Masao Abe

I’ve just learned of the passing of one of my teachers, Masao Abe Sensei. During my sojourn at the Pacific School of Religion Professor Abe was a visiting scholar. I took several of the classes he offered and was one of a gaggle that provided secretarial services to the old teacher.

He was the one who taught me that Zen practice and scholarship were not incompatable…

Masao Abe, 91
Leader in Inter-religious Dialogue

Obituary by
the Reverend Doctor James Fredericks,
Professor Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University

Professor Masao Abe, a pioneer in the international dialogue among Christians and Buddhists, died in Kyoto, Japan, on 10 September. He was 91 years old. Professor Abe was given a quiet funeral service reserved to family and close friends, according to sources in Kyoto.

After the death of his mentor, D.T. Suzuki, Abe became a leading exponent of Zen in the West and a driving force in the encounter between Buddhism and Christianity. Abe must be credited with much of the intellectual vitality of this dialogue, as well as its relevance to contemporary social problems.

Abe was a tireless exponent of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness as the standpoint for realizing the True Self, yet was also willing to place this basic Buddhist teaching in dialogue with Christianity. Rejecting the notion that Christianity and Buddhism were either fundamentally similar or completely different, Abe saw in inter-religious dialogue an opportunity for the mutual transformation of dialogue partners and pursued dialogue to help Buddhists and Christians in confronting the threat of nihilism of the modern world.

In the ruins of post-War Japan, Abe began his studies with Hajime Tanabe at the University of Kyoto, a prominent figure in the Kyoto school of contemporary Zen Buddhist philosophy in Japan. But it was his encounter with Shin¹ichi Hisamatsu, another philosopher of Zen at the University of Kyoto, that would be decisive for Abe¹s turn to Zen. In a series of Zen retreats with Hisamatsu at Myoshinji Temple in western Kyoto, Abe was forced to confront the reality of nihilism within himself and eventually resolve this problem by entering the Zen standpoint of emptiness, wherein the enlightened self arises.

At age 40, Abe left Kyoto for New York in order to study at Union Theological Seminary with two of the most prominent Christian theologians of his day, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. This began a distinguished career of teaching, writing and, above all, dialogue with leading Christian thinkers, including David Tracy, Langdon Gilkey, Rosemary Radford Reuther, Jurgen Multmann and Hans Kung. Abe served as visiting professor at the University of Chicago, Purdue, Claremont, Columbia, Princeton, the University of Hawaii and other schools. In Germany, Abe taught at
Heidelburg, Tubingen, and Munich.

In addition to his many Japanese publications, Abe wrote extensively in English. These works include Zen and Western Thought, an award-winning collection of essays and a ground-breaking reflection on Christian belief in Christ interpreted from a Buddhist perspective, ³Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata.² This essay appeared in conjunction with responses from several Christian and Jewish theologians, making the book itself a dialogue. Abe also engaged Jewish intellectuals with his Buddhist reflection on the Holocaust.

In 1984, Abe and John Cobb convened a group of Buddhist and Christian intellectuals from Japan, North America and Europe for dialogue in depth over a sustained period of time on a number of fundamental issues. He was also a guiding influence on the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, which continues his work of dialogue today.

Masao Abe is survived by his wife, Ikuko Abe, his constant companion in a life of sojourn and dialogue in the West.

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