This is a rather odd post, and I have to warn you at the outset, I don't know what it amounts to. It was occasioned by reading Kitaro Nishida. Nishida is one of my somewhat eccentric theological/ philosophical interests, like Bulgakov's Sophiology, or the odder reaches of Charles Williams' thought. This may, therefore, be rather boring to those who do not share my quirky interests. Or not. Who knows?
Nishida was a the professor of Philosophy at Kyoto University from 1914 to 1927. He was a Zen and Pure Land Buddhist, and close friend of D.T. Suzuki, but his main claim to fame was being the first Japanese thinker to seek a systematic dialogue between Eastern and Western Thought. His work inaugurated the so called "Kyoto School of Philosophy," which is still important in Japanese thought today. There is even a fair amount of Anglophone scholarship on these thinkers.
Nishida particularly interests me because though he was a Buddhist, he was always fascinated with Christianity, and deeply sympathetic to Christian views. His wife was a Christian. He quotes as freely from the Bible and St. Augustine as from Dogen or the Heart Sutra, and was particularly an admirer of Karl Barth, even sending one Christian student to study with Barth. Barth's theology dominated Japanese Christian thought until quite recently, so this is not terribly surprising. Interestingly, Barth seems to have known a bit about Nishida and thought highly of him as well.
Nishida is very comfortable speaking in a Christian idiom, although he tends to interpret Christianity in the fashion of an idealist Philosopher, rather than in anything like an orthodox manner. Still, he is interested enough in learning from Christianity, not just using a few images or terms here and there, that I think he comes up with some rather profound and deeply Christian insights on familiar Christian doctrine. He takes very seriously the concepts of original sin, grace, justification by faith, the Word of God (in a particularly Barthian mode) and the Trinity. He can talk about Christian concepts in a very Buddhist way, and Buddhist concepts in a very Christian way. It doesn't always amount to an orthodox reading of Christianity (I wouldn't presume to speak for Buddhism) but it's pretty darn interesting.
I have just finished reading his last and perhaps most influential essay "The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview." It's not easy reading, and I will need to go over it again, but a number of things struck me, particularly Nishida's consideration of death and eternal life.
Death plays a pivotal role in Nishida's thought, in a way that I think is rather similar to Heidegger, although I don't know Heidegger's thought that well. Nishida sees death, mortality, as a fundamental aspect of individual self-awareness. Human beings, Persons in the fullest sense, come face to face with their finitude and so with the absolute, most of all in the awareness of death, the absolute negation. Death then, is part of the very experience of our being, and the realization of mortality is perhaps the foundation of religious experience.
In facing its own eternal death, the self faces the absolute infinity, the experience of the absolute other. It realizes its eternal death by facing absolute negation. And yet even this realization has the structure of absolute contradiction... For to realize one's own death is simultaneously to realize the meaning of one's own existence. A deathless being is not temporally unique, and that which is not temporally unique is not an individual... My existence involves precisely this dilemma of immortality and mortality. (Nishida Kitaro. Last Writings. Trans. David A. Dilworth. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987. 67 -68.)
Nishida believes this experience to be fundamentally religious, and indeed the foundation of religion. This doesn't mean Nishida is saying that religion is a way of denying death; rather "religion is about God," the absolute, who is encountered most clearly (although, not exclusively) in the experience of mortality.
He goes on to say "Death involves a relative being facing an absolute. For the self to face God is to die. When Isaiah saw God he cried out: "Woe is me for I am undone... " When a relative being faces the true absolute it cannot exist but must pass into nothing" (Nishida. Last Writings. 68). Nishida is not peddling the bromide that death is okay because it makes us aware of how precious life is. Rather he sees the experience of mortality as far more fundamental to human existence. It is not merely that we are living beings who observe that we die, but that to be living beings - at least self aware ones - is to have the awareness of mortality.
I think there is an analogue in the thought of Aquinas, when he describes all created beings as composite, even if the only composition is that of essence and existence, a coming together of disparate aspects that need not have been. Nishida places a great deal of weight on the experience of that contingency, and would say that at the heart of our existence is a contradiction; we are but that we might not be, that there was a time when we were not, and shall be a time when we are not again - not merely accidentally but because that is the kind of beings we are. We are contingent. We are limited. We are mortal. To know that in a deep and immediate way, as we do in realizing our death, is to encounter the absolute.
Nishida talks about 'eternal death' but he also talks about eternal life. "The self exists in that it knows its own death. It knows that it is born to die eternally... my position is... that eternal life is gained at the point where birth and death (Samsara) and no-birth and no-death (Nirvana) are realized as one" (Nishida Last Writings. 87) How does this realization happen? well this is where Nishida does something surprising and starts talking about faith, grace and conversion.
We know of our eternal death. That is our existential condition. At the same time, we already exist in eternal life. Religious faith entails the the self realize its own contradictory identity of eternal death and eternal life; that is what is involved in religious conversion. Since this is impossible from the perspective of the objectified self we must speak of the power, the working of God. Faith is the self-determination of the absolute itself. Faith is grace bestowed. It is God's own voice in the depths of the self. (Nishida, 88.)
I think Nishida is still more Buddhist than Christian here. At the same time, I think he's on to something.
In our current experience of reality, death and life really are correlative. The whole system of creation depends upon what amounts to a cycle of birth and death. We can imagine something that doesn't die, but for my part the more I try to flesh out what a world without death would look like, the more problematic it becomes.
Of course, from the perspective of Christian theology, death is a result of the fall and of sin (Nishida, interestingly, has a lot to say about original sin but I will save that for another post). Still, even Athanasius says in the On the Incarnation that human beings are mortal by nature, like all of creation, but that we would have been held in eternal life by the grace of God if we had not sinned. I think, in other words, that Nishida is correct to see death as a far more important part of our existential condition than it is generally thought to be. Again, we could ask the question "But what if we hadn't fallen?" I don't know, and I don't know how helpful it is to speculate. I think that question is usually (but not always) a rabbit trail. The reality of our fallen condition and fallen experience is totally colored by mortality, and that is what I am talking about in this case.
Death is also an inescapable step toward resurrection. Granted, we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed (1 Cor 15:51). But we will only reach eternal life if we are buried with Christ, if we die with him and are raised with him. In this sense at least, even if we happen to be among the few who do not die before the second coming, all those who reach eternal life and live in Christ, also die in Christ. If you follow Hans Urs von Balthasar, then there might even be a legitimate way of talking about this as 'eternal death.'
What this suggests to me, as I have been reflecting upon it, is that resurrection life must be a far greater change than we can actually imagine. I believe in a bodily resurrection, of course; that somehow, when we are raised there will be a continuity not just of our spirits but also of our physical bodies, and that in our flesh we shall see God. But whatever that means, I think it has to mean that we will live with the kind of life that has no possibility of death. Not just that we will not die, but that the whole system of birth and death will somehow be transcended; even in continuity with our old life of birth and death we will have reached a place of no-birth and no-death. Perhaps Nishida (and Mahayana Buddhism before him) is not too far wrong in saying that eternal life is when no-birth and no-death is one with birth and death. Perhaps in the resurrection life this absolutely contradictory identity is realized. I don't know, but I think it's worth meditating on.