The Problem of Atheism

Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics

Illustration by artist Hugh Lieber from Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics by mathematician Lillian Lieber

Excerpts from Keiji Nishitani (1900-1990), The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism (Appendix)

Marxist Humanism

As is commonly known, Marxism looks on religion as a way for those unable to come to terms with the frustrations of life to find satisfaction at the ideal level by imagining a world beyond. In so doing, the argument goes, they nullify the self and transpose the essence of their humanity into the image of “God” in the other world. In this act of religious “self-alienation” both nature and humanity become nonessential, void, and without substance. Atheism consists in the negation of this nonessentiality. By denying God it affirms the essence of the human. This emancipation of the human in turn is of a single root with human freedom.

This variety of atheism is connected with Marx’s characterization of the essence of the human individual as worker: humanity is achieved by remaking the world through work. The process of self-creation by which one gradually makes oneself human through work is what constitutes history. Seen from such a perspective, atheism is unavoidable. For since the source of religious self-alienation lies in economic self-alienation (the condition of being deprived of one’s humanity economically), once the latter is overcome, the former will fall away as a matter of course. According to Marx, then, atheism is a humanism wrought through the negation of religion.

Now insofar as Marx’s atheistic humanism is a humanism that has become self-conscious dialectically – its affirmation rests on the negation of religion – it clearly strikes at the very heart of religion. In it we find a clear and pointed expression of the general indifference, if not outright antagonism, to religion in the modern mind. From its very beginning, modern humanism has combined the two facets of maintaining ties to religion and gradually breaking away from it. In a sense, the history of modern philosophy can be read as a struggle among approaches to humanism based on one or the other of these aspects. At present the debate over humanism – what it is that constitutes the essence of the human – has become completely polarized. The responses provided by the various religious traditions show no signs of being able to allay the situation. Questions such as freedom, history, and labor, in the sense in which Marx discusses them in relation to the essence of humanity, paint a picture of the modern individual that had until recently escaped the notice of religion. To come to grips with such questions, religion will have to open up a new horizon.

Even if we grant that Marx’s thought touches the problem of religion at some depth, it is hard to sustain the claim that he understood its true foundations correctly. Matters like the meaning of life and death, or the impermanence of all things, simply cannot be reduced without remainder to a matter of economic self-alienation. These are questions of much broader and deeper reach, indeed questions essential for human being.

The problem expressed in the term “all is suffering” is a good example. It is clearly much more than a matter of the socio-historical suffering of human individuals; it belongs essentially to the way of being of all things in the world. The problem of human suffering is a problem of the suffering of the human being as “being-in-the-world,” too profound a matter to be alleviated merely by removing socio-historical suffering. It has to do with a basic mode of human being that also serves as the foundation for the pleasure, or the freedom from suffering and pleasure, that we oppose to suffering.

Or again, we might say that the issue of “the non-self nature of all dharmas” refers to “the nonessentiality of nature and humanity,” but this does not mean that we can reduce the claim to a self-alienating gesture of projecting the essence of our humanity on to “God.” It refers to the essential way that all things in the world are: depending on each other and existing only in interdependency. It is meant to point to the essential “non-essentiality” of all beings, and hence to a domain that no society can alter, however far it may progress. It is, in short, the very domain of religion that remains untouched by Marx’s critique. Marx argues emphatically that through work human beings conquer nature, change the world, and give the self its human face. But deep in the recesses behind the world of work lies a world whose depth and vastness are beyond our ken, a world in which everything arises only by depending on everything else, in which no single thing exists through the power of a “self” (or what is called “self-power”). This is the world of human beings who exist as “being-in-the-world.”

