1024px-Branch of Blossoming Plum - Soga Shohaku c. 1770 Edo Period Sackler Museum DSC02581
Branch of Blossoming Plum – Soga Shohaku c. 1770 Edo Period Sackler Museum


Absolute nothingness, wherein even a thing that “is” nothingness is negated, is not possible as a nothingness that is thought but only as a nothingness that is lived. (RN, Part 2, 70)

“Emptiness in the sense of sunyata is emptiness only when it empties itself even of the standpoint that represents it as some “thing” that is emptiness. It is … self-emptying … True emptiness is not to be posited as something outside of and other than “being.” Rather, it is to be realized as something as united to and self-identical with being.” (RN, Part 2, 96-7)

Nothingness is not a thing called nothingness

When he was asked to write a paper under the title “What is Religion,” Nishitani first wrote the essay which became Part 1 of Religion and Nothingness. But he soon felt he had more to say, and wrote a second paper, and then a third, … in fact six altogether. It is interesting to follow the course of his thought on nothingness as he digs deeper, and how he comes to use the Buddhist term sunyata – emptiness – which is part of the title in the four last essays – “Nihility and Sunyata,” “The Standpoint of Sunyata,” “Sunyata and Time,” and “Sunyata and History.”

Part 1 deals specifically with the overcoming of nihilism by passing through it, that is, by embracing the nihility which is “always just underfoot” and convert “from the self-centred … mode of being, which always asks what use things have for us …, to an attitude that asks for what purpose we ourselves … exist.” (4-5). This as such is the conversion to the field of absolute nothingness, but the word “nothingness” does not appear until page 21 where, using Nishida’s terminology, Nishitani refers to the “locus of nothingness” in the context of the Great Doubt: “It is the moment at which self is at the same time the nothingness of self, the moment that is the “locus” of nothingness where conversion beyond the Great Doubt takes place.” (21)

Pitch_in_HaviarenThe word “nothingness” occurs more than fifty times in the paragraphs which follow. Having studied Sartre’s use of the word in L’Etre et le Néant (Being and Nothingness), Nishitani is keenly aware that his own understanding of nothingness, which is that of Zen Buddhism, will be most difficult for Westerners to grasp. So Nishitani’s first concern is to establish that nothingness is not a thing, or even a principle, which would be either under or around the self. To be fair, many Buddhist practitioners fall into the same error, and Zen actually have a colourful name for that error: it is called “life inside the Black Mountain” or “living in the Demon’s Cavern.” “One is holed up inside the cave of the self-conscious ego that has nothingness at its ground. And as long as this nothingness is still set up as something called nothingness-at-the-bottom-of-the-self, it remains what Buddhism repudiates as “the emptiness perversely clung to … Nothingness may seem here to be a negation of being, but as long as it makes itself present as an object of consciousness in representative form – in other words, as long as the self is still attached to it – it remains a kind of being, a kind of object.” (33)

In Part 2 – “The Personal and the Impersonal in Religion” – Nishitani turns to Meister Eckhart, hoping to find in his notion of Godhead as the nothingness beyond God the creator, an understanding of nothingness close to that of Buddhism, especially Far Eastern Buddhism. He was disappointed, as he could only conclude that Eckhart’s nothingness was still viewed from the side of being. Ueda Shizuteru, one of the Nishitani’s closest students, spent three years in Marburg University, studying Meister Eckhart’s original texts in medieval German and Latin, concurred with that conclusion. In Ueda’s words, “Eckhart’s “nothingness” remains a negative theological sign pointing towards an inexpressibly higher Being … When all is said and done, Eckhart’s nothingness of the absolute (zettai no mu) is an adjective modifying a substance. In contrast, Zen’s nothingness (zettai mu) is a verb referring to “the activity of emptying out.” (Bret W. Davis “Letting Go of God for Nothing – Ueda Shizuteru’s Non-Mysticism and the Question of Ethics in Zen Buddhism,” Frontiers of Japanese Philosophy Vol 2, 236)

Part 2 contains one of Nishitani’s most memorable formulas: “Absolute nothingness, wherein even a thing that “is” nothingness is negated, is not possible as a nothingness that is thought but only as a nothingness that is lived.” (70)

It is no longer possible to refer to an absolute after the death of God and metaphysics

It is in Part 3 – Nihility and Sunyata – that Nishitani strikes new ground, leaving behind the philosophical“absolute nothingness,” to which he prefers the Mahayana Buddhist term sunyata, or “emptiness,” especially after page 95. 

