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.



The Difference Between Buddhism and Christianity II: Sexual Ethics

Classic Tantra Yab Yum Position

Yab yum symbolism in tantric Buddhist art (Tibet, Nepal, India) is a classic representation of mystical bodily experience and divine union through polar opposites

Christian sexual ethics are fairly simple: Don’t. But if you can’t help yourself, get married first. And then only do it with your spouse, and as often as is necessary to prevent either from straying from the marriage (1 Corinthians 7: 1-39).

Buddhist sexual ethics on the other hand, are more flexible. In general, Buddhist morality is driven by one idea – Do No Harm – that is articulated in five precepts: 1) Abstain from killing 2) Abstain from taking what is not given 3) Avoid sexual misconduct 4) Abstain from false speech 5) Abstain from drinking intoxicants.

Clearly then, the 3rd precept simply means to carry out sex in a way that it causes no harm. Specifically, the Buddha advised men not to sleep with another man’s wife. And that’s it. Buddhism doesn’t find anything inherently wrong with sex.

In practice, though, Buddhist sexual ethics are complicated by its monastic code (Vinaya) and its demands for celibacy. The Buddha himself was married and had a son by his wife, whom he named Rahula.  If nomenclature signifies anything, Rahula means fetter. The Buddha abandoned his wife and son to follow the ascetic life of a forest-dweller. As we know from his biography, the Buddha was not successful in finding what he was looking for as an ascetic. Once he returned from the forest, he accepted his son into the monastic order that developed around him, and kept up good relations with his wife.  However celibacy as tied to religious striving was, by the time of the Buddha, well incorporated into social practice and the Buddhist order preserved it.

In Therevada (Hinayana), the potential to achieve nirvana is restricted to those who enter the monastic order (Mahayana overturned this orthodoxy), and a monk who lives a life free from all attachment represents the ideal.

He who has realized the Truth, Nirvana, is the happiest being in the world. He is free from all complexes and obsessions, the worries and troubles that torment others. His mental health is perfect. He does not repent the past, nor does he brood over the future. He lives fully in the present. Therefore he appreciates and enjoys things in the purest sense without self-projections. He is joyful, exultant, enjoying the pure life, his faculties pleased, free from anxiety, serene and peaceful.

As he is free from selfish desire, hatred, ignorance, conceit, pride, and all such defilements, he is pure and gentle, full of universal love, compassion, kindness, sympathy, understanding and tolerance. His service to others is of the purest, for he has no thought of self. He gains nothing, accumulates nothing, not even anything spiritual, because he is free from the illusion of Self, and the ‘thirst’ for becoming (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught).

As a result, Buddhism is divided between an “uncompromising moral rigorousness” and the need to awaken to the truth of desire in order to “transmute” it (Bernard Faure, The Red Thread). In other words non-attachment hangs in recognition and observance between sexual repression and sexual indulgence, or, as in all things Buddhist, between craving and aversion.

Nagarjuna further elaborated Buddhism’s fundamental paradox, by introducing the Two Truths doctrine in his famous Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, or Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way.  He interpreted the Buddha’s teachings to suggest that two truths, the conventional and the ultimate, exist. Neither violates the other, meaning both are equally true, however, ultimate truth transcends the perspective of conventional, or “all-too-human” mundane, truth. Nagarjuna and Madhyamika (Middle Way school) sit at the fault lines between all the major schools of Buddhism. He’s not called the second Buddha for nothing: on one hand his dynamic thought cast Buddhism forward into a massive transformation, on the other hand he introduced a duality that sits in uneasy tension with the Buddha’s insistence that that truth (Dharma) is innate and available to everyone.  Nagarjuna’s resolution to this problem of course is distinctly Buddhist, but too complicated to express here.

Of note, in the full blossoming of Mahayana, the ultimate truth can be achieved through moral transgression, and it can be found in the mundane details of life. As a result, Mahayana sutras contain many stories of people who lived outrageously licentious lifestyles but still achieved nirvana, while others who lived piously were unsuccessful.

Vimalakirti SutraThe Vimalakīrti Sutra is a prime example of Buddhist thinking on this topic. It was written around 100 AD to clarify the Mahayana principle of non-duality. In it, prostitutes, even, can be bodhisattvas, able to use skillful means within this role to help others achieve enlightenment.

