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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1874

Article abstract: As the foremost exponent of Zen Buddhism for the West, Abe was instrumental in promoting and fostering interfaith dialogue between Western theology (both Jewish and Christian) and Buddhist philosophy.

Early Life

Masao Abe was the third of six children born to a doctor and his wife in Osaka,...

(The entire section contains 1874 words.)

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Article abstract: As the foremost exponent of Zen Buddhism for the West, Abe was instrumental in promoting and fostering interfaith dialogue between Western theology (both Jewish and Christian) and Buddhist philosophy.

Early Life

Masao Abe was the third of six children born to a doctor and his wife in Osaka, Japan. Abe wanted to study philosophy and religion at Kyoto University, but he was expected to pursue a career in the business world. He studied law and economics at Osaka Commercial University and worked for a company upon graduation. A few months before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, Abe decided to end his career in business and study philosophy at Kyoto University. At the university, he worked with some of the major philosophers of the Kyoto School, including Hajime Tanabe, Keiji Nishitani, and most important for Abe, Shin’ichi Hisamatsu.

Abe taught at Kyoto Women’s College and Ōtani University between 1946 and 1950. During the 1950’s, he traveled to New York as a research fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation. He studied philosophy at Columbia University and worked closely with Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki. He also met theologian Paul Tillich, with whom he would later have dialogues. Being in close proximity to Union Theological Seminary gave Abe the opportunity to study Christian theology with major figures such as Reinhold Niebuhr and John Knox. Abe’s time at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary laid the foundation for his work in interfaith dialogue.

Life’s Work

For almost half a century, Abe acted as a teacher, scholar, mentor, philosopher, and interfaith dialogue partner for Christian theologians in major colleges and universities in the United States and Japan. His contributions were mainly in the areas of comparative philosophy, Asian studies, theology, and Buddhist studies. After Suzuki’s death in 1966, Abe became the foremost interpreter and exponent of Zen Buddhism for the West.

The religion of Abe’s family was Pure Land Shin Buddhism, although, according to Christopher Ives in his introduction to The Emptying God, Abe’s mother was the only family member who could be considered religious. Ives states that during Abe’s adolescent years, he became aware of what he felt was a negative effect he had on others and came to believe that he hurt others by the very living of his life. His struggles were partly resolved during his high school days when he read the Tannishō (c. 1290; The Tannisho, 1928), a compilation of talks by Shinran (1173-1262), the founder of the Pure Land sect to which Abe’s family belonged.

According to the Pure Land school, people are living in mappō, the degenerate age of Buddhism, and therefore, because of their accumulated “sinfulness,” people can no longer rely on their own efforts for salvation. The only means to salvation is faith in the bodhisattva Amida, who resides in the Pure Land. This doctrine of faith in Amida, called relying on “other-power,” must have made a strong impression on Abe; years later, he was to have a powerful conversion experience of Amida’s grace during his studies at Kyoto University.

Abe forsook everything he acquired through his business career when he entered Kyoto University in 1941 to study religion and philosophy. The motivating factor in Abe’s decision to begin serious philosophical study was the struggle between his faith in Amida and his intellectual inquiries. The conflict between faith and intellect came to a head when Abe encountered the Kyoto philosopher and Zen teacher Shin’ichi Hisamatsu.

As recounted by Ives, Abe explains that the radical change from his faith in Amida to his awakening through Zen training and philosophy was a direct consequence of his studying under Hisamatsu. During his years in Kyoto, Abe felt as if he were doing battle with his teacher and mentor, who challenged his faith by asserting the illusory nature of human “sinfulness” and the “other-power” represented by Amida. Hisamatsu asserted that the key to Abe’s struggle lay in realizing his “true self,” his own Buddha-nature, not faith in Amida. Abe’s struggle with the Zen of Hisamatsu and his subsequent acceptance of and awakening to the “Zen way” laid the foundations for the Zen standpoint underlying all of Abe’s work.

Hisamatsu acted as a spiritual and religious mentor for Abe, and Keiji Nishitani helped cultivate the philosophical depth and subtlety apparent in Abe’s work. Abe’s use of philosophical discourse and his belief in the need to confront the issues of scientism, nihilism, and secularism facing modern humanity are directly inherited from Nishitani’s stated philosophical mission.

The Western theologian who had the most influence on Abe was Tillich, whom Abe first met during his stay in New York as a research fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation. Abe originally went to New York to study with Tillich, but the theologian left to accept a position at Harvard. Abe did, however, attend the lectures and sermons that Tillich gave in New York, and after Abe returned to Japan, Tillich’s visits to that country gave Abe more opportunities to dialogue with the Christian theologian. Abe stated that Tillich deepened his understanding and appreciation of Christianity and that he considered him one of the most important dialogue partners for Buddhists. These encounters with Tillich no doubt strengthened Abe’s belief in the need for interfaith dialogues.

