The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism

the self-overcoming of nihilism

Full Book (PDF): The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism by Nishitani Keiji

As a past reader of Nishitani in both the original Japanese and English translation, I find this manuscript to be the most accessible and clearly written of any book-length work I have read by him. It shows Nishitani as a vital and vigorous thinker, and serves as an introduction to his widely acclaimed Religion and Nothingness.

The summaries of the relation to nihilism of Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Feuerbach, and Stirner, a nearly forgotten figure in intellectual history, are all perspicacious. Even the chapters on Nietzsche, about whom volumes are written these days, provide new insights. The brief section on the problem of nihilism for Japan is unprecedented in the English literature, and the sketches on karma and historicity whet the appetite for the more extensive and difficult expositions in Religion and Nothingness.

It will be mandatory reading for an understanding of both Nishitani’s thought and the problem of nihilism. Scholars and other persons interested in nihilism, in Nietzsche, and/or in contemporary Buddhist or Japanese philosophy, will greatly profit from a study of this book.

– John C. Maraldo, Department of Philosophy, University of North Florida

This is a fine translation of an important work in the corpus of Nishitani’s early writings. The translation is timely both because of the Western interest in Nishitani as a preeminent contemporary Japanese philosopher and because of the continuing Western perplexity about the problems Nishitani addresses. Nishitani is one of the world’s greatest living philosophers and even in this early work of his that brilliance shines through.

– Thomas P. Kasulis, Department of Philosophy, Northland College

Nishitani Keiji was for many years Professor of Religious Philosophy at Kyoto University and the leading thinker of the “Kyoto School” of philosophy. He died in 1990. Graham Parkes is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, the editor of Heidegger and Asian Thought and Nietzsche and Asian Thought, and the author of Composing the Soul: Reaches of Nietzsche’s Psychology. Setsuko Aihara has taught Japanese at the University of Hawaii and Harvard University, and is the author of Strategies for Reading Japanese: A Rational Approach to the Japanese Sentence.


Chapter One – Nihilism as Existence

1. Two Problems

2. Nihilism and the Philosophy of History

3. European Nihilism

Chapter Two – From Realism to Nihilism: Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Feuerbach

1. Hegel’s Absolute Idealism and Radical Realism

2. Schopenhauer—Will as Real—The Nullity of Existence

3. Kierkegaard—Becoming and Existence

4. Feuerbach—Critique of Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics

Chapter Three – Friedrich Nietzsche: The First Consummate Nihilist

1. The Significance of Nihilism in Nietzsche

2. Radical Nihilism

3. Nietzsche’s Interpretation of Christianity

4. The Concept of “Sincerity”—”Will to Illusion”

Chapter Four – Nietzsche’s Affirmative Nihilism: Amor Fati and Eternal Recurrence

1. Value-Interpretation and Perspectivism

2. The Problem of Amor Fati

3. Love of Fate as “Innermost Nature”—Suffering—Soul

4. The Idea of Eternal Recurrence: The “Moment” and Eternity

5. Eternal Recurrence and Overcoming the Spirit of Gravity

6. Love of Fate and Eternal Recurrence

7. The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism

Chapter Five – Nihilism and Existence in Nietzsche

1. “God is Dead”

2. Critique of Religion

3. The Stages of Nihilism

4. Nihilism as Existence

5. The First Stage of Existence

6. The Second Stage of Existence

7. Nihilism as Scientific Conscience

8. Science and History as Existence

9. “Living Dangerously” and “Experimentation”

10. The Third Stage—Existence as Body

11. The Dialectical Development of Nihilism

Chapter Six – Nihilism as Egoism: Max Stirner

1. Stirner’s Context

2. The Meaning of Egoism

3. Realist, Idealist, Egoist—”Creative Nothing”

4. From Paganism to Christianity

5. From Christianity to Liberalism

6. From Liberalism to Egoism

7. Ownness and Property—All and Nothing

8. The State and the Individual

Chapter Seven – Nihilism in Russia

1. Russian Nihilism

2. Bazarov’s Nihilism—”Fathers and Sons”

3. Nihilism as Contemplation—”Notes from Underground”

Chapter Eight – Nihilism as Philosophy: Martin Heidegger

1. Existentialism as a Discipline

2. The “Ontological Difference”

3. Transcendence and Being-in-the-World

4. Being-toward-Death and Anxiety

5. Finitude—Metaphysics—Existence—Freedom

Chapter Nine – The Meaning of Nihilism for Japan

1. The Crisis in Europe and Nihilism

2. The Crisis Compounded

3. The Significance of European Nihilism for Us

4. Buddhism and Nihilism

Appendix – The Problem of Atheism

1. Marxist Humanism

2. Sartrean Existentialism

3. Atheism in the World of Today

Religion & Nothingness

Keiji Nishitani – “Religion and Nothingness”

