The Field of Emptiness as the Home-Ground of all Things

“Being is only being if it is one with emptiness. Everything that is stands on its own home-ground only on the field of emptiness, where it is itself in its own suchness” (Religion and Nothingness p 124).

As a series of essays Nishitani wrote at different times, Religion and Nothingness keeps on returning to the same topic, as his insight grows deeper, and his elucidation of the nature of reality becomes more refined. In Essay 4, entitled “The Standpoint of Sunyata,” Nishitani starts with a rearticulation of the contrast between the field of reason or perception (or consciousness), where things are only accessible as representations, and the field of sunyata, where everything stands on its own home-ground, where it is itself in its own suchness.

In ordinary everyday consciousness, things are grasped as subtances. Nishitani writes: “Ordinarily, it is thought that substance makes a thing exist as itself … In other words, it is the being of a being” (RN 119). It would, however, be incorrect to say that things are “perceived” as substances, because “it is generally held that substance is imperceptible to the senses, that as the selfness of a thing lying behind various sensory appearances, it can only be grasped through thinking” (RN 119). The perception of a thing by our senses and its identification as a substance are two different processes. Substance is “thought into” (“hineindenkt” is the word used by Kant) the perceived form. Nishitani says that substance has “represented a constitutive element in ontological reflection” (RN 119). Modern science also differentiates what is perceived by the senses and its interpretation by the consciousness centre in the brain. A person with perfect eyesight will be unable to see a particular “thing” if their consciousness centre is damaged.

This “thinking into” “invariably restricts the selfness of a thing to the way that thing is disclosed to us on the field of reason … The function of thinking, as an activity of reason in us, is to journey beyond the field of sense perception to a field on which things can be made to disclose their selfness. Therein lies the particular significance of thinking. But for that very reason, the “substance” grasped on the field of reason cannot but be the mode of being of a thing in its selfness insofar as it appears to us and insofar as it is seen by us. We would be hard put to show that this points straight to the thing itself in its mode of being where it could be said to be on its own home-ground. Such original selfness must lie beyond the reach of reason and be impervious to thought”(RN 119-120).

Plato’s theory of Ideas as perfect (abstract) Forms where “being” is located, and Descartes’s concept of body/matter (res extensa) in opposition to mind (res cogitans) also arose from a field on which the subjective and the objective were set in opposition to one another.” What we need to do, then, is “rid ourselves of thinking in terms of the opposition of subject and object” which Nishitani refers to as the “paradox of representation” (RN 120).

Could it be, then, that we could “get in touch with the reality of things through our action, or praxis where the standpoint of representation has already been passed beyond? On what kind of field is such praxis initially possible? (RN 120). To find out, Nishitani borrows a story from Western philosophy. “The story is told of Dr. Johnson that, upon hearing of Berkeley’s theory that for a thing “to be” means for it “to be perceived,” he promptly pretended to trip his foot against a stone in refutation. However much truth we may find concealed in this refutation-by-action, it does not of itself really offer proof to the contrary. The question still remains as to what sort of field Dr. Johnson’s action originated from. Did it merely take place on a field of sense perception similar to what we find in animals? Or did it occur on a field proper to the mode of being of man with his clarity of consciousness and intellect? Or again, did it take place on a field beyond consciousness and intellect? (RN 121). Berkeley equated “to be” with “being perceived.” We are still on the field of consciousness, and as it is now agreed that reason “thinks into” what is perceived to make sense of it, it looks like Berkeley was incorrect on this point.

Nishitani therefore concludes: “Materialism, no less than idealism, does not even begin to open up a field on which immediate contact with the very reality of things through praxis would be possible. Both materialism and idealism lose sight of the basic field where the reality of things and praxis initially come about; they lose sight of the sort of field where things become manifest in their suchness, where every action, no matter how slight, emerges into being from its point of origin” (RN 121).

Passage beyond the field of the opposition of subject and object has been proposed on two occasions in Western philosophy. “Materiality is represented as going beyond the opposition of subject and object through an orientation to the ‘matter’ of things appearing on the field of sensation; that is, a passageway to the ‘matter of things’ is made available on the field of sensation. On the other hand, Ideas are represented as going beyond the opposition of subject and object through an orientation favoring the “form” (eidos) or “substance” of things appearing on the field of reason” (RN 122).

