Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Senseless

Scott Bradley

Thomas Merton went to Asia with a view to exploring the possibility of establishing a Christian monastic presence there to serve as a bridge between the meditative traditions of East and West. He was warmly received by leaders of those traditions and greatly impressed some with his own spirituality. It was in Bangkok, during this tour, that, after delivering a paper at a symposium, he returned to his hotel for a hot bath and nap and was electrocuted when he tried to move a fan. Thus ended his mission and his life.

This senseless death was greatly mourned by all those who knew him or had been inspired by his many writings. It was, indeed, an unfortunate loss. The senselessness of his death is made even more poignant by greatness of the man himself. And it is upon this senselessness that I wish to presently reflect.

In calling it senseless I have already expressed an opinion. It was not seemingly senseless; it was senseless. There was no reason, no purpose, no mysterious working of the hand of God. Shit happens. It's as simple as that.

You may disagree. Or you may suggest that we simply cannot know. And with this I can only concur. Nevertheless, the brute fact of the event remains; and though I do not wish to define it as either purposeful or senseless, the simple act of declaring I do not know somehow leaves me with a sense of the senseless. Perhaps I am failing of not-knowing.

Still, I find this sense of the senseless a deeply challenging experience. It rises as an impenetrable wall before the relentless pursuit of the 'normal human inclinations'. It cuts like a knife through the hunger for purposefulness. It calls into question all the strategies of egoic identity to affirm and reassure itself that it is real and meaningful.

These are the kinds of challenges which I see as a helpful means to breaking free of the shell egoic identity — the ones to which that identity most ardently rebels. This is a strategy, a method; it need not be declared the truth. Perhaps, were I able, I would simply snuggle into the warm and fuzzy blanket of hopeful belief. Thomas Merton, I suspect, had such a blanket, and he was a deeply spiritual man.

All these words are simply an attempt to offer up here, for your reflection, the apparent senselessness of things. Whether you choose to do so, and where those reflections take you, are entirely different matter.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.


  1. "All these words are simply an attempt to offer up here, for your reflection, the apparent senselessness of things"

    Even though you seem to hedge yourself, by stating that you do not know, there seems to be a leaning to a belief in your writing about the "apparent" senselessness of things.

    I ask you to contemplate this; is your gravitation to believe in the senselessness of life an attempt to make sense of your own life? If life is senseless, then your life makes more sense? Can this thinking also be a snuggling into a warm and fuzzy blanket of belief also? I'm just asking, without judging, because I do not really know. I for some reason habitual question why someone believes what they believe including my own beliefs. It is an interesting trail to follow.

  2. @Shawn:
    I've been lately attracted to an image, an analogy, that we use these screens (philosophy, religion, science), mesh through which we look at and try to apprehend the great ultimate. The screens may be made of different things, some as dark, dense and rigid as rebar, some as transparent and flimsy as fishline or dental floss. Through the gaps in the mesh, (like St Paul, through a glass darkly) we glimpse that great ultimate, but in a kind of grid that may make "sense" for us. We may even use more than one screen, calibrating them in some way.

    I think this "no-self not-knowing" grid is like a very transparent one; close, but still we are separated from the supreme ultimate, the taiji.

    To tear away the grid completely is the point of internal alchemy, enlightenment, satori, whatever. A that point, there are indeed no words or logic to explain it. I wonder if when you remove those screens, can you ever go back to living an ordinary life. This is a mystical thing (and Thomas Merton was certainly a mystic.) I may have mentioned before, St. Teresa of Avila said she saw the holiness of God. All she could say was that "it was blue." Direct experience is no proof of anything except to oneself, and it is intriguing, but where do you go after? Perhaps Merton found his answer in the bathtub.

  3. It made me laugh when i read how he died. I've spent years in Bangkok and their record with safety has not improved.

    Why anyone would want a hot bath or a bath at all where it is so bloody hot and the water is poisonous i can't fathom.

    I guess it just adds to the mystery of it all and that's why i laughed.

  4. Ta-Wan, Yes, I too have always thought it was wildly bizarre the way Merton Thomas life ended. I can relate to your laughter. It puts a grin on my face as well. Not a happy grin, more of an expression of witnessing the paradoxical awesomeness of life.

    Baroness Radon, I resonate with what you have said. I have a feeling that when the grid is torn away, words like purpose and senselessness fall away into oblivion as well. Our minds exist in a culture that thinks about things like whether there is a purpose or not. Tao does not know that language.

  5. @Shawn:
    Yes, I agree.

    But I think I should have written about, instead of "but still we are separated from the supreme ultimate, the taiji."

    "but still we are separated from the Tao, the wuji, behind the supreme ultimate, the taiji."

    Just words and concepts, anyway.

    But I find nothing to laugh at in Thomas Merton's demise. But David that's laughable!

  6. I better be more careful when I'm wiring lamps and fans at work. I've already shocked myself twice this week. This post strikes me as ominous :\


Comments are unmoderated, so you can write whatever you want.