religion and nothingness

Originally Published on Strong Reading


Keiji Nishitani attempts in this book to reformulate the question “What is religion?” away from attempts to amass historical evidence from a variety of traditions in order to create a universal definition of religion based on certain shared characteristics, from using an objective viewpoint to encounter religion as some type of object whose characteristics can be catalogued and compared. Instead, Nishitani seeks the home-ground of religion, its existence as it is lived by people. The question of religion is to be approached by a person questioning what religion is specifically to them, how they live what they call religion, treating that practice as religion’s sole existence, “where religion emerges from man himself, as a subject, as a self living in the present.” (xlviii) So Nishitani is uninterested in what religion “has been,” but in what it “ought to be,” how it can be understood and practiced in such a way as to carry personal conviction.

In so reformulating the question of religion, Nishitani attempts to engage not only with the Zen Buddhist tradition in which he has been raised and practiced, but also with Western philosophies of religion (comparisons of Eastern vs. Western thinking/society are all over this book – I’m too lazy to put scare quotes over all of them…). Nishitani regards the contemporary situation of Western culture (this book was written in 1982) as one whose primary disease is nihilism, the loss of lived belief in personal deities and an ordered cosmos, replaced by what he sees as empty worship of human capacities. In order to overcome this situation, Western thought must come to recognize the Buddhist standpoint of sunyata, and the perspective it opens on human affairs and the natural world.

Nishitani insists that his account is meant to be non-doctrinal, equally applicable to all religions, but he ultimately criticizes Christianity and Judaism for embodying a pre-nihilistic viewpoint, that of a personal deity and of individual chosenness and election by God, a fundamentally self-centered viewpoint, which he argues can only be overcome, along with the nihilism to which it has succumbed, by adoption of certain Buddhist concepts and perspectives, heavily inflected with concepts taken from Heidegger, Hegel, and Kierkegaard.

Chapter 1: “What is Religion?”

The question “What is religion?” or, more importantly, the question “Why do we need religion?” is ambiguous: asking the question is a demonstration that religion has not yet become a necessity for the questioner, but religion should be necessary even for one who does not yet see its value. This ambiguity arises from the fact that religion cannot be defended in terms of its utility: “a religion concerned primarily with its own utility bears witness to its degeneration.” (2) Utility is a form of evaluation that is fundamentally self-centered; when I ask what purpose religion serves I really ask what purpose it serves for me.

The question of religion opens up, for Nishitani, at the point where we no longer understand utility as a viable form of evaluation, in what are called limit experiences such as death, illness, poverty, etc., undermines “the roothold of our existence and bring[s] the meaning of life into question – become[s] pressing personal problems for us.” (3) The value of all our previous projects undertaken for our own sakes is dissolved in these limit experiences, and we recognize that “not one of all the things that had made up the stuff of life until then is of any use.” (3) Nishitani argues that, following Kierkegaard and Heidegger, “that abyss is always just underfoot,” and that the nihility, “that which renders meaningless the meaning of life,” always underlies the projects we create for ourselves (3-4). Religion arises at these moments of crisis where nihility has overcome our self-centered existence and called the meaning of our lives into question, such that we are force to asked for what purpose we exist. Religion, then, for Nishitani, is the practice, the lived experience, of an individual’s answering this question for herself, the overcoming of self-centered living through the replacement of self-love by life lived for a purpose which becomes the new object of live, which he will later compare to love of one’s neighbor.

Nishitani, noting that there are many different perspective by which one can view religion, chooses to focus on religion as the “real self-awareness of reality,” which refers both to our awareness of reality and reality’s realizing (actualizing itself and coming to its self-awareness) itself within our awareness and actions (5). Reality realizes itself in us by appropriating us to reality, thus altering not only our thoughts, but also our actions and practices to take up their “essential determination,” thus bringing us to live in the fullest sense of the term according to our real being (6).

