- Is Masao Abe an Original Thinker?
During the course of a remarkable career spanning six decades in various institutions in Japan and the West, beginning with his training under Hisamatsu Shin’ichi at Kyoto University, Masao Abe became known for several important accomplishments in disseminating Buddhist thought in comparative perspectives and global contexts. In addition to his considerable contributions to the teaching and mentoring of several dozen Western scholars of Buddhist studies, a first major achievement was the translation and interpretation of eminent Zen Buddhist thinkers. Abe is especially known for his work on Dōgen, the thirteenth-century founder of the Sōtō Zen sect, and Nishida Kitarō, the leading figure in modern Japanese philosophy and originator of the Kyoto school, of which Abe is considered a prominent member. Abe’s renderings (as a cotranslator) and hermeneutic discussions of Dōgen and Nishida remain among the best and most frequently cited in those respective fields.
Second, Abe gained prominence more generally as a presenter of traditional Zen Buddhist thought to the modern West. It was often said that with the passing of D. T. Suzuki in 1966, the mantle was passed to Abe, who became the leading figure playing the role of transmitter. A third accomplishment was Abe’s ever vigorous participation and lifelong commitment to interfaith dialogue, primarily involving Buddhist-Christian studies, as well as exchanges with Jewish thinkers and discussions of thematic issues, such as the encounter of religion and science or the impact of the Holocaust on comparative ethics. The hallmark of the Kyoto school is a comparison of Japanese Buddhism and Western thought. However, Abe went much further than predecessors and colleagues in seeking out and exchanging ideas with dialogue partners from among the leading theologians and philosophers of religion in the West representing a wide ranger of Christian and, to a lesser extent, Jewish traditions.
The question that arises is whether and to what extent there may be a fourth area of accomplishment by examining whether Abe can be considered an original thinker, and, if so, what his special contribution to the Kyoto school and cross-cultural religious philosophy in a broader sense might be. Reflecting on this issue, I have often thought about an episode that took place a few years ago, when I requested permission from a journal to reprint an article in a collection of Abe’s work that I was editing for the University of Hawai‘i Press. The editor’s response in consenting to the request [End Page 131] also included the comment that he considered Abe’s contribution to Buddhist studies to be “not a secondary, but a primary source.”
What did this remark mean? I believe there are two possibilities. One possibility, on the more critical side, is that Abe does not present Buddhism in an objective, historical fashion and is not worthy of being referred to as a secondary source, which in a way has more validity than what he represents. The positive side of the journal editor’s comment is that Abe’s work offers a distinctively original interpretation that is part of the ongoing construction of Buddhist thought for the modern world. Following this line of understanding, my tentative answer to the question of whether Abe is an original thinker is “yes.” A major reason for my saying this is based on the fact, of which the editor was not aware, that Abe rather late in his life was producing books in Japanese for an audience in Japan rather than the West.1
In these three volumes published from 1996 to 2000, Abe began to develop what he innovatively called “sunyata-ology,” or a systematic discussion of the root meaning and far-ranging philosophical implications of the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of śūnyatā or emptiness. This term is often used interchangeably with the notion of nothingness ( Japanese: mu ), in relation to or in contrast with nihilism, nihilation, and negation. Like his Kyoto school predecessors Nishida and Keiji Nishitani, who were in turn greatly influenced by Western philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, the mission of overcoming nihilism at its root must be the central goal of modern thought, according to Abe, who believes...