časopis pro pedagogiku v souvislostech * journal of education in contexts
Ročník: 2017Volume: 2017
Číslo: 1Issue: 1
Vyšlo: 1. srpna 2017Published: August 1st, 2017
Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes, Cristóbal. The Coincidence of Opposites in Thomas Merton and Zhuangzi: A Case Study On How Professors Can Effectively Use the Language of Paradoxes in the Classroom at the University Level. Paidagogos, [Actualized: 2017-08-1], [Cited: 2024-07-14], 2017, 1, #7. P. . Availiable at: <>


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The Coincidence of Opposites in Thomas Merton and Zhuangzi: A Case Study On How Professors Can Effectively Use the Language of Paradoxes in the Classroom at the University Level

Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes

Abstract: This paper examines the importance of paradoxes using the mystical language of Merton and Zhuangzi. The purpose of this study is to illustrate how the language of paradoxes used by Merton and Zhuangzi can serve as a case study on how professors and students may discuss apparent verbal or written contradictions at the university level. The methodology I follow is the one being used in the American Academy of Religion which combines areas in the humanities and the social sciences; that is to say, my approach in this article it is very interdisciplinary. The real benefit of using paradoxical statements in a classroom is to allow students to deal with complex ideas or concepts and to understand how the apparent contradictions can he held in creative synthesis providing a new level of cognitive and spiritual awareness of reality. In this article I show how the mystical language of paradoxes can help professors and students possibly to go beyond the Aristotelian principle of non- contradiction and look at paradoxes as an alternative way to discuss concepts or ideas that cannot be understood simply as either/or; rather, in a sense, they transcend the traditional canons of Western logic.

Keywords: Merton, Zhuangzi, paradoxes, transcendence, immanence, mystical theology, ineffable, dualism, education, archetypes.


As a professor of philosophy and religious studies, the methodology I follow is the one being used in the American Academy of Religion which combines areas in the humanities and the social sciences; that is to say, my approach in this article it is very interdisciplinary. The practical application of this paper can be found in the areas of comparative philosophy, mystical theology, comparative religious ethics, Jungian psychology, as well as history and general education. The aim of this paper is to use Merton and Zhuangzi as a case study in the ongoing interfaith dialogue between the West and the East. For a better understanding of how Merton got interested in Zhuangzi and in the Zhuangzi text I recommend combining this paper with the readings of articles and letters I edited in Merton & the Tao: Dialogues with John Wu and the Ancient Sages (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2013).

Let me be clear about the purpose of comparing these two religious thinkers. This article is not just a comparative study between these two thinkers or between the two religious traditions or the views of Merton on the Zhuangzi text. As a matter of fact, I do compare Merton to Zhuangzi as mystical poets and as religious thinkers but I make a distinction between Zhuangzi the author and the Zhuangzi text. The real aim of this article is to see how the mystical language of paradoxes found in Merton’s and Zhuangzi’s writings can serve as a case study on how professors and students may discuss apparent verbal or written contradictions at the university level. In doing so, the real benefit of using paradoxical statements in a classroom is to allow students to deal with complex ideas or concepts and to understand how the apparent contradictions can he held in creative synthesis providing a new level of cognitive and spiritual awareness of reality. For instance, one thing is to teach about the theory of religions (theoria) but another thing is to teach the practice (praxis) of the religion as a means to know anything about reality--be it phenomenologically or metaphysically.

This article will be divided into three major sections: First, I introduce a brief history of the coincidence of opposites in Christianity and the interplay of opposites in Daoism. Next, I study how the coincidentia oppositorum had an influence in the mystical language of Thomas Merton. And third, I share Merton’s ruminations on the interplay of opposites in the Zhuangzi text. My goal is to see how this mystical language which is rooted in the long, rich religious traditions of Christianity and Daoism can help professors and students possibly to go beyond the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction and look at paradoxes as an alternative way to discuss concepts or ideas that cannot be understood simply as either/or; rather, in a sense, they transcend the traditional canons of Western logic.

A brief history of the coincidence of opposites in Christianity and the interplay of opposites in Daoism

There is a time gap of more than two thousand years between Thomas Merton (1915-1968) and Zhuang Zhou (370-290 B.C.E.), also known in today’s world as Zhuangzi. Both Christian and Daoist mystics admit that their direct experience of the divine transcends language. Merton follows a long line of mystical theologians who combined apophatic (the way of negation) and cataphatic (the way of affirmation) elements of darkness and light in their spiritual writings. Particularly, he owes a great deal to Dionysius the Areopagite 1 in his classic works The Divine Names and The Mystical Theology. We find in these mystical treatises the first systematic attempt to address the divine transcendence and the divine immanence of the Godhead/God dipolarity in a Christian context. Dionysius writes: “We will not pull down to ourselves that power which is both everywhere and yet nowhere, but by divine reminders and invocations we may commend ourselves to it and be joined to it” (Luibheid, 1987, 68-69). 2 This text resembles the Daoist mystical language of Laozi or Zhuangzi on the power of the Dao as the Way being manifested through Nature, yet any attempt to say what the Dao is in its innermost being will lead to a mistaken view of ultimate reality. Thus ineffability becomes the language of the mystics, as William James and other philosophers of religion have pointed out in previous works.