Reality for Nishitani is unrelated to bare physical existence, as the nihility representing the meaninglessness of physical things and the death representing the negation of life are equally real phenomena. When Nishitani speaks of reality, he refers to “a great harmony among all things in the universe that brings them into being and sustains them in mutual dependence and cooperation, a mystical order that rules over all things so that God can be seen in the most trivial of things.” (8-9) In other words, reality constitutes that perspective whereby we can see within each individual thing, in its course of changes and ultimately its inevitable death, its essential relationship and harmony with all other things in the universe. Reality realizes itself in us when we not only see the universe according to this perspective, but actively take it up in our practices of living, behaving and becoming a harmonious being in relationship with all other things, described in more detail in later chapters.

Two types of self-centeredness, however, prevent us from living within what Nishitani calls the field of reality: the first, already described above, is the self-centeredness of our intentions and interests, understanding all of our activities in terms of their utility for us. The second is a conceptual self-centeredness, or the “subjective autonomy of the ego” that arises from Cartesian philosophy (10). Modern philosophy regards the ego as a separate individual, cut off from the world which it represents to itself and thus comprehends as a set of objects. This egocentric perspective prevents us from comprehending the pre-Cartesian view of the universe, as an organic whole whose parts are in sympathy with each other, connected by the souls of each thing.

The modern egocentric perspective sees only its own intentions and representations, its forms of knowledge and emotions, reflected back to it when looking into the universe. The egocentric subject is closed within its own self-understanding, such that “ego means self in a state of self-attachment.” (14) Nishitani opposes what he refers to as the elemental self to this form of encountering the world, where one recognizes and therefore lives within one’s roots or grounds within universal harmony. The passing-over from the self-attached to the elemental selves begins in the limit experiences outlined above, which create in the individual “the Great Doubt,” a Zen phrase Nishitani uses to express the “fundamental uncertainty about the very existence of oneself and others.” (16) The Great Doubt involves recognizing that nihility not only is present as a threat amongst our everyday existence, but is fundamentally at its root, that nihility, meaningless and formlessness, lies “concealed at the ground of all that exists, at the ground of the world itself,” a recognition that does not negate the reality of the world, but “nullifies” it, bringing us face-to-face with the impermanence and evanescence of our own existences, along with that of all things (16).

Nishitani compares the experience of the Great Doubt to the Christian recognition of sin and evil. An individual’s recognition of his or her own sinful state is connected with recognizing the sinfulness of all humanity, that in the very ground of humanity’s existence as humanity, it is in essence sinful. True recognition of sin is deeper than secular definitions of evil as the latter only isolate instances of evil actions, whereas the former recognizes the transtemporality and essentiality of sin to humanity as such, in other words that humanity is in itself corrupt. In Christianity, faith must exist within this experience of sin, beginning in the recognition that sin, the shunning of divine love, is only possible inasmuch as humanity is essentially a receptacle for divine love, such that the “point of contact” between humans and God is found within “the very awareness of the fact of complete corruption itself.” (25)

Nishitani labels this realization the “Great Reality,” which follows from the Great Doubt in Zen Buddhism. In both religions, faith comes upon the recognition that humanity, in its state of nihility/sinfulness, is in reality essentially connected by its point of contact with some form of divine love. It follows that humanity is transtemporally and essentially connected not only in its sinfulness, but also in its relationship with the divine, the “‘Power of the Original Vow’ (that is, the saving will) of the Tagatha (Buddha) in the direction of all sentient beings,” or God’s agape. (26) Our recognition of our relationship with all other sentient beings and thus also with the divine is the only way to fully overcome our egocentric selfhood, fully break apart our solitude, and actualize our true elemental selfhood through faith.

Modern atheism in fact provides the key to start each individual’s personal journey towards faith. Nishitani chooses Sartre as his representative for modern atheistic humanism, basing his understanding of the ego on “subjective nothingness,” where no transcendent meaning grounds human existence, such that humans are capable of choosing “an image of what he believes man ought to be” and living that image out (31). In place of the imago Dei as the transcendent ground of human ethics, Sartre has humans create an “image of man” by which they model themselves. In this way, Nishitani argues, humans become fully closed within their ego’s projections of who they ought to be, blinded to the nihility that underlies their projections.

