By the “self-awareness of reality” I mean both our becoming aware of reality and, at the same time, the reality realizing itself in our awareness. The English word “realize,” with its twofold meaning of “actualize” and “understand” is particularly well suited to what I have in mind here, although I am told that its sense of “understand” does not necessarily connote the sense of reality coming to actualization in us. Be that as it may, I am using the word to indicate that our ability to perceive reality means that reality realizes (actualizes) itself in us; that this in turn is the only way that we can realize (appropriate through understanding) the fact that reality is so realizing itself in us; and that in so doing the self-realization of reality itself takes place. (Nishitani Keiji, Religion and Nothingness, 5)
What is Religion?
Religion and Nothingness, which is widely regarded as Nishitani’s masterpiece, the work without which there would not have been a Kyoto School, started with an essay Nishitani was asked to write, which was published under the title Shūkyō to wa nanika, meaning “What is Religion?” Feeling he had more to say, Nishitani wrote another essay, and yet another … and in the end, six essays were gathered in book form and published in 1961. Jan Van Bragt started their translation into English in the 70s, but Nishitani, then head of the Eastern Buddhist, insisted on their publication in a serial form in that journal before they came out in book form in 1982. Heisig explains that he suggested that the title be changed to Religion and Nothingness, because “What is Religion” referred only to one of the essays, and also because it sounded “like a catechetical tract” (James W. Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness, 336). The Spanish translation also used that title, but the German translation retained the original title.
Nishitani did not deny that when looking at the front cover, most readers would expect an analysis of the common traits found in the various historical religions. That sort of work, to which we are used to, is that which results from an objective scientific study, the view from the outside. His approach was different, his “quest [was] for the “home-ground” of religion, where religion emerges from man himself, as a subject, as a self living in the present.” (Nishitani, Preface to Religion and Nothingness, xlviii)
For Nishitani “religion is at all times the individual affair of each individual” and we cannot therefore “understand what religion is from the outside. The religious quest alone is the key to understanding it” (Ibid, 2). Instead of asking what the purpose of religion is, we should ask “For what purpose do I myself exist?” Of everything else we can ask its purpose for us, but not of religion. With regard to everything else we can make a telos of ourselves as individuals, as man, or as mankind, and evaluate those things in relation to our life and existence … But religion upsets the posture from which we think of ourselves as telos and center for all things. Instead, religion poses as a starting point the question: For what purpose do I exist? “ (Ibid, 2-3)
Here is, reformulated from a more explicitly existentialist stance, Nishida’s “overturning” and “radical conversion of mind” achieved through “the effort of self-negation” which he had found at the core of religion as such (“The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview,” in Last Writings, 80). Nishida had achieved this through his Zen practice, though the personal tragedies he had to face, also triggered new insights. Nishida’s biographer, Michiko Yusa tells us of an “existential breakthrough” which took place in 1923, where he found within himself a sort of “deeper mind” beyond joy and sorrow which could have been “at the heart of Nishida’s signature idea of topos (basho)” (Zen and Philosophy, 189)
Nishida did not suffer from nihilism the way Nishitani did, but it is a recognised fact that that a moment of intense frustration, or a particularly stressful experience, can trigger what is known as a “peak experience.” At some point, it seems that something gives, and, the moment after, you feel liberated, even elated, trusting that things will sort themselves out, happy to just enjoy the present moment. Such peak experience either prompts the individual to explore spiritual writings in search of an explanation, or enhance his/her resolve to engage in a serious spiritual practice. As a young man, and again, just a few years before, during the traumatic experience of the war and the years of suspension from teaching, Nishitani had gone through moments of despair, and very probably experienced how nihility could, as it were, of itself transmute into positivity.
Having asked the question “what is religion?” and concluded that this should not be taken to mean “what is the purpose of religion?” but “for what purpose do I exist?” Nishitani brings up the experience of nihilism, as it is only then, when one finds oneself looking for meaning, that one realizes that one’s whole life rested on a belief in an inherent meaning of the world. Just as a sound one hears when it stops, our need for meaning comes into view when it suddenly disappears. But one cannot yet create a new meaning, or new values, as Nietzsche had invited us to do. One has, for now, become a question, which, when amplified as the Buddhist Great Doubt, can be used to deepen one’s sense of nihility into a positive ground for an embrace and affirmation of reality.
“[The] fundamental conversion in life is occasioned by the opening up of the horizon of nihility at the ground of life”
“We become aware of religion as a need, as a must for life, only at the level of life at which everything else loses its necessity and its utility … When we come to doubt the meaning of our existence in this way, when we have become a question to ourselves, the religious quest awakens within us.” (Religion and Nothingness, 3). Such a questioning may be triggered by the loss of a loved one, or a frustrating failure, or an illness, any event which disrupts the very ground we stand on. “In the face of this abyss, not one of all the things that had made up the stuff of life until then is of any use.” (Ibid, 3).
But, Nishitani adds, “that abyss is always just underfoot.” (Ibid, 3) It is just that we do not normally see it. Death is not “something that awaits us in some distant future, but something that we bring into the world with us at the moment we are born.” (Ibid, 4). Don’t we all know this? But it is one thing to know it with our minds, and another to embrace it fully as our lives unfold, moment to moment. And Nishitani’s skill as a writer is to take us with him as he describes what nihility feels like when you stop turning your head away and face it with open eyes. This is why it is so difficult not to quote Nishitani’s text! To a great extent, where Nishitani could be said to go further than Nishida, is not to be found in the content of what he wrote, but in his superior literary style – where we can hear echoes of Heidegger’s philosophical style – and his willingness to go closer to what Nishida had shunned all of his life – intuitions that could be miscontrued as mere psychology.
