Fishing Boats on the Beach at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer – 1888 – Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) – Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam



“The wasteland grows. Woe to him who hides wastelands within.” (Friedrich Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

“The fundamental problem of my life … has always been, to put it simply, the overcoming of nihilism through nihilism.” (Nishitani, quoted by James W. Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness, 215)



“European nihilism”

Nishitani has described his decision to study philosophy as “a matter of life and death,” as his life, as a young man, “lay entirely in the grips of nihility and despair.” (quoted by  James W. Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness, 191). Had he, however, lived a few decades earlier, Nishitani would probably not have described his despair as “nihilism.” As early as his high school days, Heisig tells us, as he found himself liberated from concern over grades and able to read outside the official curriculum, he had begun to read Nietzsche, apparently before discovering Nishida’s writings. As Japan at the time was undergoing an intense process of westernization, Nishitani found in Nietzsche an explanation for the malaise he was struggling with, which he came to call “European nihilism.”  

unknownNietzsche’s nihilism is best encapsulated in his provocative statement that “God is dead,” first uttered in the Gay Science (1882), but usually associated with Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published between 1883 and 1891. What “God” stands for here is not just the Christian deity. It is, more radically, the metaphysical worldview, whereby the world was ruled seemingly from above by a set of absolutes, an “order,” as it were, hovering over us in a supra-sensory world of abstract definitions of reality: that metaphysical worldview had taken shape among the Greeks, before providing the foundation for the Roman Empire, and eventually becoming disseminated in the whole of Europe as the core beliefs and values of the Christian faith. With Nietzsche’s “God is dead,” “the foundation of European life had not just cracked but had collapsed altogether. Philosophy and religion were now seen to be have been human-made, mere constructions. An abyss opened, casting all forms of meaning, security, and hope into radical doubt.” (Robert E. Carter, The Kyoto School – An Introduction, 95)

Nihilism, then, could be defined as the acknowledgment that the world as such, and therefore life within the world, are meaningless, in the sense that there is no assurance that this is a just world, or even an ordered world, which had been designed by a transcendent intelligence, and that there is an inherent meaning to life. Life just happenes, there is no divine plan, which could give our lives a sense of direction and achievement. Another way to put it is: “A nihilist is a man [or a woman] who judges that the real world ought not to be, and that the world as it ought to be does not exist” (Nietzsche, The Will to Power §585). By contrast, for the East, the world as it is is by definition a perfect world, since it is what is, what has been achieved by the ever creative life principle of the Dao, expressing itself as the actual phenomena of the world we live in. You can never state that the real world ought not to be because it does not conform to some holy text book which dictates what a perfect world should be. Life in the West, however, was sustained by the belief in a blueprint providing a solid framework bestowing a map and direction of travel, a sense of purpose, a set of certainties and values – the way parents provide a framework for the lives of their children – and its loss was tantamount to being lost in a dense forest with no path and no clearing …

For Nietzsche, the way out of this predicament was for individuals to create their own set of values. What had been believed to be God-given was in fact man-made, this had to be recognised and taken on board. “Nihilism was overcome by first admitting the truth of nihility and then choosing to live in the face of it … The new Nietzschean values came from human beings, empowering and emboldening each person to create values for him/herself. This brings forth a “will to power.” (Carter, The Kyoto School, 95) 

Meaninglessness as inherent in human life

The Repast of the lion – 1907 – Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)

Before looking more closely at the meaning of this most misunderstood phrase, it is important to note that, for Nietzsche, nihilism was not just the result of the collapse of Christianity and metaphysics.  It was a component of the human condition which, for a while, had been overlaid, and concealed by the metaphysical worldview. In other words, Nietzsche held that metaphysics had been put in place in an attempt to relieve the anxiety caused by the sense of meaninglessness inherent in life in the world. “For centuries, Christian values had themselves protected its followers from despair at the meaninglessness of human existence … Christianity countered the actual existence of evil and suffering in the world by positing a divine plan, which gave meaning to evil and suffering … Christian teachings guaranteed a God-given morality …” (Carter, Ibid, 96).  This set of values, however, had led to “a denial of this world as good, leading naturally to a “hatred of the natural,” a justification for the preference of the weak over the strong and culminating in the denial of the passions. So Christianity was born as an antidote to the nihilism of the time, yet it produced another nihilism.” (Carter, Ibid, 96). 

