Total Kenosis, True Shunyata, and the Plerotic Self of Thomas Merton and Masao Abe

Joe Lencioni
24 min readDec 23, 2015


This essay earned the Clark Award in 2005 and originally appeared in the Journal of Theta Alpha Kappa Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring 2006.

Buddhist philosopher Masao Abe states that, contrary to the advancement of technology and international communication, “we know very little about the inner meaning of spiritual and religious traditions not our own.” [1] This sentiment is echoed in the life of Thomas Merton who explored and incorporated elements of Eastern religions into his own writing. Both thinkers believe that this lack of understanding often leads to fear, hatred, and mistrust of the “other.” Thus, their individual works focus to a great extent on breaking down these barriers that create the “other” by finding commonalities in religious praxis that promote the capacity not only to tolerate but also genuinely to embrace other traditions.

This lack of understanding often leads to fear, hatred, and mistrust of the “other.”

The notion of the “self,” which naturally plays a central role in understanding other religious traditions more broadly, is a key point of departure for differentiating Buddhism and Christianity; it also plays a central role in the works of both Abe and Merton. [2] For both thinkers, the “self” is the key structure through which an individual not only understands daily, mundane experience but also approaches and experiences the “divine.” Both thinkers believe that improper alignment with the divine, regardless of its definition, leads to a less existentially fulfilling life, while proper alignment leads naturally to a more meaningful life. [3] However, their differences can be an obstacle to understanding.

Therefore, this essay will examine the following question against the broader context of Buddhist-Christian dialogue: What are the points of similarity and difference in Merton’s and Abe’s views of the “self,” and how do they help us break down our barriers of otherness? I will attempt to prove that their ideas of kenosis (self-emptying) and shunyata (emptiness) are similar because they ground their interpretations of the “self” in a “no-self,” asserting that their self must, paradoxically, be transcended to realize its own true nature. But the language in which these interpretations are expressed and their functions within their two religious traditions differ in significant ways that connect them to their respective traditions and promote barriers of otherness. [4] Therefore, I will offer a new definition of plerosis (self-fulfilling) based on these two thinkers’ writings to promote a deeper understanding between Christians and Buddhists.

Merton and the Self

Poet, artist, writer, Trappist monk, and mystic, Merton was born in 1915 in France and died in 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand of accidental electrocution. Although he was neither a philosopher nor a theologian, Merton left a large body of writing about such topics as contemplation, holiness, Zen, and mysticism. Despite being a contemplative monk in a Trappist monastery, he communicated with eastern thinkers and in 1968 visited Asia. Merton had a unique perspective on life that, while remaining rooted in Catholicism, incorporated ideas native to eastern traditions. [5] Through his turn toward the East, Merton’s inquisitive mind developed an even greater cultural and spiritual sensibility.

Merton’s influences include Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Blessed John Ruysbroeck, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Saint John of the Cross, most of who are medieval Catholic mystics. Later in his life, as his spirituality and religious views matured, he was more influenced by medieval mystic Meister Eckhart and by Buddhist thinker Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, with whom he corresponded before their meeting in 1964. Additionally, according to Paul Bernadicou, S.J., Merton’s affirmation of the truth in other faiths “is reminiscent of two people he very much admired,” Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day. [6] Because this essay focuses on an aspect of Thomas Merton’s writing in relation to a segment of Buddhist philosophy, the most important of Merton’s influences, here, is Eckhart, because his theology has been interpreted Buddhistically, and Suzuki, because of his role within modern-day Buddhism.

