H. Dunne, Merton credits the early Jesuit missionaries to China in the late-sixteenth, early-seventeenth centuries with a remarkable accommodation to Chinese culture, including most notably the sympathetic efforts of Matteo Ricci to achieve a genuine understanding of Confucianism.

Merton’s title, “The Jesuits in China,” rightly draws attention to the large contributions of the Jesuits as a group, including other Jesuits in China like Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1669) as well as those who performed similar adaptive missions elsewhere: Roberto DeNobile (1577–1656) in India and Andro Valignano (1539–1606) in Japan.

Spectacular as these cases were in their own settings, they should also be seen as an outgrowth of a fundamental impulse present from the founding of the Jesuit order. In the wake of the European Renaissance, the Society of Jesus from the start sought to harmonize Judeo-Christian piety with the classical culture of Greece and Rome then being revived. Among the Jesuits this embrace of the new humanism involved an essentially religious effort to draw the best out of the pagan wisdom of the culture in which Christianity originally flourished. It was not surprising, therefore, that the Jesuits in Asia produced distinctive results. They were not just adapting Christianity to native cultures but also contributed in creative ways to the revival of some of the essential elements in native philosophy and religion itself.

Ricci’s story is especially compelling. As the eminent German sinologist Wolfgang Franke put it: “Looking back with our present understanding of Chinese civilization of the late Ming period, we find it almost incredible that a foreigner”however well educated and intelligent he might be”without any previous knowledge of the Chinese language and civilization was able within less than twenty years to take up residence in the capital, become a prominent member of this society, make friends with a number of the most eminent scholar-officials of the time, and even convert some of them to his Christian faith.” Franke thought that Ricci’s cross-cultural virtuosity reflected an underlying humanism. “Ricci’s ingenious, gentle, and kindly nature conformed to the highest Chinese standards,” he writes. “It inclined him to appreciate and value the essence of Chinese culture. All in all Ricci may be considered the most outstanding cultural mediator of all times.”

It is strange that Ricci’s achievement did not give Merton pause. Ricci made an extraordinary and successful effort to learn and master classical Chinese. Simply as a missionary he would have had plenty to do just by learning vernacular Chinese so as to communicate with and convert ordinary people. But Ricci recognized the importance of educated Chinese leadership; he did not just dismiss or sidestep them. Yet this is exactly what Merton tends to do when he denigrates Confucian scholars: “All China, at least all the ruling class of China, was supposed in theory to be educated along Confucian lines, but many and not the least successful of Chinese statesmen were men who with the outward facade of Confucianism were inwardly either pedants, rigid and heartless conformists, or unprincipled crooks.”

Ricci himself could easily have taken Confucianism at this low level and used it to his own advantage in converting people from debased forms of Confucianism to an unsullied Christianity. As a Renaissance man, however, he was disposed to take the classical Chinese tradition at its best and attempt to reconcile Confucianism with Christianity at the highest level.

That Ricci succeeded can be attributed not only to his native generosity and openness of mind but also to a similar openness among the many Confucian scholars whom he sought to engage in active dialogue. Reciprocity was at work, not just solitary genius impressing itself on credulous others. And this openness on the part of Ricci’s Chinese partners (so much in contrast to Merton’s characterization of the Confucians as “rigid heartless pedants”) undoubtedly reflected something in the Confucians’ own background, which suggests to us that Merton’s routine characterizations of them are historically inaccurate. And not just inaccurate, but blind as well to the ways in which religion brings a humane dignity to everyday life.

But first to the history. The revival of Confucianism started in the eleventh century, usually called Neo-Confucianism because it was not only a revival of the old but a reformulation to meet new needs in China. In this period one does not find only a tired repetition of ancient platitudes by entrenched bureaucrats, but rather a concerted response to the challenges of a new situation.

