Zen and Western Thought by Masao Abe

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Critical Analyses of Western Philosophy

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 1,044 words.)