October 29, 2008

Nishitani's Path of Nothingness

Quick Bio of Nishitani

Keiji Nishitani (1900 - 1990) was a Japanese philosopher of the Kyoto School and a disciple of Nishida Kitaro. Because the nature of Nishitani's philosophy was expressed more religiously and subjectively, he felt ideologically closer to the existentialists and the mystics, namely Søren Kierkegaard and Meister Eckhart, than the scholars and theologians who were aimed at more objectively expressing their ideas. ... Nishitani focused on creating a standpoint "from which he could enlighten a broader range of topics," and wrote more on Buddhist themes towards the end of his career. Sadly, tragically, he is said to have associated himself with Japanese nationalism/ fascism during WWII.

English-language books by Nishitani: Source of info: wikipedia

Nothingness, Nihilism, Emptiness and Śūnyatā are all important terms that Western Buddhists struggle to understand. Different sects within our religion place different meanings on them. Philosophers co-opt the terms, insisting on bridling them with their own conceptions. Nothing and empty are already shackled to common understandings we learned in our childhood; nihilism to an understanding that comes later. And sūnyatā is of particular interest since, by popular interpretation, it negates even itself.

What, then, is to be made of this word stew? And what is to be made of what the words represent, if they represent anything more than a puff of smoke that has fully vanished? And, as Kyoto School philosopher Keiji Nishitani seems to have insisted, Is the very meaning of our lives to be found where there is no meaning?

Let us begin with existential nihilism which refers to "the feeling of emptiness and pointlessness that follows from the assessment that 'Life has no meaning.'" Karen L. Carr who wrote Banalization of Nihilism defines it in two contemporary forms:

  • People for whom what used to make sense no longer makes sense. These folks feel "deeply empty" and cannot quickly find relief.
  • People who respond to their feeling of emptiness by "conforming to the masses and by satisfying their shallow desires." These folks suffer a loss of passion and are likely to become superficial in their relationships and interests.
In Nishitani's view, the first form of nihilism is the vital first step toward "actualizing one's ideal self and improving one's life." The second much-more-common form parallels the flatland culture of moderntimes where self-centeredness and self-absorption are ascendant and our surrounding world is seen as being at human's disposal (rather than integral to the fabric of existence, as was the view of pre-modern societies).

Writes Nishitani in his book The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism:
if nihilism is anything, it is first of all a problem of the self. And it becomes such a problem only when the self becomes a problem, when the ground of the existence called "self" becomes a problem for itself....Thinking about the issue by surveying it as an objective observer cannot touch the heart of the matter.
Thus, understanding the threat that nihilism imposes only becomes possible when one's own existence becomes a problem to oneself. This is not something that a person can truly approach abstractly {as is happening here and now in this wordy post!} Nihilism is known only by being caught in its clutches.

Nishitani claims that in order to escape the universe of shit we find ourselves in when we are enclosed in this angsty black hole of existential doubt is to move from the field of consciousness to the field of nihility and then to the field of emptiness.

The Field of Consciousness
[aka, The Field of Reason]

From a paper in the journal "Philosophy of Education" by Yoshiko Nakama, I find this cool definition of Nishitani's field of consciousness [Emphasis, mine]:
The field of consciousness is the locus of the separation of subject and object where consciousness tries to grasp objects through conceptual representations. The field of consciousness is the source of dualism. Dualism posits oppositional distinctions such as subject and object, good and bad, and life and death, and it implies that there is the self that tries to grasp and objectify the nature of the object from the self's point of view, which Nishitani thinks is the human-centered attitude. The dualistic view separates the self not only from other things but also from itself. Nishitani writes [in Religion and Nothingness], "At this level, even the self in its very subjectivity is still only represented self-consciously as self."
Thus, the Field of Consciousness, where the great majority of people are [including, likely, YOU, dear reader], is downright diabolical, though, of course not literally thus. The self is alien from the self. It is the condition that René Descartes discovered and wrote about in the year 1641: Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. Descartes believed that this "ego cogito" circumstance was beyond all doubt, and a wonderful thing, to boot. "Ego cogito," however, assumes that self and all else are and must remain fundamentally separated. But the Buddhist Path has the promise of leading us out of this all-suffering Munchkin Land.

