- Masao Abe
Masao Abe spent a year at the Blaisdell Institute in Claremont, 1965–1966. I was on sabbatical in Germany that year. On return I learned from many people that I had missed a great opportunity for an authentic encounter with a living Buddhist thinker who understood Christianity very well. Fortunately, he visited Claremont again, although more briefly, and this time I was able to take advantage of his visit.
I was, and am, convinced that Whiteheadians have much to gain from the encounter with Buddhists. At one level we can grasp and assimilate the idea of dependent origination or pratitya samutpada quite easily. For Whitehead too the ultimate reality consists in the many becoming one. For Whitehead human experience is an example of this reality and, indeed, that example is the one he most fully analyzed.
On the other hand, we Whiteheadians incline to objectify the whole process. More often than with Whitehead himself, we are describing a process that is going on objectively out there. Abe taught me the difference. He liked to distinguish the perspective of the swimmer battling against the current in dangerous waters and observers on the bank. To understand that all unit events are instances of dependent origination is one thing; to experience oneself in that way is quite another. And what is especially important is to recognize that experiencing oneself is not objectifying one’s past or imagining oneself in the eyes of an observer. It is embodying the absolutely immediate, ever-changing reality that is experience now.
Whitehead never thought of his ontological analysis as having direct religious importance. For him, as part of the understanding that all things are perpetually perishing, it constituted the ultimate threat to the meaningfulness of life. The religious dimension came as a response to this threat.
For Abe, of course, the full existential realization of what we are, is in itself salvific in the sense of healing. It puts an end to guilt, defensiveness, and attachment, and it makes us wholly acceptant of whatever is. It leads to, or perhaps is, enlightenment, expressing itself in wisdom and compassion. Given the history of Buddhism, one must accept the profound truth in this affirmation, although, given the history of Buddhism, one must also recognize that matters are never as simple as this formulation sounds.
I have spoken personally of an example of what and how I learned from Abe. This is a testimonial that can be matched by scores, perhaps hundreds, of others. Certainly [End Page 119] in our ongoing Buddhist-Christian dialogue group, Abe was the foremost teacher. My goal in helping to organize this group was to give my fellow Christian theologians the chance to learn from him and other Buddhists. I am proud of the extent to which, especially because of Abe’s gifts as a teacher, my purpose was fulfilled.
Appreciating the truth of Buddhism, and agreeing with Abe that Christian theology through the centuries has been distorted by clinging to substantialist modes of thought, I was particularly eager to engage him in a dialogue about the relation of Buddhism and Christian process theology, in particular a Christian process theology that recognized and appreciated the spiritual value of Buddhist enlightenment. Since Abe felt that Buddhists had something to learn from Christianity about social ethics, the suggestions of Christian theology, including its process form, for modifications or developments of Buddhism were not wholly lost on him. He supervised two dissertations by Buddhists on this topic, of which I was the official advisor, one by a Zen Buddhist (Chris Ives) and the other by a Pure Land Buddhist (John Ishihara, now Yokota). He criticized fellow Buddhists in our dialogue group for not being as open to learning from their Christian dialogue partners as these partners were open to Buddhist insights. In short he supported real dialogue, always ready to share his wisdom, and encouraging openness to further development of Buddhism.
None of us is perfect, or, at least, none of us fulfills what someone else would see as perfection. In my judgment Abe was unnecessarily wedded to features of his Buddhist tradition that inhibited learning from Christianity, particularly in its process...