Nishitani Keiji (1900–1990) is well known as a leading representative of the Kyoto School. His main contributions are in the field of religious philosophy based on Mahāyāna Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, as his main works Religion and Nothingness (1961) and The Standpoint of Zen (1986) indicate. It may seem incongruous to associate Nishitani’s name with a discussion on science and technology. But it was this relationship to science, that is to say, the relationship between religion and science, to which Nishitani mostly directed his interests which gradually led him to the study of technology itself.
In this article, I have relied on Nishitani’s main work Religion and Nothingness to ascertain how he interpreted the conflict between religion and science in relation to nihility and then consider his insights on technology. The appearance of the mechanistic view of modern science connected with mechanical technology and the tendency toward the mechanization of man permeate increasingly not only the social structures but the inner life of man. At the same time, the individual is transformed into a subject in pursuit of his desires with a sense of meaninglessness. The nihility which modern science and technology produced ultimately turns into “emptiness” (空 Śūnyatā). The main concern here is how the problems of science and technology can be understood from the standpoint of “emptiness.” Nishitani’s work that I mentioned above, however, does not necessarily deal with this question directly. Thus, I chose another treatise from the same period, “Science and Zen” (1960), and approached the problem of science from the standpoint of emptiness. Nishitani quotes a Zen Buddhist discussion about the “big fire” of space. It considers the position of the real self in the big fire that extinguishes all things. This reference to the big fire in space seems metaphorical but it is also scientifically plausible. Death is also a scientific actuality in space from a certain perspective. To take this actuality seriously as a problem of existence means, “the existentializing of science” (科学を実存すること). It means to take outer space with its face of death as a place of death in the religious sense. This has been called “the Great Death” (大死) in Zen Buddhism, which is nothing other than conversion in a religious existence. At the same time, in this essay we learn Nishitani’s perspective about nuclear power, which continues to trouble us today. We will also consider “originary imagination” (根源的な構想力) in his last treatise “Kū and Soku” (“Emptiness and Sameness”) (1982) as a possibility for discussing technology in terms of emptiness.