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Self-Awakening and Faith — Zen and Christianity

Masao Abe
from Christianity Through Non-Christian Eyes (Faith Meets Faith Series) , pp 171-180
© Orbis Books, 1990

Masao Abe, perhaps the best known and most prolific expositor of Zen Buddhism to the West since the death of D. T. Suzuki, was Professor of Philosophy at Nara University of Education from 1952-80 and has since then served on the faculty of the Claremont Graduate School in California and at the University of Hawaii. He studied and practiced Zen as a young man in Japan and has served as visiting professor at a large number of universities in the United States. Abe's thought is influenced by that of the important school of Japanese philosophical thought centered in Kyoto; he offers a philosophical version of Zen Buddhism, insofar as such a thing is possible.

The word Zen is a Japanese representation of a Chinese term Ch'an, which in turn represents the sound of a Sanskrit word dhyana. The word means, roughly, "meditation," and meditational practice is absolutely central to Zen. In some of its forms it claims for itself a direct wordless transmission of truth from awakened sage to awakened sage, a transmission independent of Buddhist sacred texts (sutra) — and indeed of anything to do with words. The aim of Zen practice — though it is improper to make a separation between the practice and its aim, for the practice is the aim —is to attain a direct nonverbal apprehension of the way things really are, and so to liberate oneself from attachment, desire, and suffering.3
The piece reprinted here was originally delivered as a lecture at a seminar on Zen Buddhism for Christian missionaries in Kyoto, Japan, in September 1974. Excerpts from the discussion between Abe and the participants are also included. In the lecture, Abe points to three basic contrasts between Zen Buddhism and Christianity. The first is that between God and Nothingness; for Abe, [p172] Nothingness4 denotes not simply nothing, but rather the radical interdependence of all things. The contrast with God, understood as the independent source of everything other than God, is very clear.

The second contrast is between faith and enlightenment. Faith, according to Abe, is other-directed, while enlightenment is self-produced, being simply a recognition of what one already is. Abe doubts that faith, in the Christian sense, is radical enough to produce salvation: "Man's finitude is so deep and so radical that it cannot even be overcome by faith, not even through the work of the divine other power. Hence the need for the realization of absolute Nothingness." This second contrast then entails the third, that between salvation and self-awakening. Self-awakening is a present reality that only needs to be acknowledged and realized; the Christian striving for salvation and the overcoming of good by evil is, from Abe's perspective, rooted necessarily and irredeemably in dualism.

Some of these contrasts are taken up and developed in the discussion between Professor Abe and the participants in the seminar. I give an edited version of this discussion in the version reprinted here. It will suffice to note at this point that Abe's presentation of Christianity is a common Buddhist one. Christianity is seen as a metaphysical dualism whose toils make true liberation and enlight­enment impossible, even while they may be of some preliminary and provisional use for those not yet sufficiently advanced for Zen practice. Tills, I think, is the upshot of Abe's affirmation of Christianity's axiology (theory of value) and its ethic, but his rejection of its ontology.


The dialogue between Zen and Christianity has been becoming more serious and important during the past decade or so. Those of us involved in it are pleased with this development because we maintain that such a dialogue is necessary for the development of mutual understanding between East and West.

To make this sort of dialogue effective and fruitful, we have to be very frank and open, as well as sincere. To be frank, I find it necessary to clarify the difference rather than the affinity between Christianity and Zen. Of course it is necessary for such a dialogue to elucidate both affinities and differences between the two religions. It is rather easy to point out the affinity between Christianity and Zen, because both of them are equally, in their essence, religions. So, naturally, there are some kinds of similarity. However, the emphasis on similarity, although important, does not necessarily create something new. On the other hand, an attempt to disclose the differences, if properly and relevantly done, promotes and stimulates mutual understanding and inspires both religions to seek further inner development of themselves. I hope my emphasis on differences in this talk is not understood as a rejection or exclusion of Christianity from a Zen point of view, or as a presumption of the superiority of Zen to Christianity. [p173] My point is to reach a real and creative mutual understanding. My understanding of Christianity is, however, insufficient and limited, so I hope you will correct me later, my discussion being completely open to your criticism.
book cover
To simplify the point to be discussed in connection with the theme, "Self-Awakening and Faith—Zen and Christianity," I will try to contrast some central motifs in Zen and Christianity: the difference between Christianity and Zen could be formulated in the contrasts of God—Nothingness, Faith — Enlightenment, Salvation — Self-Awakening.

