Nietzsche's Ignorance of Buddhist Fundamentals

Nietzsche: The Ultimate Hypocrite

In Nietzsche’s ‘The Genealogy Of Morals’, he briefly attributes nihilistic and dehumanizing principles to the Buddhist way of life, dubbing it a ‘desire for nothingness’ and portraying it as a belief set that makes existence worthless. While some of Nietzsche’s references to Buddhism are true, albeit hyperbolized, others are taken entirely out of context, and all are unsophisticated and callow. However, many Buddhist and Nietzschean principles are homogenous and the well-informed Nietzsche deliberately ignored the philosophical value of Buddhism so as to bolster his own ideals and disassociate himself from organized religion and Gautama Buddha.

            Taking values from the film ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring’ and for the purpose of comparison to Nietzsche’s ideals, Buddhism can be best described as philosophy rather than religion. Buddhism promotes a peace-based lifestyle to be wholly free from ‘suffering’, thereby attaining accountability and the such. Nietzsche’s ends (as well as means, but more on that later) and those of Buddhism seem parallel: conscious understanding of human nature and subsequent conclusion to inherent human suffering. 

            In a sense, Buddhist philosophy commences at a more advanced level than Nietzschean. It is accepted that suffering accompanies life, and this acceptance can be considered the essence of Buddha’s teachings. Known as ‘The Four Noble Truths’, they declare that “existence is suffering, which is caused by the nature of desire for impermanent things of the universe, that the suffering can be defeated nevertheless, and that it is the noble eightfold path which provides the means by which that victory can be achieved[1].” Reaching this state of victory (Nirvana) is achieved by following Buddha’s path, and the noble truths provide the foundation for Buddhism and ascension to Nirvana.

            However, Nietzsche states “...the desire of the Buddhist [is] for nothingness, Nirvana -- and no more!” (Pg. 120) This is in direct contrast to ‘The Four Noble Truths’, and is a fallacious exemplification of Nirvana and Buddhist desire. Yet, the Four Noble Truths seem to echo Nietzsche’s idea of ‘life-affirmation’. Nietzsche addresses the importance of coming to terms with one’s conscience, of developing consciousness of conscience (pg. 149), and of man’s intense humanity and the process of attaining it (pg. 151). This, he says, allows man to avoid blindly adopting ignorant man-made traditions and religions as a means of avoiding or ignoring that human state, ignoring the need for acceptance of the inevitable (suffering, or craving). Most important of all, much of his argument revolves around the notion that suppressed animalistic will of man only leads to “essentially dangerous forms of human existence... and that only [there] did the human soul in a higher sense acquire depth and become evil”. (Pg. 120)

            Buddhism embraces this, and is within itself an answer to Nietzsche’s ideological struggle. As seen in the film, Buddhists accept all living creatures as equal to themselves, signified by the elder monk’s tying of the stone to the young boy. The Buddhists do not seek to enjoy ‘modern conveniences’, preferring to live in relatively modest conditions amidst nature. The daily lives of the monk and boy were very cyclic and repetitive, much like that of an animal: attaining food, interacting with others, sleeping, building shelter, etc. The monk and boy found contentment in their meager surroundings. In the context of Nietzsche, they endeavored to avoid unnecessary depth, thereby avoiding evil.

            This does not indicate a “desire for ‘nothingness”. Quite to the contrary, this is a desire for ‘something-ness’, while excluding all of the ‘unnecessary’. Nietzsche himself supports this, elucidated in his blind ‘hope’ for psychologists, saying “I hope... [they] may be fundamentally brave, proud, and magnanimous animals, who know how to keep their hearts as well as their sufferings in bounds, and have trained themselves to sacrifice all desirability to truth, every truth, even plain, harsh, ugly, repellent, unchristian, immoral truth. -- For such truths do exist.” (pg. 112) Nietzsche simultaneously acknowledges the existence of these truths and their uselessness; not every truth needs to be disinterred. He does find certain truths to be of importance, but this does not imply that he seeks “emotional nothingness” and neither do the Buddhists.

            Moreover, they did not avoid life. For Buddhists, life is constantly ‘affirmed’, or rather, Buddhism alleviates the need for affirmation. Buddhism seeks to directly instill the final product or result (as aforementioned, commencement at a more advanced level) of Nietzsche’s life-affirmation. According to Nietzsche, life-affirmation is sought after by all, but only truly achieved after persistent and thorough questioning. Through the process of questioning and coping and wrestling with the stinging realities of life and their humanity, an individual eventually develops a certain resilience and ability to see the true value of life and draw their own opinions on the world around them. Only then, can this person achieve a true and honest happiness and sense of fulfillment. It is because of man’s nature, according to Nietzsche, that he must make this battle.       

            This critical parallel in human analysis serves to align Nietzsche and Buddhism, particularly the near identical references to deluded clinging to a sense of existence in the noble truths; Nietzsche himself would characterize that delusion with Christianity, and find it completely counterproductive, just as Buddhism does. This readily invalidates Nietzsche’s reference to a Buddhist desire for nothingness, unless of course, Nietzsche too desires for nothingness (he does not). Both philosophies seek overcoming and understanding, called ‘Nirvana’ in Buddhism. Nirvana can be reached while alive, as it is merely a state of understanding. Then, can’t Nietzsche’s end point of life-affirmation also be considered Nirvana?

