Nietzsche repeatedly refers to Buddhism as a decadent and nihilistic religion. It seems to be a textbook case of just what Nietzsche is out to remedy in human thinking. It devalues the world as illusory and merely apparent, instead looking to an underlying reality for value and meaning. Its stated goals seem to be negative and escapist, Nietzsche sometimes seems to praise certain aspects of Buddhist teaching—and some of his own core ideas bear a resemblance to Buddhist doctrine.
What exactly is Nietzsche’s evaluation of Buddhism? Is it merely unmitigated nihilism, or is there positive value to be found in Buddhism? There is also good reason to believe that Nietzsche’s knowledge of Buddhism was inaccurate and incomplete, if only due to his historic situation in 19th century Europe. Given current greater Western understanding of Buddhism, would Nietzsche still label Buddhism as life-denying and nihilistic?
Nietzsche most often addresses Buddhism as a rhetorical foil for Christianity, rather than analysing it directly.
Nietzsche exaggerates any aspects he approves in Buddhism as part of his rhetorical strategy. Buddhism is not moral, it is hygienic, prescribing a cure for the horror of the world rather than covering it up in dishonest grammar. In his highest praise of Buddhism, Nietzsche admits that it has dropped the slave morality—and the self-deception that accompanies it. Nietzsche describes Buddhism as clouded by morality. Perhaps specifically defining a thing as beyond good and evil keeps it trapped in the paradigm of defining the valuable by the valueless.
But Nietzsche only speaks favourably of Buddhism by comparison: when he mentions Buddhism apart from Christianity, it is all described as nihilism and desire for nothingness.
An Indian Nietzsche could easily have given Buddhism pride of place in the hierarchy of dangerous, life-denying institutions to discredit. Buddhism has perfected nihilism, but this is not a perfection to be desired.
But while Nietzsche accuses Buddhism of decadence and nihilism in no uncertain terms throughout his work, he still appreciates its honesty: “Buddhism is the only positivistic religion in history; even in its epistemology a strict phenomenalism. In its age, Buddhism has become passive and complacent—feelings of unsatisfactoriness are just accepted without struggle. Buddhism is frail and withdrawn from the world and has resigned itself to weakness and weariness. It no longer desires excuses, it just wants relief.
Buddhism according to Nietzsche is degenerate and lifeless. Buddhism is certainly not saying with its delicate constitution and perpetual worries about healthfulness.
Nietzsche also praises Buddhism for its discarding of God. But while the Buddhists may know that God is dead, they must overthrow their own lingering paradigm:
Nietzsche deplores the last man for his refusal to see the death of God, but Buddhism has its own relics to dispose of. The sensitive and hygienic teachings of the Buddha are just as life-denying as any Christian ressentiment—they propose ways to manage the cruelty of the world, but they do not engage or celebrate the world.
For Nietzsche Buddhism devalues the world in favour of an illusory promise. The world as it is is too terrible, so comforting fictions are spun to keep the herd pacified.
The world is not a nice fluffy place, and so other realms and places of escape are invented. Rather than accepting and affirming the hard truth, self-deception is perpetuated.
Nietzsche describes nihilism as a European Buddhism:
This is certainly further evidence of Nietzsche’s rejection of Buddhism, associating it with a negative, reflex reaction to the devaluation of the world. It is just as bad as the institutions it rebels against. Instead of mindlessly following convention, it mindlessly overturns convention. European Buddhism is active rather than passive, but it still craves destruction as it flails about in the dark. However, as much as Nietzsche rejects nihilism, he also seems to.
Nietzsche’s depiction of Buddhism is consistent as to its nihilism and denial of life. Apart from his rhetorical use of it in revealing the ugly underpinnings of Christianity, Buddhism too perpetuates negativity and passivity in Nietzsche’s view. But can Buddhism be defended?
Nietzsche’s knowledge of Buddhism was necessarily limited. Indian philosophy was only just becoming available in Europe. According to research Nietzsche did read a number of second-hand accounts of Buddhism, as well as a few translated original texts. Many of these books described Buddhism as depressed and nihilistic, and did not describe the many different forms of Buddhism outside of India. Perhaps our more current perspective would change his evaluation? Further, what can be made of the apparent similarities between Buddhism and Nietzsche?
