Nietzsche and Buddhism

I remember listening to a TA talk about Nietzsche’s ideas on vitalism and the overman in Thus Spoke Zarathustra in an undergraduate course on Existentialism. As he was blabbing, I blurted “It’s Daoism.” That comment stopped the TA cold. He turned, looked at me and pursed his lips. Then he said, “I don’t know about Daoism, but he thought the Buddha was pretty cool.”

I pursed my lips, looked back at him and shook my head. From then on the students snickered at me in class. Meanwhile, our professor, the lovely Dr. Burch, wandered into the Old Arts Building and up to the East Asian Studies Department to have a chat with our resident Buddhist specialist. I caught him there, snooping. He stared at me on his way out of her office as I walked down the hall and stopped for a drink of water at the faucet.

To this day, over 10 years later, we spot each other on campus. His head snaps up when he sees me, and we both look at each other with a fair measure of appreciation. I don’t think he ever got to know my name, but we used to find ourselves in the same coffee line at Java Jive in HUB Mall early mornings, and if ever I was late for class, I would arrive to find him holding his lecture until I took the space I had cleared for myself at the front of his class. I may have been in love. It certainly was an electric connection. But, he was married. I expect that I should have said, “So what? I am learning about Nietzsche,” but that kind of drama is too much for me. Instead, I slunk off in the middle of Heidegger, because the heavy demands of an East Asian Studies degree compelled me to fix my attention there.  And honestly, because in comparison to Buddhism, Western Existentialism is crap.

I have always been fascinated by that connection though, the one between Nietzsche and Buddhism. Mostly because, “Nope, kind sir TA, there’s very little in his thought that resembles Buddhism. But I really enjoy watching you guys try.” I was interested then, to come across the recent Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy, written by Antoine Panaïoti, a Canadian who completed his PhD at Cambridge and now teaches at Darwin College.

Panaïoti is not Buddhism specialist by any means – he goes so far as to say his work may cause a real Buddhologist significant pain. I can’t think what kind of pure study of Buddhism a Buddhologist might conduct, how esoteric and privileged it might be, but, yes, I noted, already, within Panaioti’s introduction that his ideas stretch Buddhist thought in ways that, simply, are not allowed within the tradition.

He suggests that 1) Buddhism is first and foremost a therapeutic exercise to alleviate human suffering and then 2) that the ‘construction of an ideal Buddhist philosophy” is skillful means. The Buddha is frequently described as a health practitioner, and early Buddhists frequently were. But it’s reductionist, or at least revisionist, to pick this function as core to Buddhism, since the monks who spread the Dharma more often than not advanced it as a superior method of magic. I would also argue that the real goal of Buddhism is escape from samsara. The Buddha was prompted to take up a path of spiritual enquiry following his own disillusionment upon discovering suffering, but he placed no more significance on suffering than to point out it accomplishes nothing. (Note this) Moreover, the practice of skillful means is reserved for enlightened ones, and there is good reason for it: in the wrong hands the doctrine is easily twisted to become Machiavellianism or quackery.

While I think Panaïoti has made an important contribution to comparative philosophy by way of his focus on nihilism as a concern shared by both Nietzsche and Buddhism, in the end, as a specialist of Nietzsche and not Buddhism, he is forced to rely upon Nietzsche’s understanding of Buddhism, which was, in turn, highly influenced by Schopenhauer’s interpretations of the tradition. Both philosophers are, naturally, highly limited in their understanding of Buddhism. Moreover, Schopenhauer was extremely pessimistic. This then, relying upon early, and superficial assessments of Buddhism, is Panaïoti’s fatal flaw.

Overall, his agenda is to rehabilitate Nietzschian thought, and he does a good job of showing its life-affirming aspects. However, he completely misses the point of Buddhism.

Or rather, he applies a typical orientalist point of view in his analysis, and, like so many other Westerners who cannot accept the superiority of Eastern thought, he casts Buddhism as a quietist, dark and ultimately negative philosophy. This is just not so, but you’ll have to wait if you want a further explanation, because this book has irritated me, so I am taking my time with it.



