Religion and Nothingness

by Keiji Nishitani

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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.

Nihilism and Nothingness

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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 philosophical thinking is important. Religious meaning is found in what Nishitani terms the self-realization of reality, within which the entire person is transformed, body and mind.


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Nishitani believes that this personal sense of nihility reflects the nihilism of his own time; furthermore, nihilism has its roots in the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment. This age is characterized by an abandoning of the traditional...

(This entire section contains 269 words.)

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theocentric (Christian) view of a divine purpose and replacing it with an anthropocentric one, that is, the idea ofhuman progress. According to Nishitani, the effect was that humans became free to inquire into truth on the basis of reason rather than religious authority and to work toward humanity’s betterment without divine intervention; however, humans lost the sense of dwelling in God’s world. In other words, the price for rationality’s freedom from the divine was existence in an impersonal world indifferent to human beings. Furthermore, Nishitani claims that the scientific outlook eventually reduced humans to the level of those mechanical laws originally intended for nature; human beings could now be both explained away as a collection of chemical, biological, and psychical processes and controlled like the immaterial objects in the world. The result was that both human beings and nature became dehumanized and denaturalized.

For Nishitani, this eventual dehumanization brings to light an inherent contradiction in the Enlightenment ideal of human progress. It was thought that scientific investigations would uncover the laws governing nature, thus allowing humans to control nature for the benefit, or autonomy, of humankind. However, dehumanization undercut this autonomy, resulting in the loss of the very goal of human progress. Therefore, rather than acquiring more freedom through scientific discovery and technological development, humans actually lost the basis for their freedom, the sense of an autonomous self.

Christianity and Nihilism

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Nishitani claims that despite the abandonment of divine revelation for human reason and the resulting rise of nihilism, the foundations of Enlightenment thought ironically lie in the Christian view of time and history. Both the Christian and Enlightenment perspectives include a search for origins (Genesis or the natural cause of the universe), as well as a view toward a future end (the Second Coming or the enlightened society). Both posit a linear structure of time and history that begins in the distant past, unfolds with historically significant events, and culminates in some future ideal. It is Nishitani’s claim that traditional Christianity, by maintaining this historical worldview, not only is responsible for its own demise but also is unable to successfully confront nihilism.

However, Nishitani believes that mystical Christianity can overcome nihilism. He discusses, for example, the mystical theology of thirteenth century Dominican preacher and teacher Meister Eckhart, specifically Eckhart’s view on the God-Godhead relationship. Briefly, “Godhead” signifies the essence of God, which transcends all forms and characteristics. “God,” on the other hand, is the form that functions within the God/human, or Creator/created, relationship and is, therefore, secondary to the Godhead. Humans, because they have been “made in the image of God,” also find their essence in the Godhead; during the event of mystical awakening, humans break through to their divine essence, the Godhead, realizing at once their own and God’s essence. Eckhart characterizes this Godhead as “absolute nothingness.” For Nishitani, it is only through this nothingness that Christianity can confront and transcend nihilism. It should be noted that Nishitani sees Eckhart’s absolute nothingness as being similar to the Buddhist notion of emptiness.

It is important to emphasize that the breakthrough into absolute nothingness, either in its Christian or Buddhist form, signifies an awakening to the “eternal now,” the nontemporal basis for the past, present, and future. This awakening renders meaningless the linear progression of time and also signifies the transcendence of the self. Therefore, Nishitani believes that, ironically, the phenomena of dehumanization and nihilism can mark an important opportunity for the realization of absolute nothingness. Dehumanization pushes a person to the brink of absolute nihility where no meaning, either internal or external, or in the past or future, can be grasped. It is precisely in this sense of complete meaninglessness that one finds the possibility of entering the field of emptiness, here and now.

The Paradox of Representation

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Nishitani concedes that this realization is a difficult and subtle process because the various kinds of twentieth century nihilism are still rooted in the dualistic assumptions of the Enlightenment era, the subject/object dichotomy. In his analysis of the problem, Nishitani introduces us to his own concept of the “field of consciousness.” In general terms, the field of consciousness is the locus for all ordinary experience, where anything that is perceived is seen as an object separate from a subject (the “self”). Nishitani claims that this dualistic standpoint is merely a process of mental construction that represents objects, events, and other people as things out there in opposition to the self in here. However, there is a paradox in this process of representation because the self (including all its moods and thoughts as well as its own existence) can also be represented as another object seen by a subject. Nishitani calls this “the paradox of representation.” Even when the subject examines his or her own existence, it is still objectified as another object.