As for religion itself, whose maxim all along has been “all is suffering,” the idea that this has to do with “historical” suffering has not often come to the fore. (In this regard, Christianity represents an exception.) The idea of “karma” is supposed to relate concretely to the historicity of human existence, but even this viewpoint has not been forthcoming. The human activities of producing and using various things through “self-power,” of changing nature and society and creating a “human” self – in short, the emancipation of the human and the freedom of the human individual – would seem to be the most concrete “karma” of humanity and therefore profoundly connected with modern atheism. But none of these ideas has been forthcoming from the traditional religions. Even though for Christianity the fact that we must labor by the sweat of our brows is related to original sin, the germ of this idea has not, to my knowledge, been developed anywhere in modern theology.

Sartrean Existentialism

Modern atheism also appears in the form of existentialism. The same sharp and total opposition that separates existentialism and Marxism in general applies also to their respective forms of atheism. Unlike Marxism, which understands the human being as an essentially social being, existentialism thinks of the human being essentially as an individual; that is, it defines the human as a way of being in which each individual relates to itself. Marx’s critique of religion begins from the self-alienation of human beings in religion, redefines it as an economic self-alienation, and then deals with religion in terms of its social functions. In contrast, the existentialist Sartre, for example, understands the relationship between God and humanity as a problem of each individual’s relating to the essence of “self”-being itself. In other words, he begins from something like an ontological self-alienation implied in seeing human beings as creatures of God. For all the differences between the standpoints, they share the basic tenet that it is only by denying God that we can regain our own humanity. As is the case with Marx’s socialist individual, for Sartre’s existentialist individual humanism is viable only as an atheism – which is the force of Sartre’s referring to existentialism as a humanism.

According to Sartre, if God existed and had indeed created us, there would be basically no human freedom. If human existence derived from God and the essence of human existence consisted in this derivation, the individual’s every action and situation would be determined by this essential fact. In traditional terms, “essential being” precedes “actual being” and continually determines it. This means that the whole of actual human being is essentially contained within the “Providence” of God and is necessarily predetermined by God’s will. Such predestination amounts to a radical negation of human freedom. If we grant the existence of God we must admit God’s creation; and if we grant God’s creation, we must also allow for God’s predestination – in other words, we are forced to deny that there is any such thing as human freedom. If human freedom is to be affirmed, the existence of God must be denied.

Human “existence” (a temporal and “phenomenal” way of being) does not have behind it any essential being (a supratemporal and “noumenal” way of being) that would constitute its ground. There is nothing at all at the ground of existence. And it is from this ground of “nothing” where there is simply nothing at all that existence must continually determine itself. We must create ourselves anew ever and again out of nothing. Only in this way can one secure the being of a self – and exist. To be a human being is to humanize the self constantly, to create, indeed to have no choice other than to create, a “human being.” This self-being as continued self-creation out of nothing is what Sartre calls freedom. Insofar as one actually creates the self as human, actual existence precedes essence in the human being. In essence, the human individual is existence itself. This way of being human is “Existence,” and Existence can stand only on an atheism.

Of late we are beginning to see a turn in the standpoint of Heidegger, in that he no longer refers to his thought as an “existentialism.” Still, it seems important to point out what his thinking up until now has shared in common with the existentialism of Sartre. That human beings continually create themselves out of nothing is meant to supplant the Christian notion of God’s creatio ex nihilo. To this extent it is not the standpoint of “self-power” in the ordinary sense. Self-creation out of nothing is not brought about simply by the inner power of a being called human and hence is not a power contained within the framework of human being. This “being” is continually stepping beyond the framework of “being.” Nothingness means transcendence, but since this transcendence does not mean that there is some transcendent “other” apart from self-being, it implies a standpoint of “self-power,” not of “other-power.” In contrast to Christianity, it is a view in which nothingness becomes the ground of the subject and thereby becomes subjective nothing – a self-power based on nothing. Here the consciousness of freedom in the modern mind finds a powerful expression and amounts to what is, at least in the West, an entirely new standpoint. It seems doubtful that this standpoint can be confronted from within the traditional horizons that have defined Christianity so far. It is quite different with Buddhism.

