The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation

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Item Code: NAC454
Author: John B. Cobb, Jr.Christopher Ives
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
Edition: 1996
ISBN: 8170304903
Pages: 241
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8 Inch X 5.7 Inch
Weight 410 gm
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Masao Abe is widely acknowledged as a leader in the worldwide dialogue on Buddhism. A profound scholar of Buddhism and of Christian theology, his critical and constructive reflections culminate in the seminal essay which is the cornerstone of this volume. Seven eminent scholars respond to the challenge of Abe’s construal of ‘Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata.” Abe demonstrates powerfully the dynamism of the Buddhist appreciation of the divine Emptiness at the heart of being. His essay suggests how the doctrine of sunyata can provide a needed corrective to the reified understanding of God prominent in Jewish and Christian traditions. Abe opens the way for new and deeper engagement of these traditions with the wisdom of Buddhism.

Leading Christian and Jewish theologians—Thomas J.J. Altizer, Eugene Borowitz, John B. Cobb, Jr., Catherine Keller, Schubert M. Ogden, Jurgen Moltmann, and David Tracy— respond to Abe’s challenge. From perspectives as diverse as American feminism, post-Holocaust Judaism, process thought, and hermeneutics, they reply to Abe’s proposals for considering God to be intrinsically self-emptying. Abe responds to these essays in a conclusion. Provocative and illuminating, The Emptying God shows how interfaith dialogue, at its very best, provides materials for the mutual transformation of all traditions.

“An extremely important new contribution Everyone interested in this dialogue will want to study Masao Abe’s unfolding of the basic Buddhist concept of sunyata and its relation to the concept of God, and the various responses which follow.”

“This book is an event by taking seriously the Buddhist, Christian, and Jewish traditions at the same time. Professor Abe’s work, deeply rooted in the Zen philosophy and at the same time open for dialogue, is a real challenge for Jewish- Christian thinking. The responses in this book are not a last word, but a first attempt to dialogue.

John B. Cobb, Jr., is in graham Professor at the School of Theology, Claremont. Christopher Ives is Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of Puget Sound.


Beginning in the 1920s, dialectical theology or neo-orthodoxy brought to the Christian community a sense of excitement confirming the importance DC the central ideas of the Christian tradition in the modern context. This need continued through World War II and its immediate aftermath, but then it began to fade. The repetition of traditional doctrines and of the ascents given them by dialectical theology or neo-orthodoxy still held center stage, but it ceased to elicit creative response.

In the mid-1960s excitement was renewed in theology but this time through radical criticism, by denial rather than by affirmation. Of course there were affirmations contained in the denials, but these tended to focus what was felt to be different from traditional Christianity. The continued affirmation of central doctrines sounded somewhat hollow, and although important work was still being done by traditionalists, intellectual energy was to be found chiefly elsewhere.

The major exception to this redirection of attention has been found in interreligious dialogue. In conversation with those who see reality quite differently, elements of Christian tradition that had lost their interest through repetition came alive again. In general, dialogue partners wanted to deal with the mainstream of the tradition rather than with recent radical alternatives, rightly sensing that the great issues on which the traditions divide are to be found more clearly in this way. Often they saw the sentience of traditional doctrines more clearly than those theologians who had adapted or softened them in the interest of credibility. And often adaptations that seemed to make Christian teaching more credible in the modem Western context appear in dialogue to remove it even further from the insights of those nurtured in other faiths.

In many ways the dialogue with Jews and the efforts to reformulate Christian teaching so that it will cease to generate anti-Jewish feelings, are the most important part of the interreligious development for Christians. The practical consequences of Christian teaching in this area over centuries of Christian history and culminating in the Holocaust are overwhelming. That discussion must go on.

