If someone uses the term nihilism he doesn’t only mean a philosophical approach but above all a widespread symptom which in a direct or hidden way goes through all the Western World. It’s the clear sensation that all foundations, divine or material, human or social are deprived of meaning. We were taught that nothing is really sure, that any possible principle or value can reveal itself wrong or without foundation. We were also taught that we have to orientate ourselves on the basis of references which don’t last and which are relative to a particular situation. This relativization and plurality of values introduces in the Western Culture elements of tolerance and respect for diversity and this is positive for social life. But if everyone can have his own truth, truth doesn’t mean anything any longer and this leads to the devaluation of values themselves, included the value of tolerance. The consequence of the emptiness of significance is no longer rebellion, because there are no longer any strong positions to challenge. It tends to take the form of anxiety, of boredom and of a general indifference towards everything: dazzled by thousands of possibilities and «truths» with which we are in touch every day, we devote ourselves to what is temporary, without recognizing limits of principle. We begin to accept the idea that there is no ultimate significance in our life. What remains, if there is no longer the significance which before defined our «horizon of meaning»? The only remaining things are information and sensations up for sale, which are consumed and constantly renewed following the rhythm of technology or taken to the extreme point of transgression. Even if they are often disconnected and incoherent, the new sensations have the important task of helping ourselves to cover the clear sensation of emptiness which pervades everything.
Someone could say that we are not all transgressing hedonists, bored consumers and anxious individualists: there are many people committed to some religious, scientific, politic or moral principle; there are those who continue to imagine and fight for a future on the basis of an ideology or a social principle (there is no doubt that those who are committed every day to help others, give a great contribution of civility, solidarity and thought). There are also religious fundamentalists. But what we want to assert here is that nobody can deny being a nihilist. Why?
Nihilism is not just a symptom, a sensation of emptiness, but also a clear vision of its consequences, that no «sense investment» has any universal starting point: spirit, mind, history, love, solidarity and family can no longer aspire to be steady and founding truths. To be a founding truth they should be the principle of their existence, they should be self-sufficient and self justifying. In reality we have no answer for the following questions: why do they exist (if they exist)? Why do they generate and determine us? Why are they values?
What makes us all nihilists is not the oblivion of the harmonious and unitary nature of the world where we should return. It’s not the loss of the complex plot of relations which we should keep in greater account. It is not even the error of Modernity, from which to reform ourselves. It’s the passage from the historical downfall of some specific points of reference to the “groundlessness” of any possible point of reference.
We can still place ourselves in God, in reason, in love, but just as useful and practical guidelines like health, work or friendship. They are parts of a complex net of significances, which are shared but virtual. They could become void of meaning at any moment and even if they would last a lifetime, one needs just a little bit of reason to conclude that no belief has more sense than another.
Instead of being in a condition of absolute dullness in which no action should be preferred to another, it is better not to think at all about it, because questions such as “why live ?” can only speed up the process of dissolution. Therefore we are constantly engaged in some kind of activity, so as to keep at a distance the prickly feeling of the loss of sense and to tollerate the infinite falling without foundation that we are and that is seen as evil and chaos.
This is Ferdinando Pessoa’s description: “Life is empty. Soul is empty. World is empty. All Gods are dying of a death which is greater than death. Everything is emptier than emptiness. Everything is a chaos of no thing… nothing means anything to me, the world has lost itself. And in the bottom of my soul (the only reality in this moment) there is an intense and invisible pain, similar to the noise of someone who is crying in a dark room.”
In reality this condition is not perceived a lot, because it’s hard to tollerate and also because of a precise cultural orientation: we always tend to turn the “empty and suffering soul” which for Pessoa is the “only reality”- our consciousness- to a biological object. In this way the meaning of our conscious experience is also reduced to a nervous mechanism. Today the clear sensation of emptiness is not considered the reflection of the perception of chaos and of the question about the sense of life, but just one of the many psychopathologies that have to be treated. The fact that concerns “myself” is just considered a cognitive illusion.
These are decisive passages, because with them nihilism has the opportunity hiding itself: the consciousness of emptiness doesn’t any longer become a subtle and fearless criticism against all systems of thought like it happened with Nietzsche or the first materialistic philosophies of the nineteenth century. It has become a thought that also auto-deletes. The circle is closed and there only remains a post nihilism which consists of anaesthetic and contradictory formulas like: “every significance is relative, even the one I’m expressing in this precise moment doesn’t mean anything”. The end of nihilism can also be called “Time of no values”.
