Nihilism East and West: Zen and Nietzsche

Nihilism East and West: Zen, Nietzsche, and the Kyoto School of Philosophy Philosophy 401 Spring 2017

Instructor: David W. Goldberg Office: Patterson 319 Telephone: x5145

Times: M 6:30-9:00 Email: [email protected]

I. Course Description: “What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism.” Nietzsche

“For him to whom emptiness is clear, Everything becomes clear. For him to whom emptiness is not clear, Nothing becomes clear.” Nāgārjuna

Thinkers, both East and West, have recognized the advent of nihilism as a problem confronting modernity. Central to this problem is the destabilizing affect that nihilism can have on moral positioning, a destabilization that much like the Copernican revolution can leave us free-falling in a directionless moral space. Nihilism brings forth the possibility of this frightful reality in which we are left in a moral vacuum that apparently establishes equality of value to all moral positions as a result of nothingness starring us in the face. Both Eastern and Western thinkers have tackled this dilemma in the attempt to avoid a moral freefor-all and this course will examine positive solutions to nihilism via two primary traditions and an integrative approach: Buddhist response exemplified in the Rinzai Zen sect of Buddhism: Nietzschean nihilism as a derivation from Western philosophy; and finally, the integrative approach of the Kyoto School of Philosophy. Our examination will begin with a response to the human condition established more than 2500 years ago, and that is Buddhism, in particular Zen Buddhism. The Buddha, struggled to find a solution to human suffering and after years of searching for a solution, and then, while sitting under the Bodhi tree, obtained enlightenment. Significant to his wisdom was his recognition of the nothingness that is reality, what he terms śūnyatā, in Japanese mu. We will examine the Buddha and Zen Buddhism, using What the Buddha Taught as our primary source. Our primary text will be What the Buddha Taught, and commentaries on Zen by a variety of authors, but since Zen is something that must be experienced, be prepared to participate in some Zen meditation. Once we grasp the Buddhist response to nihilism, we will look at this concept through the lens of Nietzschean philosophy, and his depiction of European nihilism as a necessitated consequence to the memetic genealogy that is Western philosophy. Central to Nietzsche’s position will be the historical hermeneutic of a conceptual error that follows from a single philosophical event: Plato’s bifurcation of reality. To overcome this error, Nietzsche will offer a Dionysian Experience as a means for revealing what he terms active nihilism, in opposition to the tradition’s passive nihilism. Active nihilism surfaces as a positive response to the realization of the horrible nature of reality, and one that reaffirms a unique ground for moral positioning. Nietzsche, unfortunately equated Buddhism with pessimism, a repercussion of the influence that Arthur Schopenhauer had on him, and hence Nietzsche did not recognize the similarity that existed between the Zen notion of emptiness and his own active nihilism. This inability of Nietzsche to recognize the resemblance between his philosophical position and Buddhism was finally recognized through the integrative approach that Nishida Kitaro took with the two systems: Buddhism and Western Philosophy. What followed was the

establishment of the Kyoto School of Philosophy, a school of Japanese thought that is centered in the works of Nishida, Nishitani, and Abe. Nishida Kitaro, the father of this school of thought, realized that similarities existed between Western existential philosophy and Zen, leading him to integrate the two into what some have considered the first truly philosophic system in Japan: the Kyoto School of Philosophy.

II. Texts: What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Ruahula, Grove Press, 1974. An Inquiry Into The Good, Nishida Kitaro, Yale University Press, 1992. The Self Overcoming of Nihilism, Nishitani Keiji, SUNY, 1990. Zen and Western Thought, Abe Masao, University of Hawaii Press, 1985. And various handouts. III. Course Expectations: 1. First and foremost, keep abreast of the readings. I am a Socratic educator and hence believe that dialogue is the best pedagogic tool for facilitating the educational process. Our classroom discussions will proceed more fruitfully if one has kept up with the readings. 2. Class participation is expected of all students, as I desire this class to be seminar like rather than lecture. As a result, students will be required to participate in the dialogue, more than likely by leading discussion. 3. Assessment will be accomplished via a single research paper of between 10-15 pages. This paper will be an examination of one of the authors that we discuss during the semester. IV. Resources: Following are a list of resources that will help the student, especially in working on their research paper. Nietzsche: Nietzsche: Philosopher Psychologist, Antichrist, Walter Kaufmann, Princeton University Press, 1978. Nietzsche: Life as Literature, Alexander Nehamas, Harvard University Press, 1987. Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality, edited by Richard Schacht, University of California Press, 1994.


Zen: The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind, D.T. Suzuki, Samuel Wiser, Inc., 1972. An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki, Grove Weidenfeld, 1964. Zen for Beginners, Judith Blackstone & Zoran Josipovic, Writers and Readers Publishers, Inc., 1986. Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin, trans. By Norman Waddell, Shambhala, 1999. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, trans. and commentary by Jay L. Garfield, Oxford University Press, 1995. Kyoto School of Philosophy: Nishida Kitaro, Keiji Nishitani, University of California Press, 1991. Zen and Western Thought, Masao Abe, University of Hawaii Press, 1985. Religion and Nothingness, Keiji Nishitani, University of California Press, 1982. Masao Abe: a Zen Life of Dialogue, edited by Donald W. Mitchell, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1998


Tentative Chronology Week



Introduction to Nihilism


Buddhism, its historical ground. What is Zen, article by D. T. Suzuki.


From Buddha to Nāgārjuna, the founding of Mahayana Buddhism, a system of compassion. Handouts.


Jōshū’s mu, a confrontation with nothingness. Zen Action, Zen Person, 1-52.


Zazen and kôans, Zen pedagogic tools. Zen Action, Zen Person, 55-142


Western metaphysics, the error that began it all. Handouts from Twilight of the Idols.


Dionysus versus the Crucified. A divine confrontation and the Dionysian Experience. Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy.


Nishida Kitaro: An Inquiry into the Good


Nishida Kitaro: An Inquiry into the Good


Nishida Kitaro: An Inquiry into the Good


Nishitani Keiji: The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism


Nishitani Keiji: The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism


Masao Abe: Zen and Western Thought


Masao Abe: Zen and Western Thought


Concluding comments: A chance to reflect. Research paper due.



Nihilism East and West: Zen and Nietzsche

Nihilism East and West: Zen, Nietzsche, and the Kyoto School of Philosophy Philosophy 401 Spring 2017 Instructor: David W. Goldberg Office: Patterson...

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