Thomas Merton and the “Ground of Being”

A very grounded, soulful fox. Photo by Alex Andrews from Pexels.

We have been meditating on the experience of the “ground of being” which Thich Naht Hanh says is his favorite name for God.  His close friend Catholic monk Thomas Merton often invoked that same concept.

In his essay “Buddhism and the Modern World,” published in Mystics & Zen Masters in 1961, Merton invokes Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki who, when teaching of the “True Self” as the formless, original mind,

…explicitly compared this concept to that of the Godhead in Meister Eckhart and the Rhenish mystics.

He explains Suzuki’s use of the word mind in Zen as not meaning

…the intellectual faculty as such but rather what the Rhenish mystics [including Eckhart] called the ‘ground’ of our soul or of our being, a ‘ground’ which is . . . enlightened and aware, because it is in immediate contact with God.

Merton credits Suzuki with “obviously thinking of Eckhart” when Suzuki talks of the light of Prajna penetrating “the ground nature of consciousness” and illuminating things inside and outside.

These paintings depicting animals are found in the Caves of Dhaymoole, an archaeological site in Somaliland, about 3000 to 5000 years old. Photo by Jerry Omondi, via Wikimedia Commons.

Merton praises the indigenous peoples of Africa for their “reverence for life and for the sacred, creative dynamism of life, expressed in” their art symbolism as “extremely deep and pure,” for example, in depicting animals. He points out how the killing of animals was eventually prohibited in India because

one encounters an even deeper level of communion: the level of being itself.  Man and the animal are finally seen as sharing in the ontological mystery of being, they are somehow one ‘in God the Creator.’ Or as Hinduism would say the Atman is one in them both.  

Boy hugs his dog, dog hugs his little boy. Photo by Ej Agumbay from Pexels.

Eckhart has an entire sermon on the “equality of being” among humans and animals and indeed, all beings.

Love and friendship are part of our encounter with Being which includes a

…metaphysical intuition of Being . . . an intuition of a ground of openness, indeed of a kind of ontological openness and an infinite generosity which communicates itself to everything that is. ‘The good is diffusive of itself,’ or ‘God is love.’ Openness is not something to be acquired, but a radical gift.

In other words, a grace.

In contrast to God as object, and the idols that result from that consciousness, Merton saw another option:

Another, metaphysical, consciousness is still available to modern man and woman. It starts not from the thinking and self-aware subject [that is, not from anthropocentrism] but from Being, ontologically seen to be beyond and prior to the subject-object division. Underlying the subjective experience of the individual self, there is an immediate experience of Being.

Grounding meditation at sunset. Photo by furkanfdemir from Pexels.

This is totally different from an experience of self-consciousness. It is completely nonobjective. It has in it none of the split and alienation that occurs when the subject becomes aware of itself as a quasi-object. The consciousness of being (whether considered positively or negatively and apophatically as in Buddhism) is an immediate experience that goes beyond reflexive awareness. It is not ‘consciousness of’ but pure consciousness, in which the subject as such ‘disappears.’

Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 34, 240, 237. 

And Matthew Fox, “Sermon Five: How All Creatures Share an Equality of Being,” in Fox, Passion For Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart, pp. 91-102.

Banner Image: “Person’s Hand on White Horse’s Face.” Photo by Tatiana from Pexels.

Recommended Reading

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism

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3 thoughts on “Thomas Merton and the “Ground of Being””

  1. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    In today’s DM the words the equality of the Divine nature of love reverberates. All of creation is the sacred Beloved. All of creation is being loved to love. We love, because God first loves all of creation into existence. God loves all of creation equally, unconditionally and everything is grounded in the beingness of this Divine nature of love. As we are being loved, we in turn learn to give of that which we have been given. With an equal measure of what we have surrendered to, accepted, acknowledged and responded to… we in turn give. It’s a reciprocal, cyclic continuous movement of being filled and then emptying… only to be filled and emptied again and again. It matters not the size or shape or color of the vessel, for all are measured out equally their portion to be received and given, for the greater good of the whole.

  2. Avatar

    Thank you ever so much for your inspired life and wonderful books. I did have an incredible experience which became the intro to a book I’ve been working on. It very much supports the ground of existence theology. Life is a theophany. Namaste

  3. Avatar

    Thank you so much for yet another beautiful, hallowing message!

    The ground of being sometimes sends delicate interior music of blessing from the literal ground, up through the bottoms of my feet when I walk reverently on the Earth. This works best when I’m barefoot.

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