From the perspective of Buddhism, Sartre’s notion of Existence, according to which one must create oneself continually in order to maintain oneself within nothing, remains a standpoint of attachment to the self – indeed, the most profound form of this attachment – and as such is caught in the self-contradiction this implies. It is not simply a question here of a standpoint of ordinary self-love in which the self is willfully attached to itself. It is rather a question of the self being compelled to be attached to itself willfully. To step out of the framework of being and into nothing is only to enter into a new framework of being once again. This self-contradiction constitutes a way of being in which the self is its own “prison,” which amounts to a form of karma. Self-creation, or freedom, may be self-aware, but only because, as Sartre himself says, we are “condemned to be free.” Such a freedom is not true freedom. Again, it may represent an exhaustive account of what we normally take freedom to be, but this only means that our usual idea of freedom is basically a kind of karma. Karma manifests itself in the way modern men and women ground themselves on an absolute affirmation of their freedom. As Sartre himself says, his standpoint of Existence is a radical carrying out of the cogito, ergo sum of Descartes, for the Cartesian ego shows us what the modern mode of being is.

That Sartre’s “Existence” retains a sense of attachment to the self implies, if we can get behind the idea, that the “nothingness” of which he speaks remains a nothingness to which the self is attached. It was remarked earlier that in existentialism nothingness became subjective nothingness, which means that, as in the case of Greek philosophy or Christianity, it is still bound to the human individual. Again looked at from behind, we find that human subjectivity is bound up inextricably with nothingness and that at the ground of human existence there is nothing, albeit a nothing of which there is still consciousness at the ground of the self. No matter how “pre-reflective” this consciousness is, it is not the point at which the being of the self is transformed existentially into absolute nothingness. Sartre’s nothingness is unable to make the being of the self (Existence) sufficiently “ek-static,” and to this extent it differs radically from Buddhist “emptiness.” The standpoint of emptiness appears when Sartrean Existence is overturned one more time. The question is whether Buddhism, in its traditional form, is equal to the confrontation with existentialism.

Sartre thinks that to be a human being is to “human-ize” the self continually and to create the self as human out of nothing. Pushing this idea to the extreme, and speaking from the standpoint of emptiness in Buddhism, it is a matter of continually assuming human form from a point where this form has been left behind and absolutely negated. It is, as it were, a matter of continued creative “accommodation,” a never-ending “return” to being a new “human.” Taken in the context of Buddhist thought as a whole, there is some question as to whether this idea of “accommodation” really carries such an actual and existential sense. Does it really, as Sartre’s idea of continual humanization does, have to do with our actual being at each moment?

When Sartre speaks of ceaseless self-creation out of nothing, he refers to an Existence that is temporal through and through. It does not admit of any separate realm of being, such as a supratemporal (or “eternal”) essence, but is simply based on “nothing.” But for Sartre Existence is self-created within a socio-historical situation, which demonstrates his profound appreciation of the social and historical dimensions of the human way of being. In the case of the standpoint of Buddhist emptiness, in which human being is understood as arising out of emptiness and existing in emptiness, we need to ask how far the actual Existence of the human being at each moment is included. How much of the Existence within the actual socio-historical situation, and completely temporalized in this actuality, is comprehended? To the extent that the comprehension is inadequate, the standpoint of Buddhism has become detached from our actuality, and that means that we have failed to take the standpoint of emptiness seriously enough and to make it existential. In this case, talk of “accommodation” is merely a kind of mythologizing.

Atheism in the World of Today

A crisis is taking place in the contemporary world in a variety of forms, cutting across the realms of culture, ethics, politics, and so forth. At the ground of these problems is that fact that the essence of being human has turned into a question mark for humanity itself. This means that a crisis has also struck in the field of religion, and that this crisis is the root of the problems that have arisen in other areas. We see evidence of this state of affairs in the fact that the most recent trends of thought in contemporary philosophy which are having a great influence – directly and indirectly – on culture, ethics, politics, and so on, are all based on a standpoint of atheism. This applies not only to Marxism and existentialism, especially as represented by Sartre, but also to logical positivism and numerous other currents of thought.

