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Buddhism: Zen: The Kyoto School

Last Updated: May 15, 2024 3:52 PM

The Kyoto School is the name given to the Japanese philosophical movement centered at Kyoto University that assimilated Western philosophy and religious ideas and used them to reformulate religious and moral insights unique to the East Asian cultural tradition. Beginning roughly in 1913 with Kitarō Nishida, it survived the serious controversy it garnered after World War II to develop into a well-known and active movement. It is not a "school" of philosophy in the traditional sense of the phrase, such as with the Frankfurt School or Plato's Academy. Instead, the group of academics gathered around Kyoto University as a de facto meeting place. Its founder, Nishida, steadfastly encouraged independent thinking. According to James Heisig, the name "Kyoto School" was first used in 1932 by a student of Nishida and Hajime Tanabe. Jun Tosaka (1900–45) considered himself to be part of the 'Marxist left-wing' of the school. Afterwards, the media and academic institutions outside Japan began to use the term. By the 1970s it had become a universally accepted term. Masao Abe writes that if one thinks of philosophy in terms of Kant or Hegel, then there is no philosophy taking place in Japan. But if it is instead thought of in the tradition carried out by Augustine and Kierkegaard, then Japan has a rich philosophical history, composed of the great thinkers Kūkai, Shinran, Dōgen, and others. The group of philosophers involved with the Kyoto School in its nearly 100-year history is a diverse one. Members often come from very different social backgrounds. At the same time, in the heat of intellectual debate they did not hesitate to criticise each other's work. The following criteria roughly characterize the features of this school: (1)tTeaching at Kyoto University or at a nearby affiliated school; (2) sharing some basic assumptions about using Asian thought in the framework of Western philosophical tradition; (3) introducing and rationally investigating the meaning of "nothingness" and its importance in the history of philosophical debate; (4) expanding on the philosophical vocabulary introduced by Nishida. Generally, most Kyoto thinkers were strongly influenced by the German philosophical tradition, especially the thought of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. In addition, many employed their cultural resources in formulating their philosophy and bringing it to play to add to the philosophical enterprise. While their work was not expressly religious, it was informed significantly by religious thought and religious concerns. For example, Tanabe and Keiji Nishitani wrote on Christianity and Buddhism and identified common elements between the religions. For this reason, some scholars classify the intellectual products of the school as "religious philosophy." Today, there is a great deal of critical research into the school's role before and during the Second World War. Hajime Tanabe bears the greatest brunt of the criticism for bringing his work on the "Logic of Species" into Japanese politics, which was used to buttress the militarist project to formulate imperialist ideology and propaganda. Tanabe's notion is that the logical category of "species" and nation are equivalent, and each nation or "species" provides a fundamental set of characteristics which define and determine the lives and outlooks of those who participate in it. For a more detailed discussion, see the excellent article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
On this page you can find the best resources for exploring scholarly perspectives on the Kyoto School. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within the gallery box are arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right. The area below the gallery highlights a few recent or especially notable works selected from the gallery above.
*Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Bamboo Forest near Kyoto

Above: An image of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove near Kyoto, Japan.
Image source: Image author: Ståle Grut. Image license: Unsplash license.

General Works

The main purpose of this book is to offer to philosophers and students abroad who show a great interest in Japanese philosophy and the philosophy of the Kyoto school major texts of the leading philosophers. This interest has surely developed out of a desire to obtain from the thought of these philosophers, who stood within the interstice between East and West, a clue to reassessing the issues of philosophy from the ground up or to drawing new creative possibilities. The material available in translation to realize such intellectual dialogue is, however, far too scarce. This book is intended to remedy that situation by presenting selected texts of representative philosophers of the Kyoto school such as Nishida Kitaro, Tanabe Hajime, Miki Kiyoshi, Nishitani Keiji, and others, in works that paint a comprehensive image of the School. Those interested in Japanese philosophy or specifically the philosophy of the Kyoto School can survey a comprehensive representation from this book. These texts are, of course, quite difficult and cannot be well understood without sufficient preliminary knowledge. Expository essays have therefore been included after each text to provide guidance. In each of these commentaries a scholar of our time with deep understanding of the philosopher in question has provided an account of his life, intellectual journey, and the significance of the text included here.