There was a sense that, now that Nietzsche had stated that “God was dead,” taking with him metaphysics and the belief in a transcendent order of the world, the word “absolute” could not be used any longer. In Ueda’s words: “Because of the collapse of the absolute, the loss of the horizon of ontology, and the endless nihilization of nihility … what was direly needed was a simple basic category that could accommodate as an ambiguous possibility absolute nothingness on the one hand and nihility on the other, and, moreover, which could convey the dynamic of … a recovery from the reality of nihility (and the nihility of reality) to absolute nothingness. Nishitani found this basic category in “emptiness” (sunyata, ku), an idea that was, as he said, “demanded by the problem of nihilism.” (“Contributions to Dialogue with the Kyoto School,” in Japanese and Continental Philosophy: Conversations with the Kyoto School Ed: Bret W. Davis, Brian Schroeder and Jason M. Wirth, 27). 

The problem with the use of the word “absolute” is still haunting the scholars most involved with the study of the Kyoto School, as is evidenced by a recent keynote address by James W. Heisig at the Second Conference of the European Network of Japanese Philosophy in December 2016. Heisig concluded that it was best to regard the use of the term by the Kyoto School as metaphorical, meaning radical, or complete, rather than in the sense given to that term in Western philosophy. It is clear that, when Nishitani suggests that we might “conceive of a way of looking at the absolute and the relative whereby two things, in spite of, or rather because of, their both being absolute, can turn out to be relative to one another – like a single sheet of paper seen at one moment from the front and at another from the reverse.” (79), confirming later that the field of emptiness is indeed “a field of absolute relativity” (161,162), he is not using the word “absolute” in its Western metaphysical sense. But, at least in the above sentence, you cannot say that the meaning of absolute is simply metaphorical, as this notion of two absolutes relative to each other echoes Nishida’s self-identity of absolute contradictories, which was defined as a “logic,” the logic of the place of nothingness.  

Zen Landscape - Tani Buncho (1763-1840)
Zen Landscape – Tani Buncho (1763-1840)

Though Nishitani continued to use the word “absolute” throughout Religion and Nothingness, he did explicitly decide to move away from Nishida’s “absolute nothingness” which he replaced with the traditional Mahayana Buddhist sunyata. In the Preface to the book he, however, warns the reader that he is using the word “to take a stand at one and the same time within and without the confines of religion” (xlix) or, in Ueda’s translation, “to use it freely” from a “standpoint that attemps to stand at once within and outside of tradition.” (see Ueda page “The Kyoto School: A Call to Dig Down Deeper). To be precise, the original Sanskrit concept of sunyata, as understood by Nagarjuna, refers primarily to emptiness in an epistemological sense and corresponds to the Japanese ku, while mu, which is used in many Zen koans, corresponds to the Chinese Daoist wu (as in wuwei, non action) with a meaning which is pre-ontological. It is the non-being out of which being arises. As Thomas P Kasulis explains in Zen Action, Zen Person, the former (sunyata/ku) point to the notion that “words, and the concepts based on them, are ultimately empty, and to be mistrusted as a medium for fully understanding” (12) while the latter (wu/mu) constitutes an invitation “to return to the non-discriminating source of [one’s] experience or of reality,”(12). Though he chooses the Indian word sunyata, Nishitani is really interested in the concrete, experiential, existential, dimension which Daoism added to Chinese Buddhism as the Zen tradition developed. When Nishitani comes to characterise sunyata as self-emptying – a dynamic in a world understood as change, we are miles away from the mere doctrine of anatman – no-being, i.e., no-own-being, from which sunyata originally arose. The traditional Far East understood reality as the self-emptying of the formless unfolding as phenomenal forms in the present moment, an experienced dynamism. The abstract philosophical “absolute nothingness” used by Nishida focused on the logical aspect rather than the dynamic aspect, though Nishida also regarded nothingness as a dynamism.