Also, Merton was heavily influenced by the mystical writings of St. Bonaventure (1217-1274), Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), and St. John of the Cross (1542-1591). Bonaventure’s doctrine of the coincidence of opposites “draws us into the wonder of contemplation and ultimately into the darkness of unknowing” (Cousins, 1978, 13). Moreover, “[t]he self-diffusion of the Good leads Bonaventure to a contemplation of the coincidence of opposites within the Trinity: of unity and difference, of communication and intimacy, of equality and distinction” (Cousins, 1978, 33). This doctrine will reappear in the fifteenth century with the German philosopher and mystical theologian, Nicolas of Cues also known as Nicholas of Cusa or in Latin Nicolaus Cusanus. In De docta ignorantia Cusa admits that God is “the enfolding of all things, even of contradictories, [it is also evident that] nothing can escape His foresight” (Hopkins, 1990, 77). 3 But it was John of the Cross the mystical theologian that Merton was most impressed when the Spanish Carmelite wrote in the Dark Night (2, 5:1): “This dark night is an inflowing of God into the soul, which purges it from its ignorances and imperfections, habitual, natural and spiritual, and which is called by contemplatives infused contemplation, or mystical theology” (Peers, 1990, 98). Here Merton is guided by the mystical theology of John of the Cross in seeking to understand the apparent contradiction of the luminous darkness since the Sanjuanist dark night is no other than the divine light, the night of pure contemplation, or also known as infused contemplation. The divine darkness of John invites mystery because even for the mystics their experience of God remains unknown. Nevertheless, the Sanjuanist divine light offers glimpses of the divine attributes in God but the essence of the Godhead remains obscure and totally mysterious. It is this creative synthesis of the apophatic and the cataphatic ways that illumines Merton’s own teaching of the coincidentia oppositorum where the No-thing is the All as much as it is found in John’s mystical doctrine of “la Nada es el Todo.”

Christian mystics are well aware of the impossible task of defining what God is through language. They understand that human language is finite and that words cannot really grasp or fully comprehend the infinite nature of the Godhead. Only symbols, metaphors and mystical paradoxes can point to the Source of all sources. Thus, we find that the theology of darkness (or apophatic tradition) coincides with the theology of light (or cataphatic tradition). Merton’s unique contribution to the field of mystical theology and education in the humanities is that of a modern interpreter following a long line of Christian mystics from Dionysius’ “divine darkness” to Bonaventure’s “superluminous darkness” to Cusa’s “learned ignorance” and to John of the Cross’s “dark night” by virtue of which each one of them knows the Divine by way of unknowing. I have found very helpful the comparative study of Merton with Chinese sages in my introductory and upper level courses. Personally, I have benefited from these readings and from years of doing research on this topic because now more than ever it is extremely urgent to teach global philosophy, not just Western philosophy. China has become a political giant because of its economic power. We have seen a revival of Sino culture in the West and higher education institutions must be ready to teach and incorporate elements of the ancient and modern Chinese civilization in their academic curricula, as I have been doing in all my classes. In my humble opinion, students enjoy my classes even more because they are interested in learning more about Chinese culture, language, and civilization. Once Merton starts reading the Daoist spiritual classics he quickly finds a true companion and friend in Zhuangzi. 4

The Chinese cosmological model is based on the interplay of opposites between the two cosmic energies of yin (female, contemplative, intuitive force) and yang (masculine, active, rational force). In Jungian terms, this pair of opposites he called animus and anima belongs to the archetypal nature of the human psyche. As Jung himself said, “It is a fact that symbols, by their very nature, can so unite the opposites that these no longer diverge or clash, but mutually supplement one another and give meaningful shape to life” (1989, 338). Many scholars have pointed out that throughout history the Chinese people saw Daoism as the yin and Confucianism as the yang. They both work hand in hand developing over the years a type of religious syncretism that integrates the two major native religions of China. A Chinese person oftentimes can be Confucian at home and at work, Daoist in nature, and Buddhist at funerals. Thus, this syncretism has enormous potential for future educators in the fields of general education, psychology, philosophy, theology, and history. Once we learn how the Chinese civilization has been able to cope with multicultural issues and affairs over the centuries without losing their national identity, we understand the real benefits of seeing how their religious ideas have shaped their educational models following Daoist spirituality (yin) and Confucian philosophy (yang). For instance, we see people from all over the world practicing tai chi in public parks to patients going to hospitals and centers to be treated with acupuncture techniques to business people hiring experts of feng shui to bring prosperity to their corporations to educators reading the moral and political philosophy of Confucius, Mencius, and Laozi or the mystical poetry of Zhuangzi to their students.

This ancient Chinese teaching of the interplay of opposites was adopted by both Daoists and Confucianists. They saw the Daoist spirit more yin oriented in terms of being more contemplative, more mystical, and more artistic while the Confucianist is more yang oriented in terms of being more at home with the social, cultural, and political structures of Chinese society. Chaos and order are two sides of one coin. Balance is the key to understand the Chinese ancient cosmological worldview. The perfect man or the sage is the one who embraces the contemplative (Daoist) spirit of being an enlightened being in a world of action (Confucian). Even Laozi and Zhuangzi saw the need for political leaders to become sages, like in the West we saw in Plato’s Republic the need for the philosopher-king as the wise ruler of a just society. Comparing these Daoists to Greek philosophers like Plato is not an easy task but with good understanding we are capable of expanding our minds and hearts to a vision of reality that it is more holistic and better suited to the new world order that awaits us.