Involved in the problem of the essence of human being are the questions, “What is a human being?” and “By what values should one live?” These are questions that need to be thought through in terms of the totality of beings, the “myriad things” of which human beings are only one part. It is a question, too, of the place of human beings in the order of the totality of beings, and of how to accommodate to this position (that is, how to be truly human). For the order of being implies a ranking of values.

For example, even if “man” is said to be the lord of creation, this places him in a certain “locus” within the totality of things, and therefore refers to how one ought to live as a human being. In the Western tradition the locus of human being has been defined in relation to God. While we are said to have been created from nothing, our soul contains the imago dei. This divine image was shattered through original sin, to be restored only through the atonement of God’s Son, Jesus, and our faith in him as the Christ. Here the locus of human beings in the order of being and ranking of value takes a different form from the straightforward characterization of man as lord of creation, a form consisting of a complex interplay of negation and affirmation. This locus of human being is well expressed in Augustine’s saying: “Oh God, you have created us for you, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Needless to say, the basic dynamism behind the forming of this locus came from Greek philosophy and Christianity.

Modern atheism, Marxism, and existentialism share in common the attempt to repudiate this traditional location of the human in order to restore human nature and freedom. The seriousness of this new humanism is that such a restoration is possible only through a denial of God. At the same time, the new humanism harbors a schism in its ranks between the standpoints of Marxism and existentialism. The axis of the existentialist standpoint is a subjectivity in which the self becomes truly itself, while Marxism, for all its talk of human beings as subjects of praxis, does not go beyond a view of the human being as an objective factor in the objective world of nature or society. Each of them comprehends human being from a locus different from the other.

In the Western tradition the objective world and subjective being – the natural and social orders on the one hand, the “soul” with its innate orientation to God on the other – were united within a single system. The two main currents in modern atheism correspond respectively to these two coordinates, the soul and the world, but there is little hope of their uniting given the current confrontation. There is no way for modern men and women simply to return to the old locus, and the new atheism offers only a locus split into two. Confusion reigns in today’s world at the most basic level concerning what human beings are and how they are to live.

Each of these two standpoints seeks to ground itself from start to finish in actual being. This is related to the denial of God, in that full engagement of the self in actual being requires a denial of having already been determined within the world-order established by God, as well as a denial of having been fitted out in advance with an orientation to God in one’s very soul. Both standpoints stress the importance of not becoming detached from the locus in which one “actually” is, of remaining firmly grounded in one’s actual socio-historical situation, or more fundamentally, in actual “time” and “space.” But do these standpoints really engage actual being to the full?

Earlier on I suggested that as long as Marxism and existentialism continue to hold to the standpoint of the “human,” they will never be able to give a full account of actual human being. These new forms of humanism try to restore human beings to actual being by eliminating from the world and the soul the element of divine “predetermination.” The result is that they leave a gaping void at the foundations, as is evidenced by the lack of a locus from which to address the problem of life and death. Since the human mode of being consists in life and death, we must pass beyond the human standpoint to face the problem of life and death squarely. But to overcome the human standpoint does not necessarily mean that one merely returns to the “predetermination” of God, nor that one simply extinguishes freedom or actual being. It is rather a matter of opening up the horizon in which the question can be engaged truly and to its outermost limits.

Earlier I also proposed consideration of the locus of Buddhist “emptiness” in this regard. In the locus of emptiness, beyond the human standpoint, a world of “dependent origination” is opened up in which everything is related to everything else. Seen in this light there is nothing in the world that arises from “self-power” and yet all “self-powered” workings arise from the world. Existence at each instant, Sartre’s self-creation as “human,” the humanization in which the self becomes human – all these can be said to arise ceaselessly as new accommodations from a locus of emptiness that absolutely negates the human standpoint. From the standpoint of emptiness, it is at least possible to see the actuality of human being in its socio-historical situation in such a way that one does not take leave of “actual” time and space. In the words of the Zen master Musō:

When acting apprehend the place of acting, when sitting apprehend the place of sitting, when lying apprehend the place of lying, when seeing and hearing apprehend the place of seeing and hearing, and when experiencing and knowing apprehend the place of experiencing and knowing.

