Reflections on ‘Sovereignty’ by Zen Scholar Masao Abe

Glen T. Martin

Many spiritual traditions of the world have understood the need for human unity in diversity and the ascendency of one humanity on planet Earth. These traditions include Zen Buddhism as expressed in its famous Kyoto School of philosophy in Japan. Masao Abe (1915-2006) was a leading exponent of Zen and professor of philosophy at Nara University in Japan. His book Zen and Western Thought (1985) contains a chapter entitled “Sovereignty Rests with Mankind” and begins with the poem that I have reproduced below. His chapter then goes on to elucidate the thoughts expressed in the poem.

His thoughts are very much in line with my own writings on behalf of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth (e.g., Martin 2018 & 21). Our dilemma as human beings centers very much on the problem of what Abe calls “the ego.” Each of us, he says, as an “individual must break through his or her ego structure, thereby realizing original Self.”  It is this “original Self,” of course, that is the aim of all Buddhism.

When Zen speaks of anatta (no-self), it is negating the illusory ego-self on the way to an existential realization of the “fullness-emptiness” that can be manifested in and through our lives at every moment of existence (cf. Shizuteru 1982; Martin 1991). When it speaks of anatta, the Buddhist tradition is also repudiating the Vedic thought of the “Atman who is Brahman” (the deep Self that is identical with God). It does not repudiate this as a false doctrine but rather as a metaphysical conceptualization that misses the point (cf. Panikkar 1989). Doctrines are the product of judgment, of subjects reflecting on reality as an object of thought.

Metaphysical conceptualizations miss the point because they arise from the subject-object structure of consciousness. They involve a self that makes a judgment about what is real (e.g., “Atman is Brahman”). But this is exactly a central part of the problem that must be overcome in the process of awakening. Self and other are one, or better, they are metalogically both one and many, both unity and diversity. Realization requires that we overcome conceptualizations made by a self about an “other.” In formulating concepts about God, we miss God. What must be realized is the unspeakable, the “unknowable,” “the One,” and this cannot be realized through the subject-object structure (cf. Frank 2020).

When Abe speaks of our entering an age which is the “age of mankind,” he means something of what spiritual thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin meant by the emergence of the “Noosphere” on planet Earth. Human consciousness needs to become a planetary consciousness; a common awareness of what Karl Marx called our “species-being” must be the primary mode of consciousness. In Self-awakening we live from a common awareness deeper than individual or national egoisms.

“Sovereignty” is defined by Wikipedia as “the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies. In political theory, sovereignty is a substantive term designating supreme legitimate authority over some polity. In international law, sovereignty is the exercise of power by a state.” This is a correct definition. When Abe declares that “sovereignty rests with mankind,” he means that we should govern our planet with our collective consciousness by transcending ego-consciousness to become “one Self-aware entity.”  We must realize beyond conceptualization that we are a “community with a single destiny.” The ultimate authority is this common planetary awareness.

Let us read through his poem:

“Sovereignty Rests with Mankind” by Masao Abe

All of mankind on this planet has entered into an age

When it must realize that it is now based

On the clear realization of itself as “mankind”,

And that it is “living-and-dying”

In the vast reaches of the universe

As a community with a single destiny—

One living self-aware entity.

In order to live this age

Mankind must awaken to its true Self,

And everyone must know that by transcending

The relative differences of self and other,

One exists within the “expanse of Self-awakening”

Wherein both self and other are fulfilled.

The present crisis of the world arises

From the ceaseless conflicts and disputes

Of sovereign nations, which do not know self-negation.

What we must establish now

Is not an international confederacy

In the sense of a league of sovereign nations.

Even less should it be a world empire

Based on one great sovereign state

Which has acquired hegemony as a result of a struggle.

Rather it must be a world of mankind

Wherein sovereignty rests precisely with all mankind

In the sense of one self-aware entity

Which has become profoundly aware of itself

As “mankind.”

It must be a human community without nation-states,

Wherein the dignity and freedom of the individual

Are guaranteed

And wherein the multi-colored flowers of races

And cultures may bloom.

The age of nation-states as the bearers of history

Must proclaim it end,

And the age of mankind must begin.

We must not despair of the historical evil

Which has transcended the power of the individual.

We must realize that national egoism is mankind’s karma

Deeply rooted in the essential nature of human beings.

We must place mankind within a new cosmology

Which has extricated itself from anthropocentrism.

Is not the boundless “expanse of Self-awakening”,

Which gives life to both self and other

As it sets up the distinction between them—

Is this not precisely the foundation of a new human society?

“The present crisis of the world arises from the ceaseless conflicts and disputes of sovereign nations, which do not know self-negation.”  “Self-negation” (sometimes called “self-transcendence,” cf. Martin 2018) is what is known to all the world’s great spiritual traditions and emphasized in Zen Buddhism.  The great magical feat of all spiritual teachings is to find out “how to become purposeless (egoless) on purpose.” How can the ego (which appears as “me”) negate itself to the non-me?  Isn’t this a form of suicide? The same immense difficulty applies to national egoisms as well.

How do we, who love our country, its landscapes, its traditions, its very participation in the construction of our identity as persons—how do we negate all this without losing this love and its embracing identity? Does not giving up our nation’s absolute claim to sovereignty (recognizing no higher authority) amount to national suicide?  But nation-states must be overcome. “The age of nation-states as the bearers of history must proclaim its end, and the age of mankind must begin.” As Jürgen Habermas also points out, the era when sovereign nation-states were a legitimate bearer of history is at an end. As Abe states, sovereign states, based on ego and power, have become “anti-human,” now “threatening the very basis of human existence.”

