My aim in this article is to discuss and analyze the role Buddhism played in the thought and writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). One of the most persistent twentieth-century debates concerning Nietzsche’s philosophy is over the question of whether or not Nietzsche was a nihilist. Western commentators have seen this as one of the keys to understanding “what Nietzsche means.” Given the problems inherent in any attempt to understand Nietzsche’s thought–e.g., Karl Jaspers points out, “All statements seem to be annulled by other statements. Self- contradiction is the fundamental ingredient in Nietzsche’s thought. For nearly every single one of Nietzsche’s judgments, one can also find an opposite9′-it seems to me that an analysis of Nietzsche’s understanding of Buddhism and an inquiry into the frequently heard claims that Buddhism itself is guilty of nihilism cannot help but shed light on the place of nihilism in Nietzsche’s philosphy .
This claim is not argued on the basis of Nietzsche’s explicit attacks on Buddhism along with Christianity as nihilistic religions (Nietzsche, AC, 20) or because an analysis of Buddhism by comparison will help us to understand whether Nietzsche was in fact a nihilist. Nietzsche’s relation to Buddhism goes much deeper than that, and it is my contention that Buddhism lies at the center of any attempt to interpret “what Nietzsche means.”
It has been the understandable case that most western commentators in discussing European and American philosophers of the last century have looked at them chiefly in terms of the cultural and intellectual milieu from which they arose. Nineteenth-century European intellectual history is usually discussed in terms of the influences of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)’ G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831)’ Arthur Schopenhauer (1788- 1860)’ Karl Marx (1 8 18- 1883), and Charles Darwin (1809-1 882), the latter to the degree that Social Darwinism resulted from his biological theories via Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), etc. As a result, Nietzsche has been approached and appropriated as a product of late nineteenth-century European philosophy, owing his chief influences to the men cited above?
This approach is generally correct and justifiable to the degree that it attempts to understand Nietzsche in relation to his immediate European predecessors, but to the degree that it imposes the philosophic blinders perpetuated by the Europe ocentric bias found in many western philos- ophy departments, whether conscious or unconscious, this approach should be modified. There are vistas of thought lurking in Nietzsche’s writings that make cross-cultural leaps from the apostle Paul to the Code of Manu (Nietzsche, AC, 57) and from Jesus to the Buddha (AC, 42).
Guy Welbon has been exploring the impact of Buddhism on Nietzsche’s philosophy. He points out that Nietzsche probably learned Sanskrit while at Leipzig from 1865 to 1868, where he studied under Max Miiller’s (1 823- 1900) first teacher, Hermann Brockhaus (1 806- 1877). According to Welbon, Nietzsche, as a result of his training, was probably one of the best read and most solidly grounded in Buddhism for his time among Europeans.
Welbon goes on to draw possible parallels between Nietzsche’s doc- trine of eternal recurrence and the Buddhist vale of Samsara (phenomena) existence, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and the Buddhist bodhisattva (one who refuses to gain release from the phenomenal world until all other sentient beings have done so before him), and Nietzsche’s program for the transvaluation of all values and the Buddhist Nirvana. Welbon con- cludes: “I am insisting that there is no basic conflict between Nietzsche and Buddhism on several important issues, and that there is sufficient evidence to indicate that Nietzsche’s presentations do witness Buddhist influences.”
What were the primary questions that Nietzsche struggled with in his writings? As early as The Birth of Tragedy, he began to grapple with the “horror of individual existence” in relation to his conception of Dionysiac art (BT, 17). There, Nietzsche praised the courage and wisdom of Kant and Schopenhauer for their victory “over the optimistic foun- dations of logic, which form the underpinnings of our culture” (BT, 18), and he praised Schopenhauer as an unparalleled “knight” in search of truth (BT, 20). In Schopenhauer As Educator Nietzsche wrote: “Where are now the types of moral excellence and fame for all our generation- learned and unlearned, high and low-the visible abstract of constructive ethics for this age? Where has vanished all the reflection on moral ques- tions that has occupied-every great developed society at all epochs?” (SE, 2).
In The Gay Science, we find the following passage: “Schopenhauer’s question immediately comes to us in a terrifying way: Has existence any meaning at all? It will require a few centuries before this question can even be heard completely and in its full depth” (GS, 357). After com- pleting Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche stated the problems he was concerned with:
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 h’ad guilded, 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? (GM, P/5)
He echoed this passage in Ecce Homo: “The question concerning the origin of moral values is for me a question of the very first rank because it is crucial for the future of humanity” (EH, p. 291).
That Nietzsche considered the question of morality as the paramount problem he had confronted seems clear (cf. GM, P/3). All other problems reduced to this question. Wherever he looked-science, asceticism, truth, God-he saw moral valuations that attempted to come to terms with the meaning of human existence (WP, 301). A number of questions grew out of this basic orientation: How can nihilism be overcome? What are the conditions for a healthy culture? What harm has come to mankind as a result of its morals and morality? How can life be affirmed if there is no absolute truth? (WP, 301).
We find Nietzsche troubled by religious and philosophic questions simultaneously. His view of himself as a philosopher was to “first de- termine the Whither and For What of man” (BGE, 21 1). He was “waiting for a philosophic physician in the exceptional sense of that word,” one who would reveal that all philosophizing hitherto had not been concerned with “truth” but rather with “health, future, growth, power, life” (GS, P/2). It was on this level that Buddhism played an important part in the development of Nietzsche’s philosophy.
1. Beyond Good And Evil : Nietzsche
2. The Genealogy Of Moral
3. The Will To Power
4. Huma, All To Human.
5. The Anti-Crits