‘Place’ And ‘Being-Time’: Spatiotemporal Concepts In The Thought Of Nishida Kitaro And Dogen Kigen
Rein Raud: Institute of Asian and African Studies, University of Helsinki
Philosophy East and West - Volume 54, Number 1, January 2004, pp. 29-51
© University of Hawai'i Press
further reading: Henry Rosemont Jr: Is Zen a Philosophy? Dogen Kigen: The Complete Shobogenzo Kevin Schilbrack: Metaphysics in Dogen
It is not accidental that many East Asian thinkers have expressed their views on reality in terms that relate to the perception of space and time — views that are markedly different from the Newtonian/‘common sense’ model accepted by most Western thinkers, in which space is uniformly empty and filled with discrete objects, while all distances and durations are clearly measurable. Perhaps the best known among such basically spatiotemporal East Asian concepts are the notions of ‘place’ (basho) of Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945) and the ‘being-time’ (uji) of Dōgen Kigen (1200–1253). This article is an effort at a comparative analysis of these notions, focusing especially on Nishida’s philosophy as a synthesis of Western and Asian philosophical discourses.
Nishida’s thought is certainly oriented toward an abstract system, a description of our ways of thinking about reality, and it is not part and parcel of a practical lifemodeling system as is the Buddhist doctrine of Dōgen. In its spatiotemporal grounding, however, it remains firmly embedded in the Asian tradition, which does not allow the separation of the subject of the observer from the world observed and thereby moves spatiotemporal concepts into the ontological domain. This particular position places Nishida’s thought between Western and Asian philosophical discourses, making it simultaneously part of both and of neither. Thus, perhaps the best place from which to approach Nishida’s ideas is their language, their form.
Nishida: Philosophical Discourse Between East and West
The texts of the late Nishida, and in particular his last major work, Bashoteki ronri to shūkyōteki sekaikan (The logic of place and the religious worldview) (1945), present a number of problems, not the least of which is their style. Although constantly speaking about logic, they are not in the least systematic in exposing their message — rather to the contrary, their text is a flow of an almost oral character, as described by Walther Ong,1 seemingly repetitive and sometimes formulaic. The form of the text, however, is not even virtually that of a transcript of an oral discussion, since it employs the grammatical markers of the usual neutral written style; but in addition to the oral traits in its general character it also occasionally contains curious indications of an oral speech situation — remarks such as ‘‘I shall give you the details some other day’’2 instead of ‘‘elsewhere,’’ et cetera. The text also uses a quite limited vocabulary. Indeed, it seems that the knowledge of perhaps two or three hundred carefully selected Chinese characters is quite sufficient to carry the reader through about 90 percent (if not more) of the text.
It should be noted that the relationship between oral and written language had been more than problematic during the years of Nishida’s maturation. The radical difference between the heavily sinicized written language in which Nishida had received his education and the spoken language came to be erased as a result of the gembunitchi (unification of speech and writing) movement, which resulted in the construction of a new, more phonocentric written language. This so-called kōgo (spoken [written] language) was introduced to school textbooks only in 1903, when Nishida was thirty-three years old. Karatani Kōjin has stressed the link between this movement and the urge to construct a Western-style civilization based allegedly on phonetic writing,3 proposing ‘‘that it was the formation of the genbun itchi system that made possible the so-called ‘‘discovery of the self.’’4 Karatani is speaking about a process that evolved in literature and drama, but, along these lines, much of Nishida’s philosophy with its focus on subjectivity can be read as a continuation of or a reaction to the project of self-discovery.
The flowing nature of the text also overwhelms the structural level of its organization. Very far from being in ordine geometrico demonstrata, the Bashoteki ronri thus possesses a number of formal characteristics that are typically present in mystical texts, as analyzed by Niklas Luhmann and Peter Fuchs.5 They write:
At first glance, this seems to be a rather adequate description of the form of Nishida’s text as well, and yet his pronounced goal is the elaboration of a kind of logic (ronri). Nishida himself has pointed this out with some concern in his last, unfinished text, Watakushi no ronri ni tsuite (About my logic) (1945), where he expresses his fear that his work might be rejected by the philosophical field as an articulation of religious experience and not a genuine ‘logic’ at all.7 This fear is not quite unreasonable, because Nishida’s ‘logic’ proposes a rather radical break with the forms of thought hitherto considered logical, as he writes: ‘‘The problems that have been unthinkable in former logics because of their form have become thinkable [in mine].’’8 The quality of the content is thus necessarily reflected in its form as well, which is why we have to remember that the rigor associated with ‘logic’ in the Western sense of this word is not necessarily a characteristic of Nishida’s ronri. Even some translators of this text, notably David Dilworth, who, in their own testimony, attach great value to it, have seemingly found it impossible to accept it in its original form and therefore have seen fit to ‘‘correct’’ Nishida with insertions, interpolations, and technical terms so that it would look more ‘‘philosophical’’ to the Western reader. This leaves us with the idea that Nishida’s thought itself has also been shaped predominantly in a Western framework, which is clearly not the case. These distortions amount, at a certain level, to a kind of rejection, if not of Nishida’s thought then at least of its form, and they also obscure the original conceptual apparatus he is using by superimposing their own. Dilworth’s translation seems to have become the standard English version of the Bashoteki ronri and is being used also by philosophers who do not read Japanese, although it should rather be read as an idiosyncratic interpretation of, not the first introduction to, the late Nishida.
