“Nishitani’s ‘ontological’ perspective is not simply an ontology that focuses on ‘being’ or a meontology that focuses on its opposite, ‘non-being’.” It is an an-ontology that takes a middle standpoint permitting a view encompassing being and non-being, affirmation and negation” (John W. M. Krummel)

The word “anontology” is a neologism created by John Krummel to distinguish Nishitani’s vision “from ontological reification as well as nihilistic (i.e., meontological) negation of being.” He writes: “I shall call it an-ontology. Upon the field of emptiness as an open clearing realized as the world, beings come and go, presence and absence, become and pass. As such, they simply are. In terms of Nishitani’s 1982 essay Ku to soku, their being is ‘transparent’ (Jp tomei) in the realization that they are manifestations of emptiness. At the same time emptiness is realized in them as its images. In his earlier works, he had rendered this sense of ‘image’ by using the Tendai term ‘provisional’ or illusory (Jp ke). While the provisionality or imaginariness of things negates their apparent substantiality (their reified being), it does not render them unreal. Neither reified nor nullified, things are real in their suchness, which in Tendai thought was called ‘the middle’ (Jp chu) between annihilating emptiness (the nothingness reified in nihilism) and provisional being (being reified as substance)”… Thus Nishitani’s ‘ontological’ perspective is not simply an ontology that focuses on ‘being’ or a meontology that focuses on its opposite, ‘non-being’.” It is an an-ontology that takes a middle standpoint permitting a view encompassing being and non-being, affirmation and negation.”

The chapter entitled “Nishitani Keiji: Nihilism, Buddhism, Anontology,” which Krummel contributed to The Dao Companion to Japanese Buddhist Philosophy, is based on Nishitani’s essay Ku to soku, (“Emptiness and Immediacy”) which he published in 1982, i.e., twenty years after the publication of Religion and Nothingness. So for those whose knowledge of Nishitani’s thought is restricted to Religion and Nothingness, there will be additional material they are unfamiliar with. Though, at the same time, a lot had been covered in this book, and this website, and will only be succinctly presented here. Please refer to pages dedicated to specific material in this website for a more detailed presentation.

The self-realization of reality as the self-emptying of emptiness

For instance, Krummel says that Nishitani’s stance is “predicated upon … the self-realization of reality as the self-emptying of emptiness.” Nishitani had early on clarified his use of the word “realize” as follows: “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” (RN 5).

This view of primal reality, in turn, is based on the logic of soku which “Nishitani … is borrowing – if not directly, at least through the mediation of Nishida’s appropriation – from D.T. Suzuki’s formulation of the ‘logic of is/is-not’ (Jp sokuhi no ronri) that Suzuki discovered in the Diamond Sutra.” This logic is often encapsulated in the formula “A is A, A is not A, therefore A is A.” In the Diamond Sutra it is summed up in the phrase “Fire is not fire, therefore it is fire.”

All things as grasped as substance or as projection of our thoughts into reality

In contrast to this logic of soku, in Western philosophy, where reality is grasped from the standpoint of what Nishitani calls the field of consciousness or reason, the “being” of a thing is understood in terms of substance (Gr ousia – Jp jittai). For Aristotle, substance was “that which retains self-identity amidst changes” (Krummel). But, Nishitani says: “Being is looked upon as substance because, from the very outset, beings are looked upon as objects; and thus also, conversely, because beings set before the subject representationally are viewed from the subject’s point of view. The paradox of represention comes into play here” (RN 110). The thing that appears as a representation on the field of reason is not the thing as it is in itself.

Elsewhere, Nishitani has associated this view with Kant’s statement that, “our cognition or experience of an object … results from the object being in accord with the a priori characteristics of our faculty of sense intuition and the a priori concepts of understanding” (RN 132). In other words, the way we see things is shaped by the structures of our minds. We project our thoughts onto reality. Even though Kant’s new understanding of the knowing process amounted to a Copernican Revolution in Western philosophical thought, it feels that it was really a move that went even further off course as far as getting any way near the way the thing is as it is in itself, on its home-ground, on the field of emptiness, as Nishitani “sees” it.

The thing “in itself” is unknown

Krummel therefore says that “in itself” (Jp jitai) each and everything is unknown (RN 119–20). Its being is unnamed and refuses determination. This darkness is precisely what the “great doubt” reveals.” In Nishitani’s words: “Being is only being if it is one with emptiness. Everything that is stands on its own home-ground only on the field of emptiness, where it is itself in its own suchness. Even when we speak of things reappearing in their substance, we mean only a substantiality that emerges from a unity with emptiness. On the field of emptiness, substantiality is an absolutely non-substantial substantiality” (RN124-125). It is in the experience of nihility that the being of a thing as substance first becomes questionable. “And in the realization of emptiness the mode of being of things as in-themselves, their selfness beyond the subject-object relation, is revealed as non-substantial, as neither subject nor object, neither ideal nor material.” So it is not as substance that the self-identity of thing is maintained (it is in its relationship with the rest of the cosmos). And yet, Krummel says, “in-itself, “undistorted by any artificial imposition, it is not what it appears to  be. It is the suchness of things that is the beification of emptiness.” “Beification” is the translation of the word used by Nishitani to refer to the double negation of things and self that results in the restoration of both things and self on the field of emptiness, “which could be called “the field of ‘beification’ or, in Nietzschean terms, the field of the Great Affirmation, where we can say Yes to all things” (RN 124). “It is only from this basis that a thing becomes grasped and represented as an object vis-à-vis a subject and known conceptually, though not concretely, upon the field of consciousness.” Could we say that the suchness of the thing “translates” or “projects” itself as a concept on the field of consciousness? “And yet as the most originary basis of the self-identity of things, the in-itself is more substantial than the Aristotelian substance. Nishitani thus also calls it a “non-substantial substantiality.”