8 thoughts on “Nietzsche and Buddhism

  1. Ray Turner says:

    It seems as though your irritation led you to stop reading Panaïoti’s book well before Chapter 4, where Panaïoti begins seriously to problematize Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s understanding of Buddhism as life-negating. Read on. Your disappointment might turn to greater nuance in your assessment.

    • Megan says:

      You know I’ve read Panaioti’s book several times. Easy enough to pick up the Diamond Sutra to know Panaioti has provided an incomplete understanding of Buddhism.

  2. Mike says:

    When you talk of the superiority of Eastern thought I would agree that it is superior to post-Christian Western thought, absolutely. As to Christian thought I would simply see Buddhism and Eastern thought in general as ‘different than,’ not ‘superior to’ Western thought.

    Or we could say, Christianity was/is the best possible spirituality for the Western world, as the Eastern religions were for their respective worlds.

    Or yet again, if the West could have been Buddhist, it would have been and if the East could have been Christian it would have been, etc.

    • Megan says:

      Hi Mike, I don’t follow you. Christianity was imposed by force upon Europe and much of the rest of the world. Both Confucianism and Buddhism have likewise at some points in their histories been imposed by various authorities in differing ways. Debatable whether Confucianism is a religion, a philosophy, a world view with cosmological aspects or a system of governance and social order. And Buddhist thought is quite superior. Ricci may have thought it was based in superstition (obviously he didn’t know Confucian practices – arf) but its roots are philosophical.

      • Mike says:

        Megan, I will reply to this post line by line.

        1. As to the spreading of Christianity, it was spread by multiple means, as with other religions, and this question is really neither here nor there.

        2. Confucianism is a religion. Perhaps you have heard of some thinkers who divide religion into ‘exoteric’ or outward aspects and ‘esoteric’ or inward aspects….? At any rate, exoteric religion is the daily rites, rituals and morality by which the vast majority of any civilization lives, while esoteric religion is the ‘inner’ metaphysical (NOT philosophical – philosophy = rationalism) heart of religion.

        In China Confucianism represents the exoteric side of native Chinese religiosity while Taoism represents the esoteric side of native Chinese religion. This is somewhat different than in the Abrahamic and Hindu worlds in which the exoteric and esoteric aspects were contained under one religion (for instance, Sufi’s are esoteric Muslims, that is, their esoterism exists WITHIN Islam, and Hesychasts are esoteric Christians, that is their esoterism exists WITHIN Christianity). By contrast, in China, exoterism and esoterism have actually taken on the form of two different religions.*/**

        3. Buddhism is not superior to Christianity. Both are efficacious “saving vehicles” with exoteric and esoteric sides, as with all Orthodox religions.

        Buddhism and Christianity actually have a lot in common, beneath of course the undeniable great surface differences (the commonality of religions lies NOT in the ‘outer’ or exoteric plain, but in the ‘inner’ or esoteric plain, or as Schuon says the unity of religions does NOT exist in the ‘human atmosphere’ but rather in the ‘divine stratosphere.’)

        At any rate, both the Buddha’s and Christ’s teachings are brimming with esoterism, though of course as their teachings had to become adapted many had to be interpreted more or less exoterically for the masses, especially in the Christian case. Take for example Christ’s saying that “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” This clearly expresses the esoteric truth of the ultimate Unity of both the Knower and the One Known, of Man and God. But of course most Christians (as was only possible) have interpreted this in an exoteric light, as simply a moral injunction to “be really good.”***

        4. As far as Ricci goes, he was an exoteric scholar, not a metaphysician or mystic, and thus it was only natural that he looked much more favorably on exoteric Confucianism than on more esoteric Buddhist teachings (which were likely opaque to him.)

        *I suggest here that you read the works of Frithjof Schuon, starting with his “The Transcendent Unity of Religions”. Schuon, who though born Swiss became the head of a Muslim Sufi order, has been referred to by some as the “Seal of the Sages” as Muhammed was the “Seal of the Prophets.” That is, Schuon is the last Sage of this cycle of humanity, as Muhammed was the last Prophet. Schuon can perhaps be compared to Plato, if Plato had been born in the 20th century and had access to the writings of all the world’s religions. You will not hear much about him in academia though because as he himself said, he was an “absolutist” while the vast majority of modern academics are relativists. At any rate, while his writing is dense, if you are up to it, there is absolutely no better authority on comparative religion.