But at other levels the dialogue with Buddhism has been equally important. Just because the practical problems are less acute, the theological discussion is freer. Christians can express their critical objections to the positions adopted by Buddhists without special fear that this will be heard as justification for continuing prejudice and persecution. Christians can also hear Buddhist criticisms of Christianity as challenges to our deepest beliefs based not on how these beliefs affect Buddhists politically but on the Buddhist perception that they are intellectually indefensible or spiritually limiting. There is danger, of course, from a Christian point of view, that the results may be too far removed from the political sphere, even the sphere of church politics. But in a context in which a primary danger is anti- intellectualism, the possibility of engaging in high-level discussion of the most fundamental assumptions of one’s tradition and personal faith is refreshing and healing, and in the long run it cannot fail to have political implications as well.

In general the quest for dialogue with other religious traditions has come from the Christian side. Its motivations have been mixed. Sometimes the suspicion that it is an indirect effort at proselytizing have been warranted. Sometimes it has been in the interest of forging alliances to advance common causes. More often it has sprung from a hunger to understand and learn as well as to explain oneself in open discussion. On the whole, representatives of other traditions do not feel these needs as keenly, so that although they often respond to the Christian invitation, they rarely initiate the dialogue.

There are, however, exceptions. Some of the new religious movements in Japan aggressively promote interreligious dialogue and cooperation. The Unification Church, stemming from Korea, seeks to move toward religious and cultural understanding and unity through dialogue. But these movements do not touch the deep nerves of Christians as do the great traditional religions. And among them the relative passivity remains dominant.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions there, too. Of these one of the most important has been the Buddhism associated with the Kyoto School. D. T. Suzuki took as his vocation an evangelistic and dialogue mission to the West, especially to the United States. In the past few decades, Masao Abe has continued and deepened that work. In 1963 Abe published an article on Buddhism and Christianity in Japanese Religions and solicited Western responses. These were published and Abe replied. A quarter of a century later he is repeating this process. The years between have been filled with vigorous and generally successful efforts on his part to communicate his perceptions to Christian theologians in a way that evokes serious attention to the Buddhist message.

The Kyoto School as a whole has represented a style of Buddhist thought deeply informed by the study of Western philosophy. More than any other member of this school, Abe has added to this a study of Christian theology. When he speaks of Christian teaching it is out of .serious engagement with its classical and modem forms. Often he is able to instruct his Christian dialogue partners about the meaning of our own heritage. This adds a dimension to the dialogue that has been rare in the past.

Christians have been engaged in dialogue on many fronts. There is a tendency for the dialogues on these diverse fronts to bring to the fore different aspects of Christian faith. For example, the dialogue with Jews heightens sensitivity to the kinds of claims made for Jesus and for the New Testament, whereas dialogue with Buddhists often focuses on the nature of ultimate reality and the deepest religious experience. There is danger that in the process of one dialogue what is learned in another be forgotten. For example, while talking with Buddhists, Christians often lack sensitivity to the implications of what they are saying with regard to the problem of anti-Judaism. Indeed, there is danger that Judaism (and perhaps Hinduism as well) be pejoratively treated as Christians and Buddhists engage one another. For this reason, we can be particularly glad that Abe has recently begun to extend his efforts at dialogue toward Jews. This has given an opening for including a Jewish voice in this volume. A Jewish presence will check the all-too-easy forgetfulness of Christians. It will also enrich the Buddhist conversation partners. We hope that in continuing dialogues the Jewish presence will grow.

Part of the strength of Abe’s approach to Christianity is his uncompromising rejection of theism. Other members of the Kyoto School have used the word God in a positive sense. Abe has seen that this softens the challenge to Christianity in a misleading way. Furthermore, Abe himself grew up in a quasi-theistic form of Buddhism and was converted away from that to what he is convinced is the true and pure form. Hence he understands theism from within and hopes to liberate from it those who are still attached to it. The contrast with the biblical faiths thus becomes stark. The too-easy solution to our differences of identifying the true God with Dharmakaya or Sunyata, thus reaffirming a common referent beyond the differences, becomes much more difficult when confronted with the rigor and clarity of Abe’s formulations.

