In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Masao Abe

  • Introductory Material
  • General Introductions to Abe’s Thought
  • Materials Translated by Masao Abe
  • Abe’s Publications on Buddhism

Buddhism Masao Abe
James L. Fredericks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0271

Introductory Material

Masao Abe (阿部 正雄, 1915–2006), was a prominent exponent of Japanese Zen Buddhism within academic circles in the West and made a distinguished contribution to comparative philosophy and interreligious dialogue. Abe’s Zen was shaped by the thought of the Kyoto school of Japanese philosophy and its principle of “absolute nothingness.” Abe linked absolute nothingness to the Buddhist principle of emptiness (sunyata) and based his engagement with Western philosophical thought and Christian theology on the Kyoto school’s appropriation of this Buddhist teaching. Abe began graduate studies in philosophy at Kyoto Imperial University in 1942, where he was influenced by Keiji Nishitani’s lectures on nihilism and the philosophy of religion. Shin’ichi Hisamatsu’s exposition of Zen challenged Abe’s youthful commitment to Pure Land Buddhism. After completing his studies, Abe worked as a professor at Nara University of Education (1952–1980), while also teaching periodically at Kyoto and Hanazono Universities. Starting in the 1950s, he began a study of Christian theology at Union Theological Seminary, with Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, and Western philosophy at Columbia University. After his retirement from teaching in Nara in 1980, Abe became a visiting professor at Claremont Graduate University and subsequently at the University of Hawai‘i, Purdue University, the University of Chicago, and several other American and European universities. He also participated at the East-West Philosopher’s Conference at the University of Hawai’i and, with John B. Cobb, was co-chair of the International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter (the “Cobb-Abe Group”). Abe’s version of Zen was influenced by D. T. Suzuki’s engagement with Western thought, and the philosophy of the Kyoto school, which began with the work of Kitaro Nishida and continued with Hajime Tanabe, Keiji Nishitani, and Shin’ichi Hisamatsu. Nishida, reflecting Japanese Zen teachings, articulated a logic arising within the standpoint (tachiba) of absolute nothingness (zettai mu), the “place” (basho) wherein all dualism is overcome. Nishitani and Hisamatsu would later link Nishida’s philosophy more explicitly with Buddhist teachings, especially the goal of “awakening” (jikaku) to the “emptiness” (sunyata) of all things in their “true suchness” (shinnyo). Based on these philosophical roots in the Kyoto school and following the example of D. T. Suzuki as an apostle of Zen in the West, Abe engaged in extensive comparative studies with Western philosophical thought and interreligious dialogue with Christians and Jews.

General Introductions to Abe’s Thought

Abe was a philosopher, an exponent of Zen Buddhism, and a practitioner of interreligious dialogue. As a philosopher, he continued the work of the Kyoto school, which is rooted in the philosophical contributions of Kitaro Nishida starting in 1911. As an exponent of Zen, he continued the work of Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, in Japan, and D.T. Suzuki, internationally. He also wrote extensively on Dōgen, the founder of the Soto School of Zen in Japan. As a practitioner of interreligious dialogue, Abe wrote extensively about Zen in comparison to Christian theism and Christology. He also engaged in multiple discussions with Buddhists, Christians, and Jews. All three facets of Abe’s work can be seen in Mitchell 1998, Galland 2015,and Skowron 2018. Masiá Clavel 1998 focuses on the Buddhist background to Abe’s Trinitarian theology.

  • Galland, Alex. Bouddhisme et Christianisme chez Masao Abe. Villeneuve d’Ascq, France: Septentrion, 2015.

    An extensive treatment of Masao Abe in French (translates as “Buddhism and Christianity from the Perspective of Masao Abe”). Galland provides an account of Abe’s philosophical appropriation of Zen, especially his understanding of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness. This book also documents his engagement with Christian theism. There is useful background on the influence of Shin’ichi Hisamatsu on Abe’s formation. Galland also places Abe in conversation with the Christian spirituality of François Fenelon and Alexandre Piny.

  • Masiá Clavel, Juan. “Vaciarse y trascender: La filosofía de M Abe: Un capítulo del diálogo interreligioso.” Miscelánea comillas 56.109 (July–December 1998): 479–489.

    This essay (To empty oneself and transcend: the philosophy of M. Abe: a chapter in interreligious dialogue), in Spanish, provides a brief introduction to Abe’s thought, focusing especially on Abe’s use of the Buddhist principle of awakening to emptiness as a way of interpreting the Christian theological principle of kenosis (self-emptying) in Trinitarian theology.

  • Mitchell, Don, ed. Masao Abe: A Life of Dialogue. New Clarendon VT: Tuttle, 1998.

    An extensive collection of essays on Masao Abe on the occasion of his return to Japan after teaching in the United States and Europe.

  • Skowron, Aleksandra. Dialog miedzyreligijny i miedzykuturowy w tworczosci Abego Masao. Warsaw, Poland: Polska Fundacja Japonistyczna, 2018.

    A general introduction to Abe’s work in Polish (translates as “Interreligious and intercultural dialogue in the works of Abe Masao”), looking at his interreligious and intercultural engagement with Western thought in terms of his “existential” interpretation of Zen. The author provides background material on the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism that are most important to Abe, his indebtedness to Kitaro Nishida, Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, and D. T. Suzuki, his dialogues with John Cobb and other Christian theologians, his response to Nietzsche and modern nihilism, and his interpretation of the principle of kenosis in Christology.

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