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Buddhist-Christian Studies 24.1 (2004) 117-133

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Emptiness, Kenōsis, History, and Dialogue:

The Christian Response to Masao Abe's Notion of "Dynamic Śūnyatā " in the Early Years of the Abe-Cobb Buddhist-Christian Dialogue

The Catholic University of America


Between 1980 and 1993, the Japanese Zen scholar Masao Abe resided in the United States, teaching in various places.1 This brought him into contact with many American scholars and theologians, among whom was John Cobb, a Protestant theologian then working in the area of process theology. Many of the ideas that Abe brought from Japanese Buddhism and particularly from the "Kyōtō School" of Japanese philosophy appeared to Cobb intriguingly congruent with his theological work, and the two began a series of dialogues that came to include a larger and larger circle of Christian theologians2 and (mostly Western) Buddhist scholar-practitioners. The end result was a series of informal encounters as well as a series of three formal "International Buddhist-Christian Conferences" (1980, 1984, 1987; a second series of dialogues were held without Abe's attendance starting in 1998 after a hiatus under the name "International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter"3 ). From these encounters came an impressive number of publications from Abe and from a variety of other participants in what is sometimes known as the "Abe-Cobb Encounter."

The agenda, following Cobb's suggestion and vocabulary, was to allow each side to "cross over" into the other; in other words, to study and internalize the worldview of the other in as much depth as possible without converting or losing one's connection with one's home tradition, abiding in the other side as a guest. Later, one was to "cross back," come home to one's own tradition and reflect on the benefits gained in wearing the other's shoes for a time.4 This agenda, which emphasized understanding the other's worldview and concepts of ultimate reality, suited the highly intellectual style of the dialogues, focused as they were on philosophical and theological concerns. [End Page 117]

Nevertheless, even given the concern to study and understand the other's philosophical standpoint, a curious disconnect emerges when one studies the literature produced in this dialogue. During the early phase of these encounters in the 1980s, each side, Buddhist and Christian, appears to have taken one text as normative for the entirety of the other's tradition. For Abe, following his predecessors in the KyōtōSchool, the emblematic textfor Christianity was avery short one: the hymn toChrist recorded by Paul in Philippians 2:6-11. He was particularly drawn to the concept of kenōsis, "emptying," which he thought might serve as a cognate for the Buddhist idea of "emptiness" (Skt: śūnyatā ). While the Christians participating in the dialogueaccepted this as a point of contact, albeit with some reservations, others have objected strenuously to this approach, saying that Abe's method of interpreting this text did not hold to responsible methods of exegesis, and at any rate the passage was much too minute to support an entire theology of God and creation.5

The Christian side by and large adopted much the same strategy in coming to grips with Buddhist thought, choosing a brief text as the paradigmatic statement of the Buddhist view of ultimate reality: the Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (Root Stanzas on the Middle Way; hereafter the MMK) of the second-century Buddhist thinker Nāgārjuna. In this instance, objections from the Buddhist side were not forthcoming, because Abe himself took the MMK as a normative statement of Buddhist thought. Nevertheless, his own presentation of Buddhism, especially his key notion of "dynamic śūnyatā, " went considerably beyond Nāgārjuna's presentation and thus elicited some objections from the Christian side for not hewing to their own understanding of Nāgārjuna. Because Abe never responded to these objections directly, the misunderstanding was left unresolved...