Anthropologists classify religions in two categories, those where people hope to be able to continue to live in the world after death in the way they do now, and those in which they hope to live in a “paradise” free of the miseries of their present lives. The former are those of so-called primitive people, the latter those of so-called civilised people … “Primitive” people could be said to be living in the “actual world,” the meaninglessness of it they do not in fact perceive, since they have not been taught to compare it with the perfect abstract metaphysical world, which causes the “civilized” people to want to escape the actual world and be reborn in paradise. So, Nietzsche’s assertion that nihilism is an inherent part of the human condition may not be factually true. Suffering is, as the Buddha asserted, but lack of meaning will only be a problem for those with a high level of reflective consciousness, which of course was the case for people living just before the foundation of Christianity, which came after millennia of “civilisation” and had already gone a long way down the path of evolution in terms of self-consciousness.

Nietzsche’s “Will to Power”

Cypresses – 1889 – Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) – Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

The way out of nihilism is what has been called a “yea-saying,” not just accepting, but loving the world as it is, the way early cultures did. It also means loving one’s own self, or at least, the urge to live which one feels welling up within oneself – passions and drives – which Christianity had repressed. This is what Nietzsche called “will to power.” The phrase is a development of the concept of “will to live,” which Nietzsche found in Schopenhauer. Darwin’s theory of evolution was  gaining strength at the time, and a number of thinkers were frustrated by the seemingly haphazardous, and purely materialistic, manner in which species, including humans, had evolved, and were searching for a deeper principle guiding the unfolding of the world. Schopenhauer had shown how many human behaviours were expressions of a will to live of which we were often not aware. Nietzsche was struck by the fact that humans were often risking their lives while on a quest for influence, or control, and felt that the phrase “will to power” was a better description for that deep principle. “Will to power” would cover political struggle for hegemony, and was used in that sense by later fascist regimes as justification for their actions. But what Nietzsche had in mind went further than such a restrictive interpretation. He wrote: “My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on.” (The Will to Power, §636). We are here closer to a cosmic force reminiscent of Heraclitus’ “strife,” which runs through both the animate and the inanimate world. 

What Nietzsche seems to have been groping for through his successive definitions is something akin to the Eastern understanding of reality as dynamic, created from within by a force which is at once physical and spiritual, the two being simply two aspects of the same energy. Such force establishes a supra-physical dimension to life without dissociating it from its physical aspects, the urges and drives which fuel human lives, and enable them to transcend themselves. In the context of the collapse of received values, the “overman” (Übermensch) is he (or she) who is able to free themselves from the shackles of metaphysics, now seen to have concealed reality behind a set of deceptive values, and create their own. Nietzsche associated the concept of “will to power” with the “myth of eternal recurrence,” and “taught that one must love the world that you helped to shape to such an extent that you would be willing to accept its worth even if you were committed to reliving it just as it is over and over again throughout eternity. The “myth of eternal recurrence” is a test of the worth of the life you have created.” (Carter, The Kyoto School, 97) 

That Nietzsche’s “will to power” was not as such an apology of power in the political sense, but an acceptance of the actual, concrete, world of everyday experience, is confirmed by his concept of amor fati, defined as love of what is. “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.” (Gay Science §276)  

These, then, are the insights Nishitani took his departure from, which philosophers in the West who came to be loosely regarded as proponents of existentialism, also built on at the same moment, including Heidegger, who was teaching a course on Nietzsche when Nishitani studied with him in 1937-39. In Lecture III of What is Called Thinking, Martin Heidegger, lamenting that “we are still not thinking” brings back Nietzsche’s warning that “The wasteland grows. Woe to him who hides wastelands within,” whereby Nietzsche called on humans to wake up and face up to nihilism. The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism is the translation of a series of talks to a small group Nishitani gave in May 1949, while he was suspended from teaching, first published as Nihilism, and then translated into English in 1990. The style is that of an academic publication: after a long presentation of Nietzsche’s insights on nihilism, as well as Heidegger’s interpretations, Nishitani goes on to explore various forms of nihilism in Russia and Japan. It is in Religion and Nothingness that Nishitani actually leads his readers to “to overcome nihilism by passing through it“ (Nishitani, quoted by Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness, 192), as he shows that the experienced nihility at the ground of our lives can, when accepted and embraced, can become the positive formlessness of Buddhist emptiness (sunyata) out of which the forms of reality – and its values – arise.

Because he could access Zen practice and Zen terminology, Nishitani was able to produce “another kind of philosophy” just as Nishida had done. Even though the full thrust of Nietzsche’s ideas can be found in Nishitani’s work, when one sets out to read Religion and Nothingness, one immediately feels that a transposition has taken place from Nietzsche’s still Western theoretical mode into the Eastern radically experiential mode where reality is described as what is unfolding in the present moment. Guided by his own Zen practice, and following in the footsteps of Nishida, Nishitani was able to show how individuals were to create their own values, not properly speaking arising from the self itself, but from no-self as the true self, which can also be described as their arising from the standpoint of emptiness.

Starry Night over the Rhone at Arles – 1888 – Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) Musee d’Orsay Paris