There must be an Overturning, a Radical Conversion of Mind

Kano Eino (1631 – 1697) – Birds and Flowers of Spring and Summer

“There must be an overturning, a radical conversion of mind, in any religion. Without it there is no religion. I say, therefore, that religion can be philosophically grasped only by a logic of absolute affirmation through absolute negation. As the religious self returns to its own bottomless depths, it returns to the absolute and simultaneously discovers itself in its ordinary and everyday, and again in its rational, character. As a self-determination of the absolute present, it discovers its own eschatological character, as a historical individual” (Nishida Kitaro, “The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview,” Last Writings, 91).

“In any religion, it is the effort of self-negation that is necessary.”

The one thing that has been most misunderstood about religion is whether God is outside of us as a higher power who created the world and is still controlling it, or is really a power within us, which inspires us to love and act for the benefit of others. There have been those who have feared that any talk of a God within would mislead some individuals into stating that they “are” God. 

To clarify the dual apprehension of God as both within and without, Nishida turns to a distinction familiar to anyone living in Japan, that between the way of other power – tariki – which is that of the Pure Land School, and the way of self-power – jiriki – which is that of Zen. Nishida asserts that at bottom, self-power, the Zen approach, is the same as other-power. In fact, he says, Zen is not really a religion of self-power. He writes: “The religious consciousness does not arise out of our own selves; it is simultaneously the call of God or Buddha. It is the working, the operation, of God or Buddha welling up from the bottomless depths of the soul” (Nishida Kitaro, “The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview,” Last Writings, 78). He adds: “Essentially, then, there can be no religion of self-power. This is indeed a contradictory concept. Buddhists themselves have been mistaken about it. Although they advocate the concepts of self-power and other-power respectively, the Zen sect and the True Pure Land sect, as forms of Mahayana Buddhism, basically hold the same position … In any religion, it is the effort of self-negation that is necessary”(Nishida, Ibid, 80). In the end, Zen cannot be described as a religion of self power, because it does not rely on the self, but on the negation of the self, like any other religion. What this really means is that the self becomes itself through negating itself, and it can do so because as no-self, it is nothingness, and nothingness is the activity of self-determination as the forms of the world. “The self, we must say, possesses itself through its own self-negation … At the ground of the self, therefore, there must be that which, in its own absolute nothingness, is self-determining, and which, in its own absolute nothingness, is being. I believe this the meaning of the ancient Buddhist saying, “Because there is No Place in which it abides, the Mind arises” (Nishida, Ibid, 82).

Religious life as “constituted in the contradictory identity of the self and the absolute”

That the self possesses itself through its own self-negation implies that, at the ground of the self, or, as Nishida would prefer to say, “in the depths” of the self, there is nothingness, and nothingness is the activity of self-expression according to the process of contradictory identity – “the One into the many and the many into the One.” These depths of the self are bottomless, so there is really no ground, that is, no place where the self can rest, so it arises as mind, that is, heart-mind, loving energy and self-determination of the world of forms. “When I say depths (or ground) I refer to bottomlessly contradictory identity of existential life. This involves an entirely different logic – the logic of affirmation through absolute negation” (Nishida, Ibid, 83). The logic of affirmation through absolute negation is the logic of the place of nothingness, and this is the logic at work in the religious worldview. “ This logic conceives of the religious form of life as constituted in the contradictory identity of the self and the absolute” (Nishida, Ibid, 83).  


The religious life requires an overturning of the mind whereby the self negates itself in order to be itself. “There must be an overturning, a radical conversion of mind, in any religion. Without it there is no religion. I say, therefore, that religion can be philosophically grasped only by a logic of absolute affirmation through absolute negation. As the religious self returns to its own bottomless depths, it returns to the absolute and simultaneously discovers itself in its ordinary and everyday, and again in its rational, character. As a self-determination of the absolute present, it discovers its own eschatological character, as a historical individual”(Nishida, Ibid, 91). As the self negates itself, it allows the self-determination of the historical world, and this is what Zen points to when it states that to live a Zen life is to live an ordinary life. Nishida quotes Lin-chi: “The Buddha-dharma has no special place to apply effort. It is only the ordinary and everyday; relieving one-self, donning clothes, eating rice, lying down when tired. The fool laughs at us, but the wise understand” (Quoted by Nishida, Ibid, 108). Acts of ordinary living are as such what Christians would refer to as eschatological, that is, they are expressions of the absolute. In Zen, however, what this entails is that our own acts, and not only those performed by Jesus, and perhaps a small elite of prophets whose prophecies were recorded in the Bible, can be the self-expression of the historical world. In other words, religious consciousness is not a special kind of consciousness, as the privileged place given to the prophets’s sayings in the Bible seems to imply. “But when I speak of religion, I do not refer to a special kind of consciousness. “’There is no mysterious power in the true Dharma’ …. ‘The true Way cannot exist apart even for an instant; what can do so is not the true Way’. Again, ‘when we run, we are on the true Way, when we stumble and fall, we are still on it’.” Religion is not apart from common experience” (Nishida, Ibid, 115). 