A Zen master once said, "There is one word I do not like to hear, that is 'Buddha.' " Rinzai, a Chinese Zen master of the T'ang Dynasty (618-907) said, "Encountering a Buddha, kill the Buddha. Encountering a patriarch, kill the patriarch .. . only thus does one attain liberation and detachment from all things, thereby becoming completely unfettered and free." As you can understand from these words, Zen rejects or denies the idea of Buddha and emphasizes the idea of no-Buddha or non-Buddha. So, in that sense, Zen is not theistic but atheistic.

"When all things are reduced to the one, where is that one to be reduced?" Zen does not end with that one, which is beyond any particular and transcends any form of duality. Rather, Zen starts with the question: Where is that one to be reduced? It emphasizes the necessity of abandoning even the one. Zen transcends not only dualism but also monism and monotheism. It is essen­tial "not to maintain even the one." To go beyond the absolute means to go to Nothingness. The absolute oneness must be turned into absolute Nothingness.

This realization of absolute Nothingness is in Zen the realization of one's true Self. For the realization of absolute Nothingness opens up the deepest ground of one's Subjectivity which is beyond every form of subject-object duality, including the so-called divine-human relationship. Enlightenment takes place only through the realization of absolute Nothingness which is beyond every form of duality. This is not faith in the divine mercy nor salvation by a divine other power, but Self-Awakening—the Self-Awakening of true Self. In the realization of Absolute Nothingness, the true Self awakens to itself. This Self-Awakening is not something to be sought for sometime in the future or somewhere outside yourself, but it is originally and already realized in yourself, here and now. If enlightenment is something to be sought for somewhere outside yourself or in the future, that so-called enlightenment will not be true. It is not absolute Nothingness, but rather a sort of somethingness which would be realized beyond the present now and outside the here. So Zen always emphasizes that you are originally in enlightenment. You are already inseparable from Self-Awakening.

On the other hand, if I am not wrong, the affirmation of the absolute oneness of God is taken for granted in Christian thinking. When a scribe wanted to know if Jesus was in agreement with the Biblical tradition, he tempted him by asking about the greatest commandment in the Law. Jesus [p174] answered by quoting the Old Testament passage about loving God with all the heart, soul and mind, mentioning the classical Biblical confession: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Mark 12:29). The scribe then said to him, "You are right, teacher, you have truly said that he is one and there is no other but he" (Mark 12:32). In Christianity God is the one and only living God. He is father, creator, judge and ruler of the universe and of history.

Why does Zen not accept the only and absolute one and instead emphasize Nothingness? What is the doctrinal background for Zen's emphasis of Mu, absolute Nothingness? As you know, one of the most basic ideas of Buddhism is expressed in the Sanskrit term pratitya-samutpada, which we call engi in Japanese. It is translated in various ways, as "dependent coorigination," "relationality," "relativity," "dependent co-arising," "interdependent causation," etc. The Buddhist idea of engi, dependent origination, indicates that everything without exception is dependent on something else. Nothing whatsoever is independent or self-existing. This idea is generally expressed by the formulation, "When this exists, that comes to be. When this does not exist, that does not exist. When this is destroyed, that is destroyed." In this formulation, "this" and "that" are completely interchangeable and are mutually dependent on each other. This idea must be applied to things not only in the universe but also beyond the universe. It applies also to the relation between immanence and transcendence, between the human and the divine.

Christianity teaches that all men are equal before God. So they should all be relative and interdependent. But God is not dependent upon man, while man definitely is dependent upon God. We can therefore say with full justification that when God exists, the world comes into existence. When God does not exist, the world will not exist. However, is it possible to say that when the world exists, God comes into being? Or, when the world does not exist, God does not exist? At least the last statement is impossible in Christian thinking. The world cannot exist without. God, but God can exist without the world. Because God is the self-existing deity, God can or does exist by himself without depending on anything else.

Against this basic Christian standpoint, Zen may raise the question: How is God's self-existence possible? What is the ground of God's self-existence? God said to Moses, "I am that I am." Theologians ... have said that the Hebrew word hayah, which is the root of ehyeh (I am), does not simply mean to be, but to become, to work and to happen. So in God, his being is his action and vice versa. This dynamic character of God's being stresses his independence. His being is not to be understood in terms of dependent origination.

