The Great Doubt and the Great Death

“The double negation of things and self results in the restoration of both things and self on the field of emptiness, “which could be called “the field of ‘be-ification’ or, in Nietzschean terms, the field of the Great Affirmation, where we can say Yes to all things” (Religion and Nothingness p124).

Nishitani’s mentor, Nishida Kitaro, was keen to remind us that the grasp of reality as objects, as it were, on a screen in front of us, was a necessary step in the context of our everyday practical and social survival. He had said “Pure experience includes thinking.” But the objective apprehension should not be allowed to obfuscate the actual concrete reality. It is good to have a map, but it is of little use if we can no longer see the actual land we sought to explore! Still, Nishitani is particularly concerned with the hardening of objective consciousness that occurred with Descartes, and the disastrous effects it had on our mechanistic perception of reality as “a cold, lifeless world,” “raw material” at our disposal.

Nishitani writes: “[The standpoint of consciousness] has come to exercise a powerful control over us, never more so than since the emergence of the subjective autonomy of the ego in modern times. This latter appears most forcefully in the thought of Descartes, the father of modern philosophy. … Descartes set up a dualism between res cogitans (which has its essence in thought or consciousness) and res extensa (which has its essence in physical extension). On the one hand, he established the ego as a reality that is beyond all doubt and occupies the central position with regard to everything else that exists. His cogito, ergo sum expressed the mode of being of that ego as a self-centered assertion of its own realness. Along with this, on the other hand, the things in the natural world came to appear as bearing no living connection with the internal ego. Even animals and the body of man himself were thought of as mechanisms” (RN 10-11).

Although the dualism between mind and body, or spirit and matter, went back to the early days of metaphysics, Descartes’s equation of the ego with thought came about within the particular context of his time, in search for a “ground of certainty” to act as guarantor for scientific research. Descartes had undertaken to doubt everything he knew, and come to the doubting and thinking “I.” The existence of this “I,” he could not doubt. So he posited it as the first principle of his method. But, of course, it is on the mode of the cogito, what Nishitani refers to as the field of consciousness (or reason) that this had been achieved. Critics have retorted “I think, therefore there is thinking activity,” but it does not follow from this that there is an entity that thinks.

Nishitani does recognise that the Cartesian ego allowed the development of science and technology, but it also transformed what had been seen with some awe as an explosion of life into a mechanistic hell. “By wielding his great power and authority in controlling the natural world, man came to surround himself with a cold, lifeless world. Inevitably, each individual ego became like a lonely but well-fortified island floating on a sea of dead matter. The life was snuffed out of nature and the things of nature; the living stream that flowed at the bottom of man and all things, and kept them bound together, dried up” (RN 11).

Looking back at the pre-scientific worldview, Nishitani sees a world where life created a bond between people within human groups, and between human groups and nature. A “sense of sharing life” created “sympathetic affinity” between people at a level deeper than that of consciousness. “Spirits” were felt to inhabit all things, trees, rivers, springs, the wind, thunder, etc, in religious systems referred to as animist or polytheist.

This being said, Nishitani here issues a warning. Even though we feel more in touch with reality when reflective/self-consciousness is less developed, we cannot return to this stage in the development of consciousness any more than we can return to the way we saw and related to the world where we were toddlers. There are, however, two ways we can use doubt: there is the methodical doubt used by Descartes to find a “ground of certainty” – based on the egocentric consciousness – and the Buddhist Great Doubt used in Zen and practiced by Nishitani himself, which includes the ego, “to seek a new and more encompassing viewpoint that passes through, indeed breaks through, the field of consciousness to give us a new perspective” (RN 13).

“The self of contemporary man is an ego of the Cartesian type, constituted self-consciously as something standing over against the world and all the things that are in it” (RN 13). What Descartes failed to notice is that the ego was only a representation of the self, therefore, an “object,” and “the subject cannot emerge out of something objective” (RN 14). And the very fact that the ego is self-evident stops us from undertaking any further questioning about the validity of that “ground of certainty.” It “keeps us from feeling the need to look at that evident fact from a field beyond that fact itself” (RN 14).

