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.