Lecture Eleven: Relations 11.3

11.3 The Buddhist connection


The mid-nineteenth century was rich in philological efforts and curiosity towards what was then called ‘The Orient.’ Editions and translations of Indian and Eastern texts became more and more widely available to European readers. Schopenhauer was, among Western philosophers, one of the most enthusiastic about these sources. It is thus not surprising, given Schopenhauer’s influence on him, to see Nietzsche mentioning Buddhist and Indian thought (especially Vedanta) throughout his works.

In taking up the relationship between Nietzsche’s thought and Buddhism, four questions should be distinguished: (i) what did Nietzsche know and read about Buddhism (and possibly about which historical form of Buddhism)? (ii) How did Nietzsche engage with these sources, either in terms of positive influences he received or in terms of his reactions to them? (iii) What can be gained from a dialogue between Nietzsche’s philosophy and the Buddhist teachings? Or more specifically (iv), assuming that we agree with Nietzsche’s overall project of establishing a way of living and understanding reality that does not revert to metaphysical escapism, how can early Buddhist thought and practice offer indications of how we might reach this goal, perhaps complementary to, or along the direction pointed at by Nietzsche?

The first question is primarily historical and even, to some degree, philological. Although such a question is interesting, it will not be discussed in any details here. There are two monographs that focus on this topic: Freny Mistry, Nietzsche and Buddhism: Prolegomenon to a Comparative Study (1981), and Robert Morrison, Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities (1997).[1] They agree in that Nietzsche was arguably interested in the early emergence of Buddhism in reaction to the Brahmanical context (which we discussed in Lecture Six). He might have thus focused on the Pāli Theravāda tradition, even though later traditions (especially Tibetan Buddhism) were increasingly explored and discussed by his time. A more recent paper, by Thomas Brobjer (2004), surveys all written sources that witness Nietzsche’s acquaintance with Indian philosophy. Brobjer suggests that Nietzsche’s direct knowledge of Indian sources was in fact rather limited, and largely based on secondary scholarly presentations available to him, both through readings and through personal conversations. Among his interests, Buddhism does figure more prominently than other Indian views, although it would be hard to say that Nietzsche was a particularly profound connoisseur of historical Buddhist thought or ancient texts.

The second question is hermeneutical and asks about the sort of interpretation that Nietzsche developed of the form of Buddhism he was familiar with, and possibly why that interpretation came about, or what sorts of intellectual drives shaped it. The third and fourth questions are more systematic, since they concern the intellectual relation between Nietzsche’s philosophy and the Buddha’s teachings, as well as how Nietzsche himself actually interpreted them. All these questions receive an interesting treatment by Antoine Panaïoti, in his Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy (2013). Panaïoti frames his discussion around the issue of nihilism: how can we live in a world which does not have any inherent meaning? Panaïoti contends that a combination of Nietzsche and Buddhist philosophy can provide a viable ethical framework for addressing this issue.

Panaïoti’s discussion proceeds in three steps. The first two chapters of his book explain how Nietzsche interpreted early Buddhism throughout his works. Nietzsche presents himself both as ‘the Buddha of Europe’ and as the ‘Anti-Buddha.’ This is because Nietzsche both praises certain aspects of Buddhist philosophy and rejects and criticizes others. He praises the Buddhist attempt to discard metaphysical delusions and dispense with the idea of an absolute Being or God and of a substantial soul. Nietzsche interprets the Buddha’s teachings as fundamentally atheistic and sees them as a rejection of the Brahmanical quest for the (re)union between the soul and the ground of reality (brahman). The way the Buddha attempted to overcome the dominant metaphysical view of his time is understood as parallel to the way Nietzsche envisions his own task. However, Nietzsche also criticizes the Buddhist account for being unable to move beyond what Panaïoti calls ‘descriptive pessimism.’ ‘Life is suffering,’ Nietzsche hears from the Buddha, but then the Buddha does not seem to offer any remedy beyond the resort to a state of pure extinction and non-being, where all suffering (and in fact all experience) can simply cease, and one will be bothered no more. On this reading, the Buddha’s teaching would be oriented to achieve a supreme anesthetic against the sorrow inherent in life, which he very well diagnosed. Nietzsche sees this solution as unviable, since it does not move beyond the traditional attitude of saying ‘no’ to the dissonance and painfulness of existence, and instead tries (like Christianity, in Nietzsche’s view) to turn away from it, because it is too unbearable.

