In the position I am articulating, the self is to be understood as existing in that dynamic dimension wherein each existential act of consciousness, as a self-expressive determination of the world, simultaneously reflects the world’s self-expression within itself and forms itself through its own self-expression (Nishida Kitaro, “The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview,” Last Writings p 64).
“The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview,” first published in Japan in 1949, and later translated into English to form the main part of Last Writings in 1987, was consciously written by Nishida as an intellectual “will.” It starts with a presentation of the main threads of Nishida’s philosophical inquiry before focusing on an articulation of “the religious worldview,” using Christian as well as Zen language, and showing to what extent Christianity’s mythological terminology resonates with Zen, though, when looked at closely, it is bound by “object logic,” and fails to go beyond the revealed texts to recover religion as “experience,” more precisely, as the “direct experience of reality from the standpoint of no-self.” Such a standpoint is different from Christian mysticism, which does not see the union with the divine as a vehicle for any novel insights beyond the revelations already recorded in the texts. Zen, instead, requires that one proves whatever one is taught true for oneself, and generally discourages mere reference to scriptures. It is said that one should “kill the Buddha” – that is, free oneself from all doctrines.
Starting as ever with a return to experience, Nishida argues that, though not everyone is an artist, most people can appreciate art, and likewise, though not everyone is religious, no one can be said to entirely lack an experience of what he refers to as “religious sentiment.” “I will clarify … what I mean by religious sentiment … just as color appears to the eye as color, and sound to the ear as sound, so too God appears to the religious self as an event of one’s own soul” (Nishida Kitaro, “The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview” in Last Writings, 48).
Nishida stresses that religion, which is for him, and the East in general, an experience or, as he says here, a “sentiment,” something you feel inside – “an event of one’s soul” – cannot be discussed from the standpoint of “object logic,” as this kind of logic only grasps things from the outside. Since religion in the West is normally equated with belief in a set of holy texts, i.e., a dogma, Carter often uses the word “religiosity” to refer to religion as experience, but for Nishida, using another word would make no sense: for him religion is experience, belief in a dogma is not religion, it is the very opposite of religion. In fact, Carter adds, “The greatest killer of religiosity is religion” (Robert E. Carter, The Nothingness Beyond God, 161).
“Each individual conscious act is a contradictory identity”
Religion, Nishida says, “arises rather with a consideration of the meaning of our own consciously active self” (Nishida Kitaro, Last Writings, 49). “God” – or ultimate reality – can only be apprehended through our consciousness, more specifically through the activity of our conscious/active living self as it seemingly gives shape to the world of forms out of the nothingness of consciousness in the present moment. From 1934 onwards Nishida had developed a dialectical philosophy whereby the world’s self-expression as the world of forms takes place within the conscious self through a process of self-contradictory identity. The world is “the many as the self-negation of the One and the One as the self-negation of the many” (Nishida Kitaro, “The logical structure of the actual world,” lecture delivered at Otani University in Nov. 1934 quoted by Michiko Yusa in Zen and Philosophy – An Intellectual Biography of Nishida Kitaro, 256).
According to mainstream Western philosophy, which is dominated by idealism, the forms which emerge out of sensory indifferentiation are either abstract concepts (Plato’s Ideas) belonging to a higher supra-sensory metaphysical level, so not accessible to experience, or they are forms (names) extracted from observed reality (Aristotle), or else, forms reflecting our minds’ structures (Kant). The assumption made by idealism is that ultimate reality is substantial – it is “Being.” Consciousness is but a mirror reflecting “Being” arranged into a coherent order of objects seemingly standing in front of us.
In the Eastern worldview, ultimate reality is not “Being.” It is not substance. It is nothingness, originally seen through the maternal metaphor as a hollow source out of which all things emerge according to the Way (Dao), i.e., as complementary pairs of opposites (symbolised by the expression yin-yang). This nothingness is therefore as such “dynamic.” Traditionally it is the life principle operating in various forms, generative jing, energetic qi and spiritual shen, which drives change. Translated into philosophical language, nothingness is the unified field of consciousness, which is “dynamic” and self-expresses through the “active” conscious self. Nothingness as such is activity. It is the energy within us, which we experience as compassion, love, what the Japanese call kokoro, the heart in the heart-mind. It is also the activity of self-expression whereby forms emerge out of the formless through the process of self-contradictory identity. Nishida writes, “I say, then, that the human-historical world exhibits true, existential individuality through its structure of absolutely contradictory identity. This ultimately consists in the fact that each individual conscious act is a contradictory identity. For while the act exists and moves in itself, it dynamically expresses the world …” (Nishida Kitaro, Last Writings, 51).
“That I am consciously active means that I determine myself by expressing the world in myself.”
Not only does the world in the present moment self-expresses through the conscious/active living self, but this act of self-expression of the world is constitutive of my individual self. There is therefore no loss of my “self” as I express the world: just the opposite, through expressing the world, I become my true self.
