Nietzsche and Buddhism
Nihilism? Decadence? Will to power? Superman? True World? Eternal Recurrence? Nietzsche was a complex guy. Read this to learn more about how his ideas stood in comparison to those commonly put forward by Buddhist traditions.
Gnotruth is happy to present Dr. Martina Feyzrakhmanova’s clear-minded analysis of Nietzche’s relationship to Buddhism.
So, let’s get to it.
My name is Martina. I am a medical doctor, most interested in mindfulness, psychology, neuroscience and philosophy – they feel like a kind of continuum to me. A continuum of questions, above all else, that I delve into on my blog. To further the discussion of Christianity and mindfulness that Nguyên Giác and I have been engaged in, I will share what I’ve understood from studying Nietzsche’s complex relationship with Buddhism.
We are so used to overcoming ourselves. The alarm goes off in the morning: we overcome the desire to stay in bed. We overcome the desire to talk back when someone is being unreasonable. As we sigh and look at pictures of blissfully meditating followers of Eastern philosophy, it seems our whole lives here, in the West, are about overcoming. This is exactly what Nietzsche wrote about, and was brutally honest while at it.
How does this everyday resistance gel with the acceptance of the ever more popular Buddhism? Nietzsche discussed this at length. What is this bitter sweet anesthetic that permeates some philosophies? I am especially interested in understanding whether this seemingly more peaceful Buddhist philosophy is nihilistic (used in the sense of denial of meaning in life).
Nietzsche was a daring thinker. Having said this, it is hard to take him very seriously. His works are full of contradictions. As a man who spent his life advocating will to power, he didn’t live it at all. His piercing loneliness that is so obvious from his writing makes me believe he himself longed for a “true world”, with its perfect friendship and perfect philosophy.
All the same, it seems nihilism was the one cardinal sin to him – something that I find mesmerizingly interesting. There is just such immediate natural liveliness and love for reality that emerges from a will to grow and try despite circumstances rather than finding cognitive and emotional hacks that take the edge off – a role assigned to Buddhism and Stoicism by modern psychology.
All throughout his writing, Nietzsche was clear in his view that both Buddhism, and Christianity were nihilistic religions based of pessimism and decadence.
What was at stake was the value of morality-and over this I had to come to terms almost exclusively with my great teacher Schopenhauer to whom that book of mine, the passion and the concealed contradiction of that book, addressed itself as if to a contemporary (-for that book, too, was a “polemic”). What was especially at stake was the value of the “unegoistic,” the instincts of pity, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice, which Schopenhauer had gilded, deified, and projected into a beyond for so long that at last they became for him “value-in-itself,” on the basis of which he said No to life and to himself. But it was against precisely these instincts that there spoke from me an ever more fundamental mistrust, an ever more corrosive skepticism. It was precisely here that I saw the great danger to mankind, its sublimest enticement and seduction-but to what? to nothingness?-it was precisely here that I saw the beginning of the end, the dead stop, a retrospective weariness, the will turning against life, the tender and sorrowful signs of the ultimate illness; I understood the ever spreading morality of pity that had seized even on philosophers and made them ill, as the most sinister symptom of a European culture that had itself become sinister, perhaps as’ its by-pass to a new Buddhism? to a Buddhism for Europeans? to nihilism?
We must banish the dark impression of that nothingness which we discern behind all virtue and holiness as their final goal, and which we fear as children fear the dark; we must not even evade it like the Indians, through myths and meaningless words, such as reabsorption in Brahma or the Nirvana of the Buddhists. Rather do we freely acknowledge that what remains after the abolition
of will is for all those who are still full of will certainly nothing; but conversely, to those in whom the will has turned and denied itself, this our world, which is so real, with all its suns and milky ways-is nothing.
Wagner flatters every nihilistic Buddhistic instinct, and disguises it in music ; he flatters every kind of Christianity and every religious form and expression of decadence… Richard Wagner … a decrepit and desperate romantic, collapsed suddenly before the Holy Cross.
Nietzsche called Christianity the religion of inconsequential pity culminating in God; similarly Buddhism culminated is Nirvana – a nothingness as Nietzsche understood it.
He felt that Buddhism held as its aim a nihilistic withdrawal from real existence into an alternative, contrived mode of existence that denies the senses (On the Genealogy of Morals II/22).
He argued that Buddhism isn’t a religion and instead should rather be called a kind of hygiene, or indeed “practice” as we say today (Ecce Homo, 230). Nietzsche saw the Buddha as a sort of doctor, who just cleaned out human spiritual wounds without glorifying them like Christianity would (Will to Power 342, On the Genealogy of Morals III/21). Some of the praise that we encounter for Buddhism seems to simply be there as a backdrop for Nietzsche’s loathing of Christianity.
Of course, Nietzsche wasn’t the first to think this way: ever since Europeans started exploring India, they believed there was something nihilistic about Buddhism. Of course, at this point we know that it is difficult to generalize about such a thing as Buddhism, given the various factions thereof. While Nietzsche’s criticism is aimed at the heart of all Buddhism, his view of it is simplistic.
As alluded to by Nguyên Giác previously, much is gone missing in translation. The Madhyamika school has been attacked by critics for its nihilism. The central doctrine of Madhyamika is sunyata now translated as “emptiness.” Back in Nietzsche’s days it was even worse: “nothingness.” What it actually meant, in terms more suited to Westerners, is that each self is dependent on another self, so we are interdependent rather than being discrete “full” selves. (Frederick Streng, Emptiness. A Study In Religious Meaning).
On closer examination, we find that the Buddha and Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school, attacked nihilism. In recognizing that all phenomenal existence is conditional and ephemeral, we see that Buddhism stays away from both nihilism and eternalism. Buddhists argue that reality is beyond our perception. Meaning is uncertain, but it’s there. For me personally, that smacks of a thinly veiled true world theory. In its defense, unlike most other such doctrines, it doesn’t require death or the uniting of the world’s proletariat to happen – and seems accomplishable, at least in theory.
Nietzsche has a habit of being derogatory to the giants whose shoulders he is standing on. Many of Zarathustra’s comments as well as Nietzsche’s concept of the ego explored in Will to Power are more than reminiscent of Buddhism. Nietzsche’s said that our life is “actively engaged in interpretation” by our intellect that could not “avoid seeing itself in its own perspectives, and only in these” (The Gay Science, 374). That’s right up the Buddha’s alley. In Beyond Good and Evil, he says, “There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena”. That’s a marriage between Stoicism and Buddhism, and a denial of objective meaning here and now. I told you he was full of contradiction. Part of me thinks that that was Nietzsche’s way to be open minded: he tried on all of these views while he carved out his own corpus of principles as if it was a marble David.
It’s fair to say that Nietzsche had an oversimplified view of Buddhism, but I am not convinced he was wrong. Saying that there is a deeper, virtually inaccessible, plane to this life, denies the value of this normal common plane we’re all in – there is that rotten whiff of nihilism.
The claim regarding interdependence is undeniable, but I see no other mechanism for it other than the Nietzsche-Darwinian pursuit of self-interest for each interdependent self to make a whole that can continue to thrive. It may not be “eat or be eaten”, but it is certainly “feed yourself first and then worry about the universe”.
Nietzsche worshiped the proud and strong ubermensch, yet he knew his odds were stacked and that nature favoured the carefully tended-to mediocre. This was just one of the many obstacles for our driving force, the will to power, to overcome. Buddhism requires no such heroism in the face of adversity.
At first glance, Buddhism paints the idea of peace, Nietzsche’s prescriptions lead to an endless struggle. In reality, they are talking about the same thing. Just as Buddhism isn’t a path to doing away with suffering but rather an appreciation of its transience and insight into wider context, Nietzsche’s approach can be illustrated by one of his less scary quotations: “for a long time I ceased not to strive for my happiness; now I strive for my work.”
I don’t support Nietzsche’s simultaneous bilious rejection and emulation of Buddhist philosophy. N.N. Taleb’s warning of the Lindy Effect, the proposition that a more ancient idea has better longevity for the future, would point that Nietzsche doesn’t have a chance of competing with Buddhism. Part of me believes that this is due to Buddhism’s more soothing nature. Perhaps that’s not the intention, but it is, to a large extent, how people apply it. Going back to the theoretical. Nietzsche’s philosophy seems like a life affirming addition to Buddhism. At least, those parts that aren’t overtly crazy, of which there are many – but that’s a discussion for another day.
Durant, W. (1926) The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers. New York: Simon & Schuster
Elman, A. (1983) Nietzsche and Buddhism. Journal of the History of Ideas. 44(4):671-686