Nihilism | Encounter with Nothingness

Nothingness is generally considered to be analogous with death and extinction which every healthy living instinct wants to avoid. Many find the notion of nothingness unfathomable. The following thinker, however, was convinced that the way out of nihilism, that which renders meaningless the meaning of life, could only be reached by gazing into the abyss itself.

“The fundamental problem of my life… has always been, to put it simply, the overcoming of nihilism through nihilism.”

James Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness: Keiji Nishitani

Keiji Nishitani was a Japanese philosopher of the Kyoto school born in 1900. The school combines Western philosophy and religion with Eastern traditions. It is philosophy as a way of life in which one acquires wisdom for enlightenment.

Nishitani went out of his way to deeply understand both Western and Eastern philosophy. Through all these interests, he had one fundamental concern which was constantly at work, a doubt about the very existence of the self. In Zen this is known as the “Great Doubt”, the psychological pressure that comes with the struggle of life leads to an awakening. At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully.

Nishitani characterises this doubt concerning the self which originally motivated his philosophical quest quite explicitly as nihilism.  It is a mood that comes up from the deepest despair, when we become a question to ourselves, and when the problem of why we exist arises. However, most of the time, daily work and amusement helps to distract us from our encounter with nothingness.

At the age of fourteen, Nishitani was met with the utter hopelessness after his father had died. Shortly thereafter, he was struck down by an illness similar to the tuberculosis that had killed his father. In this existential mode of anxiety, he was faced with the chilling encounter with nothingness, and felt the spectre of death taking hold of him.

At this point all the ordinarily necessary things of life all lose their necessity and utility, one is robbed from what once had made life worth living. The questions: Why did this happen to me? What can I do about it? – are transformed into the questions: Who am I? Why do I exist? A void appears here that nothing in the world can fill; a gaping abyss opens up at the very ground on which one stands.

This mental torment lead Nishitani to philosophy, and to pursue a career in the field as a professor. He writes:

“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.”

James Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness: Keiji Nishitani

As a young man, Nishitani used to carry Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra around with him wherever he went – it was like his bible. He was also influenced by Martin Heidegger, and spent two years studying under him from 1937 to 1939.

Nishitani died in Kyoto, Japan at the age of 90. The bulk of his work lies in his enormously rich 26-volume Collected Works, several monographs and articles. His personal library was composed of nearly 1000 volumes of works in western languages and 4100 in Japanese, which were donated to the university where he taught.

For Nishitani, the question of nihilism is the most urgent, the most personal and most radical of all. We will be focusing on two important works of Nishitani: The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism and Religion and Nothingness.

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism is the result of a series of lectures on the subject of nihilism that Nishitani gave in Japan. It also constitutes the first substantial introduction of Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas to a general Japanese audience. In this earlier work, the primary themes stem from European philosophy, mostly existentialism, with Zen Buddhist ideas at the background.

In his later work and masterpiece, Religion and Nothingness, Nishitani seeks a synthesis and dialogue between Western and Eastern philosophy and spiritual experience, with an emphasis on contemplative practice. The two texts complement one another as records of a shift of emphasis in the author’s thought.

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism

In The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism, Nishitani begins by tracing back the historical understanding of nihilism and philosophers such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Max Stirner, Heidegger and Sartre.

Nishitani gives his own answer to nihilism as is explicit in the title, of nihilism overcoming itself, rather than us overcoming it.

The nature of nihilism can be conceived in two ways: as universal and existential, and as particular and historical. This duality is something that should be grasped in one single vision in order to understand how nihilism operates in actual reality.

Nihilism is a sign of the collapse of the social order externally and of spiritual decay internally – and as such signifies a time of great upheaval. Whereas before human existence had a clear and eternal meaning, a way in which to live, which one may or may not want to follow, now existence is deprived of such meaning. It stands before nothingness as having been stripped naked, becoming a question mark for itself. And this in turn transforms the world itself into a question. The world in which we live reveals itself as an abyss and profound anxiety shakes the foundation of human being.

Nishitani writes:

“In short, nihilism refuses treatment as merely an external problem for one’s self, or even contemplation as a problem internal to each individual self. This is the essence of nihilism… Nihilism demands that each individual carry out an experiment within the self.”

Keiji Nishitani, The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism

There is a lot of philosophy that focuses only on conceptual analysis, where one loses touch with the human condition. Nihilism is first and foremost a problem of the self, as it underlies being itself.

Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, among others, opened new paths towards nihilism, where things no longer stand firm on the basis on things human: The path towards Christ, the God-man, or the Übermensch, the man-God. While they by no means solved everything, there is no doubt that through their struggle they turned the European spirit in the direction of what is its profoundest dimension.

However, the attempt to preserve the self from nothingness at all costs, means that the process of meaninglessness is not allowed into the self. It is cocooned from it, avoiding reality. We become self-enclosed and all our experiences relate back to the self. Thus, when we encounter nihility, we see it as eroding the very meaning of our life, and we try to resist it with our self, only to sink further into it, like quicksand.

