|The pioneering work of Buddhist scholar Masao Abe in appropriating the ‘scandal’ of the Cross brings Buddhist-Christian theology into closer dialogue.|
Fr. James Heisig, S.V.D., teaches at Nanzen University, Nagoya, Japan, where he is a member of the Nanzen Institute of Religion and Culture. General editor of the Nanzen Studies in Religion and Culture, he also edits Inter-Religio, a journal of East Asian Christian organizations engaged in religious dialogue.
In what follows I will focus my attention on the work of Abe, both because I find it most directly to the point of coming to grips with the scandal of the cross, and because it is more readily available in English translation. The reader should know, however, that there is an entire body of related literature to be found in the writings of the Kyoto School waiting in the background to fill out and deepen Abe’s attempts.
In his eagerness to present a new understanding of the Buddhist ideal of no-self or anatman as the “impersonally personal” or the “personally impersonal,” and to set this ideal up as the answer of religion — both Christian and Buddhist — to the human condition, Nishitani ends up reducing the Christian notion of sin to a question of the “nihility” that grounds all the things of life. In so doing, Abe suggests, Nishitani catches one aspect of sin, its disclosure of the general frailty of the human condition, but misses the other, its particularity as a concrete act of rebellion against the divine will. In pitting the non-discriminating perfection of an impersonally personal God, who makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the good and the bad alike with no regard for particular differences, against the discriminating personally personal human mode of being, says Abe, Nishitani barely leaves room for Jesus as an object of faith and a means to salvation from sin. But “from the perspective of Christianity itself, God’s perfection… must be grasped Christologically.”(20)
The same problem shows up in Nishitani’s appeal to Eckhart’s notion of the nothingness of the “Godhead” as the most satisfying Christian image of a God who has transcended the nihility that grounds all particular being. Abe comments:
The nothingness of the Gottheit is the true, unobjectifiable reality of God. But at the same time, looked at from another direction, in the crucified Christ God became more truly God. In Christ’s death and resurrection, the reality of God broke through nihility, overcame it, and became a reality of a higher dimension …. The personality of God revealed in Christ is more real than the nothingness of the Gottheit at the ground of the personal god …. In other words, the “personal” God of Christianity is taken to include two opposing orientations: (1) God’s ecstatic self-transcendence directed towards the nothingness of the Gottheit, and (2) God’s self-revelation through self-negation directed towards the more personal Jesus Christ. For the human subject, the first orientation has to do with nothingness and autonomy, the latter with sin and faith. To grasp God Christologically means to receive all of God through Christ, who stands at the apex of the second orientation.(21)
It is precisely that second orientation that Abe finds missing in Nishitani. To read his words out of context one might think that he is writing as a Christian apologist. In fact he makes it clear that his standpoint is the same as Nishitani’s, and that his intention is merely to shift the focus of the discussion of Christianity itself. For Abe, Nishitani’s standpoint requires as much. Indeed, far from parting company with his teacher, Abe takes his lead from hints provided in Nishitani’s own work.
Abe’s clearest statements of how the standpoint of Buddhist emptiness can appropriate the Christian doctrine of kenosis center, not surprisingly, around the well-known hymn cited by Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Philippians:
Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of a man. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (2: 5-8).(22)
Abe has been at pains to show that the coincidence of the scriptural reference to Christ’s “emptying” of himself and the Buddhist notion of sunyata commonly translated in English as “emptiness” is more than one of simple word association. The following passage from Nishitani I am about to quote — to which Abe, oddly enough, does not refer — contains in nuce the position he has developed in his critique of Nishitani:
What is it like, this non-differentiating love, this agape, that loves even enemies? In a word, it is “making oneself empty.” In the case of Christ, it meant taking the form of man and becoming a servant, in accordance with the will of God, who is the origin of the ekkenosis or “making himself empty” of Christ …. In Christ, ekkenosis is realized in the fact that one who was in the shape of God took on the shape of a servant; with God, it is implied already in his original perfection. That is to say, the very fact itself of God’s being empty essentially entails the characteristic of “having made himself empty.” With Christ we speak of a deed that has been accomplished; with God, of an original nature. What is ekenosis for the Son is kenosis for the Father. In the East, this would be called aruatman, or non-ego?(23)
While he does not adopt Nishitani’s use of the term ekkenosis, it will soon become clear how close Abe’s dependence is.