Modern atheism does not, however, liberate humanity from nihility, but rather brings it closer to it. Limit experiences will still call into question an individual’s existence, but this time with no grounding meaning to their lives outside of that which they have created and has just been called into question. In response, religion must reassert itself by coming to terms with two issues that have traditionally hampered it. First is a paradox regarding the ontological status of humanity vis a vis God. God has in traditional Christianity been understood as creator ex nihilo, meaning that God is ultimately more real than creation, being its archetype and architect. At the same time, however, creation is seen as imbued and sustained by divine love, and so the exact ontological status of creation is unsettled. Second, religion must come to terms with the problem of evil, of theodicy. Religion must finally be able to answer the problem of how a good and omnipotent God can allow evil and, for Nishitani, nihility, in the world.

Chapter 2: “The Personal and the Impersonal in Religion”

The two great intellectual crises of our time, Nishitani argues, are the resolution of the debate between religion and science, and the overcoming of philosophical nihilism, seen most prevalently in the form of modern atheism described above. The twin forces of science and philosophical nihilism began to challenge religion as the classical view of a teleologically ordered universe collapsed. The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake (destroyed lots of the city, churches destroyed, brothels not, etc., the idea that natural disasters were divine punishment was shattered) demonstrated that God and humanity do not have a personal relationship with each other, such that God responds to and ultimately supports human interests. In its wake a materialistic and mechanistic view of the universe, “a world cold and dead, governed by laws of mechanical necessity, completely indifferent to the fact of men.” (48) Without the idea of soul or spirit, the world now began to be seen as a collection of matter that followed impersonal rules.

This materialistic and mechanistic view of the physical universe was accompanied by a social vision of human progress. Under this vision, humans were viewed as the subjugators of nature, making the world conform to its own will and conceptions of justice and rationality. These three ideas, materialism, mechanism, and progress, are for Nishitani the three poles of modern atheism. The problem of nihility, however, was not resolved in the modern atheistic view of the world, but in fact was made into a presupposition of it. Humans became the masters of their own destiny with no structure of transcendent meaning (ie. metaphysics or religion) to ground their self-understanding, thus making them free to self-define.

The nihility underlying the modern atheistic subject, however, is not overcome by this kind of freedom, as limit experiences will always call into question whatever self-definition the subject gives itself. The only appropriate response to nihilism, for Nishitani, is to affirm the indifference of nature, but “not a cold and insensitive indifference, but an indifference of love. It is a non-differentiating love that transcends the distinctions men make between good and evil, justice and injustice.” (58) This type of love for Nishitani is the common denominator between Christian agape and Buddhist non-ego, both ways of indifferently appreciating all things, regardless of individual differences.

Nishitani explains the link between non-ego and agape in his reading of Meister Eckhart. For Eckhart, the essence of God is “absolute nothingness,” equated with the “Godhead” as opposed to the personal God, and a transcendence of any mode of divine being (61). When humans are made in the image of God, then, this includes the Godhead as well, such that each human has an element of absolute nothingness in his or herself. Union with God, then, requires that individual subjectivity be transcended in order to attain the divine element of absolute nothingness in the depths of the individual soul, such that “the element of self is broken through again and again” in mystic ascent (62). The individual in mystic ascent dies to his or her individual subjectivity, but begins to live a divine life having found and taken up his or her absolute nothingness, entering a condition Nishitani calls “death-sive-life,” the unity of death and life in mystic union (63). Having reached this union, Eckhart warns against rapture and self-intoxication in divine perfection, but advocates living everyday life with a higher sense of the value of all activities, each inspired with divine perfection. In fact, for Eckhart there is no divine soul beyond this everyday activity, such that Nishitani concludes that the mystic soul “bears witness to God as present in the Dasein of the soul itself.” (64) God does not stand in some transcendent ground beyond human experience, but in fact only exists as the Existenz, existence without essence, only through activity, of humans, the point of intersection between human and divine nature in the godhead which reveals itself as perfect practices of living.

