Buddhism Masao Abe
by
James L. Fredericks
  • 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.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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

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

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

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    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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Books by Masao Abe

Abe’s preferred literary form was the essay. Most of the books he published are collections of his essays. His volume on Dōgen, Abe 1992, is not an exception to this rule.

Books in English

Abe began to anthologize his English language essays starting with Abe 1985. Subsequently, two further volumes were published through the editorial services of Steven Heine reflecting Abe’s broad range of interests, including the philosophy of religion, comparative religion, Buddhist social ethics, and Abe’s debt to the Kyoto school. See Abe and Heine 1995 and Abe 2003. Abe also wrote extensively on Dōgen, the founder of the Soto School of Zen in Japan. For these essays, see Abe 1992.

  • Abe, Masao. Zen and Western Thought. Edited by William LaFleur. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-06994-1Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A collection of Abe’s earlier essays in English, addressing figures such as Dōgen, D. T. Suzuki, Nietzsche, Tillich, and Whitehead from the standpoint of Abe’s understanding of the Buddhist principle of “emptiness” (sunyata). Other essays address themes such as Zen and Western philosophical thinking, faith and awakening, and the significance of religions in the modern period. The collection includes a Foreword by John Hick and an editor’s Introduction by William LaFleur.

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  • Abe, Masao. A Study of Dōgen: His Philosophy and Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

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    Abe wrote a series of essays in English on Dōgen, the founder of the Soto sect of Japanese Zen. These essays reflect Abe’s philosophical starting point within the Kyoto school. Abe addresses Dōgen’s basic teachings. He also has two unusual essays on Dōgen’s thought in light of Shinran (b. 1173–d. 1263), and also an essay comparing Dōgen with the philosophical phenomenology of Martin Heidegger.

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  • Abe, Masao. Zen and Comparative Studies. Edited by Steven Heine. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230375994Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A collection of essays addressing Zen’s notion of emptiness in relation to the self and to Christian theism, the master-disciple relationship in Zen, the problem of evil, and the reality of death from a Zen perspective. There are essays comparing Buddhism to Western philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Jung, and Whitehead, as well as essays on religious tolerance, human rights, and the Japanese view of truth.

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  • Abe, Masao. Zen and the Modern World: A Third Sequel to Zen and Western Thought. Edited by Steven Heine. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780824874476Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A collection of essays by Masao Abe addressing the future of religion in the modern world, Buddhist social ethics, and several essays on the philosophy of Nishida Kitaro and on cosmology from the perspective of Buddhist awakening. This volume includes an editor’s Introduction on the significance of Abe’s contribution to multiple areas of inquiry.

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  • Abe, Masao, and Steven Heine, ed. Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1995.

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    A collection of essays addressing philosophical approaches to religious pluralism; religious approaches to suffering; the work of Christian theologians such as Paul Tillich, Langdon Gilkey, Paul Knitter, and Thomas Altizer; and the contemporary significance of interreligious dialogue.

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Books in Japanese

Abe eventually began to anthologize essays he published in Japanese. These essays are less attentive to dialogue with Christian theology and engagement of Western philosophy and more attentive to the role of Zen in contemporary Japan (Abe 1996) and philosophical questions, such as nihilism and evil, seen from the perspective of Zen (Abe 2000).

  • Abe, Masao. 根源からの出発 (Kongen kara no shuppatsu). Kyoto: Hōzōkan, 1996.

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    This volume (Setting out from the source) is a collection of essays, all in Japanese, that addresses various topics, including what Abe calls a “cosmology of awakening,” the Zen principle of “awakening to the formless self,” the future of Zen, and an essay on history and creation as a manifestation of the Buddha’s compassionate Vow.

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  • Abe, Masao. 虚偽と虚無:宗教てき自覚におけるニヒリスムの問題 (Kyogi to kyomu: Shūkyō teki jikaku ni okeru nihirisumu no mondai). Kyoto: Hōzōkan, 2000.

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    An anthology (Falsehood and Nihility: The problem of nihilism from the perspective of religious self-awakening) of Abe’s essays, written in Japanese between 1950 and 1976, on the topic of nihilism as a modern problem in light of Buddhist thought. The essays address Kant’s notion of “radical evil” (Radicalishe Böse), and nihilism in the thought of Nietzsche. The final chapter of this book is an interview with Keiji Nishitani, one of Abe’s teachers, a prominent figure in the Kyoto school and author of an influential book on nihilism.

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Materials Translated by Masao Abe

Masao Abe translated several important texts into English. These translations include works by Dōgen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen in Japan (Dōgen 2002) and an essay on Japanese aesthetics by Hisamatsu Shin’ichi (Hisamatsu 1970). Abe also translated, with Christopher Ives, Nishida Kitaro’s first book, An Inquiry into the Good (Nishida 1990).

