Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

9781107031623In his writings, Friedrich Nietzsche consistently criticizes Buddhism, condemning it as a “nihilistic” belief system, and yet he also refers to himself as the “Buddha of Europe.” On certain points, the thoughts of Nietzsche come very close to articulating some of the same insights voiced by Siddhartha Gautama thousands of years earlier; particularly on topics such as the impermanence of the world and the rejection of substance ontology. On other points, such as his advocacy of self-assertion and the will-to-life,  Nietzsche defines himself in direct opposition to The Buddha. So, what is the connection between Nietzsche and Buddhism? This complicated and sometimes confusing relationship is explored in close and subtle detail by Antoine Panaïoti in his new book Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy.

Panaïoti’s book is a version of his doctoral dissertation, written while he was a student at Cambridge University, but this should not scare potential readers off since there is nothing overly technical or difficult about the text. It is clearly written, well researched and easy to read. An interest in the subject matter is all that is necessary before diving into and enjoying this study.

Panaïoti’s initiating insight is that the fundamental connection between Nietzschean philosophy and Buddhism stems from their shared concern with the problem of nihilism. While the concept of “nihilism” is itself a complicated and difficult topic, Panaïoti summarizes the problem as one in which the world of becoming is viewed as both “unreal” and “not good.” (p. 21) In the thinking of the nihilist, the impermanent and changing world of flux that is apparent to our senses is neither real nor good precisely because it is not stable and permanent.  A stable and permanent realm would be the only one that measures up to the nihilist’s standards for a “real” world; a world which Nietzsche and Panaïoti refer to as the wahre Welt (German for “true world”). Since such a “true world” apparently does not exist, the nihilist responds either by condemning all of reality as “not good” or by positing the existence of an unapparent world that is unseen and hidden, but valuable because it is eternal and unchanging.

This latter maneuver is an act of ressentiment against reality. While it is an attempt to move beyond nihilism, from the perspective of those like Nietzsche and Siddhartha who claim that the world really is characterized by impermanence, it is also an illusion (or as Panaïoti claims a delusion) that distracts us from the actual nature of reality. By looking for the “truth” in some hidden, illusory realm, humans delude themselves and ultimately waste their lives hunting after phantasms and “spooks” (a term that Max Stirner playfully utilizes in his classic work The Ego and Its Own) rather than learning to embrace the world for what it is: a process of never-ending flux and change.

The problem that concerns both Nietzsche and Buddhists, then, is the problem of how to overcome aversion to an impermanent world in which nothing – including the “self” – remains stable. How is it that one can move beyond the crisis of nihilism, avoid ressentiment and salvage a sense of value and worth while still affirming a world that is neither constant nor lasting? Panaïoti argues that this is where the connection between Nietzscheanism and Buddhism lies, and it is in their responses to this question where we find points both of overlap and of divergence. Ultimately, however, the author argues that Nietzscheanism is more like Buddhism than Nietzsche himself recognized. Both systems turn out to be paths toward a sort of “great health” that will dismantle the delusions of ressentiment, allowing us actively to affirm and embrace an impermanent world. They are both philosophies that strive to confront and solve the problem of nihilism not by denying reality, but by recognizing it for what it truly is.

When the supernatural realm of the gods (or God) is rejected as a delusion, then it is only in the non-supernatural world that we can seek justifications for life.  For this reason Panaïoti argues that in both Buddhism and in Nietzsche’s philosophy an appeal is made to the this-worldly standard of “health” as the most appropriate goal of aspiration. When God has died, one must look for more natural criteria against which to make valuations if one is to continue to embrace life rather than retreating from it, and in both Buddhism and Nietzscheanism this is precisely what is done. While superficially it may appear that there is a conflict between Nietzsche’s admonition to make the world’s suffering “greater than ever” and the Buddha’s admonition to eliminate the world’s suffering altogether, Panaïoti argues that at a deeper level both individuals are actually concerned with a similar project: the project of making people so strong and healthy that they no longer perceive the obstacles, challenges and consequent sufferings that occur during the course of living life as objectionable.