The one historical point that Panaïoti stresses in this connection is that Nietzsche’s interpretation of both positive and negative features of Buddhism is very much filtered through his reading and engagement with Schopenhauer (although it should be noted that Schopenhauer might not have been the only one to hold this interpretation of Buddhism, cf. Brobjer 2004):

it is patently obvious that Schopenhauer is the principal source for Nietzsche’s philosophy of religion and, by extension, for his views concerning the nihilist mentality, the construction of the wahre Welt, Buddhism, etc. Nietzsche’s idea that a tacit spirit of life-negation hides behind any ethical or religious quest for Being is a Schopenhauerian idea. When he claims that the desire for unio mystica has always been “the desire of the Buddhist for nothingness, nirvāṇa,” or that “all pessimistic religions call nothingness God,” Nietzsche is essentially presenting a rehashed version of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of religion. More importantly, Nietzsche’s idea that something like Buddhism (in this case Schopenhauer’s thought itself) is what takes the place of Christianity once its theistic optimistic garb has been cast away is precisely Schopenhauer’s position. […] The source for the Schopenhauer-Buddhism rapprochement so central to Nietzsche’s assessment of Buddhism is Schopenhauer’s philosophy itself. It is on the basis of Schopenhauer’s own self-understanding that Nietzsche interprets Christianity, Brahmanism, Buddhism, and Schopenhauer’s philosophy as expressions of the same will to nothingness. And it is on this basis that he sees the Buddha’s and Schopenhauer’s ethics as two cases of the same passive nihilism. (Panaïoti 2013, 75-76)

At this point, Panaïoti enters the more comparative and systematic confrontation between Nietzsche and Buddhist thought, reflecting in particular on the attitude towards suffering (chapters 3 and 4) and the role of compassion (chapters 5 and 6). Both points are key issues on which Nietzsche and Buddhism seem opposed, and yet Panaïoti shows that in fact they are complementary.

Take, for example, suffering. We know that the gist of Nietzsche’s approach is to proclaim a resounding ‘yes’ to suffering and embrace life in its full dissonance. This is the essence of the tragic stance towards existence, which is expanded by Zarathustra and culminates in the practice of construing eternal recurrence as a way of achieving amor fati, the ability of fully accepting the whole spectrum of experience, including its most sorrowful and unbearable components. In Panaïoti’s explanation of Nietzsche’s view:

The healthy type’s affirmation of suffering takes the form of embracing eternal recurrence in amor fati. At the prospect of a perpetual replay of one’s entire existence, with all its sorrows and mistakes, eternal recurrence is the most brutal vision of the pessimism of strength. By embracing it, the healthy type overcomes the greatest of horrors and wipes away all traces of guilt. He says yes to all of life, and to all he was, is, and ever will be. In the form of eternal recurrence, becoming assumes the character of Being, or the God Dionysus, and the tragic healthy type “becomes what he is” as an enduring, fixed Self. It is through an ironical embrace of these deliberate and conscious fictions that the healthy type, qua artist, attains the highest health of amor fati. It is in this way that he goes beyond enduring and resigning himself to suffering, but embraces, affirms, celebrates, and wills it. (Panaïoti 2013, 130)

Turning to the Buddha’s teaching, Panaïoti presents it as a healing practice aimed at removing a widely spread form of disease. The sort of suffering that the Buddha targets is not any painful feeling in general, but a particular domain of suffering that is the product of specific attitudes towards experience. Since these attitudes are based on a form of active delusion (where one actively supports false ideas and views about the nature of reality and experience), they are a form of sickness and removing the suffering they produce consists in nothing more than restoring a pristine form of psycho-physical health.