The Field of Nihility
[aka, The Field of Relative Emptiness
and similar to
The Field of the Ekstasis of Self Existence

This is where people find themselves when life's meaning eludes them and they do not succumb to shallow diversions. When Siddhartha first left his father's compound, stepping out into the miserable real world, the Field of Nihility is what he found: Everything was pointless, full of misery or bodings of misery with no escape other than the certain black nothingness of death.

Existential philosophers found this field, but for most of them they find, usually, No Exit. For Jean-Paul Sarte, the "cure" is taking responsiblity for one's doomed life. But here, the ego remains in full lustre. Of the existentialists, Nishitani most admired Friedrich Nietzsche whom, Nishitani observed, attempted "to posit a new way of being human beyond the frame of the 'human,' to forge a new form of the human from the 'far side' [and] 'beyond [dualistic] good and evil.'" Yet, [as Fred Dallmayr wrote in his article "Nothingness and Sunyata," published in Philosophy East and West Vol. 42, Issue 1] "no matter how radicalized, subjectivity and subjectivication for Nishitani do not consitute the endpoint of relentless doubt.

The Great Doubt
[at the far side of The Field of Nihility]

Writes Zen Master John Daido Loori in Beliefnet, "boundless faith in oneself and in the ability to realize oneself and make oneself free, and a deep and penetrating doubt which asks: Who am I? What is life? What is truth? What is God? What is reality? This great faith and great doubt are in dynamic tension with each other ..."

Writes Malcomb David Eckel in the essay collection The Christ and the Bodhisattva:
According to Nishitani, the solution to the nihilistic dilemma is not to rediscover God, since the distinction between God and the self involves an inevitable sense of alienation. He argues that the self can rediscover itself in a meaningful way, not by projecting a divine subjectivity outside itself, but by breaking through even its own selfhood.

[Quoting Nishitani from his book Religion and Nothingness,] “Only when the self breaks through the field of consciousness, the field of beings, and stands on the ground of nihility is it able to achieve a subjectivity that can in no way be objectivized. This is the elemental realization that reaches deeper than self-consciousness. In standing subjectively on the field of nihility, … the self becomes itself in a more elemental sense.”
Wrote Rinzai Zen Master Hakuin, "At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully."

Says Nishitani in Religion and Nothingness, "“What I am talking about is the point at which the nihility that lies hidden as a reality at the ground of the self and all things makes itself present as a reality to the self in such a way that self-existence, together with the being of all things, turns into a single doubt. When the distinction between the doubter and the doubted drops away, when the field of that very distinction is over-stepped, the self becomes the Great Doubt. …

"When this Doubt appears to the self, it does so with an inevitability quite beyond the control of the consciousness and arbitrary willfulness of the self. In its presence, the self becomes Doubt itself. The self realizes the doubt about reality. This is the “self-presentation of the Great Doubt.” Through it the uncertainty that lies at the ground of the self and of all things is appropriated by the self."

A little later in his book, Nishitani quotes a sermon by 18th C. Rinzai Zen master Takusui re a method of practice to encounter and address this delicious doubt. Here's some of it:
The method to be practiced is as follows: you are to doubt regarding the subject in you that hears all sounds. All sounds are heard at a given moment because there is certainly a subject in you that hears. Although you may hear the sounds with your ears, the holes in your ears are not the subject that hears. If they were, dead men would also hear sounds. . . . You must doubt deeply, again and again, asking yourself what the subject of hearing could be. . . . Only doubt more and more deeply . . . without intending to be enlightened and without even intending not to intend to be enlightened; become like a child in your own breast. . . . But however you go on doubting, you will find it impossible to locate the subject that hears. You must explore still further just there, where there is nothing to be found. Doubt deeply in a state of single-mindedness, . . . becoming completely like a dead man, unaware even of the presence of your own person. When this method is practiced more and more deeply, you will arrive at a state of being completely self-oblivious and empty. But even then you must bring up the Great Doubt, “What is the subject that hears?” and doubt still further, all the time being like a dead man. And after that, when you are no longer aware of your being completely like a dead man, and are no more conscious of the procedure of the Great Doubt but become yourself, through and through, a great mass of doubt, there will come a moment, all of a sudden, at which you emerge into a transcendence called the Great Enlightenment, as if you had awoken from a great dream, or as if, having been completely dead, you had suddenly revived.
Absolute Emptiness
[aka, Sunyata or Nothingness]

"Buddhists have argued from the earliest stages of the tradition that a person must learn to be self-reliant, but to be truly self-reliant, a person has to realize that the self is not ultimately real. Only then can someone experience the freedom and illumination that is the goal of Buddhist life." writes Eckel.