The four noble truths are central to all flavours of Buddhism: (1) There exists suffering, or ‘unsatisfactoriness,’ (2) this suffering arises from desire or ‘thirst,’ (3) the cessation of suffering is nirvana, and (4) the noble eightfold path is the way to nirvana. It is important to note that suffering arises from more or less everything in life—pleasurable experiences as well as pain. Our senses lead us to desires which lead us to attachments and existence (rebirth) and existence is necessarily suffering. The world is transitory—there is nothing stable to grasp on to. In ignorance we think the self is enduring, but it too is at most a chain of passing states. The self is conventional. This lack of suitable objects for our grasping leads to our suffering—seeing the world as it really is hurts. This idea is compatible with Nietzsche—Buddhism and his philosophy identify the same unsettling lack of meaning in the world. But they prescribe different cures. Buddhist practices are intended to break this cycle of desires and suffering by removing desire—willing not to will. In Zen Buddhism there is also the idea of wu wei—actionless action—that describes a sort of immersion in the natural flow of the world, rather than willed action. This is one of the inherent contradictions of Buddhism but it could also be described as ‘life to not life,’ which sounds objectionably life-denying. Living with the hope or intention of not living it all again is not embracing the world as it is.
However, while nirvana is commonly characterized in the West as annihilation, there are arguments that it is in fact positive. Nirvana does not necessarily mean nothingness or death. It could be described as finally seeing the world as it actually is which ends the cycle of desire and suffering. Here Nietzsche and Buddhism would again agree that this is valuable. The awakened or enlightened one has overcome his illusions of self and desire for attachment. If there is no self there can be no real annihilation, but further, nirvana could just be a state of mind and not a physical, permanent escape from life.
Nietzsche possesses some images in common with Buddhism: the child as a model for becoming, awakening, and the enlightened one who returns to help the rest of the world achieve enlightenment. For Nietzsche, the child is the creative and sacred Yes-saying that comes after the lion—in Zen Buddhism the child is a model for the sage. The joy, innocence, and embracing nature of the child are valued by both. Zarathustra is the awakened one who goes down to return to the valley of the sleepers. In Buddhism, a bodhisattva may refuse nirvana until the rest of the world has attained enlightenment as well. The Buddhist idea of the self as a transient and ever-changing collection of parts also fits with Nietzsche’s account of persons being a collection of wills overmastered by one strongest. These similarities of metaphor make Nietzsche out to be an unconscious Buddhist—but there is one important point of disagreement.
Central to Nietzsche’s positive philosophy is the idea of eternal recurrence—the horror of this he shares with Buddhism. To be able to affirm life in your loneliest loneliness and will to repeat it is the ultimate test of Yes-saying. Not mere acceptance of the true nature of the world as it is, but positive celebration. This is Nietzsche’s solution to the ‘human condition,’ if it can be called that—he doesn’t exactly see it as a problem. The word is not characterized by suffering for Nietzsche, but by the struggle of wills. This willing of eternal recurrence is a direct and fundamental conflict with Buddhism, where the goal is to escape samsara. This is where Buddhism is most obviously life-denying under Nietzsche’s evaluation. Buddhism sees life as eternal suffering and sees this as a health problem. The cure is to end the cycle of suffering and escape the eternal recurrence. Nietzsche also sees the world to be difficult to accept without our constructs of morality—although not as a problem per se—but he meets it with affirmation. Whatever the nature of nirvana—be it annihilation, escape to some heavenly realm, a mere change in mental state—it is certainly a devaluation and denial of this life through the wish to escape it.
It is this conflict over eternal recurrence that is the insurmountable difference between Nietzsche and Buddhism. They both see the same meaningless world but respond to it differently. The Buddhist finds the world to be profoundly disquieting and seeks to abandon the senses and will away his desires. Nietzsche instead embraces this horrible meaninglessness and creates meaning within it through power of will. He does not deny or seek to avoid or devalue the world.
Nietzsche evaluated the Buddhism he knew as decadent, nihilistic, and life-denying. While the West now knows much more about the diversity of Buddhist philosophies, some of which argues against the perception of Buddhism as nihilistic, the very core of Buddhism remains at odds with Nietzsche’s life-affirming criteria. Buddhism aims to see the world as it really is rather than forcing a metaphysics on the unlovely truth. But the Buddhist diagnosis of life as suffering, and the cure of rejecting desire and willing, is essentially opposite of Nietzsche’s overwhelmingly affirmative answer to life as it is. Buddhism still tries to project its own system of values on the world rather than embracing the reality and is thus still life-denying.