  • Dōgen. The Heart of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō. Translated by Norman Waddell and Masao Abe. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

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    This is Abe’s translation of the difficult core lectures of the Shōbōgenzō of Dōgen, the founder of the Soto sect of Japanese Zen. Abe and his collaborator, Norman Waddell, have provided translations of the following fascicles: Genjokoan, Fukanzazengi, Bendowa, Ikka Myoju, Uji, Bussho, Sammai-o Zammai, Shoji, and Zazengi. There is also a translators’ introduction.

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  • Hisamatsu, Shin’ichi. “The Nature of Sado Culture,” translated by Masao Abe and Patrick James. The Eastern Buddhist 3.2 (October 1970): 9–19.

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    This translation of an essay by Hisamatsu, Abe’s Zen teacher, is an early publication in English by Masao Abe. Hisamatsu’s essay addresses the aesthetics of Japanese tea ceremony and its relation to Zen Buddhism.

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  • Nishida, Kitaro. An Inquiry into the Good. Translated by Masao Abe and Christopher Ives. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

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    With Christopher Ives, Abe translated Nishida’s first major publication, Zen no kenkyu (An Inquiry into the Good) which appeared in the late Meiji Period (1911). This work marks the beginning of the Kyoto school of Japanese philosophy. Abe wrote a substantial introduction to his translation which provides background for appreciating Nishida’s project of articulating a philosophical standpoint that reflects Japanese cultural traditions as well as the Buddhist roots of this project.

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Abe’s Publications on Buddhism

In contrast to Seizan Yanagida and Heinrich Dumoulin, Abe was a philosopher of Zen, not its historian, as can be seen in Abe 1976 and Abe 2003. He was more interested in the contemporary significance of Zen than its historical development and the critical study of its textual artifacts, as Abe 1973, Abe 1986a and Abe 1997 make clear. This interest in Zen’s contemporary significance can also be seen in the extensive collection of essays he edited commemorating the work of D. T. Suzuki (Abe 1986b).

  • Abe, Masao. “Buddhist Nirvana, Its Significance in Contemporary Thought and Life.” Ecumenical Review 25.2 (1973): 158–168.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1758-6623.1973.tb02364.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Abe argues that nirvana must be understood positively as an “absolute affirmation of the world.” As such, it carries significance for addressing modern nihilism and alienation and the quest for meaning in a society distorted by the dualistic epistemology of science and the impact of industrialization on social relations.

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  • Abe, Masao. “Education in Zen.” The Eastern Buddhist 9.2 (1976): 64–70.

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    A refection on the master-disciple relation in Zen monasteries and the rituals that enact this relationship. The essay also investigates the underpinnings of these rituals in Buddhist notions of the self.

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  • Abe, Masao. “Religious Tolerance and Human Rights: a Buddhist Perspective.” In Religious Liberty and Human Rights in Nations and Religions. Edited by Leonard Swidler, 193–211. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1986a.

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    This essay is an early contribution to the discussion of human rights in Buddhism, a discussion which intensified in the following decade. Abe addresses the problem posed by the Buddhist doctrine of anatman (the non-self) for Buddhist discourse on human rights.

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  • Abe, Masao, “Ethics and Social Responsibility in Buddhism.” The Eastern Buddhist 30.2 (1997): 161–172.

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    A discussion of the problem of rooting a social ethics in Japanese Zen, with special attention to the Bodhisattva Vow and the thought of Abe’s teacher, Hisamatsu. This essay was republished in Zen and the Modern World (cited under Books in English).

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  • Abe, Masao. “Toward the Establishment of a Cosmology of Awakening.” In Zen and Modern Thought: A Third Sequel to Zen and Western Thought. Edited by Steven Heine, 127–156. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003.

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    This essay is a translation by James L. Fredericks, of Abe’s 自覚的宇宙論確立のために (Jikaku-teki uchū-ron kakuritsu no tame ni). The essay is a reflection on how the Buddhist notion of “awakening to emptiness” connects philosophical anthropology with a religious cosmology.

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  • Abe, Masao, ed. A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki Remembered. New York: Weatherhill, 1986b.

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    This is a collection of essays commemorating the life of D. T. Suzuki, edited by Masao Abe. The book includes three autobiographical essays by Suzuki himself, essays by Buddhist scholars evaluating his contribution to Buddhist studies, and a final section of essays by Suzuki’s friends offering personal memories. Abe has written an introduction, an essay on Suzuki’s influence on the West, and a remembrance of Suzuki as a teacher.

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Essays on the Kyoto School of Japanese Philosophy

With the publication of An Inquiry into the Good (cited under Materials Translated by Masao Abe) in 1911, Kitaro Nishida began the project of articulating a fundamental philosophical standpoint reflecting Japan’s cultural heritage, analogous to what Kant and Hegel did for modern Europe. Nishida’s philosophy looked to Japanese Zen for its metaphysics. The work of Hajime Tanabe, Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, and Keiji Nishitani amplified Nishida’s original work into what has become known as the “Kyoto school.” Masao Abe represents the third generation of this school.