For the Chinese the natural rhythm of nature marks the different seasons following day and night, light and darkness, war and peace, and all the other pair of opposites. As Livia Kohn points out, The Tao is responsible for all-that-is; it is at the ground beyond all existence and yet immanent in all its forms. . . . Revolving around for long periods of time and through various stages of primordiality and chaos, it eventually divides into two, originally equally formless energies, one light, one heavy, one bright, one dark. These are yin and yang, the original pair of complementary opposites. Through them, there are heaven and earth, the sun and the moon, light and darkness, hot and cold, and all the various distinctions that make up the world of existence. (1993, 33)

Chinese history is a dynamic process of life evolving through different stages in human civilization. According to Jeaneane Fowler,

Traditionally, the origins of yin and yang have been cast back to the time of Fu His/Fu Xi, the mythical founder of the Hsia/Xia dynasty and of the Pa-kua/Bagua, the eight diagrams. . . . The ancient need to understand life in terms of the balance and harmony of nature, as opposed to imbalance and disharmony, is ingrained in the Chinese psyche. . . . (2005, 66)

From the I Ching/Yijing to the Daode jing to the Zhuangzi text, Chinese cosmologies revolve around the interplay of opposites of yin and yang, of “White Tiger” and “Blue Dragon,” of receptivity and activity, of dark and sunny days. As an educator, I have used examples of this coincidence of opposites using movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to illustrate this Chinese philosophy in action and the students love it. These two cosmic forces are viewed as complementary rather than contradictory or oppositional. They both alternate the views of nature like night and day, dark and light. In the West some people thought of these two forces as being dualistic and interpreted them as if the yin of darkness is evil and the yang of light is good. This Western dualistic mindset that goes back in time to the heretical Manichean gnostic sect does not truly reflect or understand the spirit of Chinese cosmology where the two cosmic forces are represented as two aspects of one eternal, infinite reality which ultimately springs from the Dao. As Anthony Clark points out, “[i]mplied in this assertion is that the Dao, or way, includes all dualities, all apparent opposites, in a unified monad; all dyads are in fact only a unified monad. In other words, the Dao encompasses all binaries” (2016, 193). Thus, the Chinese interplay of opposites holds the tension between the two sides of one coin by displaying the perfect, harmonious balance that exists between yin and yang. In doing so, the sage in the Zhuangzi text is the one who understands the need to transcend these apparent dualities and finds himself or herself searching for the golden elixir of life which is a dynamic process and always found in a perpetual state of flux (as it was in ancient Greek times with Heraclitus of Ephesus). 5 This is the main reason why the Daoist mystic stresses the idea of going with the flow of ch’i (or the cosmic vital energy in the universe) since the two cosmic energies are not seen as contradictory but rather as two interdependent forces working together like the cyclical ebb and flow of all life or the systole and the diastole of an engine. In sum, there are real benefits of adopting these holistic views in our education systems and classes as we attempt to overcome the old dualistic habits of mind and body and start treating the whole person (and the student in particular) as a continuum of mind, body and why not spirit.

The Coincidence of Opposites in Thomas Merton

As noted earlier, Merton was heavily influenced in his language by a rich history of mystics from Dionysius to John of the Cross. The Trappist monk knew from experience that even the mystic cannot say much about the direct encounter with God because God is not an object. As one of the most well-known Mertonian scholars put it, “Merton is a mystical theologian because he moves beyond discursive theology to appeal directly to this ‘always already’ experience, and to shape it, in the responsive imagination of his readers” (Pramuk, 2009, 90). For this very reason, Christian apophatic mystics have employed the language of no-thing-ness to express the ineffable reality of the Godhead in a highly symbolic, allegorical, or metaphorical way. The German mystic Nicholas of Cusa and the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross are the precursors of Merton’s own paradoxical language of the No-thing and the All. With regards to Cusa’s vision of God as the spark of divinity within the true self, Merton says:

This realization at the apex is a coincidence of opposites (as Nicholas of Cusa might say), a fusion of freedom and unfreedom, being and unbeing, life and death, self and non-self, man and God. The “spark” is not so much a stable entity which one finds but an event, an explosion which happens as all opposites clash within oneself. (1985, 10)

Merton referring to St. John of the Cross writes:

This “reconciliation of opposites” is the mark of true sanctity. . . . All the doctrine of St. John of the Cross is aimed at this ideal balance of the human and the divine: a balance that is to be attained, however, not on a humanistic level, but “in the Spirit.”

Just as we can never separate asceticism from mysticism, so in St. John of the Cross we find darkness and light, suffering and joy, sacrifice and love united together so closely that they seem at times to be identified. It is not so much that we come through darkness to light, as that the darkness itself is light. (1965, 163)

For Merton, the theology of night and darkness implies the experience of encountering the Godhead as a mysterious being by virtue of which the mystical theologian transcends language in his own explanation of ultimate reality. Merton’s dark night is encountered as pure divine light rather than revealing something totally obscure to be fearful of. In fact, Merton invites the reader to enter into the night so the senses and the mind are put to rest and forgotten “among the lilies” 6 while the mystic consciousness awakens to a new reality of being in the world by becoming enlightened.

