Zen and Western Thought

by Masao Abe
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Critical Analyses of Western Philosophy

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1044

Abe analyzes Western philosophy and theology based on the logic of is/is not. Eastern and Western thought differ significantly in their respective views on what Abe calls “negativity.” Traditionally, Western thought has favored the positive over the negative: being over nonbeing, life over death, permanence over impermanence. The positive principles of being, life, and permanence are considered primary, while nonbeing, death, and impermanence are viewed as secondary or derivative. In the East, however, the negative has always played a fundamental role in religions and philosophies. In fact, both being and nonbeing have equal force in many Eastern worldviews, particularly Buddhism.

Abe stresses that the Zen notion of nothingness is not the relative nonbeing that is the opposite of relative being. Rather, Zen nothingness is absolute nonbeing, which signifies a return to the original state of reality that existed before the division between positive and negative. This concept of reality is at odds with the traditional metaphysics of the West, including Platonism, which locates reality in the transcendent realm of ideal forms, and Christianity, which conceives of God as beyond this world. If Platonism and Christianity can be said to posit a transcendent reality, then Zen asserts, to use the philosopher Keiji Nishitani’s term, a trans-descendent reality.

In his critical analyses based on the logic of is/is not, Abe examines modern philosophies that seem to advocate ideas similar to those of Zen Buddhism, including the philosophies set forth by Friedrich Nietzsche and Alfred North Whitehead. Nietzsche contends that in the face of the uncertainty and arbitrariness of the world, Western metaphysics and Christianity have hoisted false constructs (ideal forms, God) to avoid the nihility of existence. In so doing, they have imprisoned humanity in a false morality and cut it off from its natural birthright, spontaneity in life. Moreover, this avoidance entails the deception of positing a transcendent other, which offers comfort in the face of real existence but is in reality a lie.

Nietzsche claims that to truly live, one must face and endure nihility without recourse to any deception, including a higher reality or power. This facing up to the arbitrary uncertainty of existence is a return to life itself, which Nietzsche calls the innocence of becoming. This return to life is, furthermore, a commitment to live life with an awareness and abandonment of this deception of the transcendent.

While appreciating Nietzsche’s challenge to transcendental constructs, Abe claims that Nietzsche still posits some kind of objective reality. Behind the false constructions of ideal forms or God lies a dynamic changing reality for the living subject. Therefore, even though the notions of unchanging substance and transcendent reality are relinquished, the innocence of becoming and natural life are still posited as a reality to be chosen by the human. Though Western metaphysics is radically changed in Nietzsche’s philosophy, the subject/object duality still remains.

In Whitehead’s philosophy of universal relativity, Abe finds much in common with the Buddhist notion of dependent arising. Both concepts assert that although individual entities are unique, they are also profoundly interdependent, so much so that each entity contains all other entities. Whitehead’s philosophy of universal relativity and radical interdependence attempts to overcome the duality of separate substances (that each entity is a separate thing in itself).

Abe maintains that if Whitehead held that all entities fell under this radical interdependence, a true identity between the Buddhist doctrine of dependent arising and Whitehead’s universal relativity would exist. However, Abe finds Whitehead’s treatment of God a problem, specifically his notion of the nontemporal/nonspatial dimension of God. While at one level Whitehead contends that God and the world are both immanent in each other and also transcendent, God’s primordial nature, being beyond space and time, is permanent. The primordial nature of the world, however, is a state of constant flux. According to Abe, Whitehead’s view creates a subtle yet profound duality between God and the world, despite their overt interrelationship. Whitehead’s formulation, therefore, does not transcend duality and is at odds with the Buddhist notion of interdependence.

Abe also engages Christian theology in critical dialogue, particularly the theology of Paul Tillich. While applauding Tillich’s attempt at comparison, Abe discloses some misconceptions that Tillich has regarding Buddhism. For example, in his analysis of the Kingdom of God and Nirvana, Tillich explains that Christianity’s aim is the unity of everyone and everything in the Kingdom of God, while in Buddhism, it is the unity of everything and everyone in Nirvana. The emphasis on everyone in Christianity signifies the superiority of humans over things in God’s kingdom, while the emphasis on everything in Buddhism means that things are superior to humans in the realm of Nirvana. Abe takes issue with this formulation, explaining that although it is true that the immediate presence of all impermanent/empty things is Buddha-nature, the realization of this occurs only in human consciousness. In other words, while reality is identified with all things, both sentient and nonsentient, the awakening to this reality is actualized in the human realm, thus proffering humans a special, though not superior, status among things. In his analysis, Tillich violates the logic of is/is not by privileging things over humans and, therefore, has not understood the essence of Zen.

Another criticism of Tillich’s work is the stand that the philosopher takes regarding religious encounters with the various secular movements of the twentieth century. These movements, including nationalism, scientism, Marxism, and liberal humanism, are analyzed by Tillich in the mode of an “observing participant,” locating the discussion in the historic-cultural realm. Abe strongly maintains that one should confront these movements in the mode of a “self-staking participant,” locating the encounter on the existential realm of personal faith and religious awareness. Abe contends that it is precisely a religious encounter with and an overcoming of nihilism that make religion a necessity in the modern world.

Zen and Western Thought was the first book-length study by the leading exponent of Zen for the West in the second half of the twentieth century. Its critique of Western philosophy and theology from the standpoint of Zen has provided a basis not only for a deeper understanding of Zen philosophy but also for interfaith dialogue.

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