This is the meaning of the Nietzschean aphorism, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” (Twilight of the Idols: 8) From the perspective of healthy strength, the struggles of life are embraced as a necessary part of self discovery and adventure. It is only from the perspective of unhealthy weakness that people recoil from life’s challenges and surprises, according to Nietzsche. What  an unhealthy person experiences as vile torment, a healthy person experiences as affirmative and invigorating. This, according to Panaïoti, is a message that is also taught in Buddhism, where healthy compassion is encouraged as a means toward enlightenment. The term “compassion” literally means “to suffer with,” and thus this central Buddhist virtue requires an engagement with the suffering of others, not in order to condemn reality, but in order to learn how to embrace and affirm it. Ultimately, in the state of nirvana, the Buddhist finally attains a “great health” that experiences joy through compassion. Joy and suffering become one, just as Nietzsche also taught, when we are able to understand suffering as an opportunity for spiritual growth rather than as some sort of supernatural punishment. So it is that both The Buddha and Nietzsche offer a similar solution to the problem of nihilism. In a world of impermanence, where nothing lasts and everyone grows old, gets sick and dies, we need not recoil or retreat from life. If we learn to value the virtue of spiritual health in the way that others have chosen to value God or heavenly salvation, we might be able to embrace the challenges and obstacles of this world as opportunities that spur us on to become more vital, potent and robust.

In the conclusion of his book, Panaïoti proposes “a new response to the challenge of nihilism” modeled on the insights of both Buddhism and Nietzsche, which he calls “great health perfectionism.” (pp. 212 – 229) Great health perfectionism is a form of idealism that asserts “a distinctive ‘healthy type'” (p 218) as the goal of aspiration. This ideal healthy type is not conceptualized as a positive “Good,” however,  but rather as involving the “recovery from illness.” (219) As such, it is a kind of negative ideal that tells us what to avoid so that we can move toward becoming more and more healthy. I detect an echo of Epicurus here, who held that pleasure is not a positive quality in human life, but something that is approximated by the progressive elimination of pain. This would dovetail quite well with the Buddhist directive to withdraw from the suffering and pain of the world, but Panaïoti insists that if we pair these insights with Nietzsche’s philosophy, great health perfectionism will emphasize the creative and active aspects of striving toward, rather than withdrawing from, the perfection of health. It will, thus, express an active rather than a reactive ideal. In great health perfectionism, we are encouraged to constantly strive toward health by constantly moving away from sickness. Since the targets by which we gain our bearings are moving ones, the author seems to be suggesting that his philosophy will help us  come to terms with the reality of impermanence while avoiding the despair of meaninglessness.

While I love the bulk of Panaïoti’s book and admire his scholarship, I have two related criticisms that are focused on his concluding ideas. First of all, his  “new response to the challenge of nihilism” sounds to me very much like ancient Stoicism, and thus I think it is not really a “new” response at all. Second, in appealing to the ideal of “great health,” it seems to me that Panaïoti is not so much offering a “response” to nihilism so much as he is articulating a perspective that demonstrates his own further entanglement in the dynamics of nihilism; a situation, which as I will explain below, I do not really object to since I see nihilism less as a problem to be solved and more as an underlying condition of human existence.

First let me address the point that the author’s suggestions are not really “new” but actually a reiteration of ancient Stoic ideas. As Panaïoti describes it, great health perfectionism directs us to embrace the world and all of its challenges as a necessary backdrop to life’s unfolding drama. Furthermore, great health perfectionism encourages us to engage the world ironically, like actors on a stage. As I act in the world, I should retain an ironic awareness that I am simply playing my role in life and that, for this reason, it is not really “me” that is doing the acting at all. Additionally,  great health perfectionism is for everyone; slaves as well as masters. Thus is avoids the elitism of Nietzsche’s philosophy and embraces the call to compassion of Buddhist philosophy.  But what Panaïoti describes here are just the suggestions of the ancient Stoics, and the reason why I suspect he has arrived back at this position is directly attributable to his Buddhist reading of Nietzsche. Nietzsche himself was an admirer of the Stoics, but he interpreted Stoic ideas (and the doctrine of amor fati in particular) as manifestations of the master mentality. What Panaïoti has done, by way of Buddhist interpretation, is to strip Nietzsche’s account of its elitism and once again make Stoic doctrines applicable to all people. In Panaïoti’s reading, amor fati is not exclusively for masters, but a doctrine for slaves as well. Consequently, he arrives at an egalitarian philosophy that closely resembles the original form of ancient Stoicism. What is new appears old again!

Whether it is actually “new” or not, in regard to its content Panaïoti asserts that the only really pressing objection to great health perfectionism is what he calls the “saintliness objection.” (p. 229) This is the objection that his proposed ideal is so ambitious that it is impossible to reach. He responds to this “pressing” objection by stating that such an unreachable ideal provides a goal for human striving, and thus it is not so bad that it is unreachable, since it provides a path for continued and ongoing human aspiration. This is the focus of my second criticism. If aspiration toward the impossible is not such a bad thing, then what is the problem with nihilism in the first place? Recall that the “crisis of nihilism” erupts when the apparent world is rejected in favor of an unapparent world. When we strive after abstractions at the cost of this world, we denigrate and belittle this world in favor of an illusion, or as Panaïoti calls it, a “delusion.” This is the root of ressentiment, and it is precisely this sort of delusion that great health perfectionism is intended to combat.