After he began his academic career, Abe published hundreds of articles in English and Japanese in a variety of journals and magazines and circulated unpublished papers among colleagues and students on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. In 1985, a number of Abe’s important essays on Zen and comparative philosophy were published as Zen and Western Thought. After the publication of this book, Abe continued to work on projects that included dialogues and critical exchanges with various Jewish and Christian theologians. Many of these exchanges were collected in The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation. Topics included the notion of Buddhist emptiness and its relation to God, science and religion, the problem of evil, the Holocaust, and feminist theological responses to Buddhism.

Abe worked on special projects such as translations of the writings of Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253), the Zen monk who founded the Sōtō branch of Japanese Zen Buddhism and is considered one of Japan’s foremost philosophical and literary figures. Many of these translations, done in collaboration with Norman Waddell, were published in the journal The Eastern Buddhist. Abe also wrote several interpretive articles on Dōgen’s philosophical treatises, most of which appeared in the same journal. A number of these articles were collected and published as A Study of Dōgen: His Philosophy and Religion. These works display not only Abe’s expertise in the philosophical discourse of the Kyoto School but also his mastery of textual scholarship.

One of the central concerns underlying Abe’s activities and works on interfaith dialogue is the phenomenon of globalization, which increases the opportunities for people of different religions and cultures to interact. Abe perceived a need for constructive dialogue to bridge the gaps between people of different religious orientations. In Abe’s view, it was imperative that representatives of the various religions of the world create a “space” within which meaningful dialogue can occur. He believed that the foundation for that dialogical space can be found in certain Buddhist concepts, particularly emptiness, which possesses the characteristics of nonsubstantiality, nonduality, and dynamic activity. He wanted to make clear, however, that he was not implying that Christians, for example, should become Buddhists. On the contrary, just as Buddhists must respond as Buddhists in creative and compassionate ways to the emerging phenomenon of globalization, so too must Christians respond as Christians. Indeed, in Abe’s view, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists can learn from one another through interfaith dialogue while maintaining a commitment to their faiths.

Many of Abe’s works on interfaith dialogue are collected in a multivolume sequel to Zen and Western Thought. The first volume, Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue, directly addresses the issue of religious communication. In this volume, Abe engages in critical dialogue with a number of Jewish and Christian theologians representing a variety of positions. Abe, with his Buddhist stance, creatively and critically engages theologians with existential, feminist, mystical, and liberational orientations. The second volume, Zen and Comparative Studies, explores the main concepts of Zen Buddhism, its response to Western philosophy, its relation to Japanese culture, and Zen spirituality and practice. Its focal point and style mark a return to and expansion of the issues explicated in Zen and Western Thought. Abe also planned a third volume in this sequel, expected to be an explanation and interpretation of the leading figures of the Kyoto School, including Kitarō Nishida, Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, Keiji Nishitani, and Hajime Tanabe.

Much of Abe’s work confronted the problem of nihilism/secularization that seems to accompany globalization. Like other philosophers of the Kyoto School, most notably Nishitani, Abe sought to disclose the foundations of the pervasive nihilism of the twentieth century. He believed that to overcome the profound sense of alienation that all people must eventually encounter, the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness must be incorporated in whatever worldview people hold. Abe brought these concerns to the notice of his colleagues and the students of many academic institutions, including Columbia University, the University of Chicago, the Claremont colleges and Claremont Graduate School, Carleton College, Princeton University, and the University of Hawaii.


As heir to Suzuki’s role as the foremost exponent of Zen for the West, Abe has made significant contributions to a variety of intellectual fields, including translations and interpretive studies of traditional Zen treatises, comparative philosophy, and interfaith dialogue. He has continually explicated Zen philosophy within the context of the philosophical and theological currents in the West, thereby affording a bridge for those interested in pursuing comparative religious and philosophical study. Given his active role as Zen representative in interfaith dialogue during the last half of the twentieth century, Abe’s work lays the foundation for critical discussion among representatives of the world’s religions in the twenty-first century.

Additional Reading

Cobb, John B., and Christopher Ives, eds. The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991. This collection of nine articles—an initial essay by Masao Abe, responses by seven Western theologians, and a final rejoinder by Abe—represents the extensive work taking place in the field of interfaith dialogue.

Heisig, James W., and John C. Maraldo, eds. Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. This collection of articles addresses the relationship between the leading intellectuals of the Kyoto School and Japanese nationalism. Although previous works on the Kyoto School have dealt with theology and philosophy, this is the first book-length study in English on the school’s political, social, and historical context.

King, Winston L. “The Existential Nature of Buddhist Ultimates.” Philosophy East and West 33, no. 3 (July, 1983): 263-271. King analyzes the Buddhist concept of ultimate reality and its existential nature, from early to Mahayana Buddhism. He discusses the significance of Abe’s interpretation of emptiness as a creative and active force.

Mitchell, Donald W., ed. Masao Abe: A Zen Life of Dialogue. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, 1998. An assortment of essays honoring Abe’s body of work.

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