Essays on Kitaro Nishida

Abe’s publications on the philosophy of Nishida strictly avoided the question of Nishida’s nationalist sympathies during the 1930s and 1940s. His interests, instead, lay in appreciating Nishida as a thinker attempting to articulate the philosophical presuppositions of Japanese culture, as can be seen in Abe 1990. In addition, Abe wrote essays of a highly technical nature on Nishida’s basic philosophical ideas, as can be seen in the essays on the philosophy of “place” (Abe 1988, Abe 1995b) and the essays on the principle of “inverse correspondence” (Abe 1992, Abe 1985b, Abe 1999).

  • Abe, Masao. “Nishida’s Philosophy of Place.” International Philosophical Quarterly 28 (December 1988): 355–371.

    DOI: 10.5840/ipq198828437Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Kitaro Nishida, the founder of the Kyoto school, developed a metaphysics on “the logic of the place of absolute nothingness.” Using this logic, Nishida hoped to overcome all dualisms. Nishida was not always explicit about the influence of Zen aesthetics and teachings on his thought. Abe traces the emergence of Nishida’s philosophical standpoint and relates Nishida’s thought to Buddhist teachings on nondualism and emptiness.

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  • Abe, Masao. “Introduction” to Kitaro Nishida. In An Inquiry into the Good. Translated by Masao Abe and Christopher Ives, vii–xxvi. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

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    With Christopher Ives, Abe translated Nishida’s first major publication, Zen no kenkyu (An Inquiry into the Good) which appeared in the late Meiji Period. Abe’s introduction provides background for appreciating Nishida’s project of articulating a philosophical standpoint that reflects Japanese cultural traditions as well as the Buddhist roots of this project.

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  • Abe, Masao. “‘Inverse Correspondence’ in the Philosophy of Nishida: The Emergence of the Notion.” International Philosophical Quarterly 32.3 (1992): 325–344.

    DOI: 10.5840/ipq199232319Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Abe published a series of essays on the philosophy of Kitaro Nishida in Japanese that were subsequently translated into English by James L. Fredericks. In this first essay, Abe begins an investigation into the principle of “inverse correspondence” This essay is a translation of 西田哲学における「逆対応」の問題 (Nishida Tetsugaku ni okeru “gyaku taiō'” no mondai”). It appears with an introduction by the translator.

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  • Abe, Masao. “The Logic of Absolute Nothingness as Expounded by Nishida Kitarō.” The Eastern Buddhist 28.2 (1995a): 167–174.

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    After a long struggle with neo-Kantianism, Nishida began to articulate his “logic of the place of absolute nothingness” as a professor of philosophy at Kyoto Imperial University. Abe presents an analysis of Nishida’s seminal contribution to Japanese philosophy by arguing that Nishida’s notion of absolute nothingness has roots in the Buddhist notion of emptiness.

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  • Abe, Masao. “The Problem of ‘Inverse Correspondence’ in the Philosophy of Nishida: Toward a Critical Understanding.” International Philosophical Quarterly 35.4 (1995b): 419–436.

    DOI: 10.5840/ipq199535443Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In this second essay, a translation of 西田哲学における「逆対応」の問題:批判的な理解のために (Nishida tetsugaku ni okeru “gyaku taiō” no mondai: Hihanteki-na rikai no tame ni), Abe continues his investigation into Nishida’s philosophy by relating the principle of “inverse correspondence” to problems in moral philosophy and a philosophical typology of religions. The essay appears with an introduction by James L. Fredericks.

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  • Abe, Masao. “The Problem of ‘Inverse Correspondence’ in the Philosophy of Nishida: Comparing Nishida and Tanabe.” International Philosophical Quarterly 39.1 (1999): 59–76.

    DOI: 10.5840/ipq199939166Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This is the third and final essay by Abe on the principle of “inverse correspondence” (gyakutaio teki ni) in Nishida’s philosophy. Abe addresses Tanabe’s criticism of Nishida. This essay is a translation by James L. Fredericks of 西田哲学における「逆対応」の問題: 西田と田辺とくるべる (Nishida tetsugaku ni okeru `gyaku taiō' no mondai: Nishida to Tanabe to kuruberu) and comes with a translator’s introduction.

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Essays on Keiji Nishitani

Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness was translated into English in 1983, after which time Taisetsu Unno organized a conference on Nishitani’s thought. Abe’s contribution is the lead essay in the collection of papers presented at the conference (Abe 1989a). He also wrote an essay on the historical finitude of the human person in Nishitani’s thought given at this same conference (Abe 1989b). His memorial to Nishitani appeared in The Eastern Buddhist (Abe 1991).

  • Abe, Masao. “Nishitani’s Challenge to Western Philosophy and Theology.” In The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji: Encounter with Emptiness. Edited by Taisetsu Unno, 13–45. Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1989a.

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    The essay provides a comprehensive summary of Nishitani’s thought, including his philosophy of religion, his critique of Western ontology, and the issue of religious and scientific knowledge in light of Zen Buddhism and Christian theism.

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  • Abe, Masao. “Will, Sūnyatā, and History.” In The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji: Encounter with Emptiness. Edited by Taisetsu Unno, 279–304. Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1989b.