More specifically, Panaïoti stresses how the Buddha exposes the interplay between three psychological components: the attitude of ‘thirsting’ or craving for objects and even for the very constituents of experience (like feelings, thoughts, intentions, perceptions and so on), the attitude of ‘appropriating’ them as if one could genuinely control and claim ownership on these elements, and the pre-reflexive attitude of interpreting experience from the point of view of an ‘ego-principle,’ the assumption of some unitary and enduring ‘self’ that is the real ontological basis and main character in the drama of life. These three elements can be seen as constitutive of a particular form of disease, which Panaïoti explains as follows:

the infection of the ego-principle, the appropriation of the constituents by the performing self, and the fever of thirsting are related. The process of “I”-making at the heart of the ego-principle is analogous to a process of combustion. The sense of being a unitary enduring self is generated and maintained in the same way as a flame is: namely, by feeding off the psycho-physical “fuel” which it “appropriates” in the process of combustion/identification. If the fire analogy is translated back into the medical discourse, it becomes possible to describe “appropriation” as a vast inflammation of the entire psycho-physical apparatus. It is by virtue of this inflammation that mental and physical events are “fuel” for the fire of identification via appropriation. The sense of “self,” in turn, arises in so far as the mind and body are thus inflamed. As for the burning fever of thirsting, it is consequent upon the inflammation of appropriation. The mind and body are “inflamed” as a result of the infection of the ego-principle, and by virtue of this inflammation there arises the fiery fever of thirsting. (Panaïoti 2013, 139)

This disease based on thirsting-appropriating-selfying has far reaching ontological and metaphysical implications. It entails a substantialist view of objects, according to which reality and experience is made up of relatively discrete and self-standing ontological units, endowed with a relative degree of stability and permanence, and is hence susceptible to be approached as potential pray for one’s own craving or aversion. At the cosmological level, this metaphysical view escalates in the postulation of an ultimate reality, eternal, unchanging, in which all things ultimately abide. At the psychological level, the same properties of permanence and eternity are equally ascribed to the self.

Two remarks are in order at this point concerning the Buddhist understanding of suffering. First, as Panaïoti observes (2013, 134) the sort of suffering (Pāli dukkha) discussed in early Buddhist texts, the cessation of which is seen as the ultimate soteriological goal, do not include any form of painful feeling (Pāli vedanā) whatsoever. In various discourses (e.g., SN 36.6), it is stated that even fully awakened individuals do feel some pain. The Buddha himself is often presented as confronted with physical suffering (e.g., SN 1.38 and 4.13), and in his last years he was suffering from backache (e.g., MN 53). Moreover, insofar as this sort of physical suffering (which includes pain caused by elements, fatigue, other animals, sickness and all sorts of circumstances that befall a human body) can be a hindrance to progress, the Buddha also advices us to tackle it with endurance and patience (MN 2). The sort of suffering that the Buddha invites to eradicate as unnecessary, on the other hand, is the suffering that arises in connection with thirsting (as we shall discuss in the next lecture at greater length), and which can be seen as a result of the way one interprets experience. It is the act of wanting things to be or not to be a certain way that makes them painful to bear, since their nature is uncertain and ultimately beyond one’s control.

Although Panaïoti does not elaborate on it, this point is crucial because it provides a Buddhist diagnosis of the limitations of the meditation on eternal recurrence. In Zarathustra’s (and Nietzsche’s) perspective, meditating on eternal recurrence is a way of coming to terms with and positively embracing the contradictory nature of life and of the will to power. Succeeding in this task means being able to want the whole of life, asserting life in its dissonant nature, including saying ‘yes’ to the suffering that comes with it. From a Buddhist perspective, there are two issues with this strategy. The first is one we already discussed in the first part of this lecture, namely, that suffering is not inherent in life, no more than a sense of aesthetic painfulness is inherent in a musical dissonance. Choosing to say ‘yes’ to the suffering of life presupposes seeing suffering as inherent in life. But in the Buddhist perspective, suffering is not inherent in life, it is a byproduct of thirsting. It arises due to conditions, and it can cease with the cessation of those conditions.