Abe distinguishes two moments in kenosis: first, Christ empties himself of the glory of his entitled divinity to become an obedient servant, bringing him finally to the cross; and second, at the ground of this particular act of love lies a non-discriminating love of God for humanity, one that is not deduced from a previous judgment as to which people are worthy and which unworthy of that love. Abe refuses to allow himself to get entangled in the problem of how to determine who in the Trinity did what to whom and when. Not only are these things of little interest to a Buddhist appropriation of Christ; he seems to hint that they are ultimately wide of the mark for Christian theologians as well. Christ is kenotic by nature; the historical incarnation is merely a disclosure of that nature. He did not change his nature when he was born a man, but revealed his nature in action. Strictly speaking, he did not become human, but was human all along. He puts this in the logic of the prajnaparamita tradition with the formula: Christ is not the Son of God precisely because he is the Son of God. In other words, precisely because he is by nature non-discriminating and full of divine love, he gives up his divinity in fact.
This brings us to the heart of the matter: religious conversion. How one describes the nature and activities of what transcends the human only makes sense religiously insofar as it relates to human experience and guides it to spiritual transformation. On this point there is not difference between Buddhist and Christian self-understanding. The difference comes into play when we consider the nature of conversion and what happens to doctrinal truth in the light of that conversion.(24)
For Abe, and indeed for the Kyoto School as a whole, there is no permanent and unchanging “substantial” substratum that can at one moment be termed the “sinful self’ and the next a “redeemed self.” Conversion entails a complete and radical break between the old and the new, a “dying” in order to come to new “life.”
At first glance this looks to be coincident with the Pauline metaphors.(25) Identification with the kenotic Christ does not shrink from a self-emptying that is “lifted up” to the image of the cross. Rather it sees the idea of the “old self” being “crucified with him” so that it may consider itself “dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 6: 6-11) as the core of Christian spirituality.
Yet there is a difference. When Paul speaks of conversion as growing closer and closer into life with Christ (I Cor. 15: 31, II Cor. 4: 6) or advises the church of Philippi to “have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Jesus Christ,” the underlying assumption is of a personal relationship in which the changeable, “convertible” human subject freely submits itself to the workings of an unchangeable, “converting” divine subject. Abe acknowledges this, and is therefore deliberately re-reading the Christian tradition when he paraphrases the act of conversion in the following terms: Self is not self (it has died to itself) precisely because it is truly self (it is not I but Christ that lives in the self). Conversion is not just a matter of loving one another because God has loved us in Christ, but of experiencing in ourselves the very kenosis that Christ experienced, of recovering in ourselves the kenotic nature that we share with Christ.
In order to correlate the self-emptying of Christ to the self-emptying of the religious subject in this way without abandoning his Buddhist standpoint, Abe cannot resort to Christian talk of analogous inter-personal relationships between subjects: divine and divine on the one hand, divine and human on the other. At the same time, he has already decided that the Christian notion of subjectivity cannot with fairness be reduced to the universal of “human nature.” Moreover, the weight of Mahayana Buddhist tradition inhibits his use of the analogy of being — which, strictly speaking, does not require a personal God — as a means to differentiate and yet unify God, Christ, and the self. And yet some notion of Ultimate Reality is required in order to locate the converted self on the “other side” of its pre-converted mere humanity. It is here that Abe introduces the idea whose way he has been preparing all along: the idea of sunyata.(26)
Abe knows only too well that even if there are precedents in Christian theological tradition for speaking of the nature of Christ as self-emptying and therefore for designating self-emptying as the essence of conversion to faith in Christ, there lurks in the background the supposition that the “pouring out” of self only serves the higher purpose of being “filled up” with the “fullness” of God. The life to which the self, whether Christ’s or the imitator of Christ’s, is restored after dying to itself is a state of enhanced personal subjectivity that preserves the essence of the self in a world of being whose source and perfection is God. The “emptying” stops short at the being of personal identity, even in Christianity’s eschatology. Against this, Abe argues that a Christology consistent with the Pauline ideal of kenosis requires that self-emptying reach back to the very nature of God the Father. Without this, the kenosis of the Son and the kenosis of conversion to faith in the Son as the revelation of the Father are reduced to groundless, accidental occurrences. Abe states his position clearly:
In the case of Christ, kenosis is realized in the fact that one who was in the form of God emptied himself and assumed the form of a servant. It originated in the Will [of God. It is not that God] becomes something else by his partial self-giving, but that God is something — or more precisely, that God is each and every thing — by his total self-emptying. Only through this total kenosis is God truly God. Here we realize the reality of God which is entirely beyond conception and objectification. This kenotic God is the ground of the kenotic Christ.(27)
The non-discriminating love of God that Abe sees as the second moment of kenosis points to a “dynamism” within God that turns out to ground the dynamism of Christ’s conversion into the form of a servant and the Christian’s conversion in faith. The Buddhist name for this dynamism is sunyata. Its difference from “being” is hinted at in the parenthetical remark that “God is each and every thing.” But this sunyata is not the mere annihilation of being. It is not some external and superior being that does away with all other beings by having them empty themselves of their own being. It is simply a name for the ultimately unnameable force that makes things, each and every thing in its uniqueness, be what they are.(28) It cannot itself be something if it is to ground the “what-it-is” of each thing as the “what-it-truly-is” of each thing.(29)
The religious and soteriological implications of universalizing kenosis are four, according to Abe. First, the source of salvation is not a personal relationship with something outside the self, but the realization of a suchness inherent in the original nature of self and all things. The only eschatology possible is a “realized eschatology,” where the Kingdom of God is “within” each individual, “a new spiritual principle already operative in the lives of men.”(30) Second, sunyata does not become a “center” of meaning or being as theocentric, anthropocentric, or cosmocentric approaches would. The fact that Jesus did not “cling to” or “grasp at” his equality with God points in effect to a realization that all existing things depend on one another, and that none has a privileged position vis4vis the others. In divine-human and human-human relationships, each side is immanent in and transcendent to the other. Third, as the dynamism of sunyata, kenosis is itself a spontaneous “fact of nature”(31) that supersedes all will, whether of God or the human subject. And finally, that there is no servant and no master in Ultimate Reality, but each individual locates and defines every other individual: In terms of the kenosis of Christ, it is not only equality with God but also the “form of servanthood” that is not to be clung to.(32)
This is as far as Abe’s interpretation can bring him. To follow him further is to trail off into more detailed explanation of the elements of Buddhist doctrine he has drawn into his interpretation. Ultimately, Abe’s reflections on Christianity bring him back — enriched and deepened, perhaps, but back nonetheless — to where he started. At least initially, the Christian returns elsewhere, to face a different set of questions.
Evaluation of Abe’s reading of the hymn of kenosis — whether favorably or unfavorably disposed to what he has been trying to do, whether Buddhist or Christian in inclination — must begin, it seems to me, with the recognition of the fact that he has both preserved the scandal of the cross in the twofold sense referred to at the outset and sought to appropriate it into his own Buddhist standpoint. However spiritualized his treatment of Christ ends up, we never catch him trying to turn our eyes away from the passion of the cross to the calm and peaceful smile of the compassionate Buddha. However foreign the distinction between philosophical reflection and religious belief to his own way of thinking, he never requires his Christian reader to subordinate the folly of the cross to Buddhist enlightenment. However far he may depart from received Christian interpretations, nowhere does he attempt to psychologize Christian doctrine into talk about “God-images” or absorb it without remainder into Buddhist doctrine. In so doing he has, I believe, remained faithful to his intended correction of Nishitani’s view of Christianity: to relate the perfection of God to the concrete particularity of Jesus and the Christian believer.
When a Buddhist believer interprets a Christian scripture,(33) the first thing we need to know in order to take it up from a Christian standpoint is why a Buddhist bothers with it at all. Given Abe’s affiliations to the Kyoto School and his own commitment to Buddhism, the overriding motivation can, I believe, be stated simply: his confrontation with Christianity is itself an act of self-emptying and a challenge to self-emptying, for which there may be no better expression than the paradoxical form he himself finds so congenial: Buddhism is Buddhism precisely because it is not Buddhism; Christianity is Christianity precisely because it is not Christianity. That having been said, and all question of private motivation aside, we may distinguish nine subsidiary motivations, all of which belong to the texture of the dialogue of the Kyoto School with Christianity. I list them in order of progressive complexity and remark seriatim on each.
In the first place, to make a contribution to Christian theology that will encourage Christians to draw closer to Buddhist doctrine. No doubt Abe, like his Kyoto colleagues, has taken seriously the tools of Christian theology. This is not to say that he handles them with the facility and confidence of his own Buddhist hermeneutic, but only that he would be the last to lend himself license to take words, ideas, and images out of their native context. At the same time, there is no doubt that he takes advantage of his labors, and his successes, in this regard to instruct — though rarely if ever to catechize after the manner of Suzuki — his Christian audiences, with an eye to converting a long tradition of naivete and ignorance into a new standpoint of esteem.
In the second place, to dramatize the radical differences that separate Buddhist and Christian doctrine. Far from contradicting the first motive, this second is its complement. Without an abiding awareness of the distance between the two faiths, Abe would have literally nothing to say to Christian theology, no right to hearing. At some point — inevitably, I would venture to say — he drives his staff into the ground in front of his Christian colleagues. In the case of the Christological argument discussed above, this point comes when he asserts the mutual and equal dependence of God and creatures on “nothingness” or sanyata.
In the third place, to rethink the doctrinal categories of Buddhism in order to reform its own self-understanding and to take advantage of progress in Christian thought. Even without explicit acknowledgment, this motivation seems to me indisputable. Christianity’s preoccupation with open publication of its commitment to doctrinal renovation is frequently frustrated by the Oriental habit of appearing more stable and self-possessed in discussing progress, at times with good reason.(34) Abe himself prefers to present a unified picture of Buddhism that obscures the fact that his is but one of many possible standpoints. Still, it should not be forgotten that the intermeshing of kenosis and sunyata he performs is itself the product of a dialogue going on within Buddhism itself.
In the fourth place, to locate itself in a religiously plural world threatened by scientific materialism. This theme has become one of the leitmotifs of Nishitani’s work, which Abe has taken up in turn in several of his essays.(35) Yet for all its prominence in print, it seems to have yielded functionally to tasks of a more “theological” nature. A comparison of recent comments with those written twenty years ago shows little or no change in analysis and sources.
In the fifth place, to gain a higher standpoint transcending both Christianity and Buddhism. Continental European philosophy, in particular, existentialism, has provided the past generation of thinkers in the Kyoto School with a counterposition to which they could move freely back and forth in order to place themselves vis4vis contemporary Christian thought. But today, standing in the wings of every “Buddhist-Christian dialogue” are the questions of Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, folk religion, “new religions,” and contemporary cults. There is every reason to suppose that the next generation of the Kyoto School will forsake the preference for dialogue with Christianity, and will therefore need a standpoint of more wide-reaching appeal. If we are hard put to document this awareness in the writings of any member of the Kyoto School, including Abe, it is simply unthinkable that they are not aware of this.
In the sixth place, to respond to pressure from Christianity to engage in interreligious dialogue. In a certain sense, the “dialogue” between the Kyoto School and the West which Abe represents was a creative initiative born out of Japanese Buddhism. Its conversion from a dialogue of texts to a dialogue of living thinkers gathered around the same table or addressing one another’s work in languages that both sides can read is a more recent phenomenon. The motives within the various Christian churches here are widely diverse, even contradictory. But the force they exert jointly has been such that there is hardly any serious dialogue going on anywhere in the world that is not being orchestrated by Christian intellectuals.