Eckhart of Hocheim, Germany was the father of the Rhineland school of mysticism. One of the most influential and profound (some would say dangerous) Christian mystics, and possibly the Christian mystic that seems closest to Buddhist thinking, Eckhart was born about 1260 and died in 1327. [7] Shortly after his death, many of his writings were condemned, pronounced heretical, or suspected by the Catholic Church. [8] His immediate effect can be seen in his younger contemporaries, Suso, Tauler, and Ruysbroeck, while his lasting effect is apparent in more recent figures such as Thomas Merton. [9] The core of Eckhart’s thought, argues David E. Linge, Professor of Religious Studies at University of Tennessee, “is the possibility of the individual Christian experiencing union with God, unmediated by likeness or concept, and the importance of poverty as the preparatory means for mystical experience.” [10]

Suzuki, who was born in 1870 in Kanazawa, Japan, and died in 1966, was the founder of the Eastern Buddhist Society, the author of many books on Buddhism, and an instrumental figure in spreading Zen to the West. Merton and Suzuki corresponded from 1959 to 1965 and met in New York in the summer of 1964. It is evident in their letters and Merton’s journals that, as their friendship grew, they shared a respect for each other and a desire for understanding each other’s tradition. Over the years, Suzuki positively influenced Merton and provided some insight into understanding Zen and Buddhism.

Merton defines the self in two parts: the “false self” and the “true self.” The “lower self,” the “external self,” and the “inferior self” are all different names Merton gives to what he commonly calls the false self. Other terms he uses are the “illusory self,” the “outer self,” and “selfhood,” as well as the “passionate, disordered, and confused self — the rambling and disheveled ‘ego’ — but much more the tyrannical ‘super-ego,’” the “I,” the “limited and exclusive self,” “selfishness,” and “self-will.” [11] Essentially, the false self is the constructed and not-real self to we attach both our desires — conscious and subconscious — and our created identities. The false self is who and what we think we are which, in essence, is evil in the sense that it keeps us from fulfilling our intended existences.

Imagine the false self in two parts: self-identity and self-will. The self-identity of the false self consists of the things that we think we are and the qualities and characteristics we think we have and to which we are attached. Merton calls this “the external mask which seems to be real and which lives by a shadowy autonomy for the brief moment of earthly existence.” [12] This self-identity is empowered by its counterpart: self-will. The self-will manifests in our our striving for control of our lives and our determination of autonomy and independence from God. Merton sees this as the tyrannical super-ego, the self-will that creates God in our own image, and the self-will that is the acting force separating us from God.

On the other hand, Merton distinguishes the “upper self,” the “superior self,” or the “inner self” (the true self), also referring to it as the “deep self”, the “real self”, and “original nature.” He sees the true self as our “inmost self,” the “new man,” the “other self,” and the “mysterious and unknown self.” Essentially, the true self is the actual, present self as it is expressed through union with God. More fundamentally, as Raymond Bailey affirms, in the true self one sees the world and God as they are, in and of themselves. [13]

The true self is perpetual and simultaneous self-negation and self-affirmation in God.

According to Merton, the true self is perpetual and simultaneous self-negation and self-affirmation in God. It is self-negation in the sense that we must completely give up that which we hold so dearly: the false self. This must happen not by our own self-will but by the grace of God, for we must, in this act of self-negation, give up the self-will. Merton asserts, “[God] created man with a soul that was made not to bring itself to perfection in its own order, but to be perfected by Him in an order infinitely beyond the reach of human powers.” [14] Furthermore, the true self is self-affirmation in the sense that we become more complete as a result of our unification with God in the true self. Merton affirms that when one leaves the false self behind, “Man is not cut in half, he is drawn together and finds himself more of one piece, more integrated than ever before.” [15] In other words, in the true self we are actively fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives from moment to moment.

