Summer 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 137-147.

James W. Heisig:
     East-Wests Dialogue: Sunyata and Kenosis

Recent Christian-Buddhist dialogue in Japan reveals that the scandal of the Cross is less a stumbling block today for key representatives of the Kyoto School.

Fr. James Heisig, S.V.D., teaches at Nanzen University, Nagoga, Japan, where he is a member of the Nanzen Institute of Religion and Cuture. 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.


ACCORDING to the author of the Acts of the Apostles, what prevented Christianity from spreading to the East in the early years of its mission was a dream. In the course of his second missionary journey, Paul's plans to return west to Ephesus from Iconium were thwarted, and he was drawn instead to the verge of the East. The scripture speaks of the inner inspiration urging him from place to place as a Spirit pushing from behind like a driving wind. Then one night a Macedonian figure appeared to him in a vision and begged him to return to help the Christian community there. At once Paul and his troop pulled up stakes and headed back to the Mediterranean basin (Acts 16:9-10). The hindsight of history, as Jacques Ellul points out, makes the turn East seem the logical thing. There Paul would have been free "to proclaim a spiritual religion in the homeland of spiritual religions."(1) Instead the first Christian mission kept to the path of the Jewish diaspora, where it was to establish itself as Church and sink the cultural roots that nourish it to this day.

In time, of course, Christianity in various forms and under a variety of inspirations was to encounter the spirituality of the East. But it was never able to face it with the youthful detachment from institutional structure and openness to doctrinal formation that characterized those early years. Despite the universality of its claims and its perennial hope of winning all the cultures of the earth to its faith, Christianity has been shaped by a radical historicity that has been at once its greatest strength and its greatest peril. In the eagerness to look back with profound regret at the stain of triumphalism and cultural provincialism that marked the Christian Missionary efforts to East Asia initiated in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, there are those who seem to forget that it was after all a stain and not an evil spirit. The openness to the East that is now becoming the pride of increasing numbers in the ranks of Christendom hardly points to a recent acquisition of magnanimity previously lacking in Christian tradition. Nor is it simply the lapse into unbelief and slackness of conviction that its opponents claim. It is fundamentally the very same Spirit that drove St. Paul, every bit as alive and every bit as pushy in the twentieth century as it was in the first.

What makes contemporary Christian fascination with the East so easy for Christians to misunderstand is the mistaken notion that it is something that can be explained in terms of rational decision, be it the decision of certain Christian believers to make amends for past excesses or the decision of certain Eastern religious traditions to take advantage of the pluralism and tolerance of Western religious philosophy to embrace the Christian world as their new missionary frontier. It is time we realized that we are being swept up into something much greater than a mere philosophical deduction -- a Zeitgeist that we have every cause to call Holy. If this Spirit is not understood, the full force of the scandal of doctrinal differences will give way to a cosmetic spirit of confrontation, of reason pitted against reason. It is in this light that I would have my following remarks read.


Whenever I see a crucified figure of Christ, I cannot help thinking of the gap that lies deep between Christianity and Buddhism. This gap is symbolic of the psychological division separating the East from the West.

Christ hangs helpless, full of sadness on the vertically erected cross. To the Oriental mind, the sight is almost unbearable .... The crucified Christ is a terrible sight and I cannot help associating it with the sadistic impulse of a physically affected brain .... Could not the idea of oneness [with Christ] be realized in some other way, that is, more peacefully, more rationally, more humanely, less militantly, and less violently? (2)

There could hardly be a more striking statement of the scandal of the crucified Christ than those words published by D.T. Suzuki in English in 1957 when he was eighty-seven years old. We read them not as Westerners eavesdropping, through the good graces of a translator, or Buddhists consoling one another over the superiority of their native religion to the foreign imports of Christian missionaries, but as the words of a Buddhist missionary aimed directly and primarily at the Christian West. (3)

