The “Middle” Mode of Being – the Insight

“Precisely because it is appearance, and not something that appears, this appearance is illusory at the elemental level in its very reality, and real in its very illusoriness” (Religion and Nothingness p 129).

Nishitani begins Section III of the “Standpoint of Sunyata” with the following apparent paradox: “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).

So, what Nishitani has referred as the elemental mode of being of a thing, is, as such “illusory appearance.” It would therefore be a misunderstanding to look for the “real” things behind the illusory appearances. “Precisely because it is appearance, and not something that appears, this appearance is illusory at the elemental level in its very reality, and real in its very illusoriness” (RN 129). Nishitani proposes to use a term the ancients used, “the middle,” to denote this, since it is a term that seems to bring out the distinctive feature of the mode of being of things in themselves.” It is used in such phrases as “failing to hit the “middle” and Nishitani defines it as the place where “the thing itself goes on positing itself as it is; it goes on being in its own ‘middle,’ a shape without shape, a form of non-form” (RN 131).

Nishitani explains: “The various “shapes” that things assume on the field of sensation … as well as the various “shapes” that they display on the field of reason (whether as eidetic forms of things or as categories in the sense of “forms” of discursive thought) are all the Form that things take insofar as they appear to us … Rather than show the manner of being of things as they are on their home-ground, shapes are the Form of things removed from their own home-ground and transferred into our ‘consciousness’, into our senses and our intellect. These shapes are, so to speak, radiations from the things themselves, like rays issuing from a common source” (RN 129-130).

Do not dismiss this “image of shapes as rays from a common source” as pure poetry. It foreshadows Nishitani’s conclusion where he states: “Only on the field of sunyata can the totality of things, each of which is absolutely unique and an absolute center of all things, at the same time be gathered into one” (RN 146).

For now, Nishitani continues with a different metaphor. “The shapes that things assume for us on the fields of sensation and reason are the Forms that appear on the perimeter. We are used to viewing the selfness of things from their circumference: we skirt around the outside of things; so things do not reveal their own selfness to us. The things themselves reveal themselves to us only when we leap from the circumference to the center, into their very selfness. The leap represents the opening up within ourselves of the field of sunyata as the absolute near side which is more to the near side than we ourselves are. 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).

This notion of things establishing themselves in a “position” and affirming themselves, seems to echo Dogen’s notion of things being in a “dharma-position” and “exerting themselves” (gujin). In contrast with this samadhi-being of things on the field of sunyata, one finds on the field of sensation and reason, things “transferred into another location and transformed into mere reflections.” “At the center, things posit themselves as they are and in such a way as not to permit contact from the outside … The thing itself goes on positing itself as it is; it goes on being in its own “middle,” a shape without shape, a form of non-form … Looked at from the circumference, then, the various shapes of a thing do not fit the thing itself. But looking back from the selfness of the thing – that is, from its center – its “middle” mode of being pervades all shapes. In a word, all sensory modes and all supersensory eidetic forms of a thing are not to be seen apart from the “position” (the self-positing mode of being) of the thing. They are all appearances of the thing itself, which remains through it all in the mode of being of a shape without shape, a form of non-form, in its “middle” mode of being” (RN 131).

Nishitani continues: “On [the] field of sunyata each thing becomes manifest in its suchness in its very act of affirming itelf, according to its own particular potential and virtus and in its own particular shape. For us as human beings, to revert to that field entails at one and the same time an elemental affirmation of the existence of all things (the world) and an elemental affirmation of our own existence. The field of sunyata is nothing other than the field of the Great Affirmation” (RN 131).

Form is not form (in and for itself on the field of sunyata), therefore form is form (for us on the field of consciousness). This is the logic of soku, what Nishida refers to as reality being self-contradictory, and what Nishitani calls the paradox of representation. Remember that, as Graham Parkes writes, the three fields – consciousness, nihility, and emptiness, are always “co-present” one below the other, and “each deeper field is more extensive and encompassing than the one above it.” So form is at all times encountered as phenomena, death and non-form.

