Masao Abe Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

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...

(The entire section is 1874 words.)