Abe and the Self

The Kyoto School of Philosophy is a fascinating modern group of thinkers comprised of, among other Buddhist philosophers such as Abe, three central figures: Nishida Kitarō, Tanabe Hajime, and Nishitani Keiji. [16] Catholic theologian James W. Heisig, Professor and Permanent Research Fellow at Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya, Japan, refers to the Kyoto school as “Japan’s first sustained and original contribution to [W]estern philosophical thought” from “a distinctively [E]astern perspective.” [17] Therefore, Kyoto Philosophy served, in some respects, as a bridge from Eastern thinking to Western philosophy. Of the school’s thinkers, Abe leads Buddhist-Christian dialogue by “attempting to work out of both camps.” [18]

Since this study focuses on how an aspect of Abe’s writing relates to Merton’s thought, the most important of Abe’s influences here are Suzuki, Kitarō, and Keiji because of their connections to the Kyoto school. However, since Suzuki has already been highlighted, suffice it to say that Abe’s position on Buddhism is, according to Stephen Morris, the same as Suzuki’s. [19] Thus, the focus will be on Kitarō and Keiji.

Kitarō, the founder of the Kyoto school, was born in 1870, the third year of the Meiji period, and died in 1945. Because Eastern and Western cultures came face-to-face in Japan during the Meiji era, Kitarō was presented with a unique opportunity to contemplate Eastern philosophical issues in the fresh light of Western philosophy. Kitarō’s original and creative philosophy, incorporating ideas of both Zen and Western philosophy, was aimed at bringing the East closer to the West. In fact, his philosophy reached so far to the West that “Merton interpreted Nishida [Kitarō] in the light of his own thorough training in Western philosophical and theological traditions.” [20] Perhaps Merton’s interest stemmed from the focal points of Kitarō’s philosophy — direct experience — “the discovery of the self, and fidelity to life.” Later in his life, however, he leaned more toward a political philosophy, saying that, “the world … has already become a single environment, and the whole of humanity is caught up in the crisis of how to handle the fact.” [21] Taken as a whole, his life work was the foundation for the Kyoto school and the inspiration for the original thinking of his disciples.

Keiji, one of Kitarō’s disciples, was born in 1900 and died in 1990. He became the principal chair of religion at Kyoto University around 1943. Because the nature of Keiji’s philosophy was expressed more religiously and subjectively, he felt ideologically closer to the existentialists and the mystics than the scholars and theologians who more objectively expressed their ideas. Keiji, thought to be Kitarō’s stylistic superior, brought Zen poetry, religion, literature, and philosophy organically together in his work to help lay the difficult foundations of breaking free of the Japanese language in a way similar to that of Blaise Pascal or Friedrich Nietzsche, for Western language. [22] Furthermore, unlike Kitarō, who had focused on building a philosophical system and who, toward the end of his career, began focusing on political philosophy, Keiji focused on creating a standpoint “from which he could enlighten a broader range of topics,” and wrote more on Buddhist themes towards the end of his career. [23]

The self that Abe expresses is crafted as a response to the criticisms of religion coming from scientism and the nihilism of the German philosopher Nietzsche and serves as the foundation from which Buddhism and Christianity can deepen themselves and relate. Abe describes two types of nihilism: nihilism before religion and nihilism beyond religion. Nihilism before religion “is a realization of the meaninglessness of life before definitive religious experience, and it therefore may be overcome by religion when one comes to have a genuine religious experience.” Conversely, nihilism beyond religion invokes the meaningless of life after the religious experience, negates religion from within, and “challenges the core of traditional religion.” [24] Nihilism before religion arises out of philosophizing and asking questions that religion can answer. In a matter of speaking, religion can arise from within this type of nihilism and negate it. One can begin with nihilism and end up with religion. On the other hand, nihilism beyond religion arises from within religion and gives new answers to the questions asked of religion. One can start with religion and end up with nihilism. This type of nihilism therefore negates religion from within. Nietzsche’s nihilism is nihilism beyond religion.

Although Nietzsche’s nihilism approaches religion from the standpoint of Christianity, nihilism threatens any religion, including the schools of Buddhism that do not refer to God or a divine principle. Abe says that because Nietzsche’s nihilism challenges the idea that religion itself is self-evident, all religions must confront his nihilism, “examine whether or not [it] is really ‘nihilism beyond religion,’ and assume the burden of demonstrating, practically and theoretically, the raison d’être of religion.” [25] Here, Abe begins his proposition of how Buddhism and Christianity can both overcome nihilism and deepen themselves.