The logic of soku

Krummel continues with a more in-depth presentation of the logic of soku: “To elucidate this anontological scheme in reference to things in general, Nishitani makes use of an ancient saying, ‘water does not wash water, fire does not burn fire’.” He explains: ”The conventional view … is that it is the substance of fire that makes it what it is. In the case of fire, this substance consists of its unique capacity and activity of combustion.” But this “is still to objectify it … it fails to put us directly in touch with the very point that it is, the ‘basis’ (Jp moto) of the thing (RN 115). The distinction is between a thing in relation to other things and for us and a thing in-itself … To the extent that fire cannot burn, it is not fire. Yet precisely for not burning itself, fire is fire.” Fire is not fire (in and for itself on the field of emptiness), therefore fire is fire as combustion (for us on the field of consciousness). “The mode of being of a thing in-itself completely negates [its] substantiality, it is its non-self-nature (Jp mujisho) realized in its emptiness, its ‘non-substantial substantiality’ … The soku-hi formulation of the anontological structure of being applies to human existence as well: The self is not the self, hence it is the self. The true self is where it is emptied of its reified ego, it is no-self (Skt anatman, Jp muga), the negation of ego. Traditional philosophy has often defined the self as self-knowing or self-consciousness. Yet for Nishitani, the self in-itself is essentially ‘not-knowing’ (Jp fuchi) that is at one with the ‘knowing’ (Jp chi) of the self … From this standpoint of egoless subjectivity, the ego is a mask worn vis-à-vis others and constituted in self-attachment … Our ‘original countenance’ behind that mask only appears in its true form when we have disengaged ourselves from fixating upon the body-and-mind that we ordinarily regard as the cardinal point on which our being hinges.” This, of course, echoes Dogen’s concept of “dropping-off body-and-mind (Jp shinjin datsuraku) as well as the notion, found in the Genjokoan that to learn the Buddha-way is to learn one’s self, which in turn is to “forget” one’s self.

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons (Momoyama period – second half of the 16th century)

The Tendai Threefold scheme

Krummel confirms that “one might safely state that Nishitani’s entire threefold topological progression from the field of being/consciousness, to the field of nihility, and finally the field of emptiness, is inspired by the general Mahayana dialectic of the ‘middle way’, especially its articulation according to the Tendai doctrine of the three truths.” In the 1982 essay, Nishitani uses the Tendai terminology to describe the anontological mode, “whether of thingly or human existence, as the ‘middle’ (Jp chu) between ‘provisionality/illusion’ (Jp ke) and ’emptiness’ (Jp ku) (RN 72). Note that the word “middle” used in Religion and Nothingness (and covered in the two previous pages) to describe the mode of being of things as they are in themselves, was defined as the place where “the thing itself goes on positing itself as it is, in its ‘middle’, a shape without shape, a form of non-form” (RN 131). Krummel, however, notes that in Japanese the word used for both the mode of being and the third truth in Tendai is the same – chu – so we will see that the two meanings are not unconnected.

Krummel writes that, in the anontological triadic scheme, the true being of a thing “in-itself neither can be reified as substance in an illusory manner – and its appearance as substance would merely be its provisional reality – nor annihilated into utter nothingness. It simply is. The absolute nothingness of emptiness (which here needs to be carefully distinguished from the Tendai usage of ’emptiness’ in that triad” – it, in fact, corresponds to what Nishitani calls nihility) breaks-through attachment that would reify as well as nihilistic hate that would annihilate. Instead in the realization of emptiness, personality becomes manifest in its ‘form of suchness… in unison with absolute nothingness’ …” (RN 95). This standpoint of the “middle” (Jp chu) is also a standpoint from the “center” (Jp chushin)—both terms involving the character ‘chu‘ — of a being, the thing as it is in-itself. While from the standpoint of reason things appear to us as substances or as objects because they are being viewed ‘from the circumference’, i.e., from the outside, Nishitani calls the way things are in themselves, their selfness ‘at their own center’ (Jp sorejishin no chushin), the ontologically non-objective mode of ‘the middle’ (Jp chu) (RN 141).

