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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 118

The work of Keiji Nishitani bears a strong resemblance to the philosophical literature of twentieth century existentialism. His concerns include the problems of human meaning, uncertainty, death, finitude, and the possibility of transcendence. The resources he employs in his analysis, however, cover almost the entire range of Western thought, from early Greek thinking to existentialism, including Christian mysticism and theology. All these Western intellectual and spiritual currents form the context within which Nishitani formulates and argues his Buddhist standpoint. This is not surprising, given Nishitani’s view that science and technology (whose roots lie in Western philosophy and, ironically, Christianity) have global ramifications, not only for practical concerns but also for human meaning and cultural and religious traditions.

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Nihilism and Nothingness

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

Nishitani’s primary concern is the impact that a scientific worldview, technological developments, and nihilism have on religion. According to Nishitani, nihilism, which he sees as an outgrowth of science and technology, is the major issue confronting humans in the mid-twentieth century. Unlike the antireligious currents during the Enlightenment, nihilism sees religion as irrelevant to humanity. Nishitani believes that this attitude underlies the crisis of the twentieth century (the sense of personal meaninglessness, the loss of traditional spiritual values, and rampant materialism) because it is only in the realm of religion that humans find ultimate meaning. He offers a standpoint from which humans can disclose and critique the foundations of nihilism and finally overcome it. This standpoint, according to Nishitani, is the Buddhist notion of emptiness.

Nishitani opens Religion and Nothingness with the question, “What is religion?” For him, religion encompasses not just a set of dogmas or various kinds of worship but also the question of human meaning and the nature of ultimate reality. Religion, then, is absolutely central for humans, whether they know it or not, because it provides the opportunity to realize what Nishitani calls the “elemental source” of all existence. Nishitani calls this elemental source “absolute nothingness,” or, in traditional Buddhist terms, “emptiness.” This emptiness, according to Nishitani, is not just negation but also includes the ultimate, nondual reality of all existence. Nishitani’s conception of emptiness, therefore, contains both a negative and positive connotation: negative because emptiness discloses the nonsubstantial nature of existence and positive because beneath this insubstantiality lies the true reality of all existence. To reach this reality, however, humans must pass through the negative stage of meaninglessness, what Nishitani calls “nihility.”

That the term “nothingness” figures in Nishitani’s philosophy of religion is no accident; in both his personal life and the Zen Buddhist tradition to which he belongs, the problem of nihility takes central stage. For Nishitani, nihility is that which renders meaningless all that people hold as meaningful; some examples are the death of a loved one or the loss of everything due to a failed business venture. Death and uncertainty, therefore, are constant companions in human existence. Nishitani claims that an authentic religious orientation to life begins only when a person faces this ever-present nihility. The basis of religion, then, is the individual’s search for ultimate reality, including the passage through nihility and the eventual breakthrough into what he calls “the field of emptiness.” Nishitani stresses that the authentic religious quest is not an intellectual affair, although...

(The entire section contains 2306 words.)

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