Rocks at l’Estaque – 1882-83 – Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)



“The self-consciousness of the cogito, ergo sum, therefore, needs to be thought about by leaving its subjectivity as is and proceeding from a field more basic than self-consciousness, a field that I have been calling “elemental.” Of course, when we say “thinking about,” we do not mean the ordinary type of objective thinking. Thinking about the ego from an elemental field means that the ego itself opens up in subjective fashion an elemental field of existence within itself. In this sense, what we are saying is no different from saying that the elemental self-awareness of the ego itself comes to be an elemental self. This way of thinking about the cogito is “existential” thinking: more elemental thought must signal a more elemental mode of being of the self. (Nishitani Keiji, Religion and Nothingness, 15)



“Even the poor wee floweret fading in a cleft of the bank, which would show itself when spring began, fixed my attention and would draw my tears.” 

est3The example of what is meant by the real self-realisation of reality which Nishitani gives in Religion and Nothingness is borrowed from Dostoevski’s The House of the Dead: it records Dostoevski’s intense experience during his time in prison, while he was carrying bricks by the banks of a river: “Sometimes I would fix my sight for a long while upon the poor smokey cabin of some baїguch; I would study the bluish smoke as it curled in the air, the Kirghiz woman busy with her sheep … The things I saw were wild, savage, poverty-stricken; but they were free. I would follow the flight of a bird threading its way in the pure transparent air; now it skims the water, now disappears in the azure sky, now suddenly comes to view again, a mere point in space. Even the poor wee floweret fading in a cleft of the bank, which would show itself when spring began, fixed my attention and would draw my tears.” “As Dostoevski himself tells us, this is the only spot at which he saw “God’s world, a pure and bright horizon, the free desert steppes.” (Ibid, 8)

Dostoevski had been suspected of belonging to a circle of social reformists, arrested, and sentenced to death in St Petersburg: a letter from the tsar commuting his sentence had arrived as he was already lining up for his execution. He had then been sent to a Siberian camp where he spent four years of hard labour in particularly harsh circumstances. 

The things he saw we do take to be real when encountered in our everyday lives. But we do not normally see them with this degree of intensity. “The significance of their realness and the sense of the real in them that he experienced in perceiving them as real are something altogether qualitatively different.” (Ibid, 8) Though, for Dostoevski, this unusually intense experience of realness had occurred in the context of a particularly painful encounter with nihility, Nishitani asserts that “it is an experience open to anyone and everyone. It is something to which poets and religious men and women have attested down through the ages.” (Ibid, 9)

This enhanced “sense of the real,” arises when we are able to “lose ourselves” in, and  “become the very things we are looking at.” By contrast, “although we ordinarily think of things in the external world as real, we may not actually get in touch with the reality of those things. I would venture to say that in fact we do not.” This is because we are used “to seeing things from the standpoint of the self.” (Ibid, 9)

“To look at things from the standpoint of the self is always to see things merely as objects, that is, to look at things without from a field within the self … This standpoint of separation of subject and object, or opposition between within and without, is what we call the field of “consciousness.” And it is from this field that we ordinarily relate to things by means of concepts and representations … On the field of consciousness, it is not possible to get in touch with things as they are, that is, to face them in their own mode of being and on their own home-ground. On the field of consciousness, self always occupies center stage.” The same thing applies with our internal consciousness: “We also think of our own selves, and of our “inner” thoughts, feelings, and desires as real. But here too, it is doubtful whether we properly get in touch with ourselves …” (Ibid, 9)

Nishida was keen to remind us, at this stage, that this grasp of reality as objects, as it were, on a screen in front of us, was a necessary step in the context of our everyday practical and social survival. Reflective/self consciousness included thinking, but the objective apprehension should not be allowed to obfuscate the actual concrete reality. It is good to have a map, but it is of little use if we can no longer see where the actual territory we are meant to explore is! 

Even though, in principle, objective thinking has its uses, Nishitani is particularly concerned with the hardening of objective consciousness which occurred with Descartes, and the disastrous effects it had on our mechanistic perception of reality as “a cold, lifeless world,” “raw material” at our disposal.  