In the seventh place, to understand how Buddhism is being misunderstood by Christians, thereby better to protect itself against Christian aggressions. This motivation has been rendered subtler today than ever before by a newfound tolerance in Christian theology that has led significant numbers of its former “heretical” opponents to dress in fashion. But beneath the surface, and not nearly as far beneath the surface as Christian intellectuals are wont to suppose, there lies a memory of things past and a suspicion of things to come. The signs are hard to detect and harder to put together in a form that can be discussed or refuted. For my part, however, I have no question that the thinkers of the Kyoto School have yet to achieve anything like the complete trust in Christianity that Christian theologians expect.
In the eighth place, to improve the political, economic, and social status of Buddhist tradition. From a strictly doctrinal standpoint, such motivation has no room at all. If anything, it seems to make a mockery of the spiritual level at which a Buddhist like Abe sits down to pore over Christian texts and appropriate them into his own faith. But from a religious standpoint, it is essential and most dangerous when judged impossible or unworthy of mention. After all, thinking is through and through a cultural enterprise, liable to all the lures and opportunities of any other enterprise. In the case of the Kyoto School, it is not merely a matter of the fact, as Eliade has observed, that “before sin, there was no religion.”(36) Its own experience during and after the last World War has taught it well how fragile a tradition can become in the face of unexpected social upheavals.
In the ninth and final place, to inspire Christians to an Asian theology. On the face of things, the Buddhist struggling with Christian doctrine has an easier time of it if Christianity keeps itself foreign. The closer it comes to taking into its own language and logic Asian modes of thought the more uncertain the confrontation. (The uneasiness with which the Kyoto School saw Heidegger adjusting his concept of Nichts to Buddhist thinking, even though he had been criticized for his failure to do so, is symptomatic of this ambivalence.) Yet the fact remains: the West is being drawn East and is destined one day to weigh its philosophical and theological accomplishments against the measure of Asian thought as intently as it has weighed itself against the tradition of Greek philosophy. Because of the efforts of Buddhists like those of the Kyoto School, Asian sunyata is fast becoming a “scandal” and a stumbling block that Christianity is only now learning to face and appropriate.
- The work was published by Sobunsha of Tokyo and is now in its nineteenth printing. The original title, literally What is Religion?, was altered to Religion and Nothingness in its English translation (See Note 8).
- Shukyo to wa nanika o yomite, Tetsugaku Kenkyu [Philosophical Studies] 43 (1962): 83-104. Here I cite, with occasional minor changes, from a 45-page draft translation of the essay prepared by Christopher Ives and privately circulating at present.
- “On Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness,” p. 28. In a recent paper, dealing with many of the same themes, Abe passes over this point without remark (“Nishitani’s Challenge in Western Philosophy and Theology,” privately circulated), though I am unable to detect anything to indicate a shift in his position.
- Ibid., p. 31.
- Abe cites the passages in two papers on which I base my summary of his view of kenosis: “God, Emptiness, and the True Self,” The Buddha Eye, pp. 61-74, and “Kenatic God and Dynamic Sunyata,” which he delivered at the Second Conference on East-West Religions in Encounter, held in Honolulu in 1984. In both places he cuts the hymn in two, omitting the exaltation that follows the kenosis: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2: 9-11). This should not be misconstrued, however, as an attempt to gloss over the Resurrection, which Abe recognizes as essential to Christology, but only as an attempt to sharpen focus on the element of kenosis.
- Religion and Nothingness, pp. 58-59.
- In other words, whatever the rational, “philosophical” status of a doctrinal tradition — whether it be revealed to reason ab extra or discovered by reason ab intra — the fact that it must ultimately speak directly to the living religious subject is not affected. In this sense, the emphasis put on the “religious quest” by the Kyoto School and the “method of correlation” embraced by Paul Tillich (see the introductory chapter to his Systematic Theology) are both modern correctives to religious theory that have their roots deep in tradition.
- Tanabe seems to have been the first in the Kyoto School to play the Pauline idea of “living in Christ” as one who has “died to sin” against the Buddhist notion of samsara-qua-nirvana in speaking of the nature of religious metanoia (see his Philosopy as Metanoetics), which has since become a recurrent theme in the Kyoto School.
