Nietzsche Contra Buddha

By Shane Devine

This article, and the article it is replying to, were originally published by, a Sri Lankan news and media site. They have since been taken down for unknown reasons.

I recently came across an article entitled “Nietzsche on Buddhist philosophy” by a mister Ruwan Jayatunge. It is not in my typical nature to reach out and stop someone’s speech – listening to an alternative, whether someone else or silence, has long been my remedy – but this article, with its crude display of sources and a cruder attitude towards intellectual honesty, has caused me to reply.

Friedrich Nietzsche, as the author pointed out, shares a few things in common with Buddhism. Declaring Buddhism “a hundred times more realistic than Christianity” in The Antichrist, he continues to adorn that Eastern “ way of life ” with a handful of compliments, such as its “struggle against suffering” replacing the “struggle against sin,” turning the reward of forgiveness into the reward of enlightenment; its station “beyond good and evil,” viewing the universe in non-moral ways and considering it a natural process; and its exclusion of prayer and compulsion through its absence of a God. It shall be in no way claimed that Buddhism deserves equal hatred as Christianity does – to him the “one immortal blemish of mankind” – in Nietzsche’s philosophy.

However, this section of praise towards Buddhism in The Antichrist begins with a reminder from his earlier works: “[Christianity and Buddhism] belong together as nihilistic religions – they are décadence religions” (The Antichrist, #20). Nietzsche’s use of the word “nihilism” and his stance towards its many forms cannot be easily grasped from reading a few secondary sources. It is a complicated concept that can only be understood in motion – only understood when a working mind produces a nihilistic thought. Luckily, we have a few examples right in front of us.

Possibly by conflating his ideas with those of Nietzsche, mister Jayatunge claims that “Buddhism and Nietzschean philosophy saw emptiness in the human condition.” It is not clear where Nietzsche said this. His books are filled with praise for the higher members of mankind, along with calls for man to retain his best parts in avoidance of “emptiness.” If Jayatunge means that Nietzsche understood man to have emptiness in him historically, but not in the pure form of man, then he has a case; but by bringing this point up he also levels one of Nietzsche’s heaviest criticisms of Buddhism and the ascetic ideal against himself. Nietzsche ends Genealogy of Morals with this insight that, like a flash of lightning in the dark, reveals the origin of asceticism:

“Apart from the ascetic ideal, man, the human animal, had no meaning so far. His existence on earth contained no goal; “why man at all?” ––was a question without an answer; the will for man sounded as a refrain a yet greater “in vain!” This is precisely what the ascetic ideal means: that something was lacking, that man was surrounded by a fearful void––he did not know how to justify, to account for, to affirm himself; he suffered from the problem of his meaning. […] man was saved thereby, he possessed a meaning[.]”

Asceticism is viewed by Nietzsche as a negative yet necessary response to man’s historical request for a meaning to his suffering; an action that answers all of suffering by placing it “under the perspective of guilt” – guilt under God, guilt under sin, guilt under “tanha.” Sharpening his critique, Nietzsche says that ascetics themselves are tied up in the struggle for power like all other animals: in their denial of the body they attempt to lay guilt upon others. “This hatred of the human,” Nietzsche writes about the ascetic ideal, “and even more of the animal, and more still of the material, this horror of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and beauty, this longing to get away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, wishing, from longing itself – all this means – let us dare to grasp it – a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life; but it is and remains a will! . . . And, to repeat in conclusion what I said at the beginning: man would rather will nothingness than not will” (Genealogy of Morals, III #28). In this wonderful reversal of thought, Nietzsche reveals the inherent pettiness in all asceticism, in all of the religious spirit, whether Christian or Buddhist: the holy are still willing power over others! They are animals like all the rest. Jayatunge attempts to refute the accusation that Nirvana is nihilistic by saying that it is the “unborn,” not non-existence. Words! Being, beyond, timelessness – anything that does not involve the instincts, the will, in a word “this life” is nihilism under Nietzsche’s gaze. Disregard the language that ascetics use to dress up their schemes toward nothingness. Eternal peace is a synonym for eternal void.
Although it is true that Nietzsche is against hedonism – living for the sake of pleasure – it is not fair to link this denial of plebeian values to Buddhism’s denial of the will, as Jayatunge did when he wrote, “The Buddha identified craving (tanha) as the cause of suffering. Nietzsche clearly rails against the pursuit of pleasure where pleasure is understood as a particular sensation marked by the absence of any pain or discomfort”. Buddhism denies the will; Nietzsche denies the will-to-pleasure. Nietzsche has this to say regarding Buddhism’s denial of the will through the will to nothingness in aphorism 347 of The Gay Science:

“Faith is always coveted most and needed most urgently where will is lacking; for will, as the affect of command, is the decisive sign of sovereignty and strength. In other words, the less one know how to command, the more urgently one covets someone who commands, who commands severely – a god, prince, class, physician, father confessor, dogma, or party conscience. From this one might perhaps gather that the two world religions, Buddhism and Christianity, may have owed their origin and above all their sudden spread to a tremendous collapse and disease of the will. And that is what actually happened: both religions encountered a situation in which the will had become diseased, giving rise to a demand that had become utterly desperate for some “thou shalt.” Both religions taught fanaticism in ages in which the will had become exhausted, and thus they offered innumerable people some support, a new possibility of willing, some delight in willing.”

The Buddhistic condemnation of “craving” is not the same as an Aristotelian condemnation of licentiousness, pleasure for pleasure’s sake. “Craving,” or “tanha,” is a symbol for all willing that isn’t the will-to-nothing, and thus in practice a denial of the will itself. It is true that both Nietzsche and Buddhism see pain and pleasure as inextricably linked. The difference is that Buddhism teaches, in Jayatunge’s own words, that the “primary purpose of life is to end suffering and it has become the central meaning [of life]” and Nietzsche on the other hand wills more suffering, something that Jayatunge left out of his article. Why would he want more suffering? Because through suffering we grow stronger; with increased war the weak are weeded out.
The willing of suffering directly answers the conclusion of Jayatunge’s article. He says in his penultimate sentence that Nietzsche “missed the humane part of the Christianity.” The humane part of Christianity is the very thing Nietzsche is against¸ for the very fact that it IS humane! Nietzsche wrote in The Antichrist, in full support for the antithesis of the humane, “Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted, it has made an ideal out of opposition to the preservative instincts of strong life.” And with Jayatunge’s most dishonest quotation, claiming that Nietzsche “at the end” found Buddhism and Christianity at all admirable for their elevation of the sentiments of the low, I can only reply with the section written immediately after that quotation from Beyond Good and Evil:
“In the end, to be sure – to present the other side of the account of these religions, too, and to expose their uncanny dangerousness – one always pays dearly and terribly when religions do not want to be a means of education and cultivation in the philosopher’s hand but insist on having their own sovereign way, when they themselves want to be ultimate ends and not means among other means.”

Uncanny dangerousness? Paying dearly and terribly? Let us look on to see what kind of danger and what kind of price is implied.

“[Buddhism and Christianity] seek to preserve, to preserve alive whatever can possibly be preserved; indeed, as a matter of principle, they side with these cases as religions for sufferers; they agree with all those who suffer life like a sickness and would like to make sure that every other feeling about life should be considered false and should become impossible. […] nevertheless, in a total accounting, the sovereign religions we have had so far are among the chief causes that have kept the type “man” on a lower rung – they have preserved too much of what ought to perish” (Beyond Good and Evil, #62).
It seems then that Nietzsche did not misunderstand Buddhism but, on the contrary, understood the psychology behind Buddhism all too well to be lured by its deceptive charm. Just like Christianity, it preserves what is weak and botched in man. Just like Christianity, it denies this world for the world beyond. It is a religion of decaying will-power, of a corruption of the senses; it is an opiate for civilizations grown too old, tasting best to the tongues of bourgeois decadents.

But Nietzsche, unlike Buddhism’s Nirvana (which translates literally to “blown out” like a candle), possesses a light: the affirmation of life. Coming from a career in philology, Nietzsche made great use of the texts of the ancient Greeks, who represented, at their peak, a healthy and perfect culture. According to The Birth of Tragedy, the Greeks with their theatre, which was a celebration of the god Dionysus, were able to create tragic drama as a mode of expression – that is to say, they possessed so much strength and health that they converted displays of suffering into beautiful pieces of art. This is the model of human culture to which we should aspire. “To realize in oneself the eternal joy of becoming” (Twilight of the Idols, 10 #5), to unlock the instincts until one is infinitely in love with life, so much so that pain becomes not a deterrent but a stimulant to one’s goals; to say yes to tragedy, to say yes to this world and not to an escape; for all Time to become a blissful mockery of moments, for all to be redeemed in the great sunshine of comic eternity; to lust after recurrence, the endless cycle of being born again into this same life
– that is far greater than any wish for the “unborn.”