“Normally we proceed through life, on and on, with our eye fixed on something or other, always caught up with something within or without ourselves … These engagements block off the way to an opening up of that horizon on which nihility appears and self-being becomes a question. But when this horizon does open up at the bottom of those engagements … something seems to halt and linger before us. This something is the meaningless that lies in wait at the bottom of those very engagements that bring meaning to life. This is the point at which that sense of nihility, that sense that “everything is the same” we find in Nietzsche and Dostoevski, brings the restless, forward-advancing pace of life to a halt and makes it take a step back. In the Zen phrase, it “turns the light to what is directly underfoot.” … Taking a step back to shed light on what is underfoot of the self … marks a conversion in life itself. This fundamental conversion in life is occasioned by the opening up of the horizon of nihility at the ground of life. It is nothing less than a conversion 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. Only when we stand at this turning point does the question “What is religion?” really become our own.” (Ibid, 4-5)
Religion as the real self-awareness of reality
Having led his readers to see for themselves the nihility lying underfoot and, as it were, anchored them in the the proper standpoint, Nishitani asks once more: “What is religion? He gives a number of possible definitions – “the relationship of man to an absolute, like God,” an “idea of the Holy,” “the abandonment of self-will in order to live according to the will of God,” or “the intuition of the infinite in the finite,” (Ibid, 5) all valid replies which could be argued for. His own angle, however, will be to “approach religion as the self-awareness of reality, or, more correctly, the real self-awareness of reality.”
This is obviously a reformulation of Nishida’s understanding of the self “as existing in that dynamic dimension wherein each existential act of consciousness, as a self-expressive determination of the world, simultaneously reflects the world’s self-expression within itself and forms itself through its own self-expression. (Nishida Kitaro, “The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview,” Last Writings, 64), with the same proviso that for Nishida’s “self-expression” and Nishitani’ “self-awareness” to be real – and a genuine religious expression, the self must be empty, that is, in the position of asking “for what purpose do I exist?”
Nishitani’s later distinction between the standpoint of consciousness as that of objective substantive thought and the standpoint of emptiness, as that where reality can be grasped on its “home-ground,” is probably the reason why the word chosen here is “awareness” rather than “consciousness.” Nishitani, however, goes further when he unpacks the meaning of that phrase as the self-realisation of reality, actually using the English word. “By the “self-awareness of reality” I mean both our becoming aware of reality and, at the same time, the reality realizing itself in our awareness. The English word “realize,” with its twofold meaning of “actualize” and “understand” is particularly well suited to what I have in mind here, although I am told that its sense of “understand” does not necessarily connote the sense of reality coming to actualization in us. Be that as it may, I am using the word to indicate that our ability to perceive reality means that reality realizes (actualizes) itself in us; that this in turn is the only way that we can realize (appropriate through understanding) the fact that reality is so realizing itself in us; and that in so doing the self-realization of reality itself takes place.” (Religion and Nothingness, 5)
That the English “realisation” does not necessarily translates into an actualisation of what we have understood, is due to the fact that we have only “realised” in the sense of understood, as cognition, i.e., the conceptual mode of knowledge where what is supposedly known stands in front of us, available for us to see, but, as it were, at a distance, and not appropriated: it has not, as the Buddhists say, become “our bones and marrow.” Nishitani makes it crystal clear: “What I am speaking of is not theoretical knowledge but a real appropriation (the proprium taken here to embrace the whole man, mind and body.” (Ibid, 5-6)
And this is what Nishitani means when speaking of the real self-realisation of reality. It is real, when it is fully appropriated. “This perception of reality can constitute the realness of our existence because it comes into being in unison with the self-realization of reality itself. In this sense, the realness of our existence, as the appropriation of reality, belongs to reality itself as the self-realization of reality itself. In other words, the self-realization of reality can only take place by causing our existence to become truly real.”(Ibid, 6)
Nishitani gives an example of what he means by this real self-realisation of reality causing our existence to become truly real in a paper he wrote on the occasion of the Symposium on his work held at Smith and Amsherst Colleges in 1984.
“As an example, let me evoke a reminiscence of my younger days. It happened while staying in a hotel during a trip. Watching the sun rise from the balcony, I was suddenly struck by a powerful feeling. The light of the morning sun formed a golden thread and jumped up, like a serpent as it were, to where I was standing. While being bathed in the brightness of the sun’s ray, I really felt that I was truly seeing the sun. The overwhelming experience was that the radiance of the sun was focused on me and that the world was opening brightly, concentrated on myself alone.” (“Encounter with Emptiness,” in The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji, edited by Taitetsu Unno, 2)
Trapped in a mode of thinking and knowing which for ever posits the things of the world as objects in front of us, separated from us, we can never fully “realise” reality, that is, ‘make it real’ for us, while allowing us to realise ourselves at the same time, again, ‘become real’ for ourselves, we are for ever seeking fulfillment in an endless quest for things, and more things, and more means of gratification, and we end up falling into over-consumption, leading to environmental damage, addiction, crime, war, etc … What Nishitani and Nishida call “religion” is “the real self-realisation of reality” through living and thinking from the standpoint of emptiness whereby we are able to make the world and ourselves real, which is the only way we can achieve a sense of fullness and freedom.