This is a somewhat rambling reflection on some of the Kyoto School authors. I have been dipping into a little volume entitled The Buddha Eye, consisting of essays from The Eastern Buddhist, a prominent Japanese journal of Buddhist Studies. The collection focuses on the writings of the Kyoto School 'founded' by Nishida Kitaro (about whom I have written before). Sadly, none of Nishida's own essays are included, but there are several by Nishitani Keiji and Abe Masao.
Abe in particular has been an important writer for me, as it was his essays that first introduced me to the Kyoto School. He is generally able to write very sympathetically about Christianity and actually has something like a well developed (if heterodox) Christology.
In his essay, "God, Emptiness and the True Self" Abe approvingly quotes a number of Christian mystics, including quoting my favorite passage from St. Dionysius the Aereopagite*, the culmination of his mystical theology, where he concludes by hymning God beyond all names and categories. I quote at some length below from Dionysius and Abe's commentary.
Ascending higher we say...
not dark, not light,
not untrue, not true
not affirmable, not deniable,
while we affirm or deny of those orders of being
that are akin to Him
we neither affirm nor deny Him that is beyond
all affirmation as unique universal Cause,
all negation as simple preeminent Cause,
free of all
and to all transcendent.
This is strikingly similar to Zen's expressions of Buddha-Nature or Mind... It may not be wrong to say that for [Pseudo-Dionysius] the Godhead in which one is united is the 'emptiness' of the indefinable One... Despite the great similarity between Zen and Christian mysticism we should not overlook an essential difference between them. In the above quoted passage Pseudo-Dionysius calls that which is beyond all affirmation and all negation by the term him. Many Christian mystics call God "Thou." In Zen, however, what is beyond all affirmation and negation -that is Ultimate reality- should not be "him" or "thou" but "self" or "true self." (Abe. "God, Emptiness and the True Self." in The Buddha Eye. ed. Frederick Frank. World Wisdom; Bloomington, Ind. 2004, 62-63).Abe does highlight an important difference here. The person is an irreducible category, at least for most Christian mystics. Eckhart and some others might be an exception, but in general, for Christian mystics ultimate reality is always personal, and in fact tri-personal.
Another way of thinking about this, especially in light of the last post I put up and yesterday being the feast of Catherine of Siena, is to note the prominence of marriage imagery in Christian mysticism, even in an apophatic thinker like St. John of the Cross. Marriage represents a mystical union, but it is precisely a union of two who become one without being absorbed or annihilated. This imagery simply does not occur in Zen.
Abe goes on to critique the personalism of Christian mysticism. His main concern seems to be that if we address Ultimate Reality as "Thou" or speak of "Him" we make that Reality an object, something external to the self which can be grasped. From a Zen perspective even marriage imagery is trapped in a dualistic divide between subject and object.
I have a couple of thoughts on this. First, I think Abe is historically correct about the difference between Zen and Christianity here. Christian mysticism is personalistic, and any God who cannot be addressed as "Thou" or as "Father" is not the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Zen, like most of Buddhism, and many non-Christian systems, tends to regard personhood as a secondary, composite reality, that must be explained by reference to a more primary, impersonal reality.
Where I think Abe has a valid concern when he suggests that there can be a tendency to make Ultimate Reality into a object. It is easy to fall into thinking of God as if he and I were two objects sharing space in a room, much as I share space with the chair I'm sitting in or the laptop I'm typing on. This is not orthodox Christianity though, but simply bad theology. God is not simply a very, very big object in the room with me, but the whole basis on which the room - or more technically, the possibility of the encounter - exists. That's real transcendence, and I don't think it's anything a good classical theist would disagree with.
I think Abe would counter that Christianity wants to have it both ways. We want to say God is ultimate reality, transcending all categories, while at the same time treating God as a person - an object with whom I share space. If God is a person, God is an object and not ultimate reality. Of course, this all hangs on the problematic presupposition that a person is a type of object.
If persons are objects in the sense Abe means the term, then they are certainly unusual objects, because they are precisely objects which are also subjects. A "You" is never simply an "it" any more than an "I" is. In addressing something outside me as "you" or "thou" I cede any right to treat "you" as a mere object, and recognize "you" as somehow equally a free subject. Thus, in the very concept of persons there is something which transcends a mere subject object divide. Is it not possible that it is precisely the personal which is actually able to transcend duality? In the Christian faith, the dogma of the Trinity hints at this. Sergius Bulgakov, by the way, seems to have some good things to say on the topic in his book on the Holy Spirit, but that's another post.
In addition, it's not clear to me why he seems to privilege 'self' over other in the way he does. Why is the subject so much more primary than the object? And is "self," even "True self" even thinkable without "other?" I don't have a worked out theory of the Person, but this seems to me to be an important point that Abe does not consider. There almost seems to be a latent sense that there's some kind of competition between self and other here, rather than Nishda's complex philosophy of absolutely contradictory self-identity.
Finally, I wonder why he is so uninterested in the idea of person, give Nishida's fairly deep reflections on personality, especially in his earlier works like An Inquiry into the Good, and his appreciation of "other power" and the Christian theology of grace. In any case, I just would think as a student of Nishida's philosophy, Abe might be more sensitive to this. Anyway, I'm not sure what this whole reflection amounts to, except that I find I am really suspicious of this tendency to privilege the self in this way. It seems to fall short of the best in Kyoto School thought, and to fall short of a Trinitarian view of the self, in which self and other are not opposed but dynamically one even in difference.
*I know that the author of the Dionysian Corpus is not actually the Dionysius mentioned in Acts 17:34, but I don't like having to tack Pseudo onto his name all the time. It is awkward. It may be taken as a given that I mean Pseudo-Dionysius when I refer to him, unless otherwise stated.