Sunyata and Kenosis: Examining the Forms of Emptying in Buddhism and Christianity Through the State of Suffering

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Jack Mulder, Jr., Hope College

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Within the philosophy of religion, one of the most unique developments in the past century has been the Buddhist-Christian theological dialogue coupled with Eastern-Western philosophical dialogue initiated by the Kyoto School of Philosophy (a philosophical movement that emerged in the early twentieth century in Japan). In this paper, I will explore the process of emptying for Buddhism and Christianity within the philosophy of religion. Self-emptying, whether of the incarnation of Christ in Christianity or of the self in Buddhism, is foundational for the praxis of each faith tradition. There are two words that signify this emptying: in Christianity this emptiness is known as the kenosis, where God empties Himself through the incarnation. In Zen Buddhism it is sunyata, or the emptying of the self to attain non-self. Through applying the methodology of the Kyoto School of Philosophy I posit that the two visions of emptiness differ precisely in their approach toward the human state of suffering. This approach attempts to preserve the integrity of doctrine surrounding the ontological claims of the person of Christ, in marked contrast to the positions of John Hick or John Cobb, Jr., while maintaining a vocabulary that allows for genuine Buddhist-Christian dialogue. This new focus, furthermore, will be directed in response to Zen Buddhist philosopher Abe Masao’s writings in the 1980s and 1990s and the brief renaissance of dialogue that ensued after those publications.

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