Nihilism in today’s world: standing outside the laws of nature, in the pursuit of our desires unreservedly

The beginning of Part 3 focuses on the impact of science and technology on contemporary culture, how they have given rise to “a mode of being in which man behaves as if the stood entirely outside the laws of nature .… a mode of being at whose ground nihility opens up … which is … the mode of being of the subject that has adapted itself to a life of raw and impetuous desire, of naked vitality … as it pursues its own desires unreservedly.” (85- 86) which I covered in the page on “Science and technology: nature denaturalised and humans dehumanised.” Nishitani regards this particular form of nihilism as the way nihilism discloses itself to us in the current phase of human history. 

Heidegger, with whom Nishitani studied for two years, shared a similar anxiety about the impact of technology on human lives, which he investigated in The Question Concerning Technology. Heidegger had also grappled with nothingness, with statements such as “the being of beings discloses itself in the nullifying of nothingness“ (Was ist Metaphysik? quoted by Nishitani, 109). But, again, having looked closely at Heidegger’s understanding of nothingness, Nishitani concluded that in his work “traces of the representation of nothingness as some ‘thing’ that is nothingness still remain.” (96). 

Sunyata/emptiness is a dynamic, not a thing: it is a self-emptying 

Sailboats in the Evening (1921) Yoshida Hiroshi

Nishitani then focuses on Buddhist sunyata, and states: “emptiness in the sense of sunyata is emptiness only when it empties itself even of the standpoint that represents it as some “thing” that is emptiness. It is … self-emptying … True emptiness is not to be posited as something outside of and other than “being.” Rather, it is to be realized as something united to and self-identical with being.” (96-7)

Sunyata as “a self-emptying,” a dynamic, an activity, almost a process. It is “self-identical with being,” a notion similar to Nishida’s self-identity of absolute contradictories.” This is a notion Nishitani likes to express through the word “sive,” which is equivalent to Nishida’s “soku,” and could be translated as “or.” For example, death-sive-life, negation-sive-affirmation. Here he says: “When we say “being-sive-nothingness,” or “form is emptiness; emptiness is form,” we do not mean that what are initially conceived of as being on one side and nothingness on the other have later been joined together. In the context of Mahayana thought, the primary principle of which is to transcend all duality emerging from logical analysis, the phrase “being-sive-nothingness” requires that one take up the stance of the “sive” and from there view being as being and nothingness as nothingness.” (97) This is what he calls “a standpoint of absolute non-attachement” that is shackled to neither being nor nothingness, and views them as “co-present and structurally inseparable from one another.” It could be imagined as the plus and minus poles of electricity – you cannot have the one without the other, the two poles arise together …

“Emptiness lies absolutely on the near side, more so than what we normally regard as our own self”

Another expression Nishitani often uses is: “Emptiness lies absolutely on the near side, more so than what we normally regard as our own self. Emptiness, or nothingness, is not something we can turn to. It is not “out there” in front of us.” (97) When you look close – and the modern selfie may be a good illustration of this – what you see is a representation of your self. In fact, Nishitani remarks that “the self shows a constant tendency to comprehend itself representationally as some “thing” that is called “I.”  This tendency is inherent in the very essence of the ego as self-consciousness.” Yet, this representation of the self conceals its true subjectivity, which is an activity, and not a thing. Only “from the standpoint of Existenz-in-ecstasy,” when you no longer see that self as a representation, you, as it were, forget your self, “held in nothingness,” does a standpoint of truly subjective self-consciousness [appear].” (97-98) 

Karakash River in the Western Kunlun Shan,seen from the Tibetan-Xinkiang Highway.jpgT
Karakash River in the Western Kunlun Shan

As it is not easy for us to deliberately “forget” our ego-self, it may be helpful to use a detour, and embrace emptiness through feelings of awe. Whatever nihility we encounter then must be seen against the background of the emptiness at the ground of all things.  “As a valley unfathomably deep may be imagined set within an endless expanse of sky, so it is with nihility and emptiness. But the sky we have in mind here is more than the vault above that spreads out far and wide over the valley below. It is a cosmic sky enveloping the earth and man and the countless legions of stars that move and have their being within it. It lies beneath the ground we tread, its bottom reaching beneath the valley’s bottom.” (98) In fact, just as we overlook the cosmic sky that envelops us while we move and have our being within it, and stare only at the patch of sky overhead, so too we fail to realize that we stand more to the near side of ourselves in emptiness than we do in self-consciousness. (98)

Though Nishitani regarded Plotinus’ philosophy as still “shackled” to being, the Neo-Platonist philosopher made a very similar statement when he said that “the whole paradox of the human self is there: we are only what we are conscious of, and yet we feel that we are more ourselves … when, raising ourselves to a higher level of inner simplicity, we have lost consciousness of ourselves.” (Pierre Hadot, Plotinus and the Simplicity of Vision, own translation). This reflected Plotinus’ own experience of moving in and out of a conscious identification with his own self, and the feeling that he was more fully himself when he was not conscious of himself, though he could only become aware of this at the moment when the consciousness of himself returned!

Nihility is “a reality every bit as real as our actual existence.”

As already noted, this discussion follows an analysis of the way the rule of the laws of nature over humans has become so deep, due to the development of science and technology, that it has opened up “a mode of being in which man behaves as if the stood entirely outside the laws of nature” which he equates with “a mode of being at whose ground nihility opens up.” (85) So one would be tempted to see that particular predicament as the nihility Nishitani is talking about. It is to a point, but, as Nietzsche also contended, nihility is inherent in the human condition, as a by-product of self-consciousness. “Nihility is … “a reality every bit as real as our actual existence. Nor is nihility something removed from the ordinary level on which we live. It is something in which we find ourselves every day. Simply because our every day is all too “everyday,” because we are so stuck in our everydayness, we fail to pay attention to the reality of  nihility.” (100)

Own photo

For instance, Nishitani asks, we think we know our family and our friends, but do we? “We no more know whence our closest friend comes and whither he is going than we know where we ourselves come from and where we are headed. At his home-ground, a friend remains originally and essentially a stranger, an “unknown” … Even as we sit chatting with one another, the stars and planets of the Milky Way whirl about us in the bottomless breach that separates us from one another.” (101) This is also true in the case of things. “Take the tiny flower blooming away out in my garden. It grew from a single seed and will one day return to the earth, never again to return so long as this world exists. Yet we do now know where its pretty little face appear from nor where it will disappear to. Behind it lies absolute nihility … Separated from me by the abyss of that nihility, the flower in my garden is an unknown entity … The reality of this nihility is covered over in an everyday world which is in its proper element when it traffics in names. The home-ground of existence passes into oblivion.” (101)

It could be said that we constantly avert our eyes from that nihility by focusing on the external knowledge we have of things and beings, for practical reasons, that is, because we tend to see things and beings in relation to our ego-centred needs and desires. We are more keen to apprehend what they are for us than what they are for themselves! So only after converting from the field of ego-centredness to the field of emptiness can we achieve an “intimate encounter with everything that exists,” which “takes place at the source of existence common to the one and the other and yet at a point where each is truly itself.” (102) In fact, Nishitani thinks that one can no longer speak of an “encounter.” It is more as if we were manifestations of one unified reality. “Just as a single beam of white light breaks up into rays of various colors when it passes through a prism, so we have here an absolute self-identity in which the one and the other are yet truly themselves, at once absolutely broken apart and absolute joined together. They are an absolute two and at the same time an absolute one.” (102) Nishitani here quotes a well-know Zen verse by Zen Master Daito Kokushi, which Nishida also quoted: “Separated from one another by a hundred million kalpas, yet not apart a single moment; sitting face-to-face all day long, yet not opposed for an instant.” (102)

Part 3 ends with a brief consideration of the Western standpoint of being, first expressed in terms of substance in the Aristotelian standpoint of reason, and later as the standpoint of consciousness, based on the opposition between subject and object, in its modern post-Cartesian reformulation. He then constrasts this standpoint with that of emptiness, using the Diamond Sutra’s well-known formula “This is not fire, therefore it is fire.” As Nishitani further develops this particular approach in Part 4, it will be dealt with in the next text – “The Standpoint of Sunyata.”  


Hyoojoowara (1919) – Kawase Hasui