The field where this deeper truth is to be found, Nishitani calls “elemental.” The book’s glossary tells us that the Japanese term translated as “elemental” contains the Chinese characters for “roots” and “wellspring.” The word “elemental” “was itself borrowed from Kant who used “Elementar” in the sense of source. “The self-consciousness of the cogito, ergo sum, therefore, needs to be thought about by leaving its subjectivity as is and proceeding from a field more basic than self-consciousness, a field that I have been calling “elemental.” Of course, when we say ‘thinking about’, we do not mean the ordinary type of objective thinking. Thinking about the ego from an elemental field means that the ego itself opens up in subjective fashion an elemental field of existence within itself … This way of thinking about the cogito is “existential” thinking: more elemental thought must signal a more elemental mode of being of the self“ (RN 15).

Doubt as a Zen practice goes back to China. The old saying was: “Great Doubt, Great Awakening; small doubt, small awakening; no doubt, no awakening.”

James W. Heisig describes the unfolding of the Great Doubt as a three-stage process. The first stage is that of the fortuitous encounter with nihility in one’s life, as a “crack“ through which “the transcience of all things” comes into view – what the Buddhists also call the “Great Matter of Life and Death.” More often than not, we quickly seal the crack and go on our way as if nothing had happened.

If “one lives with the doubt and allows it to take its course,” the process unfolds into a second stage. Nishitani says that “it is not a question of observing nihility objectively or entertaining some representation of it. It is, rather, as if the self were itself to become that nihility … The realization we are speaking of here is not self-conscious” (RN16). The field of consciousness where the self and things are represented as objects is broken through, and this is the same as saying that the self has realized nihility, it has made it real. “In standing subjectively on the field of nihility (I use the term “stand” and refer to nihility as a “field,” but in fact there is literally no place to stand), the self becomes itself in a more elemental sense. When this takes place, the being of the self itself is nullified along with the being of everything else. ‘Nullification’ does not mean that everything is simply “annihilated” out of existence. It means that nihility appears at the ground of everything that exists, that the field of consciousness with its separation of the within and the without is surpassed subjectively, and that nihility opens up at the ground of the within and without” (RN 17).

In the third stage, “nihility is emptied out, as it were, into an absolute emptiness, or what Buddhism calls sunyata. The absolute is not a further aggravation of the original frustration and the abyss of nihility it contained within it, but rather a complete negation of that aggravation. It is an affirmation” (Heisig, 221). The double negation of things and self results in the restoration of both things and self on the field of emptiness, “which could be called “the field of ‘be-ification’ or, in Nietzschean terms, the field of the Great Affirmation, where we can say Yes to all things” (RN 124). This is why one can say, “Great Doubt, Great Awakening.” The Awakening is the realisation that being arises out of emptiness. Using traditional Buddhist language, Nishitani writes: “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).

“The cogito of Descartes did not pass through the purgative fires in which the ego itself is transformed, along with all things, into a single Great Doubt. The cogito was conceived of simply on the field of the cogito. This is why the reality of the ego as such could not but become an unreality” (RN 19).

On the other hand, the sense of “I” is indeed led to pass through the “purgative fires” in the Zen practice of the Great Doubt, here described by Takusui, a disciple of Hakuin:

“The method to be practiced is as follows: you are to doubt regarding the subject in you that hears all sounds. All sounds are heard at a given moment because there is certainly a subject in you that hears … You must doubt deeply, again and again, asking yourself what the subject of hearing could be. Pay no attention to the various illusory thoughts that may occur to you. Only doubt more and more deeply, gathering together in yourself all the strength that is in you, without aiming at anything or expecting anything in advance, without intending to be enlightened and without even intending not to intend to be enlightened … [As] you go on doubting, you will find it impossible to locate the subject that hears. Doubt deeply in a state of single-mindedness … becoming completely like a dead man, unaware even of the presence of your own person … You will arrive at a state of being completely self-oblivious and empty. But even then you must bring up the Great Doubt, “What is the subject that hears?” … And after that, 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” (RN 20).

Nishitani Keiji – Religion and Nothingness
James Heisig – Philosophers of Nothingness
Nishida Kitaro – An Inquiry into the Good

Vincent van Gogh – Irises