From a Buddhist point of view this idea of a self-sustaining God is ultimately inadequate, for Buddhists cannot see the ontological ground of this one and self-sustaining God. This is the reason why the Buddha rejected the traditional Upanishadic view of Brahman as the ultimate power [p175] of the universe and proclaimed that everything without exception is transitory and perishable, nothing being unchangeable and eternal. The idea that everything is transitory is inseparably connected to the idea of interdependent co-origination. So again, from this point of view we have to ask: What is the ground of the one God? How can we accept the one God as the ruler of the universe and history? The Christian might answer this question by stressing the importance of faith in God, this faith being nothing but the "assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).
Before discussing the concept of faith, however, I must return to the Christian concept of God. If I am not wrong, the truth that God is a living God is more evident in Christianity than that he is the one true God. Being a living and personal God, he calls men through his word, and man must respond to his word. Hence the I-thou relationship between man and God.

In Jesus Christ, this I-thou relationship is most deeply and significantly actualized. Jesus is the mediator between man and God. He has the nature of homooūsios, consubstantiality, in which the immanence and transcendence are paradoxically one. Thus, Jesus Christ may be said to be a symbol of the Buddhist idea of relationality or interdependent causation. With full justification Buddhists regard Jesus as a Buddha or as an Awakened one. The new life through death is clearly realized in him.

However, the Christian idea of the I-thou relationship in terms of faith, although interdependent and relational, is not completely reciprocal. Having faith in Jesus Christ, the Christian believes that if we die with him, we shall also live with him. So the Christian participates in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the savior and we are the saved; he is the redeemer and we are the redeemed, not vice versa.

In faith Jesus Christ and I are, ultimately speaking, not in the relation­ship of interdependent causation. This is the case because man's finitude, that is his sinfulness, is deeply and keenly realized in Christianity. The faith in Jesus Christ is inseparably connected to the realization of man's sinfulness. Death is for the Christian nothing but "the wage of sin." From this Christian point of view, I am afraid that the Zen expression, "Encountering a Buddha, kill the Buddha... Only thus does one attain liberation," may sound blasphemous. The Zen saying that man is originally a Buddha and an Enlightened one, may sound arrogant or self-deceptive. And the Buddhist realization of man's finitude merely in terms of transiency may appear quite insufficient.

Frankly speaking, however, from the Zen point of view, the Christian realization of man's finitude in terms of sinfulness, and consequently, the idea of salvation through Jesus Christ, does not seem thoroughgoing enough to reach the ultimate Reality. Can man's finitude in terms of sinfulness be fully overcome through faith? What is the ground of this faith and hope in which our death and sin can be redeemed? Is man's finitude the kind of finitude which can be overcome by faith? These questions imply that for [p176] Zen, man's finitude is so deep and so radical that it cannot even be overcome by faith, not even through the work of the divine other power. Hence the need for the realization of absolute Nothingness.

Let me develop this question by considering the question of good and evil. In Buddhism in general, and Zen in particular, good and evil are, like every other thing, interdependently originated. There is no good without evil and vice versa. How is it possible that good can stand without evil? Good and evil are in Buddhism entirely interdependently originated. There is no priority of one over the other.

Questioner: If you are born in enlightenment, is not that in itself a priority of good over evil?
Abe: Enlightenment is not something good in the relative sense, as distinguished from evil. Enlightenment is the realization of my being prior to the duality of good and evil.