The second, related issue is that the will to power either remains a form of thirst (more specifically, thirst for existence, that is, thirst for asserting and wanting any form of existence), or it is overcome altogether. If the ‘yes’ said to life is a way of asserting the will to power above, despite, and through the recognition of the inevitability of suffering, then the will to power remains a form of craving for the full spectrum of existence and the full spectrum of possible ways in which life can take shape. As we shall discuss in greater detail in Lecture Twelve, it is precisely by this craving that the will to power produces that same suffering that it needs to accept as inherent in life, while it isn’t. The problem that eternal recurrence tries to solve is not a problem that arises from the structure of life, it is a problem created by the very structure of thirsting through which life is experienced. Hence, finding a superior way of asserting the will to power is not a way out from the problem, but rather a way of sustaining it indefinitely. However, insofar as embracing suffering and saying ‘yes’ to pain reduces aversion (and this seems to be the main point stressed by Nietzsche), then the meditation on eternal recurrence does indeed counter and diminish one’s alienation from life and one’s sense of dejection and disgust towards it. But the relief here comes from a reduction of aversion, namely, from a reduction of thirsting itself. Hence, eternal recurrence is successful in helping us come to terms with suffering insofar as, by diminishing the intensity of the will (thirsting) it diminishes the intensity of the suffering produced by it. Eternal recurrence is successful not because it asserts the power of the will to create, but because it reduces the will’s desire for something else or something different (which is most likely how ancient Stoics understood the notion of amor fati). Neither Zarathustra nor Nietzsche acknowledge this mechanism, and perhaps this is precisely the reason why neither of them actually reaches the goal of the overhuman. We shall come back to the details of this Buddhist perspective in the upcoming two lectures.

The second remark about Panaïoti’s reconstruction of Buddhist thought helps sharpen this point. He notices (2013, 134) that the kind of dukkha produced through interpreting experience in a certain way is a matter of perspective. An ordinary untrained person might not realize how pervasive this form of suffering is, and its full scope is clear only to advanced practitioners. This does not mean that advanced practitioners will suffer more, but rather that they have stopped relying on the forms of anesthetics (illusions, delusions, distractions, sensuality) that the ordinary person has to constantly use in order not to see their actual predicament. Ceasing to use this form of anesthetic is a crucial steppingstone for addressing the root problem of thirsting head-on. The point, for now, is that dukkha is not an ontological feature of reality (just as painfulness is not a natural feature of dissonance), but rather a conditioned component of experience, and most often results from the way experience is interpreted and from the sort of meaning that it is attributed to it. Dukkha itself is thus something constructed and sustained. Consequently, it is also something that can be deconstructed and abandoned. But life in itself is not inherently painful, nor is it inherently pleasant. Feelings of pain or pleasure are just ways a sentient being faces and experiences reality based on their assumptions, views, and attitudes. Feelings express understanding. And one way of spelling out the core problem is by drawing attention to thirsting, which is primarily a practical and conative attitude, namely, an attitude towards manipulating contents and reacting to them in a certain way.

In Panaïoti’s reading, the Buddha’s treatment for the disease of thirsting is focused on the ability of first realizing and then experiencing that there is no enduring self at the core of one’s life. Once the ego-principle is undermined, the inflammation of appropriation and thirsting will be deprived of its main support and thus will eventually end. In line with what we discussed in Lecture Two, Panaïoti also stresses that the undermining of the ego-principle does not amount to nor require a state of sheer depersonalization. Rather, he stresses how the Buddha or his fully accomplished disciples were in fact ‘masters of irony.’ As he explains:

The real problem with the activity of inward-directed grasping, or appropriation, is that the identity it delivers is not recognized to be a fabrication. If the self-delusion has all the pernicious effects on human psychology that Buddhist philosophy claims it has, it is because of the delusion that the fabricated, performed self is somehow real. The delusion lies not in constructing the self, but in taking it to be real, or unconstructed. The difference between the common person and Buddhist healthy types, then, is not that the latter have no sense of personal identity whatsoever, but that they are no longer deluded as regards this identity’s fabricated status. A Buddhist healthy type who has recovered from the self-delusion could thus continue to perform a “self” for the sake of the functional integration of body and mind, but with full knowledge that this “self” is a construction. (Panaïoti 2013, 153-154)

