It was a tragic end. Thomas Merton was an explorer of silence. He was a gifted communicator about the inner voyage. In December of 1968, the fifty-three year old Cistercian monk traveled to Asia from the Monastery of Gethsemane, Kentucky, his home for twenty-seven years. The meeting in Bangkok, Thailand had been arranged by Aide Inter-Monastères, a Vatican-sponsored organization of monks from East and West. He would be killed there in a horrific electrical accident.

Merton was on a quest. He wanted to talk to other monastics from different religious traditions about their actual experiences of being a monk. What do they experience in their own personal monastic lives? What draws them to this way of living?

Merton himself struggled with the conflict between his contemplative life in the monastery, and his activist work as a passionate and prolific writer. This conflict was Merton’s “contemplative dilemma”. (1) (2)  He found very little silence and time alone in the monastery. He was finally allowed to live in an isolated “woodshed” on the monastery grounds only after years of petitioning. Merton saw the importance of living in harmony with his inner being as well as with those around him. How did other monks deal with challenges like this? He was on a quest to find out.


Other monks were investigating the same concerns. What draws people to want to live a more silent life? Are the traditional ways of being a monk no longer so relevant in the new era we are entering?

These monks looked deeply within their own personal stories for answers. A new vision of living monastically emerged from the dialogues of these monks.

One of these monks, Ramon Panikkar (1918-2010), was both a Catholic monk and a Hindu sannyasin. He presented a startling idea. It was 1984 and he was speaking at a Symposium of monks from East and West in Holyoke, Massachusetts. There is a permanent monastic impulse that has always existed at the center of being human, he said. There is a universal monastic archetype within all of us. Monks today are just the current expression of this deep monastic impulse. (3)

These monks and others began to envision a new way to live. This life would reflect this deep inner monastic impulse – the contemplative dimension of being human.

THE NEW MONK is simply a person engaged in the living of her or his monastic nature, a person seeking to live in harmony with themselves and those around them. Living monastically is no longer the exclusive domain of special communities. It is no longer limited to a few cloistered individuals. A new way of expressing our monastic nature is available to all of us.

This new way of living is the authentic successor of traditional monasticism free from external institutional restrictions. (4) This path can be religious or transcendent. Panikkar believed that the monastic impulse, if institutionalized, can loose its power and universality. (5) “The new monk is … represented by all those who do not even dream of entering traditional institutions, but who nevertheless are attracted by a life which could well be called monastic.” (6)

“Within silence, the wiser parts of ourselves have an opportunity to develop,” Merton said. “Here there are opportunities for the flowering of our deeper identity on an entirely different plane.” (7)


THE URBAN MONK IS A TERM that has entered our popular lexicon only recently. The Urban Dictionary defines the urban monk as “a man or woman who integrates monastic practices with the daily experience of urban life”. (8)  These new monks “are committed to the development of the monastic dimension of their lives.”  (9)

Panikkar summed it up: “Not everyone can or should enter a monastery, but everybody has a monastic dimension that ought to be honored and cultivated.” (10)

Probably all of us have a gregarious side. But some of us, at different times in our lives, find ourselves seeking peace and quiet. We recognize this part of ourselves. We may feel the lack of solitude and simplicity in our everyday lives. We figure out our own particular ways, large and small, to weave silence into the fabric of our lives.

This monastic archetype must find new ways of expression in this new era of change. Denying our monastic impulse can create a deep-seated sense of disjointedness and frustration.

“The new monk is simply a person engaged in the living of her or his monastic nature.”

“EACH PERSON’S PATH TO SERENITY, to being at one with what is inside him and what is outside him, is different,” (11) writes Stewart Holmes. Holmes is a Zen investigator and university scholar focusing his investigations on nonverbal experience. The way a person lives his or her monastic life is unique to that person. Responding to your monastic archetype is a solo journey. It is a search for the center that only an individual can make. “Each person must be enlightened by his/her own experience.” (12)

“You will recognize your unique monastic life when you see it.” writes Wayne Teasdale (1945 – 2004), who, like Panikkar, walked a unique path as both a Catholic and Hindu monk. Teasdale’s book, A Monk in the World, (13) provides detail about a new monastic life.

