Keiji Nishitani - Religion and Nothingness
Keiji Nishitani was born in 1900 in the same rural prefecture (Ishikawa Prefecture in central Japan) as Nishida. He received his pre-university education in Tokyo where he lived alone with his mother since he lost his father to tuberculosis at the age of fourteen. During his teenage years he not only read great European writers such as Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Emerson, St. Francis of Assisi and even the Bible, he also discovered Nishida’s Thought and Experience which sparked in him an interest in philosophy. He completed his studies in philosophy at Kyoto University, as a student of Tanabe, in 1924 with a thesis on Schelling. During the eight years he taught philosophy in high schools, he kept in touch with the academia and was promoted to professor at Kyoto University at the age of 35. His interests during these years included Kant, Aristotle and Dilthey. Most of his work, however, concentrated on religion and on the religious dimension of existentialism.
Since philosophy had not been able to fully satisfy him after all these years, his interest in Zen was now also stimulated. In 1937 he began his training at the Shôkoku-ji, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, which he kept for twenty-four years, interrupted only for his two-year trip abroad. It was during these years of Zen practice that he says he first understood what Nishida meant with the “direct experience”.His academic life continued as usual, and at first his Zen experience remained separate from his philosophical interests. He described it more as maintaining a balance between reason and letting go of reason.
In the year 1937, the Ministry of Education gave Nishitani the opportunity to study in Germany. At the University of Freiburg, he attended for two years the classes of Heidegger who was giving his lectures on Nietzsche at that time. While there, Nishitani also gave his own lectures on Nietsches Zarathustra and Master Eckhart. After the initial waves of French positivism and Anglo-Saxon utilitarianism, it was German philosophy that most appealed to Japanese thinkers from 1890 onward. Nishitani was no exception. He believed that it was especially in German mysticism that the confluence and unity of religion and philosophy reached its highest peaks.
When the war broke out in Japan (1937–1945), Nishitani’s religiously tinged philosophy also acquired a political and social dimension. The question of Japan’s cultural identity was linked in his philosophy to what in retrospect we can call a strong nationalist ideology can be called. Yet the ruling powers at the time did not consider him right-wing enough and he encountered many problems with the Ministry of Education at the time.When he was forty-three, he was offered the headship in philosophy at Kyoto University. With this he followed in the footsteps of his two great masters, Nishida and Tanabe.
Two years later, after Japan’s loss of the war, he was banned by U.S. authorities both from his position at the university and from all other public office banished. These developments, along with the humiliation of the Japanese defeat, put Nishitani in a very difficult period. During these years he intensified his Zen training and wrote what Tanabe considered some of his best works.He virtually abandoned the political and social practical dimensions of his philosophy since the loss of the war and concentrated himself, even more than before, on the subject. Nishitani’s interest in religion expanded and also began to take the form of a critique of the scientific
standpoint. His main concern remained nihilism and how to overcome it (Creating an illussion).
Five years after he had to relinquish the philosophy headquarters to the university, he was allowed to take back his abandoned post. He retained it for six more years after which it was taken over by Yoshinori Takeuchi. Nishitani continued to write essays on the ever-widening notion of religion and developed a concept he called the “standpoint of emptiness. “At one point he was asked to write an essay with the topic of “What is religion? After the first essay, Nishitani felt that he had not yet been able to express everything he wanted to say on the subject, and a second essay followed with a different title. Still dissatisfied, he continued to write and he ended up with four essays.Together with two previously published texts, it became
eventually a six-volume work that was published in Japan in 1961 under the title Shûkyô wa nani ka?, or What is Religion? Still considered Nihitani’s masterpiece, this book was published in 1982, translated into English by the Belgian philosopher Jan Van Bragt, under the title Religion and Nothingness.
The first essay of this book, entitled What is Religion?, is the text i have chosen to analyze. It was written in later life and is the result of Nishitani’s mature philosophical wanderings. Because of the nature of its premise, the question of what religion is, the text nevertheless acquires an introductory character and it seems an ideal starting point from which to enter Nishitani’s philosophy and, in the process, to put Foucault’s ethical method to the test.
Before going deeper into the text, i briefly complete Nishitani’s biographical overview. In 1963 he withdrew completely from Kyoto University and took up a chair as professor at Otani University. In ’65 he became editor-in-chief of the journal The Eastern Buddhist. Between ’64 and ’72 he continued to travel regularly to Europe and America to attend international conferences or give special lectures. In 1971, he also retired from Otani University as a professor. He died at home in 1990. At his funeral he was assigned his final Zen name. It reads in English: The layman called the Voice of the Valley Stream, coming from the west and resounding in emptiness.
Foucault’s ethical method, as applied by Foucault himself to Classical and Late Antiquity in Europe, treated the notion of “spirituality” according to a well-defined, admittedly broad definition. Three required aspects, according to him, are necessary to be able to speak of spirituality the subject’s inability to be able to know the truth from his given mode of being, the act of the fundamental transformation of the subject and the resulting effects on the subject as a result of the transforming acts on the one hand and the attainment of the truth on the other. Nishitani, on the other hand, does not speak of spirituality, but of religion. However, in answering the question “What is religion?” he tries to keep as far as possible distance from any specific religious movement and to use the concept of ‘religion’ in its most general form.It is precisely because of this general approach that Nishitani’s understanding of religion and Foucault’s definition of spirituality end up in each other’s territory.
As we shall see, according to Nishitani, the tenor of religion is such that the individual can know the “true face” of reality and of himself only by, to use Foucault’s words, reveling in himself. Such a revelation then results in what we might call a “redemption. Nishitani’s remarks on religion are not to be understood, as we are easily tempted to do, within the framework of a description of what religion has been in the past. His intention is rather to write a prescription of what religion should be. What he describes is a non-dogmatic and in that sense universal religious attitude which, starting from the contemporary tensions within the modern subject, tries to overcome these tensions.