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  • The Thought and Legacy of Masao Abe
  • Christopher Ives

Masao Abe stands as the most important Buddhist in modern interfaith dialogue and the main transmitter of Zen thought to the West following the death of D. T. Suzuki. His most widely read work, Zen and Western Thought, edited by William LaFleur, won an award in 1987 from the American Academy of Religion as the best recent publication in the “constructive and reflective” category. Abe followed that influential volume with further collections of essays edited by Steven Heine: Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue, Zen and Comparative Studies, and Zen and the Modern World. Abe also wrote widely in Japanese, with his most mature thought finding expression in several volumes he published later in life: Kongen no shuppatsu (Starting from the Root), Kyogi to kyomu (Falsehood and Nihility), and Hibutsu hima (Neither Buddha nor Devil).

Abe also made significant contributions to the study of the renowned Sōtō Zen thinker Dōgen (1200–1253). With Norman Waddell he translated a number of fascicles of Dōgen’s Shōbō-genzō, which appeared in The Eastern Buddhist and were then compiled as The Heart of Dōgen’s Shōbō-genzō. Abe published his own essays on Dōgen, again with Heine’s editorial help, in the volume Dōgen: His Philosophy and Religion. In such journals as International Philosophical Quarterly, Abe also published essays on Nishida Kitarō and other Kyoto school thinkers, and with me he translated Nishida’s seminal work, Zen no Kenkyū (An Inquiry into the Good).

In the 1980s, Abe and his main Christian dialogue partner, process theologian John Cobb, started the North American Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter. They were also instrumental in the founding of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies. Records of Abe’s dialogue with Christian and Jewish thinkers can be found in such volumes as The Emptying God, which John Cobb and I coedited, and in a follow-up volume I edited alone, Divine Emptiness and Historical Fullness.

In terms of his legacy, Abe may ultimately be seen less as a purely Zen thinker than as a Japanese philosopher of religion indebted to his teacher, Hisamatsu Shin’ichi, the Zen and Pure Land traditions, and the Kyoto school of philosophy, while also influenced by Christian mysticism and theology, process philosophy, German idealism, and strands of existentialism and nihilism.

Many people engaged in interfaith dialogue and comparative religious philosophy have benefited from Abe’s way of contrasting Non-Being and Buddhist Nothingness [End Page 103] (mu), as well as his rich treatment of Nietzsche’s nihilism, negation in Tillich’s theology, and Whitehead’s metaphysics. And I think I’m not alone in having wrestled with his claims about the reversibility of time.

But central to Abe’s thought, and in all likelihood his legacy, is the Buddhist construct of śūnyatā, usually translated by him as Emptiness. Abe crafted a specific representation of śūnyatā that he repeated in a range of writings and conferences—so much so that Nagatomi Masatoshi, when he was teaching at Harvard, referred to Abe as “Mr. Sunyata.” Though at times his readers may have wanted Abe to revise or elaborate certain parts of his presentation of śūnyatā, I think we may actually have benefited from how he stuck with his discourse, for he provided us with a fairly fixed and consistent point of reference around which to organize our own thoughts, comparisons, and critiques.

In terms of specifics, Abe advanced śūnyatā as the metaphysical and spiritual foundation of all religions, including monotheistic traditions, and as the optimal basis on which humanity could, while dealing with antireligious ideologies and interreligious conflict, help ground a new global community beyond nation-states. In “Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata,” probably his most widely read essay, he makes these and related arguments after examining the Christian notion of kenosis—divine self-emptying—as a fruitful point of comparison with śūnyatā. Along the way he echoes the Buddhist call for people to “empty” themselves and thereby break through karma, turn ignorance into wisdom, and deliver themselves beyond the realm of ordinary discriminating thought—including dualistic ethical reflection—and into the depth dimension of śūnyatā.

In this engagement with...