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    This essay appears in the volume mentioned above, which collects the papers given at the conference on Nishitani’s thought organized by Taisetsu Unno. In his conference essay, Abe explores the implications of his teacher’s thought for a religiously attuned philosophical anthropology that seeks to understand the human person in her historical finitude.

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  • Abe, Masao. “Nishitani, Keiji, 1900–1990.” The Eastern Buddhist 24.2 (1991): 149–152.

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    This essay is a brief tribute by Abe to Keiji Nishitani, who had recently died. Nishitani is an important figure in the Kyoto school of Japanese philosophy and Abe’s teacher.

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Essays on Shin’ichi Hisamatsu

Along with Nishitani, Abe studied with Hisamatsu Shin’ichi at Kyoto Imperial University. Abe was also a disciple of Hisamatsu as a practitioner of Zen. Hisamatsu’s influence on Abe, in this regard, must not be underestimated (Abe 1981).

Interreligious Dialogue

In addition to being a philosopher of Zen in the lineage of Kitaro Nishida and the Kyoto school, Masao Abe was a practitioner of interreligious dialogue, primarily with Christian theologians. Abe’s interest in Christianity is exclusively doctrinal (the doctrines of God, creation, and the Incarnation) and Christian social ethics (including human rights). Abe also published essays regarding the practice and aims of interreligious dialogue.

Buddhist-Christian Comparisons

Abe is most widely known, among Western academics, for his contributions to Buddhist-Christian studies. Abe began to publish comparative work in this area long before moving to the United States to teach. These essays reveal the fundamental consistency of Abe’s thought. His comparative interests ranged from the Christian doctrine of creation (Abe 1963a and Abe 1963b), to Buddhist and Christian understandings of death (Abe 1986 and Abe 1997) and Christian Trinitarian thinking (Abe 1990). He wrote extensively on what might broadly be construed as redemption or religious realization (Abe 1969, Abe 1988, Abe 1998) and the philosophical foundations of Buddhist awakening and Christian theism (Abe 1992, Abe 1993) He also wrote, for a Christian audience, on the nature and purpose of interreligious dialogue (Abe 1985a).

  • Abe, Masao. “Buddhism and Christianity as a Problem of Today (Part 1).” Japanese Religions 3.2 1963 (1963a): 11–22.

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    This is the first of a two-part essay, representative of Abe’s early reflections, in English at least, on Buddhism and Christianity. This essay reveals the fundamental consistency of Abe’s thought over his entire career. Abe reflects on the Christian doctrine of creation in comparison with Buddhist notions such as “the original naturalness of all” and “true suchness.”

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  • Abe, Masao. “Buddhism and Christianity as a Problem of Today (Part 2).” Japanese Religions 3.3 (1963b): 8–31.

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    This essay continues Abe’s reflection on Buddhism and Christianity in light of the challenged posed by modern nihilism and atheism.

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  • Abe, Masao. “God, Emptiness, and the True Self.” The Eastern Buddhist 2.2 (1969): 15–30.

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    This essay is derived from one of a series of lectures given at the University of Chicago in which Abe lays out several of his basic ideas. Citing classic Ch’an texts, Abe develops his understanding of emptiness in relationship to the Mahayana Buddhist teaching of “non-abiding in nirvana.”

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  • Abe, Masao. “Beyond Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism.” The Eastern Buddhist 18.1 (1985a): 131–137.

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    This essay is Abe’s review of John Cobb’s book Beyond Dialogue. Cobb develops a Christian theological understanding of the Buddhist teaching of nirvana using the perspective of process theology. Abe and Cobb are in fundamental agreement that the goal of interreligious dialogue is the mutual transformation of religious beliefs and practices. Abe joined with John Cobb as co-chair of the International Buddhist-Christian Dialogue Group.

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  • Abe, Masao. “The Problem of Death in East and West: Immortality, Eternal Life, Unbornness.” The Eastern Buddhist 19.2 (1985b): 30–61.

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    In this essay, Abe compares Christian and Buddhist views of death, addressing the influence of Plato’s view of the soul in Christian doctrine from his Buddhist perspective.

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  • Abe, Masao. “The Problem of Evil in Christianity and Buddhism.” In Buddhist-Christian Dialogue: Mutual Renewal and Transformation. Edited by Paul O. Ingram and Frederick J. Streng, 139–154. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1986.

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    This essay addresses religious ethics from a comparative perspective, the problem of theodicy in Christian theology, and Buddhist approaches to evil.

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  • Abe, Masao. “Transformation in Buddhism in Comparison with Platonic and Christian Notions.” In Christian Identity. Edited by by Christian Duquoc and Casiano Floristan, 41–60. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988.

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    Abe reflects on the notion of religious identity in conversation with Buddhist and Christian understandings of death and salvation. He also addresses the notion of religious transformation in relation to the Zen teachings of Hisamatsu Shin’ichi.

