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  • Masao Abe and the Dialogue Breakthrough
  • Stephen Rowe

I am profoundly grateful to Masao Abe for many reasons, including his articulation of Zen and his responsiveness to my own work, but most especially for his breakthrough work on dialogue. For he, along with his Christian partner in dialogue, John B. Cobb Jr., has taken us to a new paradigm, one in which dialogue, in complementary relationship with our more particular practices and traditions, can be valued as a religious practice.1 Together these two towering figures of our time have broken through the koan of abstracted universality versus incommensurable particularity, and hence opened up a possibility for the human future the significance of which cannot be overestimated.

In October 1986, I had the good fortune to find myself at the Third North American Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter, the stated theme of which was “Notions of Ultimate Reality in Buddhism and Christianity.” A critical tension was evident early on in this event. Masao Abe spoke very persuasively of the “perspec-tiveless perspective” of Zen, arising from the experience of sunyata as the negation of negation or the radicalizing of Nothingness, of Zen as the affirmation of radical return. John Cobb spoke with equal persuasiveness of our inescapable particularity as historical beings, our ineluctable locatedness, and the irreducible wisdom of Israel and Greece. Both of these opposing views seemed right. How could this be so?

To heighten the juxtaposition, it was equally evident that there were three large propositions on which Abe and Cobb very much agreed: first, our need of transformation; second, that this must be mutual transformation; and, third, that transformation must be in the direction of a new universality of humankind, which Cobb describes as “a global memory.” 2 How is it possible for these powerful elements of agreement to be juxtaposed with the critical tension mentioned above? Cobb and Abe, not surprisingly, have their own responses to this question,3 and we can learn from what Abe says about universality and transformation, and how his understanding of both leads him to a specifically religious valuing of the dialogical encounter with the difference that is presented by Cobb.

In the paper Masao Abe presented at the 1986 event, he proposed two crucial aspects of dialogue between world religions: (1) seeking clarification of the views peculiar to one’s own tradition through allowing the different views between traditions [End Page 123] to confront one another, and (2) being “free from the peculiarity of our own traditions in order to scrutinize the notion of ultimate reality itself most fitting to our contemporary human predicament and the future of humanity.” 4 The second aspect needs to involve “a very creative and penetrating discussion in which we must be radically critical of our own tradition so that we can re-examine and regrasp the essence of our religion from the more universal and more fundamental position,” and hence “find out the truly ultimate reality for the future of humanity.” 5

There is a paradox here: Abe indicates both a more universal orientation and a reappropriation of the essence of our particular traditions. The key to movement beyond paradox as frustrating antinomy to paradox as gateway to vitality is the dialogical practice, and specifically dialogue in its association with mutual transformation and the emergence of a new universality of humankind. For Abe, this turns on the understanding of “universal”:

To become a “universal” world religion does not imply a monolithic religion common to East and West, but rather calls for a dynamic structure capable of freely assuming any form, oriental or occidental, according to the area in which it develops and yet without being confined to any limitation of that area. Such a dynamic realization of the “universal” world religion may become possible for Christianity and Buddhism should they genuinely regrasp their respective notions of universal salvation for all mankind.6

Dialogue as locus of “dynamic realization” makes possible a new universality, which, for Abe, is based on the self-negation that leads to the awakening of the “true Self,” and “enter[ing] the third historical age of mankind, namely the age of Self-awakened cosmology.” Because “true investigation of the self is always...