I've been reading the book put out by Fonts Vitae called, "Thomas Merton and Buddhism". It is part of the "Thomas Mertion and..." series, which deals with the Trappist monk's relationships with the different faiths.
In this particular book, I just read about an interesting concept, which was under the chapter dealing with Thomas Merton's relationship with Zen Buddhism. Zen emphasizes direct perception, satori, or as we could say, gnosis. This is acheived through meditation (zazen) where you center your mind, experience the direct perception of your true nature, which is the Buddha nature of naked, complete awareness, emptiness. Once this is attained, you make effort to walk that out in your daily experience, to embody your enlightenment. (This three-fold practice is not successive, but to be done simultaneously).
A vehicle in attaining to the second "fruit" of Zen practice, which is the apect of satori, or enlightenment, is the koan. This may be a word, phrase, or action that confronts the practicioner's rational mind, in order to challenge all preconceived notions, prejudisms and dogmas to break apart these hinderances to satori, or enlightenment, whereby one perceives his true nature.
Thus, in discussing Merton's experiences from a "Zen perspective", the author referred to Merton as dealing with a living koan in his life, and spirituality. This 'living koan' was such a situation, a circumstance in his personal life which challenged him in such a way so as to be paradoxical, and thus eliciting the problem solving one would undergo in hopes of solving a koan, and thus breaking through to one's true nature.
This living koan Merton faced from about August of 1966 on through to the end of that year, at least, and was probably an issue all the way to his abrupt death in 1968. This issue was with a woman who he calls "M" in his journals. She was a nurse with whom he fell in love. She, too, was in love with him, and dedicated herself to him, though she understood his monastic vows. This caused great consternation within the soul of Thomas Merton. Would he leave the monastic vows behind? Would he quit the lifelong dedication to the mystical quest, along with the vows of celibacy, and solitariness that they entailed?
Here he was, in love with a woman, who was also in love with him. Yet living a life that defined him as a person, one who belonged wholly to God. This was his living koan. He resolved not to 'solve it' as such, but to allow God, Who is a God of love, work it out. He would not concern himself with it overly much, so as to either encourage the inordinate affections, nor to try and fix the problem. This koan, too, literally ripped him apart emotionally, and demanded the kind of confrontation with his psyche, and persona, which any other kind of koan would do.
Question: Did Thomas Merton find this koan 'solved' in his lifetime. Had he attained satori through this living koan, as perhaps God intended?
One wonders... But, he did remain faithful, and renewed toward his vows after some infractious involvements with M that summer of '66. Yet, perhaps when he received that epiphany, or 'satori' while he was in India before the statues of the dying (or dead) Buddha, and Ananda who was standing over him; perhaps here he realized his death and resurrection as one who "broke" the koan of his own paradoxical life, and found that enlightenment and bliss of realizing the divine nature.