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  • Abe, Masao. “Kenosis and Emptiness.” In Buddhist Emptiness and Christian Trinity. Edited by Roger Corless and Paul Knitter, 5–25. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990.

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    A discussion of Buddhist emptiness and the Christian theology of divine kenosis in light of Christian and Buddhist responses to modern nihilism, science, and technology.

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  • Abe, Masao. “Negation in Mahayana Buddhism and in Tillich: a Buddhist View of ‘The Significance of the History of Religions for the Systematic Theologian.’” In Negation and Theology. Edited by Robert P. Scharlemann, 86–99. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.

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    Paul Tillich gave one of his last lectures at the University of Chicago in 1965 on the significance of the “history of religions” as a discipline for Christian theologians. Abe’s essay is a reflection on this famous lecture, focusing on the role of negation in Tillich’s theology and Abe’s understanding of Zen.

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  • Abe, Masao. “God and Absolute Nothingness.” In God, Truth and Reality: Essays in Honour of John Hick. Edited by Arvind Sharma, 33–45. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-22517-0_5Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This essay is Abe’s contribution to a Festschrift for John Hick, the philosopher of religion and Abe’s dialogue partner of many years. The essay explores Christian theism in light of the principle of “absolute nothingness” in the philosophy of Nishida Kitaro, the founder of the Kyoto school of philosophy.

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  • Abe, Masao. “Great Death, Great Life: An Interview with Masao Abe.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 17 (1997): 79–85.

    DOI: 10.2307/1390400Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In this published interview, Abe is questioned about the nonduality of life and death in Zen tradition, in contrast to Christian teachings about the resurrection of the body.

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  • Abe, Masao. “Faith and Self-Awakening: A Search for the Fundamental Category Covering All Religious Life.” The Eastern Buddhist 31.1 (1998): 12–24.

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    An important essay in which Abe develops a typology for correlating Pure Land Buddhism and Christianity, understood as religions of “faith,” with Zen, understood as a religion based on “awakening.” Abe challenges W. C. Smith’s claim that “faith” provides a basis for all religious experience.

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Collaborative Work in Interreligious Dialogue

Interreligious dialogue, by its very nature, entails collaboration. There should be no surprise that Masao Abe’s work in this area would lead to joint publications. Abe worked closely with several Christian theologians and sometimes published essays in tandem with them. Abe wrote a lengthy essay on the Christian doctrine of the incarnation that was published twice. Each publication was accompanied by responses from Christian and Jewish theologians. See Cobb and Ives 1990 and Ives 1995. Abe also collaborated with Paul Knitter in publishing paired essays on Buddhist and Christian religious practice in relation to social action (Abe and Knitter 1988).

  • Abe, Masao, and Paul Knitter. “Spirituality and Liberation: a Buddhist-Christian Conversation.” Horizons 15.2 (Fall 1988): 347–364.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0360966900039207Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In this give-and-take, Paul Knitter raises the issue of what Christians call “contemplation and action.” He argues that contemplation is not complete until it bears fruit in social action for justice, and that social action must be pursued so as to return the practitioner to contemplation. Abe responds with a reflection on the FAS society, founded by his Zen teacher in Kyoto, Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, which sought to link Zen practice with world peace.

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  • Cobb, John B., and Christopher Ives, eds. The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990.

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    This is a collection of essays written by prominent Christian and Jewish scholars in response to Abe’s lead essay, “Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata.” Abe’s essay develops an understanding of emptiness (sunyata), revised in light of the principle of kenosis is Christian theology. Other contributors to this volume include John Cobb, Christopher Ives, Thomas Altizer, Jurgen Moltmann, Shubert Ogden, and David Tracy.

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  • Ives, Christopher, ed. Divine Emptiness and Historical Fullness: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation with Masao Abe. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995.

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    This collection of essays includes a republication of Abe’s seminal essay, “Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata,” now with responses from Richard Rubenstein, Sandra B. Lubarsky, Heinrich Ott, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, Hans Waldensfels, Hans Kung, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Christopher Ives.

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Secondary Literature on Masao Abe

Masao Abe’s contribution to interreligious dialogue is noteworthy in that he was a Buddhist deeply rooted in the Zen tradition, who knew how to communicate effectively and in depth with Christian theologians. For this reason, there is a great deal of secondary literature on Abe by Christian theologians, philosophers, and, to a lesser extent, Buddhologists.

Essays by Christian Theologians

Not surprisingly, there is a substantial body of secondary literature on Abe regarding his interpretations of Christian doctrines. These include Christian theological anthropology (Pannenberg 1982 and Lefebure 1997–1998) and the theology of faith (Barnes 2006). Given Abe’s philosophical approach, there are numerous essays dealing with religious metaphysics (Carter 1985, Hospital 1989, Stenger 1991, Sabatino 2002, Jones 2004, and Kang 2018).

  • Barnes, Michael. “The Intimacy of Distance: On Faith Learning from Faith.” Spiritus 6.1 (Springer 2006): 48–67.