To be sure, during his entire career, Nishida made use of Western-style philosophical terminology to express ideas fundamentally indebted to the Buddhist worldview, in particular Zen, which he himself had practiced. In a letter to Nagayo Yoshirō (6 November 1939) he writes: ‘‘I, too, have a deep interest in the vision of emptiness. Isn’t the vision of emptiness something that shines at the bottom of the whole of our Eastern culture? At the bottom of religion as well as of art? Upon this vision of emptiness I have tried to build my philosophy.’’10
Widely read as he was in Western philosophy, one of Nishida’s main concerns was to find possible points of contact between his own heritage and the philosophical background of the modern civilization that was taking shape in Japan during his lifetime. Nishida was born in 1870, two years after the Meiji restoration, and thus grew up during the years of intensive cultural and technological import. This was also a period of intense intellectual and ideological activity. The traditional Japanese worldviews were clearly unable to respond to the challenges of the times, and the technological superiority of the West was easily explained by the differences in conceptualizing the world. For some Japanese intellectuals, like Niijima Jōand Uchimura Kanzō, this led to the acceptance of Western thinking (in their case, Christianity) out of patriotic duty, but without reservations;11 for others, like Tachibana Kōsaburōor Nakano Seigō, this was the cause for violent revolt against Western ideas that seemingly threatened the basis of Japanese society.12 Although the political positions subsequently embraced by some representatives of the Kyōto school align them with the supporters of Japanese particularism up to the point of endorsing the aggressive war effort, the initial philosophical position taken by Nishida should in my mind still rather be seen as motivated by an honest attempt to find the intellectual ground for a new Japan somewhere between the Western and traditional Asian conceptual systems.
Although Buddhist ideas in dialogue with Western philosophy are manifest already in his first major work, Zen no kenkyū (An inquiry into the Good) (1911) — the zen of the title means ‘the good’ and has nothing to do with the ‘zen’ of Zen Buddhism — Nishida did not actually introduce much in the way of Buddhist terminology or direct references to Buddhist sources until the final period of his life. At least in part, this must have been caused by the organization of the field of thought. Nishida’s discipline was tetsugaku, or philosophy, a word coined by Nishi Amane (1829–1897) to designate the specifically Western way of philosophic inquiry, somewhat similarly to Tsubouchi Shōyō’s concept of shōsetsu as an equivalent to Western-style prose literature, as opposed to the Japanese literary tradition. Since tetsugaku is the ‘science of clarity’, not the ‘love of wisdom’, in such a distinctly determined field, certain rules obviously had to apply and certain conventions to be followed. It is thus impossible to assess to what extent Nishida’s avoidance of Buddhist terminology or references to Buddhist sources in his earlier works are a conscious choice, but the relations between his own thought and the Buddhist tradition are fairly obvious from the start: even if the term junsui keiken (pure experience) might have been adopted from William James, it is described in the opening pages of Zen no kenkyū, without using Buddhist terms or referring to Buddhist sources, in apparent analogy with the ‘original enlightenment’ taught by various schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism and by Zen in particular.
In view of this it should be clear that when Nishida expresses his views on reality, subjectivity, et cetera in the Bashoteki ronri and contrasts them with particular standpoints of earlier Western philosophers, it is not strictly from within the Western terminological tradition that he is speaking — but it is not from the outside (or traditional Asian thought), either. It seems that the position he ascribes to the subject, on the border between the ‘internal’ and the ‘external’,13 is in its liminality similar to the position of his own verbal self-expression, the ‘inside’ being his traditional heritage and the ‘outside’ the Western-style modern, expressive apparatus he is using. Of course it should also be remembered that apart from aptly designating Nishida’s position on the field of thought, the notion of ‘in between’ (aida) has traditionally had an important role in Japanese spatiotemporal thinking,14 where the transition from one clearly marked point to another is normally gradual and involves the crossing of several boundaries as well as several zones of varying ‘betweenness’. One of the aims of this article is to show, through a close reading of Nishida’s text, that there is, indeed, a more or less strict conceptual apparatus at work in it. It will concentrate on the notions of ‘time’ and ‘space’, introducing other concepts only inasmuch as these are necessary for the elucidation of these two (and some others closely related to them), and it will therefore only marginally touch upon the central issues of the text, such as Nishida’s notion of subjectivity. It should therefore be seen as an attempt to justify the original form of Nishida’s text (or, for that matter, the text of any thinker) and not as a full-scale interpretation of his late thought, although I hope to clarify his notions of temporality and spatiality in the process. I shall also try to elucidate Nishida’s philosophical position by comparing his views to those of Dōgen and by demonstrating their similarity in several important aspects.
