This is an excerpt from The Simple Leader: Personal and Professional Leadership at the Nexus of Lean and Zen
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
I was rather surprised when Pope Francis mentioned Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk, philosopher, and author, in his address to Congress during the pope’s visit to the United States in 2015. I first came across Merton’s work during my deep dive into Buddhism a few years back, and his Thoughts in Solitude is one of my favorite books. Merton is a controversial figure in the Catholic church, because in addition to being a priest, he was also a student of Zen Buddhism. Hence, it was remarkable that Pope Francis lauded Merton, who once said: “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity. I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.”
Driving Merton’s interest in Zen 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 having a true personal relationship with the ultimate source of that knowledge. In both his writing and his own spiritual journey, Merton embraced the fundamental Buddhist concept that there is no one perfect path to enlightenment or salvation, and that each of us has to understand ourselves before creating our own unique journey. This idea does conflict with many Christian (especially Catholic) traditions, but not all of them.
In 2015, my annual goal was to dive deeply into the history of the Bible, partly to assuage some family members concerned about my foray into Buddhism. I read about palace intrigue at the Vatican and in the early Church, mysterious sailors carrying fragments of scriptures to faraway lands, scribes with hidden agendas, and archeological finds that both confirmed and denied prior sets of beliefs. It was an enlightening experience.
One of the subjects that came up in my research was the Gnostics. For most of the current era, the Gnostics were more commonly known as “those crazy Gnostics.” They had strange rituals and beliefs, only loosely associated with Christianity, which is why the early Vatican councils quickly discarded their scriptures and did not include them in the traditional Biblical canon. Then, in 1945, the Nag Hammadi texts were found and translated (interestingly, with financial support from none other than the noted psychiatrist, Carl Jung). The new texts supported some of earliest- known manuscripts that had been deemed too controversial by the early church to use in the Bible. They described a spiritual belief system far more aligned with traditional Christianity than originally thought, although there were still differences.
One of the major differences was that Gnostics did not insist everyone must believe as they did. To the Gnostics, faith was an inner experience (the same as in classical Christianity), but it did not have to be the same for everyone, as long as it was grounded in individual investigation, introspection, reflection, and circumstance instead of ritual. In other words, faith is a dynamic process of seeking truth, not arrogantly declaring it. Sound familiar?
Almost daily, I come across articles, questions, and comments about the “true path” to Lean and the supposedly correct sequence of methods required to accomplish a transformation. This misconception, along with not understanding the respect for humanity pillar, is what causes most Lean failures.
Like the spiritual journeys of Buddhists, Gnostics, and Christians like Thomas Merton, when you are on your own journey, you must first seek to learn, understand, contemplate, and reflect on your circumstances and beliefs. Only then can you apply what makes sense to create your own path. Don’t simply accept what others say or copy what others do.