Around and around the house the leaves fall thick—but never fast, for they come circling down with a dead lightness that is sombre and slow. Let the gardener sweep and sweep the turf as he will, and press the leaves into full barrows, and wheel them off, still they lie ankle-deep.
—Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Bleak House
This day, 1963:
The falling leaves, crowds of them, flying across the narrow novitiate lawn and the Zen garden (still unfinished – it needs the big rock). Last evening the sky was dark and it looked like rain, but they were only the “clouds without water” of Jude’s epistle. There was, after supper, a momentary violent wind and brief dust storm.
— Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Journals, October 28, 1963
My notes: My friend Tom Merton had organized the novice monks in his Catholic monastery in Kentucky to help him construct a Zen style rock garden on abbey grounds as early as 1963. He was already revealing his deep renewed interest in Asian spirituality in his reading, writing, and personal meditation practice. When he died (or was assassinated) in 1968, in Thailand, he was planning to journey on to Japan to study at Zen monasteries there.He had already just met with HH the Dalai Lama and several other Buddhist and Hindu teachers in India and Sri Lanka.
Previously, Father Merton had publicly announced his desire to join other American peace activists such as his friends Joan Baez, Fathers Dan and Phil Berrigan, and others such as Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, in volunteering as “hostages for peace” by staying in the North Vietnamese capital city of Hanoi, while it was under saturation bombing attacks by US jets flown by John McCain and others determined, in McCain’s phrase, to “kill all gooks!”
Many persons who were familiar with the events and situations of the time feel that the CIA assassinated Merton to silence his anti-war activities before he could travel to Hanoi, or offer further public resistance to the US war against the people of Southeast Asia. When Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, he was on his way to attend a retreat with Merton and other anti-war activists at Merton’s Kentucky hermitage. Both men were friends with Vietnamese Zen master and anti-war activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Merton was also a friend, confessor, and spiritual guide to the Robert Kennedy family. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June of ’68; by December of ’68, Tom Merton was dead also. Tom Hayden died just this Sunday.
“The teaching I am giving now is like the seasonable rain that gives moisture to the great Earth. Your buddha-natures are like the seeds that receiving this moisture can all sprout at once.” –Chinese Zen Patriarch Hui-Neng, 638-713.
‘Rain,’ as a metaphor, is very famous in Buddhism, especially in the Lotus Sutra.
When you go to California, and the autumn rain falls, all becomes green. In summer it is the most devastated of places. Everything is dry except for the little plants and the little poppies in the sand. But when autumn comes, all is green again. I saw it in California, and it is the same in China. In Southern China, in summer, everything dries up and dies in the tropical heat. Rain falls upon the mountains, the rivers, the fields, the sea. It transforms into willow trees, leaves, and green vegetation of all kinds. It enters the water jar of the house, gets into your rouge, or your ink, into many things. But originally, the shower that fell from heaven was just one shower, though it appears in many ways.
“Your buddha-natures are like the seeds that receiving this moisture can all sprout at once.” In summer under the hot sun, the seeds are sleeping—a beautiful metaphor! But under the moistening autumn rain the seed will sprout. If you have no seeds in your mind, nothing sprouts even though it rains. The seed is this concentration in one place, in one deed, to make all deeds one deed.
The ordinary person is like a bird in a cage that has lost its freedom. He sees blue, red, and green, but he never thinks about why this is blue, red, and green. Like the child who asks his mother, “Why is this red?” and the mother answers, “Because it’s red, my dear!” It doesn’t bother him that his mother does not explain it. He never thinks any deeper. He never realizes that color is the vibration of ether, and that sound is the vibration of air. In meditation, you can escape from this cage of delusion; and from it, you can observe everything.
–Sokei-an Roshi (1882-1945)
My Notes: As a young Japanese Zen monk, artist, and anti-militarist, Sokei-an had come to the US, where he wandered afoot from San Francisco to New York City, camping, meditating, and doing farm work. After some years as a Bohemian artist, poet, and dancer in Greenwich Village, he completed his Zen teacher training and established a Zen Center in NYC (which is still active). Some more connections: Sokei-an Roshi, together with his friends Dr. D.T.Suzuki and my own first Zen teacher Nyogen Senzaki, had been fellow students of the same Zen master. Thomas Merton and Dr. Suzuki were friends.