Space, Time, and Reality in Nishida’s World(s)
In order to talk about Nishida’s ideas of time and space, it is perhaps useful to start with the broader notions of ‘reality’ and ‘world’. Usually he prefers to speak about ‘worlds’, of which there are many, rather than about reality as a whole. The question of reality emerges most clearly when Nishida opposes his own view of it to classical logic, or the ‘logic of objects’. The main difference between the ‘logic of objects’ and Nishida’s approach lies in the fact that the ‘logic of objects’ presupposes a unique, ready-made reality wherein changes and movements are of a secondary nature and can be observed as if from the outside,15 whereas the ‘logic of place’ positions the individual directly into the process of reality and lets it emerge and change only in interaction with it:
In order for the self-awareness of an entity (mono) to emerge, it has to be exposed (taisuru) to the absolute Other. I think that the mutual determination of entities that are facing each other is what makes them explicit. When people think about things (butsu), they base their thoughts on the logic of objects, but in fact we think from the standpoint of the mutual expression of entities facing each other.16
That is to say, the person thinking about a thing is constituted through opposition to the thing, and subjects only emerge in interaction with the reality that, as subjects, they perceive. This reminds one of the Hegelian dialectic, but according to Nishida, Hegel still does not go far enough:
To take this as a commitment to the position of the texts known collectively as the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras would be incorrect. These texts emerged not merely as the result of abstract speculation, but had concrete practical functions, and the logic articulated in them was meant to be a tool with which one could deconstruct the ‘logic of objects’ in the mind of an adept who was guided by these texts in meditational practice. Their goal is not the explanation of reality but the attainment of a state of mind in which all explanation becomes superfluous. This is not what Nishida had in mind. As Frédéric Girard writes: ‘‘The philosophy of Nishida presents itself as a rationalism that proposes to analyze reality, which is best grasped through religious experience. But Nishida wants to empty that experience of all mystery with the help of a logic that wants to think the illogical.’’18 Thus, to suggest, as Agnieszka Kozyra has done,19 that Nishida’s philosophy is basically an upāya, a device for expounding Buddhist doctrine to those who are unable to understand it in its true form and can accept it only through the use of familiar Western philosophical language, is perhaps not quite fair. Although Nishida identifies himself with the logical position of these texts, his own philosophy, concerned though it is with the workings of the ‘religious’ mind and expressing his own experience, still remains, as he emphatically states in his final manuscript,20 predominantly a reflection on thinking rather than a practical manual of self-deconstruction. This is another articulation of the ‘betweenness’ of his position, which is well reflected in his diary entry of 23 July 1903: ‘‘I am not practicing Zen for study. I am practicing it for my mind, for my life. Until ‘seeing the essence’ I do not think of religion or philosophy.’’21
In this context, one should also note the use of first-person pronouns in Nishida’s text. To designate himself as the person whose thoughts he relates, he uses watakushi or watashi, but to refer to a community of individuals, to which he himself also belongs together with the reader, he uses wareware. Watakushi has the connotation of a separate ‘subject’, as in shiritsu, ‘private’, which is written with the same character, whereas ware has the additional meaning of ‘self ’ and can be used of persons other than the first in idiomatic expressions such as ware o wasureru, ‘to forget oneself’. The text is thus a statement by watakushi about the condition of what is aware — the discourse of an internally constructed observer about the world-conditioned self.
To return to the question of reality, obviously reality is paradoxical only in the sense that it transcends the doxa, or, in other words, it is our way of perceiving reality such that it can appear as paradoxical to us. Nishida prefers to treat reality as an assemblage of ‘worlds’, or overlapping levels of reality, on which different circumstances obtain. This is also a Buddhist notion that goes back to abhidharma metaphysics, where it appears in the doctrine of tridhātu, the triple world of passions, forms, and formlessness, but it has been developed into its most influential form in the Tendai doctrine of three thousand worlds, which are first distinguished by intellectual exercise and then reunited and reduced in meditational practice to each single particle of the universe.22 But the grounds of the same idea can also be found in Nāgārjuna’s distinction and subsequent relativization of the immanent and the ultimate 23 and its development into the Tendai theory of threefold truth — immanent, ultimate, and middle 24 — which also posits different levels of reality with different rules holding, at the same time stressing their fundamental unity. On the other hand, Nishida’s threefold world is no less indebted to Western philosophy, in particular the levels of matter posited by Leibniz, as Jacynthe Tremblay has made clear.25
Nishida defines his concept of a ‘world’ in the following way:
The word ‘absolute’ is used here to designate the absolute Other with which one must stand in relation in order to be constituted as a subject, and not a preexisting entity of the kind Hegel describes in his ‘‘Logic’’ (§ 194, add.1).27 Leaving aside, at this point, the central concept of ‘place’ that appears here in the compound bashoteki, ‘place-like’, we can thus define Nishida’s notion of the world as the reality in which one is inasmuch as one is. In order for one to be, to exist in the first place, one needs this first place to exist in — although these paraphrases probably do not make matters any clearer.
There are three immediately distinct worlds, or layers of reality, in which one is: the material (busshitsuteki) world, the life-world (seimeiteki sekai), and the historical (rekishiteki) world. Apart from these three, in which one is through being, there is also the world of consciousness (ishikiteki sekai), in which one is through being conscious; the intelligible (eichiteki) world; the world of creation (sōzōteki), in which one is by interacting with it in various ways; et cetera. But these ‘worlds’ are postulated through one’s relation to them and are thus secondary to the worlds of being. Although all of them overlap, there are important distinctions to be made between them, and especially important for the present purposes is the hierarchy that links the first three. It should be noted, however, that Nishida uses the word ‘world’ in two ways: strictly as a term, as in the three worlds of being, and occasionally also ad hoc to designate an aspect of reality — or the historical world itself — from a particular point of view, as, for example, in the expression zettaiteki ishi no sekai (the world of absolute will),28 et cetera. The ‘world of consciousness’ and other similar expressions are more stable uses of this second kind.
The first world is the material one:
Note that the ‘material world’, thus defined, is something we think of, not something that exists as such, that is, independently of the other ‘worlds’ or layers of reality, although there are certain characteristics pertinent to this world only that distinguish it from the next level, the ‘world of life’:
Several points are of interest here. First of all, the distinction between the material world and the life-world brings us to the notion of time, to which I shall return below in more detail. Life, which entails birth, growth, and death, all irreversible processes, is what determines the direction of time in this framework, whereas in the material world time seems to be akin to the C-series of J. McT. E. McTaggart, ‘‘a series of the permanent relations to one another of those realities which in time are events’’ 31 — an order like the one of the letters in the alphabet, which stays the same regardless of whether it is read forwards or backwards. A thing in which the quality of life is not noted may thus appear from a certain backwards-looking perspective at the moment of its death, decrease gradually, and finally disappear at the moment of its birth. As soon as we perceive it as a form of life, however, it cannot be distinguished from its unique, directional trajectory. Moreover, according to Nishida, the living thing contains its own expression in itself; this can probably be understood as the totality of all the trajectories it could possibly follow — a newborn mouse can only grow into an adult mouse, not into an elephant — which is why it contains all the phases of its self-manifestation along the irreversible axis of time in itself at the moment of its birth.
