Nishitani Keiji & Nothingness

As a continuation of my dive into the Kyoto School of Japanese philosophy, I’m currently reading Nishitani Keiji’s Religion and Nothingness (1961 [1982]).

Nishitani was a Zen Buddhist who studied under Nishida Kitarō. Like his teacher, Nishitani sought to explain something of the Zen experience through terminology and concepts provided by Western thinkers. Where Nishitani’s book differs from Nishida’s Inquiry, however, is that the connections with Christianity are more prominent from the outset (as is to be expected given the book’s title), and that Nishitani borrows heavily from Heidegger.

In my opinion, the second point is key to forming a judgement of the authors’ relative successes. Whereas Nishida drew on the works of the German idealists (principally Hegel) and American pragmatists (notably William James), Nishitani, writing later, also had the works of the phenomenologists and existentialists available to him. This gives Nishitani the edge, since – as has been remarked upon countless times – the affinity between Zen and Heidegger’s phenomenology is quite uncanny.

The reason for this affinity, in truth, is a complex mixture of influence and coincidence. Heidegger’s early ‘existential’ approach to phenomenology was already closely enough aligned to Zen that when he encountered the latter (as well as Taoism), in the early 1920s, he couldn’t fail to be inspired by it. This is why so many members of the Kyoto School (with the notable exception of Nishida) were drawn to his work.

The Japanese philosopher who made the most of Heidegger’s thought was surely Nishitani. The great challenge of modern thinking, according to Nishitani, is to overcome contemporary nihilism which has arisen with the ‘death of God’ (as Nietzsche put it). Nishitani’s argument – as I understand it thus far – is that modern nihilism represents the negation of the phenomenal world, and for this reason deserves the name ‘relative nothingness’. But Zen, and the East Asian tradition more broadly, recognises that the phenomenal world rests on śūnyatā, meaning ’emptiness’ or ‘absolute nothingness’. This is the way out of nihilism, according to Nishitani: an overcoming of the duality of beings and (relative) nothingness altogether by heading to the absolute nothingness that underlies both and binds them together.

There is here, to be sure, a clear conneciton to Heidegger’s Seinsgeschichte. What Nishitani means by śūnyatā is very close to what Heidegger means by Sein, and both share the view that the ‘forgetting’ of śūnyatā/Sein is what accounts for the West’s plunge into nihilism. How successful Nishida’s project will prove to be remains to be seen, as I’m only half-way through the book! But it has succeeded in doing something already, which is piquing my interest in writing another book of my own.

A full blog post will be needed at some point to flesh this out, but I’m developing an idea for a book that addresses modern nihilism through the great ‘existentialist’ thinkers: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and so on, including, perhaps, Nishitani. Each offers a unique perspective on the fundamental problem of our time, and how to cope with it. And coping, will, I think, be a core theme, as I hope to make this text more personal, literary, and ‘lived’, as befits the subject matter. If I set about writing this book, it’s my hope that it’ll be a different beast altogether than my last: an example of practical rather than academic philosophy.

More information to come in due course…

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