This is one of the elements of Abe’s thought that renders him a particularly effective teacher of Christians. He hammers home a few central features of the Buddhist vision with vivid images and strong negations — to say nothing of the characteristic negation of negations. His position, or his ‘position less position,” comes through with stark force, rendering problematic all the ideas and tools with which Christians are accustomed to work.

Dialogue does not always bring the discussants closer together. The reader of this volume will find that the Christian and Jewish participants are often quite sharp in our disagreement with Abe and even our disapproval of his position. This is itself healthy. Arguments between Christians and Buddhists have become as frank and blunt as those within the two communities have long been. We are becoming one community of discourse. To this achievement, no one has contributed more than Masao Abe. Readers of this book are invited to listen in on the current stage of the discussion.


Since the death of D.T. Suzuki in 1966, Masao Abe has served as the main representative of Zen Buddhism in Europe and North America. Through his teaching, writings, and participation in conferences, he has conveyed to a wide audience the worldview of Zen and the philosophy of the Kyoto SchooL1 His expression of Buddhism has proved especially valuable for those involved in interreligious dialogue. We can best understand his unique role in this dialogue by considering his philosophical development and professional career up to the present.

The third of six children, Abe was born in 1915. His father was a doctor in Osaka, the major commercial center of western Japan. His mother was a devoted follower of Pure Land Shin Buddhism, the sect to which his family belonged. According to Abe, the family, with the exception of his mother, was not especially religious.

While in high school Abe begin to wrestle with issues in philosophy and religion. As he once said, “I came to realize that while I was living my life I was unconsciously hurting others’ lives.” Facing this dilemma, he experienced anguish for the first time. Eventually he turned to Shinran’s Tannisho for a solution to his dilemma. Impacted greatly by what he read, he began to study and practice Pure Land Shin Buddhism, which emphasizes a type of “sinfulness” and the impossibility of religious liberation through one’s own efforts. More specifically, he started seeking to realize pure faith in the unconditional mercy and absolute “other power” of Amida.

After graduating from high school Abe entered Osaka Commercial University to study Economics and Law. While in college he continued to struggle with his dilemma. He spent more time studying Buddhism on his own and working for a Buddhist association — Ashiya Bukkyo Kaikan — than focusing on his major areas of study. Though he recognized the value of faith in Asnida, he could not overcome his intellect, which stood in his way as a colossal barrier to embracing faith. In his words, “While I was keenly feeling my own sinfulness, I could not give up my reasoning power.”

As graduation approached, Abe longed to enter Kyoto University, for se was convinced that he could solve his personal dilemma through the study of philosophy and Buddhism. Due to family circumstances, however, such study proved impossible. With his problem still unresolved, he started working for a company in Kobe. Over time, the more he attempted to devote himself to business, the more empty it felt. And the more this sense of emptiness deepened, the more urgent the desire to solve his dilemma became.

Although this inner problem pressed upon him, family circumstances still did not allow him to change course. Moreover, this process was unfolding in the 1930s, a time of tension in Japan: the country was at war with China and relations with the United States were steadily worsening. Through it all, his problem would not go away. Several months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Abe finally decided to jettison his career in business and enter Kyoto University to study Western philosophy. This was a radical move for a man of twenty-six in Japan at the time. Looking back on his decision he has said:

To do this I was forced to abandon almost everything I had acquired, privately and publicly, because I was reproached for breaking family solidarity and for being an unpatriotic person who began to study philosophy in the midst of national crisis despite his ability to contribute to the nation.

Abe risked everything on this move because he felt he had no other choice than to confront his intellect — the barrier to faith —by pushing his rationality to the breaking point through intensive study of philosophy. He was convinced that this was the way to overcome the intellect and attain pure faith in Amida. It was thus out of desperate existential concern, not mere intellectual interest, that he began his formal study of philosophy and religion.