        (I should note here, if you are merely someone who is interested in religion as a supposed “objective and agnostic scholar” Schuon is no such person, but it (as I would think his heading up of a Sufi Order would suggest) someone who took religions as deadly serious objective realities.)

        **Ricci, by the way, was an exoterist, so it is little wonder he preferred Confucianism to more esoteric Buddhism.

        ***Though I should note that in the Eastern Orthodox Church it has always been taught that “God became Man that Man might become God.”

      • Megan says:

        Hi Mike,

        All very interesting. Unfortunately I have to come back at you with a bunch of nos. But I’ll start with a yes. Nestorianism did exist in China from the first millennium. Yes, the Confucians Ricci engaged with were familiar with Christianity.

        Of course how religion is shared and discussed matters. I don’t know where you are from, but in Canada we are struggling with the whole problem of Catholic residential schools and the abuse that both the government and the Catholic church subjected First Nations to. It should be evident that the way in which a religion “spreads” and the way in which it selects and arranges people and apportions value to them, among many other aspects of its engagement with “the real,” is germane to any understanding of its qualities.

        I have no doubt Ricci was tantalized by Neo-Confucian ecumenicism. Confucianism is a set of prescriptive socio-political ethics, girded by metaphysics, plus an organized system of codified behaviours. It’s not as nasty as neo-platonism, but it ranks a close second. You are welcome to think of it as a religion. I visited a Confucian temple in Nagasaki while I lived there, and ancestor veneration is definitely a religious obligation that has accrued much interesting cultural activity to it. The Nagasaki Obon festival is tons of fun and I recommend that if you get the chance to enjoy Nagasaki while the festival is on, you take it. Ancestor worship preexisted Confucianism in China, but it is a part of that system, in the same way that the Jewish prophetic tradition predated Christianity but is part of that system.

        I do believe esoteric Buddhism had all but died out in China by the time Ricci arrived. It remains in Japan, and of course much of Tibetan Buddhism is esoteric. All Mahayana traditions, however, share features with esoteric Buddhism, or broadly speaking tantra. The monks Ricci encountered in China were likely from the Pureland school, which is popular (or what you call exoteric) Buddhism. He would have been dismayed to discover that the Western Pureland was a pit stop and the bodhisattva point the way to emptiness. Since Buddhism is atheist, I can see why Ricci would have called it a false religion. Buddhism dislodged transcendental unity, the philosophy of the One/ One-All. For parallels in the West, Ricci would have had to go back to pre-Socratic Pyrrhonism and the work of Sextus Empiricus. Of course, this vein of thinking, taken up by David Hume, caused Immanuel Kant to wake up in a cold sweat and voila the Enlightenment.

        So with reference to Buddhist superiority, it had developed in sophistication by roughly 150 AD to a point that was not attained by Western thinkers until the 1700s, and only then by thinkers who were not chained by Christian dogmatism. Buddhists did not make the mistake Kant did, which is why Buddhist phenomenology is superior to Western phenomenology and has things to offer it, by way of improvement. I think Western psychological pursuits of Buddhism will fall into a dead end. Those scholars who have come forward to say that there may be secondary therapeutic benefits to meditation and the study of Buddhism but that’s not its purpose are, I think, quite right.

        With reference to women in terms of your more recent comments: early Buddhism showed great potential for them. Its thinkers established that just like men they were able to achieve enlightenment. They were part of the monastic order, tho without much status. This is patriarchy. Buddhism can definitely be criticized for that. Still, Buddhism-light offered women an escape from patriarchal exploitation, like prostitution. Indian courtesans were great Buddhist benefactors and were welcomed into the order as long as they gave up their occupation. In the same manner, monks were expected to be celibate. The sramana path is actually the path of the renunciate, so celibacy is not the only factor. In tantra sexual relations may occur between men and women with a certain predisposition for the passions who have attained a high level of psychological and psychic maturity, but relations with the consort can be purely symbolic. In tantra the consort represents the wisdom attained according to the male deity’s method. So, some idea about sexual union between the two leading to a transcendental state is romantic make believe. They are place holders that allow for visualization and focus and mental processes.