Questioner: But that realization in itself is good, or are we talking in different terms?
Abe: When you say that realization in itself is good, from which point of view are you so doing? I am afraid you are from the outset talking about good and evil from the dualistic point of view. Good has no priority over evil. The priority of good over evil is an ethical imperative but not an actual human situation. In human beings good and evil have equal power: I cannot say that my good is stronger than my evil although I should try to overcome my evil by my good. The Buddhist shares the Pauline thought that the more we try to do good, the more we become aware of evil in ourselves. This dilemma between good and evil in our being is so deep that it cannot be solved by the power of good. In faith in God as the Supreme Good, the dilemma is believed to be solved in the future in the form of hope. This is not, however, a complete solution of the dilemma at the present, but a pushing away of the solution into the eternal future. The dilemma of good and evil is so radical that there is no way for us to escape it even in the future. It is not that I have a dilemma between good and evil, but that I am that dilemma. It is not that I have an aporia, but that I am an aporia in this sense. In the final and deepest realization of the dilemma between good and evil, the structure of my ego collapses and I come to the realization that I am not simply good, or simply bad. I am neither good nor bad. I am nothing whatsoever. However, this realization is not negative but positive, because in the full realization of Nothingness we are liberated from the dichotomy of good and evil, life and death. At that point we awaken to our true nature prior to dualistic consciousness. That is the reason why Zen often asks us to see our "original face" as it is prior to any distinction between good and evil. Enlightenment is precisely to see one's "original face."
To return to my discussion. Practically speaking, I have no way to over-[p177]come evil by the power of good. This applies to not only the non-religious humanistic dimension, but also to the transcendental religious dimension. The reason that the dilemma between good and evil is so deep and thoroughgoing is because good and evil are interdependently originated, negating each other with equal power. Therefore, it cannot be overcome even through faith in God who is absolutely good. If God is absolutely good, what is the origin of the evil in man and in the world?
"In God evil is conquered not by being annihilated, but by not being actualized. It is actualized in the finite world, but not in the infinite ground of being, i.e., God."*5 This means that the actuality of evil is never in God, but evil is left as a potentiality in God. I think this is to be regarded as a sort of theodicy regarding the origin of evil. God created everything but he is not responsible for the actuality of evil. Thus, the dichotomy between good and evil can be solved in Christianity by saying that in eternity evil is conquered by being reduced to mere potentiality. I am afraid this Christian view may be that of a false endlessness. The problem of evil is moved from actuality to potentiality, from time to eternity, but without a definitive solution.
The point in which you are not limited by the duality of good and evil can be realized in yourself right here and right now, through the realization that you are the dilemma of good and evil. Once you thoroughly realize that you are the dilemma of good and evil you can break through this dilemma and come to a standpoint which is neither good nor evil. Thus, from the Zen point of view, the essential point is not faith in God, but realization of Nothingness and awakening to one's true nature. This is the inevitable conclusion of the Buddhist idea of dependent co-origination. Not only good and evil, but life and death, God and man, are interdependent. Therefore Buddha, when understood as something beyond man, must be killed to realize our own true nature and to attain Self-Awakening.
Though contrasting Zen and Christianity, I want to stress that it is an oversimplification to say that Zen is based on Nothingness, while Christianity is based on God as Being, in contrast to non-being. If this were the case, Zen and Christianity would be entirely without any correspondence.
According to my understanding, when Christianity emphasizes the one God who is the ruler of the universe and of history, who is the absolute good and eternal life, who can overcome death and evil, etc., this is not simply an ontological issue, but rather an axiological issue.6 In Christianity the most significant point is not the issue of being and non-being, but the question of what I as a human being ought to do. The idea of righteousness is very important, although righteousness must be fulfilled as an aspect of love. The Christian idea of love always includes the idea of justice. Without justice, there is no real love. In that sense the "ought" or "divine imperative" is important. When Christians confess God as the one, self-existing God, it is not primarily because He is the only divine Being, but because He is the personal God who rules the whole universe and calls for man's [p178] response to His commandments. The idea of justice represented by the "ought" is rather lacking, or at least very weak in Buddhism, particularly in Zen, while the idea of being and non-being, life and death, is very strong.
The Christian idea of the one God should not be understood merely ontologically, but also axiologically. The Christian faith in the one God is more concerned with justice and love than the ontological questions of God's being. In that sense Zen's criticism of the Christian view of the one God, based upon the Buddhist idea of dependent co-origination, does not necessarily hit the core of, or do justice to, the essence of Christianity.
Both in Zen and Christianity ontological and axiological aspects are inseparably connected. But in Zen the ontological aspect, the question of being and non-being, life and death, is much more central than the issue of good and evil. On the other hand, in Christianity the issue of good and evil is much more strongly emphasized than the question of being and non-being.
So we may try to draw the lines from Zen and its ontological under­standing of Nothingness to the Christian faith with its axiological emphasis on God's "ought" and find the crossing point.
                                                            Zen                                Christianity 

                                            Nothingness                                  God

The strength in Zen is the weakness in Christianity and vice versa. Based on this recognition of these mutual strengths and weaknesses, we must enter into dialogue.

Questioner: In my reading and study of Buddhism, what has always puzzled me and still puzzles me is the concept of Nothingness. As you said in your lecture, "The realization of one's Nothingness is the realization of one's True Self," and "I am nothing whatsoever." If that is true, both in the ontological and in the actual sphere of life, what is the use of talking? What are we doing in this life if we are absolutely nothing? And how can we do something to improve the society which is also nothing?
Abe: Do you think that the self is something?