Further Reading

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

On Buddhism by Keiji Nishitani (PDF)

The Kyoto School (SEP)

Zen & The Art of Postmodern Philosophy

zen and postmodern philosophy

Selected Passages

Nietzsche views Buddhism as a passive kind of nihilism, a sign of weakness. Contrary to Nietzsche’s opinion of Buddhism, the historical Buddha wanted to “steer clear of notions of permanent existence and nihilistic nonexistence.” Within the context of the historically later Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, classical Madhyamika thinkers, for instance, emphatically rejected a nihilistic interpretation of the doctrine of emptiness. In his Mulamadhyamakakarika, Nagarjuna writes, for instance, the following:

In truth, the cessation of a real existing entity is not possible. For, indeed, it is not possible to have the nature of both existence and non-existence at the same time.

This type of statement motivated some critical interpreters to label such assertions nihilistic…

In response to western critics like Nietzsche and others, Nishitani rejects such erroneous claims, and asserts that nihilism is “the single greatest issue facing philosophy and religion in our times.” Within our historical time and place, philosophy has failed to provide an adequate response to nihilism, a historical actuality. The failure of philosophy is connected with the death of the traditional notion of a transcendent deity that gave history its meaningful basis in eternity. Devoid of any transcendent foundation, history becomes an errant striving for a viable future and an unbearable burden upon the individual.

Nietzsche’s response to the loss of a transcendent God and ground of historical meaning was to attempt to transcend history in and through time rather than striving to go beyond time…

Nishitani does not think that Nietzsche’s vision is a useful solution because the “will to power” was conceived as a “thing” referred to as “will.” To remain an entity suggests for Nishitani that it did not lose its connotation as other for us and something of which could help us become aware of ourselves at a primary level.

Science is also part of the problem because “Modern science has completely transformed the old view of nature, resulting in the birth of various forms of atheism and the fomenting of an indifference to religion in general.” Moreover, science rejects the possibility of a personal God or a teleological view of the world, and conceives of nature as something indifferent and impersonal.

According to Nishitani, reality is not something that can be reduced: “It is both life and death, and at the same time is neither life nor death. It is what we have to call the nonduality of life and death.”

From Nishitani’s perspective, contemporary atheism goes further by adding a sense of the meaninglessness associated with a purely materialistic and mechanistic world and “an accompanying awareness of the nihility that lies concealed just beneath the surface of the world.” Within contemporary atheism, there is an awareness of nihility in which the existence of God is denied and replaced by nihility. How is it possible to break out of this fundamental crisis of human existence? It is possible to deepen our subjectivity and freedom by practicing zazen (seated meditation) which will help us to become aware of the reality of sunyata (emptiness)? … From Nishitani’s perspective, Zen Buddhism does not represent an eastern form of nihilism.

Nishitani refers to the elemental mode of being as possessing an illusory appearance: “That being is only being in unison with emptiness means that eing possesses at its ground the character of an ‘illusion,’ that everything that is, is in essence fleeting, illusory appearance.”

In his work entitled Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Nietzsche refers to the overcoming of metaphysics and links it with liberation. In his four-volume study of Nietzsche, Heidegger interprets Nietzsche’s call for an end of metaphysics in the following manner: “The end of metaphysics discloses itself as the collapse of the reign of the transcendent and the ‘ideal’ that sprang from it. But the end of metaphysics does not mean the cessation of history.” Heidegger’s study of Nietzsche depicts him as the last metaphysician. Rosen disputes this claim because Nietzsche view metaphysics as illusion, and “Metaphysics is rendered impossible by the irrational necessity of the Chaos that lies in the heart of all things.” Nonetheless, Nietzsche’s call for an end of the western metaphysical tradition creates room for the eventual development and retrieval of an analysis of Being from the perspective of Heidegger. In a lecture from his later period, Heidegger claims that “To think Being without beings means: to think Being without regard to metaphysics.” Within the space provided by Nietzsche’s termination of metaphysics, Heidegger anoints and appoints himself to be the initial philosopher after the end of metaphysics, which for some postmodern thinkers also means the end of philosophy or the conclusion of philosophy as it has been practiced in the West.

