Religion as the Real Self-Realization of Reality

“Nishitani understands what Buddhism takes as enlightenment to mean the [real] self-realization of reality in one’s self-awareness” (John Krummel).

Nishitani had dismissed the definitions of religion found in Western writings as unsatisfactory because they were the products of an investigation of religion as an object viewed from the outside and, in his view, they failed to grasp what religion is as such. Nishitani, then, stated,: “I should like to approach religion from a somewhat different angle, as the self-awareness of reality, or, more correctly, the ‘real’ self-awareness of reality’ (RN 5). In fact, he had been quick to drop the word “self-awareness” to replace it by the word “self-realization,” explaining: “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 … 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) … In other words, the self-realization of reality can only take place by causing our existence to become truly real” (RN 5-6).

Nishitani is keen to emphasise the difference between a mere conceptual understanding taking place on the field of consciousness, and a “real” question arising from one’s whole being – one could say, a matter of simple knowledge versus an existential grasp of reality. He writes: “In order for it to become a ‘real’ question, one that is asked with the whole self, body and mind, it must be returned to reality itself. The question that asks ‘about’ reality must itself become something that ‘belongs’ to reality … I should like to try to interpret the religious quest as man’s search for true reality in a ‘real’ way, (that is not theoretically and not in the form of concepts)” (RN 6).

To the experience of reality as reflected on the field of consciousness, Nishitani opposes “another sense of the real altogether different from the various meanings discussed so far” (RN 8). As an example of this sense of the real, Nishitani quotes a passage from Dostoevski’s The House of the Dead, recording Dostoevski’s intense experience during his time in prison, while he was carrying bricks by the banks of a river: “Sometimes I would fix my sight for a long while upon the poor smokey cabin of some baїguch; I would study the bluish smoke as it curled in the air, the Kirghiz woman busy with her sheep … The things I saw were wild, savage, poverty-stricken; but they were free. I would follow the flight of a bird threading its way in the pure transparent air; now it skims the water, now disappears in the azure sky, now suddenly comes to view again, a mere point in space. Even the poor wee floweret fading in a cleft of the bank, which would show itself when spring began, fixed my attention and would draw my tears.” “As Dostoevski himself tells us, this is the only spot at which he saw ‘God’s world, a pure and bright horizon, the free desert steppes’” (RN 8).

Dostoevski had been suspected of belonging to a circle of social reformists, arrested, and sentenced to death in St Petersburg: a letter from the tsar commuting his sentence had arrived as he was already lining up for his execution. He had then been sent to a Siberian camp where he spent four years of hard labour in particularly harsh conditions.

The things he saw we do take to be real when encountered in our everyday lives. But we do not normally see them with this degree of intensity. “The significance of their realness and the sense of the real in them that he experienced in perceiving them as real are something altogether qualitatively different” (RN 8). Although, for Dostoevski, this unusually intense experience of realness had occurred in the context of a particularly painful encounter with nihility, Nishitani asserts that “it is an experience open to anyone and everyone. It is something to which poets and religious men and women have attested down through the ages” (RN 9).

This enhanced “sense of the real,” arises when we are able to “lose ourselves” in, and “become the very things we are looking at.” By contrast, “although we ordinarily think of things in the external world as real, we may not actually get in touch with the reality of those things. I would venture to say that in fact we do not.” This is because we are used “to seeing things from the standpoint of the self” (RN 9).

“To look at things from the standpoint of the self is always to see things merely as objects, that is, to look at things without from a field within the self … This standpoint of separation of subject and object, or opposition between within and without, is what we call the field of “consciousness.” And it is from this field that we ordinarily relate to things by means of concepts and representations … On the field of consciousness, it is not possible to get in touch with things as they are, that is, to face them in their own mode of being and on their own home-ground. On the field of consciousness, self always occupies center stage.” The same thing applies to our internal consciousness: “We also think of our own selves, and of our ‘inner’ thoughts, feelings, and desires as real. But here too, it is doubtful whether we properly get in touch with ourselves” (RN 9).

This separation between us and things as they are, Nishitani says is the “bias of consciousness.” In other words, it is the way consciousness operates. “So long as the field of separation between within and without is not broken through, and so long as a conversion from that standpoint does not take place, the lack of unity and contradiction … cannot help but prevail among the things we take as real” (RN 10).

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

Photo credit: Seraphim J. Sigrist