Questioner: We have to realize the absolute nothingness in order to realize our own true Self, as you said. That means that I am absolutely nothing. If that is true, what are we doing here in this world, both in the ontological and actual sphere of life? What is the meaning of our life personally—if we are persons? What can we do for society— if society exists [p179]
Abe: My counterquestion is this: do you think that the human self is something?

Questioner: I think so, Professor, I do!
Abe: What is it who thinks of yourself as something?

Questioner: My consciousness of being something, a somebody. And I believe that people around me are real people, that this house is a real thing, that the universe is a real thing. I am conscious of that in my mind.
Abe: What is it that has such consciousness?

Questioner: The human being.
Abe: Human being in general?

Questioner:Each human being! It is difficult to say if it is up here in the head or in the heart—I don't know. But as a human being I have that consciousness.
Abe: Who is talking about "I" as a human being—what has that consciousness?

Questioner: My own consciousness of myself and of the relationship to each other.
Abe: I am afraid you always objectify yourself when you talk about your­self or your own consciousness. Whenever I ask you "What is it that is so talking?" you say that it is your consciousness, it is your own consciousness of yourself, your personality, or so on. Thus you objectify your own consciousness, your own existence, your own self, and in that way you yourself move back step by step. When you answered my questions in that way, you were always regressing, trying to present something more inner including your "self." However, your true "Self can never be presented in that way because it is always standing "behind" your presentation, "behind" your regression.
You may, of course, objectify your "self." An objectified self, however, is not the true Self. The true Self must be the true Subjectivity which is beyond objectification. The "Self" is the unobjectifiable. As soon as the self is objectified it becomes "something." However, the true Self, as the unobjectifiable, is not "anything" whatsoever, but "nothing" in the sense that it is beyond objectification. And "Nothingness" in this sense is not simply negative but rather positive, because it indicates one's true Subjectivity as the root source of one's activity of objectification.

Questioner: .Can we say that the concept of Nothingness is in some way positive?
Abe: Yes, the Buddhist idea of Nothingness is a positive and dynamic idea. It is neither somethingness nor nothingness, yet it includes both. It is [p180] the dynamic whole which attaches itself to neither. There is nothing outside Nothingness. You and I and everything else are included without losing our particularity in the dynamic structure of this positive Nothingness.

Questioner: Is Nothingness the ultimate in the same way as we talk about God as the ultimate? This seems to be founded on a sort of belief. How can you say that there is not an equivalent somethingness related to Nothingness, just as in the relation between good and evil? Why is Nothingness unrelated?
Abe: Good and evil are completely interdependent. There is no good without evil and vice versa. There is no nothingness without somethingness and vice versa. Yet good and evil, nothingness and somethingness, are principles contrary to one another. They are negating one another and yet are inseparably connected with one another. At the extreme limit of opposition they turn into a single mass, becoming a serious contradiction. This is the most critical issue for man. As I said: it is not I that have a dilemma, but I am a dilemma. When we come to the point of total realization of this existential dilemma, it is overcome from within. And I come to the point where there is neither good nor evil, neither life nor death, neither nothingness nor somethingness. This is the root and source for good and evil, life and death, etc. This is the existential ground for life and activity, in which we can work without being limited by any kind of duality. This is freedom. Nothingness related to somethingness does not indicate freedom or openness just as good related to evil does not. Freedom is fully realized by going beyond the duality of somethingness and nothingness, good and evil, and so forth. This is why the Buddhist Nothingness is beyond both somethingness and nothingness. ... In the beginning of my lecture I said that the emphasis on similarity of the two religions [i.e., Buddhism and Christianity], though necessary, is not sufficient to develop a creative dia­logue. My emphasis on difference does not intend to judge which one is better. I would like to reach a deeper and more creative understanding beyond the essential differences. So we should not overlook even subtle differences. Speaking from the Zen point of view, Zen must raise the question: what is the ground of the one God; what is the ground of faith in God? This Zen question will not destroy but rather deepen the Christian faith in God. However, it is more ontologically oriented than the Christian action-oriented understanding of God's Being. Christianity is justified in its idea of the one God in the sense that He is the living personal God with ethical character who justifies man in spite of his sinfulness through unconditional love. Zen must learn more about this ground of the Christian faith in God.