The Logic of Soku – Fire is not Fire, therefore it is Fire

“That a fire sustains itself while it is in the act of burning means precisely that it does not burn itself. Combustion has its ground in non-combustion. Because of non-combustion, combustion is combustion. The non-self-nature of fire is its home-ground of being” (Religion and Nothingness p 117).

The paradoxical relation between the field of consciousness/reason as “the mode of being of a thing in its selfness as it appears to us and insofar as it is seen by us,” (RN 120) and the field of emptiness where the thing is “what it is for itself,” on its home-ground, in its “original selfness,” is conveyed in traditional Buddhist philosophy in the saying of the Diamond Sutra – fire is not fire, therefore it is fire.” Other formulations include “Water does not wet itself,” “The sword does not cut the sword,” “The eye does not see the eye.”

Nishitani explains: “The burning that takes place when the fire burns firewood points to the selfness of fire, but so does the fact that fire does not burn itself. The two are here one and the same. As something that burns firewood, fire does not burn itself; as something that does not burn itself, it burns firewood. This is the mode of being of fire as fire, the self-identity of fire. Only where it does not burn itself is fire truly on its own home-ground. In other words, we speak not only of the selfness of fire for us, but also of the selfness of fire for itself … That a fire sustains itself while it is in the act of burning means precisely that it does not burn itself. Combustion has its ground in non-combustion. Because of non-combustion, combustion is combustion. The non-self-nature of fire is its home-ground of being”(RN 116-117).

Fire is not fire (in and for itself on the field of emptiness), therefore it is fire (for us on the field of consciousness). This is what Nishida had referred to as reality being “self-contradictory,” and what Nishitani calls the “paradox of representation.”

Krummel develops the paradox as follows: “The conventional view, perhaps traceable to Aristotle, is that it is the substance of fire that makes it what it is. In the case of fire, this substance consists of its unique capacity and activity of combustion. This is its “form” (Gr. eidos), whereby it displays itself to us, in a way rationally recognizable by the human intellect. But to grasp things eidetically, that is, according to the way they display themselves to us and the way we grasp them, is still to objectify them and see them from the standpoint of the subject, an imposition of our reason into their interiority. This cannot then be how a thing is on its own. While grasping what something is, it fails to put us directly in touch with the very point that it is, the “basis” (Jp moto) of the thing. The distinction is between a thing in relation to other things and for us and a thing in itself. To the extent that water cannot wet, it is not water. To the extent that fire cannot burn, it is not fire. Yet precisely for not burning itself, fire is fire; and for not wetting itself, water is water. X is not X, therefore it is X. For precisely in its act of burning firewood, fire does not burn itself; and in not burning itself, it burns firewood. It burns in relation to something else, but in-itself (in relation to itself) it does not burn. Nishitani refers to fire as it is for itself as something distinct from its “substance” (J. jittai) that is recognized from the outside only in its activity (Gr energeia) of burning. Substance, or in Buddhist terms “self-nature” (Skt. svabhava, Jp jisho), thus only refers to its outward look or “form” (Gr eidos) based on what it can do (i.e., combustion for fire), as seen by the human intellect, and not to its originary being. By contrast the mode of being of a thing in-itself completely negates that substantiality, it is its non-self-nature (Jp mujisho) realized in its emptiness, its “non-substantial substantiality.” In the case of fire, this non-fire-nature is its non-combustion (not burning itself) in the very act of combustion.”

Nishitani can therefore conclude that “a hot thing emerges into being as what it is in itself at a point beyond all categories of substance, quality, quantity and the like – namely, on the field of sunyata, or absolute nothingness. There a thing becomes master of itself. It is, we might say, the autonomous mode of being of that thing … It is … a mode of being that has nothing at all to do with our representations or judgments; yet it is not the back side, or hidden aspect of things. Such expressions already imply a view of things from where we stand. On its own home-ground, a thing has no front and no back. It is purely and simply itself, as it is in its selfness and nothing more” (RN 127).

