Courtesy of Seraphim Sigrist


This section is dedicated to texts meant to throw more light on the philosophical insights of the three thinkers introduced. The only text at the moment – “Art and the standpoint of emptiness” – focuses on artworks and photos used to illustrate the texts, and the way in which they (hopefully) provide an indirect approach to an experience of that standpoint.

Also, as noted throughout the philosophical texts, parallels are obvious between the Daoist and Shinto apprehension of reality, and that of the Kyoto School philosophers, though, I must add, none of them ever explicitly refers to either. The only sources acknowledged are those of Buddhism, Zen Buddhism in particular, and even these are rare in Nishida’s works. But, of course, as Zen has to a large extent, been reformulated in the mode of thinking of Daoism in China, and Shinto in Japan, to help native populations get a better grasp of Buddhist core ideas, it can be said that Japanese Zen has integrated the basic views of these two religious systems. As the point of the Kyoto School was to articulate the Eastern understanding of reality in philosophical language, there was no point in bringing up parallels between the field of emptiness and the Dao, or the emphasis on the actual and particular, and the Shinto ritual enactment of our intimacy with a nature seen as alive with spirit. But there is a point for us in looking into the parallels, as it will, at the same time, highlight, and explain, the differences between Daoism, Shinto, as well as early traditional religious practices, rooted in shamanism, and what is now referred to as Goddess consciousness, on the one hand, and, on the other, the philosophical views of Zen as laid out in the works of the Kyoto School. Most significant of these differences is that which results from the fact that the earlier religious systems took shape at a time when human reflective ego-consciousness was comparatively undeveloped. For us people of the 21st century, reflective consciousness is like the Great Wall, safely keeping the actual world outside, while we sink ever deeper into the narratives made up by the little man (or woman) seemingly standing on our head, trying to “pretend” that this little ego is living great adventures! The gift of reflective consciousness, which was developed to allow us to relate intelligently to the world around us, is now being used to deny how the world really is. The nihilism which drove Nietzsche and Nishitani to despair has now taken the shape of a wholesale denial of the state of the world, and the ability to lie has become key to success in nearly every field of activity. Reality as it actually is, is now redundant, better dispensed with: it is just too depressing! Many are those who now think it more comfortable to live in the lie, knowing full well it is a lie. So, from where we are now to a retrieval of the world in its actuality, the path we need to tread may be long and arduous.

In that context it would be interesting to see how relevant the Kyoto School philosophy is in the context of today’s world, as it faces unprecedented challenges with potentially disastrous outcomes, since human power for destruction has never been so lethal. It is said that the Kyoto School has made the first steps towards what is called “planetary thinking,” which hardly anyone seems to be interested in nowadays, swept away as we are by the tidal wave of the many who are seeking salvation in a return to isolationism, the good old days when everybody believed the same myth, and foreigners were nowhere to be seen! 

I also see the Kyoto School philosophy as making it possible to overcome the apparent incompatibility between religious and secular thought. True religion is not belief in a dogma, it is a thoroughgoing questioning – the Great Doubt. This should reassure the upholders of science, and perhaps allow them to see that science can also be described as dogmatic, even outright fundamentalist, as it tends not to accept any other standpoint than its own.

When, starting around the first century CE, Buddhism entered China from India via the Silk Road, the huge task of translating into Chinese sutras written in Sanskrit was made even more challenging by the significant differences existing between the two cultures. As Nakamura writes, “most Indian thinkers are apt to emphasize universal concepts and to subordinate the concrete individual and the particular perception to the universal”(Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples, 45). And this applied to Indian Buddhist scholars as well. Concrete phenomena was illusion for the Indians. For the Chinese, it was the very expression of the changing nature of reality. The Chinese readily embraced the meditation practices, but never really took to the texts. They had to wait for four centuries for a culturally Chinese method of teaching to emerge. This emergence has been associated with the (very possibly mythical) character of Bodhidharma. “A special transmission outside the scriptures, not founded upon words and letters, by pointing directly to [one’s] mind, it lets one see into [one’s own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.” (the written form of this stanza attributed to Bodhidharma actually dates from 1108, that is, the T’ang Dynasty). Koans, dialogue and, more generally, personal interaction, became the preferred method of transmission of enlightenment from master to disciple. With the rise of Zen, Buddhism was appropriated as part of Chinese culture. 

I feel that we are now at the same juncture with regards to the reception of Buddhism in the West. All schools of Buddhism have now set up centres in the West, each teaching according to its own traditional method. What is still missing, however, is an appropriation of the core message or “spirit” of Buddhism in the particular mode of thinking of the West. The philosophers of the Kyoto School, whose country had to undergo early westernisation, have opened the way to such an appropriation. But, of course, the task will not be complete until Western philosophers are able to incorporate the standpoint of emptiness into the Western mode of thinking, so that it can actually become part of the cultural life in the geographical West. Can we hope that some day, the works of the Kyoto School are taught in the mainstream philosophy departments of Western universities instead of being taught, as they are now, in Divinity Schools, Schools of Comparative Philosophy, or in relatively small innovative universities such as Bath Spa University? Equally, can we hope that Buddhist practitioners, who are so often told to steer clear of philosophy, realise that the problem is not philosophy as such, but the standpoint from which philosophy is carried out, and that their practice would be helped by the non-dualistic understanding that the standpoint of emptiness envelops the standpoint of consciousness, and so, includes it, rather than being antithetical to it?