Ueda in Dialogue with Nishida

Ke no Taiga (1723-1776) – Landscape with Tower Painted in Chinese style (Kyoto National Museum)

“Within the unlimited openness, i.e., the hollow expanse, […] ‘there is no-I’. This subject ‘located within’ the world (world/hollow expanse), which in turn is ultimately ‘located within’ hollow expanse, is the ‘selfless self’; that is, the true self whose self-awareness can be formalized with the phrase ‘I am I, insofar as I am not’. Here, self-awareness does not refer to mere fact that I am myself, but means being opened to the place where I am ‘located within’, i.e., the ‘non-I’ and becoming aware of the self within this place. The openness of the place shines a light on the self” (Hironobu Ota).

In his study of Ueda’s borrowings from Heidegger and Nishida, Hironobu Ota notes that, in general terms, “Ueda treats the concept of world through an interpretation of Heidegger and the concept of self through the philosophy of Nishida.” But he also adds that, in many instances, a concept borrowed from Heidegger is modified by a parallel concept from Nishida.

“Heidegger’s ultimate concern is still with Being”

Although Ueda resonated deeply with Heidegger’s thought, in particular that which followed his Kehre (turning) – the fourfold (das Geviert) -, he could see that “Heidegger’s ultimate concern [was] still with Being.” Ueda writes that in Heidegger’s philosophy, “Being (das Sein) is spoken in terms of nothingness to clearly distinguish it from beings (das Seiende), but nothingness is not the origin” (Contributions to Dialogue with the Kyoto School (2011).

Turning to Nishida’s corresponding concept of the “place of absolute nothingness,” he finds Nishida’s concept of nothingness “more fundamental …  because it is not disclosed through anxiety, but establishes the basis of ‘primordial experience’.” Was this a criticism he also leveled at Nishitani, his direct teacher, who also grounded his path to realisation in the relative nothingness of nihilism? Nishida contrasted the place of absolute nothingness (Jp zettaimu-no-basho) with “the place of being” (Jp u-no-basho). Ueda’s “world as a horizon of experience is the totality of meaning that corresponds to ‘the place of being’ in Nishida’s terminology.” More precisely, as explained in “Ueda in Dialogue with Heidegger,” “Ueda defines the world as the ‘comprehensive and ultimate meaning space that covers a wide range and various levels of meaning spaces’. In terms of language, Ueda treats the world as the ‘horizon of understanding’, or in Gadamer’s words, something that signifies ‘the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point’. It is important for Ueda to emphasize that this horizon is essentially related to subjectivity” (Ota). And Ueda’s “‘hollow expanse’ as the unlimited openness that envelops this world corresponds to ‘the place of absolute nothingness’ in Nishida as well as the ‘openness of Being’ in Heidegger. In his essay “Place” (1926), which was later compiled into From That Which Acts to That Which Sees (1927), Nishida explicated the concept of the ‘place of absolute nothingness’ as ‘the field of consciousness’ that reaches beyond the subject-object dichotomy” (Ota).

“Within the unlimited openness, i.e., the hollow expanse, ‘there is no-I’.”

Ueda arrived at his own understanding of the self and the world through a comparison between Heidegger’s and Nishida’s views. He writes: 

“Should we refer to the subject as the self exclusively in terms of being-in-the-world, along the lines of Heidegger, then we must refer to the subject that is originally ‘located’ within the world/hollow expanse as the self/non-self or the ‘selfless self’. Within the unlimited openness, i.e., the hollow expanse, […] ‘there is no-I’. This subject ‘located within’ the world (world/hollow expanse), which in turn is ultimately ‘located within’ hollow expanse, is the ‘selfless self’; that is, the true self whose self-awareness can be formalized with the phrase ‘I am I, insofar as I am not’. Here, self-awareness does not refer to mere fact that I am myself, but means being opened to the place where I am ‘located within’, i.e., the ‘non-I’ and becoming aware of the self within this place. The openness of the place shines a light on the self.”

