Stone Buddha figure with blurry background

Embracing Earth while Facing Death

A Buddhist monk reflects on the limits of contemporary science.

By Eshin Nishimura

I am a Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest and scholar on Zen thought. I live in a small Zen temple in the countryside of Shiga Prefecture, the province next to Kyoto. My prefecture is well known, because it is near the biggest lake in Japan, called Biwa-ko, where the ninth International Conference of the Lake and Marsh was held in 2001.

Looking at the boundless space through a window on a plane from Japan to America recently, I was thinking of the smallness of a human existence, which lasts only for a number of decades and soon passes away without knowing anything about this infinite universe. Such a short lifespan is still comfortable for humans, as long as we enjoy our lives creatively and through art. As part of this task, religion and science each have been a driving force expanding the human desire for creativity throughout history.

Toward the end of the last century, the well-known historian Arnold Toynbee summarized the twentieth century as a “century of rapid advancement of natural science, and creative encounter of world religions.” But Toynbee’s admiration of the brilliant advancements of the twentieth century does not seem to be universally true. Human beings are now faced with a potential turning point in scientific progress, where scientific advances raise as many questions as they resolve.

The twenty-first century does not need to be, nor can it be, just an age of further steps in human technological achievement. It needs to be a century in which human beings stop their headlong rush ahead, plant their feet firmly, and, as an ancient Chinese proverb wisely says, “Stop walking to return to one’s Self ” (Taiho shūko, in Japanese). I firmly believe, therefore, that the twenty-first century should be a “century of deep considering.” As Heidegger points out, human beings in our time truly seem to be running away from deep thinking, which is the essential nature of human existence. To reverse this tendency, some people want to recover what is missing in their thinking, to recover Heidegger’s reflective thinking. Thus, they occasionally turn their gaze toward Buddhism, which teaches us to have a “right view” in order to investigate the reality of the world. In order to investigate this path toward right thinking, I shall begin with the most fundamental teaching of the Buddha, who taught the following in his “First Speech” to his five followers right after his Great Awareness of Reality, recorded in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta:

The world is full of suffering. Birth is suffering, old age is suffering, sickness and death are suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering. To meet a man whom one hates is suffering, to be separated from a beloved one is suffering, to be vainly struggling to satisfy one’s need is suffering. In fact, life that is not free from desire and passion is always involved with distress. This is called the Truth of Suffering. . . .

In order to enter into a state where there is no desire and no suffering, one must follow a certain path. The stages of this Noble Eightfold Path are right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. This is called the Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering.

Among these practices, right investigation through right concentration would be the most necessary to the contemporary human being, who constantly forgets to stop walking in order to watch a thing carefully, patiently. “To think” is a fundamental condition of man’s existence: cogito ergo sum, as the French philosopher Descartes said. To think does not require any specific religious belief, but it does belong to each person as his or her ability.

Furthermore, it is the Buddha who followed such a human ability and pursued its implications for one’s life. Through his deep thinking under the Bodhi tree, he discovered the root of human existence that is suffering (dukkha) and also recognized the root of suffering that is ignorance (avidyā).

Human beings today have begun to be aware of the reality of human suffering, but we are still not aware of how to think deeply about such a situation. Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, a leading Zen scholar of the Kyoto School, who was my teacher and a guiding influence during my college life, wrote:

The inner structure of humankind itself is based upon Antinomy. This is the core reason why humankind cannot overcome this limit or destiny by itself. . . . It is an authentic way of knowing the limit of humankind, that we be aware of ourselves as limited beings. Therefore, it is a matter of ignorance that we do not know of the limit of our existence. In this sense modern humankind is like the ignorant who is not aware of his own limits.1

Hisamatsu’s indication reminds me of a saying of Kierkegaard’s that “to be able to despair is a strong point of man.” In Zen Buddhism, a master brings his disciple to great doubt or despair by refusing his questions and pushing him back onto himself instead. In this way, the disciple loses his ordinary self-ego. This state of non-self or unconscious self is a necessary precondition for finding an absolute self existing beyond the ordinary self. Unless humans break through this great mass of doubt, they will never be able to reach their final freedom.

In Zen Buddhism, one’s true self is witnessed by and through surrounding nature; or, in other words, nature is the content of no-self, or true self.

Linji (?866), the founder of the Linji (Rinzai) School of Zen, preached to his disciples as follows: “On your lump of red flesh is a true man without rank who is always going in and out of the face of every one of you. Those who have not yet proved him, look, look!”2 Here Linji impatiently encourages students to look to their true selves. According to Linji, one’s “true self ” exists neither inside nor outside of a physical body, but goes in and out through the sense organs at each moment of daily life. Thus, such a true self exists neither in the physical body, nor somewhere out of the body. But where does it exist? It is this true self, understood as neither existing inside or outside of the body, which Zazen meditation seeks to explore.