If at this point you feel that something does not add up, you are right. This form of absolutism is vitiated by an intrinsic circularity which leads to contradictions: on one hand relativism and nihilism are devoiding of meaning everything, but on the other hand the nihilist continues to affirm his own position as absolutely true. Though this argument is rational and obvious and also supported by authoritative philosophers like Thomas Nagel, amazingly it doesn’t seem to change anyone.
For an efficient criticism we have to return to the experienced symptom, to the clear sensation of emptiness which regards us in first person and which can’t erase itself: even if I no longer know what the first person is, I feel it. If “I” becomes empty, I feel emptiness.
We can search deeply the reason for the sensation of emptiness. Nihilism is the result of a long process of maturation which ended in the Western World with the domination of the nothing.
The fundamental question is what do we mean when we say “nothing”?
The answer of ordinary people is direct and connected to the symptom that they perceive: the nothing (with the article) is the lack, the loss of what we had, the dissolution of past traditions and of future projects, the insignificance of everything. This is the nothing intended as a lack, which is a characteristic of nihilism and mature and latent in all of us.
On the contrary, strictly speaking nothing (without the substantivizing article) has a very potent significance which means “not existing”. The nothing doesn’t exist because there is Being and this contrast Being /nothing underlines that Being is without reason: every explanation and justification of the fact of being would exist, and therefore in its turn can’t explain its own being. With his fundamental question Martin Heidegger wants to look for a justification for Being and to do so he lays the alternative (nothing), which doesn’t exist:
“Why is there Being, why is there not nothing instead of it?”
The decisive point is that this nothing is not representable because every representation of an absence would be a presence, at its turn without reason and significance: why is there a presence instead of its absence?
It’s a thought which can’t be caught, because nothing is not a being . The Western mind for more than two thousand years has been used to fix a stable idea of everything. So when we perceive nothing and want to indicate it, we imagine it like a nothing which anyway is something, a tangible lack of something that we have been convinced would or should exist: a reference, a value or a stable world which has significance. It’s like trying to imagine a hole: we always represent the contour, but not the hole itself.
A great Japanese philosopher of the 20th century, Nishitani Keiji, has underlined how in the Western World Nietzsche was the first who changed nothing into “something”. Describing his clear sensation of emptiness, he represented nothing like a substance, an abyssal principle that dissolves every other principle, human or divine.
The same misinterpretation has also reached the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard when affirming that the real fundamental question is: “ Why is there the nothing instead of something?”, meaning the nothing as something that is: futility, the sense of emptiness, boredom. Maybe it can be surmounted with a “will of the nothing” (the nothing of life), an ascetic or unconventional negation of all vital instincts. And we are all afraid of the dissolution of relationships, of things and of life: if everything is so fragile and impermanent what sense does living have?
In this way the emptying of sense is elevated to a principle and in this representation we are all captured. A Western man is not able to think without objectifying, exactly in the same way he isn’t able to think the conscious I without representing it in neural models. He doesn’t just believe that the “nothing - doesn’t exist” is the something that dissolves and threatens, but sometimes also as something to desire. There’s a Jewish joke that Francisco Varela used to say was our habit of representing: Two very poor men meet and the first one says: “things seem to go worse all the time, it would have been better not to have been born at all.” The second one replies: “How true this is! But who could be so lucky? One out of ten thousand.” The fact of not being, the absence, becomes something that someone can have.
So also nihilism, the end of all metaphysics, is a metaphysic, “a fundamentalism of groundlessness” in which the groundlessness becomes fundament for pain or boredom of living. In reality “groundlessness” is not an absence of something, but the non-existing background on which the being of all the things including me stands out, unjustified, senseless and…..prodigious.
Why is this distinction important? The nothing-lack of something demotivates, threatens or fools us, but if we go to its roots we realize- in an experience- that its real and deep significance is uncatchable. This uncatchable nothing is the real “groundlessness” on which no one can rely on and which shows itself in an abyssal astonishment for the existence. There can still be emptying symptoms but it has the possibility of an enormous development: if cultivated and taken to its extreme consequences, it underlines in a contrast the impossible fact of the Being of everything, of all symptoms and opinions.
