Samadhi and Suchness

Three traditional Buddhist terms used in the context of Nishitani’s anontological triadic scheme need to be looked into: “samadhi,” and “suchness” (as well as “original countenance”) below, and “non-abiding nirvana, on the next page, together with Krummel’s conclusion.


“The point at which the being of things is constituted in unison with emptiness, the point at which things establish themselves, affirm themselves, and assume a ‘position.’ And there, settled in their position, things are in their samadhi-being”(RN 130).

The word “samadhi” is a key term in Nishitani’s anontological scheme. This is a traditional Buddhist term that goes back to Buddhism’s Indian origins. Nishitani, however, uses it in a new, creative way, to characterise the being of things in unison with emptiness. For instance, he writes: “The center represents the point at which the being of things is constituted in unison with emptiness, the point at which things establish themselves, affirm themselves, and assume a ‘position.’ And there, settled in their position, things are in their samadhi-being” (RN 130). Krummel comments: “This appropriation is quite innovative since samadhi has been traditionally associated with meditation as a state of complete concentration or absorption. But literally samadhi connotes ‘settling’, ‘gathering’, or ‘concentrating’ in general. Nishitani interprets this as referring to the state of settledness or self-gathering that applies to the originary form of all things, the primal activity that settles a thing to where it belongs in the cosmos, its localized and appropriate place where it assumes a ‘position’ vis-à-vis the web of interdependent origination. In dying to one’s ego and realizing no-self, in the meditative absorption of samadhi, one ceases projecting one’s self onto things. In this state of absolute passivity, self and thing are “settled in their own place/s” (or: samadhi-being, Jp jozai), and things are manifest just as they are, in suchness. This seems to roughly correspond to what Dogen called “dwelling in the dharma position” (Jp juhoi). At the same time this is to be distinguished from any notion of a fixed substance. The settledness making something what it is, is paradoxically a non-substantiality … Its formlessness or emptiness is its very suchness. Samadhi as the natural state of beings designates the natural spontaneity whereby “things and persons are what they are and do what they do” (James Heisig) selflessly without reification or self-attachment.”

Suchness and Original Countenance

“The point at which 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 106).

Likewise, “suchness” (Skt tathata, Jp noyjitsu) and “original countenance” are two Buddhist terms Nishitani appropriates to describe the positivity of emptiness.

Though the word “suchness” (also called “thusness’ or “as-it-is-ness”) can be found in Theravada – the Buddha was the Tathagata, the one who had attained suchness – it is a core concept of Mahayana, especially in the Yogacara writings where it describes “the third and highest ‘nature’ i.e., “the parinispanna, the ‘absolutely accomplished,’ or ‘perfected nature’ … this is the absolutely real level, devoid of the subject/object duality.” It is also called ‘the inconceivable as-it-is-ness of reality’ (Peter Harvey). “Original countenance” refers to the originary being of things in-themselves, on their home-ground on the field of sunyata.

Krummel writes: “In the realization of emptiness, one awakens to the ‘original countenance’ of the self and of the world, emptied of reifications or attachments, and this is an awakening to the suchness of reality. The term in Buddhist discourse has a more positive connotation that counters the negative connotation that might be wrongly associated with emptiness.”

In the context of his triadic scheme going from substantialism to nihility as relative nothingness, to sunyata as absolute emptiness, Nishitani describes it as follows: “Buddhism goes further to speak of ‘the emptiness of the nihilizing view’, by which it means to stress that ‘absolute emptiness’ in which nihilizing emptiness would itself be emptied … Here both the ‘nihilizing view’, that merely negative attitude found in every sort of nihilism, as well as the ‘view of constancy’, the merely positive attitude found in all kinds of positivism and naive realism, are both overcome. All attachment is negated: both the subject and the way in which ‘things’ appear as objects of attachment are emptied. Everything is now truly empty, and this means that all things make themselves present here and now, just as they are, in their original reality. They present themselves in their suchness, their tathata. This is non-attachment … Only absolute emptiness is the true no-ground (Ungrund). Here all things – from a flower or a stone to stellar nebulae and galactic systems, and even life and death themselves – become present as bottomless realities. They disclose their bottomless suchness. True freedom lies in this no-ground“ (RN 34).

“Through our ‘great death’,” Krummel comments, “abandoning and throwing away self- attachment, the field of bottomlessness is opened up where we receive all phenomena … That abyss engulfs not only beings but their opposite, non-being as well. In that emptiness nihility itself is nullified and transcended through the double negation of being and nothing, reification and nullification. In this nihilation of nihility, the negative converges with the positive to form the basis for life-affirmation, the lived realization of nothingness as reality, so that the ‘great death’ turns to the ‘great life’.” Regarding this, Nishitani makes a statement in the last essay of the book – Sunyata and History – already mentioned, but worth repeating: “Only when such an extreme is reached, however, is the fundamental conversion able to occur. It is the turnabout from the Great Death to the Great Life. It is something of which we cannot ask why. There can be no conceivable basis for it to take hold of. That is to say, this conversion is an event taking place at a point more elemental than the dimension on which events occur that can be spoken of in terms of reasons and bases. If a reason is to be sought, it can only be as the traditional religions have all sought it: on the “other” side, in God or in Buddha, in something like Divine Providence, Love of God, or the Original Vow of Amida Buddha. But a reason that is on the side of God or Buddha is not the sort of reason man is after when he asks why. After all, we can do no other than to say: it is so” (RN 231).

Krummel writes: “Suchness designates this lived affirmativity of nothingness … Emptiness as fundamentally self-emptying allows for the manifestation of things; it gives place to beings, returning us to affirm their being … Non-different from the world as it is without ground, it affirms reality as ‘primal fact’, cut off from any how, why, wherefore, reminding us of Eckhart’s Leben ohne Warum (‘life without a reason why’).”