There are many well-known episodes of how Zen monks realized the “original self ” that transcends the physical limits in each monk’s daily life. Examples such as listening to the sound of a temple bell, smelling the fragrance of an apricot tree, looking at one’s reflection on the water, having one’s leg broken by the slamming of a door by a master, and so on reveal the various ways in which Zen Buddhism explains the discovery of one’s true self.

All these happenings occur not in “still meditation” but in the motion of daily life. The true self is almost always discovered in the course of regular, everyday experience. This is the reason why Keiji Nishitani (1900-90), a Kyoto School philosopher of Zen Buddhism, defined religion as the “Real self-awareness of Reality by itself.” And thus a Zen master teaches that there is no reality other than this true self, which is often realized when the doubtful self created through practice meets with nature through daily experience.

The Zen master Dōgen, founder of Japanese Sōtō Zen Buddhism, wrote in a similar vein in the poem “Original Self ” (Sanshōdōei in Japanese):

In Spring, Self is follower,
In Summer moon,
In Autumn, little cuckoo
In Winter, in coldness of Snow!

It is crucial to note that, in Zen Buddhism, one’s true self is witnessed by and through surrounding nature; or, in other words, nature is the content of no-self, or true self.


It is well known that Descartes cut the medieval teleological worldview into two parts, namely, the world of “res cogitans,” which has its essence in thought or consciousness, and that of “res extensa,” which has its essence in physical extension.3 With this division, Descartes’s dualistic worldview was established, separated into matter and the “ego subjectivity” or substance of man, and humans began to stand in opposition to the nature that surrounds humankind. And, in so doing, humans became a solitary island floating in the dead ocean of “things.”

As a result, science began to be able to treat and manipulate nature as it liked, so that science has advanced in amazing speed up to the present. The object of science is thoroughly a “world of the dead,” which is moved by a series of laws of nature, from which science itself cannot be free. This attitude has continued in varying degrees to the present day.

This earth of living beings is now tending toward the world of death. In the near future, living beings may no longer be able to prosper here anymore.

In medieval times and before, the green planet Earth used to be like a unique greenhouse, protected from the dead nature of the universe. But since the beginning of the modern era brought in by Descartes, humans have begun to break apart the precious glass of our greenhouse through science and technology. Our planet has now come to stand for a dead aspect of nature.

In this way, this earth of living beings is now tending toward the world of death. In the near future, living beings may no longer be able to prosper here anymore, and only mechanical beings and the most resilient of organisms may be capable of surviving our fury of technological creation.

Today, in the midst of science’s increasing knowledge, we may come to see that, while the debt to science is increasing, human unhappiness is also, unfortunately, increasing. With such a serious global situation at hand, scientists themselves, along with philosophers and many others, have begun to think about the limits of science.

Needless to say, even a scientist is a human being. No matter how committed she is, as an objective scientist, to a picture of nature, a scientist is still a person who lives in the emotional and physical world of her own daily life. Even inside the laboratory, a scientist keeps her religiosity, even if she remains a committed atheist. Even a medical doctor can be a patient, and if his doctor told him frankly that his disease was cancer, he might be shaken by the doctor’s pronouncement, even though he had asked his doctor to tell him the truth.

And so it is true that nature is a mysterious mass even for the scientist, thereby opening up an infinite possibility by and for scientists. It is this infinite-possibility space that must force us all to begin to think of the limits of science.

It is true that our current global crisis is not merely the fault of science. It results also from a shallow understanding of human existence, for which, I posit, religion is responsible.

Nishitani explained that traditional religion lacks an understanding of the human experience of death and that religion needs to “re-examine its worldview.” He said: “In ordinary religion, God has been thought to be a bottomless fountain of all living beings. Therefore the dead phase of the universe is nothing but the remaining shade. . . .”4

I find a certain irony in Nishitani’s writing: the phase of death, which is a fundamental essence hidden within religion, has now been awakened by science instead. It is truly ironic that human beings, who have thus far proceeded by means of an unlimited instinctual impulse, are now meeting with the deeply nihilistic part of human existence, which is somehow fundamentally connected to the essence of religion.