A lot of this is well analysed, and while misleading in some parts, is a generally good extrapolation of Buddhism from the Nietzschean perspective. What I take query with is the implicit sentiment that Nietzsche misunderstood Buddhism purely because he wasn’t acquainted with it sufficiently, and in turn his criticisms of it aren’t so well founded — ‘straw-Buddha’ if you like. Well I believe that to be wrong.
First of all, Nietzsche was significantly influenced by Schopenhauer, whom was fully aware of Indian religions, especially early Vedantic religions, which Buddhist rose out of. Nietzsche is likely to have picked up correct estimations concerning Buddhism from Schopenhauer, though of course this isn’t a full understanding.
Where Nietzsche derived his understanding of Buddhism from, which has left him described as “one of the best and most solidly grounded in Buddhism”, is likely to have been from direct scripture — and not even translated scripture, for he knew Sanskrit (from his earlier philological years). As a philologist, Nietzsche is surely qualified enough to read scripture and understand it more than most people. It is from these premises that I say his understanding of Buddhism is quite satisfactory, and in turn his scathing criticisms, too, are well founded.
To add a bit to the article, or to clarify it, Nietzsche is likely to have ascertained his conception of eternal recurrence from the Buddhist notion of bodhisattva, who’re beings who consciously choose to relive life (when they have the choice to escape it) infinite times to facilitate the enlightenment of other human beings. Is this not what Zarathustra does when he descends from the mountains? when his cup is overflowing? after his going under? Zarathustra, and in turn the Overman, is a figure extremely similar to the Buddhist bodhisattva.
Nietzsche’s contention, and occasional admiration, of the ascetic, typical of the serious Buddhist, is often confusing. One could argue either way whether Nietzsche really refuted the ascetic, though ultimately I think he did. In some respects, Nietzsche admires the ascetic as the one who seems devoid of will to power, which for him seems an impossible feat. What he sees is that the ascetic is a powerful manifestation of will, but slightly misinformed, to speak meekly, or cowardly, to speak truthfully.
If the ascetic could direct his will, the objective of will, towards creation instead of suppression then these spirits could very well become the “free spirits” Nietzsche encourages. One could say there’s a very fine line between suppression and liberation — the ascetic could be equally as ‘powerful’, in terms of will, as the free spirit, but, for Nietzsche, they’re certainty not as grand, nor appreciative of life, which seems to be the highest virtue for Nietzsche.
It is the escapism of all religion that Nietzsche disputes.
Bill Moyers: What do you make of it - that in these two stories the principal actors point to someone else as the initiator of the Fall?
Joseph Campbell: Yes, but it turns out to be the snake. In both of these stories the snake is the symbol of life throwing off the past and continuing to live.
Bill Moyers: Why?
Joseph Campbell: The power of life causes the snake to shed its skin, just as the moon sheds its shadow. The serpent sheds its skin to be born again, as the moon its shadow to be born again. They are equivalent symbols. Sometimes the serpent is represented as a circle eating its own tail. That’s an image of life. Life sheds one generation after another, to be born again. The serpent represents immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again. There is something tremendously terrifying about life when you look at it that way. And so the serpent carries in itself the sense of both the fascination and the terror of life.
Furthermore, the serpent represents the primary function of life, mainly eating. Life consists in eating other creatures. You don’t think about that very much when you make a nice-looking meal. But what you’re doing is eating something that was recently alive. And when you look at the beauty of nature, and you see the birds picking around — they’re eating things. You see the cows grazing, they’re eating things. The serpent is a traveling alimentary canal, that’s about all it is. And it gives you that primary sense of shock, of life in its most primal quality. There is no arguing with that animal at all. Life lives by killing and eating itself, casting off death and being reborn, like the moon. This is one of the mysteries that these symbolic, paradoxical forms try to represent.
Now the snake in most cultures is given a positive interpretation. In India, even the most poisonous snake, the cobra, is a sacred animal, and the mythological Serpent King is the next thing to the Buddha. The serpent represents the power of life engaged in the field of time, and of death, yet eternally alive. The world is but its shadow — the falling skin.
The serpent was revered in the American Indian traditions, too. The serpent was thought of as a very important power to be made friends with. Go down to the pueblos, for example, and watch the snake dance of the Hopi, where they take the snakes in their mouths and make friends with them and then send them back to the hills. The snakes are sent back to carry the human message to the hills, just as they have brought the message of the hills to the humans. The interplay of man and nature is illustrated in this relationship with the serpent. A serpent flows like water and so is watery, but its tongue continually flashes fire. So you have the pair of opposites together in the serpent.
