From Nagarjuna’s Middle Way to Nishida’s Self-Contradictory Identity

The Sanchi stupa was built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, and its torana is the oldest in the archaeological record, though it was most likely preceded by toranas made out of wood. Both Chinese paifang gateways and Japanese torii gateways have been derived from the Indian torana.

Inter-dependent-origination is what we call ‘emptiness’.
It is a dependent designation and is itself the Middle Path.
(Nagarjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, 24.18)

Co-dependent origination = emptiness

One of Nishida Kitaro’s signature concepts is the cryptic statement that the real is “the self-identity of absolute contradictories” (zettai mujunteki jikodoitsu), often succinctly translated as “self-contradictory identity,” which is also referred to as the “unity of opposites.” Structurally the phrase “self-contradictory identity” is strongly reminiscent of the doctrine of co-dependent origination (pratityasamutpada), the central teaching of the Buddha, on which rests his assertion that all things are “devoid of own being” (anatman) and that life is suffering: as things only arise in dependence upon each other, they “are” only as “relative” to each other, and as such have no being of their own, they are unsubstantial and transient, and our lives among these things which appear to be real, but are not, are consequently full of suffering. 

Co-dependent origination is the doctrine on which Nagarjuna focuses to refute developments in Buddhist philosophy still showing traces of substantialism. “In the Abhidharma traditions anatmanwas usually understood to be the fact that there is no persistent or abiding person as the subject of our experience. What was real were the momentary dharmas that constituted each stream of consciousness … For Nagarjuna, however, even these dharmas lack an intrinsic-nature or an independent nature of their own … since they are causally dependent upon other dharmas for their arising. Emptiness, therefore, is a realisation of inter-dependent-origination (pratityasamutpada) – the mutual relativity of all things” (Richard King, Indian Philosophy – An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought, 120).

Inter-dependent-origination is what we call ‘emptiness’.
It is a dependent designation and is itself the Middle Path.
(Nagarjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, 24.18 – quoted by King)

Nagarjuna (c. 150-c. 250 CE)

Robert Carter confirms that Nishida was influenced by Nagarjuna. How could he not be, as Nagarjuna’s core project had been the restoration of the concept of sunyata (emptiness) to its original central position in the Buddha’s teachings? Some scholars, ancient and modern, have argued that Nagarjuna did not actually propose a philosophy. Having showed that the philosophical positions held by the many Buddhist schools of his days, when followed to their final conclusions, only led to absurdities, he could not possibly come up with yet another philosophical position! 

 “Nagarjuna’s insight is that each and every philosophical position and claim can be shown to be untenable because any assertion … is achieved at the risk of downplaying one or more related concepts” (Robert E Carter, The Nothingness Beyond God, 64). This brings to mind Heidegger’s statement that concepts “conceal” as much as they “reveal,” and they do so in the very act of revealing, because as they zero in on a particular view of reality, they hide from view all other possible ways of seeing reality. Hence the need to recognise that all views are necessarily and therefore ultimately incorrect. 

Tibetan Wheel of Life

Following David Kalupahana (Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way), Carter writes that Nagarjuna’s ‘middle way’ “is a rejection of all closed dogmatisms, and advocates that one remains non-attached to each and every one of them … What the Buddha and Nagarjuna were attacking was a dogmatic arrogance which, in its quest for absolute certainty and security, caused thinkers to cling ‘like leeches to an objective world as an ultimate reality’.” Note that Carter also states that “non-attachment to views does not necessarily mean having ‘no  views’” (Carter, Ibid, 63). What this shows, as I see it, is that Nagarjuna was functioning primarily as a dharma teacher warning his followers against the dangers of becoming attached to dogmas. In other words, he is taking co-dependent origination in only one of its possible interpretations – that of the relativity of all things and the need to cultivate detachment from philosophical views. Distrust of philosophy, and words in general, is found in most schools of Buddhism.

There are, however, other ways of understanding co-dependent origination. One can see in it evidence of the interconnectedness of all things, and turn it into an invitation to be responsible for one’s actions, as they affect all: in that sense, it is a social and ecological principle. Co-dependent origination has often been presented by Buddhist scholars as an assertion of causality. “This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This ceases to be, because that ceases to be.” Though a Western philosopher would point out that cause is not actually asserted in these statements – only correlation – in practice, Dharma students were indeed told to see how sensation causes desire, desire causes craving, craving causes attachment, attachment causes suffering, etc. and more generally, how all things are “conditioned,” that is, arising as the product of conditions, and therefore relative to these conditions. Whereas in Greece, causality was used as a means to understand reality and master it, to the point that “what is,” in Western philosophy, was defined as “what has a reason or cause” – nihil est sine ratione –, in India, what had a cause was the exact opposite – as it was the result of conditions, it was not really real – only what had no cause, that is, what was uncaused and permanent, was really real.  

Sudden shower over Shin-Ohashi bridge and Atake – Hiroshige (1797-1858)

When looking at co-dependent origination, Nishida did not see it as an assertion of causality, and, though in broad agreement with Nagarjuna’s emphasis on the relativity of all things and the need for detachment from conceptual views, he did not see, in the context of the pursuit of enlightenment, these conceptual views as such, as obstacles to be tackled and overcome. Instead, he saw the co-arising of concepts as the process of knowledge through differentiation of opposites within a unified field of nothingness. Red does not “cause” blue and yellow to exist, but red arises at the same time as the universal “colour” which, as a universal, has no colour. This arising, of course, also allows other colours to be seen, but it is something positive. The emptiness of the universal allowed phenomena to arise, and these phenomena were as such the world we are born in, where we live and die. Whereas Nagarjuna, like all other Indian Buddhist teachers and scholars, is saying that one should detach oneself from conditioned things – phenomena – because they are empty of being, Nishida is saying that one should abide in the phenomenal world, because this is precisely where emptiness is – in the phenomena. The contrast between the two positions goes way beyond Nagarjuna and Nishida: it is a contrast between two cultural zones, the Indian sub-continent, still influenced by Indo-European onto-metaphysical thought, focused on being, and the Far-East, which had escaped that influence, and remained alert to change. 

Western Being and Eastern Nothingness

 Around the time Nishida was elaborating his doctrine of self-contradictory identity, he wrote an essay entitled “The forms of ancient cultures, East and West, seen from a metaphysical perspective” where he contrasted Western culture as “sustained by Being.” In contrast, Oriental – and especially Japanese – culture is sustained by “the determination of Nothingness” (Michiko Yusa, Zen and Philosophy – An Intellectual Biography of Nishida Kitaro, 260). Though Nishida’s views are a lot more complex that this clear-cut statement could lead us to believe, this view has been in one form or another shared by all the philosophers of the Kyoto School.


Most Western students of Buddhism are not fully aware of the extent to which Buddhism evolved as it spread from India into China, Tibet, Japan, as well as Korea. In Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India-China-Tibet-Japan (1964),  Nakamura Hajime shows how each indigenous tradition reinterpreted the received teachings in the light of its own cultural insights to the point that they came to appear to mean nearly the opposite, while, at the same time, perhaps being closer to the original teaching of the Buddha. Nakamura even speaks of deliberate mistranslations of Chinese into Japanese. As an example, Dogen is said to have willfully mistranslated “all beings have the Buddha nature” into “all beings are the Buddha nature,” arguing that the Chinese having no word for “to be,” the Chinese word meaning “to have” also meant “to be.” 

Dogen (1200-1253)

Thus Nakamura states: “In the first place, we should notice that the Japanese are willing to accept the phenomenal world as Absolute because of their disposition to lay a greater emphasis upon intuitive sensible concrete events, rather than upon universals. This way of thinking with emphasis upon the fluid, arresting character of observed events regards the phenomenal world itself as Absolute and rejects the recognition of anything existing over and above the phenomenal world. What is widely known among post-Meiji philosophers of the last century as the ‘theory that the phenomenal is actually the real’ has a deep root in Japanese tradition” (Nakamura Hajime, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India-China-Tibet-Japan, 350).

Joseph Campbell summed up the respective positions of India and the Far East as follows: “All is illusion: let it go, and “all is in order, let it come” In India, enlightenment (samadhi) with the eyes closed, in Japan, enlightenment (satori) with the eyes open. The word moksa (release) has been applied to both, but they are not the same.” (Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God – Oriental Mythology, 30-31)

Phenomena, seen as illusory forms in India, concealing the really real which is either Brahman (Being) in Vedanta, or emptiness in Buddhism, are seen in the Far East as the very locus of the really real lived as the emptiness of phenomena. Why the difference? India speaks in terms of knowledge, the word “illusory” is key here. For Indians, the really real is the substrate, not the thing we see, which is just a shape: the Upanishads say, clay is the really real, things made of clay are only illusory shapes. The Far East, on the other hand, apprehends reality in terms of experience, the world is perfect as it is, it manifests in the present moment as a presence (whatever knowledge we extract from it is useful but secondary to the experience of its presence). Greek philosophy took yet another path: it saw “form,” which it called the “name” or the “Idea” or the concept as “Being,” so it was not illusory, as the Indians saw it, but it was still bound to an equation between the really real and what is beyond change, the noumenal, the fixed, the eternal. The Greeks stated that nothingness, by definition, could not exist, which implied that the world was “full” (of being), and it was represented as a full sphere. 