But any form of “perfectionism” is subject to the charge of ressentiment insofar as it posits the goal of a perfect ideal as worthy of aspiration rather than simply counseling us to affirm the concrete, non-ideal world that we live in. If the conundrum of nihilism is initiated when an abstract, non-apparent reality is elevated and affirmed as more real or valuable than our actual, concrete, apparent reality, then I fail to see how encouraging us to pursue the superlative goal of “great health” helps to alleviate ressentiment or the problem of nihilism at all. It seems only to reinscribe the challenge within another set of values. As De Beauvoir puts it in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity, the nihilist is essentially a frustrated idealist precisely because the nihilist has come to the realization that abstract perfection of any kind is an impossible goal. The only way to eradicate nihilism, then, is to dissolve any notion of the “ideal” and to live only according to the “real.” In order to overcome nihilism, we have to kill Plato.

I don’t want to kill Plato. I’ve come to embrace nihilism, and so I personally do not see it as something that necessarily needs to be “overcome” or as a problem that needs to be solved at all. As I argue in Laughing at Nothing, there is not necessarily anything undesirable or destructive about nihilism. Nihilism is a situation in which one constantly strives toward unreachable goals, and though this striving may be at times unpleasant, if we cultivate the ability to appreciate the incongruous and absurd struggles of life, we can extract some form of amused pleasure out of the process while participating in a kind of progress that is eternal and ongoing, but which does not ever reach a final termination point. Panaïoti’s “great health perfectionism” has just this sort of structure to it, and so while I have no objection to the form of the idea,  it seems neither new to me nor does it seem to really solve any problems. Rather, it is just one more illustration of how entrenched nihilism is in the very structure of human life.

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13 thoughts on “Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

  1. This is a very well-written and interesting article. I think Panaïoti could hardly ask for a better review.
    I see from your blog that your main subject is nihilism, but because my own perspective is that of an ex zen practitioner and an aspiring Nietzschean, I would still like to ask you a question on buddhism. You write that “Buddhist virtue requires an engagement with the suffering of others, not in order to condemn reality, but in order to learn how to embrace and affirm it.”
    From personal experience I would say that there is not much embracing and affirming of reality going on in present-day zen buddhism. I haven’t even seen much engagement. I think Nietzsche is right when he says that his philosophy is life-affirming and buddhism is not. This could be down to my experiences being limited to zen buddhism, which has a strong Japanese cultural influence, so I wonder if what you have read or experienced confirms the statement you make, or if you are just quoting from the book you write about.

    • I’m glad you liked the review! Thanks for your comments.

      Most of my encounters with Buddhism have been on a philosophical level, coming through reading and discussion with others more well educated in the beliefs than myself. I don’t have a lot of experience with Zen Buddhism. My closest personal interactions have been with Tibetan Buddhist monks and with members of a local Pure Land Buddhist Temple. The Tibetan monks are among the most life-affirming and authentic people I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with and the Pure Land Buddhists were (and continue to be) very welcoming and eager to exchange ideas about philosophy in general, and nihilism in particular.

      My interest in Buddhism has not been focused on its religious aspects, but on the ideas that ground the belief system. I’m sure that just like any other philosophy/religion there is a difference between the grounding ideas and how those ideas are interpreted and put into practice by particular groups of people in particular cultures. I sympathize with your thoughts though; it is frustrating to encounter people who call themselves Buddhists but who don’t live their lives in a very Buddhist way. Of course the same goes for any religion, be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.

      In terms of the affirmation of reality in Buddhism, I take this to be the whole point of the philosophy. In his first Sermon at Benares, Siddhartha taught, in sum, that we suffer precisely because we cannot accept the world for what it is. His “middle path” is intended as a way of dissolving our delusions and allowing us to accept and embrace the world as-is. Nirvana, which Nietzsche seems to interpret as a kind of death, does not seem to mean this in The Buddha’s original teachings. Rather, nirvana is a state in which the delusion of selfishness is extinguished. In so doing, a person no longer looks at the world through the veil of the ego, but sees the world for what it is and does not wish it to be any different from what it is. So in this sense, it does seem to me that Buddhism, at least in its original form, does try to offer a path toward the affirmation of reality.

      A minister at the Pure Land Temple that I mentioned above told me that in her understanding, the real teaching of Pure Land Buddhism is that we are, right now, living in the “pure land.” We just don’t fully realize this. The point of buddhist practice, she told me, is to finally understand that the world we live in is perfect as it is.