Yusa Bloomsbury Research cover artThe Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Philosophy, edited by Michiko Yusa. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

Clarifying the significance of Japanese philosophy as an academic discipline, this collection of essays examines the current vibrant trends in Japanese philosophical thinking. Situating Japanese philosophy within the larger context of global intercultural philosophical discourse and pointing to new topics of research, this Handbook covers philosophy of science, philosophy of peace, philosophy of social justice and healing. Introducing not only new readings of well-known Japanese philosophers, but also work by contemporary Japanese philosophers who are relatively unknown outside Japan, it makes a unique contribution by offering an account of Japanese philosophy from within and going beyond an objective description of it in its various facets. Also featured is the work of a younger generation of scholars and thinkers, who bring in fresh perspectives that will push the field into the future. These critical essays, by leading philosophers and rising scholars, to the past and the present of Japanese philosophy demonstrate ways of doing engaged philosophy in the present globalized age. With suggestions for further reading, a glossary, a timeline and annotated bibliography, this volume is an ideal research guide to understanding the origin, transformation, and reception of Japanese philosophy in the 21st century.

Carter Kyoto School Introduction cover artThe Kyoto School: An Introduction by Robert E. Carter. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2013.

This book provides a much-needed introduction to the Kyoto School of Japanese philosophy. Robert E. Carter focuses on four influential Japanese philosophers: the three most important members of the Kyoto School (Nishida Kitarō, Tanabe Hajime, and Nishitani Keiji), and a fourth (Watsuji Tetsurō), who was, at most, an associate member of the school. Each of these thinkers wrestled systematically with the Eastern idea of “nothingness,” albeit from very different perspectives. Many Western scholars, students, and serious general readers are intrigued by this school of thought, which reflects Japan’s engagement with the West. A number of works by various thinkers associated with the Kyoto School are now available in English, but these works are often difficult to grasp for those not already well-versed in the philosophical and historical context. Carter’s book provides an accessible yet substantive introduction to the school and offers an East-West dialogue that enriches our understanding of Japanese thought while also shedding light on our own assumptions, habits of thought, and prejudices.

Stambaugh Formless Self cover artThe Formless Self by Joan Stambaugh. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Gathering and interpreting material that is not readily available elsewhere, this book discusses the thought of the Japanese Buddhist philosophers Dogen, Hisamatsu, and Nishitani. Stambaugh develops ideas about the self culminating in the concept of the Formless Self as formulated by Hisamatsu in his book The Fullness of Nothingness and the essay "The Characteristics of Oriental Nothingness," and further explicated by Nishitani in his book Religion and Nothingness. These works show that Oriental nothingness has nothing to do with the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western concept of nihilism. Instead, it is a positive phenomenon, enabling things to be. Joan Stambaugh is Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York. Her books include The Real is Not the Rational; The Finitude of Being; and The Other Nietzsche. She is also the translator of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, all published by SUNY Press.

Nishida in 1943 WikimediaKitaro Nishida (1870 – 1945)

A prominent Japanese philosopher, founder of what has been called the Kyoto School of philosophy. He graduated from the University of Tokyo during the Meiji period in 1894 with a degree in philosophy. He was named professor of the Fourth Higher School in Ishikawa Prefecture in 1899 and later became professor of philosophy at Kyoto University. Nishida retired in 1927, and in 1940, he was awarded the Order of Culture. He participated in establishing the Chiba Institute of Technology from 1940. Born in the third year of the Meiji period, Nishida was presented with a new, unique opportunity to contemplate Eastern philosophical issues in the fresh light that Western philosophy shone on them. Nishida's original and creative philosophy, incorporating ideas of Zen and Western philosophy, was aimed at bringing the East and West closer. Taken as a whole, Nishida's life work was the foundation for the Kyoto School of philosophy and the inspiration for the original thinking of his disciples. The most famous concept in Nishida's philosophy is the logic of basho (Japanese: 場所; usually translated as "place" or "topos"), a non-dualistic concrete logic, meant to overcome the inadequacy of the subject–object distinction essential to the subject logic of Aristotle and the predicate logic of Immanuel Kant, through the affirmation of what he calls the "absolutely contradictory self-identity", a dynamic tension of opposites that, unlike the dialectical logic of Hegel, does not resolve in a synthesis. Rather, it defines its proper subject by maintaining the tension between affirmation and negation as opposite poles or perspectives. Nishida died at the age of 75 of a renal infection. His cremated remains were divided in three and buried at different locations. Part of his remains was buried in the Nishida family grave in his birthplace Unoke, Ishikawa. A second grave can be found at Tōkei-ji Temple in Kamakura, where his friend D.T. Suzuki organized Nishida's funeral and was later also buried in the adjacent plot. Nishida's third grave is at Reiun'in, a temple in the Myōshin-ji compound in Kyoto.
Left: A portrait of Nishida taken in February 1943. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown (Namazu-tron?). Image license: Public domain. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Feenberg Nishida cover art

