Sympathetic Coalescence

Tokei-ji Rinzai Zen Temple in Kita-Kamakura where Nishida’s funeral was held

Compassion always signifies that opposites are one in the dynamic reciprocity of their own contradictory identity. The religious will arise as the self-determination of this dimension of sympathetic coalescence (Nishida Kitaro, “The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview,” in Last Writings, 107).

Last Writings

Michiko Yusa tells us that on 4 February, 1945 Nishida embarked on his last essay, “The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview.” Only four days later, on 8 February, Nishida’s eldest daughter, died unexpectedly. Nishida was devastated. Of the eight children he had fathered, five had died before him. American air raids had started at the end of 1944 with Tokyo as one of their main targets. Food had become scarce. Japan’s defeat seemed to be imminent. Nishida rejected an offer to leave Kamakura whose residents had been asked to dig bomb shelters. Yusa says that Nishida “was ready to die any day” (Michiko Yusa, Zen and Philosophy – An Intellectual Biography of Nishida Kitaro, 328). He completed the text on 14 April. In a letter sent to Suzuki Daisetz, he clarifies what he had been keen to convey: “I want to make clear that religious reality cannot be grasped by conventional objective logic, but it reveals itself to the ‘logic of contradictory self-identity’, for what you call ‘the logic of sokuhi‘. From the standpoint of prajna (wisdom), I want to discuss what a ‘person’ is and want to connect that ‘person’ to the actual historical world” (Letter to Suzuki Daisetz quoted by Yusa, Ibid, 330). The text is not easy. It was obviously written under pressure, but it is amazing that Nishida was able to write it at all. As one reads it, one cannot forget the dramatic events which surrounded Nishida’s life at the time, and prompted him to explicitly present his philosophical insights as “the religious worldview,” not only that of Zen or Buddhism, or even that of the East, but the worldview at the core of religion as such. It has been noted that, for most of his life, Nishida had refrained from referring directly to his Zen sources. In this last essay, he is quoting them more freely, but what is most striking, and a bit unsettling at times, is that he often uses words borrowed from the Christian terminology, even as he describes notions he evidently took from Zen. 

A Christian rephrasing of self-contradictory identity 


Though the assertion that, in Nishida’s words, “God as the true absolute must be Satan, too,” (“The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview” in Last Writings 74) can be found in the works of Christian theologians, it is certainly not the central teaching church sermons focus on at Sunday mass. This is obviously a somewhat provocative reformulation of Nishida’s self-contradictory identity, and Carter reassuringly explains that this is “only to impress one with the fact that distinctions must be balanced by another aperture of understanding that embraces all distinctions as the partial working out of the whole of things” (Robert E Carter, The Nothingness Beyond God – An Introduction to the Philosophy of Nishida Kitaro, 130).

The use of Christian words such as God and Satan compelled Nishida to face head on the question of the relationship between religion and morality. Nishida had often criticised Kant for claiming that “God is an intellectual assumption” which is “subsidiary to morality” (Carter, Ibid, 92). Christianity, on the other hand, put original sin at the very centre of its worldview, with Jesus said to have redeemed the sin of Adam, though this did not stop many Christian thinkers – for example St Augustine and Kierkegaard – from being torn apart by the problem of sin. The Buddhist notion of karma is less terrifying as practitioners are, to a larger extent, put in charge of their lives, and intentions, at least inasmuch as the intentions, even more that the acts, determine your karmic load. At a deeper level, Buddhism in general, and Zen in particular, have often been accused of amorality, or at least of relativism. In a world where all things come into view self-contradictorily as pairs of opposites – large and small, hot and cold, light and dark – one has to accept the same inter-dependence for such opposites as good and evil, life and death. Whereas religion in the West is defined as the quest for the good and the hope of eternity, Zen Buddhism can be said to advocate an acceptance of duality in the sense that duality reveals a deeper unity, and that deeper unity is nothingness as a dynamic field where oneness expresses itself as the world of forms through becoming many. Religion in this context is a direct experience of this process of self-determination of the one as the many, or of the formless as the world of forms. It is a dynamic process which the Chinese call “change,” and it has to include everything, including evil, and death. So, it is a fact that Buddhism, especially in Zen, does appear to be amoral. Nishida, however, shows that this is a misunderstanding. As Buddhist practitioners realise dis-identification with the sense of “I,” and settle in the egoless standpoint where they, in a sense, become the world, they allow the dynamism of nothingness to move within them as love and compassion, and express itself through their “true selves.” “Morality” can be said to well up out of the empty self as a sort of natural ethicality. It is the result of a “sympathetic coalescence” with all things as compassion unites all opposites within the dynamic nothingness of the self.