Similarly, the Daoist sage must transcend language to attain this state of enlightenment which in both cases requires a great deal of human effort and dedication. Zhuangzi also talks about the language of self-forgetfulness and the need to transform oneself from the state of a caterpillar into a butterfly. As educators, we can use these Chinese metaphors in our classes to explain for instance the Christian teaching of dying to the old self (kenosis) in order to let the new self be born again and resurrect in all of us (pleroma). In the Christian context Merton employs the language of spiritual transformation from the old self into the new self in Christ, or the new Adam. As Merton put it, “the New Adam is not only Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body, but also all those who, having the likeness of God restored in their souls, are His Mystical Body” (1993, 160).

Merton realized that the experience of God in us is a paradoxical one because the human soul needs to empty herself in order to be filled with God. Kenosis (emptying out) and pleroma (filling in) are two aspects of one single reality in the mystical journey towards God. The Trappist contemplative strongly suggests that “[i]n order to become myself I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be, and in order to find myself I must go out of myself, and in order to live I have to die” (Merton, 1972, 47). Furthermore, Merton in following the Pauline spirit of the recapitulation of all things in Christ points to the Way in saying that one must learn how to let go of all preconceived ideas and die to oneself in order to become one with the All. He writes:

One of the paradoxes of the mystical life is this: that a man cannot enter into the deepest center of himself and pass through that center into God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of a selfless love. (Merton, 1972, 64)

This statement by Merton is at the heart of the experience of Christian mystics. Self-negation or kenosis symbolized in Christianity by the death of Christ to the old self, to the old Adam, is the necessary condition of the unio mystica which prepares the way to lead the mystic to self-affirmation in Christ or pleroma.

Symbolically, this pleromatization represents the resurrection of the new self in Christ or the new Adam. Merton the poet put it this way:

Perfection and emptiness work together for they are the same: the coincidence of momentary form and eternal nothingness. Form: the flash of nothingness. Forget form, and it suddenly appears, ringed and reverberating with its own light, which is nothing. Well, then: stop seeking. Let it all happen. Let it come and go. What? Everything: i.e., nothing. (1968, 27) 7

The late Merton incorporated elements of his study of Asian religions in all his writings (especially those mentioned in Mystics and Zen Masters, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, and The Way of Chuang Tzu). Again, Merton quoting St. John of the Cross he points out that the mystical No-thing is paradoxically the All by resembling the language of Daoist and Zen masters. He says:

In religious existentialism the blank, godless nothingness of freedom and of the person, Sartre’s néant, becomes the luminous abyss of divine gift. The self is “void” indeed, but void in the sense of the apophatic mystics like St. John of the Cross, in whom the nada, or nothingness of the self that is entirely empty of fictitious images, projects, and desires, becomes the todo, the All, in which the freedom of personal love discovers itself in its transcendent Ground and Source which we are accustomed to call the love of God and which no human name can ever account for or explain. (1993, 269) 8

Clearly, Merton understood the Western obsession with doctrinal formulas and dogmas and knew from his Catholic studies and from personal experience that “. . . the heart of Catholicism, too, is a living experience of unity in Christ which far transcends all conceptual formulations” (1968, 39). The experience of the living God defies any conceptual framework, including the mystical body of Christ. It is no wonder why he like so many other Christian mystics (including Meister Eckhart) suffered criticisms from certain conventional Catholic circles. Merton writes in Zen and the Birds of Appetite:

Obviously these teachings of Eckhart were found very disturbing. His taste for paradox, his deliberate use of expressions which outraged conventional religious susceptibilities, in order to awaken his hearers to a new dimension of experience, left him open to the attacks of his enemies. Some of his teachings were officially condemned by the Church—and many of these are being reinterpreted today by scholars in a fully orthodox sense. . . . Seen in relation to those Zen Masters on the other side of the earth who, like him, deliberately used extremely paradoxical expressions, we can detect in him the same kind of consciousness as theirs. (1968, 12-13)

Merton in his quest for authentic spirituality finds in the Asian traditions a true liberation from the dogmatic, narrow positions he found within some Christian circles. Daoist and Zen teachings appeal to him the most because he understood them and sympathized with them. He finds in the teachings of Zhuangzi and other Asian writers new fellow companions in his own spiritual journey towards the Divine. This is why he says in Love and Living:

This [contemplative] aspect of Christianity will perhaps be intelligible to those in an Asian culture who are familiar with the deeper aspects of their own religious tradition. Hence, the crucial importance of a Christian dialogue in depth with Asian religion. For the religions of Asia also have long sought to liberate man from imprisonment in a half-real external existence in order to initiate him into the full and complete reality of an inner peace which is secret and beyond explanation. (1985, 202)

This is why interfaith dialogue is no longer seen by humans as a luxury but as a living and concrete reality in the mind of many educators and practitioners around the globe. What benefits this study of Asian civilization can bring to us? Could we promote mutual trust and understanding so that we can avoid making certain overgeneralizations in the future and in doing so avoid conflicts and problems with Chinese in the future? Ignorance can sometimes be understood as bliss but in reality it can literally kill.

Merton’s Ruminations on the Interplay of Opposites in the Zhuangzi Text

Merton spent five years of doing research on the Zhuangzi text and worked in collaboration with Chinese scholar John Wu in the new translation on The Way to Chuang Tzu, which finally saw the light of publication in 1965. 9 Merton selected the quotes that he resonated most with. Due to the lack of time at the Abbey of Gethsemane, Merton was only able to learn a few Chinese characters. In today’s multicultural world, learning new languages becomes an imperative in the so-called art of exchanging ideas with people from other cultures and nations. Educators have done research on this and have concluded that starting early in life has great benefits for the development of the mind of a child who can master more than two languages at an early age--not to mention being able to travel, work in different countries, and do business with people from Asia. But with the help of Wu with whom Merton corresponded for seven years, he was able to follow his intuitive understanding of the different English translations available during his time and let Wu correct him if he misunderstood the translations of the Zhuangzi text in any way. As Jeaneane Fowler points out.

There are a number of translations of the Chuang-tzu/Zhuangzi. The main texts used here are those of Angus Graham, and Martin Palmer though Thomas Merton’s work, for example, is intuitive and delightful to read. But as Graham warns: “Chuang-tzu illustrates to perfection the kind of battering which a text may suffer between being written in one language and being transferred to another at the other end of the world some two thousand years later. (2005, 103)

Merton found a soulmate in Zhuangzi whose humor, simple style, and thought provoking arguments reflected the same image of Merton himself as a contemplative poet. The Trappist monk found a spiritual companion in the Daoist sage and quickly turned his eyes to his mystical poetry. As Merton says in “A Note to the Reader” as part of his introduction to The Way of Chuang Tzu:

Chuang Tzu is not concerned with words and formulas about reality, but with the direct existential grasp of reality in itself. Such a grasp is necessarily obscure and does not lend itself to abstract analysis. It can be presented in a parable, a fable, or a funny story about a conversation between two philosophers. Not all the stories are necessarily by Chuang Tzu himself. Indeed, some are about him. The Chuang Tzu book is a compilation in which some chapters are almost certainly by the Master himself, but many others, especially the later ones, are by his disciples. The whole Chuang Tzu book is an anthology of the thought, the humor, the gossip, and the irony that were current in Taoist circles in the best period, the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. (1969, 11)

Merton was especially attracted to the almost monastic simplicity, humility, and silent music of the Zhuangzi text. As he further says in “the Note”:

In any event, the way of Chuang Tzu is mysterious because it is so simple that it can get along without being a way at all. Least of all is it a “way out.” Chuang Tzu would have agreed with St. John of the Cross that you enter upon this kind of way when you leave all ways and, in some sense, get lost. (1969, 12)

This Mertonian theme of getting lost implies self-forgetfulness which parallels Zhuangzi’s fasting of the heart. For Merton, “[a]ll deliberate, systematic, and reflexive ‘self-cultivation,’ whether active or contemplative, personalistic or politically committed, cuts one off from the mysterious but indispensible contact with Tao, the hidden ‘Mother’ of all life and truth” (1969, 26). The goal of the mystic is to experience oneness with the Divine. Both Merton and Zhuangzi understood the need to prepare oneself to become one with God or the Dao. They both knew from experience that one must return to the state of primordial consciousness by transcending one’s rational way of thinking.

The Christian monk and the Daoist sage taught like Jesus using the “foolishness” of language via parables, metaphors, and mystical paradoxes. They both were contemplative poets who value the power of words that emanate from listening deeply to the inner voice of conscience after having attained a state of pure stillness and tranquility of the heart. In solitude, the true mystics encounter ultimate reality by awakening in them their inner consciousness where the Divine dwells. However, their quest for solitude and silence is not total escapism. As Merton states:

Chuang Tzu’s paradoxical teaching that “you never find happiness until you stop looking for it” must not, therefore, be negatively interpreted. He is not preaching a retreat from a full, active human existence into inertia and quietism. He is, in fact, saying that happiness can be found, but only by non-seeking and non-action. It can be found, but not as the result of a program or of a system. . . . But the happiness and freedom which Chuang Tzu saw in Tao is to be found everywhere (since Tao is everywhere), and until one can learn to act with such freedom from care that all action is “perfect joy because without joy,” one cannot really be happy in anything. . . . The true character of wu wei is not mere inactivity but perfect action—because it is act without activity. (1969, 27-28) 10

Merton further says of Zhuangzi,

. . . Though he is a social critic, his criticism is never bitter or harsh. Irony and parable are his chief instruments and the whole climate of his work is one of tolerant impartiality which avoids preaching and recognizes the uselessness of dogmatizing about obscure ideas that even the philosophers were not prepared to understand, (1969, 29)

Both mystics recognize the limits of language in referring to ultimate reality since the Dao is infinite and language is just a finite construction fabricated by the human mind. Any attempt to explain that which is infinite is condemned to be a failure. Only the ignorant will undertake such approach. The wise knows from direct experience that it is an impossible task to name the ineffable Dao. As Livia Kohn observes,

The Tao is ineffable and beyond human comprehension; thus it is spoken about as nameless, formless, and obscure, with the help of contradictory metaphors and paradoxes . . . . The Tao cannot be described in ordinary language, since language by its very nature is part of the realm of discrimination and knowledge that the Tao transcends. Language is a product of the world; the Tao is beyond it—however pervasive and omnipresent it may be. The Tao is transcendent and yet immanent. It creates, structures, orders the whole universe, yet it is not a mere part of it. (1993, 11)

Or as Mary Bockover put it,

. . . Paradoxically, dao is an “ultimate reality” that cannot be known “objectively” exactly because dao is not an object. This is one reason the Daode jing and the Zhuangzi, the great ancient Daoist texts drawn from in this article, are critical of language, “too much speech” and “naming” things in the attempt to distinguish them from what they are not; for these “opposites” are relative human constructs built out of limited perceptions and ideas that confuse what is real with what we conceive it to be. The dao of the ancient Daoist texts can only be “known” by means of a different kind of experience—an actionless experience—with different aspects only generally discussed below as applying to human experience in three ways. (2011, 140)