Ota comments: “The self as being-in-the-world reflects itself by relating to the others in the world. However, because we are ‘located within’ the ‘hollow expanse’ that lies beyond the world, I am I insofar as the non-I (i.e., hollow expanse) forms the basis of the self. Ueda formalizes this dynamic structure of the self as ‘I am I, insofar as I am not’. The self is a total movement of this ‘self-awareness’ (jikaku), which is one of the most important terms in Nishida’s terminology.”

The self exists in ‘the principal instability”

Since, however, “the self is not merely one but the one mediated by the many in the world, it exists in ‘the principal instability’” (Ota). What Ueda is referring to here is the sense of “self-loss” and the issue of self-enclosed attachment,” which derives from the belief that “I am I,” since it neglects the non-I. In Buddhism, these instabilities are called kleshas, which comprise greed, hatred, and blindness, that is, the ‘three poisons’ (sandoku). These instabilities cause the self to be evermore enclosed in itself” (Ota). In order to awaken from this predicament we would need a “limit situation” such as a “profound sorrow and remorse” in order for the enclosed self to disintegrate and revive as the selfless self, which is aware of its “hollow existence” (Ueda).

“Primordial experience” as the path to the selfless self

Following in Nishida’s footsteps, Ueda invites us to rely on “primordial experience” (konpon-keiken) to convert the closed self into the selfless self. Nishida had referred to it in An Inquiry Into the Good (1911) “as ‘pure experience’ (junsui-keiken) and defined it as follows: “By pure I am referring to the state of experience just as it is without the least addition of deliberative discrimination. The moment of seeing a color or hearing a sound, for example, is prior not only to the thought that the color or sound is the activity of an external object or that one is sensing it, but also to the judgment of what the color or sound might be […]. This is the most refined type of experience […] A truly pure experience has no meaning whatsoever; it is simply a present consciousness of facts just as they are” (translation slightly modified by Ueda).

Ueda writes: 

“For our being-in-the-world, the ‘unlimited openness’ is often closed by the world as the framework of meaning due to our way of being and thus we become enclosed. […] However, Nishida’s ‘pure experience’ is one concrete example of the kind of primordial experience or radical turn that tears through this closedness and discloses it to unlimited expanse and depth. To summarize the first paragraph of An Inquiry Into the Good “‘pure experience’ is revealed in ‘the moment of seeing a color or hearing a sound that is prior to any deliberate discriminations’ (and therefore ‘pure’ as a state prior to subjects and objects)” (“On Experience” 1978-1997).

Ueda then breaks down Nishida’s “pure experience” into three types: “Firstly, it is the direct experience that lies in ‘the moment of seeing a color or hearing a sound’, which is ‘prior to subject-object bifurcation’. For example, ‘when I look at a flower, the flower is I, and I am the flower’ (Nishida). Secondly, it refers to the experience as a continuous flow of conscious concentration that can be illustrated by ‘[a] musician’s performance of a piece that has been mastered through practice’. It is akin to the ‘pure duration’ (durée pure) of Bergson and the ‘pure experience’ of James. Thirdly, it signifies the structure of experience in general.”

Primordial experience is not “an experience of nothingness as beings but rather the ‘overflowing with beings’

The world is the “linguistically mediated and articulated totality of meanings in which our daily lives are located.” As Nagarjuna had stated, it consists of concepts superimposed onto a reality so, by definition, the world cannot be “known” through language. But, instead of taking this inability as a “cognitive default,”  Nishida had argued that it was “nonsensical to revert back to a prior state where there is no language” because, he asserted, any view of what things are “in themselves,” would be a “fictional delusion,” and, although it could not be “known through words, “a kind of ‘naked reality’ that tears through the framework of our linguistic world can indeed be experienced.” Nishitani had said, likewise, that any “knowing” of things as they are in themselves remained an illusion, and one should instead “become,” in the sense of “attune” with, things as they are through an empathetic intuitive coalescence with them. Ueda’s “primordial experience” articulates this coalescence in terms of Nishida’s first type of “pure experience.” Ota adds: “The ‘fact’ of pure experience is neither a merely objective nor merely subjective experience, but the experience prior to the very distinction between the subject and the object, where we can see the world anew. This does not mean that there exists an ineffable reality that the intellect intuits retroactively. However, we can experience moments when language is penetrated in the present.”