This quality of life takes the form of action. A more readily accessible definition of action (hataraki) as Nishida’s technical term has been given in his essay ‘‘Kūkan’’ (Space): ‘‘To act means to change the world while being at the same time just one point of it, no more than an extremely limited particular —to set the form of the world into movement from one of its corners.’’32 In the Bashoteki ronri he is more technical:
But even this is not enough: ‘‘Truly to act is not just to be moved or move because of the other, for that is to move the other by oneself / one’s self, to act by one’s self. This is why there is no true action in the material world. There, everything is relative and all force is [merely] quantitative.’’34
This is clearly a distinction that cannot be made in terms of the ‘logic of objects’. The postulation of the ‘world of life’ in these terms already entails the shift of perspective from the totally ‘outside’ observer into the process itself, in which we as selves take our positions before there is any talk of consciousness, that is, before we can actually begin to observe — which, in fact, corresponds quite closely to reality. The third level of reality, the historical world, is distinguished from the previous ones by this very token: ‘‘Our selves are corporeal, living things. The actions of our selves pursue the goals of living things. But since our selves are the singular particularities of the historical world of absolutely contradictory self-identity, our actions are not merely pursuits of some goals, but of goals that we know and pursue self-consciously. These are the true acts that come from within the individual self.’’35
We can thus distinguish between three levels of being that correspond to the three worlds, or layers, of reality: in the world of matter there are ‘things’ (mono; the Japanese word aptly includes both lifeless objects and ‘living things’, although Nishida makes a distinction between the word written in hiragana and with the Chinese character butsu that designates ‘lifeless things’); in the world of life there are already selves (jiko) that strive to fulfill their destinies; and in the historical world there are ‘individual selves’ (jikojishin). This usage seems to be more or less consistent in Nishida’s text. The distinction between jiko and jikojishin, however, seems to be rather strict and, in my mind, also essential for the understanding of several otherwise obscure statements. This difference is evident from such sentences as ‘‘our selves must first become the predicates of our individualities (jikojishin), no, predicates about (ni tsuite) our individualities’’36 — where he speaks, it appears, about two different stages of selfhood and asserts that the life-world-level self must become the predicate of the historical-world-level individuality. A few lines later he writes: ‘‘To be oriented toward a goal does not mean by far that something reflects its individuality (jikojishin), or is aware of itself ’’— a statement that again opposes the jiko of the life-world and the jikojishin of the historical world, thus supporting my reading. A more thorough analysis of Nishida’s views on subjectivity falls beyond the scope of this article, which is why we shall now return to the question of time and space. I have already pointed out the difference in the phenomenon of time between the material world and the world of life, in which time becomes irreversible. But there can be time without this characteristic as well: ‘‘Of course, speaking about the material world we cannot say that time does not possess its character. In a place where time does not have its character there is no such thing as force. However, in the material world time is self-negating, spatial.’’37 A clearer definition of ‘temporality’ and ‘spatiality’ is to be found in the essay ‘‘Kūkan’’:
This ‘usual’ view thus opposes ‘time’ to ‘space’ as the ‘inside’ order inherent in consciousness to the rules that obtain ‘outside’. Clearly this view is itself only possible when we accept Nishida’s terms and place the subject of consciousness immediately into the stream of the world, where the opposition arises, and we do not try to think, with Kant, of time and space in a priori terms. Under such circumstances, anything that we would habitually call a spatial object is in fact spread out in time — in order to perceive a cube, for instance, we should have access to it from different sides, which we cannot do in a single instant. Accordingly, our perception of the cube is spread out in time, and so is the cube itself, seen from the point of view of the perceiving consciousness that does not yet operate with the category of space.
We have seen above that this primacy of time is, in fact, only a relative one, since it presupposes the consciousness of a perceiver. But in Nishida’s world the latter is not a given. This situation is not possible, according to the Aristotelian view, which, according to Martin Heidegger, underlies all Western theorizing on time until his own.39 For Aristotle, time cannot exist without the perceiving subject:
We still face the problem of whether, if there is no soul, time would exist or not, because if the entity that counts is not there, then there cannot be anything that is counted either. Clearly that means that numbers would not exist, because a number is something either already counted or countable in principle. And if nothing else can do the counting except the soul and the reason in the soul, it is impossible for time to exist without the existence of the soul. . . . The ‘before’ and ‘after’ exist in motion, and time exists inasmuch these are countable.40
Aristotle’s reality thus becomes time only in consciousness, but this reality is already temporal for Nishida, because he associates it with ‘force’, that is, the source of action that takes place in the material world. We can thus describe the time of the material world with a spatial model where causes precede results, but one can move freely from results to causes as well, and the words ‘before’ and ‘after’ have the same degree of relativity as ‘above’ and ‘below’. This is not at all paradoxical for a discourse one of whose constantly repeated formulas is ‘‘from the created to the creator’’ (tsukurareta mono kara tsukuru mono e) — used to describe the direction that creation takes, and not only in this ‘spatial’ time.