One of Nishitani’s deepest insights is that we haven’t been able to take nihilism deep enough so that it overcomes itself. Nishitani wants to achieve a radicalisation of nihility whereby nihilism overcomes itself. The awakening of the Great Doubt is the conversion to śūnyatā or “emptiness”, which is the deepest layer of being.

Nihility is as part of the fabric of reality as Being is. On this new field of emptiness, you have the paradoxical coexistence of things, where nihility constitutes the realness of being. This interdependent co-arising is a key notion in Buddhism.

Until one accepts nihility as part of the self, there is a lack of relationship with oneself and complete lack of contact. Nishitani traverses nihilism in a much more existential mode where it is not always relating back to the self as an external event, but is actually part of the self. Things can then be encountered on their own home ground, as Nishitani puts it. One doesn’t know something by representing it, willing it or expressing it, but by becoming it.

Religion and Nothingness

In Religion and Nothingness, he begins by asking: What is religion? That is in fact the original title of the work. What exactly is the purpose of religion for us and why do we need it? Nishitani is creating a dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity. And he often appears to be more concerned with Christian conceptions than with Buddhist ones. However, the notion of śūnyatā is central. Religion is not something that claims to be based on some sort of creed, it is the absolute negation of the experience of absolute nothingness and the various efforts to achieve it.

Nishitani also talks about the dangers of scientism to overlook not only religion but philosophy as well. This occurs when science seems to regard its own scientific standpoint as a position of unquestionable truth from which it can assert itself in all directions so that things like religion, philosophy, and the arts appear as no more than subjective opinion. In this way, our existential problems and the human condition are completely ignored.

For Nishitani, religion has to do with life itself. Whether the life we are living will end up in extinction or in the attainment of eternal life is a matter of the utmost importance for life itself. Religion, unlike culture, is at all times the individual affair of each person. Accordingly, we cannot understand what religion is from the outside. The religious quest alone is the key to understanding it; there is no other way.

Nishitani says that it is a mistake to ask “What is the purpose of religion for us?” as it tries to detach us from the religious quest by obscuring the way to its own answer from the very start. It blocks our becoming a question to ourselves. Instead, religion poses as a starting point the question: “For what purpose do I exist?”

He writes:

“Why do we exist at all? Is not our very existence and human life ultimately meaningless? Or, if there is a meaning or significance to it all, where do we find it? When we doubt the meaning of our existence in this way, when we have become a question to ourselves, the religious quest awakens within us.”

Nishitani Keiji, Religion and Nothingness

It is the conversion from a self-centred mode of being, which always asks what use things have for us, to an attitude that asks for what purpose we ourselves exist. Only when we stand at this turning point does the question “What is religion?” really become our own.

“Nishitani understands the essence of religion as the real self-realisation of reality.”

Taitetsu Unno, The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji

Religion is to see things as they are on their own home ground and this real self-realisation of reality is possible only by understanding nihility as part of our existence. The realisation of śūnyatā is not our salvation or fate, but rather our vocation. Our thought becomes non-dualistic so that we become the world and the world becomes us. This is the Buddhist idea of the non-self, the self-awareness in which the self awakens to its true nature. The non-self is paradoxically the true self. The rejection of the ego gives way to the co-dependence of everything, to what is known as Indra’s net.

“All things that are in the world are linked together, one way or the other. Not a single thing comes into being without some relationship to every other thing.”

Nishitani Keiji, Religion and Nothingness

We become the master of ourselves, and a servant, in relation to others. This approach is used in Japanese psychotherapy to successfully treat neurotic patients suffering from anxiety and depression. The acceptance of things as they are instead of fleeing into imaginary scenarios or focusing monomaniacally on the ego’s petty concerns, is believed to be crucial for the individual’s well-being (and also for the healthy functioning of society as a whole).

In order to become united with reality in a non-dual awareness it is necessary to learn to empty the self and see things as they truly are without our subjective distortions and our reflexive interpretations. Rising above the subject-object division gives way to pure experience.

This again does not make much sense to the conceptual mind. We tend to reify nihility because we cannot wrap our heads against it. In fact, Nishitani explicitly states that one must have contemplative practice to understand the essence of Religion and Nothingness.

Religion and Nothingness is not just a book, but rather a deeply transformative experience. Nishitani’s profound existential concern is far from the speculative and abstract philosophy. Using the words of Psychology and Cognitive Science Professor John Vervaeke, we must not only know about things (propositional knowledge), but also how to do things (procedural knowledge), how to perceive the world (perspectival knowledge), and how to participate in it, by knowing our place in the world and how we relate to the world as agents (participatory knowledge). Philosophy is a transformative experience.

Influenced by Zen master Dōgen, Nishitani practised zazen or “sitting meditation” for more than two decades, a physical practice that grounded his thinking in lived experience.

The harsh reality of Zen life is to sit and not try do anything. Particularly in the West, a sense of ennui arises, of utter lack of occupation and excitement. Because we have been taught that we must be productive and not waste time, we become deeply alienated from ourselves, from other people and from nature. It is difficult to experience time as time and nothing else. We have the tendency to “kill time” or to say “today I’ve wasted all my time”, we begin to see time as something to fight against, as the constant striving for more and more progress.

