On Merton’s Snow and Watt’s Potatoes


“your heart is my hermitage” – thomas merton

one of the most profound beauties in merton’s spiritual journey is his progression from a spirituality of “the” heart as a general proposition in the abstract, to that of “my” heart as an inward journey, and from there to a more decisive dialogical stage in which the pointing shifts towards “your” heart. merton viewed buber’s i and thou spirituality as both a challenge to “the hollowness and falsity of my life” as well as a spiritual practice in which “my business is to verify buber’s with my own”. in other words, morton compared his own monastic spiritual path with that of dialogical spirituality wanting to draw an existential confirmation from it.

i read the following passage: “thomas merton once compared the spiritual life to the search for a path in a field of untrodden snow: ‘walk across the snow and there is your path”. it is similar to the poet machado who spoke of walking and leaving our footsteps on the sea waters, or zen speaking of a flock of birds flying across the sky and leaving traces in the air. these are the beautiful images of zen’s traceless trace. the subtle differences between gentle disappearing traces, and complete tracelesness.

but without interpreting the actual imagery itself, i want to reflect on merton by focusing on the term “compared”. for merton, the spiritual life did not actually compare to walking across a snowy path. for merton the spiritual life is the walking across a snowy path. spirituality cannot be compared to anything because merton’s was the whole-being spirituality of what is, as is. or in zen’s terms “this is it” and there is nothing else by “this”. for merton all there is is spiritual and therefore there is nothing outside of the spirit to compare it with. there is no spirit-matter dualistic dichotomy, it is life in the wholeness of its dialogical being.

merton felt connected to zen in many different ways, and this understanding of the spiritual realm as being the phenomenon itself is basic zen. alan watts famously said that zen does not confuse spirituality with peeling potatoes and thinking of god, but spirituality is the act of peeling the potatoes. the potato “is it”. this is the distinction watts, merton and buber made between religion and religiosity, that is, between formal belief-institutions on the one hand, and the spirituality of the dialogue with being in the here and now on the other. for this type of spiritual practice, the phenomenology itself, the potato, the snow, constitutes the whole-being of what exists. there is nothing behind, above or within the phenomenon itself, what is, is, and it is that awareness of the presentness of being in the ordinary here and now that constitutes the whole of the mind of enlightenment.

merton, as is the case with watts and with buber, does not argue for “spiritual conductivity”. this is the belief that some beings are not, in-their own selves, spiritually complete, and therefore, themselves, could never serve as true watts potatoes or a merton snowy paths. at best, if we perform some religious rituals around and through them, they might serve as conduits to some different realm of being, but at most they can only hope to become conduits, not the higher realm in-themselves. in other words: not all beings can become a “thou” to our “i”, some might only serve as “its”. but this is a grave spiritual error.

merton’s is the spirituality of this place in space, and this moment in time. buber likewise speaks of encountering god never by leaving the world, but in it. spiritualities based on dialogue agree on the basic phenomenological premise that there is no true distinction between the path and the goal. when walking on the path of thou, the path itself, and all we encounter in it, are thous. our path is itself our goal, we just need to dialogue with it. we arrive at the other shore the instant we see it, and at that moment we realize there is no other shore. there is the famous zen story that tells us that there is no point crossing over the river to the other side, for we already are on the other side.

consider this: if the other shore was not already inside the boat itself, how could it ever sail towards it? you might ask: how can a boat carry the other shore in it and not sink? indeed how can it? so there may not really be any such thing as a boat or a shore on the other side. you might ask: it will be impossible for the boat to leave port with such burden! why even leave port then? the answer is: exactly! why leave? where is it we need to get to? or using the great zen master’s great reply to a baffled student: “mu!”.

the carrying water and chopping wood of the zen masters, the peeling of potatoes, or watching the rebbe every morning as he ties his shoelaces as that hasidic story goes, all are acts that contain within themselves all possible spiritual reality. remember this: the spirituality is not in the potato, or in the snow or in the shoelaces, nor it is in you, it is between you and the potato.

© Hune Margulies, Ph.D.

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