The distinction between spatiality and temporality arises when we move on to the world of life, as noted above. It seems to be the same thing to say that the irreversibility of time appears in the world of life, or that the world of life is constituted by the irreversibility of time, since this world is in any case just a term to designate a layer of reality, not a reality apart. Nishida uses two words to denote ‘order’: ‘‘To be able to think of true action, it is necessary to introduce the concept of order (chitsujo) or at least sequence (junjo). This is because we now need the concept of irreversible time.’’41 The hierarchy of the concepts suggested by the text implies that ‘order’ (chitsujo) is a higher concept that holds ‘sequence’ (junjo, which could normally also be translated as ‘order’) within its borders. The latter, being sufficient to produce the idea of irreversible time, is accordingly of temporal nature. The former, higher notion of ‘order’, does not, however, indicate some more advanced form of spatiotemporal organization, but pertains to a dimension that already includes an element of subjectivity:
Thus, when ‘time’ and ‘space’ are separated by the lower ‘order’ of junjo, they are brought back again in contradictory self-identity (mujunteki jikodōitsu, one of Nishida’s most basic concepts) through the higher order of chitsujo, whereas time does not lose its irreversible character in the latter.
The irreversibility of time is thus a matter of change of perspective: what we have hitherto perceived to be merely material is now seen not just to move but to move toward certain goals, and the movement is measured by changes of qualitative nature, up to the point of the irreversibility of death. The transition that corresponds to the phenomenon of ‘death’ in the material world should thus not be irreversible; because the quality of life is absent there in any case, it is just matter that changes shape. This offers an interesting perspective for comparison with the concept of time formulated by one of Japan’s most sophisticated Zen thinkers, Dōgen Kigen.
One of Dōgen’s central ideas is his notion of ‘being-time’ (uji, a deliberate misreading of aru toki, ‘at a time’), advanced against the common view of time that he sums up as follows:
This passage appears to make perfect sense to us if read against a Cartesian or even an Aristotelian understanding of the subject and its world: there is the ‘I’, the Cartesian subject or the Aristotelian counting soul, who sets itself apart from the independently existing, self-identical material world, the ‘‘mountains and the rivers’’ of the text. The criticized point in this view seems to be precisely the split of I-consciousness from this material world, which we know to be canceled in Buddhist doctrine.
However, Dōgen’s contemporaries did not hold Cartesian or Aristotelian views. If we read this passage against the background of the culturally constructed living-world of the late Heian and early Kamakura aristocracy, there is a slight change of accent. In their aesthetic pursuits, the court nobles had pushed the expressive capacities of poetic language, through the use of multiple associative encoding and play on ambiguity, almost to its limits, and the standards of courtly conduct also required the observation of a multitude of situation-dependent rules of linguistic behavior. In this world, the perceiver does not perceive an objective, self-identical material world that is separate from him/herself, but the flux of impermanence, and this world can only be observed from within, not from an outside perspective as is the case with the transcendental cogito. Moreover, this world is not a continuous, three-dimensional whole — that is, it is not conceivable as such from the point of view of the observer — but rather a conflux of intersecting trajectories, cycles, routes, and scripts, governed by constantly shifting centers of gravity and represented in semantically overloaded, but grammatically underdetermined, ambiguous, situation-dependent linguistic codes. There is absolutely no way of separating the I-consciousness from this world, because it is conscious of itself only through being conscious of this world — mere consciousness of oneself as the starting-point of world-construction would be unimaginable both for earlier Buddhist theory and for the sociocultural practice of late Heian and early Kamakura Japan.
Read along these lines, the common view of time that Dōgen criticizes consists of three points. First, it holds that there is an axis of irreversible difference between single moments of time — somebody is an asura at one time, a Buddha at another. This difference is the precondition of any kind of change and also the temporal form of impermanence, the moving force behind the continuous flux. Second, one’s personal consciousness is the center of one’s world, and the shape that one has, that of an asura or a Buddha, that of an outcast or an aristocrat, is determined by the position of the ‘I’ in the world — hence the analogy between the bodies of asura and Buddha and one’s wandering through the mountains into the jewel palace. And finally, only what is present in the consciousness at a given moment is ‘relevant’ or ‘real’ — even though mountains and rivers might exist independently of the perceiver, just as sound reason should suppose that a scenic spot with a seasonally encoded name might also exist out of season, the whole world is relevant only to the extent that it engages the individual consciousness that is anchored in the flux of impermanence.
Dōgen’s argument is directed against these three points and is based on the notion of ‘being-time’, a single reality that is stretched out in space and (our conventional) time and is directly accessible to the enlightened mind in its entirety. The reality of ‘being-time’ surpasses the world as we perceive it from our limited, unenlightened perspectives. This does not mean, as it is sometimes assumed, that ‘being-time’ exists only for the ‘enlightened’ mind, because that would imply that reality is different depending on how it is perceived. The difference between the ‘enlightened’ and ‘unenlightened’ perspective means only that reality is accessible to the ‘enlightened’ perspective as it is, but for the ‘unenlightened’ it remains clouded by the common views about it.
Since ‘being-time’ encompasses the whole time, it contains the past, the present, and the future. Within this reality, there can be no essential difference between single moments of time, because they are contained within each other. The relation between single moments of time is passage, which is not irreversible:
This view is absolutely different from the Aristotelian view of time, which also speaks about ‘passage’. Aristotle sees the ‘before’ and ‘after’ as two distinct instances of now, the distance between which, fully analogous to distances in space, is what constitutes time.46 For Aristotle, the ‘now’ is not a segment of time at all,47 similarly as a point is not a segment of a line, because a segment of something measurable must itself be measurable and have borders, and a ‘now’, or a ‘point’, being indivisible, does not.48 For Dōgen, however, the ‘absolute now’ is the point of departure for the examination of the ‘passage’ of time.