The truth is that the present moment is the only reality. Zen is just being with existence, there’s no other point. Not thinking about what to do next, but doing one’s duty each day. If you do your duty, you’ll be satisfied. If you’ve been avoiding what you’re supposed to do the whole day, you’ll be miserable.

“Having received a human life, do not waste the passing moments… Human life is like a flash of lightning, transient and illusory, gone in a moment.”

Zen master Dōgen, Universal Recommendation for Zazen

Consciousness, nihility, emptiness

Nishitani understands human existence as consisting in three fields: consciousness, nihility and emptiness. These fields are always co-present, and each deeper field is more extensive and encompassing than the one above it.

The field of consciousness is where we live most of our waking lives, this is our “life” perspective. We claim to know other people and things, but in fact what we know are merely our own subjective concepts and representations of them. We see things on the standpoint of the self, and in fact many of us can get all the way to the grave without ever becoming aware of the deeper layers of our existence. Invoking Plato’s allegory of the cave, Nishitani states that:

“We sit like spectators in the cave of the self… watching the shadows pass to and fro across its walls, and calling those shadows ‘reality.’ ”

Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness

Below that we have the field of nihility, this is by contrast a “death” perspective, when we encounter the terror of nothingness and meaninglessness. However, death is not something that awaits us in some distant future, but something that we bring into the world with us at the moment we are born. Our life stands poised at the brink of the abyss of nihility, to which it may return at any moment.

Nihility is set in opposition of being, it stands over against existence; it is situated alone, by itself, ‘outside’ of existence. That is, it is still taken as some ‘thing’ called nihility. Nishitani calls it a standpoint of relative nothingness, which he believes was Nietzsche’s view. One doesn’t overcome nihilism through a summoning of the will to power on the part of the heroic ego, but rather by accepting it as part of being. While Nietzsche came close to overcoming nihilism, he did not stare into the abyss for long enough.

The fundamental difference is that Nietzsche does not allow the full Zen standpoint of non-self to appear, it remains a standpoint of the will. We must step back from nihility to the field of emptiness, to shed light on what is underfoot. Nishitani writes:

“In contrast to the field of nihility on which the desolate and bottomless abyss distances even the most intimate of persons or things from one another, on the field of emptiness that absolute breach points directly to a most intimate encounter with everything that exists.”

Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness

Whereas nihility is relative nothingness, emptiness is absolute nothingness (the negation which encompasses everything else and from which particular beings form and emerge). The “absolute negation” as the negation of negation becomes the “great affirmation”. In the openness of śūnyatā realised by nihility overcoming itself, one completely oversteps the confines of self-consciousness and comes to be free of egocentrism, anthropocentrism and even theocentrism, thus allowing ultimate reality to manifest itself in all its fullness.

In reaching the final field, we feel at home. One breathes pure mountain air. It offers us the most enlightened life, a “death-life” perspective in which we experience the most profound joy. It is the hero’s journey, the psychological death and rebirth of one’s self, giving birth to a new self (the non-self), and gaining new insights as wisdom to tackle life’s hardships. In Zen this becomes the Great Death, the moment in which the Great Doubt finishes its work, which only a few will have experienced, though all will experience the “small death”. If you die before you die, then when you die, you don’t die.

For Nishitani, Western philosophy has mostly been conducted on the field of consciousness, where we have no access to things themselves but only to our subjective representations of them. Getting past the ego is getting past the suffering. Ecstasy is to transcend oneself without ceasing to be oneself.

By not making contact with the deepest layers of ourselves, we remain alienated and live without truly knowing who we are. We become like the fly bumping against a windowpane but unable to get through. One ignores the reality of life and the abyss that lies beneath one’s self, and which will manifest itself, whether one is aware of it or not.

By contrast, on the field of emptiness, we can break through how things appear to human subjects and encounter things as they are in themselves.

Cosmic Individual

Not only is one transformed into a new self, but the world also changes form in our eyes, we gain a new vision, a change of heart, a deepening of our perspective, we reveal what was hitherto concealed. As a result of the self’s realisation concerning its deep interconnectedness with the world, the self stops seeing the world as something external to it. The new self is transformed because it does not prioritise itself over other selves any longer. By practicing this “View from Above”, one moves to a third-person perspective and steps back from one’s narrow view of things. Instead of seeing oneself as insignificant in the cosmos-at-large, the individual brings cosmic significance to his or her life. The cosmos and the individual interpenetrate. One becomes a cosmic individual.

Similar to Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, by moving from finitude to the cosmos and back again to finitude, one delights in everything finite, seeing reality as it is. One’s outer appearance looks just like any ordinary person, there is no special aura or superiority that marks the distinctness of the cosmic individual, but at the same every step is filled with the invisible force of cosmic significance.

If you forget yourself, you become the universe. 


Encounter with Nothingness

Nothingness is generally considered to be analogous with death and extinction which every healthy living instinct wants to avoid. Many find the notion of nothingness unfathomable.

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