A visit to Thomas Merton’s grave is an essential stop on a Merton pilgrimage.
While his hermitage inside the monastic enclosure at the Abbey of Gethsemani is not open to visitors, you can pay your respects at his grave, which is in a cemetery just outside the main church (you will need to go into the guest house first). It is marked “Fr. Louis Merton, Died Dec. 10, 1968.”
When I paid my respects there, the only thing that distinguished his grave from the others was a white scarf tied around the cross. I can’t say for certain what its significance is, but the white scarf on Merton’s grave reminded me of the katas given in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
These white scarves are given as offerings when one comes before an honored teacher, their color signifying one’s purity of heart and intention. The teacher then gives the scarf back to the student, as a token of blessing and an illustration of the ancient karmic principle that giving and receiving are linked.
Whoever placed the scarf there, for whatever reason, I think that scarf is indeed a kata in some deeper sense.
Merton and the Dalai Lama had three meetings, each meaningful for both men, and the Dalai Lama continues to refer to Merton in his public speeches.
In 1990 he said this, a description that is perhaps one of the best summations of this remarkable man. The most striking thing about Merton, the Dalai Lama said, was “the inner life he manifested. I could see he was a truly humble and deeply spiritual man. This was the first time I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity….It was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the world ‘Christian.’”