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Asian Philosophy

An International Journal of the Philosophical Traditions of the East

ISSN: 0955-2367 (Print) 1469-2961 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/casp20

Kenosis, Dynamic Śūnyatā and Weak Thought: Abe


Masao and Gianni Vattimo

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein

To cite this article: Thorsten Botz-Bornstein (2015) Kenosis, Dynamic Śūnyatā and
Weak Thought: Abe Masao and Gianni Vattimo, Asian Philosophy, 25:4, 358-383, DOI:
10.1080/09552367.2015.1103834

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09552367.2015.1103834

Published online: 22 Nov 2015.

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Asian Philosophy, 2015
Vol. 25, No. 4, 358–383, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09552367.2015.1103834

Kenosis, Dynamic Su  and Weak


 nyata
Thought: Abe Masao and Gianni
Vattimo
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Thorsten Botz-Bornstein

The verb κενόω (kenos) means ‘to empty’ and St. Paul uses the word ἐκένωσεν (ekenosen)
writing that ‘Jesus made himself nothing’ and ‘emptied himself’. Ś unyata is a Buddhist
concept most commonly translated as emptiness, nothingness, or nonsubstantiality. An
important kenosis–ś unyata discussion was sparked by Abe Masao’s paper ‘Kenotic God and
Dynamic Ś unyata’ (in 1984). I confront the kenosis–ś
unyata theme with Vattimo’s kenosis-
based philosophy of religion. For Vattimo, kenosis refers to ‘secularization’: when strong
structures such as the essence and the fulfilment of the Christian message are weakened.
Parallels between Abe’s and Vattimo’s thought will be demonstrated with regard to themes
current in East–West comparative philosophy: reality and emptiness, the overcoming of
metaphysics, the position of the Self, the human and the divine, and the relationship
between science and religion. The latter point is particularly timely because since the
1990s religious fundamentalism has pushed forward a curious ‘religion as science’ hypoth-
esis. Both thinkers’ relationship with the idea of Nothingness will also be explored. Finally,
Abe’s interpretation of śunyata will be presented as a form of ‘weak thought’. Both Abe and
Vattimo design a religious attitude based on negativity without falling into the trap of anti-
religious nihilism. Abe’s negation of the subject, which leads to a pluralism of beings, can
very well be compared with Vattimo’s paradoxical ‘credere di credere’ (to believe to believe),
through which Vattimo describes the attitude of an ego that has lost its own subjectivity. The
person who does not believe but only ‘believes to believe’ is a sort of non-ego. I show that a
‘half-theistic’ way of thinking God based on kenosis can work in the service of plurality
because it deconstructs the principle of reality based on faith and ‘fullness’.

1. Introduction
Abe Masao (1915–2006) was one of the leading exponents of Japanese Buddhism in
Japan as well as for Western audiences. In this article, I want to compare his
thoughts on the Christian concept of the divine kenosis with those of the Italian
Correspondence to: Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, Philosophy Department, Gulf University for Science and
Technology, Hawally 32093 Kuwait. Email: thorstenbotz@hotmail.com.

© 2015 Taylor & Francis


Asian Philosophy 359

philosopher Gianni Vattimo (born 1936) on the same subject. The late 1980s and
1990s saw the production of an extensive amount of literature on the parallels
between Christian kenosis and Buddhist ś unyata, most of it revolving around the
writings of Abe. Many Western thinkers engaged in kenosis-related topics partici-
pated in this discussion and it is regrettable that Vattimo’s thought, which is very
much based on an unorthodox interpretation of kenosis, has not been considered.
Given the emphasis that ś unyata discussions pay on the necessity to deconstruct all
centrisms (Christocentrism, theocentrism, egocentrism, anthropocentrism, cosmo-
centrism, etc.), the kenosis–śunyata discussion should be reread in the context of
post-metaphysical and self-critical versions of religious thought such as the ‘weak
theology’ or ‘deconstructivist religion’ articulated around the writings of John
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Caputo, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Gianni Vattimo.


In this study, Vattimo’s idea that ‘true Christianity must be nonreligious’ will be
proven compatible with elements of Abe’s interpretation of kenosis. Parallels
between Abe’s and Vattimo’s thought will be demonstrated with regard to themes
current in East–West comparative philosophy: reality and emptiness, the overcom-
ing of metaphysics, the position of the Self, the human and the divine, and the
relationship between science and religion. The latter point is particularly timely
because since the 1990s religious fundamentalism has pushed forward a curious
‘religion as science’ hypothesis. Both thinkers’ relationship with the idea of
Nothingness will also be explored. Finally, Abe’s interpretation of ś unyata will be
presented as a form of ‘weak thought’.
One of the purposes of this article is to produce a genuinely philosophical
discourse on Abe’s ś unyata discussion that is not tainted by certain theological
themes. In spite of its intellectual wealth and sophistication, a more conceptual
East–West philosophical discussion of the kenosis–ś unyata problem has not been
produced in the 1990 or later.1 Instead, the Western responses to Japanese kenoti-
cism have almost exclusively been formulated by Western theologians, most of
whom have attempted to reintegrate the kenosis theme into the ecclesial context
of Philippians 2. Many were trying to re-root kenosis in the sacramental basis of the
church or in the liturgical, biblical, and patristic dimensions of Christianity. A
repeated reproach is therefore that Abe reinterprets Christianity in terms of his
own Buddhist categories. Many Christian and Jewish theologians have taken issue at
Abe’s way of approaching kenosis through his anti-theistic skepticism or could not
accept his philosophical idea to present ‘a revolutionary reinterpretation of the
concept of God in Christianity and the concept of emptiness in Buddhism’ (Abe,
1990a, p. 4). The theology bias applies for criticism as well as for approval.2 Given its
rootedness in theological discussions, most criticism of the kenosis–ś unyata paralle-
lism is determined not so much by the potentials and limits of comparative
philosophy, but by the potentials and limits of interreligious communication.
Continental philosophy, in spite of the importance it has had for the Kyoto
School in general, is clearly underrepresented. Steve Odin’s pages on the ś unyata–
360 T. Botz-Bornstein
kenosis theme and pragmatism (in his book on Zen and pragmatism; Odin, 1996)
count among the few exceptions.
The main purpose of the present comparative study is to elucidate aspects of
kenosis and ś unyata that could perhaps not have been found otherwise. For exam-
ple, at first sight, the idea to compare kenosis and ś unyata is surprising because
kenosis is a process while ś unyata, in most cases, is described as a state. Abe’s
strategy is to see ś
unyata precisely as a process: constantly in need of being emptied
of its substance in order to avoid reification, ś unyata is ‘self-emptying’ and not
simply ‘emptiness’ (which is why it should not be identified with God). Also
Vattimo’s kenosis-inspired philosophy sees Christian religion not as a reified meta-
physical statement, but as a call to practice, which is ‘the truth of love and charity’
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(2005, p. 51). This overlaps with Abe’s idea that ‘just like śunyata must empty itself
and turn itself into vow, it must empty even vow and turn itself into act or deed,
which is traditionally called carita or carya’ (Abe, 1990a, p. 58) and that when ‘the
“vow” empties itself, it turns into the “act” of saving self and others’ (1989, p. 302).
Vattimo’s philosophy of ‘weak thought’ coincides here with Abe’s views on Zen-
Buddhism because both see emptiness not as merely nihilistic but as dynamic.
A further purpose of this article is to introduce Vattimo’s thought into the area of
comparative philosophy. Vattimo has never had much intercultural ambitions and
has never addressed—as far as I can see—philosophical problems pertaining to non-
Western cultures. On the other hand, when Vattimo says that he defines himself ‘as
Christian because I believe that Christianity is more “true” than all the other
religions precisely on account of the fact that there is a sense in which it is not a
religion’ (2010, p. 52), he naturally invites comparisons with Buddhism, because
controversies over its status as a religion have accompanied Buddhism for centuries.