Writes the Wanderling:
Mahayana teachings have always considered that the understanding of Sunyata is an attainment which is extremely difficult and extraordinarily profound.

For example, in the Prajna Sutra it says "That which is profound, has Sunyata and non-attachment as its significance. No form nor deeds, no rising nor falling, are its implications."

Again in the Dvadasanikaya Sastra (composed by Nagarjuna, translated to Chinese by Kumarajiva, A.D. 408) it says: "The greatest wisdom is the so-called Sunyata."
But as Gregory K. Ornatowski writes in his article "Transformations of `emptiness': On the idea of sunyata and the thought of Abe and the Kyoto School of Philosophy" in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies sunyata has undergone profound definitional changes throughout the course of Buddhism's history such that one has to wonder if enlightened and wise beings during these centuries are atuned to the same thingless thing.
... although to be praised for its bold attempt to blend a particular Eastern religious concept with Western-style logical philosophical discourse, [the Kyoto School which includes Nishitani] ultimately runs up against certainin consistencies as well as the criticism that the interpretation of sunyata used is less "Buddhist" than a particular type of twentieth-century "Japanese philosophical Zen." In attempting to understand the background to this appropriation, we have also been able to investigate one case of the wider issue of how Buddhist ideas were transformed over the course of their movement within and between different cultures and among various thinkers. This serves as a necessary antidote to the idea common among many Buddhist faithful (and faithful of other religions as well) that their own basic religious ideas somehow have not fundamentally changed over the course of time and that an unbroken line of continuity exists between the ideas of the founder and their own particular school. In the case of Buddhism, even when changes are acknowledged, Buddhists tend to attribute them to upaya, skillful means and adaptation to local cultures, with the "higher"understanding of the ideas unchanged. Yet, such an interpretation seems difficult in the case of sunyata, given the significant transformations it experienced as it moved from the Nikayas to the Prajnaparamitas, to Nagarjuna and to Yogacara, and then to the Tien Tai, Hua Yen, and Ch'an schools in China and their corresponding schools [including the Kyoto School] in Japan.
So what can be said as a definition of Nishitani's sunyata? The following delicious words come from Nishitani's Religion and Nothingness:
It has often been pointed out that the subjectivity of the ego resolutely refuses to be viewed objectively. And yet, the self shows a constant tendency to comprehend itself representationally as some “thing” that is called “I.” This tendency is inherent in the very essence of the ego as self-consciousness. Therefore it marks a great step forward when the standpoint of Existenz-in-ecstasy, held suspended in nothingness, appears as a standpoint of truly subjective self-existence. Nonetheless, traces of the representation of nothingness as the positing of some “thing” that is nothingness are still to be seen here. The standpoint of sunyata, however, is absolutely nonobjectifiable, since it transcends this subjectivistic nihility to a point more on the near side than the subjectivity of existential nihilism.

As a valley unfathomably deep may be imagined set within an endless expanse of sky, so it is with nihility and emptiness. But the sky we have in mind here is more than the vault above that spreads out far and wide over the valley below. It is a cosmic sky enveloping the earth and man and the countless legions of stars that move and have their being within it. It lies beneath the ground we tread, its bottom reaching beneath the valley’s bottom. If the place where the omnipresent God resides be called heaven, then heaven would also have to reach beneath the bottomless pit of hell: heaven would be an abyss for hell. This is the sense in which emptiness is an abyss for the abyss of nihility.

… even in Buddhism, where we find the standpoint of emptiness expounded, a transcendence to the far side, or the “yonder shore,” is spoken of. But this yonder shore may be called an absolute near side in the sense that it has gone beyond the usual opposition of the near and the far. Indeed, the distinguishing feature of Buddhism consists in its being the religion of the absolute near side.


Michaelann Bewsee said...

Hay, I could use a healthy dose of nihilism right now....looking forward to the rest of your post.

Tom said...

Kind michaelann,

The post is now complete. Come read it and quench the yearnings of your soulless soul with a vista beyond the reach of the cosmic sky.