In order to achieve this state, however, the subject must overcome the self-centered view of personhood implied in modern atheism. Modern atheistic subjects create and define themselves against a backdrop of nihility. Mystic ascent begins by affirming this nihility, recognizing that nothing underlies human subjectivity. There is no thing that models human existence, and the recognition of this opens the possibility of awareness of absolute nothingness: “true nothingness means that there is no thing that is nothingness, and this is absolute nothingness.” (70) Absolute nothingness can only be experienced as this lack of grounding of human subjectivity, experienced in succumbing to the experience of nihility in limit situations. Grounding subjectivity, in other words, is absolute nothingness, which opens up therefore as an individual’s true self:

The ‘nothing at all’ behind the person comes out into the open on the side of the self, the original self. If person [ie. modern atheistic subjectivity] be regarded as the sheer mode of self-being itself, ‘behind’ which there is nothing, this is so because the matter is being looked at from the side of the person. […] When the ‘nothing at all’ opens up on the near side of the personal self, however, and is seen as the sheer self itself, then nothingness really becomes actualized in the self as the true self. (70-71).

Instead of living as a “person,” an independent subject, we find ourselves, when recognizing that absolute nothingness is our ground, to be a “persona,” a role we play and nothing more. We are actors playing out roles that absolute nothingness delimits: our true nature is absolute nothingness, and so we merely embody the nature of absolute nothingness. Nishitani compares this situation to a wave and water. The wave is water and behaves as water does, but it an individual unit of it. There is no water that is not a wave, just as there is no ideal “humanity” that exists without individual humans, such that humans are the form and its instantiation at the same time. So it is not that humans are formless, but have no-form, have nothingness as their form, such that we are not “personal” beings, but are impersonal in our existence: “Seen from that aspect, every man, such as he is in the real Form of his suchness, is not man. He is impersonal. In other words, he is ‘man’ as an appearance with nothing at all behind it to make it an appearance,” and is “impersonal-sive-personal,” or beyond the duality of personality and impersonality. (74)

Chapter 3: “Nihility and Sunyata”

The similarity between religion and science/modern atheism is that each religion, and modern science as well, is grounded on a particular ontology or worldview. Each worldview acts as a basis for the truths expounded by the religion or science, and science, no less than religion, “seems to regard its own scientific standpoint as a position of unquestionable truth from which it can assert itself in all directions.” (78) Nishitani has already argued that modern science possesses a worldview of mechanism and materialism, or that the matter comprising the universe follows predictable laws. Each event in the universe, then, is an instance of those laws of nature.

Human freedom, then, follows a peculiar course for the scientific subject. Humans begin already appropriated to particular laws of their nature, those of human instincts. However, the ideal of progress requires transcendence of mere instinct to gain knowledge. At the same time, though, “knowledge advances and develops through the technological labors of man; and the advance of knowledge in turn advances technology.” (81) As humans free themselves from their bondage to instinct, they ultimately submit to the mechanistic rules of nature through technology. The condition of modern life is one of increasing impersonalization and mechanization of everyday human activity, so that just as humans liberate themselves from instincts often described as “animal,” they re-enslave themselves to their technology, causing the “mechanization of man, toward the loss of the human.” (85)

At the same time as human everyday life has become increasingly mechanized and routinized, however, humans themselves have become increasingly hedonistic. Humans see themselves as unbound by any laws whatsoever, free only to follow their personal desires, engaged in what Nishitani calls “crypto-nihilism,” the denial of any transcendent grounding of human subjectivity but without the Sartrean “image of man” or the Nietzschean drive toward self-transcendence that provided some guide to and impetus for subjective aspirations.

The standpoint that allows for movement beyond the mechanistic and hedonistic lives of modern subjects living by scientific atheism is the standpoint of sunyata, which in Buddhism refers to emptiness. Sunyata is the standpoint where each individual person becomes manifest as they are “as concrete human beings, as individuals with both body and personality. And at the same time, it is the point at which everything around us becomes manifest in its own suchness.” (90) The standpoint of sunyata is accessed through nihility. As one experiences the Great Doubt described above, all things in the world begin to appear meaningless and inessential, and beings become eclipsed by the absolute nothingness that not only serves as our ground, but the ground of the entire world. Sunyata, then, is the way of interpreting experience from the standpoint of absolute nothingness, how the world appears when being has been transcended.

Here the wave metaphor comes in handy again. Whereas classical Christianity would see God as inaccessibly transcendent to humanity, sunyata recognizes that each thing is like a wave in the ocean, where no ocean exists outside of the waves, but the waves themselves have no essential independent existence. “Rather, at the point that water and waves are self-identical (as water-waves), this flowing wetness emerges into reality for what it is, water there being water and waves there being waves.” (103) All things are absolute nothingness, but absolute nothingness has no existence (is nothing) apart from the things in the world which are groundless and inessential.