Religion is not a special kind of consciousness

To those who might confuse enlightenment with some sort of alternative state of consciousness, one has to say that it is not a “special kind of consciousness,” but it nevertheless is what one could call a self-less self-consciousness. Carter seems to have had a similar reaction when he wrote “Human consciousness is a spectrum which extends from the unaware and beastly natural, to the enlightened awareness of kensho as the bottomless identity of contradictories of self as absolute, of absolute as self. The enlightened is preferable, but all are equally moments in the divine creation” (Robert E. Carter, The Nothingness Beyond God, 154). Doesn’t Nishida state that animals, plants and rocks are also self-expression of the world? These are conscious too (even rocks) in the sense of reacting to, as well as impacting, their surroundings. In fact, one could say they express the world better because they are not hampered by conceptual representations. It is only in humans that a problem arises, because humans have self-consciousness, and live their lives surrounded by representations of the world. People who do not question these representations spend their lives under the spell of these representations, using them to justifying whatever they “pick and choose,” and consequently their expression of reality is distorted by their attachments. Only humans, because of self-consciousness, require a spiritual practice to return to pure consciousness, to see things as they are. Paradoxically, Zen practice uses self-consciousness to return to pure consciousness. Enlightenment could be described as the breakthrough of self-consciousness by self-less self-consciousness. 

Carter thinks that Dogen’s assertion that “training is enlightenment” may throw light on Nishida’s notion that religion is not a special kind of consciousness. Carter writes that for Dogen, “To sit in zazen is to be enlightened. For to take one’s own enlightenment seriously enough to question one’s present state, and to act in search of a greater realisation is already to have taken the religious turn … The very act of questing, or questioning of self, is to have abandoned the complacent, uncritical, and conventional standpoint that simply assumes that we are who we appear to be … To put these assumptions in genuine doubt and to undertake the search for a deeper understanding of one’s own complex nature is the religious act itself” (Carter, Ibid, 156).  Enlightenment then starts when you first sit on the cushion, not when you are told that you have “passed” your first kensho, or when you have achieved satori. The Buddha’s enlightenment is traditionally described as the insight into co-dependent origination. That was when the Buddha, having sat all night under the Bodhi tree, and fought Mara’s temptations, saw  clearly that things had no own being, and arose in dependence upon each other. But for the Buddha and all Buddhist practitioners, this first insight has to grow into a deep conviction whereby one’s whole life is permeated with this understanding, when, in Buddhist language, it becomes “your bones and marrow.” “Then, all experience is now enlightened. Nothing is taken in its heretofore unquestioned “objective” sense. All is in flux and yet not in flux, and one is now able (however infinitesimally at first) to look at and then through all objects and events of consciousness towards their “lining” [of nothingness](Carter, Ibid, 157).

From the individual to the collective 

Pedestrian main street in the Ginza district of Tokyo

That enlightenment is not a special kind of consciousness, achieved by a a few monastics after years of training, but instead the simple act of doubting that things are the way they are presented in the conceptual paradigm, allows Nishida to move to a reflection of the meaning of religion at the level of society. Having defined religion as the self-expression of the formless through all individual self-less self-consciousness into the world of forms, as a collective co-expression of the absolute present, one has to move from a consideration of the individual to a consideration of the group. This is when the historical dimension comes into itself. Given the fact that World War II was raging all around Nishida, that Japan was about to lose the war, and Nishida himself was aware that his life could end soon, there was no way Nishida could avoid facing the historical dimension. Nishida was keen to put an end to the traditional Buddhist focus on the individual and neglect of the social and historical. Nishida states that “a true nation arises when a people harbors the  world-principle within itself and forms itself historically and socially” (Nishida Kitaro, Last Writings,116)  

Religion properly understood will help humanity overcome cultural differences

Collective sitting meditation as protest

A clarification of the relationships between religion, culture, race, and nation is then necessary, as the received idea is that religion is often used to further reify the contrasting identities of various human groups, and justify conflicts rather than defuse them. Nishida notes that all religions originally arose in a world where human groups lived apart from each other and developed their own cultural systems. For this reason, “race” – or, we might say, ethnic identity – is less a biological fact than a historical fact, meaning that “difference” is expressed as a clash of cultures. Nishida agrees that, somehow, difference must be transcended. “A global humanity is formed when the historical world, as the self-determination of the absolute present, transcends its racial particularities” (Nishida Kitaro, Last Writings, 117). But he disagrees with those, especially in the West, who think that the way to do this is to jettison religion altogether, and replace it by a strictly secular worldview. “When mankind, however, maximizes the human standpoint in a non-religious form, in a purely secular direction, the result is that the world negates itself and mankind loses itself. This has been the trend of European culture since the Renaissance, and the reason that such a thing as the decline and fall of the West has been proclaimed … The world then becomes mere play or struggle, and the possibility of a true culture is undermined” (Nishida Kitaro, Last Writings, 119). 