Nishida’s words, that God is also Satan is, “the paradox of God: God is hidden even within the heart of the absolutely evil man. A God who merely judges the good and the bad is not truly absolute. But this does not mean that God looks indifferently at good and evil” (Nishida, Last Writings, 75). “The ground of this value preference is that the very act of religious realisation is to throw out, or abandon altogether, the self itself” (Nishida, Ibid, 76-77). Religiosity “must be an abandoning of the self in its existential depths” (Nishida, Ibid, 77). Such an abandoning of the self is experientially the realisation that the self is not the ego I think I am, but an embrace of the world, it is the nothingness in the process of self-determination as the world of forms. As Nishida has repeatedly pointed out, nothingness is not just empty, it is dynamic, and we experience this dynamism as a feeling, love, compassion, benevolence, empathy, good will, understanding. Seen from the standpoint of object logic, God is a judge who gives out rewards and punishments. Experienced as an event within oneself, God is a loving embrace of all things and all beings. Already in An Inquiry Into The Good, Nishida wrote: “People usually think that knowledge and love are entirely different mental activities. To me … they are fundamentally the same. This activity is the union of subject and object. It is the activity in which the self unites with things … And why is love the union of subject and object? To love something is to cast away the self and unite with that other” (Nishida, An Inquiry Into The Good, 173-74). 

Statue of Kannon, Daienin Temple, Mt Koya

“From this fact that we are embraced by God’s absolute love … our moral life wells forth from the depths of our own minds. People do not seem truly to understand love. Instinct is not love; it is selfish desire. True love must be an interexpressive relation between persons, between I and Thou. I say, therefore, that there must be God’s absolute love in the depths of the absolute moral ought. If not, the moral ought degenerates into something merely legalistic (Nishida, Last Writings, 100-101).

The Heartmind

Carter explains that what Nishida refers to as God’s love, and a moral life arising from our depths, may be better understood through the Japanese notion of kokoro (which is the Japanese translation for the Chinese xin or heart-mind). “The thrust is towards a natural, spontaneous, genuine, intrinsic (rather than reward oriented) expression of fellow-feeling from the heart. Kokoro, a term which can refer to both mind and heart, is a term of praise of character. One has kokoro if one interacts with another lovingly, or in a thoroughly friendly way, for no ulterior or extrinsic reasons. One just spontaneously, and from one’s depths expresses such warmth, caring, and concern … One envelops the other in good will. Kokoro is the natural and spontaneous springing up from the depths of feeling of a human being, from his or her “true heart” an aspiration to be friendly, and to live happily with everyone” (Carter, The Nothingness Beyond God, 138).

This role of the heart in Zen is often missed by those who have tried to popularize it in the West, and as a result, Zen is often regarded as a training of the mind, whereas the heart – the devotional – is associated with Christianity. While most Japanese are in fact followers of the Pure Land school, which is an explicitly devotional practice, what Zen masters call the Mind is a translation of xin/kokoro, it includes the heart as a matter of course for anyone living in the East, and should be translated as “heart-mind.” In the West, whose culture is built on a contrast between the heart, viewed suspiciously as the cause of subjective bias, and the mind, which alone can be trusted to achieve objectivity, it is very difficult, even for Buddhist practitioners, to remember that the heart is “included” in the Eastern Mind. In Zen, the mind has to be trained to detach itself from its belief that the conceptual is the real and, as it were, peel off the conceptual layer to recover a direct concrete experience and a reconnection with the heart, which the mind has been suppressing. 