Attaining the standpoint of sunyata requires giving up conceptions of subject and object. Understanding the world as an object, or as a collection of objects, presumes an observing subject separated from those objects, particularly one who can represent the world to his or herself. In sunyata, contrastingly, each thing appears in its elemental existence as an appearance of absolute nothingness, “the point at which the self is truly on its own home-ground. Here plants and trees have penetrated to the bottom to be themselves; here tiles and stones are through and through tiles and stones; and here, too, in self-identity with everything, the self is radically itself.” (110) Sunyata understands each thing in its own selfhood as an appearance of absolute nothingness, thus revealing it not only its original nature but also its essential harmony with other things.

Chapter 4: “The Standpoint of Sunyata”

In classical Western philosophy, however, objectivity has traditionally taken the form of understanding individual things in terms of concepts like “substance” or “essence.” An individual existence is said to be an outgrowth of some form of true essence that explains the individual thing in its particular way of being. In classical philosophy, things are not seen on their home-ground, here defined as their existence as revealed by their particular activities, but rather as mediated through some more general concept that obscures the existenz of those things. In order to reach the standpoint of sunyata, individuals must transcend logical reason which categorizes objects and understands them in terms of universal concepts such as substance, etc.

The standpoint of sunyata regards things not as species within higher levels of logical genera, culminating with universalities such as “substance” or “matter,” but as they appear “with nihility at [their] ground, as lacking roots from the very beginning.” (122) In other words, rather than deriving the activity of things from a ground in universal concepts and laws, the standpoint of sunyata attends to the be-ing of things, their activity or in Nishitani’s terms, their virtus: “that individual capacity that each things possesses as a display of its own possibility of existence. The pine tree is returned to the virtus of the pine, the bamboo to the virtus of the bamboo, man to the virtus of his humanity.” (123-124) So rather than thinking of being as some kind of material base that differentiates itself to produce the myriad of existent things, things are grounded on nihility, and so only exist insofar as they are made visible in their virtus.

The conclusion Nishitani reaches is that being is only a coherent concept when united with emptiness. To explain this paradoxical conclusion, Nishitani gives the example of fire. Fire burns, but it burns something other than itself (ie. oxygen, wood, etc.). In fact, fire’s activity is in burning things other than itself, and not burning itself up in the process. So if we called the virtus of fire combustion, then the being of fire as combustion is dependent on its negation, its not combusting itself, so that fire is grounded on nothingness, non-combustion. The same goes with attributes as with substance. When we say that fire is hot, we do not say that the heat of fire itself is hot, because that statement would presuppose some deeper conception of heat that allows us to say that heat is hot, and so on ad infinitum. Heat is only an intelligible concept because of the existence of non-heat, the negation of heat as a concept, that heat is not itself hot. In both cases, being is grounded upon nothingness, such that being is only intelligible from the perspective of nothingness or sunyata.

For Nishitani, that being is grounded upon nothingness justifies its being labeled an illusion, an appearance that can only exist by virtue of its dependence on nothingness. Thus, the standpoint of sunyata allows us to see things in their truly elemental existence, in the sense described above. Since, furthermore, this standpoint allows things to reveal themselves in their activity, their virtus, rather than as a species within a category, taking up sunyata allows us to affirm the existence of all things as they are in their elemental natures. Things are as they reveal themselves when viewed from the standpoint of sunyata, and so are nothing but their own activity, and are thus radically affirmed, giving Nishitani cause to apply the Nietzschean title “Great Affirmation” to sunyata (131).