What is surprising is not that Suzuki should resist the crucifix for its violence and inhumaneness, but that he should reproach it for its lack of rationality. Surely Buddhist thought in general and Zen Buddhism in particular -- is no stranger to paradox and the overturning of everyday modes of rationality; but that can hardly be the level at which Suzuki, of all people, directs his remark. That the crucifixion is a "sign of contradiction" could hardly chafe his logical sensitivities. The point is rather that because the cross is not open to appropriation, because it cannot be "realized" as belonging to the self on the way to enlightenment, it does not meet the Buddhist understanding of what it is to be rational. The following statement of Takeuchi Yoshinori puts it well:

Strictly speaking, Buddhism has nothing like what Saint Paul refers to as the "folly of the cross" .... The religious experience of the "folly of the cross" sets philosophy and religion in opposition to each other in the West, establishing the autonomy of reason to criticize religion from the outside; but at the same time this basic opposition led to a new, albeit secondary, relationship between philosophy and theology, a mutuality grounded in a common concern with metaphysics .... Philosophy in Buddhism is not a speculation of metaphysical contemplation but rather a metanoia of thinking, a conversion within reflective thought.(4)
Surely Takeuchi finds the Christian attraction to the crucifix every bit as great a petra scandali to his Asian sense of propriety as Suzuki did. His point here is that insofar as the cross opens a gap between the logic of religion and the "folly" of faith, its scandal reaches out to embrace even the theological tradition that sustains Christian doctrine in culture. Rather than draw a limit to the engagement of rational reflection in faith, and thereby, call upon revelation to fill up what is wanting, the Buddhist tendency, in Takeuchi's account, is to transform and broaden the very nature of rational reflection as such, to make philosophy itself a metanoetics. The paradox that Paul glorified because of its illogicality to the world of Greek logic belongs to the very structure of Buddhist epistemology and underlies its logic.(5)

The image of the crucified that Paul found to be a "stumbling block to the Jews and a folly to the pagans" turns out to be no less a scandal to the contemporary Buddhist, even one who made considerable efforts to seek common ground between Christianity and Zen. Had Paul's voyages taken him eastwards in the first century, things would hardly have been different. Just what kind of cultural upheaval it would have caused, or indeed whether it would have succeeded at all, we cannot say. Even to imagine the possibility of the Christian evangel circulating for centuries throughout the vast cultural diversity of Asia, whether in oral form or in a scripture adjusted to Asian languages and modes of thought, can be no more than wild conjecture. At any rate, the scandal remains. For all the stress Buddhist tradition puts on the upaya or skill-in-means, and for all the remarkable adjustments in its doctrine and practice this has allowed there simply has been no way for it to incorporate within its ideals the image of a God who became human and died the painful and shameful death of a criminal.

For the Christian, the shock to human sensibilities that Suzuki describes and the rupture of faith from philosophy that Takeuchi points to are far from circumscribing the full "scandal" of the cross. These reactions, as genuine as they are, are only initial symptoms of a deeper problem: the radical otherness of the hierophany of God in Jesus. They do not answer the challenge of Christianity to Buddhism; they merely acknowledge the breadth of its reach. An adequate Buddhist response, whatever it be, cannot stop short at the scandal, since that would be equivalent to refusing a response.(6) Nor can it stop short at a mere attempt to appreciate why the Christian believer can find religious inspiration in the image of the crucified. The challenge is not even met by simple conversion to Christian faith itself. The response that Christianity today asks of Buddhism goes beyond questions of personal assent to or rejection of the Christian faith. It is primarily a demand to be taken seriously at the very point that Christianity takes itself most seriously, but to be taken seriously in a wholly Buddhist way. It is no less than the invitation of one religious way to face squarely and with the full weight of its tradition the contradiction presented by another religious way.