            It was European society’s Christian moral and social foundation that had an influence upon Nietzsche and his understanding of human nature, thus allowing him to challenge established faith and theorize. He felt that Christianity serves an excuse for the weak, and a way of controlling the masses. Christianity allows for the redirection of questions on humanity, thusly Nietzsche promotes questioning and stresses the importance of the answers, but Buddhism’s principle beliefs are such that the questions become irrelevant: the answers are inculcated as unchangeable reality, and Buddhism answers the question of ‘where do we go from here’? Buddhism teaches that the questioning of the genealogy of morals and existence is ‘unnecessary’ depth, and that the mind should be applied elsewhere.

            Having aligned the two religions alongside Nietzsche, we return back to the original thesis; it is clear how Buddhism aligns with Nietzschean principles, but why would Nietzsche seek to hide the connection? This has to do with Nietzsche’s preservation of the notion of life-affirmation (among others) and ability to analyze humans as unique and ground-breaking. This does not imply that Nietzsche was not a great thinker and brilliant philosopher; in so much of his work Nietzsche demonstrates a tremendous gift for psychoanalysis and astute questioning. Nietzsche also had a relatively sound understanding of Buddhism, therefore it is nearly assured that he recognized his close connection to, in terms of brilliance, cognizance, and ideas, to a far older great thinker: Buddha.

            Having died over two millennia before Nietzsche’s birth, the two lived very different lives and left vastly different legacies. However, Buddha comes to the same conclusions as Nietzsche, the only difference being the existence of a story to describe the coming of those conclusions. Buddha, the disillusioned son of an overprotective King, takes a vow of asceticism only to discover its failure in bringing mental awakening and clarity. This also rings true with Nietzsche, himself proving the failure of self-denial with the example of priests and the ‘blond beast’ (Pg. 129). Buddha then spent over a month meditating and would not end the meditation until he had a completely encompassing comprehension of, and revelation into, the cause of suffering and the necessary steps to eliminate it. Once again, Nietzsche and Buddha himself align. They both recognize inherent suffering as well as its causes, and seek elimination throughout a type of enlightenment: Buddha called it Nirvana, Nietzsche called it self-affirmation.

            So where lies the crucial difference? Why is Buddhism a philosophy for millions and Nietzsche’s only for educated thinkers? Simply put, accessibility and marketing. Nietzsche implores readers of ‘The Genealogy of Morals’ to question, and attempts to start the quest of life-affirmation, but Nietzsche’s readers (ones that perhaps could have been converted, were it a religion of some sort) are doomed from that very start. Once they learn of life-affirmation, it cannot be actively pursued; once they are finished with the read and left with a completely discredited moral system and view of society as wholly dysfunctional, they have absolutely no recourse and nothing to believe in: they live in a screwed society and since Nietzsche explained life-affirmation, they cannot attain it until they forget. Nietzsche’s very realistic, categorical analysis can only serve as a psychological and social commentary, despite his well-founded and well fleshed-out ideas, rooted in the same principles of Buddhism.

            The story of Buddha is filled with the supernatural, and that gives fodder for Nietzsche to discredit Buddhism. However, the supernatural is precisely why we know of Buddha today.  Buddha’s teachings revolve around Nietzsche’s same conclusions (vice versa, actually), but Buddhism presents acceptance of the inevitable as a basis -- it does not question the inevitable. Nietzsche could envision life-affirmation (envision being used because it is doubtful he achieved his own idea) because he was a genius. Nietzsche could handle multiple layers of analysis, and could maintain a constant state of multi-layered consciousness and questioning attainable only by the rarest of men. What Nietzsche failed to recognize is that his writings are useless to the common man. In marketing terms, ‘if you want to sell your product, you have got to to have pretty packaging’. Nietzsche’s product (in theory) delivered the same results as Buddha’s, but Nietzsche’s was hard to handle, difficult to equip, and required rare ability. Buddhism presented a simpler, easier, and granted, less realistic and fairly contrived product, but this product had the same effects, with far less of the requirements.

            These differences can be derived from their differences in life. Buddha attained his understanding and clarity empirically. He lived his life and through those experiences as well as long bouts of meditation, came to the point of knowing, from which point he began to teach. On the other hand, Nietzsche is an abstractionist. His writings are not based on experiences. They are theories based on what he has heard or read, thus his disdain towards Jews. This contrast between abstractionism and empiricism (not in the Locke/Hume definition) is the diverging splinter.

            In ‘The Genealogy of Morals’, Nietzsche had no choice in downplaying his parallels to and ignoring the influence of Buddhism on his own work; this he does deliberately. He rails against religion and religious leaders throughout, thus creating a necessity to distance himself from any comparison. Regardless of his attempt, Nietzsche and Buddhism are largely similar, whether he likes it or not.

[1] Walsh, John. "Buddha." In Ackermann, Marsha E., Michael Schroeder, Janice J. Terry, Jiu-Hwa Lo Upshur, and Mark F. Whitters, eds. Encyclopedia of World History: The Ancient World, Prehistoric Eras to 600 CE, vol. 1. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008. Ancient and Medieval History Online. Facts On File, Inc.