A discursive analysis like this is not enough for this realisation, it can just underline how important the first two steps are:
The description of the symptoms and the analysis of the reasons are necessary, but the real distinction of the two nothings, the nihilistic “existential emptiness” and shunyata, Buddhists vacuity is a real experience of transformation. This experience happens in a precise place that “I myself” described by Pessoa as the “only reality in this moment”.
A monk knocked at the door of the monastery of Ma –Tsu. The master opened the heavy door and asked him: “What do you want?”. “I want to get to know the reality of Buddhism”.
Ma- Tsu slammed the door in his face. The monk knocked again, answered in the same way to the question and again Ma-Tsu slammed the door in his face. When the monk knocked the third time and again asked what was the reality of Buddhism, he was resolute to get in and to be listened by the master: he put a leg inside the door. Ma- Tsu noticed it and again with all his strength he shut the door and broke the monk’s leg. In that moment of hurting impact the monk understood the deep truth of Buddhism and became enlightened.
This Chinese monk, who lived thousand of years ago, is extremely favoured compared to a Westerner, because he knows his problem and gives the utmost dignity to his question. But why does the master always slam the door in his face? Because the mind is similar in the Western and Eastern World and the monk surely had some kind of idea- a representation- what this truth was and what it would be like to understand it. When we look for something we always look for it further on, in something else, in another dimension. Every time the door throws the monk against himself.
“I myself” is an indispensable passage because it is the place in which the possibility opens up to get out of any representation: of oneself, as an object produced by DNA or by the physiology of the brain (or of a pure spiritual me); of truth, as something, an eternal and self-based principle; of nothing, as-lack-of-something, an emptying and annihilating substance.
The event of getting out of representations can happen, and happens, only in the core of experience that the philosopher Martin Heidegger called Dasein (“being there”).
Nishitani Keijii (he was also a student of Heidegger and maybe the first one who caught the experiential character of his philosophy) precisely observes that Dasein is the interior place of the Openness (Offenheit) and the only access door to the “truth of Buddhism”. If not so, where else could this truth be realized? If it were to be realized in something different than “myself”, it would be a representation with the character of substantiality, similar to the One of Plotino and to the substance of Spinoza.
“Me”, “Here” is the strategic place where the destiny of nihilism is decided and where satori (Japanese: direct penetration) can happen: driven back to the “Here” by the heavy door slammed in his face, the conceptual mind demolished by being hit at the legs, the monk is able to catch the “not nothing”, before qualification and representation, before it becomes “something”- for example pain, me that I’m suffering, or other mental connections and figurations. This “not nothing”(which is “Being”, but looked at from the “side of nothingness” is most certain, but it is void of any determination and reason to be. It’s a certainty that invades the monk like an astonishment, but of such a nature that –be attentive !- it doesn’t belong to him. The monk doesn’t discover to be “me”, “spirit” or “consciousness of being”, or similar “being-something”, he doesn’t find a substance or principle in which to stay: “He has abandoned his abode and goes in the condition of being without abode.” This is the same meaning as when Heidegger says: “The thought of Being doesn’t search any support in beings (im Seienden)”, even not in the being “me”, “mine” or “realize” all this.
Huge are the implications in this fact and they can’t be exhausted. But what has been said is sufficient to deal with the nihilism, that arises from the relying on the being “nothing-lack”.
4. The way of an enthusiastic nihilism
The discovery of groundlessness is latent in everything we do, and therefore we can’t consider ourselves as not nihilists. It is just a question of time: also our actual project, our conviction or reference will be annihilated by the strokes of the “nothing that doesn’t exist”, which will show it as unfounded. Even if one reference is eternal, this would not make it meaningful as it would be eternally unjustifiable.
In the western world, due to the representation of nothing as lack, people live this process only in a demotivating and tragic way, as the fall of the ideal boosts that lead man to act and to live a life full of significance . Therefore in our days it is hidden and only seldom, do we accept that it is shown in its severity.