The false self, argues Abe, is the root source of human suffering, which he sees manifested in four forms of self-centeredness: individual, national, anthropocentric, and religious. These forms of self-centeredness shape a hierarchy with individual self-centeredness as the lowest form and religious self-centeredness as the highest form. [26]

Individual self-centeredness is the ego and the basic subject-object duality one creates when one becomes aware of one’s self-existence apart from others. Abe affirms that along with the separation, attachment, and estrangement from others that comes with the notion of “I”, there is always another deeper separation from oneself. National self-centeredness manifests in the “group-self” of a sovereign nation-state that does not practice self-negation as the absolute self-identity. This is most boldly evident in the self-affirmation of nations controlling and conquering other nations. Anthropocentric self-centeredness is the condition of assuming the standpoint of humanity as one’s substantial self-identity. Finally, religious self-centeredness is the condition of assuming the standpoint of the ultimate principal of religion as one’s substantial self-identity. Abe argues that the self-contradiction innate to religion and salvation is the emphasis on freeing oneself from self-centeredness on the religiously self-centered basis of its own ultimate principle. [27]

According to Abe, “Though [one has] self-identity in a relative sense [one has] no self-identity in any absolute and substantial sense.” [28] In other words, a person actually exists in relation to others, but the base of his or her existence is not a substantially and absolutely unique self. The concept of “I” mutually requires the concept of “other” to exist. However, these concepts have no substantial existence beneath their relational existence. Likewise, nations, humanity, and religion all have a self-identity in a relative sense but have no self-identity in any absolute and substantial sense. [29] Abe argues that the only way to be free from self-centeredness is through no-self.

Generally speaking, no-self is the cataphatic remedy to self-centeredness. Apophatically, no-self is true self. Abe talks about the true self in both Christian and Buddhist terms, using Saint Paul’s notion of kenosis and the Buddhist notion of shunyata. Kenosis, Paul’s term for self-emptying, literally means “an emptying” and is derived from the ancient Greek kenos meaning “empty.” For example, Paul writes:

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 man; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross. (Philippians 2:5–8)

This passage is important to Abe because it says that Christ chose to give up his divine rank and become a man, thus emptying himself, and the humility exemplified by Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection reveals “the unfathomable depth of God’s love.” [30]

This kenosis of the Son of God, Abe argues, must be a total kenosis for him to be Christ. In other words, one should not hold a temporal understanding of Christ’s nature, that is, Christ was not “originally the Son of God and then emptied himself and became identical with humans,” as in the traditional understanding of the Gospel of John where the preexisting Logos became flesh. [31] Rather, one should hold a total kenotic understanding of Christ in which it is Christ’s very nature to be continually self-emptying and that Christ’s kenosis is not merely a transformation in appearance, but rather it is a transformation in substance. Because of his self-emptying nature, he is true person and true God: Christ, the Messiah. Consequently, Abe reformulates the doctrine of Christ’s kenosis 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 (for he originally and always works as Christ, the Messiah, in his salvational function of self-emptying). [32]

Since, as Paul writes in Philippians, we are to follow in Christ’s kenosis, and since, as Abe Masao has pointed out, Christ’s is a total kenosis, so, too, must our own kenosis be a total kenosis, that is, a complete transformation. Consequently, Abe says, in relation to the human self, “Self is not self (for the old self must be crucified with Christ); precisely because it is not, self is truly self (for the new self resurrects with Christ).” [33]

For one to have a true belief in Christ, one must accept both paradoxical formulations: Christ is not Christ, therefore Christ is truly Christ; and self is not self, therefore self is truly self.