He may manifest himself as a prostitute. Enticing those who enjoy sensuality. First enticing them with desire, and later causing them to enter the wisdom of the Buddha (VIII:32)

Notice the emphasis on transformation, time and meeting people where they are at in their view of the world. Of course, the sutra takes the perspective of an enlightened person (bodhisattva) ‘looking down’ with compassion on those who suffer in order to help them find greater awareness. Yes, Buddhism is aristocratic, it was formulated by a man from India’s warrior caste, but in this sutra, there is no point in life for anyone at which transformation, healing and freedom cannot begin. Sex, in this context is as good as any other place to start. And if there is a progression from it and onto another level of awareness, that is good too.

More yab yum at tantric temples in Khajuraho, India

Famous yab yum at UNESCO World Heritage Site Khajuraho, India.

Vajrayana, tied the sexual aspects (among other things) of Indian tantra to the Mahayana system (innate Buddha nature)  – in the esoteric schools and Tibetan Buddhism (700 AD).

The monastic orders focus on symbolic union of principles, rather than on any actual mystical sexual encounters (though I hear there is quite a bit more sex going on in Tibetan Buddhism than we generally think), so this type of Buddhism has traveled quite far from the fundamental doctrine of anatman, or no self, or non-essentialism, but they still identify as Buddhist.

Myself, I don’t know if women would want to embrace this type of Buddhism, because of the pressure to essentialize and the typical attribution of passivity to the female principle (or nature) and activity to the male principle. But Vajrayana is one of the few Buddhist traditions openly appreciative of women.

As for the new age sexual practices associated with it …. anything that makes a better lover is fine with me.


The Difference between Buddhism and Christianity I: The Ground of Existence

Image At its heart Buddhism is multiplicity.

The ceaseless categorizations of Theravada, the interpenetration of phenomena in Mahayana, and the myriad manifestations of life in Tantra all point to its fundamental view that there is no prime mover behind anything in the universe. However, trying to pin down Buddhism as a coherent set of ideas that go beyond this distinction is a challenge. It shares more with other world religions than it keeps apart.

Nonetheless, this striking attitude toward the ground of the universe – that there is none – that the universe, and by extension human life, cannot be reduced to any inherent cause – is so different from Western notions of a prime mover at work that it has drawn many Westerners into its fold.

While Buddhism may have been imported into the West by generations of immigrants who brought their cultural practices with them, it has also become a growing source of spiritual inspiration for over a million North Americans, most of whom are highly educated, white and secular, seeking a new age spirituality to replace Christianity.

In the West, Buddhist thought is rarely interpreted on its own grounds. Rather Christian thought or new age syncretism provides the platform from which it is evaluated. More recently, it has attracted attention from psychology and speculative neuroscience, as well as from post-modern thinkers seeking to undermine the fundamental assumptions in positivistic science. As a result, Buddhism has earned a popular appeal as a philosophy or ‘way of life’ rather than as a religion – religion, here, signifying systems of hoary practice and superstition.

This prejudice aside, the two disciplines merge on many fronts, with the distinction between the two resting on issues of materiality. Philosophy concerns itself with the physical and metaphysical, whereas religion concerns itself with the spiritual. While both are subjective, philosophy examines knowledge and being, and religion ponders the problem of evil. For religion, human existence is a predicament; there’s something wrong with life the way it is. Each religion offers a description of the predicament and how best to resolve it, so that life can be the way it was “meant to be” or, at least, better than what it is.

Christianity describes the human predicament as alienation from God, our creator. We live a life of sin caused by the Fall. Jesus Christ resolved this problem by revealing, in his person and work, that there are ways to live with integrity in the midst of sin. The experience of God is, of course, the source to the ending of life’s problems. Salvation restores our divine relationship, and leads to integrity of personhood. This divine relationship extends beyond death to eternity, as we are taken up into the body of Christ, and by extension, God.

Buddhism on the other hand focuses on our own feeling of dissatisfaction with mundane existence, rather than on our state of being in relation to an “other.” It considers how our state of mind can make things better or worse for us, depending on how we approach this problem. According to the Buddha, we experience day-to-day suffering because we expect to get and hold onto things, including psychological and emotional states, such as pleasure. However, the world is characterized by change, and as a result we live in a state of frustration and discontentment. This state can be perpetuated over multiple lifetimes, because our mind holds onto the situations at hand, and our psychological, or cosmic, energy is not contained purely within our body. It affects things.

In order to escape this predicament, one must realize the true nature of the universe and free oneself from the desire to gain fulfillment through ever changing things. This breakthrough “letting go” is nirvana – the cessation of craving. More positively, it can be described as the direct recognition of what one is: the pure and responsive “pre-reflective” experience. Once it is attained, final enlightenment leads to the cessation of karma, and the end of the cycle of rebirth (samsara). In other words, one simply ceases to be. In Buddhism, there is no God to join in unity.