Andrew Feenberg, Nishida, Kawabata, and the Japanese Response to Modernity (2019)

Photo of Hajime TanabeHajime Tanabe (1885 – 1962)

A Japanese philosopher of the Kyoto School. In 1947 he became a member of Japan Academy, in 1950 he received the Order of Cultural Merit, and in 1957 an honorary doctorate from University of Freiburg. He was born in Tokyo, where his father was the school principal of Kaisei Academy; as a result, he grew up in a household devoted to education. Tanabe's father was also a scholar of Confucius, whose teachings may have influenced Tanabe's philosophical and religious thought. He enrolled in the University of Tokyo first as a natural sciences student, then moved to literature and philosophy. After graduation, he worked in Tohoku University as a lecturer and taught English at Kaisei. Eventually, Nishida invited Tanabe to teach at Kyoto Imperial University (now Kyoto University). After Nishida's retirement from teaching, Tanabe succeeded him. Though they began as friends, and shared several philosophical concepts such as Absolute Nothingness, Tanabe became increasingly critical of Nishida's philosophy. Many of Tanabe's writings after Nishida left the university obliquely attacked the latter's philosophy. Tanabe accepted the position of Associate Professor at Kyoto University in 1919. He spent two years studying in Germany at Berlin University and then the University of Freiburg from 1922-1924. At Freiburg, he studied under Edmund Husserl and was tutored by the young Heidegger. The influence of these two philosophers stayed with Tanabe throughout his life, and much of his thought exhibits the assumptions and terminology of ontology. During the Japanese expansion and war effort, Tanabe worked with Nishida and others to maintain the right of free academic expression. Though he criticized Heidegger for his collaboration with the Nazi regime, Tanabe himself was caught up in the Japanese war effort, and his letters to students going off to war exhibit many of the same terms and ideology used by the reigning military powers. Even more damning are his essays written in defense of Japanese racial and state superiority, exploiting his theory of the Logic of Species to herald and abet the militaristic ideology. During the war years, however, Tanabe wrote and published little, perhaps reflecting the moral turmoil that he attests to in his monumental post-war work, Philosophy as Metanoetics. The work is framed as a confession of repentance (metanoia) for his support of the war effort. It purports to show a philosophical way to overcome philosophy itself, which suggests that traditional western thought contains the seeds of the ideological framework that led to World War II. All the philosophers of the Kyoto School received opprobrium for their perceived active role in the Japanese empire's nationalistic regime. However, their participation in resistance to the political environment has been documented widely by James Heisig. Tanabe has come under more scrutiny and opprobrium for his political activities, though scholarship provides some mitigation of the harsher picture of Tanabe as an ardent fascist in the mold of his one-time teacher, Martin Heidegger. His choices during the war, and the actions of Japan as a whole, haunted Tanabe for the remainder of his life. He died in 1962 in Kita-Karuizawa, Japan.
Left: A portrait of Tanabe. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Shuzo Kuki (1888 – 1941)