Abe equates these two formulations into one single principle, stating that this is how Christians should approach their belief in Christ. In other words, for one to have a true belief in Christ, one must accept both paradoxical formulations: Christ is not Christ, therefore Christ is truly Christ; and self is not self, therefore self is truly self. Thus, when one accepts these formulations and lives the truth of the resurrection of Christ, one can experience kenosis in Christ in the absolute present, the now-moment, denying the ego-self completely for the new person in Christ. Only then can one truly claim that “it is no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Abe affirms that, in contrast with traditional Christianity, which considers the conceptualizable God as ultimate reality, Buddhism holds that ultimate reality is the unconceptualizable shunyata which literally means “emptiness.” Abe’s notion of shunyata corresponds with much of Buddhism and he affirms that shunyata is unobjectifiable in the sense that it cannot be attained by reason or will, and it is so “thoroughly self-negative” that it completely empties everything, including itself. [34] Furthermore, one should not understand shunyata as a static state of emptiness but, rather, as the pure dynamic movement of emptying.

Abe asserts that, in order to have a true understanding of shunyata, one must keep two considerations. First, one should not approach shunyata as a goal of Buddhism because making it a goal conceptualizes it as a thing outside of oneself in a subject-object relationship. Shunyata exists not outside of the self, and the self exists not outside of shunyata; instead, one must approach it, “as the ground or point of departure from which Buddhist life and activity can properly begin,” and realize it in the absolute and present now-moment. Secondly, “Shunyata should not be understood in its noun form [‘emptiness’] but in its verbal form [‘self-emptying’], for it is a dynamic and creative function of emptying everything and making alive everything.” [35] One should not understand shunyata as “emptiness” primarily because “emptiness” is a static idea that connotes an object or goal that can be obtained, whereas “self-emptying” is a dynamic idea that connotes an action or a nature from which all actions spontaneously occur.

Shunyata, furthermore, should be translated as the active “self-emptying” because true shunyata, like kenosis, is an active principle in life and not just a principle to which one should aspire. True shunyata, like total kenosis, is not a one-time event: one should practice it day to day in every moment and in every action. Abe asserts, “True shunyata is not shunyata thought by us, but shunyata lived by us.” [36] In other words, the person is true shunyata, and true shunyata is the person.

One cannot think of nothing because in the very act of thinking of nothing, one is thinking of something.

Because true shunyata is absolute emptiness, by its nature it must also be emptied. Abe argues that shunyata is “the realization of the non-substantiality of everything,” and that it “must be emptied by rejecting any attachment to emptiness. True [shunyata] is not a static state of everything’s non-substantiality, but rather a dynamic function of emptying everything, including itself.” [37] In other words, one cannot have a concept of true shunyata. Similarly, one cannot think of nothing because in the very act of thinking of nothing, one is thinking of something. One’s concept of nothing, whether it is blackness, space, or another abstract conceptualization, is something. Nothing, by its very nature, is paradoxically nothing and not-nothing at the same time. In truly thinking of nothing, one must release one’s concept of nothing and allow one’s existence to move metaphysically into the so-called non-concept of nothing. Likewise, to think of shunyata, it is necessary to let go of dualistic concepts and allow one’s existence to move into true shunyata. True shunyata negates all dualism, and therefore, by its very essence, paradoxically is both shunyata and not shunyata.

Abe equates true shunyata with the true self; he affirms that satori, or awakening, “in Zen is nothing but the self-awakening of the true Self.” [38] To Abe, this means not to live in true shunyata is not to live a fulfilled existence. He affirms that many people mistakenly look for the true self outside of themselves. [39] However, one must awake to the reality of shunyata within one’s self as the ground or point of departure for existence.

Shunyata and kenosis share similar conceptually paradoxical natures. On one hand, shunyata maintains that emptiness is not mere emptiness and is therefore emptiness; while on the other hand, kenosis maintains that the Son of God is not the Son of God and therefore is the Son of God. In other words, shunyata is paradoxical because it is complete emptiness in the sense that it even must empty itself. Likewise, kenosis is paradoxical in the example of the Son of God because by emptying himself of his divine status, he became divine because the nature of Christ is a self-emptying nature.

