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  • Masao Abe’s Early Spiritual Journey and his Later Philosophy
  • Donald W. Mitchell

Masao Abe was born in 1915 in Osaka, Japan. He was the third of six children, and his father was a physician. His mother was the only person in the family who practiced religion, namely, Jōdo Shinshū or Shin Buddhism. As a university student, Abe attended what is now Osaka Municipal University, where he studied economics and law. While at the university, he read the Tannishō, a text by Shinran. Abe later said that he understood from that text that “self-power” was futile and the only hope for salvation was “other-power” faith in the grace of Amida Buddha. However, he also understood that this life of grace entailed the relinquishment of “self-centered calculation.” Abe felt that he was not able to set aside his ego-self and began for the first time in his life to experience the tension between Buddha and ego, or, in more Western terms, the duality of God and self. This concern led Abe into a very personal spiritual quest that would define his life and work.

Given this concern, after graduation, Masao Abe wanted to attend Kyōto University to study Buddhism. Because of family issues, however, he took a position at a trading company in Kōbe, where he worked for four years. Those years were marked by a sense of meaninglessness, and in the end Abe quit his job and entered Kyōto University, where he studied Western philosophy under Tanabe Hajime, who was himself influenced by Shin Buddhism. It was during that time that Abe met Hisamatsu Shin’ichi, an associate professor at Kyōto University and a well-known and committed practitioner of Zen Buddhism.

At one point, Abe took his spiritual concerns about the tension he felt between his ego-centeredness and the religious life to Hisamatsu. He asked, “I am nothing more than a lump of selfish passions. Yet, isn’t it true that in Mahāyāna Buddhism one can be saved just as one is, selfish passions and all?” Hisamatsu responded, “The very thought that there are selfish passions is a selfish passion. Originally there is no such thing.” 1 Abe understood from Hisamatsu that there was a more fundamental ground below the dualism between Buddha and ego, a ground in which this dualism is overcome and salvation from any such dualistic struggle could be found.

But Abe was not ready to surrender his Pure Land religiosity. In fact, it was during [End Page 107] this time at Kyōto University that he had an experience of Amida Buddha’s grace. As Abe put it, he realized that while he thought that he was “running toward” Amida Buddha in his struggle with faith, he realized that Amida Buddha was not something to go to, but, rather, Amida was already right there with him all the time. Abe said that at that moment he threw himself on the tatami floor and wept in gratitude. It was gratitude for Amida’s presence and grace that embraced Abe just as he was, full of passions and ego. When he told Hisamatsu about this experience, Hisamatsu was very happy and never questioned Abe about his Pure Land views again.

Gradually, under the influence of Hisamatsu and with his deeper study of Buddhism, Abe realized that while his Pure Land experience was valid, there was a more fundamental or original religious standpoint to be discovered. Abe still struggled with the duality between the life of Amida’s grace and embracement of Abe with his ego, and Abe’s ego-centered passions themselves. He felt, under Hisamatsu’s influence, that it might be on that more fundamental standpoint that this duality would be overcome. He also saw the undeniable realization of this original nondualistic standpoint in Hisamatsu himself, and this led him to turn more fully to Zen practice under Hisamatsu’s guidance in the context of the F.A.S. Society.

Given the foundational paradigm shift Abe faced in Hisamatsu and the depth of his own struggle with the dualism still involved in his Pure Land position, Zen practice under Hisamatsu was extremely demanding for...