Ouarzazate Noor Solar Power Complex in Morocco

This is not to say that we should go back to the Middle Ages … The world has moved into the Renaissance for a reason. Each epoch must create its own history. And this creation should be through the self-determination of the absolute present, which is a religious act in the sense that it is the “natural” process of emergence of the historical world through the consciousness of all humans. What we now call culture is the same thing as religion. “A culture is the content of a form forming itself as a self-determination of the absolute present … I assert, therefore, that a true culture must be religious, and a true religion must be cultural” (Nishida Kitaro, Last Writings, 119).

Immanent transcendence


To be precise, the self-determination of the absolute present through our individual consciousness is “natural,” Nishida says “immanent,” meaning that it is always taking place whether we have started to “doubt” received ideas, “overturning” our minds to settle in the standpoint of the empty self, or whether we still see the world  from the ego-centred standpoint as “objects” for us to use to satisfy our personal fantasies. As explained above, it is only when we free ourselves from attachments and realise self-less self-consciousness, that we truly transcend mere immanence, and become able to more genuinely express the formless world. And this is obviously a better way to generate a healthy global culture. In Nishida’s words: “I thus maintain that we must proceed by the logic of absolutely contradictory identity – that is, of transcending immanently. This immanent transcendence is the road to a new global culture” (Nishida Kitaro, Last Writings, 120). “That the self transcends itself in its own immanent depths does not signify a loss of itself; it rather becomes a unique expression of the world’s self-expression. It rather signifies that the self becomes truly individual, a real self. (Nishida Kitaro, Last Writings, 111).

When seen from the standpoint of transcendence, immanence is seen as the opposite of transcendence, it is that which comes from below whereas transcendence comes from above. But when seen from the standpoint of immanence, transcendence is seen as arising out of immanence, as all things arise from immanence, so transcendence cannot be an exception. All humans possesses within themselves an aspiration to self-transcendence: the baby is eager to talk, the toddler is eager to help mother, the child is eager to learn, even teenagers are eager to make a true contribution! There is no need to bribe the young with rewards and/or threaten them with punishment to get them to grow mentally as well as physically.

Nishida writes: “It may be that a new Christian world will begin through an immanently transcendent Christ” (Nishida Kitaro, Last Writings, 121). A century and a half after these words were written, we cannot say that there is much evidence of this happening. The way of other-power relies on belief, whereby a person surrenders their will to that of a higher entity. This was, and still is, the way the shamanic cure operates: the shaman acts out an encounter with, or an embodiment, of a spirit, who utters the solution for the problem at hand, and the “patient” believes it instantly, thus making it possible for them to return to a positive state. Placebos in modern medicine work in the same way. But few people today have this ability to just believe! Trying to resurrect it would require that Christianity enhances its mythological aspects. Those who have tried this approach end up with gathering in a stadium waiting for the Rapture, as the Christ returns to take them straight to Heaven!  

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

A relatively small number of Christians calling themselves Zen Christians  appear to follow the advice the Dalai Lama gave to non-Buddhists who are attracted to Buddhism – “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk and hermit led the way through his exploration of Asian spiritualities. The relative success of Zen is due to its demythologised language and its return to experience. The practice of meditation is seen as the path to enlightenment. This is not incorrect as long as you are able to sufficiently distance yourself from the instrumental mindset, expecting specific results after so many sittings … One positive step in the right direction is that practitioners are constantly invited to check out the truth of the teachings, and make whatever they are told “true for themselves.” This mimics the scientific approach, even though to “experience” and to “experiment” are not the same thing. There is also in Zen an emphasis on doubt which mimics the Western critical mind. There is however a risk that one gets bogged down into trying to “achieve” the particular experience called enlightenment. You cannot will yourself to “forget” the self. 

What I believe Nishida has achieved is a philosophical formulation integrating non-dualism and dualism, whereby dualism, the world of forms, is but the other aspect of non-dualism, the formless world of absolute nothingness. The One and the Many are two aspects of the process of self-contradictory identity. 

Nishida’s formulation goes far beyond co-dependent origination which tends to be interpreted as the interconnectedness of all things, with the corollary that whatever we do to our environment we in the end do it to ourselves, and if this is destructive, then we will reap endless suffering. Early humans were keen to adjust to an environment they could not control, and they perfected the way of inner transformation. Modern humans have embarked on a mission to change the world to suit their needs. This is a risky undertaking which has landed us into a multi-faceted crisis. The more we try to control the world the less we seem to be actually in control of it, and this is because we have forgotten the practice of self-control early humans had so perfectly mastered. 

It is easy to see why: when trying to control the world, we tend to look outwards, forget to keep watch of our desires, and instead use the energy within these desires to fuel our efforts, so we end up with a never ending list of needs. It would be otherwise if we started with the overturning, radical conversion of mind which is the core of the religious approach, realise no-self, at the same time triggering a surge of empathy whereby we feel as if we were the world. We are the world inasmuch as we co-create it and it is more a question of taking care of it than a question of using it to meet our needs. The world is not a resource to exploit, it is a garden to tend. 

Promenade garden at Ninna-ji in Kyoto