2. Kenosis and Ś
unyata
2.1. Kenosis
The verb κενόω (kenos) means ‘to empty’ and St. Paul uses the word ἐκένωσεν
(ekenosen) in Philippians 2:5–9 where he writes that ‘Jesus made himself nothing’
and ‘emptied himself’:

Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of
God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but
emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men;
and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient
[even] unto death, yea, the death of the cross. (The Bible, 1929)

Kenosis is thus the self-emptying or self-renunciation of Christ, that is, Christ’s


giving up the form of God and taking the form of a servant and ultimately dying on
the cross.
Asian Philosophy 361

2.2. Ś
unyat
a
The originally Pali word suññata is a Buddhist concept most commonly trans-
lated as emptiness (JPN. 空, k u; CHN. kong) or nonsubstantiality and represents
the state of undifferentiation preexisting all dualities. The Sanskrit word is
ś
unyata and is most fully developed in the Mahayana tradition (of which Abe
is part). Its philosophical development is very much due to the Indian philoso-
pher and co-founder of Mahayana Buddhism Nagarjuna (ca. 150–250 CE) who
criticized Brahmanical substantialist thought. In philosophical contexts, ‘empti-
ness’ is often used interchangeably with nothingness (JPN. 無 mu; CHN. wu) and
other central Zen-Buddhist notions such as impermanence (JPN. 無常, mujō;
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CHN. wúcháng). In relation with negation and nihilism, ś unyata is often under-
stood as the emptying of the self to attain nonself (Pali anatta; Sanskit anatman;
JPN. 無我, muga; CHN. wúwǒ).

2.3. Comparing Ś
unyat
a and Kenosis
The ś unyata–kenosis exchange is one of the most original Buddhist–Christian
dialogues in philosophy of religion in the twentieth century and has built a unique
bridge between the two religions. The idea of a strong and strengthening God
typical for monotheistic religions (sometimes leading to fundamentalism) can
appear as incompatible with the Buddhist prerogative of impermanence and its
insistence on the relative, relational, nonsubstantial, and changeable character of
everything. However, the kenosis theme allows Christianity to appear in another
light. According to Vattimo, a thinking based on kenosis opposes physico-mechan-
ical visions of the world as well as authoritarian metaphysical structures. Being less
anthropocentric, it also criticizes the view that humans are made in the image of
God and tends to insists on the interrelatedness of things. The latter three points
make a kenosis-based philosophy compatible with some central Buddhist views.
Based on the aforementioned parallels, in Japan, kenosis has generated a rich
discourse on Buddhist–Christian parallels showing that both Buddhism and
Christianity can see self-emptying as an ideal of human perfection. ‘Japanese
kenoticism’ (Odin, 1989) is a sophisticated project that transcends previous schools
of German, British, or Russian kenoticism (cf. Cabanne, 1993, p. 102). The kenosis–
ś
unyata parallel has been addressed by Kyoto School philosophers Nishida (1945/
1987), Nishitani (1961/1983) as well as many other Japanese thinkers. Nishitani
wrote that ‘the Buddhist way of life as well as its way of thought are permeated with
kenosis and ekkenosis’ (1961/1983, p. 288 note 4).
The late 1980s and 1990s saw the production of an exceptionally extensive
amount of literature on the parallels between Christian kenosis and Buddhist
ś
unyata. The discussion was sparked by Abe Masao’s paper ‘Kenotic God and
Dynamic Ś unyata’ delivered at the ‘East–West Religions in Encounter’ Conference
in Honolulu in 1984. The paper will be central to the present article. It inspired
three volumes of responses by Western (Christian and Jewish) theologians (Cobb
362 T. Botz-Bornstein
and Ives, 1990; Corless and Knitter, 1990; Ives, 1995) as well as many other
responses by Western theologians. The process theologian John B. Cobb in parti-
cular was intrigued by parallels between the Japanese discussion of kenosis and his
own work.

3. General Introduction to Vattimo and Abe


Vattimo is a specialist of hermeneutic philosophy, which he developed into a
personal philosophical system called ‘weak thought’. ‘Weak thought’ made its
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first appearance in 1983 and can be seen as an Italian version of poststructur-


alism. It defines itself in opposition to diverse philosophies of the nineteenth and
twentieth century: Hegelian dialectics, Marxism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis,
and structuralism. Weak thought refrains from absolute truths and prefers to
concentrate on the frail, the impermanent, and the historical element in human
existence. It is also meant as a key notion for the democratization of society.
What it shares with other postmodern philosophies is the intention to decon-
struct ‘strong thought’ manifest in the form of progressivist or universalist
conceptions of truth, history, fixed identities, as well as traditions and mono-
theistic theologies. Though it is critical of systematic thinking and deductive
cogency, weak thought has managed, during all stages of its development, to stay
away from the negative nihilism typical for other postmodern theories.
Abe was a professor of philosophy and religious studies and a practicing Buddhist
linked to the Kyoto School. Like few others, he has emphasized the necessity of
interreligious dialogue. Together with Suzuki Daisetz, he has probably been the
main representative of Zen-Buddhism in the West.

3.1. Parallel Biographies


Hermeneutics is an interpretative discipline dependent on the religion of the
book, and Vattimo is one of its foremost representatives. One could thus expect
a lack of common ground between Vattimo and a Zen-Buddhist like Abe.
However, a comparison of Vattimo and Abe is also promising because both
thinkers can appear as ‘half-believers’ (Vattimo’s term). Both Vattimo and Abe
distance themselves from biblical or similar faiths though they are able to
understand theism ‘from within’ (Cobb on Abe). Parallel biographical develop-
ments might be responsible for this as both received religious educations in their
youths, turned away from theistic models of religion at some point, and explored
the values of religion from the perspective of skeptic intellectuals. Vattimo was
raised as a catholic but neglected his religious heritage for years, steering his
philosophical career through the currents of Heideggerian philosophy, structur-
alism, and poststructuralism. At some point, he decided to review Christian
religion in terms of a paradoxical paradigm that can be called ‘secularization
qua Christianity’. Abe grew up with the quasi-theistic form of Amida Pure Land
Asian Philosophy 363

Shin Buddhism, but as a student, under the influence of Hisamatsu Shin’ichi’s


Buddhism of Zen Awakening, he turned his back on the truth of Pure Land
faith.3 In the words of John B. Cobb, he has hoped ever since ‘to liberate from
theism all those who are still attached to it’ (Cobb, 1990, p. xi).

4. Vattimo and Abe on Kenosis


4.1. Existing Studies on Parallels between Vattimo and Abe
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My study enters a new territory. So far, there are only two instances where Vattimo’s
thought has been discussed in the proximity of the Abe’s ś unyata philosophy. Both
links are transversal, which means that either Abe or Vattimo is not addressed
directly but via a secondary link.
Apparently without being aware of it, Vattimo comes close to Thomas Altizer’s
‘death of God’ theology. For Altizer, God becomes immanent through His emptying
through history. In history, the transcendent realm is emptied and believers can
focus on the here and now. The link with ś unyata is established by the fact that
Altizer himself discusses his ‘death of God’ theology in the ś unyata–kenosis context
(1990; also see Harris, 2011). The second link is established by Marta Frascati
Lochhead (1998) when reviewing Catherine Keller’s (1990) feminist article on
kenosis that is included in Cobb’s and Ives’ 1990 volume. She merely mentions
Abe’s ideas on kenosis without attributing further importance to the parallels.
A few more words should be said on the pseudo-encounter of Vattimo and
Altizer. What Vattimo’s and Altizer’s ‘death of God’ theologies have in common
is that they abandon the hope of any resurrection of Christ. Consequently, Vattimo
and Altizer have been criticized for the same deficiency: both focus on verses 5–8 of
Philippians 2 and leave out the rest of the Pauline hymn, especially verses 9–11,
which emphasize the glory of God’s resurrection and exaltation through his resur-
rection (cf. Harris, p. 11). Dilworth notes that the Kyoto School in general tends also
to suppress the ‘And God shalt exalt Him’ conclusion of Philippians 2 (cf. Dilworth,
1987, pp. 44–45 note 35). However, in spite of the common suppression of the
‘exaltation’ theme, important differences between Vattimo and Altizer remain. For
Altizer, incarnation is part of Spirit becoming ‘incarnate in its opposite’ (Altizer,
1967, p. 68) and it becomes realized and actualized in self-consciousness (p. 66).
Harris correctly concludes that ‘the kenotic process of God emptying himself fully
into Jesus’ must appear to Vattimo as too metaphysical: ‘for Vattimo it is the
message of kenosis, the focus on interpretation, which is liberating and salvific’
(Harris, p. 6–7). In the end, God is not an Absolute that has been weakened in order
to reappear as strong in other (metaphysical) terms. We will come back to the
‘emptiness turning into fullness’ theme in the corresponding section below.
364 T. Botz-Bornstein
4.2. Skepticism
I will now begin with a discussion of the main themes that I believe to occur in
similar ways in both philosophers. Vattimo uses kenosis as the hermeneutic key to
the interpretation of Christian religion. More precisely, kenosis refers to a process he
calls ‘secularization’: when strong structures such as the essence and the fulfilment
of the Christian message are weakened, we find a truth that cannot be obtained
without the abasement, humiliation, and weakening of God. Vattimo translates
kenosis as ‘weakening’ and claims that secularization represents an integral part of
the Christian program because weak ontology is the real heir of the Christian
tradition: ‘Voltaire was a good Christian precisely because he demanded freedom
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against authoritarianism. (. . .) In this way perhaps true Christianity must be non-