The eleventh-century impulse toward reformulation arose from the challenges facing the new Song dynasty. After years of civil war, society needed to be stablized and serious economic and social problems addressed. Hu Yuan (993–1059) was one of a generation of Confucian scholars who responded to this new need with his formula of “substance, function, and literate discourse.” By “substance” he meant enduring truths in the Confucian classics still relevant to the solution of contemporary problems (their “function” or “application”), and by “literate discourse” he meant the need for open, public discussion by which people could arrive at common agreement or consensus about solutions to their shared problems. The test of timeless truths was their adaptability to the needs of human society. These truths could be based on shared natural feelings, but they had to be expressible, communicable, or they would be ineffective for practical use. Indeed, it was precisely the otherworldly wordlessness of Lao Zi or the koans of Zen Buddhism that had proven ineffective during the rampant civil war and suffering that had prevailed in the ninth and tenth centuries, a time when Buddhism and Daoism were flourishing.

Politically, this new Confucian reform movement called for a “restoration of the ancient order” (understood of course in an idealized form), which was realized by putting forward the so-called New Laws or New System (Xin fa) of the statesman Wang An-shi (1021–1086). Although the success of this movement waxed and waned in time, its institutional ideals continued to inspire successive generations of new reformers. Among these ideals the most enduring (and also much fought over) was a new ideal of “classical” education based on a new curriculum.

By the end of the twelfth century this new curriculum was given definitive shape by the great Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi (1130–1200), who was no less an educator than a metaphysician, and who provided Confucianism with a curricular core that far outlasted and outdistanced the reformers’ limited success in achieving universal schooling. Despite the failure of at least nominal attempts to extend education to all levels of society in China, the new core curriculum made its way into different parts of East Asia, where it remained influential well into the twentieth century.

Zhu Xi’s core curriculum was defined by what were called The Four Books and Five Classics, of which the key and crucial components were The Great Learning, the Analects of Confucius, the text of Mencius, and The Mean . These texts were selected with great care from a much larger body of earlier literature, singled out for special attention by Zhu Xi. The Great Learning and The Mean , for example, were separate chapters drawn from a traditional classic known as the Record of Rites , a large collection of materials dealing with ritual under many diverse headings, both theoretical and practical. Zhu Xi, following up on an earlier trend among his Song predecessors, chose these passages because they provided a brief, compact formulation of the basics of all learning, capable of serving as a guide to one’s reading of the other classics. Indeed, Zhu Xi’s concise selection was so succinct and focused that it readily became the heart of a Neo-Confucian education. First adopted on the local level in Song private academies, next in the curriculum of the Imperial College, then in the civil-service examination system, ultimately it reached beyond the borders of China into the schools of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. In fact so manageable and memorable was this core formulation that it persisted even in the household instruction of many families not able to afford formal instruction.

The enormous influence of Zhu Xi’s “core curriculum” continues to be felt. In 1989 when the Chinese Communist regime reversed Mao’s anti-Confucian campaign (the Cultural Revolution), I was invited to speak on Confucianism at a state-sponsored celebration of Confucius’ birthday in Beijing. On that occasion I had a conversation with the president of the People’s Republic of China, Jiang Zemin, who fondly recalled his childhood education, before he became caught up in the Chinese Communist revolution, when his father instructed him at home in The Four Books. These homespun lessons stayed with him through the years and were no doubt part of the underlying sensibility that led Jiang, Deng Xiaoping, and other moderates to recoil from the excesses of Mao Zedong.

Thomas Merton ignored or did not know this history of the distillation of the ancient Chinese classics. So widely had The Four Books become accepted as the essential Confucian texts that, when Merton chose to talk about the Confucian classics in his Mystics and Zen Masters , he referred to these same core texts as representative of classic Chinese thought, calling them not the Four Books but “The Four Confucian Classics.” Classic texts they were indeed, but Merton reads them as speaking for the original, pure Confucianism, when in fact they were selections that provided the religious core for the later “corrupt” and “decadent” Confucianism that, as compared to Daoism and Buddhism, he so readily dismisses. He can appreciate these particular classics not as part of a historical culture but only because they speak to him personally and directly, amenable to his own form of higher spirituality.