    DOI: 10.1353/scs.2006.0026Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Barnes has written a substantial essay on Christian faith in response to challenges posed by two very different thinkers: Emmanuel Levinas and Masao Abe. Each of these thinkers requires a different response from Christians. The author argues that Christian faith is a “meeting of two freedoms” and that interreligious dialogue leads to a renewed appreciation of the plurality and ambiguity within Christianity.

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  • Carter, Robert E. “The Nothingness beyond God.” The Eastern Buddhist 18.1 (1985): 120–130.

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    A discussion of Abe’s thought in relationship to the philosophy of Kitaro Nishida (b. 1870–d. 1945), the founding figure of the Kyoto school of Buddhist philosophy, and Paul Tillich (b. 1886–d. 1965), a prominent Lutheran theologian who was influential in Abe’s understanding of Christianity.

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  • Hospital, Clifford G. “Toward a Christology for Global Consciousness.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 26.1 (Winter 1989): 45–57.

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    The author attempts to go beyond Abe’s Buddhist model of religious pluralism based on the Mahayana Trikaya doctrine, with a more complex approach that understands Jesus of Nazareth as a figure who has “broken through” to ultimate reality. The author claims that Christology must be attentive to traditional Christian theological affirmations about Jesus, but must also recognize “foundational figures” in other religions as being analogous to Jesus.

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  • Jones, Charles B. “Emptiness, Kenōsis, History, and Dialogue: the Christian Response to Masao Abe’s Notion of ‘Dynamic Sūnyatā’ in the Early Years of the Abe-Cobb Buddhist-Christian Dialogue.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 24 (2004): 117–133.

    DOI: 10.1353/bcs.2005.0018Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Jones argues that, at least in the early stage of the Cobb-Abe Dialogue Group, Christians had difficulty in understanding Abe’s presentation of Buddhist emptiness because they had been influenced by Frederick Streng’s treatment of emptiness in the early Mahayana thinking of Nagarjuna. Abe’s Christian dialogue partners were largely unaware of the development of Nagarjuna’s view of emptiness in China within the T’ien Tai sect. Interreligious dialogue, in its maturity, must appeal to a far wider sampling of classic texts.

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  • Kang, Chris. “Emptiness and Presence in a Non-substantialist Formulation of Trinitarian Doctrine: A Trialogue of Madhyamika, Abe, and Torrance.” Journal of Reformed Theology 12.2 (2018): 127–142.

    DOI: 10.1163/15697312-01202010Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This essay examines emptiness (sunyata) and “presence” (svabhava) in Madhyamika thought and compares this inquiry with the views of Masao Abe. Abe’s appropriation of traditional Buddhist thinking about emptiness is then placed in dialogue with the Trinitarian theology of the Scottish theologian Thomas Forsyth Torrance (1913–2007).

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  • Lefebure, Leo D. “Awakening and Grace: Religious Identity in the Thought of Masao Abe and Karl Rahner.” Cross Currents 47.4 (1997–1998): 451–472.

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    Karl Rahner, whose intellectual roots include both Aquinas and Heidegger, established his systematic Christian theology in the notion of God as the Absolute Mystery. The author works out a critical comparison of Abe and Rahner by approaching the question of identify using Abe’s notion of awakening and Rahner’s theology of grace.

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  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. “Auf der Suche Nach dem Wahren Selbst.” In Erloesung in Christentum und Buddhismus. Edited by Andreas Bsteh, 128–146. Moedling, Austria: St. Gabriel, 1982.

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    Pannenberg’s essay (The quest for the true self) focuses on Abe’s understanding of Christianity in light of the theological anthropology of Paul, Luther, and Tillich.

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  • Sabatino, Charles J. “No-God: Reflections on Masao Abe’s Symbol of God as Self-Emptying.” Horizons 29.1 (2002): 64–79.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0360966900009725Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This essay argues that Abe’s notion of a self-emptying God allows Christians to turn from a focus on a transcendent deity to a world-centered awareness. God is to be affirmed not as a transcendent center of the world, but rather as the basis of the world as an interrelated whole.

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  • Stenger, Mary Ann. “Ultimacy in Relation to Affirmation and Negation: Buddhist and Christian Perspectives.” Dialogue & Alliance 5.1 (1991): 55–67.

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    This essay compares two Christian theologians (Karl Barth and Paul Tillich) and two Buddhist thinkers (Keiji Nishitani and Masao Abe) in regard to the dialects of affirmation and negation in their religious thinking. Buddhist negation and affirmation related to emptiness is compared with Christian apophatic theology.

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Essays on Abe from the Perspective of Christian Spirituality

Abe’s engagement of Christianity was principally from the perspective of Christian doctrine and Buddhist metaphysics. Much of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, however, is centered on what Buddhists often call “practice” and what Christians often call “spirituality.” Mitchell’s essay places Abe’s interpretation of Buddhism in conversation with the history of Christian mysticism (Mitchell 1986). Fredericks, in no small measure due to his long-standing work with Masao Abe, has developed an appreciation of interreligious dialogue based on the practice of “interreligious friendship.” He published a memoir of his friendship with Abe (Fredericks 2003) in a journal of Christian spirituality.