Because he was a Buddhist living in India, Nagarjuna was keenly aware of the danger of ontologising sunyata (emptiness), the empty twin of the Vedantic Brahman (or Atman). Candrakirti – a disciple of Nagarjuna in 7th century – “compared the mistake of reifying emptiness with the example of a person who, upon being told that a merchant had nothing to sell, asks if he can buy some of that nothing” (Candrakirti Prasannapada, quoted by Richard King – Indian Philosophy, 121). It is said that emptiness itself has to be emptied. Hence the Madhyamikas discuss what they call the “emptiness of emptiness.” Yet Nagarjuna never went as far as saying, as Nishitani, a disciple of Nishida, later said: “The elemental mode of being, as such, is illusory appearance. And things themselves, as such, are phenomena. Consequently, when we speak of illusory appearance, we do not mean that there are real beings in addition that merely happen to adopt illusory guises to appear in. Precisely because it is appearance, and not something that appears, this appearance is illusory at the elemental level in its very reality, and real in its very illusoriness” (Nishitani, Keiji, Religion and Nothingness, 129).

Indian Sunyata and Chinese Wu (Japanese Mu) 

Nagarjuna could not have said that to realise sunyata is to accept the phenomenal as the absolute, as it is in the phenomenal that one finds a direct experience of emptiness. For Nagarjuna sunyata remained an epistemological emptiness, it never became the embodied experience of the Chinese wu (mu in Japanese). Nagarjuna’s solution was the doctrine of the two truths. The distinction between ultimate and conventional truths was meant to “circumvent the dangers of adopting a nihilistic position. Emptiness … is not mere nothingness, but is another way of declaring the mutual relativity of all things!” (Richard King, Indian Philosophy, 123).

In mythology, Wu/Dao/nothingness was apprehended as the Queen Mother of the West – Earthenware circa 2nd century, Eastern Han Dynasty

Only the ontological West – including India –, which cannot help seeing nothingness in a negative way, can risk falling into nihilism. For the East, ultimate reality is change. It arises as transient phenomenal forms out of “the Great Mother Dao, empty yet inexhaustible” (Daodejing Chapter 6 translated by Stephen Mitchell). The philosophical translation of the same verse by Roger T Ames and David L Hall, says: “The life-force of the valley never dies – this is called the dark female. The gateway of the dark female – This is called the root of the world.” (A Philosophical TranslationDao De Jing, “Making Life Significant,” 85).  “Dao” refers both to a hollow space as the source and the process of unfolding of phenomena in the present moment: it is nothingness as the “mode” or root-process of reality. Without nothingness, nothing could change, nothing could “be.” 

Nishida stands squarely in that Eastern standpoint “that the phenomenal is actually the real” when he says: “This world of historical reality, wherein we are born, act and die, must be, when logically seen, something like the contradictory self-identity of the many and the one” (Nishida Kitaro, Collected Works – quoted by Michiko Yusa in her PhD Dissertation, 223). What Nishida is saying is not simply that the real is the historical (or phenomenal) in the sense a secular Western philosopher rejecting religion would take it. What he is saying is, in symbolic representation, that “A is A, and yet A is not-A, therefore A is A” (Carter, The Nothingness Beyond God, 62). This is what Nishida calls the “logic of soku or soku hi. A is “what” a thing is as an object in ordinary consciousness. Yet A is just a name, a concept, a “cutting out of the “aboriginal sensible muchness” (William James, see Carter, 4) carried out for pratical purposes, so it is not a solid entity with “own being.” But it is precisely because it is not a solid entity, and because it is, as Carter says, “lined with nothingness” that it is, as a presence, a thing “that” is. And what it means is that unless we realise the standpoint of no-self, we never allow things to, as Heidegger would say, “presence” to us, we keep on running after what they are because we never see that they are, we never “real-ise” them, make them real for ourselves.

The Great Torii of Miyajima