On this interpretation, the Buddha’s therapy is thus aimed at a specific (albeit widespread) form of sickness that ordinarily undermines human health and thus produces an equally specific form of suffering. However, the Buddha does not claim that ‘life is suffering,’ or that ‘life is thirsting.’ Life is just the unfolding of various related psychophysical processes. When these processes are affected by thirsting and appropriation their unfolding takes a specific turn, which creates suffering within the horizon of experience that they define. The Buddha’s teaching aims to remove this distortion and recover pristine health. There is nothing ‘life-negating’ in this approach, which in fact falls in line with Nietzsche’s emphasis on recovering from debilitating sickness (often based on, and entrenched with, deluded views about reality and selfhood) and regaining full strength in one’s attitude towards life. The sort of suffering that the Buddha aims to bring to an end to is a suffering constructed through a specific interpretation of experience. It is an unnecessary suffering, and yet the most painful one, since it is precisely the suffering indexed to a paranoid concern with ‘me’ and ‘myself,’ and hence the most personal, intimate, and serious suffering. Stopping this suffering is not different, in a Nietzschean perspective, from stopping the unhealthy attitude of decadence and ressentiment that lead to life-negation. What remains is just the ordinary degree of painfulness and sorrow that inevitably accompanies the fact of living a biological life, based on relatively fragile living and sensitive bodies. But once the interpretative suffering is relinquished, any remaining pain will be experienced with an entirely different meaning (no longer as ‘my’ pain, no longer as a curse or even the result of guilt), and this pain can thus be met as something to which one can say ‘yes,’ as witness to the inherently vulnerable and tragic constitution of human existence.

In reaching this ideal, both Nietzsche and the Buddha consider the attitude of compassion key. However, Nietzsche tends to see compassion as something that primarily needs to be overcome, while the Buddha sees it as something that naturally results from the abandonment of the ego-principle and therefore as a virtue to be developed. Panaïoti solves the contradiction between these two views by showing that the target of Nietzsche’s critique is different from the sort of compassion (Pāli karuṇā) advocated by the Buddha. What Nietzsche criticizes is a form of bleeding-heart empathy and benevolence, concerned with denial of oneself for the sake of helping others, and crucially affected by sharing in others’ suffering. Panaïoti stresses that Nietzsche sees this form of compassion as intrinsically connected with self-denial and thus with life-negation. Not being able to withstand the contradictory nature of life and being overly sensitive to pain and sorrow, the compassionate person attempts to escape this condition by getting rid of themselves and possibly of life. And, as Schopenhauer also pointed out, self-denial can naturally lead to over-sensitivity towards others and their pain, resulting into a compassionate, selfless stance where one would do anything to alleviate others’ sorrow. By elevating this form of compassion to a supreme value, moreover, the mentality of those who cannot bear the tragic nature of life (the decadents) is hypostatized as the actual model of a supreme good. In this way, the decadent manages to affirm their life-form and protect it.

Next to his critique of compassion, however, Nietzsche also introduces the idea of a different form of compassion, a ‘compassion of strength,’ which is the result of complete health, overflow of power, disinterested generosity, and life-affirming attitudes. The compassion of strength is therefore far from depressing and, on the contrary, constitutes a way of saying ‘yes’ to life. Panaïoti argues that this latter form of compassion is more akin to what is positively valued and cultivated in the Buddhist teaching. The key point is that the Buddha’s own compassion does not involve thirsting and is not based on a deluded view of the self. Hence, it results in a natural overflow of goodness that emanates from the pick of health and strength that is proper of a fully accomplished individual. In fact, Buddhist compassion is an attitude of understanding towards others’ suffering. Compassion sees that all the forms of suffering that constitute a genuine problem are only those forms of suffering produced by one’s own deluded reactions of aversion and craving (thirsting, appropriation) towards feelings. These reactions are unnecessary (despite how binding and urgent they might appear), and hence the suffering they engender is entirely avoidable. Hence the wish: ‘may all beings be relieved from suffering.’ This wish is not a sheer hope, it arises from a profound understanding of the conditional structure of experience, and of the process by means of which its meaning is constructed and can be deconstructed.[2] This compassionate attitude is not painful but rather supremely enjoyable in itself. So much so, that it is called a ‘divine abiding’ (or more properly, a Brahma-dwelling, brahma-vihāra). But for this attitude to be fully developed, Panaïoti argues, the sort of bleeding-heart compassion attacked by Nietzsche must also be overcome, since that attitude is itself part of the disease that the Buddhist therapy aims to heal.

