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

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

Merton and the Self

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

Abe and the Self

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.

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

Merton and Abe in Dialogue

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

Plerotic Self

  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.


  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.



Web infrastructure at @airbnb. Making web since the 90s. Co-created he/him Minnesotan, liberal, dad. Follow @lencioni on Twitter.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Joe Lencioni

Joe Lencioni

Web infrastructure at @airbnb. Making web since the 90s. Co-created he/him Minnesotan, liberal, dad. Follow @lencioni on Twitter.