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Masao Abe’s work describes the main characteristics of the philosophy of the Kyoto School, explains the Zen Buddhist standpoint in the context of Western thought, analyzes Western philosophy and theology through dialogues, and confronts the problem of modernity. As the heir to D. T. Suzuki’s role as the main exponent of Zen for the West, Abe explicated the fundamental standpoint of Zen philosophy in many contexts. He provided interpretive analyses of traditional Zen teachings and used the logic of is/is not to analyze Western thought. Like other philosophers of the Kyoto School, Abe was well acquainted with Western intellectual and religious traditions, but unlike his fellows, Abe addressed primarily a Western audience. Abe’s work is constructive in that, through dialogues and critical exchanges, he attempts to articulate a standpoint that successfully confronts nihilism and revitalizes both Western and Eastern religion.

The Doctrine of Absolute Nothingness

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In the opening pages of the work, Abe interprets a well-known Zen saying: Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; after one attains some insight, mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers; and when one becomes enlightened, mountains are really mountains and rivers are really rivers. For Abe, this short passage elucidates Mahayana Buddhism’s central doctrine of absolute nothingness, or emptiness (shunyata). Abe’s commentary on this passage explains the philosophical basis from which he compares Zen with Western thought and criticizes Western philosophy and theology.

Abe explains that before studying Zen, an individual affirms the existence of mountains and rivers, differentiates between them, and, most significantly, objectifies them—mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. Objectification entails the positing of mountains and rivers as realities external to the internal subject, which Abe terms the ego-self. From the Zen standpoint, this duality between the subject (ego-self) and object (in this case, mountains and rivers) obstructs the realization of one’s true self, or Buddha-nature. To inquire into the self in an objectified way throws the questioner into an infinite regression of subjects and objects. When one asks, “Who am I?” or “Who sees these mountains and rivers?” the very subject that perceives objects becomes an object. One can take this further by inquiring, “Who is asking these questions?” ad infinitum and never arrive at an awakening to the self, one’s Buddha-nature.

Release from this infinite regression entails a full existential realization that Buddha-nature is beyond the realm of objectifying thought, which frees one from the dichotomy of subject and object. From the Zen standpoint, this emptying of duality is the perception of nondifferentiation. The second phrase in the saying—mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers—refers to the realization that comes after the student of Zen gains some insight.

A subtle duality, however, still exists in this stage of nondifferentiation: a division between the state of differentiation and nondifferentiation. The realization of Buddha-nature requires a further negation, the negation of nondifferentiation. Abe calls this negation of negation absolute negation and contends that this absolute negation is, logically, an absolute affirmation. This paradox of the oneness of affirmation and negation, or what Abe calls the logic of is/is not, is the essence of Buddha-nature.

The Essence of Buddha-Nature

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What is Buddha-nature? Abe answers this question by analyzing Dgen Zenji’s Buddha-nature theory. Dgen’s theory is based on his reinterpretation of the traditional Buddhist doctrine that all sentient beings have Buddha-nature. According to Dgen, all beings, both sentient and nonsentient, are Buddha-nature. Part of Dgen’s project, according to Abe, is to undercut the tendency to objectify Buddha-nature as some sort of substantial existence. Abe identifies several aspects of Dgen’s view on Buddha-nature, including its de-homocentric nature, its nonsubstantiality, and its identity with worldly phenomena.

One of the central concerns in Buddhism is the problem of life and death in human existence and the emancipation from the suffering that entails this existence. Moreover, this emancipation is said to occur in human consciousness. Realizing one’s Buddha-nature, therefore, has traditionally meant discovering that internal essence that transcends ordinary human existence. However, Dgen sees this view as an objectification of Buddha-nature that will forever keep a person imprisoned in duality. For Dgen, although the realization of Buddha-nature lies in human consciousness, the reality of Buddha-nature includes the entirety of worldly existence. This view is what Abe terms de-homocentric—the problem of life and death is located not in the human realm but in the appearance and disappearance of all worldly phenomena, both sentient and nonsentient. By emphasizing its de-homocentric nature, Buddha-nature is no longer objectified as a substance possessed by humans.

What is the relation between Buddha-nature and worldly existence? Dgen asserts that all beings are Buddha-nature, thus signifying the oneness of Buddha-nature and worldly existence. According to traditional Buddhist doctrine, however, worldly existence is characterized by constant change, or impermanence, and is, therefore, not associated with the unconditioned, unchanging Buddha-nature. In contrast, Dgen asserts that impermanence itself is Buddha-nature, thus continuing his efforts to undercut the tendency to objectify Buddha-nature. For Dgen, Buddha-nature discloses itself as everyday phenomena such as grasses, trees, and stones. Furthermore, it is the moment-to-moment arising/disappearing of ordinary phenomena that marks the essence of Buddha-nature.

Practice and Enlightenment

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Though the philosophical aspects of Zen are of great importance, Abe maintains that one must actualize philosophical insights in everyday life. The question then arises, if the moment-to-moment passing of phenomena constitutes Buddha-nature, how can one practice? If there is nothing beyond the here and now of everyday existence, then what purpose is there in meditation? Abe answers these questions with Dgen’s view on Zen practice, shikantaza, or “just sitting.” Just as everyday life (all beings) and Buddha-nature are one for Dgen, so too are practice and enlightenment. In other words, practice itself is enlightenment, and enlightenment is practice. For Abe, Dgen’s views on practice and enlightenment do not eliminate the reason for practicing Zen meditation but instead help the practitioner transcend self-centered human intention. According to Abe, therefore, shikantaza is the purest kind of practice.


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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.


Critical Essays