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  • Masao Abe: D. T. Suzuki’s Legacies and an “Academic Dharma Lineage” in North America
  • Michiko Yusa

Professor Abe is generally regarded as the torch bearer of D. T. Suzuki. But how did that come about? This essay sheds light on the relationship between Suzuki and Abe.

Abe’s professor, Hisamatsu Shin’ichi, had come to know Suzuki through his mentor Nishida Kitarō. Suzuki was one of Nishida’s closest friends. It appears that Hisamatsu’s and Suzuki’s cordial relationship became closer after Nishida’s death in 1945. Hisamatsu in turn was the link for Abe to come to know Suzuki. Abe recalls his first encounter with Suzuki, which took place in the winter of 1947, when Suzuki was in bed with a bad cold and Abe was sent by Hisamatsu to make a sick call on his behalf. Abe was then Hisamatsu’s teaching assistant ( joshu). Seeing Suzuki in person for the first time, Abe could not help but feel the unique spiritual presence of this man. At that time, Abe, though a committed follower of Pure Land Buddhism, was deeply troubled with his spiritual quest. Perhaps sensing Abe’s agony, Suzuki gave him a copy of his imperial lecture The Essence of Buddhism, in which he had treated Zen and Pure Land thought as sharing the same Mahayana roots.1

Abe’s second visit to Suzuki came in the spring of 1949, when Suzuki was preparing to leave for the United States to spend “the rest of his life in order to bring the message of Zen Buddhism” to the West. At that time Abe was to convey Hisamatsu’s concern that Suzuki ought to remain in Japan and contribute to internationalizing Zen by translating Zen texts into English, for, in Hisamatsu’s mind, there was no one better qualified than Suzuki to carry out that task.2

Suzuki was ready to make a bold move, however. Having witnessed Hiroshima-Nagasaki, he was convinced that the message of wisdom and compassion based on the awakening to the “true self” that Zen speaks of was an effective and necessary antidote to the egocentric mindset, which manifested also as national ego-centrism, rampant in the post–World War II world. He was convinced that the message of awakening and compassion would give the humanity a better chance at peace. In fact, by the early 1950s, with the intensification of the Cold War and the turmoil in Korea, there was a palpable fear that World War III might break out any day, and Suzuki certainly shared that ominous sense.3 [End Page 111]

Zen Must Adopt New Expressions

Suzuki left for the United States on June 16, 1949, to attend the Second East-West Philosopher’s Conference and to teach at the University of Hawai‘i in the summer and the fall semesters. Through his interaction with Western and Asian thinkers at the conference as well as with his students at the university, he came to feel strongly that (1) it was important to emphasize compassion (hi) in the face of an excessive Zen emphasis on the koan practice, (2) Zen Buddhists must develop their “logical” expression to articulate Zen teaching in language understandable to Westerners, and, in this connection, (3) it was incumbent on him to introduce the thought of Nishida Kitarō to the West. In Suzuki’s own words, “Contemporary Zen is short of compassion (hi). Therefore, it lacks the momentum to engage society and work from within it. Again, it lacks a logical discourse (riron). This is something Nishida always used to say. In order to make Western thinkers understand Zen teaching, one must have a logical system (ronri).4

These three points are clearly present and developed in Abe’s works. In his introduction to Zen and Western Thought (1985), Abe wrote that (1) Zen embraces a profound philosophy (echoing Suzuki’s concern for the necessity for logical articulation), (2) the ultimate in Zen and in Buddhism is “absolute Nothingness” or “Emptiness” (echoing Nishida’s philosophy), (3) Buddhism is a radical realism and a compassionate way of life (echoing Suzuki’s concern for compassion), and (4) a new cosmology, not a new humanism, is needed in...