So, in Section IV, Nishitani turns to Kant, who famously asserted that the thing-in-itself (Ding-an-sich) was unknowable. Following as it was on the heels of Descartes’s ergo sum ego cogito, “I think therefore I am,” which had sought to validate the emerging scientific explorations of his day, this assertion by Kant represented what he called a “Copernican Revolution.” Reality, as it is in itself, behind the phenomenal appearances, could not be known. This was a very inconvenient truth for scientists! Nishitani explains how Kant came to his conclusions: “Our cognition or experience of an object does not result from the intuitions and concepts we have concerning the object being in accord with that object; but on the contrary, says Kant, it results from the object being in accord with the a priori characteristics of our faculty of sense intuition and the a priori concepts of understanding. By thus giving the foundations of cognition an orientation exactly opposite to that of the entire tradition before him, Kant opened up a critical philosophical standpoint halfway between the standpoint of traditional metaphysics (which had tried to grasp the thing-in-itself dogmatically by pure rational thinking) and that of Humean skepticism (which had shaken that metaphysics to its foundations). As is well-known, Kant went on to argue that the range of epistemic possibilities is limited for us to the phenomenal world, while the thing-in-itself is behind the phenomenal: actual reality, alone and of itself, but as such unknowable by us” (RN 132).

Earlier in the book, Nishitani had referred to Kant’s philosophy to explain how “things” are known on the field of reason. He had used it to reformulate in modern western philosophical language Nagarjuna’s insight into the “cognitive default” that leads us to superimpose a layer of concepts concealing the way things really are. He had said that Kant interpreted “substance as one of the a priori concepts of pure reason, as something that thought ‘thinks into’ (hineindenkt) objects” (RN 111) Kant had sharply distinguished the world of phenomena, being the world as it appears to us, and the world of noumena, where things are in themselves and are unknowable. Here Nishitani goes a step further, and compares Kant’s view on the unknowability of the thing-in-itself to his own view of the mode of being of the “middle” where things are as they are in themselves.

Nishitani writes: “On the field of sunyata, the Dasein of things is not “phenomenal” in the Kantian sense, namely, the mode of being of things insofar as they appear to us. It is the mode of being of things as they are in themselves, in which things are on their own home-ground. But neither is it the Ding-an-sich that Kant spoke of, namely, that mode of being of things sharply distinguished from phenomena and unknowable by us. It is the original mode of being of things as they are in themselves and as they in fact actually exist. There is no distinction here between the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself. The original thing is the thing that appears to us as what it is without front side or back” (RN 138).

In Nishitani’s view, Kant had not genuinely broken with the “old metaphysics” where “ontology centered on a concept of substance that designated the “being” of things as they are in themselves. But with the disclosure of the real situation underlying the origination of this concept, substance was transformed into a “form” of pure understanding, one of the “norms” of its activity. And with that, the standpoint with its self-awareness came forth as the center of a system of the critique of knowledge replacing the former ontology … The old metaphysics and the critical philosophy of Kant do not differ on the fundamental point of taking the standpoint of the object and its representation as basic and presupposed. The only change is that the relationship between the object and its representation which operated as a covert basis in the former was made overt in the latter and there given approval. The old metaphysics took its orientation from the stance that our representations fashion themselves after their objects … Kant, however, took his stand on an opposite orientation: that objects fashion themselves after our representations of them” (RN 135). This was indeed a revolutionary move. Yet, “the concept of substance, central to the old metaphysics, and the standpoint of subject, central to Kantian philosophy, stand on the same base” (RN 135). In a nutshell, Kant is still apprehending things as “objects” on the field of reason. He is still equating the selfness of a thing with its substance and concluding that a thing that is, in its original mode of being, “a shape without shape, a form of non-form,” does not exist because it is unknowable through reason does not exist. It does as the origin of the appearances we are encountering. As Yogacara had already said “reality … is empty of duality but not empty of existence.”

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

Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890) – Thatched Cottages at Cordeville