This is why paradoxical languages are so effective when mystics and poets use them in their particular contexts of communicating a contemplative message that points to the Way but only through symbols. The Way itself is beyond words. Language is finite and limited. Therefore, the best way to convey the mystical experience of becoming one with the Dao is through the interplay of opposites where the tension between two apparently contradictory statements are held together. This view differs from the one held by Mertonian scholar, Alexander Lipski, when he says: “Undoubtedly the concept of the complementarity of opposites appealed to Merton and helped him in coping with his inner contradictions and the contradictions he encountered in the world around him” (1983, 17). In this case, a profound Western dualism takes precedence over Merton’s own interpretation of the Zhuangzi text. Merton writes:

The key to Chuang Tzu’s thought is the complementarity of opposites, and this can be seen only when one grasps the central “pivot” of Tao which passes squarely through both “Yes” and “No,” “I” and “Not-I.” Life is a continual development. All beings are in a state of flux. Chuang Tzu would have agreed with Herakleitos. What is impossible today may suddenly become possible tomorrow. What is good and pleasant today may, tomorrow, become evil and odious. What seems right from one point of view may, when seen from a different aspect, manifest itself as completely wrong.

What, then, should the wise man do? Should he simply remain indifferent and treat right and wrong, good and bad, as if they were all the same? Chuang Tzu would be the first to deny that they were the same. But in so doing, he would refuse to grasp one or the other and cling to it as to an absolute. (1969, 30)

For Merton, the Daoist teaching of “complementarity of opposites” was a very helpful ancient tool in removing oneself from making any dogmatic or absolutist statement about “right” or “wrong,” especially when the Zhuangzi text is placed within the context of Confucian and Mohist worldviews. Only strict doctrinaires are interested in that kind of foolish game. This Daoist teaching of the interplay of opposites goes beyond the Western rational canon in the sense that what really matters to them is to align oneself with the Way and to let go of any attachments to conceptual models conceived as absolutes. Arthur Waley writes:

The main controversy of Chinese philosophy in the 4th century B.C. had centred round the rival claims of life and death, of the Ancestors as against the living ‘sons and grandsons’. To the Taoists such debates were meaningless. Looked at from Anywhere, the world is full of insecurities and contradictions; looked at from Nowhere, it is a changeless, uniform whole. In this identity of opposites all antinomies, not merely high and low, long and short, but life and death themselves merge. (1958, 53)

Merton, like Zhuangzi, is not interested in creating new dogmas but what they are both experimenting with through their contemplative poetry is to advance a new way of looking at reality that even goes beyond words and formulas. In doing so, they can remove the fear of death and anxiety which are at the root cause of all suffering and unhappiness by providing humans with new insights on how the Way operates through nature. In which ways can educators teach students to experiment with language? As Robert Santee points out,

The goal is to make transparent that language is relative not only amongst polarities but also relative to individual perspectives. As long as individuals are trapped in some sense of absolute perspectives and/or absolute dichotomies, not seeing the relativity of their perspective, they will argue about right and wrong, good and bad, life and death, etc. from their particular perspectives. . . . The Zhuangzi clearly sees this type of reasoning as being, restrictive, artificial and harmful. (2008, 107)

Strict doctrinaires are afraid of contemplative poets who often use mystical paradoxes in their writings because they separate themselves from an either/or dualistic worldview. For instance, Zhuangzi states: “No one seems to know how useful it is to be useless” (1969, 59). Merton selected this quote and included in his compilation for the simple reason that contemplatives monks and sages live “useless” lives in the eyes of busy, productive, secular societies, and yet this contemplative experience is very “useful” for any enlightened society. How our academic institutions are teaching students to be successful and useful to society by making them useless in terms of replacing them with new technologies? Why not teach our students contemplative techniques and the wisdom of the ages via the study of world philosophies so that we allow them to gain intellectual clarity and thereby act morally? Fung Yu-Lan concludes,

Thus Chuang Tzu solved the original problem of the early Taoists simply by abolishing it. This is really the philosophical way of solving problems. . . . What it can do, however, is to give man a point of view, from which he can see that life is no more than death and loss is equal to gain. From the “practical” point of view, philosophy is useless, yet it can give us a point of view which is very useful. To use an expression of the Chuang-tzu, this is the “usefulness of the useless.” (1966, 115)

As a case study, now let me introduce some of the most famous paradoxical statements in the Zhuangzi text using Merton’s translation. As Burton Watson put it,

Difficult though the task may be, however, Chuang Tzu employs every resource of rhetoric in his efforts to awaken the reader to the essential meaningless of conventional values and to free him from their bondage. One device he uses to great effect is the pointed or paradoxical anecdote, the non sequitur or apparently nonsensical remark that jolts the mind into awareness of a truth outside the pale of ordinary logic—a device familiar to Western readers of Chinese and Japanese Zen literature. (1996, 5)

In “Great Knowledge,” Zhuangzi holds different pair of opposites together. He writes:

Great knowledge sees all in one.

Small knowledge breaks down into the many. . . .

Pleasure and rage

Sadness and joy

Hopes and regrets

Change and stability

Weakness and decision . . .

All are sounds from the same flute,

All mushrooms from the same wet mould. . . . (1969, 40-41)

In “Action and Non-Action,” Zhuangzi introduces his Daoist teaching of wu-wei. He says:

The non-action of the wise man is not inaction. . . .

The non-action of the wise man is not inaction. . . .

Silence, non-action: this is the level of heaven and earth.

This is perfect Tao. Wise men find here

Their resting place.

Their resting place.

Resting, they are empty. . . . (1969, 80)

In “The Man of Tao,” Zhuangzi equates the “No-Self with the “True Self.” Merton translation reads like this:

The man of Tao

Remains unknown

Perfect virtue

Produces nothing


Is ‘True-Self.’

And the greatest man

Is Nobody. (1969, 92)

In “Where is Tao?” Zhuangzi replies:

“There is nowhere it is not to be found.”

Tao is Great in all things,

Complete in all, Universal in all,

Are distinct, but the Reality is One. . . . (1969, 123)

As Taehyum Kim put it so well, “these stories thus present an alternative vision of human beings and social life, as based on the practice of self-cultivation. The method, moreover, that the Zhuangzi extols to reach this goal is the cultivation of the mind through ‘forgetting and emptying’” (2009, 17). So the question to our Western educators is, how our students will benefit from learning about these ancient methods from China and create their own philosophy in their own historical context? Would this integration model create better citizens and in turn it has the potential to create a better society and a better world at large?

Teaching numerous courses in comparative mysticism, philosophy of religion, and world religions has allowed me to experiment with language in the classroom at a theoretical level. Most of my students come from Georgia and Florida. This region of the United States is also known as the Bible Belt in which the conservative evangelical Protestantism plays a major role in politics and culture. From an early age, young boys and girls learn what it is right and wrong as absolute categories in their Sunday schools. My students often feel confused about covering this mystical language in class. For them this language of paradoxes sounds too ambiguous and they feel at times uncertain about what these mystics are talking about.

One of the major benefits of discussing the teachings of the coincidence of opposites in Merton and the interplay of opposites in Zhuangzi is that these two mystical poets invite all of us to let go for a moment of all our preconceived ideas so that we can be more receptive to listening the still small voice from within (also known as the voice of conscience). Both Merton and Zhuangzi believe that each one of us has a spark of divine light potentially dormant at the seat of the innermost part of the human soul, for the soul is immortal and it needs to be reactivated so that we can be in tune with the wisdom of the ages. For Merton this union with God was through Christ as the divine Logos who permeates everything and everyone, being the Way, the Truth, and the Light. But for Zhuangzi it is conceptually different. Living in harmony with the Dao as the Way allows oneself to cultivate the mind of no-mind, to empty oneself of all unhealthy attachments and desires, and to follow the natural course of life (or the ch’i which is the vital energy of the whole cosmos). This is the experiential opportunity that our students can learn when they leave the classroom if they choose to practice meditation and become themselves contemplatives in action.


For the mystics, the world is complex and mysterious. The power of language can shake the theological foundations of any religious faith or institution. Language is power and educators must be at the top of their game if they want to help students experiment with new ways of thinking and being. In doing so, we will create the right conditions for them to tackle some of the most pressing issues of our times from ecological crises to nuclear wars and everything in between. True mystics usually challenge the status quo held by absolutist thinkers who claim to have the monopoly on truth.

Both Merton and Zhuangzi are seen as rebels and as outsiders, living on the margins of their particular traditions. Paradoxically, these contemplatives like the ancient hermits sought to escape from the world (contemptus mundi or fugi mundi) as we know it so they could return to it with more clarity by removing from their minds any sort of possible bias found within their religious or cultural systems. It is no wonder why many of these “heterodox” mystics were persecuted or censored in their own days. 11

As I stated earlier, what these two contemplative poets are seeking is to become one with ultimate reality by helping others attain the same goal in an existential way. In the West many people often confuse paradoxical statements with contradictions as if words are only understood in a linear way, leaving no room for multiple layers of interpretation. We have lost the power of understanding metaphorical language, as Joseph Campbell will say. Ultimately, paradoxes are not pure contradictions. They include and embrace different perspectives that may seem to be oppositional when in reality they are not. This mystical theory of the coincidence of opposites goes beyond Aristotelian logic and the principle of non-contradiction since all pair of opposites are reconciled in the Godhead or in the Tao as one unified field of consciousness. In doing so, the logic of rationalists must be transcended at the level of conceptual knowledge in order to let the experience of ultimate reality become a concrete example of attaining a living wisdom or a trans-rational experience. As Merton scholar Christopher Nugent points out, “[t]he ‘logic’ of the coincidence of opposites is inclusive and existential rather than categorical and notional, and it is a mystical logic. . . . The logic of the coincidence of opposites respects both ontological unity (“coincidence”) and empirical plurality (“opposites” even)” (1994, 18). Without a doubt, this is one of the main reasons why Merton felt so attracted to the “dynamic principle of harmony-in-conflict” in the Pre-Socratic world of Heraclitus of Ephesus and to the “complementary of opposites” teaching in the Chinese context of Zhuangzi. In the polarized world in which we are living now we need more humanists, more educators, more peacemakers who are willing to experiment with language in new ways so that we can better understand our ancestors and our sages in a new fashion. Thus, education becomes the bridge to a new world open to infinite possibilities.