In his conclusion, Panaïoti thus defends a hybrid view, based on the combination of Nietzsche and early Buddhist philosophy and aimed at ‘a perfectionist virtue ethics based on the ideal of an exalted healthy type’ (Panaïoti 2013, 218). This ideal is not aimed at asserting a substantive view of the good, but rather at ‘illness-removal,’ leaving it open how the good can be positively defined. Moreover, such an approach would not have a categorical imperative to offer as to why it should be practiced. It is rather developed as an option, a possibility, without accompanying moral obligations to implement it. This is precisely the point that emerged from the previous discussion of Schönberg. A full appreciation of the inherently conditional and relational nature of experience leads us to regard any dissonance (any potentially painful event) as just that, a dissonance, a feeling of pain. There is no duty to react to it in a certain way, nor any duty to avoid certain reactions. There are conditional relations: if one sustains aversion, pain will acquire the meaning of suffering, but if one abandons aversion, suffering will dissolve, and pain will no longer mean that there is a duty to face a certain problem.

Panaïoti’s interpretation is fascinating, but it reveals one blind spot: meditation practice. Not only does his account of Buddhist philosophy never mention the connection between Buddhist theory and actual Buddhist practice, but in developing his positive account he also seems to deliberately avoid the issue of how one can implement this hybrid Buddho-Nietzschian perfectionism in one’s own life. At one point, Panaïoti acknowledges that simply knowing the problems associated with self-view will not do, because ‘to overcome it requires a sustained effort and formidable discipline’ (Panaïoti 2013, 151). In his last pages, he also writes that ‘another element, particularly emphasized in Buddhism, is the actual analysis, in meditative practice, of one’s constructed identity’ (Panaïoti 2013, 228). This is pretty much all that he explicitly says about meditation. This systematic omission betrays a sort of embarrassment.

Panaïoti follows a quite established trend among Western philosophers who have tried to popularize Buddhist ideas among contemporary (mostly analytically oriented) academic audiences. They would admit that to understand Buddhist philosophy no particular meditation practice is needed. One reason for this attitude might be the problems we encountered in Lecture One. We briefly touched on how the very open-minded and well-disposed Varela, Thompson and Rosch struggled to actually frame what Buddhist meditation amounts to, and we saw that Thompson’s reservation about today’s mindfulness practice is shaped by contentious Buddhist modernist views.

It seems, therefore, that there is no straightforward, pre-digested ‘Buddhist practice’ that one can simply import into this discussion and implement straight away. Buddhist practice, like anything else, is also matter of interpretation and construction. Given the shape of our discussion so far, we have obtained a framework for assessing how a suitable Buddhist practice might look if it must fit the bill of Nietzsche’s analysis. The two final lectures will take up this challenge and explain how this might work in detail.

  1. For a comparative insightful review of both monographs, see Graham Parkes, ‘Nietzsche and Early Buddhism’ (2000).
  2. For an account of how the topic of compassion is discussed in the Pāli canon, see Analāyo, Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation (2015). Analāyo summarizes (p. 26): ‘When faced with manifestations of dukkha, the early Buddhist compassionate response expresses itself in the positive wish for others to be free from affliction. This response ideally approaches such a situation by relying on the framework of the four noble truths. In practical terms this means seeing the conditions that have led to dukkha and those that lead out of it, as well as combining the vision of freedom from dukkha with an understanding of the practical path whose undertaking will make this vision come true.’


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