      I’d be interested in reading about your experiences with Zen Buddhism and why you have become disillusioned with it.

      • Thank you for your extensive reply. I have taken some time to think about it. I am not familiar with Tibetan buddhism or with Pure Land buddhism, so I won’t comment on that.
        As for my own experiences, I would not say I’ve become disillusioned with Zen. I’ve just never found what I was looking for. At first, it seemed to promise an absolute reality that could be glimpsed by anyone willing to try hard enough. But when I started practicing and reading about it, this reality seemed to be like an imaginary cookie: supposedly there, supposedly enjoyed by some patriarchs, writers and zen masters, but at the same time something that could not be recognised by us, the unenlightened ones, even if it was offered with every cup of tea.
        Gradually I started to think there might be something wrong with the whole idea of absolute reality. I got the feeling that in practicing zen I was looking for the same metaphysical way out that other religions seemed to offer. Then the zen master happened to mention that in her view, it was OK to give newcomers the idea they had solved a koan (I’m talking about Rinzai zen here) ‘to keep them on the path’. That clinched it for me. After that, I could not even take meditation seriously anymore. I did go on with it for a while, but it petered out like a candle that has run out of wax.
        By saying this, I am not trying to convince anyone of anything: I am just talking about my personal experience because you asked me to.
        I’ll be reading your future articles with interest.

    • marmysz: Thank you for the review. I shall shortly be putting my own review up soon on the site that I link to below. It is just awaiting proofreading.

      livelysceptic: *All* schools of Buddhism are marred by the same problem that mars *any* human organization: You cannot prevent some untalented people from rising to the top. Consequently you have Buddhist masters who don’t understand the nature of the doctrines that they are espousing. For example, you mention koans in Rinzai Zen and you speak about them as if your ex-teacher things that there is a “solution.” But koans are not meant to be solved logically; they are a way to wear the conceptual mind down. There is no solution there is only the complete, meta-cognitive surrender to trying to solve the koan. If your teacher thinks otherwise, I would question his or her credentials.

      Finally, I can appreciate the frustrations and doubts on practicing Zen when the “insight” that so many people seem to talk about never seems to come about. I once trained with a girl who sat for three years without really getting anywhere. But the state of mind, that they all talk about, is there for (most of) those who train hard. That this state of mind is not something made up can seem like a round of collective make-believe when one has not experienced it oneself. But if you genuinely doubt whether it’s imagined or not, try reading the testimony of Lawrence Shainberg in ‘Ambivalent Zen.’

      Finally, some people who supposedly teach Zen have adopted a habit of saying that you don’t really need to be meditating for more than an hour. I once talked to a girl who had she had been a Buddhist for many years, yet when I asked her about the details of her training, she had never meditated for more than 20 minutes in a row… ever. To attain the state of mind we are talking about, you need to be putting *hours* and not *minutes* into your meditation streak. But then again, maybe you already did that. I wouldn’t presume to know.

  2. I’m new to Nietzsche however your review has given me an appetite to delve further into his work. The review is unbelievable through and scholarly which was a pleasure to read. I’m work as a psychotherapist and I’m in training for psychoanalysis I started reading beyond good and evil and it seems to overlap some of Freud’s concepts of projection etc. Thanks again for these valuable reviews and I’m hoping to read your articles in the future.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words!

      In his autobiographical study, Freud mentions that the ideas of both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche express in philosophical terms what he himself had discovered in the course of his own research into psychology. The greatest part of what motivates us, according to all of these thinkers, is hidden behind the veil of conscious, rational thought.

      Good luck with your training!

  3. Personally ive never “got” Nietzsche. I find Schopenhauer more consoling. As John suggests in his book “laughter” is a good antidote but ive also found Buddhist meditation helpful when the despair has got too much. One of the less discussed aspects of Nihilism seems to me to be the anxiety that can come about from such a worldview. Mindfulness of breathing has been invaluable for me in that regard.

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  5. I too wish to thank you for making the effort to compose such a well-constructed, well-considered review of Panaioti’s book. I have sympathies for both Nietzsche’s and the Buddha’s philosophical and existential project – though between them I would announce myself to be a “Buddhist” first and foremost. That said, the journey curiosity pulled me through began in earnest within the Nietzschean-philosphere before following my nose into the dharma-sphere via Japan which blossomed into to a lengthy immersion in the scriptural and philosophical materials of the Theravada school – in concert with its applied aspects cultivated on the cushion.