  • Fredericks, James L. “Masao Abe: a Spiritual Friendship.” Spiritus 3.2 (2003): 219–230.

    DOI: 10.1353/scs.2003.0033Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A reflection on the author’s friendship with Masao Abe in light of “interreligious friendship,” understood as a new theological virtue. Abe’s work in promoting an engagement between Zen and Christianity is presented in terms of bodhisattva practice in Mahayana Buddhism and the notion of “spiritual regret” as developed by Lee Yearley.

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  • Mitchell, Donald W. “A Buddhist Philosophy of Karma and Christian Spiritual Theology.” Ching Feng 29.1 (May 1986): 5–13.

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    Mitchell offers a reflection on Christian theological anthropology of sanctification and mystical theology in dialogue with Abe’s “existential” interpretation of the traditional Buddhist doctrine of karma.

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Reviews of Abe’s Zen and Western Thought

The publication of Zen and Western Thought (1985), Abe’s first compilation of essays in English, brought Abe wide attention among philosophers and theologians. This book’s appearance led to a number of review articles from the perspectives of Christian theology (Gilkey 1986) and comparative philosophy (Odin 1989, Thomas 1989, and Thomas 1990). Langdon Gilkey, a Christian theologian, would go on to become a dialogue partner with Abe (Gilkey 1986).

Essays on Abe from the Perspective of Philosophy and Religious Studies

Besides Christian theologians, Abe engaged specialists in Buddhist studies and philosophers of religion. Buddhist scholars have responded to Abe from a variety of perspectives, including the history of Buddhist doctrine (Odin 1989, Becker 2018, and Keenan 2012), the reception of Buddhism in the West (McRae 1991), and Abe’s relation to Buddhist figures in Kyoto (Shore 1998). Similarly, perspectives on Abe afforded by the philosophy of religion are manifold. There are various comparative studies (Steffney 1985, Botz-Bornstein 2015, and Magliola 1996). Abe’s association with John Cobb has promoted essays on his work from the perspective of process philosophy (Berthrong 1994 and Li 2015). Some have tried to construct a metaphysical common denominator for relating Abe’s Buddhist views with Christianity (Morris 1992).

  • Becker, John, “Reassessing Buddhist and Christian Comparisons in Light of Early Buddhism: The East Asian Ontological Requisite.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 38 (2018): 217–227.

    DOI: 10.1353/bcs.2018.0020Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Becker assesses Abe’s understanding of Zen in comparison with early Buddhist teachings in light of Abe’s dialogue with John Cobb and Paul Knitter, both Christian theologians.

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  • Berthrong, John. “The Trouble with Time.” Process Studies 23.2 (1994): 134–148.

    DOI: 10.5840/process199423218Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A critique of Abe’s understanding of time. Abe developed a philosophy of time as radically reversible, based, in part, on his reading of Dōgen. The author of this essay analyzes Abe’s doctrine of time in conversation with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead.

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  • Botz-Bornstein, Thorsten. “Kenosis, Dynamic Śūnyatā and Weak Thought: Abe Masao and Gianni Vattimo.” Asian Philosophy 25 (2015): 358–383.

    DOI: 10.1080/09552367.2015.1103834Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A comparison of Abe’s understanding of dynamic sunyata with Gianni Vattimo’s philosophy of religion in terms of the principle of kenosis in Christian theology.

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  • Keenan, John P. “Mahāyāna Emptiness or ‘Absolute Nothingness’?: The Ambiguity of Abe Masao's Role in Buddhist-Christian Understanding.” Théologiques 20.1–2 (2012): 341–363.

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    Keenan is a Christian biblical scholar with an extensive background in Mahayana Buddhist teachings, especially the doctrine of emptiness. This essay offers a critical analysis of Abe’s version of Buddhist emptiness understood as “absolute nothingness” (as expounded by Nishida Kitaro, the founder of the Kyoto School) in light of more traditional Mahayana teachings on this theme.

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  • Li, Yijing. “Masao Abe’s Dynamic Sunyata and Process Thought.” Process Studies 44.1 (2015): 120–131.

    DOI: 10.5840/process20154417Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A discussion of Abe’s notion of “dynamic sunyata” in conversation with the process thought of Alfred North Whitehead and John Cobb. The author examines Ng Yu-kwan’s claim that the roots of Abe’s thought on emptiness can be found in Chinese Buddhism. The author also reflects on how Abe’s engagement with Christian theology shaped his interpretation of Buddhism.

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  • Magliola, Robert. “In No Wise Is Healing Holistic: A Deconstructive Alternative to Masao Abe’s ‘Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata.’” In Healing Deconstruction: Postmodern Thought in Buddhism and Christianity. Edited by David Loy, 99–117. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996.

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    The essay is another response to Abe’s seminal essay. The author criticizes Abe’s version of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness by placing Abe in conversation with the deconstructionist program of Jacques Derrida.