A prominent Japanese academic, philosopher and university professor. Kuki was the fourth child of Baron Kuki Ryūichi, a high bureaucrat in the Meiji Ministry for Culture and Education. Since it appears that Kuki's mother, Hatsu, was already pregnant when she fell in love with Okakura Kakuzō, otherwise known as Okakura Tenshin, a protégé of her husband's (a notable patron of the arts), the rumour that Okakura was Kuki's father would appear to be groundless. It is true, however, that Shūzō as a child, after his mother had separated and then divorced his father, thought of Okakura, who often visited, as his real father, and later certainly hailed him as his spiritual father. From Okakura, he gained much of his fascination for aesthetics and perhaps foreign languages, as indeed his fascination with the peculiar cultural codes of the pleasure quarters of Japan owes something to the fact that his mother had once been a geisha. At age 23 in 1911, Kuki converted to Catholicism; and he was baptized in Tokyo as Franciscus Assisiensis Kuki Shūzō. The idealism and introspection implied by this decision were early evidence of issues which would have resonance in the characteristic mindset of the mature man. A graduate in philosophy of Tokyo Imperial University, Kuki spent eight years in Europe to polish his knowledge of languages and deepen his already significant studies of contemporary Western thought. At the University of Heidelberg, he studied under the neo-Kantian Heinrich Rickert, and he engaged Eugen Herrigel as a tutor. At the University of Paris, he was impressed by the work of Henri Bergson, whom he came to know personally; and he engaged the young Jean-Paul Sartre as a French tutor. It is little known outside Japan that Kuki influenced Jean-Paul Sartre to develop an interest in Heidegger's philosophy. At the University of Freiburg, Kuki studied phenomenology under Edmund Husserl; and he first met Martin Heidegger in Husserl's home. He moved to the University of Marburg to attend Heidegger's lectures, where his fellow students during these years in Europe included Tetsurō Watsuji and Kiyoshi Miki. Shortly after Kuki's return to Japan, he wrote and published his masterpiece, The Structure of "Iki" (1930). In this work he undertakes a phenomenological analysis of iki, a variety of chic culture current among the fashionable set in Edo in the Tokugawa period, and asserted that it constituted one of the essential values of Japanese culture. Kuki took up a teaching post at Kyoto University, then a prominent center for conservative cultural values and thinking. His early lectures focused on Descartes and Bergson. In the context of a faculty with a primarily Germanic philosophical background, his lectures offered a somewhat different perspective based on the work of French philosophers. He became an Associate Professor in 1933, and in that same year, he published the first book length study of Martin Heidegger to appear in Japanese. Heidegger expressed a desire to have written the preface to the German translation of The Structure of "Iki". At the University of Kyoto, Kuki was elevated to Professor of Philosophy in March 1934. The next year, he published The Problem of Contingency, developed from his personal experiences in Europe and the influence of Heidegger. As a single Japanese man within an encompassing "white" or non-Japanese society, he considered the extent to which he became a being who lacked necessity. From the mid-thirties, while Japan drifted towards totalitarianism and the war in China dragged on, Kuki seemed not to be much disturbed by the growth of fascism. In 1941, Kuki died prematurely from consequences following an attack of peritonitis.
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Night view in Kyoto

Above: A night view of the old town in Kyoto.
Image source: Image author: Chapman Chow. Image license: Unsplash license.

Watsuji photo WikimediaTetsuro Watsuji (1889 – 1960)

A Japanese moral philosopher, cultural historian, and intellectual historian. Watsuji was born in Himeji, Hyōgo Prefecture to a physician. During his youth he enjoyed poetry and had a passion for Western literature. For a short time, he was the coeditor of a literary magazine and was involved in writing poems and plays. His interests in philosophy came to light while he was a student at First Higher School in Tokyo, although his interest in literature would always remain strong throughout his life. In his early writings, between 1913 and 1915, he introduced the work of Søren Kierkegaard to Japan, as well as working on Friedrich Nietzsche, but in 1918 he turned against this earlier position, criticizing Western philosophical individualism, and attacking its influence on Japanese thought and life. This led to a study of the roots of Japanese culture, including Japanese Buddhist art, and notably the work of the medieval Zen Buddhist Dōgen. Watsuji was also interested in the famous Japanese writer Natsume Sōseki, whose books were influential during Watsuji's early years. In the early 1920s Watsuji taught at Toyo, Hosei and Keio universities, and at Tsuda Eigaku-juku. The issues of hermeneutics attracted his attention. In 1925 Watsuji became professor of ethics at Kyoto University, joining the other leading philosophers of the time, Nishida Kitaro and Tanabe Hajime. He then moved to the Tokyo Imperial University in 1934 and held the chair in ethics until 1949. During World War II his theories, which claimed the superiority of Japanese approaches to and understanding of human nature and ethics and argued for the negation of self, provided support for Japanese nationalism, a fact which, after the war, he said that he regretted. Watsuji died at the age of 71. Watsuji's three main works were his two-volume History of Japanese Ethical Thought (1954), his three-volume Rinrigaku (Ethics), completed in 1949, and Fūdo (1935). The last of these develops his most distinctive thought. Here he argues for an essential relationship between climate and other environmental factors and the nature of human cultures, and he distinguished three types of culture: pastoral, desert, and monsoon.
Left: Watsuji in 1955. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown. Image license: Public domain. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Photo of Keiji NishitaniKeiji Nishitani (1900 – 1990)

