Self-Study Resources for the Kyoto School and Keiji Nishitani’s Religion & Nothingness
In recent years, with mounting popular interest in the philosophy of the Kyoto School, scholarship and digital resources on the ideas of these Japanese philosophers has grown significantly. Many find themselves drawn to Keiji Nishitani and, in particular, his great work Religion and Nothingness. The following is a list of self-study resources for Nishitani’s work and the Kyoto School more generally. Inshallah, you will find something of benefit herein.
Before jumping into resources, a note on more general preparation: students of Religion and Nothingness will do well to have some general familiarity with Western philosophy from Aristotle up through 20th century existentialism as well as Buddhist thought prior to beginning the text. There are deep discussions of a number of Western philosophers within Nishitani’s text and how these contribute to the overall philosophical system Nishitani is constructing may be lost without some basic familiarity. More specifically, having a passing understanding of Aristotle, Meister Eckhart, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Heidegger would be particularly helpful. One need not, however, be an expert in any of these thinkers to benefit from Nishitani’s discussions; a passing familiarity with some of their main ideas and their place within the history of (Western) philosophy should suffice.
Likewise, Nishitani draws on many Buddhist concepts and philosophers coming out of this Eastern philosophical milieu. Familiarity with Buddhist ideas such as karma, interdependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda), no-self (anātman), Indra’s net, and of course, emptiness (śūnyatā) will all be helpful, particularly in their Mahāyāna inflections. Prior familiarity with particular Buddhist thinkers is comparably less essential than a passing understanding of the Western philosophers Nishitani cites, but having a feel for the Zen and Pure Land traditions definitely helps. Ironically, the one Buddhist thinker who I would especially recommend studying prior to Nishitani is never actually cited directly by the Japanese philosopher in Religion and Nothingness. This would be the great Mahāyāna metaphysician Nāgārjuna who provided a systematic exposition of the idea of emptiness (śūnyatā), particularly in his great work the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Root Verses on the Middle Way). The Kyoto School thinkers are certainly all building on the tradition of Nāgārjuna and putting this style of philosophy into conversation with the non-Buddhist sources they are importing from the West.
With these general comments out of the way, on to self-study resources specific to the Kyoto School and Religion and Nothingness in particular.
The first resource I will recommend is a recently republished anthology of essays responding and reacting to the English translation of Nishitani’s text by Jan Van Bragt. The title is The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji: Encounter with Emptiness, ed. Taitetsu Unno, Chisokudō Press, 2019. Here you’ll find scholars picking apart specific aspects of Nishitani’s thought, so you can hone in on what you’re most interested in.
For a more general overview, I can share some video recordings. A couple years back I had a dialogue with John Vervaeke, a professor of cognitive science at University of Toronto about Nishitani’s text to introduce the work to his audience after he had mentioned how much of an impact this work has had on his own thinking. We cover a lot of ground, and though an hour dialogue can’t exhaust a text as dense and nuanced as Religion and Nothingness, I would nonetheless say we are able to hit on many of the important ideas of the text.
In 2021, I also hosted a scholar of the Kyoto School, Tetsuzen Jason Wirth, for a Q&A following reading Religion and Nothingness to completion. This discussion gets into the details a bit more than the above, but it is extremely lively and can really draw you into the perspective of these thinkers nonetheless.
More recently, I gave a lecture to the Process & Faith community on the ecological dimensions of the philosophy of the Kyoto School and how we may be inspired by these thinkers in our work towards ecological civilization.
A fellow traveler in unpacking Nishitani’s work for online audiences, Daniel Zaruba, has a lot of good materials on YouTube as well.
There is also the wonderful Kyoto School website, curated by Nick Bea. Here you can find numerous overview articles on various Kyoto School thinkers and important ideas within the lineage. The articles on this site strike a wonderful balance between accessibility and serious scholarship.
More within the confines of traditional academic scholarship, I can highly recommend the work of Kyoto School scholars Anton Luis Sevilla, Bret W. Davis, Graham Parkes, James Heisig, Lucy Schultz, and Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, among others.
In terms of an introductory primary source, “Emptiness and Fullness: Śūnyatā in Mahāyāna Buddhism” by Ueda Shizuteru is a truly excellent short piece that gets to the heart of the metaphysics, phenomenology, and existentialism of the Kyoto School thinkers.
While this is far from the most active digital community, the Kyoto School Facebook Group is a good place for dialogue, and many scholars and serious students respond to threads in this group.
I would love to produce a more systematic reading guide or lecture series on Nishitani’s seminal work sometime in the future, but alas that type of resource does not yet exist. Hopefully the above can give you a sufficient start for your own studies.