But this tenet is the most problematic one in Dōgen’s view of time. On the one hand he ascribes to time the quality of ‘passage’ (kyōryaku), while on the other he asserts that everything exists as it is only when it abides in its dharma-configuration (hōi): firewood does not ‘become’ ashes any more than spring ‘becomes’ summer. This creates an apparent contradiction: if all entities are confined to their dharma configurations and have no enduring essence, then exactly what is it the passage of that is involved in time, which has no existence apart from being either?
Addressing this issue, Hee-Jin Kim notes that ‘‘a Dharma-position does not come and go, or pass, or flow as the commonsense view of time would assume. This is a radical rejection of the flow of time, or the stream of consciousness, or any other conceptions of time based on the idea of continuity and duration. That is, time is absolutely discrete and discontinuous,’’ and accordingly, ‘‘continuity or passage, in this view, is not so much a matter of a succession or contiguity of inter-epochal wholes, as that of the dynamic experience of an intra-epochal whole of the absolute now in which the selective memory of the past and the projected anticipation of the future are subjectively appropriated in a unique manner. In brief, continuity in Dōgen’s context means dynamism.’’49 Kim’s solution of the problem is thus based on the reinterpretation of the word kyōryaku as ‘dynamism’, which is perfectly possible. However, if we are to remain faithful to Dōgen’s text, this dynamism should be seen as a concrete phenomenon, because it occurs ‘from today to yesterday’, which still allows one to doubt whether the notion of kyōryaku is fully compatible with the ‘radical rejection of the flow of time’ that Kim ascribes to Dōgen.
But this is not an insurmountable difficulty. Following a certain tradition,50 Kim takes the word ‘dharma’ in hōi (translated as ‘dharma-position’) to refer, at least connotatively, to ‘dharma’ as teaching. ‘‘What makes a particular position of time a Dharma-position is the appropriation of these particularities in such a manner that they are now seen non-dualistically in and through mediation of absolute emptiness,’’ writes Kim,51 as if firewood could at a certain moment not abide in its dharma configuration, for example when its particularities are not seen non-dualistically. It seems much more plausible, however, that a hōi is nothing more than a particular configuration of dharmas as existential particles; one such configuration yields firewood, another one yields ashes, and no ‘person’ of an enlightened observer is involved. On the contrary, such observers themselves are always yielded by particular dharma-configurations. In such a reading, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ that are inherent in a dharma-configuration do not mean ‘the selective memory of the past and the projected anticipation of the future’52 but the arising and the perishing of the dharmas that are configured. The instantaneous existence of the dharma configuration in the absolute now contains them both, as Dōgen says: ‘‘Although it is taught that past, future, and present are impermanent, not-yet-arrived, or extinguished, one should definitely also apprehend the principle of how past, future, and present are in what is not yet there [and so on].’’53 When things are, at each single moment of absolute now, in their dharma-configurations, they arise and perish simultaneously as the moment passes. This is where the ‘absolute now’ and ‘passage’ are linked. In the words of Kevin Schilbrack, ‘‘the two ideas do not contradict each other, but rather serve to make the same point that things do not become.’’54 There is ‘passage’ even in the absolute, unseizable single moment, and this is precisely what makes it absolute. In this sense kyōryaku truly means ‘dynamism’ — it is movement within an indivisible instant, the same movement that brings about the configured dharmas again and again. But this dynamism is a characteristic feature not only of the ‘passage’ of time in the conventional sense of the word but of ‘beingtime’, existence as such. ‘To be’ is in this view ‘to be dynamically’. ‘To be’ is a transitive verb that includes in itself the senses of ‘to construct’, ‘to affirm’, ‘to express’, ‘to manifest itself as’, and also ‘to set in question one’s own existence as’. When things are in their respective dharma-configurations, they are not ‘they’, but ‘them’.
This has been noted by Kim also in connection with Dōgen’s doctrine of Buddha-nature, which is maintained ‘‘in the dynamic and creative mode in which any single act (dying, eating, and what-not) is totally exerted contemporaneously, coextensively, coessentially with the total mind — not with a fragment of that mind.’’55 ‘‘Buddha-nature, in Dōgen’s view, is at once beings and being itself.’’56 However, Kim still seems to link this dynamic mode of being with the enlightened state of mind: ‘‘The absolute now consists, not in static timelessness that enables us to accept the given reality as it is, but, rather, in a dynamic activity that involves us intimately in time, hence, transforming our deeds, speech, and thought.’’57 This passage seems to imply, as some scholars also suppose,58 that reality has two coextensive modes of existence, depending on the state of one’s mind, a dualism of illusion and enlightenment. While this is seemingly concordant with the view that ‘‘the triple world is nothing but mind,’’59 it still seems more plausible to think that dynamic being involves the total reality and mind regardless of its state — that the emancipation of the mind consists of its apprehension of its own nature and that of reality, which is always ‘there’, or the act-cum-totality of dynamic being, which is precisely what Dōgen calls ‘Buddha-nature’. The traditional Zen view that enlightenment is the realization of one’s inherent Buddha-nature is thus reasserted: to be enlightened means to live the dynamism of being.