As part of his argument, Derrida states that not all languages are logocentric because Chinese or Japanese nonphonetic scripts are evidence of cultures developing alternatively to logocentrism.

D.T. Suzuki captures the spirit of play in Zen Buddhism when he writes, “For playfulness comes out of empty nothingness, and where there is something, this cannot take place. Zen comes out of absolute nothingness and knows how to be playful.” To be able to play is to be free, whereas to work is to be limited and confined. The free and voluntary nature of play is a source of joy and amusement. The spirit of play for Dogen represents his transcendence of earthly dichotomies and absolute freedom. In a spirit applicable to the Zen of Dogen, Huizinga writes, “Play lies outside te antithesis of wisdom and folly, equally outside those of truth and falsehood, good and evil.”

It is a time for thinkers to wander aimlessly, err, emphasize altarity, stress the importance of difference, communicate indirectly, and embrace irony.

Zen, from one perspective, represents the end of philosophy as the love of wisdom and the use of rational means to find the truth, and many postmodern thinkers share the Zen suspicion of metaphysics and representational thinking, even though some postmodernists might view Zen as an example of eastern logocentrism.

“[Writing] plays within the simulacrum.” In fact, other postmodernists agree with Derrida that we are located in the simulacrum, a copy of a copy according to Plato… The functioning of the simulacrum, a Dionysian machine, is simulation, a phantasm itself, that subverts the same or representative model and renders it false… “It harbors a positive power that deniesthe original and the copy, the model and the reproduction.” Such a philosophical position manifests an anti-Kantian perspective that is aconceptual and nonrepresentational.

Writing on behalf of all human beings, Deleuze concludes that “We have become simulacra.”

Although there are certainly many similarities between Buddhist philosophy and forms of postmodern philosophy as evident by our previous discussions, the differences are ultimately more significant. Many postmodern thinkers manifest evidence of moving in the direction of Zen, but there is always a point at which they become captives of their own radical skepticism and/or language games.

Proceeding in a direction where the postmodernists would never tread, Dogen claims that the body is both subject and object, and that the body and mind represent the entire world, which implies that we are never separated from the world.

Due the the absence of an end, a definite conclusion is impossible. The most that we can affirm is that a conclusion is inconclusive, and yet we must come to some sort of end. I tend to agree with Taylor who thinks that one must end where one finds oneself. It has not been the intention of this dialogue between representatives of the Zen philosophical tradition and postmodern thought to arrive at a final solution to any philosophical problems. The inconclusive end of this intercultural dialogue terminates with an interlude that anticipates a continuation of the dialogue at a future date. Unable to come to final conclusions or a definitive end, it seems advisable to simply sign out.

– Carl Olson


“The Buddhist Dharma cannot be understood through rational and intellectual study.”

– Dogen

“The relationship of being and nothingness is thus one of mutual implication and intertwining; it is not predicated on antithesis or reciprocal exclusion.”

– Dallmayr

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



“My life as a young man can be described in a single phrase: it was a period absolutely without hope… My life at the time lay entirely in the grips of nihility and despair… My decision, then, to study philosophy was in fact – melodramatic as it might sound – a matter of life and death… In the little history of my soul, this decision meant a kind of conversion.”

– Keiji Nishitani, “Religion and Nothingness”

Nishitani’s Buddhist Response to Nihilism

“Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but [consists in the fact] that the relation relates itself to its own self.”

– Kierkegaard