    The point I’m laboring to make is that the affinities between Nietzsche’s and the Buddha’s projects are most resonant when brought into the physical – physically embodied rather than contemplated as abstractions. The Buddha’s project begins and ends with the physical body. The so-called “3 hindrances” – aging, illness & death – are decidedly physical phenomenon. The centrality of physicality, of embodied life, is not as obviously declared by Nietzsche even though he announces that his “genius is in his nose”. For both, the impermanence of life requires a return to the body because it is only through the body that the joy and “power” of creating can be experienced. The return to the body is an affirmative renunciation of the absolute and/or permanent ontologies proffered by their contemporaries. The body is the common denominator of human experience and as such it punctures the blissful, ignorant musing of those pining for a “vehicle” to transcend suffering (angst or dukkha).

    The vein of Buddhist theorizing I’m leaning on also happens to be the same “school” of Buddhism that “Buddhologists” and Indian language scholars were bringing into European academies before and during Nietzsche’s (productive) lifetime. At the risk of begging questions over the “Maha-/Hina-” schism within Buddhism, I’ll close by noting that as one’s practical or analytical vantage point gains greater historical distance from the historical Buddha, the Buddha’s simple “4 Truths” formula looses gravity as practical guidance and an analytical rebuttal to world-denying optimists and pessimists – be they ardent religionists or strident nihilists.

  6. The one thing that I believe Nietzsche did not understand is that Buddhism is not escapism. In fact, escapism is one of the mechanisms that keeps one in samsara (the cycle of suffering, beit metaphysical or psychological) The escapist interpretation of Buddhism is the the often parallel with the western interpretation of Buddhism. The western mind is so conditioned by a linear and polarizing philosophical outlook (I would argue due to abrahamic religion) that it cannot interpret the idea that samsara and nirvana are two sides to the same reality. Beings are constantly digging themselves deeper into suffering by their very pursuit from a way out of it. The enlightenment that the Buddha supposedly attained was based around the concept that the first step to “defeating” suffering is to acknowledge there is no “defeating” it. This is very confusing and irrational to the western brain but it is the first and most important noble truth in Buddhism. Once you accept suffering, then it is no longer a problem. It is just a part of life. The viscitudes of human existence cannot be separated from the existence itself. Something cannot be a problem if it has no possible solution. Therefore, when one becomes tranquil and passive with the circumstances of life, suffering is no longer a problem. And more importantly, nirvana was never a place to “escape to”. It was always the case. You never left it, you just never realized that it was where you were. To compare to nietzche, It would akin to a man who has nothing left to attain to become the overman, except for the realization that he IS already the overman. His ignorance is the only obstacle to his salvation. Thus, suffering in the Buddhist sense is not the pain that occurs when we fall down and scrape our knee, it is the existential and despair filled story we relay to ourselves as we hobble down the street. It is the conflict that arises from the empirical and undeniable experience and our denial of the it in the pit of our hearts.

  7. I’m not setting myself up as an authority on Buddhism nor on Nietzsche. I’m not a a Buddhist scholar. I did study Nietzsche in college, back in the Paleolithic era. However, that being said, that disclaimer, I’ve been practicing Buddhist meditation for over 40 years. That’s more than 1/2 my adult life. I think the Buddhism gets mischaracterized in these scholarly articles because they focus on doctrine, metaphysics or ontology rather than on experience. I will assert that if experience is your guide, Nietzsche is indeed very close to Buddhist doctrine. And what is the doctrine I’m alluding to? It has to do with the basic truths of human existence, which are connected to suffering. In Buddhism suffering arises when we create a storyline in our minds and act according to this self-told myth. This storyline presupposes the existence of a subject, “I” and the thoughts or phenomena that arise in the fields of this “I.” Not only that but experience gets to be characterized according to whether is comforts or expands this self, threatens it, or is neutral.

    Nietzsche has no systematic view about reality and in fact it was such systematization that he sought to destroy, not because he was a nihilist, but because he distrusted the people who created or hid behind these elaborate constructs. Such as Kant. Such as Schopenhauer. If anything N was concerned with genuineness and at that point he swims in the same sea as the Buddha, because genuineness or authenticity is action that is not done to create some result or some further elaboration of this fictitious ego, but based on being open to what arises both in thought and phenomena.

    A person who behaves in such a way is indeed heroic and will act spontaneously for the benefit of others. This is the bodhisattva in Buddhism and the ubermensch in “Zarathustra.” So my point is that if you try to make a one-to-one map between Buddhist doctrine and Nietzsche’s writing, it will probably create more fuel for further academic writings. But if you look at the processes of both, you’ll find a great similarity.

  8. I think you are way off the mark, they may have the same aim but totally different agendas, buddhism is about compassion (pity) and escapism – Nietzsche would never agree with these two suggestions

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