Obviously, such a challenge presumes a standpoint of respect that allows one to seek the truth in another's doctrine, not necessarily one's own received truth but a truth that allows "heart to speak to heart." The standpoint is expressed well by Nishitani Keiji, who speaks squarely from the midst of his own Buddhist faith:

I do not feel satisfied with any religion as it stands, and I feel the limitations of philosophy also. So, after much hesitation, I made up my mind and have at present become a Buddhist-in-the-making. One of the main motives for that decision was - strange as it may sound -- that I could not enter into the faith of present-day Christianity and was nevertheless not able to reject Christianity. As for Christianity, I cannot become anything more than a Christian-in-the-making... for I cannot bring myself to consider Buddhism as a false doctrine. When it comes to Buddhism, however, I can enter into Buddhism as a Buddhist-in-the-making who had found his home in Buddhism and... from that standpoint I can, at the same time, be a Christian-in-the-making who does not find his home in Christianity .... I am fully aware of the shortcomings of Buddhism, and I understand the strong points of Christianity. Because of this, I am all the more convinced that I can, as a Buddhist, with the help of Buddhist dialectics and always within Buddhism, work for the solutions of these difficulties.(7)
These words are not merely the offhand remarks of a Buddhist made to a Christian audience. They were written in Japanese and aimed at a Japanese philosophical audience to argue the wisdom of the ambivalence that Tanabe Hajime, Nishitani's predecessor in the chair of philosophy at Kyoto University, had felt toward the Christian faith. What is more, they represent a sort of manifesto that has grown out of a line of philosophy to which Suzuki, Takeuchi, Nishitani, and Tanabe all belong. A brief word about that tradition may help here better to locate the response to the scandal of the cross to be taken up later.


This is not the place to attempt a history or even a clear definition of the basic philosophical position of the "Kyoto School," neither of which to my knowledge has been achieved satisfactorily.(8) A glance in the direction of its principle representatives will have to suffice.

The initial inspiration of the Kyoto School rests firmly and indisputably with Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945), generally recognized to be the first modern Japanese thinker to grapple with Western philosophy in such a way as to produce a coherent and original corpus of philosophical writings. Bringing his own native Zen Buddhism into confrontation with the thought of Kant, Hegel, the neo-Kantians, Fichte, Bergson, and other contemporary European philosophers, Nishida strove, in the words of his life-long friend Suzuki Daisetsu (1870-1966), "to make Zen intelligible to the West."(9) Though Nishida himself never published in any language other than Japanese -- and to this day only a fraction of his collected works have been translated into Western languages(10) -- Suzuki's comment is an important one. Nishida's main concern was not so much to introduce Western philosophy to Japan. There were plenty of young scholars going to Europe to study philosophy who could perform that service as well as or better than he. It was rather to experiment with the truth and universality of Zen Buddhist insight by casting it into the grip of what he saw as the rational foundations of the West. And this above all else was the task he left for his disciples and successors to emulate in their own way.(11)

In this sense, we may say that Nishida's struggles with European philosophy inside of Japan were an inspiration for Suzuki to bring Zen directly to the West, in particular to the United States. Lacking Nishida's philosophical training and acumen, Suzuki"s gift was of another, no less rare and admirable sort. His personality and strong devotion to Buddhism drew the attention of philosophers and religious thinkers throughout the West. In all he published some thirty volumes of material in English, opening up a path without which, it would be fair to say, the work of Nishida and his successors would not have gained the hearing they enjoy today.

Nishida's first major disciple in Japan was Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962), who may rightly be credited with having set the Kyoto School in motion, both by continuing the attempt to bring Japanese Buddhism into confrontation with Western continental philosophy, and by striking out in new directions that involved a critique of the work -though not the fundamental inspiration of his teacher. Having studied under Husserl and Heidegger in Germany, Tanabe not only instructed his students in Hegel and the neo-Kantians, but opened them up to the rich mine of possibilities that phenomenology and existentialism have to offer to Japanese Buddhism. Although he had always maintained a scholar's interest in Zen, he turned to Pure Land Buddhism after the war in developing a radical critique of philosophy he called "metanoetics."(12)