“The Cartesian cogito, ergo sum expressed the mode of being of ego as a self-centered assertion of its own realness”

Girl with a Mandolin – 1910 – Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) – Museum of Modern Art New York

“[The standpoint of consciousness] has come to exercise a powerful control over us, never more so than since the emergence of the subjective autonomy of the ego in modern times. This latter appears most forcefully in the thought of Descartes, the father of modern philosophy. … Descartes set up a dualism between res cogitans (which has its essence in thought or consciousness) and res extensa (which has its essence in physical extension). On the one hand, he established the ego as a reality that is beyond all doubt and occupies the central position with regard to everything else that exists. His cogito, ergo sum expressed the mode of being of that ego as a self-centered assertion of its own realness. Along with this, on the other hand, the things in the natural world came to appear as bearing no living connection with the internal ego. Even animals and the body of man himself were thought of as mechanisms.” (Ibid, 10-11)

To be sure, the dualism between mind and body, or spirit and matter, goes back to the early days of metaphysics, it is certainly not something Descartes turned out magically out of his philosophical hat! Descartes’s equation of the ego with thought came about within the particular context of his time, in search for a “ground of certainty” to act as guarantor for scientific research. Descartes had then undertaken to doubt everything he knew, and come to the doubting and thinking “I.” The existence of this “I,” he could not doubt. So he posited it as the first principle of his method. But, of course, it is on the mode of the cogito that this had been achieved. Critics have retorted “I think, therefore there is thinking activity,” but it does not follow from this that there is an entity that thinks. Or rather, the thinking entity is itself a thought, the ego is a representation, a concept, on the field of consciousness. What has been called Cartesian subjectivism is a projection of all things as representations on the screen of consciousness where they are displayed according to the laws of the mind.

Aleya Milton Becerra Art Installation – 2009 – Durban Segnini Gallery Miami

Nishitani does recognise that the Cartesian ego allowed the development of science and technology, but it also transformed what had been seen with some awe as an explosion of life into a mechanistic hell. “By wielding his great power and authority in controlling the natural world, man came to surround himself with a cold, lifeless world. Inevitably, each individual ego became like a lonely but well-fortified island floating on a sea of dead matter. The life was snuffed out of nature and the things of nature; the living stream that flowed at the bottom of man and all things, and kept them bound together, dried up.“ (Ibid, 11)

Looking back at the pre-scientific worldview, Nishitani sees a world where life created a bond between people within human groups, and between human groups and nature. A “sense of sharing life” created “sympathetic affinity” between people at a level deeper than that of consciousness. Typically this was expressed as the assumption that every being and everything had “souls”… the distinction between what we call a “being” and what we call a “thing” was hardly felt as there was no such thing as an “inanimate” entity. 

This being said, Nishitani here issues a warning. Even though we feel more in touch with reality when reflective/self-consciousness is less developed, we cannot return to this stage in the development of consciousness any more than we can return to the way we saw and related to the world where we were toddlers. We could compare ourselves to the teenager and young adult who have for years believed that the world was as parents and schools had described it, and suddenly discover that there are other cultures, each with its own worldview, and we find ourselves in the grips of doubt. There are, however, two ways we can use doubt: there is the methodical doubt used by Descartes to find a ground of certainty – based on the ego-centredness consciousness – and the Buddhist Great Doubt used by Nishitani, which will include the ego itself, “to seek a new and more encompassing viewpoint that passes through, indeed breaks through, the field of consciousness to give us a new perspective.” (Ibid, 13) 

The elemental self

Since we must start from the way we understand the self now, Nishitani takes another look at the Cartesian cogito, ergo sum. “The self of contemporary man is an ego of the Cartesian type, constituted self-consciously as something standing over against the world and all the things that are in it.” (Ibid, 13). What Descartes seemingly failed to notice is that the ego was a representation of the self, an object, and “the subject cannot emerge out of something objective”(Ibid, 14) And the very fact that the ego is self-evident stops us from undertaking any further questioning about the validity of that “ground of certainty.” “The self-evidence of self-consciousness – the very fact that the self is evident to itself – keeps us from feeling the need to look at that evident fact from a field beyond that fact itself.” (Ibid, 14)

Anyone who still associates objective scientific thinking with questioning and free thought, and religion with a subservient acceptance of dogma, definitely needs to think again. The roles are reversed here, with Cartesian (scientific) thought ready to sacrifice questioning on the autel of certainty, and true religion seeking an ever deeper truth through existential self-emptying. 

The field where this deeper truth is to be found, Nishitani calls “elemental.” The book’s glossary tells us that the Japanese term translated as elemental contains the Chinese characters for “roots” and “wellspring.” The word elemental was itself borrowed from Kant who used “Elementar” in the sense of source. “The self-consciousness of the cogito, ergo sum, therefore, needs to be thought about by leaving its subjectivity as is and proceeding from a field more basic than self-consciousness, a field that I have been calling “elemental.” Of course, when we say “thinking about,” we do not mean the ordinary type of objective thinking. Thinking about the ego from an elemental field means that the ego itself opens up in subjective fashion an elemental field of existence within itself … This way of thinking about the cogito is “existential” thinking: more elemental thought must signal a more elemental mode of being of the self.“(Ibid,15)

