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  • Masao Abe: A Bodhisattva’s Vow
  • James Fredericks

About ten years ago, I enjoyed a fine Japanese lunch with my friend and teacher, the late Masao Abe. I gathered with him and his wife, Ikuko, in a traditional restaurant in Kyoto. Abe Sensei had been somewhat pensive and withdrawn for most of the meal. Mrs. Abe and I had been bantering about how late the tsuyu rains had been that year and the effect it was having on Kyoto’s hydrangea. Suddenly Sensei began to speak with an unusual tone of voice, as if saying something of great importance to no one in particular. “It is not enough,” he said. Mrs. Abe and I fell silent and attentive. He repeated himself in the same voice: “It is not enough.” I knew immediately what my teacher was talking about. In his old age and after a long and distinguished career of teaching and lecturing about Zen in the West, Abe Sensei was talking about a Buddhist teaching dear to his heart, “the standpoint of emptiness.” Out of politeness, I did not want to indicate that I understood his meaning so directly and sat wondering what I should say in response. Finally, I settled on something like this: “I will continue to study; Sensei, please continue to teach.” I spoke in the most formal Japanese I could muster out of respect for my teacher and friend.

Sitting on the tatami mats in that restaurant in Kyoto was not the only time that Sensei has ever said “it is not enough.” In April 1942, four months after the beginning of the Pacific War, Masao Abe entered Kyoto Imperial University to study philosophy of religion. He was twenty-seven years old, buffeted by criticism for not enlisting in the military, and fearful of the power of nihilism at work in his homeland. In Kyoto, he was much attracted by the lectures of Tanabe Hajime, who was already filled with foreboding over Japan’s impending defeat and looking to Pure Land Buddhism for guidance. Tanabe’s comment “Amida is not far from here” brought Abe to weep inconsolably in the realization that it was he who was moving away from Amida even as Amida was moving toward him. Even still, Sensei would eventually find the Pure Land path “not enough” for resisting the forces of nihilism in the world and in himself.

After the war, Abe joined a Zen meditation group that met at Myōshinji in Kyoto. The group was directed by Hisamatsu Shin’ichi, a Zen layman and lecturer on Buddhism at the university. In December 1951, Abe had a violent encounter with Hisamatsu that people still talk about. Zen had begun to erode Abe’s Pure Land faith and the threat of nihilism had returned in force. One evening, in great agitation, [End Page 115] Abe rose from his meditation pillow and lunged toward Hisamatsu screaming, “Is this the true self ?” He was restrained briefly and then left the room. Later, Abe said in despair, “I cannot find anyplace where I can stand,” and Hisamatsu answered him straight away: “Stand right at that place where there is no place to stand.” This is what Abe Sensei called “the standpoint of emptiness.” Abe would eventually teach at great universities in the United States and Europe and become one of the leading figures in the dialogue among Buddhists and Christians. At the heart of all of this has been his unwavering commitment to expounding the standpoint of emptiness. Unwavering, that is, until that day in Kyoto over lunch when he said, “It is not enough.”

Of Buddhism’s many impressive teachings, the bodhisattva ideal must be one of the most wondrous. A bodhisattva is one who, in the quest for enlightenment, has come to the threshold of nirvana itself. Ready to enter into bliss, the bodhisattva renounces nirvana and turns back to samsara. This return to samsara takes the form of a vow to work skillfully for the benefit of every sentient being. In the bodhisattva’s vow, Buddhism teaches a great and paradoxical truth. Since attachment is the birthplace of sorrow, wisdom requires that attachment be renounced. In the quest for liberation from...