The second point of the common view of time, the clinging to one’s self as the center of the world, although consistent with the principle of impermanence as it functioned in Japanese aristocratic culture, is the main object of criticism in much Buddhist thought, and Dōgen has made frequent statements of it; for example:
Thus, the operation that produced, for Descartes, the transcendent subject of the cogito yielded the opposite result for Dōgen, to whom a fixed, unmoving position of an observer vis-a`-vis the world was not conceivable.
For us, it is certainly much easier to agree with the third point of Dōgen’s criticism of the common view of time, namely that things exist in the same way regardless of our perception of them, but he asserts this only from the perspective of the reality of being-time: ‘‘Mountains are time. Oceans are time. If there were no time, there would be no mountains and no oceans. One should not think that mountains and oceans are not time at this very moment. If time would collapse, mountains and oceans would collapse, too, and since time does not collapse, mountains and oceans do not collapse either.’’61 The existence of mountains and oceans is thus not irrelevant to the mind, because they are also being-time, and mental divisions of any kind that we might effect in our world tamper with reality, although they make it culturally habitable. Reality is truly experienced only in its undivided totality, and therefore the parts of the world that are not directly presented to the perceiving mind also engage it when it tries to seize the whole. From this standpoint it is probable that the Newtonian world is not much closer to Dōgen’s reality than the living world of Heian aristocrats, because access to true being-time is not available via conceptual constructions.
Dōgen’s vision of time is one that has already transcended the ‘ordinary’, irreversible time (the time of Nishida’s life-world), which is also the framework for goal oriented action (for Buddhist discourse, the only goal worth pursuing is, of course, enlightenment or realization):
From this passage it is evident, however, that in Dōgen’s view the attainment of that particular goal is impossible in such a goal-oriented framework, and it is precisely the concept of irreversible time that makes it so. Therefore, one should transcend the logic of goal-oriented practice and direct one’s efforts at coming to terms with the being-time directly: ‘‘Everything is nothing but the unimpeded manifestation of being-time. It is manifested in the Four Heavenly Kings and all beings in the worlds on the right and on the left, who are all the being-time of my ultimate effort right now. The being-time of all beings everywhere else, in water and on land, is manifested in my ultimate effort right now.’’63
This effort of ‘right now’ transcends temporality and obtains access to the entire being-time in its reversible, spatial form, in which there is being, but not becoming: ‘‘In each moment of time there is the entire being, the entire world.’’64 This view of reality follows from the doctrine of dharma-configurations discussed above. In classical abhidharma it became a point of controversy what degree of reality should be attached to the momentary configurations of existence — the Sarvāstivādin view that everything exists, that is, that the absolute presents of past and future times also have a degree of reality, being rejected by later thinkers.65 For the present purposes, however, the question of the reality of these momentary configurations is irrelevant, since they are in any case the only form in which existence is immediately accessible to the perceiver, who is, unavoidably, a part of these configurations him/herself. Moreover, it is not impossible to conceive of the ‘mutual noninterfering interpenetration of things’ (the Huayan doctrine of jijimuge) in discursive terms, without resorting to transcending intuition. Richard Taylor has proposed the idea of ‘temporal parts’ of things in analogy to spatial ones: just as a street might be broad at one end and narrow at another, an apple may be green at one moment and red at another. One part of the street is broad, another narrow, one part of the apple is green, another red.66 Developing this idea, Judith Jarvis Thompson has proposed the notion of a ‘superobject’, a ‘thing’ as a process in its entire existence-span, with its whole trajectory of the movements and changes it goes through.67 It is clear that superobjects may penetrate each other easily without interfering: their parts that occupy the same positions in space are temporal. This idea of superobjects, which Thompson herself rejects, is fully compatible with Buddhist thought — which prefers to operate with ‘things’ as static processes rather than discrete, self-identical entities — or, for that matter, with any thinking that rejects the ‘logic of objects’.
Dōgen and Nishida: Self-realization Transcending Time and Space
Most of Dōgen’s views as presented above resemble Nishida’s. Having rejected the ‘logic of objects’ Nishida adopts a view of reality that is analogous to the abhidharmic one, although he uses a metaphor borrowed from Nicolaus of Cusa68 to describe it:
Nicolaus of Cusa uses this metaphor to describe God, but Nishida applies it to the ‘absolute present’, which is thus described in spatial terms and is content-wise very close to Dōgen’s being-time, to which access is gained in a single moment, and also to this view of the relation of self to being-time. This ‘absolute present’ is opposed to the dichotomy of space and time that obtains in the ‘‘world of objective actions, conceived exclusively from the standpoint of a conscious self,’’70 since Nishida describes the world similar to the way Kant would describe it: ‘‘Such a world [like the one of Kant] of which the center is the self-contradictorily identical focal point of the self, is temporal inasmuch as it negates the selves of the Many, and spatial inasmuch as it negates the self of the One.’’71 In such a world, time and space are opposed to each other, since the world is perceived differently depending on which of the two one chooses to look at the world from — ’objectively’ in space or ‘subjectively’ in time. To transcend this dichotomy, one has to unite these perspectives into one ‘contradictorily self-identical’ point of view, which should not be posited outside the context of reality itself.
We have seen that this has already happened in the life-world and it is even more relevant for the historical world: ‘‘in the truly concrete real world, that is, the historical world, time always negates space, and, simultaneously, space negates time. In this absolutely contradictory self-identity of time and space, of the One and the Many, no, of Being and Nothingness, proceeding from the created to the creator, is boundless creativity.’’72 In such a world one has thus attained the stage where one is finally capable of realizing oneself in both senses of the word — through action oriented toward the world, and through conscious activity oriented toward one’s own being. This double sense indicates why, as Yoko Arisaka has shown,73 the word jikaku should be translated as ‘self-realization’ and not as ‘self-consciousness’. To use Nishida’s favorite term, these two aspects of self-realization are united in contradictory self-identity and therefore are also premises of each other. This possibility is the expectable sequel to the movement that has taken us from the material world, through the life-world, to the historical one.