        And in “highest” Tibetan tantra the consort is single, because she embodies the unity of multiplicity within herself. Makes sense to me. One woman can give birth to many children of different fathers. No wonder the Goddess is depicted as fierce, interventionist and destructive of patriarchal order. Again, we have a basic situation in Buddhism that is more favourable to women than Christianity is. They do not need to be heterosexual, they do not need to get married and bear children; they exist as spiritual and material equals to men, and as independent individuals with their own powers and capacity for enlightenment. We don’t need a matriarchy in the contemporary world, but we definitely need respect and support for individuals, their difference and integrity, the choices they make, their needs to carry them out, and specifically for women, their varying points of view, experiences, choices and situations they encounter, their stresses and challenges, the children they bear and the work that goes into raising them. If men want to help out with that great, but the fate of women and children should not be tied to men’s subjective opinions. They have to live and thrive too.

        Buddhism sticks its nose in its own business. If what it offers appeals to you, it can give you guidance. If not, it wishes you well. In Mahayana, people are “always” enlightened, since emptiness is reality and all that is required is a bringing back into awareness of being. There is no Fall, which I think should address all your concerns about the Madonna.

        Some people may call emptiness the divine state of the universe in order to draw parallels to certain Western thinkers. However, there is no “identity” attached to emptiness. It is unconditioned, which means an understanding of it is not attainable through conceptual thought. How much you think identity is attached to conceptual thought as opposed to taking on some level of physicalism is one of those great things people like to argue about. I’m not sure Western identity politics have reached Buddhism yet. Tho there are people who write about how while at first the early monastic order welcomed eunuchs (i.e. was open to transgender) it later ejected them for being a nuisance. At any rate, Buddhism is not mysticism. Buddhists talk about the profundity of dharma, but there is no great experience of the All (especially not when the veil of Maya comes down – which is Hinduism) unless you consider mental breakdown, hallucination and psychoses an experience of the All. Some thinkers do. Dependent Origination is a provisional or conditional/conditioned description of reality based upon observation and argumentation and is open for discussion and exploration.

        Regardless, from a position of enlightenment – which is immanent, in the here and now, and not transcendental – there is no “becoming.” “Becoming is one of the twelve nidanas that constitute The Wheel of Life (samsara). It precedes birth and depends upon grasping. What there is is dependent origination/emptiness. The three marks of existence are suffering, impermanence and non-self. However, “marks” in themselves as understood from an enlightened POV are dependent/empty. Hence the “windiness” of Buddhism. I hope this helps you understand why Coptic Christianity has no relation to Buddhism. At one point in China, Manicheaism was taken to be “White Buddhism,” but the difference was sorted out. Manicheaism is light/dark, right. The mistaken relation speaks to the polarities of Daoism and the early relation drawn between Buddhism and Daoism in China. As mentioned Buddhist tantra appropriated the dyad Ishvara for its own purposes, so you can see how easy it would have been to establish creative/destructive and yin/yan relations.

        Back to Panaoiti: in terms of moral psychology, “do no harm” is “the” Buddhist ethic and it hinges on non-attachment. It’s very simple, do not chose one side of the binary over the other. In Advaita Sankara was forced to chose Brahman and so reject the phenomenal world as mere illusion. This is not Buddhism, not even advaita Buddhism. As soon as you enter into the transcendental you are dealing with binaries, sortals, distinctions of all sorts. The problem of the multiplicity had been established in the Vedas. What does Buddhism do? It introduces subjectivity. Man is not the measure of all things, even though he may think he is. There are fundamental unknowns. Buddhism is clearly open ended and refuses dogmatics more than anything. That’s where its internal work and emotional and psychological self-management lies.

        Platonism, the Western philosophy of One, is miles behind Indian thought in general, across the span of about 1000 years. So Christianity is already ranking a low third, behind Buddhism and Hinduism. Generously, because neo-platonism was the philosophy of the day when Christianity entered the world of greco-roman gentiles.

