Voice of the Valley Stream

Keiji Nishitani is one of the many teachers who has pointed to the experience of Zen. However, although Nishitani’s philosophy primarily concerns the experience of Zen (or as he calls it, the standpoint of śūnyatā), his position is much more subtle than that. With a deep understanding of both Western philosophy and Zen, Nishitani addresses some of the major philosophical problems of the time in his seminal work Religion and Nothingness. Nishitani is deeply concerned with the creeping nihilism found within the 20th-century person. Nishitani attributes the rise of nihilism to the failed attempts at realism through representation. These failed attempts, Nishitani argues, do not give us access to the “thing-in-itself.” Without the “thing-in-itself,” Nishitani claims that the world becomes impersonal, devoid of life, and meaningless. In an attempt to overcome nihilism, Nishitani argues that from the “standpoint of śūnyatā,” the “thing-in-itself” (jitai) is realized. The “standpoint of śūnyatā” is concerned with the Buddhist notion of emptiness, but this does not mean that the concept is neither affirmative nor is it a realist position. Nishitani presents a form of realism that is no doubt strange but his position is a form of realism nonetheless. Nishitani replaces realism through representation with realism through realization (Nishitani, 1983). While the representational mode of thought “is a type of thinking that assumes a correspondence between appearance and reality and is supported by a metaphysical edifice” (Olson, 2000, p.22), the “standpoint of śūnyatā” is a sort of unconditioned thinking that realizes the real.

Zen Experience

Alan Watts, the British philosopher who played a large role in the popularization of Zen in the West, argues, “Zen is above all an experience” (Watts, 1957, p. 15). Watts stresses that Zen is:

nonverbal in character, which is simply inaccessible to the purely literary and scholarly approach. To know what Zen is, and especially what it is not, there is no alternative but to practice it, to experiment with it in the concrete so as to discover the meaning which underlies the words (Watts, 1957, p. 15).

Zen, at least according to Watts (and I think he is right to suggest), is the sort of thing that cannot be grasped through words nor through the intellect itself. For these reasons, I do not intend to pretend that I know, nor do I claim access to, the experience that is Zen. Although this initially sounds non-committal, like any experience, a direction can be given, or a finger can be pointed, towards it. Moreover, due to the experiential nature of Zen, it may be easy to dismiss as a vacuous metaphysical claim. This sort of doubt, however, is easy to address. As the Buddha (supposedly) proclaimed in an address to the people of Kosala (Kālāmas):

‘Yes, Kālāmas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kālāmas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Do not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher.’ But, O Kālāmas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome (askusala), and wrong, and bad, then give them up… And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome (kusala) and good, then accept them and follow them.’ (Rahula, 1974, p. 2-3)

In a word, the discourse and teachings of Buddhism, specifically Zen, is not necessarily a doctrine, dogma, or a series of empty metaphysical claims. Neither is the experience of Zen a fideism, that is, an acceptance of some given belief based solely on faith. These suggestions are, rather, a way of pointing at a certain sort of experience that can be had in the world. The truth of Zen is found only in its practice. The burden, then, of either affirming or denying the truths presumably found under the suggestions of teachers such as Watts or the Buddha, relies on an individual’s actual doing. In other words, no matter how rigorous I am in my argumentation, and no matter how factual my evidence is, I am never able to represent any given experience as the experience itself.