“When I say that the consciously active individual exists in a structure of dynamic expression, I mean precisely this. That I am consciously active means that I determine myself by expressing the world in myself. I am an expressive monad of the world. I transform the world into my own subjectivity. The world that, in its objectivity, opposes me, is transformed and grasped symbolically in the forms of my own subjectivity. But this transactional logic of contradictory identity signifies as well that it is the world that is expressing itself in me” (Nishida, Ibid, 52).
In my view, the articulation of the reciprocal relationship between the process of becoming an individual and the self-expression of the world is one of Nishida’s key insights, as it makes possible a reconciliation between those who are still living within a religious context, and those who have left it behind, and live in a purely materialistic and rational universe. Our world today is torn between those who deeply distrust all things merely human, and believe in complying with the injunctions of a higher order. I am not just referring to Islam which explicitly posits divine law above human law. Many are those who are suspicious of the long-term benefits of science and technology. In many ways, self-consciousness seems to have allowed us humans to play God and “improve” the world, but it may be that we will turn out to be the proverbial sorcerer’s half-trained apprentice who cannot control the consequences of his actions. What Nishida is telling us is that what tradition has called God is not a parental figure to go back to for refuge. “God” creates the world through us, and there is no escaping a world shaped by humans. What we can do, though, is transform our selves into empty fields of consciousness so that the self-expression of the world is energized by kokoro – compassion, love, good will, benevolence – and freed from the distortions of any attachment we may have, so that we can express a correct view of the way things are. Traditional “believers” can see this as realising the will of God, and atheist or agnostic humanists can see it as the way to the realisation of true human individuality. Whatever your position, though, a transformation of humankind is required, in that we must understand that in order to be a self, one has to relinquish our sense of being a separate self, according to the principle of self-contradictory identity. It is not “to be or not to be.” It is “not to be in order to be”!
Nishida writes: “In the position I am articulating, the self is to be understood as existing in that dynamic dimension wherein each existential act of consciousness, as a self-expressive determination of the world, simultaneously reflects the world’s self-expression within itself and forms itself through its own self-expression.” (Ibid, 64) That the world expresses itself through my conscious self, which becomes itself as that self-expression, throws a new light on the ancient debate about free will, whether we have it, or not, and if we do have it, what does “free will” really means?
New light on the problem of free will
“Past philosophers tend to conceive of the person merely from the standpoint of the conscious, but abstract, individual. Freedom is then regarded as the activity of an autonomous self. But even speaking in this way, the self must act from a certain kind of nature. If it were entirely indeterminate, it could not act autonomously. It must have a nature in some sense. Freedom means to act from one’s own nature, to follow one’s own nature. Mere arbitrary behavior is not freedom” (Nishida, Ibid, 71).
We should not be misled by this notion of “one’s own nature.” Freedom is not the ability to act arbitrarily. But neither is it the ability to become oneself in the ordinary sense of realising a sort of “essential” nature or inner potential. Nishida confirms that the personal self is not “an objective substance,” later concluding that “It exists as a dynamic subjectivity, self-consciously determining itself within itself.” It is “a vector of the creative historical world (Nishida, Ibid, p 71-72). As consciousness, it is nothingness creating the world through self-contradictory identity, the act whereby the many arise out of the One. So, though it self-consciously determines itself within itself, at the same time, it receives self-expression from nothingness, in a way which could be described as the activity of God. One could say that the self-expression comes from within (no-self) or that it comes from without (insofar as God, as God tends to be seen as being outside). But of course, as God sustains all things and beings, the activity he/she represents is also within us.
Not just “lived through” but co-creators and responsible
What we must take away from this is that we are not just “lived through” by an absolute Divine self-expressing through us. As this self-expression constitutes our selves, we partake in the divine creative activity. The principle of the identity of self-contradiction applies “to our own participation in, and our acting upon, the real world. We are determined by the world, and yet we ourselves determine the world. This important mutuality must not be lost sight of, for we are not victims, but creators. From the created to the creating (from creatus to creans), from the formed to the forming is how [Nishida] describes our situation: we are created by our inheritance and our environment, and yet, we also are capable of re-shaping our environment and of altering our inheritance both for ourselves, and for our offspring. We … are determined by our facticity, and yet are radically free to influence and re-create our world. Our existential situation allows us a spiral-like path of change: on the one hand, we are brought back to earth again and again by our factual circumstances, and on the other, we are able to take flight into the thin air of the possible, the creative, the better, and the ideal through the freedom to imagine another set of circumstances, and to so act as to bring these into existence. We are creators of our own destiny, as well as products of our age, biology, and culture. Nishida describes this dialectical spiral path as the path of history itself (Robert Carter – Encounter with Enlightenment: A Study of Japanese Ethics, 169). As the place (basho) for the self-expression of the world of forms, we are called upon to be transparent vehicles, combining empathy and clarity of mind, so that the world is infused with these qualities instead of being torn by greed, hatred, confrontation, exploitation, and near systematic destruction as is currently the case.