Atheism in Buddhism

Hisamatsu Shin-ichi on atheism

- , ""I" in the words of Jesus,"
in The myth of Christian uniqueness: toward a pluralistic theology of religions,
John Hick and Paul F. Knitter, editors (Orbis: Maryknoll NY 1987)

We can carry on this same discussion from the perspective of Zen Buddhism. Hisamatsu Shin-ichi (1889-1980), a great Zen Master who was also professor of philosophy of religion at Kyoto University, was a well-known "atheist." This does not mean that he denied the existence of God when affirming the existence of the world and of humanity. Hisamatsu directed his atheism against "theism." For him, God was not something "out there"; he denied God as das ganz Andere. In his study entitled "Atheism" (1949),12 he asserted a paradoxical identity: "the Formless" (ultimate reality) is not something outside, or merely das ganz Andere. To those who would insist that the ultimate must in some be das ganz Andere, Hisamatsu responded that at the same time the ultimate is the self insofar as it is the human being's ultimate subject. Das ganz Andere, therefore, is also the ultimate self; this means that absolute heteronomy and absolute autonomy are, paradoxically, identical. According to Hisamatsu, "I do" means, at the ground of the human being, "the Formless does." So he could even say, "I do not die."13

But is this not the apotheosis of the human being? Some critics made just this accusation against Hisamatsu. To understand what he meant, we have to look beyond the literal sense of his words. When he and I were once having a philosophical discussion, he said to me, "Since I am so old, I may die at any moment. If I die, please carry on a conversation with me who am in you." What he was trying to make clear to me, I think, is just whom I was talking with at that moment.14
Yet, from what he was saying, it was clear that he was well aware of his own mortality. So for him, "I" had a double structure: it was composed of the ego and the ultimate self (or, the Formless). Both selves for him are essentially concentric. Indeed, from the figure he drew, we see that when the self is awakened, the infinite (Formless) self contains the finite self (ego) within its circle.15

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created 1jun1996, revised 20mar98     |     comments on this site? tpkunesh@atheisms.info