For example, according to Nishitani, the atheism of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre contains this paradox of representation. Sartre claimed that the essence of the human being is its existence and, furthermore, that this existence is founded on nothingness. Being founded on nothingness, human beings are free, autonomous subjects not bound by any authority. However, this freedom comes with a price; humans can rely on nothing, internal or external, to determine the right course of action. Moreover, humans bear the responsibility for their choices but have no criteria with which to judge these choices. People are, therefore, condemned to freedom.

Nishitani agrees with Sartre that the ground of existence is nothingness but questions the field on which Sartre makes this determination. According to Nishitani, Sartre conceives of this nothingness as a springboard from which humans launch into projects of their own making. This nothingness is taken to be the subject’s ground and is represented in an objectified way. Sartre is, therefore, conceiving of nothingness on the field of consciousness and, as a consequence, is still caught in the subject/object dichotomy. The problem here, from Nishitani’s perspective, is that the subject is not truly seeing itself simply because it is objectifying, or representing, itself to itself. The subject, therefore, only sees a mentally constructed representation of itself and never comes into contact with its own true ground. Sartre’s concept of nothingness does not come close enough to solving the human problem of an alienated self caught up in its own self-centeredness because the very essence of the self is still objectified on the field of consciousness.

For Nishitani, the solution to the problem of representation is to break through the field of consciousness and into the field of emptiness. In this field, all duality, including subject/object, existence/nonexistence, God/human, is transcended. Therefore, the field of emptiness is completely beyond the field of consciousness; however, emptiness also already exists as the reality underneath all things. This paradox signifies two aspects of emptiness: Emptiness is to be realized by going beyond the field of consciousness, and emptiness is originally inherent in all things. This twofold characteristic of emptiness, known in traditional Buddhist terminology as “actualized enlightenment” and “original enlightenment,” is the reason Nishitani calls the breakthrough into reality a “transdescendence.” That is to say, enlightenment means a transcendence of duality and, at the same time, a return to the original state of nonduality.

Philosophy, Theology, and Politics

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The publication of the English translation of Religion and Nothingness marked the exposure to the West of a committed Buddhist thinker whose background included a broad and substantial understanding of Western philosophy and theology. Warmly received by theologians and philosophers in Europe and the United States, Religion and Nothingness provided many things at once: a Buddhist challenge to Western thought, a Buddhist interpretation of the religious and existential problems facing the mid-twentieth century, and a strong foundation for interfaith dialogue.

Until the 1990’s, Religion and Nothingness was discussed and debated within the parameters of philosophy and theology. However, with the growing body of critical scholarship on Nishitani’s Freiburg professor, Martin Heidegger, and Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism, scholars of Japanese intellectual history have increasingly focused their attention on the connections between the Kyoto School philosophers and Japanese nationalism before and during World War II. However, no direct connections can be made between Nishitani’s philosophy and the nationalistic fervor in Japan at the time.


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Additional Reading

Bowers, Russell H. Someone or Nothing? Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness as a Foundation for Christian-Buddhist Dialogue. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. An important treatment of Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness, in which Bowers addresses a connection between Christianity and Buddhism.

Dallmayr, Fred. “Nothingness and Shnyat: A Comparison of Heidegger and Nishitani.” Philosophy East and West 42, no. 1 (January, 1992): 37-48. This article presents a comparison of the basic philosophical ideas of Martin Heidegger and Keiji Nishitani. Dallmayr also develops a critique of Nishitani’s understanding of Heidegger’s thought.

Heine, Steven. “History, Transhistory, and Narrative.” Philosophy East and West 44, no. 2 (April, 1994): 251-278. In this article, Heine discusses Nishitani’s critique of Western understandings of history and provides a critique of Nishitani’s view of history from the standpoint of literary and historical criticism.

Heisig, James W., and John C. Maraldo, eds. Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. A collection of articles that addresses the issue of the relation between the leading intellectuals of the Kyoto School and Japanese nationalism. Although previous works on the Kyoto School have focused on theology and philosophy, this is the first book-length study in English on the political, social, and historical context of the Kyoto School.

Unno, Taitetsu, ed. The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1989. A volume of a collection of papers presented at or connected to the symposium on Religion and Nothingness held at Smith and Amherst Colleges in 1984. The contributors, many of whom are well-known theologians, philosophers, and Buddhist scholars, explain, analyze, and debate the issues and implications set forth in Religion and Nothingness. The volume is divided into five parts: God, Science, Ethics, History, and Buddhism.

Waldenfels, Hans. Absolute Nothingness: Foundations for a Buddhist-Christian Dialogue. New York: Paulist Press, 1980. The first substantive and extended treatment in English of the philosophy of Nishitani, his work’s context in the history of Buddhist thought, and its significance in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue.