Thomas Merton's Japanese Preface to Thoughts in Solitude

The Japanese translation of Thomas Merton's Thoughts in Solitude included an original preface (to be translated into Japanese). The new preface was composed in order to reflect the cultural and spiritual affinities of Japanese readers. This preface stands alone as an essay on solitude.

Thoughts in Solitude, assembled in 1953-54, is not the representative work that Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude is. More popular in tone, this short book is in two parts: "Aspects of the Spiritual Life" and "The Love of Solitude." The book is comprised of reflections on various religious and even devotional topics. The preface to the Japanese edition addresses solitude in a context recognizable in Japan, making a gradual transition to the affirmation of Christianity, but a very ecumenical and open one.

Merton acknowledges the legitimate differences in Japanese thought that make such a new preface worthwhile because the book as a whole is.

I felt that many Japanese readers, still open to their more contemplative heritage, would recognize something familiar to them in these intuitive, provisional, and deliberately incomplete suggestions.

The Ground of Solitude

Merton plunges into this frame of mind from the first sentence of the preface, stating that nothing can be said of solitude and meditation that "has not been said better by the wind in the pine trees." From this point onwards, we know that he is leaving the vocabulary and imagery of Western thinking behind him. The purpose of the essay, he tells us, is to echo the sound of that wind, to capture what is heard. But who hears it? Who hears silence? Yet the deep silence must be heard before solitude can be discussed.

Merton confesses that his Thoughts in Solitude does not attempt to convince or presume of readers anything. It invites the reader to do this listening with him, to remind the reader to become a "Hearer." He asks the traditionally-phrased philosophical question: Who is the Hearer? The Hearer must be a No-Hearer in order to hear silence. Merton points to the reality that only Hearing transpires. "The proper climate for such Hearing is solitude."

Merton has assumed that the essential philosophical framework of his Japanese reader will be Zen Buddhism, with which he had some familiarity even from his Columbia University days via D. T. Suzuki. And the question of who is the hearer hearkens back to the Witness of Hinduism as well. Merton has established a comfortable harmony with his readers.

The focus on solitude then begins:

If you imagine the solitary as "one" who has numerically isolated himself from "many others," who has simply gone out of the crowd to hang up his individual number on a rock in the desert, and there to receive messages denied to the many, you have a false and demonic solitude.

This is the false solitude properly labeled "individualism" or even "egoism" -- though Merton uses neither term. It is the mistaken view of eremitism as a mere dropping out of society. It insists on asserting the person's identity and persona as the "self" with a lower-case "s." But,

The true solitary does not seek himself, but loses himself. ... There is One solitude in which all persons are at once together and alone.

The error of modern social thought is to quantify individuals, which reduces them to nothing. It thus alienates the individual, substituting individuality rather than asserting personhood. In Merton's scheme, the ground of each of us unites each of us: "He is truly alone who is  wide open to heaven and earth and closed to no one."

For the Catholic Merton, this ground is God, this unity of all selves is Love.

The paradox of solitude is that its true ground is universal love -- and true solitude is the undivided unity of love. ...

Thus, no person enters solitude alone, or entertains it alone. As he says above, "There is One Solitude in which all persons are at once together and alone." This realization confutes the nature of modern society, which fosters alienation from self and others, replacing unity with artificial constructs, ideologues, technologies and material possessions.

Hence, we live in a world in which we say, "God is dead," and do so in a sense rightly, since we are no longer capable of experiencing the truth that we are completely rooted and grounded in His Love.

The Recovery of Solitude

How to seek and recover this truth, and hence restore society? Merton answers by borrowing an Asiatic structure to his response: Do not seek it, for by recognizing it, we already have it. Instead, enter solitude to discover and enhance the realization of God. The answer is not found in "collective agitation." Nor is it found in philosophical discourse or religious dogmas. In short,

The answer is not found in words, but by living on a certain level of consciousness. These pages are, then, a landscape of the mind, a level of consciousness: the peace, the silence of aloneness in which the Hearer listens, and the Hearing is No-Hearing.

At this point, Merton attempts to present Christianity as a religion of the Word, as Love preceded by and emerging from silence. The speech of God is the Word, but being Love it is silent, it says nothing separate from God and draws meaning only as Love. Merton argues that whatever "documents" or "complex doctrines" may tell us about God, they are inadequate as long as they are not grasped as a whole, a unity. Merton goes so far as to say that individual glimpses of God must "converge upon Love as the spokes of a wheel converge upon a central hub" -- an image made famous in the West by Nicholaus of Flue but certainly the primary image of Buddhism, too. And Merton's theology is phrased in a way that Japanese readers can appreciate:

Where is silence? Where is solitude? Where is Love? Ultimately, these cannot be found anywhere except in the ground of our own being. There, in the silent depths, there is no more distinction between the I and the Not-I. There is redemptive Love. There we encounter God ...

Our actions should come out of this encounter, from the experience of solitude, silence, divine love -- and not the other way around, not stimulated to action by the world or society or by others. Merton laments that the "spiritual and mental sickness of the West is attacking and undermining the East with its violence and activism." This fact was clear to all Asian thinkers, but Merton wants them to know that he understands and identifies with their plight.

The fruit of a truly spiritual life "emerges from this dissolution of our ego in the ground of being and of Love." This dissolution is not an irrational and inhuman act because it accepts and is enfolded into the "wholeness and completeness of everything in God's love." This dissolution is an emptying that corresponds to the emptying that Japanese philosophical tradition comprehends.

It is not difficult for Merton to show how modern thought is inimical to both eastern and Christian (as Merton presents it) thinking:

Modern man believes he is fruitful and productive when his ego is aggressively affirmed, when he is visibly active, and when his action produces obvious results. ... Their desire is only an illusion which cannot find fulfillment.

Social action under the guise of togetherness is not grounded in truth. It is bound to overwhelm individuals with a false sense of community. It is to people our lives "with devils disguised as angels of light." The only solution is solitude, a solitude that allows the ego to diminish and allows the universal self and its love, simplicity, and compassion, to emerge.


This preface to Japanese readers was certainly comprehendible to Western readers, especially in light of Merton's posthumous publications and the growth of Western appreciation of Eastern thought. It stands alone as a useful summary of Merton's thoughts on solitude.


The Japanese preface to Thoughts in Solitude has been reproduced as "Love and Solitude" in Love and Living, edited by Naomi Burton Stone & Patrick Hart. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979; in Introductions East and West: The Foreign Prefaces of Thomas Merton, edited by Robert E. Daggy. Greensboro, NC: Unicorn Press, 1981, and in Honorable Reader: Reflections on My Work; edited by Robert E. Daggy. New York: Crossroad, 1989.