Merton and Abe in Dialogue

Although Merton’s idea of the false self and true self seems similar to Abe’s concept of total kenosis and dynamic shunyata, their purposes and expressions of ideas differ because they have different motivations for drawing their conclusions. Merton is primarily a mystic who aims at invoking a religious experience in the reader and therefore tends to speak more vaguely, forcing the reader to transcend the normal mode of intellectual conceptualization. Conversely, Abe is primarily a philosopher who aims at clarifying his philosophy to promote meaningful interreligious dialogue. In other words, if Merton and Abe were in dialogue, Merton would agree completely with the substance of what Abe says, and Abe would agree with the substance of what Merton says, but also expand on it, eliminating ambiguity and confusion, to deepen Merton’s expression of his mysticism and to promote interreligious understanding. [40]

In his unique Zen flavor of philosophy, Abe maintains that, although he is dissatisfied with the current state of Buddhism and Christianity, both religions share a common spiritual basis that will be revealed not through an exchange but rather through a process of self-purification. [41] This process, Abe believes, will draw the philosophy and theology of the two religions closer together. This will not produce a synthesis of the two or a new religion that will supersede the two but, rather, a philosophical system with its own unique concepts that can be used to understand both religions fully. Ideally this philosophy could be expanded to enable a full understanding of other religions. Abe’s philosophy suggests that uniting the notion of kenosis, in Christianity, and the notion of shunyata, in Buddhism, is a step in the direction of finding this common ground.

Although Thomas Merton was a Catholic and a Trappist monk, he did not express himself as most Catholics and Trappists traditionally have. Dogma and doctrine tend to define what Christianity is and what it is not — they state what one should and should not believe. However, Merton was more concerned with direct religious experience, leaving him open to more ideas than a typical traditional Christian of his time may have been. His expression of his religion and spirituality has been appropriately labeled Zen Catholicism. [42]

Also, because Merton is not primarily concerned with dogma and doctrine, the self in Merton’s system is based on and aimed at personal religious experience instead of being aimed at theological correctness. It therefore overcomes the obstacle of the duality of conceptualization. Likewise, transcending duality has historically been fundamental to the teaching of shunyata in Buddhism. In other words, Merton’s “self” and Buddhism’s shunyata both push a person toward transcending the duality of conceptualization and move toward direct religious experience, which lies beyond thinking and is important in the life of the mystic. It is also a much more important and effective transformative power than conceptualizing and learning about God. An atheist is not often persuaded by the logical, ancient philosophical proofs for the God of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Saint Thomas Aquinas, or René Descartes because reasoning and thought processes do not produce direct religious experience.

Moreover, the major difference in the two views of the self is their dependence or non-dependence on history. Merton’s thought requires the personal and historical necessity of Christ’s kenosis, whereas Abe’s thought stresses the ahistorical and non-personal aspect of true shunyata. Merton’s view of the self, however, does not necessarily exclude those who do not believe in the historical fact of Christ, because his idea does not hinge upon such a belief. Rather, the grace of the Holy Spirit mystically transforming peoples’ lives is possible because of Christ’s humanity and kenosis. For Merton, God’s grace, therefore, is not restricted to those who believe in Christ but rather is only restricted to those who actively ignore and distance themselves from it.

Both Merton and Abe argue that in order for one to live an existentially meaningful life and attain eternal peace, one must experience a spiritual awakening. Merton expresses this spiritual awakening as a letting go of the false self that gives rise to the true self, while Abe expresses it as emptying one’s self-ego through the dynamic action of true shunyata. Both point toward similar passages in the Bible that talk about the notion of kenosis. Essentially, Merton’s false self that must be let go is analogous to Abe’s ego-self that must be negated, and Merton’s true self is analogous to Abe’s shunyata. Likewise, both emphasize that this spiritual awakening must be a total conversion experience. Abe puts it most eloquently by stressing that, in Christianity, a person’s kenosis must be a total kenosis and, in Buddhism, a true shunyata.