Nishida defines this realization in terms that sound almost like paraphrases of Dōgen:
Nishida here uses the word ‘thing’ (mono) and ‘being/becoming a thing’ in a rather hair-splitting fashion. In the first case he means, of course, that one’s self should identify with the things of the world, but in the second case he means that the ‘spatial’ view causes one to assume a separate ‘thing-identity’ of one’s own, which will make self-realization impossible. At the same time, it is evident that the ‘things’ in the world remain the same in both cases, because the worlds are overlapping, and the difference between the material and the historical world is that of perspective: ‘‘we think of the physical world, but we should think of it already as one aspect (men) of the absolutely contradictorily self-identical historical world.’’76 It is spatial thinking that distorts the perspective.
The concept that opposes this distorted spatiality, in the same way that ‘absolute present’ has been opposed to temporality, is, of course, Nishida’s central term, basho or ‘place’. This word is used to translate the topos of Aristotle, and the cognate ba means ‘field’, as in physics. Unlike abstract space, basho is loaded, it is the locus of tension, where the contradictory self-identities are acted out and complementary opposites negate each other — space is thus hierarchically inferior to ‘place’, and not vice versa, as would be expected in the Newtonian world, because in the terms of ‘place’, space is the complementary opposite of time, and it appears in ‘place’ together with time, interlocked in mutual negation: ‘‘strictly speaking, time and space are not independent forms, but only two directions of self-determination in ‘place’.’’77
Spatiality is directly opposed to ‘placeness’,78 which becomes the quality of time from the life-world onward, and Nishida even uses the words ‘place’ and ‘world’ occasionally as synonyms79 to designate where the self-determination of the individual self takes ‘place’. It seems that the closest conceptual equivalent to basho is the dharma-configuration of the ‘single moment’ of Buddhism, the momentary thusness of existence, which is new every next instant, expressing itself by coming into being and negating itself by passing instantaneously. In a word, basho is the ‘place’ where impermanence happens.
The argument above could be summed up in Table 1. Although time acquires the character of ‘placeness’ in the life-world by becoming irreversible, ‘place’ opens itself to the perceiver only after he/she becomes aware of the goal-oriented character of his/her actions and thereby opens up to the possibility of self-realization in both senses of the word. In ‘place’, the mutual negation of time and space fuses them into one reality, which is ‘place’ itself. And since one of the tensions in ‘place’ is released along the line that runs ‘from the created to the creator’ it also means that the act of self-realization in the middle of historical reality also releases one from the perceptive irreversibility of time.
If we now ask why both Dōgen and Nishida use terms related to space and time to express fundamental ideas about being, then it seems that the answer is relatively simple: it is because both of them see the subject as not outside but inside the world, and therefore the ideas of space and time are constitutive also of the subject’s form of being. An ‘objective subject’, an independent observer who analyzes reality from a timeless and extraspatial, ‘absolute’ standpoint, is for them an illusory construction, and when time and space are viewed from such a standpoint the illusion is perpetuated and spread over the whole view of reality. An undistorted view of reality can be attained solely from within it, but each available point of view initially presents only a limited perspective. This is why spatiotemporal thinking is crucial for any philosophical effort that accepts these premises: in order to grasp the ontological foundations of reality, it is necessary to transcend one’s perspective, but this has to be done, without leaving one’s place, through (self-)realization. This is also where Nishida’s views converge with Dōgen’s: in order to attain self-realization one must transcend the ‘ordinary’ reality not by rising above it, and thereby separating oneself from it, but by ‘becoming’ it, realizing oneself in it and the totality of the world — of ‘being-time’ together with it.
To conclude, we should briefly return to the question of the form of Nishida’s philosophic discourse. If we now ask why, after all, Nishida has chosen to express himself in such a manner, a number of possible answers present themselves. I think we can dismiss the underlying assumption of his ‘correctors’ that he was incapable of doing otherwise. It could also be suggested that this form of writing is typical of Japanese traditional thought. But although it is true that Japanese thinkers sometimes express their ideas in a similar manner, Nishida’s heritage comprises also Buddhist texts of Indian and Chinese origin, which are much more systematic. And his placing of his work within the field of Western-style ‘philosophy’ (tetsugaku) severed the formal link with classical Asian thought from the beginning. The only plausible answer, to my mind, is that he saw this form as most suitable for conveying his ideas. By rejecting the ‘object logic’ and the ‘transcendental subject’ that is placed outside the world-process he also rejects the unmovable standpoint from which a systematic view of his conceptual apparatus could be presented — and admittedly this standpoint also invalidates any attempt to justify his form in the manner that the present article has been trying to do. Nishida puts the reader right in the midst of the discursive flow where he himself is, because otherwise he could not speak without invalidating himself. The form of the text is an integral part of his message. Instead of leading the reader through a ‘ready’, ‘stopped’ world whose conceptual architecture can be observed slowly, accurately, and in a ‘logical’ order, he has to jump from one standpoint to another even within the field of his own views, because every statement he makes from a particular position has also changed that position itself, and it is not the same place where he was a moment ago, and the only permanent aspect of himself as the speaker — and the self whose experiences he speaks about — is his absolutely contradictory self-identity.
1 – Walther Ong, Orality and Literacy (London and New York: Routledge 1982, 1988), passim.