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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 191-216

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In the Beginning: Hebrew God and Zen Nothingness

Milton Scarborough
Centre College, Danville, Kentucky

In the 1960s, during the heyday of the so-called "Marxist-Christian dialogue," Leslie Dewart, one of the participants in the exchange, delivered himself of what I took to be a stunning and memorable utterance: "To put it lightly: the whole difference between Marxist atheism and Christian theism has to do with the existence of God." 1 Now, at the end of the millennium, we are several decades into a Buddhist-Christian dialogue, precipitated by a shrinking globe, the growing presence of Buddhist communities and institutions in the West, and the initiative of the Kyoto School of Zen Buddhism. The dialogue has occurred along a variety of fronts. In terms of monastic life, for example, monks from the two traditions have discovered that they often feel a more powerful bond with each other than with laypersons of their own faiths. Some years ago I was a retreatant at Gethsemane Abbey in central Kentucky. Looking down from the sanctuary's balcony, where laypersons and other guests were required to sit, I noticed three Tibetan Buddhist monks in the choir, surrounded by Trappists and engaged in chanting the liturgy, something I, as a Christian, was not, at the time, permitted to do. In the domain of ethics, similarities and differences between Buddhist compassion (karuna) and Christian love (agape) have been carefully noted. In soteriology, comparisons have been made between Christ as savior and the bodhisattva as savior. Nevertheless, when it comes to an examination of ultimate reality in the two religions, the differences are obvious and stark. Traditionally, and still today for the most part, Christians are committed to some variety of theism. On the other hand, Masao Abe observes, "Unlike Christianity, however, Buddhism is fundamentally not theistic and does not accept one personal God as the ultimate reality but sunyata. . . . In Buddhism there is nothing permanent, self-existing, and absolutely good." 2 In this regard, I am tempted to parallel Dewart's comment by saying, "The whole difference between Buddhist atheism and Christian theism has to do with the existence of God." 3

The parallel, however, is not entirely accurate because more recently some members of the Kyoto School of Zen have shown a willingness to speak of God, most notably, Masao Abe himself. 4 On the other hand, they contend that God might be described better in conceptual categories other than 'being,' which is habitually used in the West. Abe, for example, has proposed a reformulation of the idea of God in [End Page 191] terms of sunyata. 5 Like many other participants in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue, he finds an initial justification for such a reconceptualization in Philippians 2:5-8, where Christ's self-emptying (kenosis) has its biblical grounding. According to traditional Christian theological understanding, between the incarnation and resurrection Christ either abandoned, concealed, or restrained--these words represent variant interpretations--his divine nature, such as his attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, in order to condescend to his humanity and, hence, to ours. This leads to the heart of Abe's proposal, which consists of bringing to bear on the trinitarian view of God Mahayana Buddhism's ample resources for critiquing the idea of substance, in which the traditional version of the doctrine is cast. Just as the Buddha attacked the Brahmanical doctrine of the atman, a spiritual substance underlying the self of all things, and Nagarjuna attacked the Sarvastivadins' notion of svabhava, a material substance underlying all Dharmas or fundamental elements constituting reality, so Abe provides a critique of the Christian view of God as three persons in one ousia or substance. 6 Both the three persons of the trinity, on the one hand, and the relation of the trinitarian God to the rest of the universe, on the other, he understands as interdependent and co-existent rather than as independent and self-existent. Thus, the theory of the trinity is purged of the Greek concept of substance and its implications.

Abe's proposal represents...