As mentioned above, Tanabe's successor in Kyoto was Nishitani Keiji (1900-). Like Nishida and Suzuki, Nishitani's Buddhist affinities are clearly Zen; but like Tanabe, he has turned to European existentialism from Nietzsche to Heidegger and Sartre as his points of contact with Western philosophy. Since the publication of his major work, Religion and Nothingness, Nishitani's thought has begun to stir new interest in the Kyoto School among Western scholars.(13) Takeuchi Yoshinori (1913-), whose main work has gone into braiding the three strands of Pure Land Buddhism, primitive Buddhism, and European phenomenology and existentialism into a contemporary spirituality, is the closest to Tanabe. In fact, it was Takeuchi whom Tanabe credits with having opened his eyes to the relevance of Shinran to his own philosophical endeavors. Takeuchi assumed the chair in Kyoto University's department of religion after Nishitani relinquished it to assume the chair of modern philosophy in 1959.(14) Nishitani's successor in Kyoto University, Ueda Shizuteru (1926-), stands out as the first prominent member of the circle to have completed doctoral studies abroad. The book on Meister Eckhart that grew out of his studies in Marburg (15) has given a direction to most of his labors since. At the same time, his concern with exploring the comparison between the Zen notion of "nothingness" and Eckhart's notion of the "godhead" of God bears the signs of an active practice of Zen more clearly than in any other key figure in the Kyoto School. Still commonly associated with the Kyoto School, though his later work gradually drew him in another direction, is Hisamatsu Shinichi (18891980).(16)

Finally I would mention Abe Masao (1915-), a disciple of Hisamatsu and Nishitani who was in close contact with Suzuki during the final decade of his life. Like Suzuki, Abe has been devoting his mature years to direct contact with the West, where he has lectured widely and made his home these past many years. His importance to the Kyoto School has, understandably, received greater attention in Western circles than among his Japanese colleagues, but the bridges he has built between the two are sure to carry heavy traffic in the years to come -- two-way traffic. More than any other living figure of the Kyoto circle, Abe has allowed his thinking to be shaped by the questions of his Western colleagues, in particular Christian theologians. While he is less conversant in continental philosophy than Nishitani, Takeuchi, and Ueda, or at least draws on it rarely, Abe does his thinking "in dialogue" among the growing body of religious scholars concerned with appropriating what they can of Buddhism into Christian tradition.(17)

(To be continued)