Bill Moyers: In the Christian story the serpent is the seducer.
Joseph Campbell: That amounts to a refusal to affirm life. In the biblical tradition we have inherited, life is corrupt, and every natural impulse is sinful unless it has been circumcised or baptized. The serpent was the one who brought sin into the world. And the woman was the one who handed the apple to man. This identification of the woman with sin, of the serpent with sin, and thus of life with sin, is the twist that has been given to the whole story in the biblical myth and doctrine of the Fall.
Bill Moyers: Does the idea of woman as sinner appear in other mythologies?
Joseph Campbell: No, I don’t know of it elsewhere. The closest thing to it would be perhaps Pandora with Pandora’s box, but that’s not sin, that’s just trouble. The idea in the biblical tradition of the Fall is that nature as we know it is corrupt, sex in itself is corrupt, and the female as the epitome of sex is a corrupter. Why was the knowledge of good and evil forbidden to Adam and Eve? Without that knowledge, we’d all be a bunch of babies still in Eden, without any participation in life. Woman brings life into the world. Eve is the mother of this temporal world. Formerly you had a dreamtime paradise there in the Garden of Eden — no time, no birth, no death — no life. The serpent, who dies and is resurrected, shedding its skin and renewing its life, is the lord of the central tree, where time and eternity come together. He is the primary god, actually, in the Garden of Eden. Yahweh, the one who walks there in the cool of the evening, is just a visitor. The Garden is the serpent’s place. It is an old, old story. We have Sumerian seals from as early as 3500 B.C. showing the serpent and the tree and the goddess, with the goddess giving the fruit of life to a visiting male. The old mythology of the goddess is right there.
Now, I saw a fantastic thing in a movie, years and years ago, of a Burmese snake priestess, who had to bring rain to her people by climbing up a mountain path, calling a king cobra from his den, and actually kissing him three times on the nose. There was the cobra, the giver of life, the giver of rain, as a divine positive figure, not a negative one.
Bill Moyers: But how do you explain the difference between that image and the image of the snake in Genesis?
Joseph Campbell: There is actually a historical explanation based on the coming of the Hebrews into Canaan and their subjugation of the people of Canaan. The principal divinity of the people of Canaan was the Goddess, and associated with the Goddess is the serpent. This is the symbol of the mystery of life. The male-god-oriented group rejected it. In other words, there is a historical rejection of the Mother Goddess implied in the story of the Garden of Eden.
Bill Moyers: It does seem that this story has done women a great disservice by casting Eve as responsible for the Fall. Why are women the ones held responsible for the downfall?
Joseph Campbell: They represent life. Man doesn’t enter life except by woman, and so it is woman who brings us into this world of pairs of opposites and suffering.
Bill Moyers: What is the myth of Adam and Eve trying to tell us about the pairs of opposites? What is the meaning?
Joseph Campbell: It started with the sin, you see — in other words, moving out of the mythological dreamtime zone of the Garden of Paradise, where there is no time, and where men and women don’t even know that they are different from each other. The two are just creatures. God and man are practically the same. God walks in the cool of the evening in the garden where they are. And then they eat the apple, the knowledge of the opposites.
And when they discover they are different, the man and woman cover their shame. You see, they had not thought of themselves as opposites. Male and female is one opposition. Another opposition is the human and God. Good and evil is a third opposition. The primary oppositions are the sexual and that between human beings and God. Then comes the idea of good and evil in the world. And so Adam and Eve have thrown themselves out of the Garden of Timeless Unity, you might say, just by that act of recognizing duality. To move out into the world, you have to act in terms of pairs of opposites.
There’s a Hindu image that shows a triangle, which is the Mother Goddess, and a dot in the center of the triangle, which is the energy of the transcendent entering the field of time. And then from this triangle there come pairs of triangles in all directions. Out of one comes two. All things in the field of time are pairs of opposites. So this is the shift of consciousness from the consciousness of identity to the consciousness of participation in duality. And then you are into the field of time.
Bill Moyers: Is the story trying to tell us that, prior to what happened in this Garden to destroy us, there was a unity of life?
Joseph Campbell: It’s a matter of planes of consciousness. It doesn’t have to do with anything that happened. There is the plane of consciousness where you can identify yourself with that which transcends pairs of opposites.
Bill Moyers: Which is?
Joseph Campbell: Unnameable. Unnameable. It is transcendent of all names.