Nishida had already shown that “this ‘pure experience’ is arrived at when the self goes beyond any horizon and becomes aware of itself within ‘the place of absolute nothingness’.” In “Intelligible World (1930), referring to Zen Master Qingyuan Weixin, Nishida had written: “When we arrive at a lucid consciousness of absolute nothingness, there is neither I nor God. Moreover, since it is absolute nothingness, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; beings are just the way they are [arumono wa aru ga mamaniaru].”

Ueda pointed out that Nishida had explained “this experience of facts just as they are from the perspective of temporality by calling it a “moment” (shunkan). In Nishida ‘moment’ does not signify a momentary point in time but an ‘overflowing with being … the phrase ‘the bird flies’ does not mean that ‘the bird’ is the agent that flies, but rather that there is a totality of facts prior to the subject-object bifurcation.” Before our interpretation as “a bird that flies,” there is the experience of “a bird flying.”

Ueda illustrates this interpretation of pure experience by giving examples from poems and haikus, showing how deeply rooted in experience the Japanese culture, as well as the whole traditional East Asian culture, really are.

“Why just this autumn have I grown suddently old – a bird in the clouds” (Basho)

“Through all beings expands one space. The world’s inner space. Birds fly in stillness through us. Oh, I who would grow, I look outward, and in me grows a tree” (Rilke)

“The rose without why it blossoms because it blossoms. To itself it pays no heed, asks not if it is seen” (Angelus Silesius)

“Boundlessly flows the river, just as it flows. Red blooms the flower, just as it blooms” (Ninth picture of the Ten Oxherding Pictures)

Ota comments: “All these poems depict a concrete embodiment of the ‘selflessness’ of the true self in all its immediacy. Pure experience that is permeated by ‘absolute nothingness’ or ‘hollow expanse’ is not an experience of nothingness as beings but rather the ‘overflowing with beings’ as illustrated by Rilke’s phrase ‘Birds fly in stillness through us’ or Basho’s haikus on ‘a bird in the clouds’ or ‘boundlessly the flower blooms’. Or in reference to Silesius, it expresses a certain immediacy of blooming (‘the rose is without why it blossoms’), since – in Nishida’s words – the fact lies ‘prior to subject-object bifurcation’ or ‘deliberative discrimination’. Here we can develop a new appreciation of reality that transforms objective facts into facts of self-awareness (‘in me grows a tree’, Rilke).”

Primordial experience expounded in terms of “nature”

Furthermore, Ueda expounded the concept of primordial experience in terms of “nature.” In The Death of Nature and Naturalness (2002), Ueda explains that “the original meaning of the word ‘nature’ (Jp shizen) has an etymological sense of ‘being thus, as it is of itself’ (onozukara shikari). The word does not refer to beings or to their fixed domain but to the ‘way of Being’ in terms of ‘being thus, as it is of itself’. Moreover, it captures the true meaning of ‘Being’. In this sense, it has the same meaning as the Buddhist term for ‘truth’, that is, ‘thusness’ (Skt tathata) […] That the world is open and given ‘thusly’ within ‘the unlimited openness’ is, for us, the primordial fact and the original meaning of “being thus, as it is of itself. […] Since in today’s usage ‘nature’ tends to signify within the world (e.g. in the sense of ‘natural environment’), I would like to express it with the stronger notion of ‘primordial nature’.”


Ueda Shizuteru – “Contributions to Dialogue with the Kyoto School,” in Japanese and Continental Philosophy: Conversations with the Kyoto School Ed: Bret W. Davis, Brian Schroeder and Jason M. Wirth (2011)

Hironobu Ota – “Twofold Being-in-the-World in Ueda’s Philosophy – On His Interpretation of Heidegger and Nishida” in Tetsugaku Companion to Ueda Shizuteru, Ed. Ralf Müller, Raquel Bouso and Adam Loughnane (2022)

Suzuki Kason (1860-1919) – Birds and pine trees, right panel of a folding screen