  1. Jacques Ellul, The Betrayal of the West (New York: Seabury, 1978), pp. 73-76.
  2. D.T. Suzuki, Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), pp. 145, 150, 154.
  3. The essay from which these remarks are taken seems to have been composed originally for publication in English. I have been unable to locate it, or indeed anything approaching its forthright reflections on the crucifix, in his collected works in Japanese.
  4. Takeuchi Yoshinori, The Heart of Buddhism: In Search of the Timeless Spirit of Primitive Buddhism (edited and translated by J.W. Heisig, New York: Crossroad, 1983), pp. 3-4.
  5. Though the interpretation may seem a little odd, Takeuchi is perfectly correct in referring to the "folly of the cross" in the way he does. The passage in question from I Corinthians plays ironically on the words logos, sophia, and moria, turning their meanings inside out: the logic of wisdom (philosophy) cannot hold the logic of the cross (revelation), which to it seems as folly: but the cross shows that God's wisdom has made a folly of the logic of human wisdom and that those who trust in the latter are on the way to perdition (I Cor.1:17-25). Not without reason, The Jerusalem Bible, The New Testament in Modern English, The Twentieth Century New Testament, and the Goodspeed New Testament: An American Translation, all name the logic of human wisdom "philosophy."
  6. While there have been new religious movements that have attempted a synthesis of Christianity and Buddhism, they have invariably done so by walking around the stumbling block. The contemporary Japanese Mahikari movement is a good case in point. Its members are told that Christ did not in fact die on the cross, but was smuggled back to Japan -- where he had lived for ten years and learned the teachings he preached in Judea -- to live out the rest of his 106 or 118 years. He lies buried in northern Japan in a clearly marked tomb, waiting to be resurrected. (This so-called "Kirisuto legend" is reported in English by a journalist named Rowland Gould in an article entitled "The Man from Isohara; " published in Kamiyo no kamiyo no hanashi [Tales from the Ancient Age of the Gods], edited by Takenouchi Yasumi, Ibaragi: Koso Kotai Jingu,1978, pp.193-212.) As one member of the sect explains: "If it is true that Jesus did not die on the cross, does that negate the value of Christianity? Not at all. In my opinion, it enhances it" (Andris K. Tebecis, Mahikari: Thank God for the Answers at Last (Tokyo: Yoko Shuppan, 1982), p. 361.)
  7. Cited in Hans Waldenfels, Absolute Nothingness (trans. by J.W. Heisig, New York: Paulist Press, 1980), p. 63.
  8. Among recent sources in Western languages the reader may consult, I would single out the following (noting, however, that there are discrepancies in the facts and dates they provide): Hans Waldenfels, Absolute Nothingness, pp. 3563, passim; Jan Van Bragt, "Translator's Introduction" to K. Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness (Berkekey: University of California Press, 1982), pp.xxiii-xiv; Thomas Kasulis, "The Kyoto School and the West: Review and Evaluation," The Eastern Buddhist XV: 2, 1982, pp. 125-135; Frederick Frank, ed., The Buddha Eye: An Anthology of the Kyoto School(New York: Crossroad, 1982) pp. 2-7 et passim. (Although the subtitle of this latter work became a misnomer in the course of its compilation, it contains a good cross-cut of the thinking of the Kyoto School.) Curiously, the recently published nine-volume Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan does not treat the Kyoto School.
  9. D.T. Suzuki, "How to Read Nishida; " in: K. Nishida, A Study of the Good (trans. by Valdo Viglielmo, Tokyo: Japanese Ministry of Education, 1960), p. iii.
  10. A listing of those available in English can be found in Kasulis, p. 132.
  11. In my view, Waldenfels has quite missed the point of Suzuki's remark here. See his Absolute Nothingness, p. 35.
  12. Tanabe's first book to be translated into a Western language appeared in 1986 under the title Philosophy as Metanoetics (University of California Press). Johannes Laube published the first book-length study of Tanabe's work, Dialektik der absolutes Vermittlung (Freiburg: Herder, 1984). I have reviewed this book in the Spring 1985 issue of Monumenta Nipponica pp. 115-18.
  13. See Note 8. A German translation, Was ist Religion?, appeared in the translation of Dora Fischer-Barnicol in the same year (Frankfurt: Insel, 1982). A listing of other essays in English in The Eastern Buddhist can be found in Waldenfels, pp. 190-91.
  14. In addition to the publication of a series of lectures he delivered in Marburg, Probleme der Versenkung im Ur-Buddhismus (ed. by Ernst Benz, Leiden: Brill, 1972), a selection of his writings has recently been translated into English as The Heart of Buddhism (see Note 4). See also Thomas P. Kasulis' review of Takeuchi's work, "Buddhist Existentialism;" The Eastern Buddhist 17:2 (Autumn 1984): 134-41.
  15. Die Gottesgeburt in der Seele and der Durchbruch zur Gottheit: Die mystische Anthropologie Meister Eckharts and ihre Konfrontation mit der Mystik des ZenBuddhismus(Gutersloh, 1965). He has frequently contributed papers to the meetings of the Eranos Society in Switzerland, several of which have been translated during the past few years in The Eastern Buddhist.
  16. Hisamatsu is chiefly known in the West through the translation of his work on Oriental nothingness, Die Fulle des Nichts: Vom Wesen des Zen (Pfullingen,1975). A few of his essays have also been translated in The Eastern Buddhist.
  17. 17. Most notable in this regard are Hans Waldenfels, John Cobb, and Langdon Gilkey. It should be remarked here that interest in Japanese Christian theological circles in the work of the Kyoto School is minimal, certainly much less than the current interest shown in Europe and the United States. The Catholic philosopher Onodera Isao (1929-), with his recent book Daichi no tetsugaku [A Philosophy of the Earth] (Tokyo: San'ichi Shobo, 1983), and the Protestant theologian Yagi Seiichi in such works as Paul and Shinran, Jesus and Zen (Kyoto: Hozokan, 1983) are outstanding exceptions in this regard. The reasons for this neglect, and the general retardation of Japanese Christianity's inculturation into its native spiritual inheritance, I shall not go into here, except to note the fact of its clear and unfortunate preference for identifying itself primarily with the modes of thought and ritual operative in the dominant Christian cultures of the West.