In fact, science and religion have a common root in the “reality of death,” according to Nishitani:

Up until now, religions have tended to put the emphasis exclusively on the aspect of life. “Soul” has been viewed only from the side of life. Notions of “personality” and “Spirit,” too, have been based on this aspect of life. And yet from the very outset life is at one with death. This means that all living things, just as they are, can be seen under the form of death.5


We interpret science as having a structure of self-reflection. But, not only should science learn about self-doubt, it should learn to open itself more deeply to nature, so that nature might reveal its own reality to humankind. In Gelassenheit, Heidegger called for “letting being be” (which some translate as “releasement”):

Letting being be in man’s relation to (natural) things and his attitude toward opening himself to the secret of Nature indicates an interrelation between things. This attitude gives us the ability to stay in this natural world in an entirely different way from the past. This attitude promises us some new root and ground, on which man stands and stays in the world of technology without ill effect. . . .

However, letting being be in man’s relation to (natural) things and his attitude to open himself to the secret of Nature is not entirely easy. It does not just happen. . . . It is only possible with the deep and continual thinking filled with spirit.6

As Heidegger realized, humankind now has to take its hand away from nature, to learn an openness to the hidden dimensions of nature, so that nature will reveal its secrets. For this purpose, humanity must work toward a deep and continual thinking filled with spirit.

Buddhism calls such an openness the “openness of Śūnyatā,” which is the basic precondition for having good relations with nature. Only in this way will nature also be released from human bondage and return to its own home ground. Nishitani wrote:

In general, science has its uniqueness of standpoint when it understands the world as persistently objective and proves it through evidence. And yet that standpoint is none other than to investigate a world from inside that very world. Such a standpoint is still “immanent” in a world. . . . To be free from such an immanence, we accept the scientific standpoint as it concerns each of us, and through the deepening process of acceptance, we have to break through the limits of science within the world. Through this process, the standpoint of science will be realized and will open a realm of transcendence. In so doing science shall arrive at its essence, which is not “scientific” in any ordinary sense. . . . Such a direction of negation simultaneously becomes one with the direction in which all phenomenal beings are showing their original Realities, and there the fundamental realm of the Reality is opened up.7

Here Nishitani points toward the transcendental world, which belongs neither to the scientific worldview nor to the religious worldview, although, simultaneously, both views belong to that transcendental world, to that sense of Reality. D. T. Suzuki explains it in a different way. “Science today has to change its concept,” he writes. “It must treat its object as a living being and not as dead, not as what is killed but as what is living.”


I hope for a new direction within science and religion. Although it is still the exception rather than the rule, contemporary science seems to be moving in new directions. Issues such as global warming, air pollution, nuclear energy, information technology, biotechnology, ecosystem studies, and so on are becoming the main topics of our day, and it is none other than the scientists themselves who are now afraid of the awful situation that we have brought about for our living earth.

Scientists are now facing “death” and the possible demise of our planet—realities that have been essentially hidden in science itself. Scientists today also seem to be seeking other possibilities for human happiness than can be created or illuminated by science. It is astonishing to see many Japanese scientists today so interested in Buddhism; they are gathering in large numbers for lectures on Buddhism that are being sponsored, in fact, by other scientists.

For example, it is now not uncommon for medical doctors to seek and raise awareness about what “death” means, such that medical science is now including the issue of death within its field. This has led to a host of new discussions within medical ethics, which are greater in depth and broader in scope than ever before.

Religion, on the other hand, is changing to be more existential and “in the present” than before, in the sense that it now concerns itself just as much with one’s present condition as it formerly did with the afterlife. Science, which has for many years ignored human questions about life, now appears to be moving into the domain of traditional religion. Scientists are investigating human subjectivity and concerning themselves with the tremendous influence science exercises in human social, political, and intellectual affairs.

Such a change in humanity’s attitude is beautifully summarized by Nishitani as the “un-mythologizing of mythology and the existentialization of science.” In these new developments I see hope for a creative relationship between science and religion, a deep relationship that has never happened before in the history of the human species.


  1. Shini’ichi Hisamatsu, Collected Works, vol. 3, Enlightenment and Creation (in Japanese) (Risōsha, [1970–80]), 47 ff.
  2. The Recorded Sayings of Ch’an Master Lin-chi Hui-chao of Chen Prefecture, trans. Ruth Fuller Sasaki (Institute for Zen Studies, 1975), 3.
  3. See Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness, trans. Jan Van Bragt (University of California Press, 1982), 10.
  4. Keiji Nishitani, Works, vol. 11, Science and Zen (in Japanese) (Sōbunsha, 1987), 231.
  5. Ibid., 50.
  6. The translation from Heidegger’s Gelassenheit is my own.
  7. Nishitani, Works, 250.

Eshin Nishimura is the former president of Hanazono University in Kyoto, Japan. He is a Zen priest, a leading scholar of the philosophical tradition known in the West as the Kyoto School, and a leading scholar in the dialogue between Zen Buddhism and Western philosophy. This essay was adapted from his talk presented at HDS on April 20, 2007.

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