Nishitani says that “the two are identical in that both are conceived of in terms of things that appear as “objects” on the field of the opposition of subject and object.” And, instead he suggests that “the field of nihility, on the other hand, appears at the point of breaking loose of all this entanglement in the subjective and the objective. On the field of nihility, all that is ordinarily said to exist or to be real on the fields of sensation and reason is unmasked as having nihility as its ground, as lacking roots from the very beginning” (RN 122).

On the field of nihility, “the act of con-concentration by which every being gathers itself within itself – in other words, the ‘beingness’ of a being’ is stretched out as if it were over an abyss and seems to fade away into bottomlessness. Nihility is a question that touches the essential quality of all existing things. And ‘nullification,’ then, is nothing more than a display of the form of ‘illusory appearance’ essential to all beings” (RN 122). Impermanence, which has been at the core of Buddhist teachings from the days of the Buddha, is a form of nihility all of us are familiar with.

However, “the nihility seen to lie a the ground of existence is still looked upon as something outside of existence … It is a nothingness represented from the side of being, a nothingness in opposition to being, a relative nothingness. And this brings us to the necessity of having nihility go a step further and convert to sunyata” (RN 123).

“The emptiness of sunyata,” on the other hand, “is not an emptiness represented as some “thing” outside of being and other than being. It is not simply an “empty nothing,” but rather an absolute emptiness, emptied even of these representations of emptiness. And for that reason, it is at bottom one with being, even as being is at bottom one with emptiness. At the elemental source where being appears as one with emptiness, at the home-ground of being, emptiness appears as one with being. We speak of an elemental source, but this does not mean some point recessed behind the things that we see with our eyes and think of with our minds. The source is as close as can be, ‘within hand’, of the things themselves. And the things as they are in themselves, where they are on their own home-ground, just what they are and in their suchness, are one with emptiness. For the field of emptiness stands opened at the very point that things emerge into being” (RN 123).

Later in the book, Nishitani makes clear that for a thing to be “at one with emptiness” means that it is illusory “and real in its very illusoriness.” He says: “That being is only being in unison with emptiness means that being possesses at its ground the character of an “illusion,” that everything that is, is in essence fleeting, illusory appearance.” It, however “also means that the being of things in emptiness is more truly real than what the reality or real being of things is usually taken to be (for instance, their substance) (RN 129). We’ll come back to this in “The “Middle” Mode of Being – The Insight.”

For now, Nishitani continues: “To say that being makes its appearance as something in unison with emptiness at bottom – or that on the field of emptiness each thing that is becomes manifest according to its own mode of being – means that everything that showed its Form of dispersion and dissolution in nihility is once more restored to being. Each and every thing that it recovers once again its power of concentration for gathering itself into itself. All are returned to the possibility of existence. Each thing is restored anew to its own virtus – that individual capacity that each thing possesses as a display of its own possibility of existence. The pine tree is returned to the virtus of the pine, the bamboo to the virtus of the bamboo, man to the virtus of his humanity. In that sense, emptiness might be called the field of “be-ification” (Ichtung) in contrast to nihility which is the field of “nullification” (Nichtung). To speak in Nietzschean terms, this field of be-ifiation is the field of the Great Affirmation, where we can say Yes to all things” (RN 123-124).

“On the field of emptiness all things appear again as substances, each possessed of its own individual self-nature, though of course not in the same sense that each possessed on the field of reason” (RN 124). It is good to make that point clear. Enlightened people still see the mountains, the rivers, the flowers, and other people! Only acutely autistic individuals are said to only “see” patches of colour. Enlightened people still see things as substances, but they see them in a different way, as “lined with emptiness.”

“On the field of reason, the selfness of a thing is expressed by speaking of it as “being one thing or another” or as “existing as one thing or another.” On the field of emptiness, however, the selfness of a thing … is rather disclosed precisely as something that cannot be so expressed. Selfness is laid bare as something that cannot on the whole be expressed in the ordinary language of reason, nor for that matter in any language containing logical form. Should we be forced to put it into words all the same, we can only express it in terms of a paradox, such as: “It is not this thing or that, therefore it is this thing or that … Being is only being if it is one with emptiness. Everything that is stands on its own home-ground only on the field of emptiness, where it is itself in its own suchness … On the field of emptiness, substantiality is an absolutely non-substantial substantiality … The “what” of a thing is a real “what” only when it is absolutely no “what” at all. The eidetic form of a thing is truly form only when it is one with absolute non-form.”

Nishitani Keiji – Religion and Nothingness

Hokusai (1760 – 1849) South Wind, Clear Sky, also known as Red Fuji, in the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji