A student of Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945), the founder of the Kyoto school that combined German philosophy and Christian mystical thought with zen experience to present a new synthesis of modern thought in Japan. Like his teacher, he was concerned to synthesize elements of all three streams of thought in order to address more fully fundamental human philosophical problems. Unlike Nishida, he took as his point of departure the challenge of Nietzsche and nihilism, and sought throughout his work a resolution to the problem of the self. The Western formulation of the problem was flawed, he argued, because the search for self remained strictly within the realm of the cognitive, the logocentric, and the rational. Zen could enrich the search because the breakthrough sought through Zen meditation was one that involved the total person and yielded truths about the nature of the self that went beyond the cognitive to produce a total experiential realization of the self.
The self thus realized is the self seen through the Buddhist concept of emptiness (śūnyatā). The problem with Western attempts to address Nietzsche's nihilism was that they attempted to limit it, to find a place to establish the self in reality, when in fact all such attempts ultimately serve only to bind human thought in conceptual chains of its own making. Emptiness allows nihilism free play and follows it to the end, wherein nihilism discovers even itself to be nothing but a reification imposed upon the world. At that point, when, in Buddhist terms, even emptiness is emptied, the east Asian Buddhist tradition asserts that all false conceptualizations are cleared away, leaving, not nothing whatsoever, but the luminous truth of things-as-they-are. The self thus finds itself as itself, unbound by any fabricated conceptions and too-easy harmonizations of contradictions, but in open, space-like reality. In both Zen masters and Christian mystics, Nishitani found the via negativa that follows negation to its end-point in the affirmation of all and the clear vision of that-which-is, or, in Buddhist terms, ‘suchness’ (tathatā).