Article abstract: By synthesizing modern Western philosophy and Zen Buddhist thought, Nishitani sought to overcome the nihilism of the twentieth century and forge connections between Eastern and Western philosophy and religion.
Keiji Nishitani was born in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan. When he was seven years old, Nishitani’s family moved to Tokyo, where Nishitani remained until he graduated from college. When he was sixteen, his father died of tuberculosis, and soon after, Nishitani also fell ill from a similar disease. This no doubt had a strong impact on the young Nishitani; it is reported that, from an early age, Nishitani was afflicted by profound feelings of despair. These experiences brought him face to face with the possibility of his own demise and gave him a general sense of life’s impermanence and uncertainty. Nishitani would later call this condition of life “nihility.” His personal sense of nihility, what the Zen Buddhist tradition terms the “Great Doubt,” instilled in him during his boyhood, ultimately led him to a serious study of Buddhist philosophy, particularly Zen.
Nishitani was born during the years of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), a period marked by Japan’s push to modernize. In the course of this modernization and industrialization, the country experienced drastic changes in its political system, social structures, military organization and agricultural technologies. These changes were implemented so that Japan could advance to the level of and compete with the industrialized countries, especially Europe. Along with this drive toward modernization was an attempt to instill a sense of nationalism in the Japanese people. This took the form of an ideology of emperor worship and the adoption of Shintoism as a state religion. The term “restoration” was used to propagate the view that Japan was actually returning to its traditional heritage while undergoing the process of industrialization. However, these drastic changes brought untold suffering to many Japanese whose traditional ways of livelihood no longer had a place in this new era. A part of the impetus for the intellectual endeavors of the Kyoto School, a group of philosophers at Kyoto University, was the insight that a coherent and workable worldview had to include an understanding of the ways modernization affected culture; a people had to transcend the tendency toward simple ideology while in the process of industrialization.
The push toward modernization also meant a need to Westernize many aspects of Japanese culture. During this period, Japan modified its educational system according to Western models; this change, along with numerous required courses in Western culture and ideas, cultivated in many Japanese an appreciation for and understanding of Western philosophy, literature, and religion. This meant that students of Nishitani’s generation were exposed to a wide range of literary, philosophical, and religious works from the West. Among the most influential for Nishitani were the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Russian author Fyodor Dostoevski; the works of Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Saint Francis of Assisi; and the Bible.
The intellectual influences on the young Nishitani encompassed a wide range of Western philosophical, existential, and religious literature. Though highly influenced by the modernization in the Meiji period, Nishitani also found a deep appreciation for one of Japan’s traditional religions, Zen Buddhism. Most important for Nishitani was Zen’s direct confrontation with the uncertainty and impermanence of life; what seemed to resonate for him was the Zen notion of the Great Doubt. This Great Doubt challenged humans to face up to their finitude and death and thereby overcome the sense of meaninglessness that accompanied these facts of human existence.
Nishitani found both the push toward modernization and...
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