In the paper we are going to consider views on nihilism of Keiji Nishitani. The ideas of emptiness and nihilism Nishitani discussed in all his works: Philosophy of Primordial Subjectivity (1940) God and Absolute Nothingness (1948) and Nihilism (1949) right into Religion and Nothingness (1961). However the deepest immersion into the problem can be traced from his Religion and Nothingness.
The idea of nihilism was vitally important for the philosopher and his final decision was to overcome nihilism by the way of nihilism.
First of all Nishitani closely connected nihilism and emptiness with religion. He was not able to view nihilism only from philosophical position, for him this problem was first of all of his own temperament and destiny. It took him a lot of efforts to “solve” this problem, but after he had studied different theories and ways of solving it he understood that he is “running” in vicious circle, then he turned to Zen meditation. He believed that only at that moment he could get an insight. Here it is necessary to explain the connection between religion and philosophy.
The idea of emptiness is very important for Mahayana Buddhism, but it is clear that there is a variety of interpretations of it. Nishitani imagined the source of it his own being in the present time, which is really close to religious interpretation – somebody, taking his own bodily being as a basis for solving a problem would be considered asking about satori (awakening). It is quite common for Buddhist religion to treat an issue from this angle, it was even called “Buddhist materialism”.
This means that as well as scientists study some material entities, in the same way Buddhism treats utterances. Only in case if some problem emerges from some present situation, the idea of emptiness can transform into spirit. Regarding this, Nishitani said about himself “inquiring into religion from the point where it emerges from man himself, as a subject, as a self living in the present…” (p. 15). Thus, the first step Nishitani made when trying to overcome nihilism, was his appeal to Buddhism religion and meditation. This however turned to be not enough for the philosopher.
We can see that nihilism of Nishitani was also the problem of emptiness in connection to his own existence. A person, looking into the origin of religion birth could let emptiness take up the position in the middle of nihilism. The philosopher stated that in order to overcome nihilism it was necessary to have “faith in emptiness”; emptiness was served as the only way to transcendence. This kind of faith was based on feeling of reality and historical development. It is important because Nishitani was considering not the universal nihilism, which was a part of all existence; he was trying to overcome nihilism related to some certain time, historical situation and social conditions.
Thus, nihility of nihilism is that one connected with human values, and giving the possibility to overcome the natural nihility. According to Nishitani there are two components of nihilism: “On the one hand, nihilism is a problem that transcends time and space and is rooted in the essence of human being, an existential problem in which the being of the self is revealed to the self itself as something groundless. On the other hand, it is a historical and social phenomenon. . . . The phenomenon of nihilism shows that . . . the value system which supports our historical life has broken down, and that the entirety of social and historical life has loosened itself from its foundations. Nihilism is a sign of the collapse of the social order externally and of spiritual decay internally.” (p.22).
In order to explain his statement about nihility of nihilism, Nishitani uses the example of a mother and a son. If he dies his mother has the chance to keep connection to him through spiritual world, but if an accident happens to them and he doesn’t help his mother but escapes in order to save his own life, let’s assume that they both finally survive, Nishitani states that there is no more real connection between them, although they are both alive. (Van Bragt, 31). The deed of the son proves that somewhere in the bottom he had nihility, which broke all religious and ethical links. So, Nishitani came to the conclusion that nihilism is inseparable from emptiness.
Overcoming of nihilism has also to do with transcendence presented by emptiness: due to deep doubt of the nihility of nihilism, it closes on itself and it is necessary to get inside in order to open it. The only way to open is to get to the self-reality of the thing; the way to this self- reality is emptiness. This is the main reason why emptiness in directly connected to overcoming of nihilism. He underlines that there is no need in breaking the world of being as nothingness could be rediscovered in this world.
With the help of this combination of two Nishitani found the explanation why nihilism was such a tricky and involved problem – there was a gap between the nihility of the self and social and historical problems. This also related to the notion “nihility of the second power”, meaning that nihility of social issues was able to overcome the natural nihility of people. This lasts only till the moment when social values break and then there is no more place for nihility, other then to return to its primary source – the bottom. Nishitani compares this process to some virus bacteria, which was once subjugated by medicine, but later on ricochets and is able to withstand again.
While studying the relations of nihility and nihilism the philosopher looked into the contacts between religion and philosophy. He never considered philosophy to be just a theoretical discipline, for him this was a way to transcendence, a way of negation and doubts. It is nowhere a basis or interpretation and explanation of religion, it is a standpoint, going out of religion.
This is actually his nihility of nihilism, that he denies harmonious relations of philosophy and religion, on the contrary underlining their clashing. At the beginning Nishitani hoped to find the solution of his problem only in religion, however, as he admitted later, this was not possible without philosophy. In order to study the issue of emptiness, philosophy had to permeate through religions and consider it from inside.
According to Nishitani there are several steps in developing nihilistic process. At the beginning the nihility of being should be realized, then this nihility should be nullified, and as a result there is emptiness. Nothingness changes into no-self and then into the things how they are.
For Nishitani’s philosophy nihilism was the start point and then gradually developed into the main issue to be solved. The philosopher talked about this in his two works “My Youth” and “My philosophical Point of Departure”. He explained that at the beginning he was under influence of “a nihilistic mood of a special character”. This mood came from melancholy and depression after his life problems, like for example loss of his father. Nishitani believed that he managed to overcome this state, but still not completely. Here he also supported his idea of the “nihility in the second power” as one of the specific characteristics of nihility.
Overall, Nishitani managed to develop very deep and profound research of nihility, mixing religion and philosophy, but as there is no unique nihility and as one could overcome this nihility only with the help of another nihility, this seems not possible to overcome nihility completely and forever. This means that if there are some serious historical or social changes, the notion of nihility changes as well, if an individual has to come through some ordeals in his life, his nihility will be far from the nihility of a relatively happy and satisfied person.
Religion helps to overcome nihility, but only for some certain moment, philosophy helps to overcome nihility, but maybe only in theory, the idea of emptiness itself could cause another nihility and so on. In this case Nishitani probably found his way to overcome nihilism, as this was his main aim, but this doesn’t mean that first, the problem of nihilism is as well the vital problem for other individuals and second, that the way used by Nishitani to overcome nihilism could be considered a unique way for everybody.
Nishitani Keiji, Religion and Nothingness. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
Van Bragt J., “Nishitani the Prophet,” The Eastern Buddhist 25 no. 1 (1992), pp. 28-50
Nishitani Keiji Chosakushu, vol. 20, p. 186