Religion and Science: Nishitani's View of Nihility and Emptiness-A Pure Land Buddhist Critique
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Religion and Science:
Nishitani’s View of Nihility and Emptiness–A Pure Land Buddhist Critique

In general, philosophical critique of Nishida, Tanabe, and Nishitani, the so-called Kyoto school, has been mainly conducted from a Zen Buddhist perspective. One should not, however, overlook the fact that a profound regard for the philosophical aspects of Pure Land Buddhist thought, another major stream of Mahayana Buddhism, is deeply intertwined in the foundation of their philosophies. But the ways in which they interpret it and the position they give it within their philosophical systems are not the same: they have taken different forms, often giving rise to original terminology, in accord with each thinker’s metaphysical speculation.

As Alfred N. Whitehead critically argues in his Religion in the Making, the fundamental reason for the decay of both Buddhism and Christianity is that “each religion has unduly sheltered itself from the other. The self-sufficient pedantry of learning and the confidence of ignorant zealots have combined to shut up each religion in its own forms of thought. Instead of looking to each other for deeper meanings, they have remained self-satisfied and unfertilized.” Further, “both have suffered from the rise of the third tradition, which is science, because neither of them had retained the requisite flexibility of adaptation.” 1

In this contemporary situation, the philosophies of Nishida, Tanabe, and Nishitani, in which the issue of religion and science has been brought into fundamental question and examined on the dimension of origin of their development, have extremely important implications for the critical interpretation of Pure Land Buddhist doctrines, particularly in the postmodern world. 2

There are two points I want to make in this paper. First, the fundamental structure of Pure Land Buddhism, in a way an antipode to Zen, will be examined in light of Nishitani’s metaphysical analysis of the relationship between human experience and the laws of nature, particularly bringing into focus his existential realization of ‘nihility.’

And second, I want to challenge Nishitani’s understanding of ‘emptiness’ from my perspective as a Pure Land Buddhist, and also to uncover some fundamental [End Page 155] problems underlying his view of ‘emptiness’ by attempting to relate it to Nagarjuna’s negation of ‘substance’ in his concept of ‘non-self being,’ or ‘nih-svabhava.’ 3

What is Religion for Nishida, Tanabe, and Nishitani?

Before getting into those two topics, I want to make a rough sketch indicating about where Nishida, Tanabe, and Nishitani see that religious experience is to be truly realized.

The starting point of Nishida’s understanding of religion is found in his argument that “it is on the ground of fact that religion ought to be considered.” The fact of religious experience is in his view none other than self-awareness of ‘absolute nothingness,’ which is also the foundation of what we consider as objective knowledge. The self-awareness manifests itself in the midst of such fact and serves to reveal that fact. He argues that the ultimate goal of Mahayana Buddhism is to penetrate into the depth of this fact.

In Tanabe’s philosophy, one’s resurrection and return to the world (genso) and self-renunciation through ‘metanoetics’ (zangedo), a philosophy of absolute Other-power, are required and witnessed to in order for one to establish a genuine religious standpoint. Neither/nor, instead of both/and, is the only relationship in which the self negates itself by means of contradiction, so that at the same time as the self is extinguished in the negation, the contradiction of that which opposes the self is also extinguished. Converted into the neither/nor relationship, both self and contradiction cease to be contradictory opposites. 4 This is Tanabe’s criticism directed at Nishida’s notion of the self-identity of absolute contradiction. Nothingness can never be intuited as such self-identity. The self-consciousness of nothingness is only in resurrection and return to the world, which is witnessed to through practice based upon faith and performed in obedience to Other-power. 5

For Nishitani the question of the essence of religion must be answered through tracing the process of the genuine pursuit of true reality. He attempts to interpret the religious quest...