NISHITANI Keiji, The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism. Translated by Graham Parkes with Setsuko Aihara. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1990.
Taitetsu Unno, ed., The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji: Encounter with Emptiness. Asian Humanities Press, Berkeley, California.
The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism (1949), in Graham Parkes’s superb translation, sheds light on the puzzling leap whereby in Religion and Nothingness (1954-61; trans., Jan Van Bragt, University of California Press, 1982) the modern sense of nihility (kyômu) is transformed into a Buddhist standpoint of emptiness (kû, mu). In the earlier work Nietzsche seems to have turned this trick single-handed and it is described in narrowly subject-centered terms that show Nishitani had not imbibed the later Heidegger; though he attended Heidegger’s lectures in 1936-8, he reports as news that Heidegger “no longer refers to his thought as an ‘existentialism’ ” (186) – he never did – and tends to conflate the early Heidegger with Sartre. Kierkegaard is claimed to have anticipated Nietzsche’s success in overcoming nihility by facing it; only the briefest reference is made to “faith in the forgiveness of sin” (21). In claiming that Marx saw the individual only in its social aspect, and thus fell into an unconscious nihilism, Nishitani takes as gospel a Nietzschean dictum equating socialism with nihilism, and judges Marx from the narrow angle of subjectivity (as Heidegger in the Letter on Humanism does not). Nietzsche is seen as the first consummate nihilist, in that he found “nihility in the ground of actual history itself” (28) by “doing nothing other than reflecting on himself” (30). Seventy radiant pages celebrate his theses of the death of God and the decadence of Christian and democratic values. In associating Nietzsche’s amor fati (“all things become the fate of the self, and the self becomes the fate of all things,” 50) with karma, Nishitani jazzes up Buddhist ontology at the risk of making it a subjectivist existentialism. Parkes notes in his instructive preface that Nishitani later realized that Nietzsche fell far short of the insights of Buddhism due to a hypostatization of the will to power; thus Heidegger “exerted a delayed influence on Nishitani’s understanding of Nietzsche” (196).
No doubt it is the standpoint of emptiness that enables the highly sympathetic discussion of Max Stirner, presented as Nietzsche’s predecessor, in whom “nihility as powerlessness turns into creative nothing” (118); one would not like to think that the good news Nishitani brings to the West is only a rehash of Stirner. Dostoevsky is praised for his “progressive deepening of nihilism” (133), digging down to the level of “truly nihilistic nihilism” (138); as in Kierkegaard’s case his Christian response to nihilism is downplayed. The great doubt seems guaranteed to produce the great liberation, but how or why this is so is not explained (cf. Religion and Nothingness, p. 231: “we can do no other than to say: it is so”). Heidegger also reaches down to an abyss of nihility, but finds there freedom, being, ground; one suspects that Nishitani sees this residual “stand on metaphysics as ontology” (172) as a failure to be radically nihilistic. Turning finally to Japan, which lacks “any spiritual basis at present” and where “the various manifestations of culture... are mere shadows floating over the void” (175), Nishitani points out that the nihilistic crisis in Europe also affects Japanese westernization and “teaches us to return to our forgotten selves and to reflect on the tradition of oriental culture”, while providing the key to a retrieval of “the Buddhist standpoints of ‘emptiness’, ‘nothingness’” (179).
This lucid and original survey of nihilism invites comparison with Camus’s L’homme révolté (1951). But its claim that nihilism is itself its own antidote remains a provocative paradox, resolved only in the later explorations of the standpoint of emptiness. In his slighting treatment of Western religious and metaphysical values, Nishitani accepts far too readily the nihilists’ despairing viewpoint.
The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji is a collection of fifteen essays on Religion and Nothingness, with introductory pieces by Nishitani and Van Bragt.
Masao Abe points out that even Heidegger did not have the freedom to leap from nihility to “absolute nothingness in the authentic sense” (26) which is no longer the menacing negation of being but “being-sive-nonbeing” (27). Abe and Nishitani have engaged only the early Heidegger’s existential approach to nihility, not the later phenomenology of nihility as the veil of being, the manifestation of an “empty” character in being itself. In stating that “absolute emptiness is originally one with being” (27) they are brought into a proximity with Heidegger which they fail to thematize. Perhaps something similar could be said of the ontology of jitai (in itself) based on the following logic: “fire is not fire (because it does not burn itself); precisely because it is not, fire is truly fire (it burns everything),” with its religious correlative: “God who remains as God, apart from the world, is not a true God, but... God empties himself and takes the form of man and nature” (45). A full-scale confrontation with Heidegger’s account of thinghood or Barth’s phenomenology of Godhood could enrich and modify these rather schematic declarations.