Kenosis and shunyata are unique parallels originating from the same point.

Just as Abe asserts that, at their depths, Christianity and Buddhism share a common spiritual ground, so, too, at their depths, kenosis and shunyata are identical; however, they are approached and expressed differently from within Christianity and Buddhism, respectively. Abe affirms their similarity in saying that the intersection between immanence and transcendence “is symbolized in Christianity by Jesus Christ who is the true human and the true God, and in Buddhism by Shunyata, in which emptiness and fullness are dynamically identical.” [43] However, kenosis and shunyata are not and cannot be identical, just as Christianity and Buddhism are not and cannot be identical. Rather, kenosis and shunyata are unique parallels originating from the same point. The uniqueness of one describes the uniqueness of the other, deepening one’s understanding.

However, the primary problem with the concepts of total kenosis and true shunyata is the fact that they are intrinsically Christian and Buddhist concepts, which is a barrier to the interreligious understanding that Merton experienced and for which Abe worked in his philosophy. Total interreligious understanding is achieved when concepts from another religion can be understood in terms that relate to and make sense from within the context of one’s own religion and experience. Therefore, if concepts from two different religions are completely compatible, interreligious understanding is easier. However, interpreting concepts as completely compatible often does not accurately represent their respective religions and often is a misinterpretation. Therefore, terms that are not defined from within any single religion are important for advancing interreligious understanding.

Plerotic Self

Plerosis literally means “a fulfilling” and is derived from the ancient Greek pleros meaning “full.” Here plerosis means self-fulfilling in the same way that kenosis means self-emptying. Therefore, if the kenotic self is the self-emptying self, the plerotic self is the self-fulfilling self. Paradoxically, kenosis is plerosis, or, in other words, the action of self-emptying is paradoxically the action of self-fulfilling because the self-fulfilling nature is self-emptying. Although our definition of shunyata has been derived from Buddhism, our definition of kenosis has been derived from Christianity, and, although the word plerosis itself comes from ancient Greek and Christianity, our definition of plerosis is not derived from the context of Christianity. Rather, our definition of plerosis is based on both the writing of Merton and the philosophy of Abe. Therefore, the plerotic self is the counterpart to and cataphatic interpretation of the ultimate effect of total kenosis and true shunyata.

The plerotic self is, by its nature, the existential fulfillment in one’s life that is dynamic and continuous, active and ultimate. In other words, it is the ontological reality for both Buddhism and Christianity. This assumes that, contrary to nihilism, one’s existence has a purpose. In other words, according to Abe’s philosophy of total kenosis and true shunyata, the purpose of the self is to be self-negating, and thus self-fulfilling. The kenotic self is the active, self-emptying self and the plerotic self is the active, self-fulfilling self. Therefore kenosis is plerosis and plerosis is kenosis. Additionally, true shunyata is active, total emptiness and total plerosis is active, complete fulfillness. Therefore, true shunyata is plerosis and plerosis is true shunyata. However, this is not to say that shunyata and kenosis are the same. Rather, not only does the notion of plerosis preserve the distinctiveness of the two concepts, but our definition of plerosis describes this distinctiveness. Plerosis can be looked at as the cataphatic distillation of kenosis and shunyata. Therefore, we have a three-part definition of plerosis:

  1. Kenosis is self-emptying, shunyata is total emptiness, and plerosis is self-fulfilling.
  2. Kenosis = plerosis and shunyata = plerosis, because plerosis is the ultimate effect and counterpart of kenosis and shunyata.
  3. However, although kenosis = plerosis and shunyata = plerosis, kenosisshunyata.