The discoveries of these monks helped me recognize this monastic impulse in my own life. A life quest is like finding the way home again. I have long struggled to come to terms with this sometimes unwanted “interior monk”. Before learning Merton’s term for it, I struggled with what I called the contemplative experiment, balancing action with silence. The scholar’s stones became touchstones for me. They connected me with something ancient at my core.

Many others, in all conditions of life, feel themselves drawn in these same directions. Some experience silence as being like breathing fresh air. Some discover that silence makes it possible to think. They know that different kinds of work require different levels of focus and attentiveness. They have discovered The Silent Source as a tool, a laboratory, a vehicle for the imagination, an opportunity to recharge. They see how silence provides the space to gain fresh perspectives on many aspects of the world. Millions have been refreshed by the short moment of silence at the end of the television program Sunday CBS Morning.

“Each person must be enlightened by his or her own experience.”


THE GREAT MYSTERY OF SILENCE evolved from “What is it?” to “How can you live it?” Loss of our capacity for silent introspection, our capacity for looking inward, could imperil the human evolutionary trajectory. But, like the Tang Dynasty, we are in a new era where we can discover new ways to respond to our monastic impulse and take the next steps in our development.

Intertwining: The Spiral of Individual Human Development and Collective Human Development

Of course, individual human development and collective human evolution will not happen if we destroy ourselves first. Despite all our resistances and after thousands or maybe millions of years, mankind as a whole will eventually evolve into a higher level of superconsciousness, if theorists of evolutionary human development like Kenneth Wilber (14) are correct.

Those who are drawn to the path of silence can expect few external rewards from an all pervading and demanding hyperactive culture that seems to be rushing in the opposite direction. Silent attentiveness is difficult but not impossible to cultivate in the presence of other people. But, we have to actively guard our silent spaces to maintain this capacity in our lives.

Perhaps the contemplative activist, Daniel Berrigan was right when he said: “The time will come when the pursuit of contemplation will be a subversive activity.”  (15) Privacy can create suspicion and fear. The Orwellian Nightmare, with police searching for our private thoughts, does not seem so far away.

The ancient Chinese principle of balancing, points the way toward how the new monk can live. “The small hermit lives in the mountains. The great hermit lives in the town.” says the old Chinese proverb. (16) Contemplatives can become active and activists can become contemplative. This new era calls for a dance between the two.

We each have access to The Silent Source – the vast inner space of silence. We can express the richness of silence in our own unique ways. We can recognize our own capacity to be on this ancient interior quest.

“Whenever we moderns pause for a moment, and enter the silence, and listen very carefully, the glimmer of our deepest nature begins to shine forth, and we are introduced to the mysteries of the deep, the call of the within, the infinite radiance of a splendor that time and space forgot.”
Ken Wilber (17)



● Write about how you could nourish your monastic nature.

(1) Dart, Ron, Merton, Thomas: The Contemplative Dilemma Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice
accessed 11/1/2015.
(2) Merton, Thomas (1998) Contemplation in a World of Action.
(3) Panikkar, R. (1981). Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Universal Archetype.
(4) Panikkar, R. (1981). Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Universal Archetype. p. 87.
(5) The Monk in every one: On Raimundo Panikkar’s concept of monasticism as archetype, 2014, p. 5.
(6) Panikkar, R. (1981). Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Universal Archetype, p. 28.
(7) Merton, Thomas (2009) New Seeds of Contemplation.
(8) Retrieved from Sep, 1, 2015.
(9) Panikkar, R. Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Universal Archetype, 1981, p. x.
(10) Panikkar, R. Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Universal Archetype, p. 1
(11) Holmes, S. W. (1973) Zen Art for Meditation, p. 114.
(12) Holmes, S. W. (1973) Zen Art for Meditation, p. 90.
(13) Teasdale, Wayne (2003) A Monk in the World: Cultivating a Spiritual Life.
(14) Wilber, Ken (1981) Up From Eden p. 17.
(15) Berrigan, D. (n.d.). America is Hard to Find.
(16) Bill Porter, Road to Heaven (2009) p. 220.
(17) Wilber, Ken, Integral Psychology, (2000) p. 190.

©Robert Charles Smith, PHD