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  • McRae, John R. “Oriental Verities on the American Frontier: The 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions and the Thought of Masao Abe.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 11 (1991): 7–36.

    DOI: 10.2307/1390252Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    McRae evaluates the limitations of Abe’s construction of Zen Buddhism by connecting him with D. T. Suzuki, the original “apostle of Zen,” and the introduction of Zen to the West at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions.

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  • Morris, Stephen. “Buddhism and Christianity: The Common Ground: A Study of the Radical Theologies of Meister Eckhart and Abe Masao.” The Eastern Buddhist 25.2 (1992): 89–118.

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    An essay arguing that Abe is calling for a renewal of both Buddhism and Christianity. The author believes that, despite Abe’s claim that there is no “common denominator” linking Buddhism and Christianity, in their renewal through interreligious encounter, we will discover that their “sources” are not different.

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  • Odin, Steve. “Abe Masao and the Kyoto School on Christian Kenōsis and Buddhist Sūnyatā.” Japanese Religions 15.3 (January 1989): 1–18.

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    Odin is a specialist in East Asian philosophy. His essay is noteworthy in that he is able to bring his expertise in comparative philosophy to bear on Abe’s contribution to Buddhist-Christian dialogue on the matter of Buddhist emptiness and Christian kenosis.

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  • Ornatowski, Gregory K. “Transformations of ‘Emptiness’: On the Idea of Śūnyatā and the Thought of Abe and the Kyoto School of Philosophy.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 34.1 (1997): 92–114.

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    The author argues that, for Buddhist-Christian dialogue to advance, Abe’s peculiar understanding of emptiness, rooted as it is in the thought of 20th-century philosophers such as Nishitani Keiji and Nishida Kitaro, must be contextualized within the long history of this theme in Mahayana Buddhist thought.

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  • Shore, Jeff. “Abe Masao’s Legacy: Awakening to Reality through the Death of Ego and Providing Spiritual Ground for the Modern World.” The Eastern Buddhist 31.2 (1998): 295–307.

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    The author writes as a member of the FAS Society, a movement centered around Shin’ichi Hisamatsu that was influential in the formation of Abe’s social concern and his self-understanding as an exponent of Zen in the West.

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  • Steffney, John. “Nothingness and Death in Heidegger and Zen Buddhism.” The Eastern Buddhist 18.1 (1985): 90–104.

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    This essay compare’s Heidegger’s understanding of Dasein’s being-unto-death with Abe’s Zen-oriented understanding of nihility and a Buddhist affirmation of the nonduality of life and death.

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Essays on Abe from the Perspective of Comparative Ethics

Abe wrote extensively on the contemporary significance of Buddhism and Christianity as well as the need to articulate a comprehensive Buddhist social ethics. There are several essays available engaging Abe from the perspective of Christian social ethics (Kristiansen 1991, King 1992, and Kwan 2017). There are also essays written from the perspective of Western philosophical ethics (Kim 1998 and Vroom 2007).

  • Kim, Bockja. “Ontology without Axiology? A Review of Masao Abe’s Account of the Problem of Good and Evil from a Western Philosophical Perspective.” The Eastern Buddhist 31.1 (1998): 85–108.

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    An extensive philosophical criticism of Abe’s inability to establish an ethics on the foundation of his understanding of Buddhist emptiness. The author argues that Christianity’s use of Platonic thought offers a more successful response to the problem of good and evil.

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  • King, Sallie B. “Kenosis and Action: a Review Article.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 12 (1992): 255–261.

    DOI: 10.2307/1389979Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A review article of Abe’s important essay, “Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata,” which is the lead essay at the center of The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation. King devotes much attention to the question of emptiness, as expounded by Abe in his essay, and its implication for ethics.

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  • Kristiansen, Ronald E. “Ethics and Emptiness.” Japanese Religions 16.4 (1991): 14–31.

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    The author offers a reflection on the problem posed by Mahayana Buddhist teachings on non-duality. Abe’s attempts to reflect on this problem in light of his engagement with Christian social ethics is analyzed.

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  • Kwan, Kai-man. “Buddhism and Christianity on Evil: Critical Evaluation of Masao Abe’s Comparative Studies.” Ching Feng 16.1–2 (2017): 135–155.

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    A treatment of Abe’s critique of Christianity, his understanding of “dynamic sunyata,” the problem posed to ethics by his assertion of the nonduality of good and evil, and the contributions of critics of Abe such as Christopher Ives and Richard Rubenstein.

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  • Vroom, Annewieke. “Emptying Good-and-Evil: Masao Abe’s Approach to the Problem of Evil.” In Probing the Depths of Evil and Good: Multireligious Views and Case Studies. Edited by Jerald D. Gort, Henry Jansen, and Hendrik M. Vroom, 187–200. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789401204620_013Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The author brings both expertise in Buddhist studies and field research from the sociology of religion to bear in her treatment of Abe’s view of the nonduality of good and evil.

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