The standpoint of sunyata also breaks through the limitations of Enlightenment and German Idealist conceptions of human subjectivity, both sharing the notion of an isolated individual human subject standing apart from the world, representing it to itself as a set of objects. For Nishitani, this conception of subjectivity naturally bleeds into modern atheism, with an independent subject who is able to represent and order the world and himself according to his own faculties of reason and imagination. The Enlightenment/German Idealist subject, then, fails to confront its nihility as with the modern atheist subject. The standpoint of sunyata, however, allows subjects to see themselves as grounded in the same absolute nothingness as all other beings, finally overcoming their isolation and allowing them to affirm themselves and their own virtus in elemental existence. To this state of affairs of interconnectedness of all things by virtue of being grounded in absolute nothingness Nishitani applies the term circumincession, originally a Christian term used to describe the mutual indwelling of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the Trinity. Nishitani also likens it to Leibniz’s monads, each “reflecting one another like living mirrors of the universe.” (150)

Realizing the circumincession of ourselves with the rest of the world allows us to finally overcome the self-centeredness and self-attachment of our everyday lives. All of our activity is grounded on nothingness, such that the absolute nothingness we share with the rest of the world is closer to our true selves than our egos. Sight is only sight because it is also non-sight, the eye does not see itself or it would be eternally lost in itself viewing itself viewing itself, etc., and the same goes for consciousness. By recognizing one’s own grounding in nothingness, we can cease to cling to our ego-based self-recognition that inevitably succumbs to nihility, and rather take up the absolute nothingness that connects us with the rest of the world, thus answering the question of how to overcome the essential nihility at the heart of the human experience posed at the end of chapter 1. Religion also answers the problem of the ontological status of humanity by arguing that humanity is indeed essentially nothingness, but a nothingness that connects it will all things, including the godhead as per Eckhart.

Chapter 5: “Sunyata and Time”

The question of theodicy, however, still remains open, and Nishitani spends the rest of the book dealing with it by reconceptualizing time and history from the perspective of sunyata. Nishitani begins by stating the basic principle of samsara, describing the way sentient beings exist, condemned to a constant cycle of births and deaths of their selves and their projects, or in other words, “the awareness of an unfathomable nihility and “nullification.” (169) Samsara is the state of our being as always threatened by nihility underlying our activity. Nishitani connects samsara with karma, where humans are bound to experience the consequences of their past actions that condition their present possibilities, such that “everyone without exception reaps only the fruits of his own acts.” (169)

Nishitani argues that the recognition of samsaric suffering in the face of constant nihility and our imprisonment to the causal conditions of karma that continually renew our commitment to actions underlain by nihility constitutes Buddhism’s mythos, its fundamental awareness of humanity’s subjective experience. From the mythic perspective of Buddhism, our struggle against suffering and to overcome nihility is fundamentally a search for liberation from samsara and eventually for Nirvana, a state of absolute freedom unbound by karmic conditioning. Buddhism’s mythos provides the interpretive ground to understand human suffering as fundamentally a struggle to overcome the despair brought on by nihility.

Even if, however, we succeed in finding our original selves on the elemental ground of our existence described in the previous chapters, that attainment does not constitute the end of our struggle against despair. Nirvana cannot be considered some paradisiacal state outside of human experience, or only existing after death, but must be lived within ordinary life, as liberation from samsaric suffering while still enduring the “anxious, petty troubles of daily life,” or in Nishitani’s terms, “samsara-sive-Nirvana.” (182) Keeping in mind that samsaric suffering is truly suffering at the nihility grounding all existence, affirming nihility allows us to see the wheel of birth and death in each thing or event in the world as a microcosm of the absolute nothingness that pervades the entire universe, of the godhead that is imbued into all things.

Zen Buddhism refers to the ability to recognize absolute nothingness in any event or object as meditation, zazen, or in other words, religious practice. Through meditation, which in Zen takes the form of “just sitting,” one releases one’s interests and desires that keep one chained to karmic conditions, allowing oneself to experience the godhead hidden within each moment. Nishitani compares the experience of religious practice to opening oneself to the “atom of eternity” Kierkegaard sees in temporality, where every moment may open up transcendence from the despair of everyday life (189). In each moment one can find absolute nothingness, allowing one to view the universal harmony of elemental existence within its microcosm contained in the present moment. Viewing eternity and the fullness of universal harmony within the present moment is, for Nishitani, the standpoint opened and represented by all “religions that have their base in myth,” in recognition and interpretation of our subjective existence. (206)

Chapter 6: Sunyata and History

The standpoint of religion allows us to see eternal and universal harmony among the meaninglessness and suffering of samsara by coming to terms with and ultimately affirming nihility. The problem of theodicy is thus resolved inasmuch as it is only through a recognition of the suffering that is inherent to the samsaric condition of all sentient beings that the ability to see eternity and universal harmony in each moment is opened. Nishitani also seeks, however, to demonstrate that sunyata provides a standpoint to justify ethical behavior and action against suffering and in favor of love, so that religion does not achieve liberation by merely ignoring concrete suffering by seeking eternity within people’s pain.