The unio mystica that both Merton and Zhuangzi attain during their spiritual journey on Earth led them to share their experience of oneness with others by embracing the mysterious totality of the whole. This is the type of experience that we find in Christian mystics from Dionysius to Bonaventure to Eckhart to Cusa to St. John of the Cross. In other words, their historical contexts and languages may vary from person to person but the hidden wholeness is accessible in a unique way to each one of these mystics.


1. According to Jaroslav Pelikan, “The brief reference to ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’ in Acts 17:34 was simply too fascinating to be left alone . . . . If we are to believe Eusebius, Dionysius of Corinth. . . identified Dionysius the Areopagite as the first bishop of Athens. This citation occurs in a chapter of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History devoted to documenting the apostolic succession of various sees” (1987, 21-22).

2. Pseudo-Dionysius further states, “He is all things in all things and he is no thing among things. He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything” (Luibheid, 1987, 109). Merton is fully aware of this Christian mystical language where God is viewed as the No-thing and the All. God is not an object among other objects. God remains a mystery even to those who have tasted and experienced the divine glory in this lifetime.

3. Karl Jaspers’ major objection raised against Cusa is “that he does not distinguish between contradiction and such related concepts as difference, polarity, and opposition. Nor does he put his thinking to test categorically and systematically (we have to go to Hegel to gain clarity on this point). He sometimes identifies opposition (opposition) with contradiction (contradictio)” (1974, 168). Jasper Hopkins sheds light on this problem by stating: “This doctrine of enfolding overlaps with the doctrine that in God opposites coincide, though it is primarily correlated with the theology of creation, whereas the doctrine of coincidentia is primarily correlated with the via negative and with God’s inconceivability and simplicity” (1990, 13).

4. See the recent volume Serrán-Pagán has edited entitled, Merton & the Tao: Dialogues with John Wu and the Ancient Sages (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2013).

5. Merton did a study on “Herakleitos the Obscure” where he acknowledges the great similarities shared by Herakleitos, Laozi, and St. John. Merton observes: But it is true that the logos of Herakleitos seems to have much in common with the Tao of Lao-tse as well as with the Word of St. John. His insistence that apparently conflicting opposites are, at bottom, really one is also a familiar theme in Oriental thought. Herakleitos, we must remember, comes before Aristotle’s principle of identity and contradiction. He does not look at things with the eyes of Aristotelian logic, and consequently he can say that opposites can be, from a certain point of view, the same. (1961, 78)

6. Here we notice that Merton follows the Sanjuanist language of self-forgetfulness which is heavily rooted in the biblical tradition but now Christian mystics employ it to reveal the need to go beyond the senses and reason so in transcending them one becomes God by participation. Merton writes: The paradox of the illuminative way is, then, that the awakening and enlightening of the inner man goes with the darkening and the blinding of the exterior man. . . . But the point that most needs to be emphasized is that when the inner consciousness begins to be awakened, it is necessary to darken and put to sleep even the discursive and rational lights with which we were familiar in meditation. (Merton, 2004, 90) The Trappist monk distinguishes two types of “unknowing”: “. . . one, the ignorance of what you do not yet know. And this is not always valid for contemplation. The other is a kind of forgetting, or transcending, of what you do know, which is proper to contemplation. This alone can be called docta ignorantia, or “unknowing” (Merton, 2004, 127).

7. At the end of Cables to the Ace Merton concludes his poetic masterpiece with the following reflection: … Everything comes from this desert Nothing. Everything wants to return to it and cannot. For who can return “nowhere?” But for each of us there is a point of nowhereness in the middle of movement, a point of nothingness in the midst of being: the incomparable point, not to be discovered by insight. If you seek it you do not find it. If you stop seeking, it is there. But you must not turn to it. Once you become aware of yourself as seeker, you are lost. But if you are content to be lost you will be found without knowing it, precisely because you are lost, for you are, at last, nowhere. (1968, 58)

8. For Merton, the “transcendent Ground and Source” is the Godhead which is beyond names. In a Daoist sense, the Godhead of the Christian mystic is similar to the nameless Dao or Way. As Merton himself states: The power of the sage is then the very power which has been revealed in the Gospels as Pure Love. Deus caritas est is the full manifestation of the truth hidden in the nameless Tao, and yet it still leaves Tao nameless. For love is not a name, any more than Tao is. One must go beyond the word and enter into communion with the reality before he can know anything about it: and then, more likely than not, he will know “in the cloud of unknowing.” (1993, 76)

9. For the following quotes and commentaries found in Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu please see the first published paperback edition in New Directions (1969).

10. See Serrán-Pagán’s article entitled “The Mystical Teaching of Wu-Wei in the Daode Jing: A Comparative Study of East and West on Spiritual Detachment” (2013, 30-44).

11. Herbert A. Giles called Zhuangzi a “heterodox” writer. “His work was an effort of reaction against the materialism of Confucian teachings” (1926, xv).


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[30] SERRAN-PAGAN, C. The mystical teaching of wu-wei in the Daode Jing: A comparative study of east and west on spiritual detachment. In SERRAN-PAGAN, C. (ED.) Merton & the tao: Dialogues with John Wu and the ancient sages. Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2013. 

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Informace o autorovi

Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes, Ph.D.

Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Valdosta State University

1500 North Patterson Street

31698-0050 Valdosta, Georgia

The United States

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