Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Roger Lipsey,

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Merton's mission in life

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Partial Transcript: Uh, you have read Merton deeply and throughout his life, uh, through all st--through all stages of his life, uh, very simplistic question, what was he trying to accomplish in his life?

Segment Synopsis: Lipsey says Merton entered the monastery as penance, but also felt a vocation to prayer. Lipsey says Merton ended up being one of the main agents for the transformation of the monastic life into a more open, ecumenical structure. Lipsey says Merton became radically different at different stages of his life. Lipsey thinks Merton's mission was to open the doors of Catholicism to the world. Merton's embrace of Zen was a natural discovery, including discovering D. T. Suzuki first through his writing. Zen represented a rediscovery of the inward practice of Catholicism.

Keywords: Bishop Sheen; Catholic monks; Catholicism; D. T. Suzuki; Dom James; Ecumenism; Meister Eckhart; Monastic life; The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton)

Subjects: Buddhism.; Catholic Church; Catholics; Christianity.; Fox, James, Abbot of Gethsemani, 1896-1987; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Monks; Religion.; Sheen, Fulton J. (Fulton John), 1895-1979; Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro, 1870-1966.; Zen Buddhism

00:11:03 - Merton in Asia

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Partial Transcript: And if you'd wrap into your answer how there are people, mainly of the institutional Catholic church who say he was wandering aimlessly you know really with no purpose, etc, so what do you, what do you see as his purpose and what do you say about the criticism of him?

Segment Synopsis: Lipsey says Merton ended up in Asia partly because Jean Leclercq invited him to attend a conference in Bangkok. Lipsey says Merton wanted to become more acquainted with Zen Buddhism, Vipaśyanā, and the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, because he thought bringing back some of these practices would help Americans with self knowledge and contemplation. He mentions how Merton meeting the Dalai Lama and other spiritual masters was transformative for Merton's spirituality.

Keywords: Catholic monks; Catholicism; Centering prayer; Ceylon; Dom Jean Leclercq; Southern Asia; Vipassana

Subjects: Bangkok (Thailand); Buddhism.; Burma; Catholic Church; Christianity.; Cross cultural communication; Cultural interactions; Intercultural communication; Leclercq, Jean, 1911-1993; Meditation; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Monks; Myanmar; Religion.; Southeast Asia; Sri Lanka; Vipaśyanā (Buddhism); Zen Buddhism

00:21:48 - Merton's death and contributions

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Partial Transcript: All about his death, or was it just an accident?

Segment Synopsis: Lipsey discusses multiple coincidences about Merton's death, including that he died 27 years to the day after he entered the monastery. Lipsey continues on with the mythology surrounding Merton's death among both Catholics and Buddhists. Lipsey says Merton broke open monasticism to renew it and recorded a life of searching. Lipsey also says Merton provided some of the best passages of twentieth century literature and showed us how to make good use of the wisdom of the past.

Keywords: "Big sky mind"; Catholic monks; Catholicism; The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton); The Sign of Jonas (Thomas Merton); Way of Chuang Tzu (Thomas Merton); Wisdom of the Desert (Thomas Merton)

Subjects: Buddhism.; Catholic Church; Catholics; Christianity.; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Religion.; Writers; Writing

00:29:32 - How Merton rested and wrote / Contact between Eastern and Western spirituality

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Partial Transcript: Did he, I mean, what someone, maybe Doctor Zilboorg, you're neurotic you don't ever find satisfaction you just keep churning and searching when will you rest.

Segment Synopsis: Lipsey discusses places where Merton could rest, including the woods at the monastery and mass, as well as resting in other authors' minds, such as Czesław Miłosz, with whom he corresponded. Lipsey agrees with a couple authors who say Merton wrote too much and didn't refine his poetry often enough. Lipsey discusses how the Tibetan diaspora gave us more contact with their spirituality and that we have a world with two popes, including the Dalai Lama.

Keywords: Catholic monks; Catholicism; Doctor Zilboorg; Interfaith dialogue; Trappist monks

Subjects: Buddhism.; Catholic Church; Christianity.; Church.; Cross cultural communication; Dalai Lamas; Intercultural communication; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Miłosz, Czesław; Poetry; Poets; Religion.; Tibet; Tibetan diaspora; Zilboorg, Gregory, 1890-1959

00:39:22 - Syncretism and dialogue / Merton's epiphanies

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Partial Transcript: So, um, some of the fearful or the Merton critics would say, well, he was diluting his, his Christianity, blah, blah, blah

Segment Synopsis: Lipsey describes syncretism as putting together different facets of markedly different religious sources, suggesting that theology may be syncretic. He says dialogue, in contrast, is an exchange of ideas while remaining who you are. Lipsey compares two similar concepts for emptiness: the catholic term kenosis and the Buddhist term Śūnyatā. He compares Merton's various epiphanies and mystical experiences and discusses the art in Sri Lanka.

Keywords: Buddhist catechism; Catholic catechism; Catholic monks; Catholicism; Interfaith dialogue; Kenosis; Meister Eckhart; Religious dialogue; Revelations; Syncretism; Trappist monks

Subjects: Buddhism.; Buddhist art; Catechisms; Catholic church; Catholics; Christianity.; Cluny (Benedictine abbey); Cross cultural communication; Epiphanies; Intercultural communication; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monks; Mystics; Religion.; Sunyata

00:50:06 - Merton's vows / Ad Reinhardt

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Partial Transcript: Uh, there is sort of jumping topics a bit but there was, uh, a, uh, sentence in your essay that I just--would you expand on that a bit?

Segment Synopsis: Lipsey says Merton's vows and especially solitude and the monastic institution meant a great deal to him, and that Merton's encounter with Margie, the student nurse, was an important event in his life because it served as a healing answer to his adolescent life. Lipsey discusses Ad Reinhardt, including his "black paintings," and says that viewing them can become act of mindfulness. Lipsey also mentions the negative theology ideas of Via Negativa and Neti Neti.

Keywords: Apophatic theology; Black paintings; Catholic monks; Catholicism; Neti Neti; Trappist monks; Via negativa; WW II; WW2; World War 2; World War Two

Subjects: Art, Abstract; Buddhism.; Buddhists; Catholic church; Catholics; Christianity.; Church.; Great Depression; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Negative theology--Christianity; Religion.; World War II