religious’ (Vattimo, 2007, pp. 36–37). This means that modernity does not lead to
nihilism in the way it was thought by Nietzsche and Heidegger, but rather to a
nonreligious or secular form of Christianity.
Vattimo’s strategy of open-endedness is unusual in a Christian context if one
considers that normally, the Christian view of history is determined by eschatology
or apocalyptism. Abe himself highlights this difference and insists that this aspect of
Christianity remains incompatible with the philosophy of ś unyata: ‘Telos in the
ś
unyata-oriented view of history is not a definitive, closed end, like the Christian
notion of the Kingdom of God coming through the Last Judgment at the end of
history, but a boundlessly open end without a fixed purpose’ (Abe, 1989, p. 302).
In his writings on the ś
unyata–kenosis theme Abe attempts to import elements of
radical and existential skepticism into Christian religion, which is precisely the
strategy of weak thought. Both Abe and Vattimo think that when existence is
questioned in terms of nothingness, a real religious feeling is bound to emerge.
Skepticism discards all false substances and universals without discarding religion as
such. This contradicts basic Christian presuppositions, which, according to Coakley,
since the fourth or fifth century take ‘Christ’s substantial pre-existence and essential
divinity for granted’ (2002, p. 12).

4.3. Reality and Emptiness


Both Abe and Vattimo design a religious attitude based on negativity without falling
into the trap of anti-religion. This negativity has startled many theologians, as
Vattimo points out himself:
Christian interlocutors, and not just the most orthodox but also those who do not
seem very orthodox but nonetheless incline towards a tragic or apocalyptic
Christianity, always complain that in the secularized or weak conception of
Christianity the harshness, severity and rigor characteristic of divine justice are
lost, and with them the meaning of sin, the actuality of evil, and as a consequence
even the necessity of redemption. (Vattimo, 1996/1999, pp. 87–88)
Jürgen Moltmann reproaches Abe (and Buddhism in general) the lack of concrete-
ness and actuality when it comes to evil: ‘Buddhism has indeed cosmically
Asian Philosophy 365

interpreted the problem of evil with the help of the term karma, but with that, it has
too quickly disregarded the moral and political dimensions of evil’ (Moltmann,
1990, p. 117). Finally, Küng (1995) regrets that Abe sees both ś unyata and kenosis in
purely negative terms never spelling out a positive quality that could be obtained
after undergoing the process of kenosis or ś unyata.
When critics of Vattimo’s weak religion miss a depiction of evil in its ‘actuality’,
they do indeed recognize an important quality of weak thought. Vattimo believes
that only when we deconstruct the ‘objective truth’ of God, we can grasp the
‘redemptive meaning of the Christian message’ (Vattimo, 1996/1999, pp. 87–88).
This means that neither God nor evil reside in the realm of the necessary, the actual
or the positive. Vattimo refers to Heidegger’s ‘rhetorical conception of truth’ but he
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could as well speak of a rhetorical concept of God. Here ‘Being experiences the
fullness of its decline (as Heidegger understands it when he says that the Western
world is the land of the crepuscule of being), fully living its weakness’ (Vattimo,
2012, p. 50).
Vattimo does not refer to Eastern religions to support his thesis about the
weakening of the real. First, nihilism, the dissolution of all ultimate foundations,
is for him part of the history of philosophy and Western culture formulated by
Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger (cf. Vattimo, 2009, p. 20). Second,
Christianity remains for Vattimo a nonplus ultra of Western civilization, as Zabala
points out: ‘Vattimo thinks it is not possible to have a “non-Christian philosophy”
because philosophy is a historical product of our Western culture and civilization’
(Zabala, 2006, pp. 22–23). Instead of referring to Eastern weak definitions of Being
and reality (e.g., certain approaches towards nothingness), Vattimo refers to the
increasing ‘virtualization’ of reality (in its broadest sense) as the typically ‘Western’
destiny. For him, recent events within industrialized capitalist countries, most
notably the invention of Virtual Reality, prove that ‘the Christian West’ is moving
away from a centered, actual reality, which means that it goes the way it was bound
to go from its kenotic beginning. While the West is losing the will to demonstrate a
stable sense of reality, and nihilism leads to the ‘dissolution of the “principle of
reality”’ (1997, p. 26), the internet provides a suitable mode of Being that remains
removed from both metaphysical realism and Platonic essentialism. As weak
thought avoids primary, ‘metaphysical’ ways of being that remain dependent on a
Cartesian ego cogito (cf. Heidegger, 1985, p. 70) or on concepts and propositions
valid only because they correspond with an independent objective reality ‘out there’,
Virtual Reality represents the most suitable alternative:
If the West seeks its own identity, it must principally reckon with the phenomena
indicated above, namely a Weberian capitalist rationalization plus the world of
information and of proliferating interpretations without a center, which tends to
weaken the sense of the terms being and reality. (. . .) not only is the West today
only definable as a unified entity as secularized Christianity, but also, Christianity
today rediscovers itself authentically only if it identifies itself as Western. In other
and more provocative words: I mean that today the West, understood as the land
of the sunset and of weakening, is Christianity’s truth. (Vattimo, 2002, p. 79)
366 T. Botz-Bornstein
The Christian kenotic heritage will lead to secularization in the sense of a weakening
of reality. The curious interlinking of secularization, nihilism, and Virtual Reality—
all inscribed in a genuine ‘Christian destiny’—is what makes Vattimo’s weak
thought unique. It is also the reason why Vattimo’s anti-metaphysical philosophy
indicating the weakening of reality is opposed to classic interpretations of kenosis.
Furthermore, Vattimo approaches ‘the East’ in a transversal fashion as he does
not see Virtual Reality in a dystopian way as the collapse of the present, but as a
constructive way of creating reality. Although there is not enough space here to
extend on this topic, it should be mentioned that this embrace of technology
comes close to the kind of ‘techno-orientalism’ for which Japan is especially
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famous and which becomes manifest in manga and anime. Japan was the first
nation to make extensive use of the industrial robot, and its popular culture
reflects its enthusiasm for artificial humans. Japan’s positive attitude towards
technology is not to be understood as post-humanist but as a neo-humanist
(see Newitz, 1995, p. 9; Shigematsu, 1999, p. 127).
It goes without saying that Vattimo’s ‘emancipation based on oscillation, plurality
and, ultimately, the erosion of the very “principle of reality”’ (Vattimo, 1992, p. 7) is
not the favored option of Christian theologians when attempting to formulate a faith
based on kenosis. Most Christian theologians prefer to see kenosis in terms of a very
strong form of reality, often by formulating it in terms of the self-realization of
Christ. Some refer to verses 9–11 of the Pauline hymn, which emphasizes God’s
resurrection. Even Altizer, as shown earlier, holds that incarnation signifies that
Spirit becomes realized and actualized in self-consciousness. This further clarifies
the contrast with Vattimo because any ‘actuality’ is the contrary of Virtual Reality.
Moltmann insists that the emptying of God is nothing but the self-realization of the
Son: ‘But because the emptying of himself to the point of death on the cross happens
in obedience to God, one must say at the same time that the self-realization of the
son of God is also accomplished in it. It is an active kenosis of the divine which only
the son can accomplish’ (Moltmann, 1990, p. 118).
A few words need to be said in order to avoid the impression that the ‘Eastern’
view (together with Vattimo’s embrace of Virtual Reality) is fleeing reality and
merely settling in an ‘unreal’ sphere of the virtual. As will become clear later, the
Zen-Buddhist view of reality—to which Abe adheres—is non-empirical, but not in
the sense that it would see reality as an idealized dream world. On the contrary, the
Zen-Buddhist view is realistic because it aims at ‘knowing facts as they are’
(Nishitani, 1991, p. 98) by experiencing facts in a ‘pure’ fashion and in their most
original form. The only difference with conventional reality is that their reality is not
the reality of subjective certitudes or metaphysical universals: it is neither subjective
in the Cartesian sense nor an objectified reality (consciousness). Abe holds that
‘consciousness is the sole reality [and] not objectified consciousness’ (Abe, 1988, p.
356). We will return to this point later.
Asian Philosophy 367