Because the plerotic self is both the total kenotic self and true shunyata, one who has been awakened to the plerotic self similarly behaves just as one who has attained total kenosis or true shunyata. In fact, one who has not been awakened to the plerotic self cannot know what it looks like and therefore cannot know what to look for, making it an undetectable mode of existence. Therefore, the plerotic self is not within the reach of anyone. Rather, it is already within everyone just as shunyata and Christ’s kenotic nature are, but they have not yet been fully realized. [44] As Merton reminds us, “We are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.” [45]


  1. Masao Abe, Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue, ed. Steven Heine (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995), 3.
  2. There is a great diversity of thought on the self within Buddhism and Christianity. For example, in Buddhism, the notion of “true self” is essentially a Kyoto-Zen construct, while the notion of “anatman” is much more widely accepted as a tenet of Buddhism.
  3. Although the term “God” appears in the Kyoto school, it is not commonly used in Buddhist texts.
  4. This is not intended, however, to demonstrate that a diversity in thinking is a “bad” thing; rather that one’s understanding of other thought is “good.”
  5. Chalmers MacCormick, “Zen Catholicism of Thomas Merton,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 9, no. 4 (1972):802.
  6. Bernadicou affirms that Merton makes this affirmation in his book titled Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Quotation is from Paul Bernadicou, “The Eastward Turn of Thomas Merton,” Science et Esprit (1982):357.
  7. Rufus M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion (London: Macmillian and Co., Limited, 1936), 218, 241. Please note that Eckhart’s year of birth and death as well has his birthplace are disputed.
  8. Ibid., 241.
  9. Sidney Spencer, Mysticism in World Religion (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1963), 238.
  10. David E. Linge, “Mysticism, Poverty and Reason in the Thought of Meister Eckhart,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 46.04 (1979):470.
  11. Quotation is from Thomas Merton, The New Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), 43.
  12. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1961), 295.
  13. Raymond Bailey, Thomas Merton on Mysticism (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1987), 84.
  14. Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1948), 185.
  15. Merton, The New Man, 64.
  16. James W. Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001), 3–5.
  17. Ibid., 3.
  18. Stephen Morris, “Buddhism and Christianity: The Common Ground,” Eastern Buddhist vol. 25 no. 2 (2002):89.
  19. Ibid., 105.
  20. Michiko Yusa, Zen & Philosophy (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002), xvi-xvii. Quotation is from xx.
  21. Quotations from Heisig, 40 and 93.
  22. The Japanese language is not only more difficult to master than Western languages, but it is also more formal, meaning that it has been historically much more difficult for people to break free of its confines. As a result, Kitarō and Keiji received a fair amount of criticism for their unorthodox approaches to and implementations of the Japanese language.
  23. Ibid., 185–190.
  24. Masao Abe, “Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata,” in The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation, ed. John B. Cobb, Jr., and Christopher Ives (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), 8.
  25. Ibid., 9.
  26. Abe, Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue, 64–72.
  27. Ibid., 64–71.
  28. Ibid., 65, 66; quotation is from 66.
  29. Ibid., 66–68.
  30. Abe, “Kenotic God,” 9–10.
  31. Ibid., 10.
  32. Ibid., 12.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Abe, “Kenotic God,” 27.
  35. Ibid., 33. Note that Abe uses the spelling “sunyata” instead of “shunyata.” For the sake of clearness and consistency, “shunyata” is used throughout this essay.
  36. Ibid., 28.
  37. Abe, Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue, 7; Masao Abe, Zen and Comparative Studies: Part Two of a Two-Volumn Sequel to Zen and Western Thought, ed. Steven Heine (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), 49.
  38. Ibid., 71.
  39. Ibid., 64–65.
  40. Note that in this situation, Abe’s technique subtly undermines Merton’s because Abe is engaged in philosophizing, which is contrary to Merton’s approach of speaking more vaguely to encourage the actual transcendence of concepts within the reader.
  41. Morris, 90.
  42. MacCormick, 802.
  43. Masao Abe, “A Rejoinder,” in The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation, ed. John B. Cobb, Jr., and Christopher Ives (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), 175.
  44. This is possibly similar to the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine or the notion of Buddha-nature.
  45. Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 297.



Joe Lencioni

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