Langdon Gilkey sees Nishitani as comparable to liberal Christian theologians in the way he provides an existential revision of Buddhist symbols so that they function to disclose the structures of the human situation; he accuses the Japanese philosopher of playing off this revised Buddhism against an unrevised image of Christianity. To Gilkey the distinction between nihility and emptiness is “a matter of spiritual perspective or of mode of existing” (59); it is through self-renunciation that we discover emptiness where we first saw destructive nihility. Is it correct to say that for Nishitani “the self negates its relations, powers, functions and roles in order to be itself” (61-2)? On the contrary, what conversion leaves behind is ‘the mode of being wherein the person is caught up in itself” (Religion and Nothingness, p. 71). If Nishitani had sought to free the self from its dependent origination from outer relations, as Gilkey claims (62), would he not be in contradiction with the basic Mahâyâna teaching that dependent co-arising is emptiness?
Thomas J.J. Altizer (questionably) blames Augustine for the “polar dichotomy between philosophical and theological understanding” (70) recurrent in the West and unknown in Buddhism. A philosophical religion can know no God except Hegel’s “kenotic and absolute negativity” (71); it embraces “a doubt which is fully and wholly faith” (74). This leads straight to the problem: “Does nothing distinguish sunyatƒ and God?” (75); is Christianity superfluous? He answers that Christianity alone can “mediate God’s agape into historical facticity” (76). Emptiness restores the vision of the Kingdom of God and agape which was lost when the myth of the resurrection erased the revelation of the crucified God (79), and confirms the Christian identity of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence as “a realization of the once-and-for-allness and the historical facticity of Christian time” (81). This apocalyptic time is inseparable from its opposite, the Buddhist original time that is simultaneously present, future, and past; they are two guises of absolute nothingness. In contrast to this volatilization, Gordon Kaufmann seeks to rethink orthodox Christian theism in light of emptiness. Though uncritically adopting the view of Abe that “only through this total kenosis and his self-sacrificial identification with everything in the world is God truly God” (93) – for which there is no biblical basis (except misinterpretations of Philippians 2.6-11) – he argues well that a Christocentric, trinitarian view of God as creative, self-emptying love is closer to Buddhism than interpretations that play down Christ and the Trinity.
Cora-Jean Eaton Robinson and Sten H. Stenson see emptiness as dissolving the tensions between the scientific and religious visions of the world. The essays of Robert A.F. Thurman and T. Unno, edifying in tone, are a first step toward an assessment of Nishitani’s place in the history of Buddhist thought and spirituality. This needs to be pursued in a precise and differentiated way. David Little asks: “What precisely happens to that web of everyday dutiful relations, that Kant’s ethical system presupposed,... when the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ have passed through Nishitani’s recommended deconstruction program?” (184). Defending ethical categories such as “human rights”, he rejects Nishitani’s presumption that “the Western philosophical and theological options are all equally and self-evidently exhausted” (186). Elizabeth Gallu replies: “the rational ethic which is submerged into the original field of being is negated in order to re-emerge as authentic ethicality” (189) in which “human rights are expanded to include the rights of all existing things” and the web of dutiful relations becomes “a web of essential relations - our interconnectedness an innately indispensable part of our being rather than an obligatory service” (194). Steven Rockefeller shows more clearly than any other contributor how the Western experience of nihility makes possible the transition to emptiness and why this is salvific; the ensuing forty-page discussion of Dewey (!) falls flat.
Thomas P. Kasulis, dealing with Nishitani’s views on history, claims that since Buddhist truth is equally revealed in everything, Christ cannot be inherently special; he is “just a skill-in-means to our spiritual awakening” (276); how avoid this consequence without “a deus ex machina argument calling for an eternal God to act historically” (277)? Abe in reply points out that from the standpoint of emptiness “everything is equal in its as-it-is-ness or suchness... This suchness, however, does not exclude, but rather includes everything’s distinction” (296-7). Similarly, Anne C. Klein shows how compassion can manifest itself on the field of emptiness: “The compassionate movement from nihility to emptiness is possible in part because emptiness qualifies nihility, but nihility does not qualify emptiness” (327).
These rich essays point to much work to be done in interpreting Eastern and Western traditions in light of emptiness; that work will bring to light the pluralism in both traditions and overcome the rather too neat jargon of the present debate; it should also qualify a tendency to put all one’s eggs in the basket of salvation by emptiness alone.
Monumenta Nipponica 46 (1991):569-72