4.4. The Overcoming of Metaphysics


Vattimo’s approach depends on an ironical construction of what he calls ‘half belief’.
The half-believer is religious, but just because he is religious he refrains from
transferring limited notions of scientific truth to the realms of religion, ethics, and
philosophy. In this sense, the ‘half-believer’ participates in the postmodern project
of overcoming metaphysics. Vattimo’s weak theology is supposed to weaken dog-
matic as well as ‘religio-scientific’ tendencies, which occur primarily when ‘strong’
beliefs are expressed in ‘scientific’ and metaphysical terms. Vattimo bases his
criticism of Christian theology on Heidegger’s interpretation of metaphysics as the
objective truth of Being from which arose a dogmatic moral teaching (cf. 1996/1999,
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p. 49). Also John Caputo defines weak theology as ‘a weakening of the militant
dogmatic tendencies of the confessional theologies, which in modernity fused in a
lethal way with the Cartesian paradigm of certitude’ (Caputo, 2007, p. 73).
Both śunyata and kenosis run counter to traditional Western metaphysical
frameworks. In general, the ambitions of weak theology—just like those of
pragmatism—consist in the overcoming of metaphysical distinctions that are
both Christian theological and Platonic philosophical, and in finding an ‘inter-
mediary way between entrusting oneself to a divine substitute and entrusting
oneself to individual preferences’ (Zabala, 2005, p. 3). In this sense, kenosis is
opposed to traditions that think of reality in terms of being, such as the
Aristotelian logic of predication. This is also the reason why Christian theology
has always had difficulty integrating the notion of kenosis philosophically ‘insofar
as Christian theology was committed to a static Greek metaphysics of unchanging
being or eternal substance’ (Odin, 1989, p. 82).

4.4.1. Verwindung
Both Vattimo and the Kyoto School philosophers attempt to reformulate kenosis
in terms of a nonsubstantialist metaphysics.4 Vattimo divides for this purpose
weak thought into two branches, which he calls the right-wing and the left-wing
branch, each of which is related to the Heideggerian distinction between
Überwindung (overcoming) and the more complex Verwindung. The latter word
is used rather sparingly by Heidegger5 but it has been important for Vattimo’s
early philosophical development (cf. Vattimo, 1987). As opposed to the more
straightforward Überwindung (overcoming), Verwindung is a sort of improper,
twisted, distorted, and ironical kind of overcoming. For Vattimo it represents the
‘declination of difference into weak thought’ (Vattimo, 2012, p. 45). The right-
wing interpretation demands ‘the return of Being by overcoming (überwinden)
metaphysics as an effort while the left-wing interpretation demands a “resigning”
(verwinden) to the reading of the history of Being as an interminable weakening
of Being’ (Zabala, 2006, p. 17). Thus, Verwindung marks for Vattimo ‘the attitude
which characterizes post-metaphysical thought in relation to the tradition handed
down by metaphysics’ (Vattimo, 2012, p. 46). It is worthwhile to explain the
368 T. Botz-Bornstein
scope of the Verwindung in more precise terms, especially since the ‘left-wing’
position bears a conceptual link with the Buddhist resignation.
First of all, Verwindung must be reflected against another Heideggerian term, that
of Herausdrehen (‘to twist out of’, ‘to twist free of’). Heidegger intended to overcome
Platonism not by means of its simple ‘overturning’ (herumdrehen), but by what he
called a ‘twisting out’ (Herausdrehen) of philosophy from a movement that he saw as
an endless chain of overturnings of Platonism. In his first volume on Nietzsche, he
writes:
What happens when the true world is expunged? Does the apparent world still
remain? No. For the apparent world can be what it is only as a counterpart of the
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true: if the true world collapses, so must the world of appearances. Only then is
Platonism overcome, which is to say, inverted in such a way that philosophical
thinking twists free of it. (Heidegger, 1961/1979, p. 201)6

Platonic realism produces a purely general view of the world dealing only with
‘essences’ and abstractions, which Nietzsche wants to ‘overturn’ by calling the
sensible the real and the nonsensible unreal. According to Heidegger, the entire
history of philosophy is the history of such overturnings. Hegel’s metaphysics of
certitude, for example, is generally said to have collapsed in the nineteenth
century, but in reality the movements opposing Hegelianism are continuations
of Hegel’s philosophy (Heidegger, 1985, p. 72). Heidegger wants to abolish
Platonism, but not in order to go for the other extreme, which would be
scientific anthropology or (in the view of Nietzsche) ‘positivism’, both of which
remain restricted to the analysis of the concrete and individual. Instead,
Heidegger’s Herausdrehen of philosophy out of two extremes is supposed to
result in philosophical hermeneutics. The main characteristic of this hermeneu-
tics is that it adheres neither to a generalist (Platonic) nor to an individualist
(empirical) view, but strives for the simultaneous manipulation of the ‘individual’
and the ‘general’. This hermeneutics is directly related to the paradox of the
hermeneutic circle, which Heidegger understands mainly as a methodological
means of constantly holding back any final decision in favor of either a generalist
or an individualist approach. Quite famously, Heidegger views the hermeneutic
circle as a ‘positive possibility of understanding’:
But if interpretation must in any case already operate in that which is under-
stood, and if it must draw its nurture from this, how is it to bring any scientific
results to maturity without moving in a circle, especially if, moreover, the under-
standing which is presupposed still operates within our common information
about man and the world? (Heidegger, 1980/2002, p. 195)7

Heidegger’s affirmation of the circle does not signify a resignation in the sense of an
intellectual fatalism, which would be the belief that knowledge as such is impossible.
The hermeneutic circle does not condemn us to eternally stay in the sphere of
‘common knowledge of man and the world’. It is the scientist (and perhaps the
theologian) who sees the circle as a vitiosum that needs to be avoided. The person
who simply ‘tolerates’ (duldet) the circle has resigned from any possibility of positive
Asian Philosophy 369

understanding and develops an equally indifferent attitude toward everyday life.8


Opposed to this, Heidegger asks for an active affirmation of the circle because it
negates everyday life. It helps us to verwinden the conventional character of Being
(the ‘man’ or the ‘durchschnittliche Seinsverständnis’).
Here we can come back to Buddhism. The active and affirmative character of
hermeneutics joins Abe’s vision of ś unyata, which represents for Abe, like for his
teacher Hisamatsu, not a retreat or a simple resignation, but a positive (though
verwunden) coming back into life:
Sunyata should not be understood as a goal or end to be attained in Buddhist life,
but as the ground and the point of departure from which Buddhist life and activity
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can properly begin. Sunyata as the goal or end of Buddhist life is Sunyata
conceived outside one’s self-existence, which is not true Sunyata. The true
Sunyata is only realized in and through the self here and now and is always the
ground or the point of departure for Buddhist life. (Abe, 1990a, p. 33)
In the words of Suzuki Daisetz, the absolute self should ‘not remain content with
itself’ but go out ‘to a world of multitudes’ (Suzuki, 2002, p. 47). Otherwise it is not
:
free but becomes a slave of san khara (conditioned things).9 For Suzuki, a higher
field of consciousness can only be reached ‘by living it, seeing into its working, by
actually experiencing the significance of life, or by tasting the value of living’ (ibid.).
Buddha did not teach the religion of eternal death. Also Hisamatsu insists that
Buddhism does not lead to a serene and self-enclosed nirvan: a but that ‘true serenity
is nothing objective; it is not merely being tranquil or not being disturbed. It is
rather being what may be called the Fundamental Subject or Absolute’ (Hisamatsu,
1971, p. 59). A Verwindung-based hermeneutics follows similar lines.