        No offense intended, but when you choose to learn about specific religions and do not put them in a comparative framework that is Eurocentric and grounded in a Christian point of view, you may discover something about them and their view of the nature of the world that is more beneficial to you and others, than what is available in Christianity. Otherwise you end up with something like Panaioti’s work, a disguised apology for Nietzsche in a world where Buddhism has become popular and heavy research is going into it. I’ve said already, he puts forward the now ancient European argument that Buddhism is a quietist, pessimist religion and then says ‘Oh no it’s not because Nietszche was mistaken.” All of Europe was mistaken, and primarily because of the cast Christian missionaries imposed upon it because they were resentful. This is a hundreds years-old bias that continues. Why would Christians be upset with Buddhism? Because it’s transformative. Call it a form of conversion if you like. Anyone who wants to believe in God isn’t going to get far with Buddhism. And if you get far with Buddhism it’s because you think God is a damaging idea that should be let go of. What can a compassionate monk do but laugh? And then what do the Europeans do? Roll out the Portuguese canon. Panaioti gives this Christian bitterness lip service and then says, “Oh no, actually Buddhism is more like Nietzsche’s thought. It is a philosophy of great health.” Well, it’s neither, it is a self-described middle way between positivism and annihilationism, but Panaioti doesn’t give us that choice. Buddhism is an extremely complex philosophical system and not half-baked by any means. This goes down to methods of approach and theories of the subject, which affect the way people think and treat material, things and people. You don’t just skim the surface of Buddhism with your own thinking and come away with anything useful. It interrogates psycho-somatic processes, ways of thinking and such and seeks to “purify” them, as in giving people the tools to see things the way they are. It’s magical because it’s open enough to allow for that. But is it going to hold a burning bush and tablet as proof of anything? Not likely. This is one of the reasons why there is the dharmakaya, Mahavairocana and all this stuff in Mahayana Buddhism. How do you hold onto the words of one man and make them universal? The Buddha himself was reified. Christians have to accept Jesus, the Son of God as their Saviour. Say Christ was a man and a reasonable Christian will fall back on belief in God. Say I don’t believe in God and you have no evidence of Him and a reasonable Christian is going to have problems. Too bad. Some people encounter destruction and have their world restored to them, but this is not the case for all people. Buddhism deals very well with what cannot be restored. Say Buddha was a man to a Buddhist and they’ll be like, “Yeah he was. Yeah, Buddhism is not revelationist religion” and they will move on. Fortunately Buddhism exists relatively intact to this day, so we can learn and think about it. There are people who seriously engage in bringing Christianity and Buddhism together, the Dalai Lama is one of them, but they understand their own traditions very well and are interested in discussing where there might be fine points of convergence between two systems that they know are very different. The Dalai Lama is even open to resolution of pretty heavy disputes among the Tibetan schools because he’s that kind of a leader. There’s no reason to get worked up about ideas. If an idea is clear and useful and doesn’t do damage it has merit. Better yet if it holds productive value for a long time to come. But all things have their end. Life will go on, it is to be expected, and it will go on a lot better if you don’t try to hit someone over the head because you want to win an argument.

        Thanks of for the recommendation of Schuon, however I have had my fill of transcendentalism, perennialism and mysticism. I spend my time as necessary on the American transcendentalists, since American transcendentalism informs many of the works of people I look at. Some of them have done a great job of trying to reconcile Buddhism with other systems (e.g. Advaita Vedanta, Christianity). I appreciate their mighty struggles, but after several years of study now, I’m comfortable stating that Westerners who don’t want to take Buddhism on its own terms will never come to grips with it. Easily, to this day, its best interpreters, fans and critics come from the East.

        Good that you like romance. My father was Welsh and I grew up surrounded by Arthurian legend and medieval romance, among many other things, of course. I also really like some of the British Romantic painters. Good thing the West has pagan traditions to draw upon, and Christians with a sense of humour and dissenting ways, which make its cultures so lively.

        Thanks for all the time you’ve invested into my post. I’ve been away doing graduate studies and working on filmmaking, so I have barely had time to keep up with all that. I hope now to return to my blog. But I do try to think carefully about things and so do take my time with reading, thinking and writing, and always have lots going on to prevent me from doing it as much as I would like in the areas that interest me.



  3. Michael says:

    “Of course how religion is shared and discussed matters. I don’t know where you are from, but in Canada we are struggling with the whole problem of Catholic residential schools and the abuse that both the government and the Catholic church subjected First Nations to. It should be evident that the way in which a religion “spreads” and the way in which it selects and arranges people and apportions value to them, among many other aspects of its engagement with “the real,” is germane to any understanding of its qualities.”

    Megan, you know I just popped back in here and realized that you are the author of this blog. I thought you were just a commenter.

    Anyways, you are mostly wrong in your above assertion. For example, Judaism had a harsh attitude to the paganism surrounding it, but this was justified in that those religions had decayed to the point where they could no longer be counted on to “save” their adherents. The same applies to Christianity’s view towards the pagan religions it came into contact with and yet again the same applies to Islam. You know the early Muslims gave non-Muslim Arab tribesman two options: convert or die.

    But yet, look at Islam, if we judge it by its fruits, clearly it is an Orthodox religion that has saved countless souls across a large part of the world for almost 1500 years now. If there was violence during its initial spread this must have then been necessary for it to advance. Violence is part and parcel of life in the “Iron Age” or “Kali Yuga” in which we are living. People lost in ignorance may not come to the truth willingly and may thus need the ‘shock’ of violent overthrow of their old systems in order to come to the truth as expressed in a fresh and efficacious form (thus the spread of Islam ‘by the sword’).

    Of course violence can take other forms during the spread of religion. With Christianity violence often took the form of Christians sacrificing their lives for their beliefs and witnessing this sacrifice others were “pierced to the heart” and converted. St. Paul was clearly so pierced after witnessing the courage with which St. Stephen faced his death at the hands of the Sanhedrin.

    But at the beginning of this reply I said you were mostly wrong, not entirely wrong. You are right in that sometimes the adherents of one Orthodox religion are unjust to those of another because they are unable to recognize the Orthodoxy of the other form and thus in their blindness they condemn it. This was how Europeans usually acted towards the Native Americans.

    Yet I would point out to you the hypocrisy of your position here. For instance, you seem to offhandedly dismiss Confucianism because it does not conform to some feminist ideals of yours. Do you not realize that the religion you so arrogantly and casually dismiss was the core of Chinese civilization for over two millennia and gave meaning and saving grace to the live of countless millions of Chinese? And yet you dismiss it because it doesn’t conform with the views Western feminists? Seriously?

    At least the Catholics who dealt with Native Americans, though misled about Native American religion, felt they were doing God’s work and thus for the missionaries their work was religiously efficacious for themselves, if not always for those whom they worked with.

    In contrast, when you dismiss religions because they do not conform to modern Western biases you neither help yourself or others as secular modernity can save no one.

    Basically, Megan, if you are going to try to engage in comparative religion you need a new framework to work from. First off you need to dismiss from your head all post-Christian Western values. All of them. Second, you need to adopt a perennialist outlook. I mentioned Frithjof Schuon, you could also look into Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who is certainly the premier Muslim intellectual in North America these days, and who is a faithful exponent of the “religio perennis”. As it is, your attempts at comparative religion right now are completely confused because you don’t understand religion, not even Buddhism, because your are too influenced by modern Western thought and biases.

    • Megan says:

      Hi Mike,

      As long as you believe violence is necessary we don’t have any place in common from which to engage in conversation. You’ve repeated twice now that I am some sort of a “modernist.” I’m not sure you even know what modernism is, but I am definitely not a modernist.
      As I mentioned, Buddhism does not conform to perennial philosophy. I have other interests that I am pursuing. If you wish to apply your energies and effort into demonstrating how Buddhism conforms to perennial philosophy, I wish you all the best and look forward to reading what you produce. This is not a comparative religion blog. I have an interest in Buddhism and it is a place for me to capture some of what I have been thinking about and looking into. Of course, things will change over time as I develop the breadth and depth of my understanding. Thanks for your comments. Good that you recognized feminism has, and has had for quite some time now, a bone to pick with Confucianism. However, women’s take on Confucianism is hardly a modern view, in Japan (which is the area in Asia I am most familiar with) it goes back to at least the 900s and can be found quite readily in the literature.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s