From Absolute Nothingness to Sunyata

“Absolute nothingness, wherein even a thing that “is” nothingness is negated, is not possible as a nothingness that is thought but only as a nothingness that is lived” (Religion and Nothingness 70).

Nothingness is not a thing called nothingness

When he was asked to write a paper under the title “What is Religion?” Nishitani first wrote the essay which became part 1 of Religion and Nothingness. But he soon felt he had more to say, and wrote a second paper, and then a third, … in fact six altogether. It is interesting to follow the course of his thought on nothingness as he digs deeper, and how he comes to use the Buddhist term sunyata – emptiness – which is part of the title in the four last essays – “Nihility and Sunyata,” “The Standpoint of Sunyata,” “Sunyata and Time,” and “Sunyata and History.”

Essay 1 deals specifically with the overcoming of nihilism by passing through it, that is, by embracing the nihility which is “always just underfoot” and convert “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” (RN 4-5). This, as such, is the conversion to the field of absolute nothingness, but the word “nothingness” does not appear until page 21, where, using Nishida’s terminology, Nishitani refers to the “locus of nothingness” in the context of the Great Doubt: “It is the moment at which self is at the same time the nothingness of self, the moment that is the “locus” of nothingness where conversion beyond the Great Doubt takes place” (RN 21).

The word “nothingness” occurs more than fifty times in the paragraphs which follow. Having studied Sartre’s use of the word in L’Etre et le Néant (Being and Nothingness), Nishitani was keenly aware that his own understanding of nothingness, which is that of Zen Buddhism, would be most difficult for Westerners to grasp. So Nishitani’s first concern was to establish that nothingness was not a thing, or even a principle, which would be either under or around the self. To be fair, many Buddhist practitioners fall into the same error, and Zen actually have a colourful name for that error: it is called “life inside the Black Mountain” or “living in the Demon’s Cavern.” “One is holed up inside the cave of the self-conscious ego that has nothingness at its ground. And as long as this nothingness is still set up as something called nothingness-at-the-bottom-of-the-self, it remains what Buddhism repudiates as “the emptiness perversely clung to … Nothingness may seem here to be a negation of being, but as long as it makes itself present as an object of consciousness in representative form – in other words, as long as the self is still attached to it – it remains a kind of being, a kind of object” (RN 33).

In Essay 2 – “The Personal and the Impersonal in Religion” – Nishitani turns to Meister Eckhart, hoping to find in his notion of Godhead as the nothingness beyond God the creator, an understanding of nothingness close to that of Buddhism, especially East Asian Buddhism. He was disappointed, as he could only conclude that Eckhart’s nothingness was still viewed from the side of being. Ueda Shizuteru, one of the Nishitani’s closest students, spent three years at Marburg University, studying Meister Eckhart’s original texts in medieval German and Latin, concurred with that conclusion. In Ueda’s words, “Eckhart’s “nothingness” remains a negative theological sign pointing towards an inexpressibly higher Being … When all is said and done, Eckhart’s nothingness of the absolute (zettai no mu) is an adjective modifying a substance. In contrast, Zen’s nothingness (zettai mu) is a verb referring to “the activity of emptying out” (Bret W. Davis).

It is in this second essay that one finds one of Nishitani’s most memorable formulas: “Absolute nothingness, wherein even a thing that is nothingness is negated, is not possible as a nothingness that is thought but only as a nothingness that is lived” (RN 70).

It is no longer possible to refer to an absolute after the death of God and metaphysics

In Essay 3 – Nihility and Sunyata – Nishitani strikes new ground, leaving behind the philosophical“absolute nothingness,” to which he prefers the Mahayana Buddhist term sunyata, or “emptiness,” especially after page 95. There was a sense that, now that Nietzsche had stated that “God is dead,” taking with him metaphysics and the belief in a transcendent order of the world, the word “absolute” could not be used any longer. In Ueda’s words: “Because of the collapse of the absolute, the loss of the horizon of ontology, and the endless nihilization of nihility … what was direly needed was a simple basic category that could accommodate as an ambiguous possibility absolute nothingness on the one hand and nihility on the other, and, moreover, which could convey the dynamic of … a recovery from the reality of nihility (and the nihility of reality) to absolute nothingness. Nishitani found this basic category in “emptiness” (sunyata, ku), an idea that was, as he said, “demanded by the problem of nihilism.”

The problem with the use of the word “absolute” is still haunting the scholars most involved with the study of the Kyoto School, as is evidenced by a recent keynote address by James W. Heisig at the Second Conference of the European Network of Japanese Philosophy in December 2016. Heisig concluded that it was best to regard the use of the term by the Kyoto School as metaphorical, meaning radical, or complete, rather than in the sense given to that term in Western philosophy. It is clear that, when Nishitani suggests that we might “conceive of a way of looking at the absolute and the relative whereby two things, in spite of, or rather because of, their both being absolute, can turn out to be relative to one another – like a single sheet of paper seen at one moment from the front and at another from the reverse” (RN 79), confirming later that the field of emptiness is indeed “a field of absolute relativity” (RN 161-162), he is not using the word “absolute” in its Western metaphysical sense. I think, however, that, at least in the above sentence, its meaning goes beyond the metaphorical, as this notion of two absolutes relative to each other echoes Nishida’s self-identity of absolute contradictories, which was defined as a “logic,” the “logic of the place of nothingness.”

Though Nishitani continued to use the word “absolute” in particular contexts throughout Religion and Nothingness, he did explicitly move away from Nishida’s “absolute nothingness” which he replaced with the traditional Mahayana Buddhist sunyata. In the Preface to the book he, however, warns the reader that he is using the word “to take a stand at one and the same time within and without the confines of religion” (RN xlix). To be precise, the original Sanskrit concept of sunyata, as understood by Nagarjuna, refers primarily to emptiness in a conceptual/epistemological sense and corresponds to the Japanese ku, while mu, which is used in many Zen koans, corresponds to the Chinese Daoist wu (as in wuwei, non deliberate action) with a meaning which is pre-ontological. It is the non-being out of which being arises. As Thomas P Kasulis explains, the former (sunyata/ku) point to the notion that “words, and the concepts based on them, are ultimately empty, and to be mistrusted as a medium for fully understanding” while the latter (wu/mu) constitutes an invitation “to return to the non-discriminating source of [one’s] experience or of reality.” Though he chooses the Indian word sunyata, Nishitani is really interested in the concrete, experiential, existential, dimension which Daoism added to Buddhism in China as the Zen tradition developed. When Nishitani comes to characterise sunyata as self-emptying – a dynamic in a world understood as change, we are miles away from the mere doctrine of anatman – no-being, i.e., no-own-being, from which sunyata originally arose. Traditional East Asia understood reality as the self-emptying of the formless unfolding as phenomenal forms in the present moment, an experienced dynamism. The abstract philosophical “absolute nothingness” used by Nishida focused on the logical aspect rather than the dynamic aspect, though Nishida also regarded nothingness as a dynamism.

Nishitani Keiji – Religion and Nothingness
Ueda Shizuteru – “Contributions to Dialogue with the Kyoto School,” in Japanese and Continental Philosophy: Conversations with the Kyoto School Ed: Bret W. Davis, Brian Schroeder and Jason M. Wirth (2011)
Thomas P Kasulis: Zen Action, Zen Person

Hokusai (1760–1849) Umezawa in Sakami Province – in the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series