The Buddhist conception of time is as an infinite system of simultaneous kalpas, closed and complete temporal systems that coexist. These kalpas exist overlain upon “an infinite openness at the bottom of time, like a great expanse of vast, skylike emptiness that cannot be confined to any systematic enclosure.” (219) Thus time is truly irreversible and unique in the Buddhist scheme, as each “now” in one kalpa only exists in the context of an infinite set of other “nows” in other kalpas. Each moment is thus truly impermanent, as no moment could ever be conceivably repeated, unlike a circular system of time, or even Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence. This system of infinite time, always opening onto newness, is both profoundly liberating and profoundly burdensome. For, at the same time as each moment is necessarily and truly new and unrepeatable, the constant becoming of time continually pushes us into having to confront ever-renewed realities, such that the “obligation to unceasing newness makes our existence an infinite burden to us.” (220) The infinite nature of time signifies that we are always caught within karma, that our actions will necessarily feed back upon us in the future and keep us chained to causality.

The Buddhist conception of time also escapes the illusion that time has a beginning and an end, a key grounding of both classical religious and modern atheist histories. The idea of divine election seeks the ground of time in a transcendent being that can create time and give it a sense and purpose. Modern atheist historicism grew in revolt against this notion, affirming instead that there is no ground transcendent to time, that all things exist only within time, not recognizing that “the time that provides it with its field, a time unrestrictedly open to both past and future, can only come about by virtue of an infinite openness lying at the ground of the present.” (227) Progress narratives merely posit a point where history will culminate and fulfill itself, rather than grasping the infinite openness the Buddhist conception of time understands as grounding any temporal system.

While both classical religious and modern atheist understandings of time are future-oriented, however (with the exception of scientific time seeking the causes of things, thus being past-oriented), Nietzsche’s Eternal Return provides a way to come to the Buddhist understanding of time as present-oriented. As time for Nietzsche bends and meets at the extremes of past and future it returns at the beginning of the cycle to now, the present, where in the Great Affirmation one sees the significance of all past and future things in the present moment. The Great Affirmation brings us back to the present moment, where nihility inevitably comes to overthrow whatever sense of meaning we build, thus opening the ground for absolute emptiness to appear in the present moment.

The Buddhist affirmation of nihility allows for the burden of existence to be interpreted in another way than as the field for the pursuit of self-centered endeavors based on our self-definition. Modern atheistic time also contains a form of infinite time, inasmuch as “each of the various facets of human existence becomes autotelic, each as it were becomes autonomous. Each begins to contain a kind of infinity, an infinite finitude.” (235) Each moment can become the fulfillment of human desires inasmuch as one acts exactly according to one’s self-definition at every moment. At this point, however, human activity ceases to serve anything other than its own desires and interests, bringing us back to the beginning of the book where nihility calls into the question the meaning of our projects.

The burden of existence from the perspective of sunyata appears instead as a mission or a debt towards all others with whom we are essentially connected in elemental existence. As discussed last chapter, entering the infinity of the present moment allows to see our connection with all other things in the universe, effecting a liberation from karmic conditioning. The moment of time and the present moment, then, appears from this perspective as instead one unit of time, the present moment, “spreading out endlessly before and after with the present at its point of origin.” (267) This conception of time as one moment spreading out infinitely into the past and future correlates with the understanding of the elemental existence of the universe as one harmony, a single whole. Understanding the universe as essentially connected makes self-love ignoring others impossible, as loving ourselves necessarily entails loving all other sentient beings, such that loving thy neighbor “as thyself” “comes about where each and every ‘other’ has its being as other, namely, at its own home-ground; or again, where all things are gathered into one circumcessional interpenetration as a ‘world’ and ‘All are One.’” (279) Self-centeredness gives way in religion to understanding the entire world as its own center, such that love must be directed towards all others. Thus, only from the perspective of religion can we grasp our ethical purpose in loving all others, seen most clearly for Nishitani in Boddhisattvahood in Buddhism and love of one’s neighbor in Christianity.

Source: Strong Reading

Primary Sources

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism

Religion and Nothingness

Further Reading

Nishitani’s Buddhist Response to Nihilism