“My basic task, simply put, was to overcome nihilism by passing through it.”
Nishitani Keiji writes: “My life as a young man can be described in a single phrase: it was a period absolutely without hope … My life at the time lay entirely in the grips of nihility and despair … My decision, then, to study philosophy was in fact – melodramatic as it might sound – a matter of life and death (“The Days of my Youth – Heart in the Wind”). Heisig adds that “the deeper he got into his study of the German idealists and the western mystics, the more he began to suffer from a psychological condition that he described as ‘a great void inside of myself’.” The more his thinking matured, the more distance he felt from life ‘like a fly bumping up against a window-pane but unable to get through’ or like a person watching a blizzard from behind a window, unable to feel the bite of the snow and wind on his face.”
Nishitani’s mentor, Nishida Kitaro, had stated his goal as a philosopher to be a rearticulation of East Asia’s understanding of the nature of ultimate reality in terms borrowed from Western philosophy. This, he said, would allow its perennity in a future he saw as coming fast when Japanese would have become thoroughly westernised. Unlike Nishitani, Nishida had retained a positive outlook. Graham Parkes writes that Nishitani, who had grown up in such a westernized Japan, was uniquely plagued with a sense of nihilism, and his philosophy reflects a “profound existential concern” which distinguishes his thought not only from that of Nishida, but also from that of Tanabe Hajime, with whom Nishitani had also studied, whose works tended to be “more speculative and abstract.” In addition, Nishitani “further distinguishes himself from Nishida and Tanabe … by a deeper engagement with European thinkers that aimed to build bridges between Western and Asian philosophies to, [in Nishitani’s words] ‘lay the foundations of thought for a world in the making, for a world united beyond differences of East and West’.” As, however, he sought to lay these “foundations,” aiming at a “a world united beyond differences,” “Nishitani’s existential thinking also pose[d] a radical challenge to mainstream Western philosophy: by comparison with a thinking derived from the Buddhist tradition, most Western thought is superficial, dealing with surface phenomena of consciousness and thereby failing to attain a deep understanding of or engagement with the people and things with which we interact” (Parkes). This became clear when Nishitani traced the roots of nihilism to the technologisation of the modern world which had exacerbated the process of objectification whereby things seen as objects outside of us are separated from the self seen as subject inside of us. Technology had reduced all things to a “manipulable stock, extinguishing as a consequence any residue of humanity” (John Krummel).
Nishitani’s specific meaning of “doing philosophy “as a matter of life and death,” will be better understood after a first look at Nishitani’s articulation of human existence as “consisting in three levels, or “fields” (Jp ba), as explicated in Religion and Nothingness. The three levels are: the field of consciousness (which embraces what he calls “the field of sensation” and “the field of reason”), below that the field of nihility (Jp kyomu), and underlying that the field of emptiness (Skt sunyata). These fields are always co-present, and each deeper field is more extensive and encompassing than the one above it” (Parkes).
Parkes further characterises the three fields as follows: “On the field of consciousness (which is where most of us live most of our waking lives) we exist, so to say, in a “life” perspective; the field of nihility represents by contrast a “death” perspective; and the field of emptiness offers a death perspective on life, or a “death-life” perspective. Insofar as existing on the field of emptiness offers us, on the Buddhist view, the most enlightened view, this death-life perspective enables us to understand and live life to the fullest.” This is also a way in which Nishitani’s inquiry can be referred to as “a matter of life and death.”
Buddhist schools tend to formulate their teachings in terms of an alternative between two standpoints from which reality can be viewed – that of ordinary everyday conceptual consciousness, where things are seen to be separate objects existing independently of us, corresponding to Nishitani’s “field of consciousness” and that of the enlightened mind, where things are recognised as being empty of independent existence, corresponding to the “field of emptiness.” This reflects Nagarjuna’s Two Truths, absolute truth and conventional truth. Zhiyi (538–597), the founder of the Tiantai/Tendai school, however, had elaborated Nagarjuna’s doctrine into his own doctrine of the Threefold Truth, which is succinctly presented as the addition of a third Truth – the Middle – to Nagarjuna’s Two Truths doctrine where this third truth is conceived as encompassing Nagarjuna’s Two Truths. According to the absolute truth, “all things arise through a confluence of causes and conditions and therefore are empty of substantial being.” Yet, Paul Swanson explains, “all phenomena have significance as being temporary or conventionally existent; to realize these two aspects as identical and equally significant is the Middle Way.” John Krummel explicitly credits Zhiyi’s Threefold Truth as being the origin of Nishitani’s three-field scheme. He says: “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.”
Using traditional Buddhist language, Nishitani writes: “The point at which [relative] emptiness is emptied to become true emptiness is the point at which each and every thing becomes manifest in possession of its own suchness” (RN 70). In other words, when nihility, as relative lack of existence and meaning in the experience of nihilism, is emptied through “its extension to the self itself,” it becomes true emptiness, where all things manifest “just as they are,” in their “suchness.” Nishitani likes to say, “on their home-ground.”
So, nihility may be regarded as a field, but it is one that you must “run quickly across!” The only authentic way out of nihility is what Nishitani calls the “radicalization” of nothingness. Nihility in the world can only be overcome by its extension to the self itself. As long as one still conceives of “a thing called nothingness,” one is still stuck on the field of consciousness. With the nullification of the self, the field of consciousness is broken through, and nothingness ceases being a thing. “Absolute nothingness” is a realisation, lived as an experiential restoration of both self and things. A negation can only be cancelled by a second negation which turns it into an affirmation. This is the central, and most precious, insight of Buddhism. So, whereas the experience of nihility, be it in the acute form of nihilism suffered by Nishitani, or in the many vexations we are faced with in our daily lives, provides us with the first negation – that of things -, we must turn to Buddhist practice, in particular that of the Great Doubt, to access the second negation – that of the self – for both things and self to become restored on the field of emptiness. In the words of Takusui, one of Hakuin’s disciples: “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.”
Nishitani Keiji – Religion and Nothingness
James Heisig – Philosophers of Nothingness
Graham Parkes – Nishitani Keiji – “Practicing Philosophy as a Matter of Life and Death” in the Oxford Handbook of Japanese Philosophy Ed. Bret W. Davis
Paul L. Swanson – Chapter on Tiantai/Tendai in the Oxford Handbook of Japanese Philosophy, ed. Bret W. Davis
John W M Krummel – “Nihilism, Buddhism, Anontology,” in The Dao Companion to Japanese Buddhist Philosophy ed Gereon Kopf