4.5. The Dissolution of the Self


Among theologians, von Brück stays closest to Vattimo’s ‘left-wing’ interpretation
by equating both kenosis and ś unyata with love because love is the result of a
depersonalizing experience. Von Brück finds this dynamism most aptly expressed in
the views of the Zen philosopher Dōgen’s view on the non-Buddha nature (mu-
bussho) and thus confirms the parallel with kenosis:
Dogen’s mu-bussho recognizes a dynamism in the Ultimate that expresses an
experience similar to that which a Christian might call kenosis or the Cross. It
is an intuitive experience of personhood that realizes that one gains one’s identity
by totally devoiding or desubstantializing oneself onto the other. This is the
mystery of love! (Brück, 1990, p. 61)
The deconstruction of the subject–object distinction has been incorporated, on the
Japanese side, into the kenosis–ś
unyata comparison from the beginning. Nishitani
holds that when ‘one who was in the shape of God took on the shape of a servant’,
the metaphysical subject–object distinction gets dissolved (Nishitani, 1961/1983, p.
59). For him, kenosis comes close to anatman (no-self, non-ego) or to the ‘form of
non-form’ (p. 26). This does not mean that individuality no longer exists. On the
370 T. Botz-Bornstein
contrary, in the view of Kyoto School philosophers, humans, cultures, époques, and
states have a definitively definitely individual character. However, the place in which
they create themselves flows out of nothingness. Individuality is thus not ‘positive’
but flows out of a differentiation between elements; and emptiness is a place
determined by the absence of form able to accommodate contradictions.

4.5.1. ‘Credere di credere’


Abe’s negation of the subject, which leads to a pluralism of beings, can also be
compared with Vattimo’s paradoxical ‘credere di credere’ (to believe to believe),
through which Vattimo describes the attitude of an ego that has lost its own
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subjectivity. The person who does not believe but only ‘believes to believe’ is a
sort of non-ego. The ego is deconstructed through a long chain of ‘believe to believe
to believe. . .’ coming close to a Pyrrhonian suspension of judgment (epoché). This
process obviously has a parallel in Kyoto School Buddhism, which insists very much
on the negation of the negation. Abe frequently refers in his article to the fact that in
order to attain ‘true non-discriminative equality with others, even anatta [anatman,
“no-self”] must be negated’ (Abe, 1990b, p. 198). For Vattimo the ‘deep uncertainty
of opinion’ (2002, p. 2) flowing out of the ‘believe to believe’ attitude, leads to a
‘nothingness’ similar to the nothingness sought by Abe when referring to ś unyata.
The ‘belief’ flowing out of a ‘believe to believe’ can no longer be contrasted with
enlightened reason. The same is true for Abe’s Buddhist paradigm of simultaneously
being and not being God. This is how both Abe and Vattimo deconstruct religious
subjectivity without abandoning religious faith altogether. Vattimo’s skeptical
‘believe to believe’ is still produced by religious belief and is even supposed to
maintain belief. Abe writes that ‘in the kenotic God who is Nichts, not only are
modern human autonomous reason and rationalistic subjectivity overcome (. . .) but
also the mystery of God is most profoundly perceived’ (Abe, 1990a, p. 26). He
concludes that the kenotic God goes ‘beyond atheism and theism’ (ibid.), which
expresses an attitude similar to Vattimo’s ‘half-belief’. Those philosophies are not
atheist or scientific critiques of religion but rather ‘half-theistic’ ways of thinking
God that are remarkable in a world in which Christianity seems to have failed to
present a compelling alternative to scientism and nihilism.

4.5.2. The self and self-centeredness


Both Buddhism and kenosis dissolve the egocentric illusion that postulates the ‘I’ as
a central substance. The question is whether both dissolutions lead to the same
result. In Buddhism it leads to nothingness, but where does it lead in kenosis? For
Moltmann, as shown earlier, the result of kenosis is an affirmation of the self in the
form of self-realization. Catholic writer Thomas Merton holds that kenosis, that is,
the liberation from the False Self to the True Self, is a process ending with the unity
with God: ‘We empty ourselves of our selfish desires, our ego, and turn to God
hoping to be filled with the spirit of the Risen Christ. Or, to put it another way,
when we are no longer a “self”, we recover our true identity in God’ (Merton, 1968,
Asian Philosophy 371

p. 12). In those cases there is a self, which is the identity of Christ born within us.
Vattimo, on the other hand, claims that ‘the only truth revealed to us by Scripture is
not an experimental, logical, or metaphysical statement but (. . .) the truth of love
and charity’ (2005, p. 51).
Vattimo also ties to Verwindung the term pietà [compassion] because compassion
‘may be another term which, along with Andenken and Verwindung, could char-
acterize the weak thought of postmetaphysics’ (2005, p. 47). Since pietà ‘suggests
primarily mortality, finitude and passing away’, Vattimo describes it—in a quasi-
Buddhist way—as ‘the transcendental, or that which makes any experience of the
world possible, [it] is nothing less than transcience (caducità)’ (ibid., Vattimo’s
italics). Basing his thoughts on both Heidegger and Nietzsche’s ‘death of God’
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philosophy, Vattimo concludes that ‘Being means to recall such transitoriness


[caducità]’ (pp. 47–48). Vattimo’s view of the relationship between God and the
world appears to be even more compatible with Abe’s views specifically when
Vattimo writes in an almost Zen-like fashion of the necessity to deny God (or at
least what the natural religious mentality believed God to be):

The whole relationship between God and the world must be seen from the
perspective of kenosis, that is, of the dilution, weakening and denial of what the
natural religious mentality believed to be God, then the Christian vision of God
and humanity can face the process of demythification without fear of its essential
content being disfigured or lost. (1996/1999, p. 59)

It has been shown that Vattimo’s kenosis contains a dynamism based on an


improper Verwindung, which can never result in scientific or metaphysical state-
ments. The emptying of the subject of subjective certitudes about belief in any sort
of truth is similar to Abe’s dynamic ś unyata. In general, Zen-Buddhism rejects the
Hindu notion of atman (inner Self) as the absolute Self and argues for no-self
(anatman, JPN. muga). This does not mean that people should have no self.
Nishida’s point that the self is not like a brand mark of a sheep (he refers here to
William James), but that it is ‘that which has its form as negating unity of the self-
expressing phenomena of consciousness’ (Nishida, 1998, p. 189) makes this clear.
For Nishida the self is a matter of character and personality. It is better to say that
there should be no ‘self-centeredness’, which, in religion, would be the conscious-
ness of being the ‘chosen people’ or of having scientifically established truths, etc.
This self-centeredness needs to be weakened.
Like for the aforementioned Japanese thinkers, in Vattimo’s philosophy, the
devoiding of the subject through Verwindung is a dynamic process and not a
definite outcome. However, it still needs to be examined whether the love and
charity brought about by kenosis in Vattimo’s sense are in any way similar to
ś
unyata in the sense of nothingness. What is the element that remains once the
self has gone through the process of negation with the help of kenosis and ś unyata?
To answer this question one needs to look at the relationship between science and
religion.
372 T. Botz-Bornstein
4.6. Science and Religion
Both Vattimo and Abe rely on Nietzsche’s nihilist assumption, which ‘implies not
only on the denial of the Christian notion of eschatology but also a critique of
Enlightenment’s optimistic view of history as progress’ (Abe, 1989, p. 282).
According to Vattimo, the main problem with religion is that it has entangled itself
‘more and more in a metaphysics of the objectivist kind (. . .) inseparable from the
authoritarian claim to preach laws and principles that are natural, hence valid for all
and not for the faithful alone’ (Vattimo, 2005, p. 49). Religion produces meaning ‘in
the name of God’s absolute transcendence, which is both metaphysical and violent’
(Vattimo, 1996/1999, p. 60). Through the association of religion with nature and
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science, religion has become violent and kenosis is supposed to deconstruct or to


‘dissolve’ this violence (61). Vattimo points to Vico and Nietzsche who found that
the origins of God ‘lie in the natural processes through which we pray to God in
order to protect ourselves from natural forces’ (2007, p. 89). The result is that
Christian principles are not defended on the basis of religious laws but of natural
laws, for example, in Christian bioethics. Vattimo concludes that ‘this primitive state
of consciousness must be deconstructed’ (ibid.). Modernity, as it brings about
secularization, is a force able to desacralize the violent, authoritarian, and absolute
sacred of ‘natural religion’ (Vattimo, 1996/1999, p. 42). The result of this decon-
struction is not nonreligion but a more secular form of religion.
Also Abe reflects upon the relationship between religion and nature. However, he
finds that Buddhism includes science not by incorporating in itself the Aristotelian
logic of being, but rather by avoiding such a logic from the beginning:

