There are some good reasons to believe that Nietzsche was interested in Eastern philosophy during his lifetime. In the Antichrist he states:
“Buddhism, I repeat, is a hundred times more austere, more honest, more objective. It no longer has to justify its pains, its susceptibility to suffering, by interpreting these things in terms of sin—it simply says, as it simply thinks, ‘I suffer’”
Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 23
Buddhism, as a pessimistic and decadent religion for Nietzsche resembles Christianity but it seems that he had far more admiration for Buddhism. He inherited most of his understanding of Buddhism from Schopenhauer, who considered his own pessimistic philosophy a European relative of Buddhism.
Schopenhauer, in his research into Indian philosophy, appears to have attained the most comprehensive understanding among nineteenth century German thinkers of a system of Asian thought.
Although Nietzsche did read about Buddhism, it was usually second-hand and westernised, he was predisposed to react to Buddhism in terms of his close reading of Schopenhauer. Many Buddhists have since disputed Schopenhauer’s comprehension of their religion.
Influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche criticised both Christianity and Buddhism as forms of nihilism, where the will to nonentity prevails over the will to life. However, he soon feared the rise of pessimism in Europe would culminate in the triumph of the weary and passive nihilism.
It is important to know that Nietzsche was not a nihilist as some suggest, stating that the modern man would have to create his own values through a Revaluation of All Values, leading to the Ubermensch, affirming the world and saying yes to existence, the pinnacle of self-overcoming.
The foundation of his critique of Buddhism is his characterisation of Nirvana as a nothingness and as a form of nihilism. However, this does not best describe the Buddhist path.
There are Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. The first one is the acknowledgement of duhkha or “suffering”, an inseparable characteristic in the realm of Samsara, which suggests that human beings, at the time of death, are reborn to a realm determined by their karma. It is the cycle of aimless drifting, wandering or mundane existence.
If we stop here, we can see why Nietzsche considers it nihilistic. However, this is but one of the noble truths. The second one is the origin of this suffering which comes from craving, desire or attachment and the third one states that there is an end to suffering, by letting go of this craving. This leads to the final noble truth, which is the path that gives way to renouncement of craving and the cessation of suffering, following the Noble Eightfold Path, which liberates one from Samsara, the painful cycle of rebirth – achieving Nirvana, the cessation of all afflictions, actions, rebirths and suffering that are a consequence of afflictions and actions.
Nirvana refers to the realisation of the “non-self” and “emptiness”, marking the end of rebirth by stilling the fires that keep the process of rebirth going. This is what Nietzsche thought of as a longing for nothingness. However, it is not a longing for nothingness, it is simply the end of Samsara. Thus, different from Schopenhauer’s pessimism, Buddhism starts pessimistic but ends with the positive experience of Nirvana.
It is not an escape from the world, one begins with the suffering inherent in life, one is to overcome pleasure and pain, before beginning a mindful examination of one’s self and reality as perceived by the self. Upon this examination, one realises that there is no self, but only the combination of mental and physical states (skandhas).
This realisation of non-self is also misunderstood. It is not a destruction of a self, but rather a rejection of the existence of a self. Buddhists believe that the concept of “emptiness” means that all things are empty of inherent existence, there is no such thing as inherent existence, everything arises mutually. Thus, negation in the East does not have the same pessimistic connotation that it has in the West.
Perhaps the most serious misreading we find in Nietzsche’s account of Buddhism was his inability to recognise that the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness was an initiatory stage leading to a reawakening.
Throughout Nietzsche’s books and notes, he refers to different aspects of Eastern philosophy on more than four hundred occasions, and in several of these he claims to be interested in it.
Although Nietzsche considers Eastern philosophy as nihilistic, he does indicate its profundity. It seems that he studied this material closely and appreciated it greatly, this is important to note. And even if Nietzsche despised sacred texts, he upholds the beauty and grandeur of them as literary documents.
Nietzsche’s interest in studying Buddhism seems to be seeing it as a psychological symptom, as well as a historically embedded phenomena. Having chosen Buddhism to comment on might be in line with his idea of having the courage to engage with worthy adversaries. He states:
He (the Buddha) does not advocate any conflict with unbelievers; his teaching is antagonistic to nothing so much as to revenge, aversion ressentiment. And in all this he was right, for it is precisely these passions which, in view of his main purpose, are unhealthful.
Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 20
Here he agrees on the Buddha’s doctrine, which is opposed to the feelings of revenge, antipathy and ressentiment. And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra he said:
“For that man be delivered from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms”
Nietzsche’s conceptions of the Eternal Recurrence and Samsara, Zarathustra and Bodhisattva (a person who is able to reach Nirvana but delays doing so through compassion for suffering beings), the Transvaluation of All Values and Nirvana, are all examples of similarities.
In his analysis of the self, Nietzsche contended:
“the subject is only a fiction: the ego of which one speaks when one censures egoism does not exist at all”. This is remarkably similar to the Buddha’s doctrine of non-existence of the self.
Nietzsche’s philosophy may have been much more similar to Buddhism than he might have realised. This should not be surprising, given Nietzsche’s respect for the Buddha and that Buddhism concerns itself with one of the basic problems with which Nietzsche was grappling: the structure and meaning of the human condition.
At the onset of his mental collapse, he even came to identify himself with Buddha:
“I have been Buddha in India, Dionysus in Greece.”
However, on the whole, this impression is deceptive.
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