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  • Unconventional Guest: Masao Abe’s Dialogue with the American Academy
  • William R. LaFleur

During the two years we were together at Princeton I once took Masao Abe to meet my parents, then alive and living in New Jersey. I had told them some things in advance about Abe, about Zen, and about what in Abe’s ways could at times be unconventional. My mother, I knew, would put lots of effort into preparing the Sunday dinner we ate on the day of our visit. At the meal’s conclusion Abe turned to my mother and declared: “Mrs. LaFleur, this meal has been simply outrageous! ” For a moment I thought he might have meant “delicious” and had landed on the wrong word. But then I saw his smiling eyes and mouth. He had meant what he said. Everyone laughed and my mother promptly thanked him for his “compliment.”

Being at times a genially unconventional guest, one who also in academic or dialogic contexts would say surprising or even unsettling things, was something at which Abe excelled. He was also unconventional in his teaching. He frustrated us when we expected the usual approach. In the book edited by Donald Mitchell I told how in 1969 at the University of Chicago Abe aggravated those of us graduate students who wanted to do a survey of all of modern Japanese philosophy; Abe forced us to stay with certain sentences in Nishida, wanting our minds to be changed. He would not budge.1

Some years later at Princeton he proved to be maddeningly insistent on this. Reading The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch with graduate students in 1977 who knew some Chinese and Japanese was not for Professor Abe going to be exercise in the usual historico-textual excavation; all that was available, he said, in the introduction and notes to Philip Yampolsky’s translation of that text. He was not interested in an “objectification” that put distance between the voice speaking through the text and the person being addressed by it today. For him the ancient text must read as if written for us and for us today. With Abe as teacher the dialogic mode of the seminar room had to replicate in its own way the lecture hall of the Ta-fan Temple! But graduate students at Princeton, inured as they were to the conventional mode of textual-historical analysis, were made clearly uncomfortable by this. Therefore, hoping I might serve as a mediator, they asked me to ask Abe if we might be more historical and move on more quickly. When, with some trepidation, I transmitted this request [End Page 127] to Abe, he merely chuckled and smiled, leaving me to guess why we should expect no change in his emphasis. What follows is my attempt to unpack what was involved in this . . . and why it remains relevant today.

Even some more recent scholars of East Asian Buddhism in our academy today resemble those graduate students back then in Princeton. They, too, have been suggesting that there was something “behind the times” or in need of being updated in the dialogic teaching mode used so brilliantly by Abe—as well as by Hisamatsu Shin’ichi and D. T. Suzuki. However, there is, I think, something both laughably conventional and arrogantly neocolonialist in these critics’ assumptions. They believe that textual and historicist methods (of which Ideologiekritik is an extension) remain something that the West still needs to teach to the non-West, that these render all other methods outdated and irrelevant, and that they can be deployed to expose what remains flawed in the way that, for instance, Japanese such as Abe study and teach Buddhism and Zen.

Ironically, this presumptuous stance itself crumbles under historical and textual analysis—at least when applied to Japan. In various studies, Michael Pye has shown that Tominaga Nakamoto’s studies of Buddhist texts, historical and critical to the core, were done in the early seventeenth century and show a solid tradition of scholarship in this mode arising there without any influence from Europe. As Pye shows, interest in the plurality of religions and an early stage of a “science of religions” were present in Japan...