But it is not enough to just unveil it. In the four noble truths of Buddhism there is not just the diagnosis of the problem- 1) there is pain (sense of emptiness) 2) pain has an origin (nothing). To this is added the prognosis which we have seen: 3) pain can have an end (satori), the clear sensation of emptiness can develop in a redeeming and transforming way in an experience in which every abode, included nihilism, appears strange to us.
The fourth noble truth shows us the therapy: 4) there is a Way to the end of pain. The Buddhists approach is trying to understand how to deal with the problem in a pragmatic way, in a strict connection with meditation practise, a discipline of the mind and the body. This discipline gives a rigorous access to interiority and permits to define precisely sensations and questions. Nowadays Buddhist masters no longer teach by using strokes and breaking legs, but it is essential that the training should remain suspended in the clear sensation of groundlessness without representing it. The question of sense becomes a lucid discipline which can also be applied for example to the pain for a broken leg or the bitterness of life, and this with energy and enthusiasm. In his analysis Nishitani Keiji says that Western nihilism is still doubtful and not enthusiastic enough, because it doesn’t take its preambles to the extreme consequences.
The central point remains the realisation of satori, the only experience that can clear off how nihilism also, the destructor of all fundaments and values, is just another abode where we try to stay and from where we judge that “nothing is worth it”.
This judgement generates discouragement, anger or scepticism. But if from now on we start to have a critical attitude towards all positive determinations and representions of nothing, and if we take it to the resoluteness of who no longer tolerates the inventions of his own mind and the mind of others, we can search for the experience that can heal the pain of nihilism. Taken to its extreme consequences, it empties every judgement: nor absolute values, nor relative ones, nor joy, nor desperation, nor so, nor in an other way in absolute evidence remains the wonder of being of every moment.
Missing this possibility, we would be condemned to believe forever the representations of our mind (such as eternity, nothing, absolute groundlessness), and to our inevitable placement inside them. There wouldn’t be the possibility, as happened to the monk, to catch in a flash everything that is not nothing. The lightning of the passage of the subtle border between nihilism and Buddhism.
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The cover is not perfect: even the most recent and absorbing information and sensations are void and repetitive- the “always something new” is also always the same
Fernando Pessoa, 2003,The book of disquiet; ed. and tr. by Richard Zenith, Penguin Books, New York.
F.Bertossa, R.Ferrari, M.Besa, 2004, Matrici senza uscita, in Dentro la matrice a cura di M.Cappuccio, Alboversorio, Milano.
There are also other types of understanding which are more theoretical and unbound from sensations: many philosophers theorize that “nothing” is just an insignificant word, while scientists reduce it to a zero or the empty whole (see P.Odifreddi, Zero tra filosofia e matematica, http://lgxserver.uniba.it/lei/rassegna/020607a.htm).
The philosophic term to indicate it is the “different thought”, in the sense of the ontological difference (Ontologische Differenz) of Heidegger. In this case it is referring not to Being but to nothing: nothing is different of every being (Seiendes) that indicates it (presence), also because this being would be instead of nothing (absence). (see F. Bertossa, 2002, Buddha e Heidegger, la vacuità e la differenza, /csa).
N. Keiji, 1960, L’esistenza religioso filosofica nel Buddhismo, tr. C. Saviani.
J.Baudrillard, 1996, Il delitto perfetto: la televisione ha ucciso la realtà?, Cortina, Milano.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The genealogy of morals, tr. by Horace B. Samuel. M. A.,
Boni and Liveright, inc. , New York
Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch, 1991, The embodied mind: cognitive science and human experience, Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press,
F. Bertossa, 2003, Il Buddhismo europeo e la nuova sofferenza, Asia a.m.v.a.i.22, p.2-3.
In more current and explicit terms the dialogue could be like this: “ What do you want?”. “What is the sense of our living if there is no point of reference, no place of origin and direction?”.
Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro, 1961, Essays in Zen Buddhism, first series, Grove Press, New York.
N. Keiji, 1960, quotation
N. Keiji, 1966, Il risveglio a sé nel buddhismo, tr. C.Saviani
Martin Heidegger, Existence and Being, 1949, London, Vison Press
“Enthusiast” doesn’t mean an heroic and destructive impulse of a super-man like in Nietzsche, but a strong invitation to invest in the question of the sense of life. N. Keiji, 1982, Religion and Nothingness, University of California Press, Berkeley.