A Japanese philosopher of the Kyoto School and a disciple of Kitarō Nishida. In 1924 Nishitani received a Ph.D. from Kyoto University for his dissertation, Das Ideale und das Reale bei Schelling und Bergson. He studied under Martin Heidegger in Freiburg from 1937-9. He held the principal Chair of Philosophy and Religion at Kyoto University from 1943 until becoming emeritus in 1964. He then taught philosophy and religion at Ōtani University. At various times Nishitani was a visiting professor in the United States and Europe. Nishitani's philosophy had a distinctive religious and subjective bent, drawing Nishitani close to existentialists and mystics, most notably Søren Kierkegaard and Meister Eckhart, rather than to the scholars and theologians who aimed at systematic elaborations of thought. Nishitani brought Zen poetry, religion, literature, and philosophy organically together in his work to help lay the difficult foundations for the liberation of the Japanese language, in a way comparable to Blaise Pascal or Friedrich Nietzsche. Nishintani wrote a great deal on Buddhist themes towards the end of his career. In works such as Religion and Nothingness, Nishitani focuses on the Buddhist term sunyata (emptiness/nothingness) and its relation to the Western concept of nihilism. Whereas the latter denotes an absence of meaning, sunyata relates to the acceptance of anatta, one of the three Right Understandings in the Noble Eightfold Path. Nishitani always wrote and understood himself as a philosopher akin in spirit to Nishida insofar as the teacher—always bent upon fundamental problems of ordinary life—sought to revive a path of life walked already by ancient predecessors, most notably in the Zen tradition.
Left: A portrait of Nishitani. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: AlexsandrGertsen. Image license: Public domain. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Masao Abe (1915 – 2006)

A Japanese Buddhist and professor in religious studies, who became well known for his work in Buddhist-Christian interfaith dialogue, which later included Judaism. He wrote also on the experience of Zen. Born in Osaka, Abe was the third of six children. Abe's father was a medical doctor, his mother a practitioner of Pure Land Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism, from whom came his early faith in Amida Buddha. His higher education began at Osaka Municipal University, where he studied Economics and Law. For four years during the late 1930s he worked in a business office at a private trading company in neighboring Kobe. Yet Abe was seriously troubled by an ongoing personal crisis, which stemmed from the perceived conflict between rationality and faith in the Amida of Pure Land Buddhism. This conflict he thought he could conclusively resolve in favor of faith through the study of philosophy, by which he could overcome objections posed by reason. Abe entered Kyoto University in April 1942. It was a courageous step, as he changed career direction in mid-stream in a way that was exceptional in Japanese life, yet even more so considering the current political situation. He studied Western philosophy under Hajime Tanabe and Zen under the direction of Shin'ichi Hisamatsu, a philosophy professor at Kyoto University and a lay practitioner of the Rinzai school. Guided by Hisamatsu, Abe worked with others to revitalize the Buddhist youth organization at Kyoto University throughout the 1940s. Hisamatsu challenged Abe's quasi-theistic faith in Amida Buddha and eventually became for Abe a vital religious model as a rigorous adherent of sunyata ("emptiness") as an ultimate reality. In consequence, Abe came to understand Amida Buddha as a sacred fiction. Abe's spiritual progression under Hisamatsu was complex and dialectical. Hisamatsu taught that the revered image of Amida Buddha was but a stage on the way to realizing a "formless" Buddha, whereby one could awaken to one's True Self. Nonetheless, Abe first reacted to Hisamatsu by coming to discover and experience an infinite grace from the Amida Buddha. In December 1951, during a group Zen sitting at the Reiun Temple of the Myōshin-ji in Kyoto, Abe personally challenged Hisamatsu, screaming at him, "Is that the True Self?" Hisamatsu replied, "That's the True Self." Thereafter Abe entered an intense phase and struggled with the view that "It's all a lie!" – which he cried out while dousing himself with a bucket of ice water at a subsequent group sitting. He agonized over the seeming proximity of the Deity and the devil, and with his own complicity. Finally, Abe told Hisamatsu, "I just cannot find any place where I can stand." Hisamatsu told him, "Stand right at that place where there is nowhere to stand." Later, when Abe reflected on his life development, Abe acknowledged the crucial role of Shin'ichi Hisamatsu in his spiritual formation. "Without him I am not what I am."
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

More Kyoto School Thinkers

Another night view of Kyoto

Above: Another view of Kyoto at night, this time in the modern part of the city.
Image source: Image author: Harry Cunningham. Image license: Unsplash license.