In the faculty of letters at Kyoto University Abe studied Western philosophy under Hajime Tanabe? He took a keen interest in Plato, Augustine, Hegel, and Kierkegaard and felt drawn especially to Kant and his moral philosophy. What was most significant for him at Kyoto University, however, was his encounter with Shin’ichi Hisamatsu.

Abe met Hisamatsu for the first time soon after he entered Kyoto University. He sensed immediately that Hisamatsu embodied a special sort of truth. He explained his predicament and his Pure Land approach to it, only to have Hisamatsu maintain from his Zen perspective that ultimately the realization of sinfulness is an illusion and the absolute “other power” of Amida is something to be overcome. Though deeply impressed by Hisamatsu’s personality, Abe could not accept Hisamatsu’s negative view of Pure Land faith, for to accept it would be to see as meaningless his critical decision to quit his job in order to study philosophy, thwart the intellect, and attain pure faith in Amid a. This led Abe to what he has called an ongoing “battle” with him that extended outside the classroom and beyond graduation. Throughout this “battle” he tried to defend his Pure Land faith until Hisamatsu’s severe criticism, and this forced him to deepen his faith.

While engaged in this “battle,” Abe worked with Professor Hisamatsu 4,1(1 other students—many of whom are now professors and Zen masters In Kyoto — to revitalize the Buddhist Youth Organization at Kyoto University. They started a lay organization, “Gakudo-Dojo” (Place for the Study of I he Way), for Zen meditation and study. (Later, after several developmental stages, the F.A.S. Society5 emerged.):

Through his study of Buddhism and interaction with Hisamatsu in the “Gakudo-Dojo” organization, Pure Land faith opened up in him as a gift from Amida. When Hisamatsu heard about this conversion he celebrated it, and from then he never criticized Abe. Having gone through this change, Abe now believed he could “embrace” any person with his Pure Land faith, however different the person might be.

Gradually, however, he came to realize that there was one person he could not embrace with his faith: Shin’ichi Hisamatsu. Present there before him, Hisamatsu’s silent existence posed a serious challenge to his faith, for It became increasingly clear to him that the truth embodied by Hisamatsu was essentially different from the truth found in Pure Land faith. Abe it rugged to determine which was more authentic — the truth of Zen awakening embodied by Hisamatsu or the truth of Pure Land faith realized in himself. Confronting this question, he resumed his “battle” with Hisamatsu.

For several years the “battle” continued. Finally, during a winter retreat of (he F.A.S. Society, Abe’s Pure Land faith crumbled away. He realized that even the truth found in Pure Land faith was false, as was everything (ii this world and in the transcendent realm he had believed in to that point. This discernment of absolute falsehood came to him through the painful realization that even Amida and his unconditional mercy are sacred fictions, With this realization Abe found a close affinity with Nietzsche, who once declared, “God is a holy lie.”


Acknowledgments vii
A Note on Orthography viii
Preface – John B. Cobb, Jr. ix
Introduction – Christopher Ivesxiii
I – Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata
Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata – Masao Abe 3
II – Responses to Masao Abe
1. Buddhist Emptiness and the Crucifixion of God – Thomas J.J. Altizer 69
2. Dynamic Sunyata and the God Whose Glory Fills the Universe – Eugene B. Borowitz 79
3. On the Deepening of Buddhism – John B. Cobb, Jr. 91
4. Scoop up the Water and the Moon Is in Your Hands: On Feminist Theology and Dynamic Self-Emptying – Catherine Keller 102
5. God Is Unselfish Love – Jurgen Moltmann 116
6. Faith in God and Realization of Emptiness – Schudert M. Ogden 125
7. Kenosis, Sunyata, and Trinity: A Dialogue with Masao Abe – David Tracy 135
III – A Rejoinder
A Rejoinder – Masao Abe 157
IV – Masao Abe Bibliography
Masao Abe Bibliography 203
Index of Names 221
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