The famous formula “X is not X, therefore it is X” is referred to as “soku hi,”the logic of soku, which Daisetz T. Suzuki found in the Diamond Sutra, and which he debated with Nishida Kitaro, Nishitani’s mentor, in the context of Nishida’s statement that reality is self-contradictory. In the Diamond Sutra we also find statements such as “though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated” or ““while practicing the six paramitas … we practice nothing at all.” In Nishitani’s writings it is often used to stress the non-duality of two apparent opposites, for instance “being-sive-nothingness, nothingness-sive-being (“sive” is a translation of “soku”). At times, the same idea is rendered as “qua.”

When applied to the self, Krummel writes: “The self is not the self, hence it is the self. The true self is where it is emptied of its reified ego, it is no-self (Skt anatman, Jp muga), the negation of ego. Traditional philosophy has often defined the self as self-knowing or self-consciousness. Yet for Nishitani, the self in-itself is essentially “not-knowing” (Jp fuchi) that is at one with the “knowing” (Jp chi) of the self. And this not-knowing is the self as it is in-itself in a self-awareness that is a “knowing of not-knowing.” This is also what Dogen meant when he wrote “to learn the self is to forget the self.”

Soku hi” is what the famous mountains and waters verses by 9th century Qingyuan Weixin also aims to convey. As a reminder, this is how it goes:
“Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, ‘Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.’
After I got an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, ‘Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.’
But now, having attained the abode of final rest [that is, Awakening], I say, “Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.’”
(Translated by Masao Abe, Zen and Western Thought)

Robert Carter explains: “The mountains that one once saw in a straightforward and ordinary way were then lost in the identity of nothingness in which all differentiation gives way to the indifferentiated sameness, only to be recast (emptied) such that the mountains again seen are now seen differently because they are 1) freed from old habits of understanding, 2) seen in and for themselves, and 3) lined with the depths of nothingness … now one sees it “as-it-is-by-itself,” in its “thusness.” One’s “no-mindedness” has allowed nature to “nature.” Carter adds: “The one is self-contradictorily composed of the many, and the many are self-contradictorily one. The world can be viewed in two directions – the double aperture – and its unity is not the unity of oneness, as the mystic would likely express it, but the unity of self-contradiction. It is both one and many; changing and unchanging; past and future in the present.” The logic of soku is the absolute identification of the is, and the is not. In symbolic representation: A is A; A is not-A; therefore A is A.”

Complex as they are, and apparently irrelevant to our usual concerns, such explorations of the nature of reality entail a “completely different concept of existence, one that has not up to now become a question for people in their daily lives, one that even philosophers have yet to give consideration (RN 128). For instance, it challenges our understanding of what it means to “learn.” “The haiku poet Basho seems to hint at it when he writes:

“From the pine tree, learn of the pine tree,
And from the bamboo, of the bamboo.”

Nishitani explains: “[Basho] does not simply mean that we should “observe the pine tree carefully.” Still less does he mean for us to “study the pine tree scientifically.” He means for us to enter into the mode of being where the pine tree is the pine tree itself, and the bamboo is the bamboo itself, and from there to look at the pine tree and the bamboo. He calls on us to betake ourselves to the dimension where things become manifest in their suchness, to attune ourselves to the selfness of the pine tree and the selfness of the bamboo. The Japanese world for “learn” (narau) carries the sense of “taking after” something, of making an effort to stand essentially in the same mode of being as the thing one wishes to learn about. It is on the field of sunyata that this becomes possible” (RN 128).

Nishitani Keiji – Religion and Nothingness
Robert E. Carter – The Nothingness Beyond God, a study on Nishida Kitaro)
John W. M. Krummel – “Nishitani Keiji: Nihilism, Buddhism, Anontology,” in the Dao Companion to Japanese Buddhist Philosophy, Ed. Gereon Kopf

“Pine Trees” by Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539–1610)