Buddhism, which is based on the principle of Absolute Nothingness or non-


discriminating wisdom, is not alienated from, but embraces and comprehends,
the impersonal rationality of modern science and the radical negativity of nihi-
lism. For Buddhism provides a basis on which both human self and nature may
attain emancipation. On this basis, all things, including humans, nature and even
the supernatural, are themselves, just as they are. (Abe, 1995a, p. 53)

Based on this relationship with nature, the Kyoto School could advance a standpoint
maintaining, in the words of Nishitani, ‘ties to God without departing from the
actual world of fact, [which is] almost unthinkable in the West’ (Nishitani, 1991, p.
71). In Western philosophy, the difference between God and the ‘world of fact’ is
due to the decision to define the world of facts as physis. Nishitani’s statement
alludes to the Platonic–Aristotelian distinction between nature as physis on the one
hand, and the realm of ethics and logic on the other. This distinction is highlighted
by Heidegger when he writes in his essay ‘Anaximander’s Saying’: ‘Physis means sky
and earth, plants and animals, and also in a certain way men. The word designates a
special region of beings which, in both Aristotle and the Platonic school, are
separated from ethos and logos. For them, physis no longer has the broad sense of
the totality of being’ (Heidegger, 1980/2002, p. 202).10 Heidegger sees no reason to
equate being (τα δντα) with physical being (φύσει δντα) (p. 209).
Asian Philosophy 373

In the East, an objective and substantive concept of nature in the Aristotelian


sense has never been established. In Japan, ‘nature’ (自然, shizen) originally does
‘not mean anything objective or objectified that takes place in front of outside
human beings, but is rather the expression of a spontaneous way of being of all
things’, explains Parkes (1991, p. 204). Since we are talking here about Japanese
authors and their relationship with nature, the Shintoist input should not be
neglected either. Stuart Picken writes that in the West ‘the divine was thus above
nature, and nature was an obstacle to divine grace [and] could never be a vehicle of
the divine and (. . .) a “natural” value such as the beauty of a mountain or a river.
[The latter] could be considered, at its worst, a form of idolatry’ (Picken, 1994, p.
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348). This means that in Japan nature was able to represent a value though nature
was only a way of being and not a substance. In the West, values needed to be
‘moral’, that is, they first need to be theologically or metaphysically ‘secured’. Of
course, nature can also, through an ecological turnover (or ‘Herumdrehen’ in
Heidegger’s sense), be declared a value to the extent that it will be seen as being
more ‘moral’ and less corrupted than civilization. However, even here the distinc-
tion between physis and ethos does subsist.
Both Vattimo and Abe avoid tackling the religion–science relation from the
classical point of view (e.g., Küng’s), which according to Abe, holds that in science
there is no place for God and that the scientific mind must sooner or later substitute
‘belief in science for belief in God’. Also Vattimo writes that ‘all the discourse
concerning the biblical view of creation, which is put forward in mythological
form, stands at odds with the compact metaphysics of Plato, Aristotle, etc.’
(Vattimo, 2007, p. 34). The opposition of science and God can also be expressed
in a more circumstantial fashion, as done by Moltmann in one of the discussions of
Abe’s text: ‘Not science itself is a problem of the world but rather science in its
“scientific–technological civilization”. Not reason itself is a problem of religion, but
rather reason in its function in the world which is dominated by it’ (Moltmann,
1990, p. 117). All those views oppose science, technology, and reason to religion.
Apart from the fact that God is here used ‘in order to protect ourselves from natural
forces’ (Vattimo), religion is put forward as an entity able to contain values and
ethics while science, pure reason, and nature obviously lack those values. (Less
religiously minded people might prefer to replace religion with culture; however,
they are still affirming the same scheme.)
In the end, religion functions as a second nature or as a sort of science presenting
religious beliefs as ‘simply logical’ or as based on common sense. This is also
confirmed by those who criticize Abe. Several authors point out that today the
distinction between religion and science becomes more and more foggy. Chappell
writes:

Although this was a pressing concern in the 1950s and 1960s, it seems less relevant
in the 1990s when the major threat is not nihilism but religious fundamentalism
and fanaticism. We seem surrounded by religion, and in America, the Middle
374 T. Botz-Bornstein
East, India, and Southeast Asia, politics is being dominated by religious right-wing
reactionaries. (Chappell, 1995, p. 20)

Things have deteriorated since the 1990s, which is why Vattimo’s and Abe’s argu-
ments are timely.
It has been shown that, paradoxically, at the root of the false ‘religion is science’
equation resides Christianity’s old problem about human reason and its supposed
incompatibility with religion. Both Abe and Vattimo acknowledge the conflicts
Christianity maintains between reason and revelation as well as the absurdity of
its defense of doubtful ‘non-scientific’ doctrines. However, the new relationships
between religion and science they suggest are different from those ‘theological’ ones
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quoted earlier.
For Vattimo the main problem with religion is that there is too much science in
religion. Science and religion can share the same space but only once religion has
emptied itself of all conflated scientific reason. For Abe, any conflict between science
and religion is not naturally given, but has been artificially (theologically) created.
Science is the examination of nature and both nature and science are gifts from God.
The problem is that particular theological conditions spoil the relationship between
science and religion because for Christianity, the relationship between nature and
God depends on theistic, or better, monotheistic categories. In a monotheistic
context, science had to be submitted to religion, whereas in Buddhism the coex-
istence of science and religion could lead to a pluralistic view of the spiritual in
which neither humans, nor nature, nor God occupy privileged positions. We also
rejoin here the earlier discussion of reality as one original or authentic event that
excludes a plurality of visions, and which Vattimo’s secularized Western Christianity
is supposed to deconstruct. Abe’s aforementioned points on monotheism’s relation-
ship with nature overlap with Vattimo’s: also Vattimo recognizes monotheism as
‘the condition in which nature can be conceived of from the unitary perspective of a
physical science, which is the indispensable basis of the technological domination
over nature’ (Vattimo, 2002, p. 75).
Abe picks up the thread of a typical Kyoto School theme that Heisig (1987a) has
put forward in an early article on Abe’s discussions of kenosis. Suzuki Daisetz,
whom Heisig quotes, was startled by the violence and lack of reason in Christian
religion when writing: ‘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?’ (Suzuki, 2002, p. 134). As a matter of fact,
Vattimo’s ‘too much reason’ and Suzuki’s ‘lack of reason’, which both authors
attribute to Christian religion, are one and the same thing. Both depend on the
preconceived opposition of religion to reason/nature/science. Heisig also quotes
from Takeuchi’s The Heart of Buddhism, where those matters are presented in a
way almost identical with Vattimo’s:

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
Asian Philosophy 375

a new, albeit secondary, relationship between philosophy and theology, a mutual-


ity grounded in a common concern with metaphysics. (Takeuchi, 1983, pp. 3–4)

Heisig concludes that ‘the Buddhist tendency, in Takeuchi’s account, is to transform


and broaden the very nature of rational reflection as such’ (ibid.), which is precisely
what hermeneutics—especially Gadamer’s—has set out to do. Any hermeneutic
reason is not opposed to scientific reason or to reason as such, but supposed to
be a better reason or even a more scientific reason. For Buddhism those problems
are easier to solve. Since the basis of Buddhism is not faith in a God but the
awakening to ‘suchness’ or ‘emptiness’, God will not be privileged over nature or
science.
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Apart from monotheism, the lack of plurality in Christianity is, as has been shown
earlier, connected to science itself, to the extent that it is linked to the Aristotelian
logic of substance (imbedded in Greek language and Parmenides’ tendency to see
reality in terms of being). This has, in return, made the identification of religion
with nature—and thus the reification of religion as a sort of science—so easy for the
Christian church.
Vattimo contrasts Aristotle’s metaphysical category of substance (by which the
early Church is contaminated) with a concept of ‘pluralism of beings’ that he derives
from Hebrews 1:1–2, where it is said that ‘God, spoke long ago to the fathers in the
prophets in many portions and in many ways’ (Vattimo, 1997, p. 47). ‘Weakening’
takes place through an improper overcoming (Verwindung) of ecclesiastic dogma-
tism that has historically restricted the plurality of scriptural interpretations. Of
course, the ‘plurality of Being’ needs to remain dynamic: it is constantly decon-
structing itself in order not to reify itself into an Aristotelian concept of truth.
Again, this shows similarities with the Kyoto School idea of self-negating nothing-
ness as becomes clear in this quotation from Vattimo: ‘If the legitimation of this
plurality were underpinned solely by the structural multivocity of Being itself, it
would in truth become untenable’ (Vattimo, 1997, p. 54).

4.7. The Emptying of God


Like Vattimo’s, Abe’s unorthodox understanding of kenosis is thinkable only in the
context of non-monotheistic pluralism. Under these circumstances, discourses on
the ‘subject’ will adopt a paradoxical character for both philosophers. Abe expresses
this by using the kenosis theme. When God is the son and at the same time God, we
face a paradox expressed as follows: ‘The Son of God is not the Son of God (for he is
essentially and fundamentally self-emptying): precisely because he is not the Son of
God he is truly the Son of God’ (Abe, 1990a, p. 11). Even more radically, Abe writes
in Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue: ‘Without the kenosis of God Himself, the
kenosis of Christ is inconceivable’ (Abe, 1995a, p. xvii) because otherwise there will
be no dynamic identity of kenosis. By eliminating any trace of dualism (between
God and the other, the infinite and the finite, immutability and change, within and
without), Abe collides with traditional Christian theology, which generally states
that the Son of God became a human without God ceasing to be God. Abe points to
376 T. Botz-Bornstein
Küng’s statement that ‘we should not of course speak of a “crucified God”. (. . .)
Without the self-emptying of God “the Father”, the self-emptying of the son of God
is inconceivable’ (p. 14).
Vattimo is clearly on Abe’s side as he suggests a concept of God that is less
radical, but still very similar to Abe’s ‘God of love’ who is ‘not a self-affirmative God’
(p. 16):
Kenosis, the abasement of God, is realized more and more fully and so under-
mines the wisdom of the world, the metaphysical dreams of natural reason which
conceive God as absolute, omnipotent and transcendent, as ipsum esse (metaphy-
sicum) subsistens. In this light, secularization—the progressive dissolution of the
natural sacred—is the very essence of Christianity. (Vattimo, 1996/1999, pp.
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49–50)
Abe’s kenotic God is able to overcome Christianity’s monotheistic character ‘by
sharing with Buddhism the realization of absolute nothingness’ (Abe, 1990a, p. 17).
In the view of Christian theologian Schubert Ogden, Abe’s Buddhist adoption of
kenosis is guilty of imposing Buddhism upon Christianity and of producing a
concept of God that ‘is not only not necessarily implied by Christian faith but
also necessarily precluded by it’ insofar as Christian faith is faith in God’s uncondi-
tional love, and this, in turn, requires both deep relatedness and duality (Ogden,
1990, pp. 129–130). The problem is that for Abe, the love and the fullness obtained
through negation are not supposed to be ‘something’, though most Christian
commentators of Abe seem to believe that it is. Vattimo, on the other hand,
comes close to Abe when he points out that if we want to understand ‘the gospel
in today’s day and age, one must first understand that language does not only
denote objective realities’ (Vattimo, 2007, p. 38). Most theologians mentioned in the
present article prefer to understand ‘fullness’ in a positive sense. Heisig has referred
to this danger very early: ‘There lurks in the background the supposition that the
“pouring out” of self only serves the higher purpose of being “filled up” with the
“fullness” of God’ (Heisig, 1987b, p. 215). If this is the case, weak thought will
become strong thought.

4.7.1. Emptiness and fullness


How precisely must ‘negativity’ be understood in Abe’s philosophy? What is the
element obtained through kenosis or ś unyata? While this question has worried
theologians and while satisfactory answers have rarely been provided, Abe’s state-
ment on the last page of Christopher Ives’s Divine Emptiness and Historical Fullness
(1995) clarifies the situation:
In Christian faith in Christ, the kenosis of the Son of God is not exhausted with
the obedience to God the Father, but it includes the pleroma, the fullness of God. I
am afraid that Pannenberg overlooks this important aspect of the notion of
kenosis. And this is strikingly similar to the Buddhist notion of śunyata, that is,
emptiness that is identical with fullness. Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes ‘True
emptiness is wondrous beings’ and in nothingness, everything is contained. . ..
(Abe, 1995c, p. 258)
Asian Philosophy 377

Kenosis does not lead through an act of emptying towards fullness, but it leads
towards a state where emptiness and fullness cannot be distinguished; just like
awakening does not lead from sam : sara to nirvan: a but to a state where sam
: sara
and nirvan: a are indistinct. Nishida’s view of kenosis depicts the paradox contained
in this constellation. It insists, like Abe’s, on the fact that God’s emptying itself
signifies precisely ‘God’s creating and redeeming the world out of love’. It proves
that the nonduality of sam : sara and nirvan: a cannot be framed in Western logic
(Nishida, 1945/1987, p. 70).
The subject of emptiness and fullness has also been dealt with by Shizuteru Ueda
in his essay ‘Leere und Fülle: Sh unyata im Mahayana Buddhismus’ (1976, p. 152)
where he insists that negation leads to a ‘fuller’ understanding of the world though
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‘fuller’ not in an empirical sense. Finally, the story told by Fritz Buri about how two
Japanese drink tea together makes clear that emptiness should not lead to any kind
of fullness:
One says to the other: “The All is restlessly present here in a cup of tea.”
Whereupon the other turns over the cup so that the tea spills out and asks:
“Where is the All now?” At the answer of the first, “Oh pity for a cup of such
fine tea, the “two laugh at one another.” (Buri, 1976, p. 283)

Also Vattimo’s nihilistic hermeneutics frees us from foundations and emancipates


us without offering us something ‘positive’ in return. What remains is the
Verwinden of belief which leads to a freedom not in the sense of an irrational leap
of faith (which depends on an empirical understanding of ‘fullness’), but to dialogue,
agreement, and caritas. Vattimo would probably call the empirical fullness ‘kitsch’ in
the sense of the ‘classically perfect identification between content and form, and the
completeness and definitive quality of the work (. . .) (nowadays only merchandise
promoted in advertising is presented in this way)’ (Vattimo, 1997, p. 89). We are
also reminded of Roland Barthes who saw Western metaphysics ‘for which every
center is a place of truth’ as a society striving for ‘the superb plenitude of reality’
(Barthes, 1970, p. 767). Correspondingly, Frascati Lochhead describes a kind of
religious kitsch as the ‘contemplation of self-fulfilling plenitude, of presence com-
pletely enfleshed, of wholeness’ (1998, p. 177).
This unity and feeling of oneness with God is different from the oneness of Zen-
Buddhism. As mentioned, the ‘realism’ of Buddhism is not faith lost in a foggy
nirvan: a but, on the contrary, the aim of Zen-Buddhism is to recognize the true
character of reality. The seventeenth-century Japanese poet Basho wrote
accordingly:
You can learn about the pine tree or about the bamboo only from bamboo. When
you see an object you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself;
otherwise you impose yourself upon the object and do not learn. The object and
yourself must become one, and from that feeling of oneness issues your poetry.
(Yuasa, 1960, p. 18)