This elemental mode of being of the self is of course what Nishitani later called the field of absolute nothingness, and then sunyata (the field of emptiness), seen as the source of a more elemental, or more originary, existential way of thinking. The unique and characteristic mark of religion can be seen as the existential exposure of the problematic contained in the ordinary mode of self-being. It can be seen as the way of the great, elemental ego cogito elucidating the ego sum. (Ibid, 16)

The Great Doubt 

Hakuin Ekaku

Though Doubt as a Zen practice goes back to China, what is referred in Japan as the Great Doubt is associated with Hakuin, who invented new koans which he believed would be more better at generating an acute sense of doubt. The old saying was: “Great Doubt, Great Awakening; small doubt, small awakening; no doubt, no awakening.” Here Nishitani uses the occasion of an encounter with nihility in one’s life to trigger first an experience of doubt, and then to deepen that doubt into a doubt involving both self and the world, in order to reach the elemental self. It is also an approach which he can compare with Descartes’ methodological doubt, to show in what way the latter does not  go far enough. 

James W. Heisig describes the unfolding of the Great Doubt as a three-stage process.

The first stage is that of the fortuitous encounter with nihility in one’s life, as a “crack“ through which “the transcience of all things” comes into view – what the Buddhists also call the “Great Matter of life and death.” More often than not, we quickly seal the crack and go on our way as if nothing had happened. 

The process unfolds into a second stage if “one lives with the doubt and allows it to take its course.” (Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness, 220) “It is not a question of observing nihility objectively or entertaining some representation of it. It is, rather, as if the self were itself to become that nihility … The realization we are speaking of here is not self-conscious” (Religion and Nothingness, 16). Nishitani says that the field of consciousness where the self and things are represented as objects is broken through, and this is the same as saying that the self has realized nihility, it has made it real. “In standing subjectively on the field of nihility (I use the term “stand” and refer to nihility as a “field,” but in fact there is literally no place to stand), the self becomes itself in a more elemental sense. When this takes place, the being of the self itself is nullified along with the being of everything else. “Nullification” does not mean that everything is simply “annihilated” out of existence. It means that nihility appears at the ground of everything that  exists, that the field of consciousness with its separation of the within and the without is surpassed subjectively, and that nihility opens up at the ground of the within and without.” (Ibid, 17)

In the third stage, “nihility is emptied out, as it were, into an absolute emptiness, or what Buddhism calls sunyata. The absolute is not a further aggravation of the original frustration and the abyss of nihility it contained within it, but rather a complete negation of that aggravation. It is an affirmation …” (Philosophers of Nothingness, 221). 

Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan – 1885-1887 – Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

When the emptied “I” fully realises the emptiness lying at the ground, or as Nishida would have said, the “bottomless depths” of the world, the double negation turns into an affirmation. This is why one can say, “Great Doubt, Great Awakening.” The Awakening is the realisation that being arises out of emptiness. “It is the true reality of the self and all things, in which everything is present just as it is, in its suchness.” (Religion and Nothingness, 21)

Descartes’s doubt had failed to include a doubting of the self, or rather a questioning of the field of consciousness which is the field on which the self is represented as a thing. “The cogito of Descartes did not pass through the purgative fires in which the ego itself is transformed, along with all things, into a single Great Doubt. The cogito was conceived of simply on the field of the cogito. This is why the reality of the ego as such could not but become an unreality.” (Ibid, 19)

The Zen practice of the Great Doubt is described in a sermon by Takusui, a 18th century Zen master: 

“The method to be practiced is as follows: you are to doubt regarding the subject in you that hears all sounds. All sounds are heard at a given moment because there is certainly a subject in you that hears. Although you may hear the sounds with your ears, the holes in your ears are not the subject that hears. If they were, dead men would also hear sounds … You must doubt deeply, again and again, asking yourself what the subject of hearing could be. Pay no attention to the various illusory thoughts that may occur to you. Only doubt more and more deeply, gathering together in yourself all the strength that is in you, without aiming at anything or expecting anything in advance, without intending to be enlightened and without even intending not to intend to be enlightened; become like a child within your own breast … but however you go on doubting, you will find it impossible to locate the subject that hears. Doubt deeply in a state of singlemindedness, looking neither ahead nor behind, neither right nor left, becoming completely like a dead man, unaware even of the presence of your own person. When this method is practiced more and more deeply, you will arrive at a state of being completely self-oblivious and empty. But even then you must bring up the Great Doubt, “What is the subject that hears?” and doubts still further, all the time being like a dead man. And after that, when you are no longer aware of your being completely like a dead man, and are no more conscious of the procedure of the Great Doubt but become yourself, through and through, a great mass of doubt, there will come a moment, all of a sudden, at which you emerge into a transcendence called the Great Enlightenment, as it you had awoken from a great dream, or as if, having been completely dead, you had suddenly revived.” (Ibid, 20)


Desert Flowers