Discovering the Inner Merton

By Kevin Meyer

If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.
― Thomas Merton, Love and Living

Sometimes there are dots just waiting to be connected…

thomas-mertonI was rather surprised when Pope Francis mentioned Thomas Merton in his address to Congress a couple weeks ago.  I have learned a lot about Merton over the last decade while on a random intellectual quest that has included other seemingly unrelated modern day folks like Hernando de Soto and Mario Vargas Llosa – a Nobel prize winner who I happened to meet many years ago.  Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude is one of my favorite books.

More on Thomas Merton in a bit. First some background.

People close to me know that for over two decades I’ve had an annual goal to “do or learn something radically different.” From this I’ve learned to windsurf and dive, ran a full marathon, rebuilt a ’73 Triumph Spitfire (which, admittedly, is like working on a lawnmower…), and skied five different countries over six consecutive days.

In the mid-90s I taught myself HTML programming which turned into various projects that eventually helped create Gemba Academy. As I’ve become older the annual projects have become less physical and more intellectual, including a year-long immersion into Buddhism, with a trip to Bhutan.  Just one of the 65 countries my wife and I have been to.  Go and see… and learn.

Perhaps to assuage the concerns of some family members who were concerned about that particular intellectual odyssey, this year’s goal is a deep dive into Biblical history. Not the stories and history IN the Bible, but a secular investigation of the history OF the Bible. I’ve read probably a dozen books written by respected scholars – from multiple perspectives since the historical accounts are far from settled.

What an unexpectedly fascinating journey! Humor me for a couple paragraphs while I expose my inner geek.

There are over 200,000 variants among 5,700 ancient Greek Biblical manuscripts alone, not even counting translation issues derived from them, created by the copying processes of amateur and professional scribes that were in some cases an attempt to please their benefactors and in others just plain sloppy. Most are minor and fairly inconsequential, but some aren’t, for example the last twelve verses of Mark and John 7:53-8:12 which are not found in any of the oldest manuscripts and are now assumed by scholars to have been added by scribes.

Compounding the intentional and unintentional copy and translation errors was the process of deciding what went into the Bible. From hundreds of potential texts, through lists developed by high profile folks including a disingenuous ship merchant in the second century (a great story itself), to the synod of Hippo and councils of Carthage, Nicaea, and Rome in the fourth century where in some cases the politics of church control outweighed what was effectively an exercise in hindsight called the five guidelines of canonicity.

Just when things seem settled, for better or for worse, there were the discoveries of the Muratorian fragment in the Vatican archives in 1740, the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945, and the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947 to both confirm and throw doubts on some of those early decisions.

History, perhaps especially religious history, has a way of being filled with more intrigue and drama than any novel written by even the best writer. Without getting into off-topic details, I will say that this year’s quest has actually reinforced my own faith.  Finding errors, and especially the process to understand the source of errors, can create authenticity.

So let’s get back to Thomas Merton and the interesting connections between the dots – yes, eventually including Lean.

Thomas Merton and Dalai LamaI first came across Thomas Merton during my deep dive into Buddhism a few years back. I was surprised to discover a large number of Christian scholars and Catholic priests, like Merton, who openly embraced components of Buddhism. Merton went further than most, with deep study into the Zen tradition, which he discussed in Zen and the Birds of Appetite, as well as a book he co-authored with none other than the Dalai Lama, The Way of Chuang Tzu.

At the core of Merton’s interest was his belief that most Christian traditions had become so focused on ritual and dogma that they had forgotten about the quest for understanding and a true personal relationship with the ultimate source of that knowledge.

He embraced, both in his writing and his own spiritual journey, the fundamental Buddhist concept that there is no single, perfect path, and that each of us has to learn and understand ourselves before creating our own unique journey.  That does conflict with many Christian and especially the Catholic traditions.  But, as we’ll soon see, not all of them.

Hence why it was remarkable that Pope Francis lauded Thomas Merton, a Catholic priest that believed in multiple paths to salvation and once said “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity. I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.”  Wow.

Allow me to add another dot. For most of the current era the Gnostics were more commonly known as “those crazy Gnostics.” Strange rituals and beliefs, loosely associated with Christianity, their scriptures quickly discarded by the early Vatican councils and not included in the traditional Biblical canon. Then the Nag Hammadi texts were found in 1945 and fully translated a couple decades later (interestingly with financial support from none other than the noted psychiatrist, Carl Jung), suddenly supporting some of earliest known manuscripts that had been deemed too controversial by the early church.

Contrary to the prior perception of Gnostics, these newly-discovered texts described a spiritual belief system far more aligned with traditional Christianity than originally thought, with one of the major differences being they did not insist that everyone must believe as they did.

To the Gnostics, faith is an inner experience, still generally aligned with classical Christianity, but one that does not have to be the same for everyone, and is grounded in individual investigation, introspection, reflection, and circumstance – as opposed to ritual. It is a dynamic process of seeking truth, not arrogantly declaring it.  Starting to sound familiar?

And this, finally, becomes the tie back to Lean.

Almost daily I come across articles, questions, and comments about the “true path to Lean” – and the supposedly correct sequence of tools performed in the singularly correct fashion to accomplish a transformation. That misconception is what, along with not understanding the respect for humanity pillar, causes most Lean failures.

Like the spiritual journeys of Buddhists, Gnostics, and many Christians like Thomas Merton, when on a Lean journey you must first seek to learn and understand, contemplate and reflect on how it applies to your circumstance and beliefs, and only then apply what makes sense to create your own path.

Learn about Lean, create a relationship with the underlying knowledge of Lean, and apply it based on circumstance, data, and beliefs. Don’t simply accept what others say or copy what others do.

Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new. Thus life is always new.
― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Learn and experience new things.  Live.  Create dots.  If you create a lot of dots, sometimes interesting connections can be made.

3 Comments

  1. John Hunter

    October 9, 2015 - 1:21 pm

    My Mom is also a big Merton fan. Which has meant presenting papers at Merton conferences multiple times over the years. He really was an amazing person.

    Another religious figure several management experts (Peter Scholtes, Clare Crawford Mason and my Father) have appreciated, and you may also, is Teilhard De Chardin

  2. Bill Waddell

    October 9, 2015 - 3:24 pm

    Great post Kevin. So long as it is founded in an understanding of the principles and a commitment to the proper culture the sequence of lean tool deployment matters little. Personally, I am a practicing Catholic and have much in Buddhist teaching that helps me along the path. The fact that the Pope acknowledged Merton reflects very well on Papa Francesco as the Italians call him.

  3. John Petersen

    October 9, 2015 - 6:51 pm

    I really enjoyed this post, Kevin. A seminary friend of mine once suggested that the major world religions seem to have been created by different groups of fans watching the same football game but each in the bleachers on different sides of the stadium and behind random obstructions. Similar fundamental story but different names, biases, perspectives, and so forth. Perhaps some people like Merton had a “better view.”