Krummel here notes that even though in Religion and Nothingness, “ke” was translated as “illusion,” in having its appropriate place in the realization of reality, properly speaking, it designates not illusion but rather the provisional. In fact, whereas “the provisional” correctly describes Nagarjuna’s conventional truth accessed on the field of reason, Nishitani writes that on the field of emptiness, where the thing is on its home-ground “the being of a thing is at one with emptiness, and thus radically illusory. It is not, however, an illusory appearance in the sense that dogmatism uses the word to denote what is not objectively real. Neither is it a ‘phenomenon’ in the sense, say, that critical philosophy uses the word to distinguish it from the thing-in-itself. A thing is truly an illusory appearance at the precise point that it is truly a thing in itself” (RN 139).

Moreover, as Krummel had warned us, “’emptiness’ in this Tendai triad corresponds to what Nishitani means by nihility, the static and reified sense of nothingness, as opposed to the dynamic and affirmative sense of emptiness as self-emptying. Instead it is the ‘middle’ that corresponds to that affirmative sense of a self-emptying emptiness. Of the three, it provides the most comprehensive viewpoint. By taking the ‘middle’ standpoint, one’s comprehension encompasses both the provisional reality of things amidst their emptiness and the emptiness of things in their very reality. Its stance provides the most comprehensive realization of reality. What this means is that the ‘middle’-mode of a thing, in being itself (‘provisionally’) and in not being itself (in its ’emptiness’) entails a ‘double exposure’ (Jp nijuutsushi) of life and death, the immediacy of being and non-being (RN 76).” The field of consciousness and that of emptiness are always co-present at all moments of our lives. This had prompted Robert Carter to write in The Nothingness Beyond God, a study of Nishida Kitaro’s thought: “The world can be viewed in two directions – the double aperture – and its unity is not the unity of oneness, as the mystic would likely express it, but the unity of self-contradiction.”

Krummel notes that “this is how Nishitani understands the Heart Sutra’s formula,’form is emptiness, emptiness is form’ (RN 102). In themselves, things are empty, and yet they are not unreal. Things in themselves are neither subjective representations that idealism takes them to be nor objective entities that realism and materialism take them to be. But neither are they unreal or pointless nothings that nihilism takes them to be. Prior to their objectification or representation and prior to their nullification, things are themselves on the field of emptiness, in their fundamental and original form” (RN 110).

Both Nishida’s and Nishitani’s triadic schemes reflect an anontological stance, but there are significant differences between the two

Krummel writes that Nishitani’s anontological topology originally took off from “Nishida’s roughly triadic scheme of the period of his 1926 Basho essay” but adds that “there are significant differences between Nishitani and Nishida in this regard. Nishida’s scheme unfolds, in the regression back to one’s source, from the ‘place of being’ to the ‘place of relative nothing’ alternatively called the ‘place of oppositional nothing’ or the ‘field of consciousness’, and finally to the ‘place of absolute nothing’ … What distinguishes Nishitani’s scheme is that to Nishida’s triad, he adds the thematic of the very issue that led him to philosophy as well as Zen practice in the first place, that is, nihilism. So Nishitani’s triadic topology unfolds from the field of being, which is also the field of consciousness, to the field of nihility, and finally to the field of emptiness.”

For Nishitani, “both the field of being and the field of nihility need to be overcome through the realization of the third field, that of emptiness, that can be equated with Nishida’s place of absolute nothing. So while Nishida’s topology might be said to involve the movement from realism to idealism to nothingness, Nishitani’s topology involves the movement from substantialism (inclusive of both realism and idealism) to nihilism to nothingness. In any case the final field upon which the paradoxical soku-hi statements (‘this is not X, therefore it is X’) make sense is the field of “emptiness” (see RN 118). To be sure, “it is only on the field of consciousness or reason that things are separated from the self and posited as external objects (see RN 108). On the field of emptiness, however, “as unknown (to reason), reality is realized in its emptiness (RN 139).” Emptiness is “where the human self has its originary basis as well, the basis of the original self in itself: ‘Emptiness is self’.” Nishitani writes: “’Emptiness is self’ means that, at bottom and in its own home-ground, the self has its being in such a field. The self is not merely what the self is conscious of as self. The field of sunyata within which the world and things become possible opens up at the home-ground of the self as … the original self in itself” (RN 151). Krummel adds: “The field of emptiness is the abysmal ground that opens up and makes possible things qua objects and self qua subject. Whatever ground or principle one seeks to discover as ’cause’, ‘reason’, ‘purpose’, etc., whether of the world, things, human existence, knowledge, etc., one fails to reach its bottom. Here fact as ‘primal fact’ (Jp hongen- teki jijitsu), Nishitani declares, is bottomless, groundless, simply cut off from every how, why, wherefore (RN 158). To realize freedom in realizing emptiness then would be to live “without why.” The phrase originated from the “Leben Ohne Warum” religious movement initiated by Meister Eckhart. It has become known through the verses of Angelus Silesius: “The rose is without why. It blooms because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself, asks not whether it is seen.”

John W. M. Krummel – “Nishitani Keiji: Nihilism, Buddhism, Anontology,” in The Dao Companion to Japanese Buddhist Philosophy, Ed. Gereon Kopf
Nishitani Keiji – Religion and Nothingness
Robert E. Carter – The Nothingness Beyond God

Bamboo in the Four Seasons – late 15th–early 16th century, attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu (Metropolitan Museum of Art New York)