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God and Nothingness

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 59, Number 1, January 2009
pp. 1-21 | 10.1353/pew.0.0042



The idea of nothingness has been viewed as neither a vital nor a positive element in Western philosophy or theology. With the exception of a handful of mystics, nothingness has been taken to refer to the negation of being, or to some theoretical void. By contrast, the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitarō gave nothingness a central role in philosophy. The strategy of this essay is to use the German mystic Meister Eckhart as a more familiar thinker who did take nothingness seriously, and then to look closely at Nishida’s philosophy, and at the work of his contemporary Ueda Shizuteru, in exploring the central importance of nothingness in Zen Buddhist thought. Eckhart writes of the nothingness of the godhead, whereas Nishida and Ueda speak of nothingness “pure and simple.” Eckhart remains within the being of the godhead and theology. Nishida moves directly to nothingness. Some have claimed that Nishida is not a mystic, and Nishida himself concurred, yet it is Ueda who explains why Nishida can rightly be read as a mystic and as not a mystic. He argues that Zen includes mysticism, but then goes beyond it to a “non-mysticism.” Mystic or non-mystic, the guidance that Nishida and Ueda offer leads to a compelling outlook on life.

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