Another new feature of Neo-Confucianism was its development of a method of contemplative practice (unacknowledged by Merton) to match Daoist and Zen meditation. It was called “quiet sitting” (jing zuo). Since this particular practice does not appear in the classical Confucianism of earlier periods, there cannot be much doubt that quiet sitting was adapted from something like Zhuangzi’s “sitting in forgetfulness,” a Daoist mode of meditation in which one seeks to “forget humaneness and rightness.” The Confucian rejoinder to Zhuangzi, given by Mencius, was that one should “neither forget [natural moral impulses] nor try to abet (or force) them willfully.” Neo-Confucians therefore associated this reformulated contemplative practice with a synthesizing holistic experience, an awareness of “the humaneness that forms one body (including the bodily feelings) with Heaven-and-Earth and all things.”

Quiet sitting became a widespread practice in Neo-Confucianism, accompanying the Four Books as they spread to the rest of East Asia. Some schools in Korea and Japan even considered it an orthodox practice. Though obviously it could not be part of any official examination “orthodoxy” that emphasized measurable objectivity, quiet sitting satisfied the more personal and subjective side of Confucian learning. Its place and status in the whole system is indicated by the fact that some of Zhu Xi’s predecessors went so far as to speak of “spending half the day in reading (study) and half in quiet sitting.” Zhu himself took a more balanced view, wondering how one could devote so much of one’s time to meditation and still meet essential social obligations.

In the main, Merton was unable to recognize that Neo-Confucianism sought a lasting synthesis of worldly with otherworldly concerns, very likely because he was committed to his own vision of spiritual rebirth and liberation. This is odd in light of the fact that Merton so strongly commends Ricci and the Jesuit mission to China, for Ricci exhibited a remarkable sympathy for the Confucian interweaving of worldly and spiritual concerns.

For example, Ricci translated into Chinese a version of Cicero’s De Amicitia in response to the ready interest shown by his Confucian colleagues in the fundamental and universal value of friendship. Ricci’s work of translation satisfied sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century Neo-Confucian scholars for whom human association and friendship were the key to “self-cultivation and human governance” (as Zhu Xi had put it), and at the same time it expressed the post-Renaissance religious humanism of Erasmus (1466?–1538) shared by Ricci and his Jesuit brothers.

From the circumstances of Ricci’s translation—both his impulse to make it and its happy Confucian reception—we can see how historical developments in both the West and China converged on an enduring universal value, that of friendship and the virtue of trust or trustworthiness it requires. From the Renaissance interest in Roman civility to Erasmus’ sixteenth-century religious humanism, and on to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, there was an unceasing focus on the important human elements in a civil society. This humanism appealed to sixteenth-century Neo-Confucians who, instead of simply succumbing to the corrupt, despotic tendencies referred to by Merton, were eager to learn from Ricci whatever he could bring from the West that would help them remain true to their principles of civility.

Merton’s lack of understanding of Confucianism is perhaps to be expected. He was, from the start, more of a poet than an historian. As a poet, he could commune with nature—earthly, human, and divine—but he would have had to be more of a historian and perhaps somewhat less of a pure contemplative in order to be brought truly “down to earth” in a Confucian sense. He was, moreover, a man who, like so many in the last century, felt spiritually imprisoned by the inevitable failures of society and desired a liberating transcendence. Of his contemplation of the monuments of archaic Buddhist civilization in Polonnaruwa, Merton wrote in Thoughts on the East : “I have now seen and pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise. This is Asia in its purity, not covered over with garbage, Asian, European, or American. It is clear, pure, complete.”

One should not, however, censure Merton too harshly for his neglect of the subtle nuances in the history and development of Confucianism. Few Confucians themselves were both good poets and historians. In any event, but for his premature death, he might well have caught up with the history—or better yet, since he was not out looking for it, history would probably have caught up with him.

Wm. Theodore de Bary is the John Mitchell Mason Professor and Provost Emeritus at Columbia University. His most recent book, Finding Wisdom in East Asian Classics, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.