As with personal egoism, sovereign nation-states generate the “karma” of “national egoism.”   We are American; We are Russians; We are Chinese; We are Indian.  The karmic fate of international conflict with possible nuclear holocaust interfaces with the karmic fate of climate collapse as sovereign nations inevitably fail to cooperate fully to bring the world to sustainable and brotherly equilibrium. Self-negation may appear to the ego as suicide, but in reality, it is the door to true life where “all things exist in the true sense and live vibrantly.”

Abe correctly realizes that a “confederacy” of sovereign nations (like today’s United Nations) cannot succeed. It contains the same national egoism that is the root of our potentially omnicidal problems.  Neither would a new empire succeed (like the dreams of empire that have always festered in Washington, DC). Both retain the karmic force of egoism tearing apart self and other. The “historical evil” radiating from national egoisms has overpowered all attempts to control it, predestining the fate of humanity to violence and perdition. The “power of the individual” is helpless in the face of the power of national egoisms so “deeply rooted” in our “essential human nature.”

Abe affirms: “The plan to establish … a world government cannot be said to be the path that will bring about true world peace as long as the standpoint of sovereign nations is not overcome in principle and sovereignty transferred from the nation-state to mankind as a single, living, self-aware entity.” My forthcoming book Design for a Living Planet, recognizes the Noosphere (for example, the Worldwide Web) as an emerging planetary conscious but argues that we still must give the Noosphere a brain, that is, make it a single, Self-aware entity.

That is why Abe asserts that a “new cosmology” is emerging, a cosmology in which human beings are manifestations of the ground of Being. This can be conceptualized, of course, in a certain sense, but that is insufficient. It must be existentially actualized beyond conceptualization. As Sri Aurobindo affirms, and as Ervin Laszlo declares: the universe has come to consciousness of itself in us. We have to get our ego out of the way to actualize this deep Self-actualization. As Teilhard de Chardin states, “Attaining this spiritual evolution is the meaning of existence” (in Laszlo 2017, 41).

That is why Abe’s poem states that we must “extricate ourselves from anthropocentrism.”  Consciousness should not be human-centered, that is ego-centered, whether an individual ego, a national ego, or a planetary ego. We must live from the ground of Being, in immediate fullness-emptiness, beyond conceptualizations. “What basic law remains,” he declares, “other than cosmos, God and man?”  Self-negation, on the way to Self-awakening must transcend the individual ego, the national ego, and the collective human ego. It must lead us to “an age of Self-awakened cosmology.”

Our cosmology and our consciousness must be centered on “the boundless expanse of Self-awakening which gives life to both self and other.” The boundless expanse of Self-awakening is the ground of Being, come to self-awareness in us. We must live from a place that transcends subject and object, a place that transcends self and other.  Living from this place beyond Anthropocentrism in concrete terms will mean the sovereignty of mankind in governing the Earth, “a sovereignty which takes wisdom and compassion as its principles.”

The ultimate authority will lie in our collective consciousness “wherein the multi-colored flowers of races and cultures may bloom.”  All of this is prefigured in the Constitution for the Federation of Earth that is predicated on the principle of unity in diversity and that unites all under the principle of the sovereignty of mankind. The Constitution, of course, does not abolish the nations as governmental units, as cultures, or as living entities, but only their claims to absolute sovereignty. Nevertheless, in ratifying the Constitution, it seems clear, we will not automatically transcend individual and national egoisms. 

However, it is important to see that in this process the Constitution serves as both means and ends.  For the very process of working to ratify the Constitution helps humankind transcend national egoisms. And once ratified, human beings will emerge into a planetary consciousness much more easily than if we remain locked within militarized sovereign nation-states that cultivate national egoisms in their citizens, fostering both war and climate destruction.

The Earth Constitution does not abolish the nations but unites them in a unity in diversity under the authority of the legitimate sovereignty of the whole of humanity. It therefore allows their “multi-colored diversity” to flower.  If we want a credible future on this planet, beyond endless war and climate destruction, we most recognize the sovereignty of humanity and ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

Works Cited

Abe, Masao (1985). Zen and Western Thought. Ed. William R. LaFleur. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 249-260.

Sri Aurobindo (1973). The Essential Aurobindo. Ed. Robert A. McDermott. New York: Schocken Books: 49

Constitution for the Federation of Earth, found on-line at www.earthconstitution.world and also published by the Institute for Economic Democracy Press.

Frank, S.L. (2020). The Unknowable: An Ontological Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Trans. Boris Jakim. Brooklyn: Angelico Press.

Habermas, Jürgen (2001) . The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays. Trans. Max Pensky. Cambridge: The MIT Press: 60.

Harris, Errol E. (1992) Cosmos and Theos: Ethical and Theological Implications of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle (London: Humanities Press): 99

Laszlo, Ervin (2017). The Intelligence of the Cosmos. Why Are We Here? New Answers from the Frontiers of Science. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions: 45

Martin, Glen T. (1991). “Deconstruction and Breakthrough in Nietzsche and Nargarjuna” in Graham Parkes, Ed. Nietzsche and Asian Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 91-114.

Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence. London: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, Glen T. (2021, forthcoming). Design for a Living Planet: The Earth Constitution Solution. Independence, VA: Oracle Press.

Panikkar, Raimon (1989). The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Shizuteru, Ueda (1982). “Emptiness and Fullness: Sunyata in Mahayana Buddhism” in The Eastern Buddhist 15/1 (1982): 9-37.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre (1975). The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper-Colophon.