In Nishitani’s words: “On the field of sunyata, fact as primal fact, that is fact as the very fact it is in its own true reality, is groundlessly itself. It is simultaneously the far side and the near side of every roothold and every ground, on every dimension. It is simply itself, cut off from every How and Why and Wherefore. And this being, a being bottomlessly on the field of sunyata, is precisively what we have been calling illusory appearance. Our subjective existence and all its facts can also be called a ‘likeness’ of that sort” (RN 158).

Though for most people, the idea that the manifestation of things as they are in their suchness on the field of emptiness is illusory, is not what they want to hear, Krummel, in agreement with Nishitani, states that, in a Buddhist context, emptiness qua suchness is a reaffirmation of existence and a key to authentic freedom. He writes: “Nishitani … takes emptiness qua suchness to constitute the basis for a positive attitude to life, a free—that is unattached, unfettered—reaffirmation of existence. Emptiness in this sense proves to be a field of ‘beification’ (Ge Ichtung, Jp uka), the field of ‘the great affirmation’ (Jp okina kotei) where we can say ‘Yes’ to all things, overturning the ‘No’ of nihilism, overcoming nihility that is the field of nullification (Ge Nichtung, Jp muka). Stepping through nihilism into emptiness returns us to this affirmativity (J. koteisei) that characterizes the ‘original form’ (Jp honrai no sugata) of being alive.” For those who think in the traditional terms of samsara and nirvana, Nishitani explains: “In Buddhism, true transcendence, detachment from the ‘world’ of samsara as such, has been called nirvana. If existence in the world rests essentially on nihility, as something being nullified; and if life, subjected to the cycle of birth-and-death, be in essence a death; then nirvana, which means dying to this ‘life’ of birth-and-death and hence, dying to ‘death’ in its essential sense, is a ‘life’ in its essential sense” … It is the essential conversion from true finitude to true infinity … Infinity, as a reality, is cut off from the prehension of reason. No sooner do we try to grasp it on the dimension of reason that it turns forthwith into something conceptual. True infinity as reality refuses to be encountered anywhere but along the path of Existenz. This infinity itself arises to awareness only in becoming present within human existence, even as it effects an essential conversion in that existence. To take possession of infinity is for infinity to become reality as life; for it to be really lived” (RN 176-177). Also, “it is not enough to say that birth-and-death is essentially ‘death’. It is essentially life while remaining essentially death. As Dogen says, “Birth-and-death is itself the Life of Buddha.” Samsara is truly samsara as samsara-sive-nirvana, “Samsara is not samsara, therefore it is samsara” – this is its truth” (RN 180).

“If,” Krummel says, “the realization of emptiness means rebirth to a life that affirms the very suchness of reality, the locus of liberation or salvation is this world, not another. Its realization occurs here-and-now, and not in another transcendent realm, or in Buddhist terms on the yonder shore beyond samsara. The apparently transcendent nature of emptiness that is beyond the conventional world is in fact realized in this concrete world, on ‘the near side’ or ‘this shore’ (Jp shigan) of the stream of birth-and-death … There is only ‘this world and this earthly life’.” (see RN 90), to which we are returned and awakened in the transcendence of transcendence, the negation of negation. Nishitani also characterizes this as an “absolutely transcendent near-side” lying “nearer to the self than the self to itself” (see RN 90). Nishitani goes as far as stating that “the distinguishing feature of Buddhism consists in its being the religion of the absolute near side” (RN 99).

Krummel then asks: “What kind of a life is this life of affirmation? The lived realization of emptiness, its existential appropriation, conquers nihilism with an attitude of profound play that might be characterized by the gatheredness of samadhi or in Eckhartian terms life living itself without why or Leben ohne Warum. In freedom from the fetters of attachment, all our work takes on the character of play without aim or reason or cause, having cast off the character of why or wherefore (see RN 252). Living becomes autotelic and autonomous. Being without purpose here no longer means senselessness as in nihilism but rather that every thing and every act occurs or exists for its own sake, invested with its own worth. They possess their own value without reference to anything beyond. When work becomes play it possesses its own earnestness in its natural and spontaneous accord with the nature of things (dharma) or ‘dharmic naturalness’ (Jp honi jinen). Though the word ‘play’ here does refer to child’s play, what is meant here is the opposite of what we normally associate with the word. It is a reference to the earnestness, as much as the ‘pretending’ aspect of a child’s play. In Nishitani’s words: “At the point that our work becomes play, it is at the same time an elemental earnestness. In reality, there is no more unrestricted, take-things-as-they come sort of play than the emergence of self into its nature from non-ego; and at the same time, there is nothing more serious and earnest. In the state of ‘dharmic naturalness’ – of natural and spontaneous accord with the dharma – this is how it is with all things. That is why from time immemorial the image of the child has so often been invoked to portray such an elemental mode of being. For the child is never more earnest than when engaged in mindless play” (RN 255).

Krummel concludes this section on suchness with the following: “No longer centered on the ego and hence freed of karmic debt, work is play or ‘playful samadhi‘ (Jp yuge zammai) (see 252–53). Parallel to the realization of no-self, doing here is non-volitional and spontaneous, for which Nishitani invokes the ancient Chinese term of ‘non-doing’ (Ch wuwei, Jp mui) (see RN 257, 277). And this doing of non-doing, parallel to the true self that is no-self, occurs together with the realization of the emptiness of emptiness. On the basis of the anontology of emptiness then we have an ethics of how to live or how to approach life, despite all of its unpleasanteries and negativities (nihility).”

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

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) – Mount Sainte Victoire