Western objectivism and empiricism are not based on this principle of emptiness
but on an objective and empirical fullness.
378 T. Botz-Bornstein
4.8. The Human and the Divine
In his rejoinder to the criticism drafted by theologians in the Cobb’s and Ives’s
volume from 1990, Abe insists that we should not confuse the horizontal and the
vertical dimensions of thought: ‘Moral difference in the socio-historical dimension
does not translate directly to the religious, eternal dimension’ (Abe, 1990b, p. 183).
Abe quotes from Ogden’s chapter in the same book and finds that for this author
‘the absolute moral difference does not or should not cease to make a difference but
should continue to be an “absolute difference” in the light of divine providence and
divine justice’ (ibid.). Ogden had expressed his reservations towards the claim that
‘“dynamic ś unyata” provides an adequate ground for responsible thought in history’
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(Ogden, 1990, p. 131). Also Ives reproaches Abe on the confusion of the categories
of religion and ethics (Abe, 1995a, pp. 185–187), to which Abe replies that it is
rather Ives who ‘absolutizes ethical judgment somewhat apart from the religious
dimension’ (1995b, p. 203) and insists that a person is always living at the intersec-
tion of the vertical and horizontal dimensions. Somehow, this is confusing because
in the 1990 rejoinder Abe had clearly said that the horizontal and the vertical should
remain separated. Those thoughts can be clarified through a comparison with
Vattimo’s thoughts on the same topic.
It seems that Abe and Vattimo stand on different altars but preach the same
strategy. Abe regrets that the religious realm of nirvan: a is interpreted by those
Western theologians in socio-historical terms, while Vattimo finds that theology has
brought too much science into religion. Both want to preserve the vertical dimen-
sion of religion and avoid the squaring of the circle, which attempts to see the
vertical as the horizontal. The absolute must remain the absolute just because it
cannot be expressed in terms of social ethics or science. This is the metaphysical (or
anti-metaphysical) aspect of ś unyata, which was very much on Nishitani’s agenda.
His aim was not merely to delve into the ground of human existence but also to
search ‘anew for the wellsprings of reality itself’ (1961/1983, p. xlviii). Therefore, a
question such as ‘Who would raise Jesus if God was emptied?’ imports historical
cause and effect series into religion, which Abe, of course, has to reject (cf. 1995b,
p. 226).
In this context, Abe’s appeal that ‘Buddhists must develop dynamic ś unyata and
create a new notion of justice on the basis of wisdom and compassion, which, while
clearly realizing distinctions, can actualize and maintain the balance of power’ (Abe,
1990b, p. 180) does indeed appear like a ‘weak thought’. The ‘confusion of the socio-
historical dimension and the religious dimension and the lack of any dialectical
understanding of the two dimensions’ criticized by Abe (1990b, p. 199) is precisely
the point that Vattimo also takes issue with, though he expresses it in a converse
fashion. Abe attacks those who import religious distinctions into the socio-historical
world, while Vattimo attacks those who import socio-historical (scientific) distinc-
tions into religion. Again, both philosophers’ aim is not to defend religion as an
otherworldly affair, but to defend reality, as Abe writes: ‘Buddhism never asserts that
distinctions are unreal or delusory in the socio-historical dimension, for if they were
Asian Philosophy 379

unreal or delusory this world would be chaotic and the interdependency of every-
thing would be inconceivable’ (p. 199). The appeal to ś unyata or kenosis has
repercussions on the balance of power in the ‘real’ socio-historical world.
However, if kenosis and ś unyata are supposed to really function, the realms of the
immanent and the transcendent must remain distinct. In Vattimo’s terms, there
should never be religion in science or science in religion.
What we obtain once we apply Abe’s and Vattimo’s philosophies to the real world
is a weakening of thought through kenosis or the awareness of ś unyata in the sense
of Nothingness. In other words, we obtain a different relationship with reality as
well as a different way of using power within this reality. This is what Vattimo
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means when he says that kenosis refers to secularization: only when strong struc-
tures such as the essence and the fulfilment of the Christian message are weakened,
will we find a truth. We need the abasement, humiliation, and weakening of God.
Similarly, Abe says that ‘religion beyond rigid ethical judgment can provide a new
basis for ethical judgment without falling into the existential dilemma of good
concerning evil’ (Abe, 1990b, p. 182). The call for charity and love put forward by
both Abe and Vattimo can thus be defined as a call for social engagement based on a
religious ground: ‘In order for Buddhism to be active in the contemporary world
situation, it must be more theologically and practically involved in particular social-
historical events from its religious grounds’ (Abe, 1990b, p. 184).

5. Conclusion
We have read Vattimo through Buddhist philosophy and Abe through a postmo-
dern philosophy of deconstruction. The comparative study has shown that the
kenosis–ś unyata discussion can benefit from a post-metaphysical reading based on
the premises of Vattimo’s weak theology. Employing a more sophisticated version of
nihilism that is clearly distinct from the ‘modern’ nihilism designed by Nietzsche
and Heidegger, Abe’s and Vattimo’s nonreligious or secular forms of religion are
relatively efficient when it comes to the deconstruction of religious fundamentalism
that is more and more present in the world since the 1990s. The reason is that both
philosophers see ‘emptiness’ not as merely nihilistic but in terms of a dynamic open-
endedness. In the end, nothingness or emptiness creates a ‘real’ religious feeling. The
irony and ‘half belief’ inherent in weak thought and Abe’s theology circumvents
metaphysical realism as well as Platonic essentialism. Irony and ‘half belief’ are
suitable measures for a situation in which ‘belief’ or ‘non-belief’ are increasingly
defined as an either/or. Scientism and nihilism are not the only alternatives to faith.
A ‘half-theistic’ way of thinking God based on kenosis can work in the service of
plurality because it deconstructs the principle of reality based on faith and ‘fullness’.
The article has shown that ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ traditions can here concur.
380 T. Botz-Bornstein
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes
[1] Charles Jones has indicated further limitations in a more recent article. According to him,
the problem is that each side seems to have extracted knowledge about the other religion
from a very limited number of texts. Further, Jones finds that Buddhist–Christian dialogue
has long since moved on, focusing ‘more on social and ethical issues than on philosophy’
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(Jones mentions the revival of the Buddhist–Christian Theological Encounters organized by


Donald Mitchell in the late 1990s) (Jones, 2004, p. 130).
[2] Approval has been looked for in representatives of ‘new-style’ kenotic Christology (devel-
oped by J. Robinson and J. Macquarrie) who see kenosis as ‘self-fulfilling emptying’ and the
fullest expression of love because ‘kenosis is plerosis’ (Odin, 1989, p. 75).
[3] Hisamatsu was a lay practitioner of the Rinzai School.
[4] Abe affirms that ś unyata is fundamentally ‘not a metaphysical but a religious and soter-
iological notion’ (Abe, 1995, p. 54). However, paradoxically, just because of its anti-
metaphysical input as well as the radical thoughts about the existence of reality linked to
the topic, the ś
unyata discussion is not only related to existential philosophy (which bears a
natural link with religion) but is also metaphysical (or anti-metaphysical) by definition. In
the words of Chappell, Abe uses ś unyata ‘as a metaphysical description of reality’ (Chappell,
1995, p. 13) and deconstructs this description. David Dilworth’s statement that ‘the
Christian perspective is “noumenal in ontological focus”’ (p. 45) does not make the
Christian perspective incompatible with the Kyoto School approach. Dilworth finds that
the latter is determined by ‘the existential signification of Buddhist discourse’ while the
Christian side gives priority to metaphysics. The problem is rather that the Christian side is
fixated on theological problems like resurrection, exaltation, etc.
[5] It appears in one passage in ‘Der Spruch des Anaximander’ (in Holzwege), in ‘Die
Überwindung der Metaphysik’, (in Vorträge und Aufsätze), and in Identität und Differenz.
[6] ‘Was geschieht, wenn die wahre Welt abgeschafft wird? Bleibt dann noch die scheinbare
Welt? Nein. Denn die scheinbare Welt kann das, was es ist, nur sein als Gegenstück zur
wahren. Wenn diese fällt, muß auch die scheinbare fallen. Erst dann ist der Platonismus
überwunden, d.h. so umgedreht, daß das philosophische Denken aus ihm herausgedreht
wird’ (Heidegger, 1961/1979, p. 233).
[7] ‘Wenn aber Auslegung sich je schon im Verstandenen bewegen und aus ihm her sich
nähren muß, wie soll sie dann wissenschaftliche Resultaten zeitigen, ohne sich in einem
Zirkel zu bewegen, zumal wenn das vorausgesetzte Verständnis überdies noch in der
gemeinen Menschen und Weltkenntnis sich bewegt?’ (Heidegger, 1986, p. 152).
[8] I have explained this in a more detailed fashion in Botz-Bornstein (in press).
[9] Sam: skara in Sanskrit.
[10] ‘Φναις meint Himmel und Erde, Pflanze und Tier und in gewisser Weise auch den
Menschen. Das Wort bedeutet einen besonderen Bereich des Seienden, der bei Aristoteles
wie in der Schule Platons überhaupt gegen ήθος und λόγος abgegrenzt bleibt. Φύσις hat
nicht mehr die weite Bedeutung des Alls des Seienden’ (Heidegger, 1980/2002, p. 324).
Asian Philosophy 381

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