Morality as the spontaneous expression of the self-determination of nothingness

En route to one’s bottomless depths, one passes through morality, and when one reaches the deepest or religious “place,” one continues to perform right actions, and to avoid evil ones, by simply and spontaneously acting, without attaching the qualities “goodness” or “badness” to one’s actions. A Buddhist acts from his own deep nature, and not out of duty, fear, or a desire to abide by the law. He acts, rather, from the deepest motivations. Even so, he performs generally what morality would dictate. As Dogen affirmed, “Benevolence is the universal law.” This is a far cry from the Western claim that the universal law is the survival of the fittest! The idea here is that by becoming self-less one comes to real-ise – make real – the universal law of reality, which is benevolence. “Morality is now the spontaneous expression of who one really is and, therefore, the self-determination of absolute nothingness itself …”   (Carter, Ibid, 145)

Kannon within the circle of emptiness

As Dogen stated, “To study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to become all things” – thus being enlightened by all things – and this is, ultimately, “to remove the barriers between one’s self and others,” that is, to embrace all people and identify with them, that is, “feel with” them, in what the Germans call  Mit-gefühl, and the English com-passion or sym-pathy. The three words have the same etymology. “If I am my neighbor, and he/she is me at my depths, then I have no more reason to do harm to him/her than to myself. If I am, at my bottomlessness, the whole cosmos, and all forms are forms of the absolute, then I would not wish to do harm to any part of the whole, any more than to the small part of it temporarily known as myself. Like the creator, our attitude must be that of compassion, for compassion is ground in the capacity to leave behind the narrow limits of the empirical self-as-separate, and to compenetrate or empathetically identify with the other as a Thou” (Carter, Ibid, 159). Nishida says that “Compassion always signifies that opposites are one in the dynamic reciprocity of their own contradictory identity. The religious will arises as the self-determination of this dimension of sympathetic coalescence” (Nishida, Last Writings, 107). The religious will expresses itself as the ethical since, as I become no-self, I become all things and beings, and, as Carter states above, “I have no more reason to do harm to (them) than to myself.”

Zen, however, “has nothing to do with mysticism”

Sunflowers – Hokusai (1760-1849) – Cincinnati Art Museum.

This equation of the religious will with a sympathetic coalescence, an expression which is reminiscent of the mystics’ notion of union with God, should not, Nishida insists, mislead us into thinking that Zen is a sort of mysticism. “Zen has nothing to do with mysticism, as many think. Kensho, seeing one’s nature, means to penetrate to the roots of one’s own self. The self exists as the absolute’s own self-negation. We exist as the many through the self-negation of the One … Kensho means to penetrate to the bottomlessly contradictory existence of one’s own self” (Nishida, Ibid, 108). 

Mysticism is a Western term which can only be understood at the level of object logic. It is defined as the experience of mystical union or direct communion with God. It involves dissolving one’s self into this larger Being, as the wave, which is a transient form, becomes what it really is – water – by dissolving into the ocean. In Zen Buddhism, God as Being is also discarded, ultimate reality is an absolute nothingness, it is formless. Kensho (enlightened insight) is not the realisation that one is a larger being, it is that one sees the roots of one’s self as the absolute’s own self-negation. Basically, it is grasping within one’s self the principle of self-contradictory identity. It is realising that I am at once the ocean as an expanse of water, and the wave as a form arising out of that expanse of water. Because the wave as form is empty, so it is the formless water. In both the mystic’s union with God and the Buddhist kensho,  there is a negation of the self. In the case of the mystic, this negation is interpreted as a dissolving of one’s (ego)-self to, as it were, replace it with God’s higher being, to achieve a sense of permanence in the solid divine ground of being. In the case of the kensho, negating the self means seeing that it is not a “thing,” it is no-thing, but as no-thing, it is the nothingness of the formless world, which self-determines through self-contradiction as the world of forms. What is accessed is not a solid divine ground of being but the dynamic ground of change, where all things are in tension, constantly moving. My self, in that context, is a the energy of life itself, it creates itself as it expresses itself as forms, phenomena, and, as Nishida now emphasises, the historical world.

This is what Nishida referred to in the letter he sent to Suzuki, clarifying what he had tried to do in his last essay: “I want to make clear that religious reality cannot be grasped by conventional objective logic, but it reveals itself to the “logic of contradictory self-identity,” or what you call ‘the logic of sokuhi‘” (Letter to Suzuki Daisetz quoted by Yusa, Ibid, 330).

Tenma Bridge – Hokusai (1760-1849)