- Sunyata (a substantive of the adjective sunya) is the Sanskrit word for “zeroness” or “emptiness” taken over by Buddhism for purposes of logical, metaphysical and hermeneutic apologetics regarding its doctrine of the relativity and interdependence of all phenomena. In time it came to be transcribed in China by the ideogram which represents the sky’s vault and by association emptiness or void. Together these two ideas have interacted with Oriental philosophies — principally Buddhist and Taoist — of “non-being” as diverse and rich as Western philosophies of “being.” In his later years Nishida began to speak of zettai mu or absolute nothingness to describe his philosophy of “the absolute identity of contradictories.” Tanabe turned the term around to criticize the principle of identity and at the same time to make it a formative principle of relationship. Nishitani falls in this tradition, though he more commonly refers to his position as a “standpoint of ganyatß.” It is this terminology that Abe also adopts in his reflections on the ken6tic Christ, preferring the more general term “Ultimate Reality” when speaking in absolute terms of “emptiness” or “nothingness.”
- “Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunata” pp. 17-18. I have taken the liberty of restoring the omitted words and slightly rearranging the grammatical structure.
- For this reason Abe, like Nishitani, can claim to have given a viable reinterpretation to the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo as in effect a creatio ex sunyata, which is not “pantheism in the usual sense of the word, since it does not mean that the world is God or that God is the immanent life of the world itself. It means that an absolutely transcendent God is absolutely immanent” (Religion and Nothingness, p. 39).
- In Buddhist terminology, it is the “true suchness” (tathata) that underlies the “actual suchness” of individual entities. As Robert Magliola has pointed out in a recent essay, Derrida’s notion of différance which holds all signification “under erasure,” is perhaps the closest approximation in modern Western philosophy to this ancient Buddhist idea (Derrida on the Mend, West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1984). As I understand it, this is essentially what Abe has in mind by transferring Heidegger’s cancellation of being (Sein) into a cancellation of sunyata (Kenotic God and Sunyata,” p. 19). Not without reason, Altizer — whose theology of the “death of God” is perhaps closer to Nishitani and Abe in the style and intent of its God-language than any contemporary Western theology — has welcomed Derrida as an ally (see his “History as Apocalypse,” Deconstruction in Theology, New York: Crossroad, 1982, pp. 14777).
- “God, Emptiness, and the True Self,” p. 66. The phrasing here is taken directly from The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978, Vol.8, p. 300). Abe does not note his source, perhaps because it argues against the view he wishes to espouse. From an exegetical point of view, the more serious objection is that the hymn of kenosis is placed in the context of an argument against what Paul sees as a tendency to overlook the cross in favor of a “realized eschatology.” Abe is correct in locating the immediate context as a call to moral conversion to the way of Jesus, to “have the mind of Christ Jesus.” But the force of the argument is to associate salvation with a particular way of being human, namely the way of Jesus, and not with a pre-existent status. On this see the persuasive presentation of Edward Schillebeeckx in his Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord (trans. by John Bowden, New York: Seabury, 1980), pp. 166-79.
- Abe uses the term Jinen, which is here equivalent to the “what-it-truly-is” of tathata.
- The difference of this from the second point is that Abe means to include the logic of soku, a notoriously difficult term for translators to render into English. Basically it is a copulative that carries the combined sense of or/also. (Nishitani’s translator, Jan Van Bragt, has opted for the Latin term sine to draw attention to the word. Most translators of the Kyoto School are content with the more familiar qua.) Thus, just as the notions of servant and lord are correlative and mutually defining, so it is with all things. To absolutize anything other than this correlativity is to “cling” to a false view of reality.
- And of course, mutatis mutandis, the other way around. I restrict my comments here to Buddhist believers, thereby excluding “pure” Buddhologists and historians of Buddhist thought, since it is in the former classification that the figures in the Kyoto School locate themselves. I realize this leaves a great deal unsaid, but it should not be construed as saying anything particular about Buddhist studies.
- See my recent article in the Spring 1985 issue of Spring Wind, “The Christian Experience of Buddhism, Part I: The Mere Reality.”
- As only one example, the first third of “Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata” treats the twin threats of “scientism” and “nihilism” against which Christianity and Buddhism must join forces.
- Mircea Eliade, No Souvenirs, trans. by F.H. Johnson (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 67.