What is offered here was meant to be a blog on something that I was thinking about. Sadly, this has turned into an almost full-blown essay, but hopefully does touch on some important issues. What is presented is partly polemical, in the spirit of Nietzsche, and exploratory. The exploratory component is that I attempt to think through some of the implications for Buddhism of Nietzsche’s ideas and use him as a way of critiquing the passive reception of traditional Buddhism in Buddhist circles – this is very much work in progress, so please don’t think this is my final word on the matter …

Next time I will try to make it a genuine blog!!

John Peacock

Nietzsche and the Buddha; Reflections on Ethics and Authenticity 

The first questions that we must ask ourselves are: ‘Why examine Western thinkers in relation to Buddhist thought?’ and ‘What can we gain from such an enterprise?’

Teaching an online course for Bodhi College recently on ‘An Existential Approach to Buddhism’ these were the questions that ran through my mind continuously. It wasn’t sufficient, I thought, to simply suggest that what existential thinkers, such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Kierkegaard etc., were arguing was the same as, or like, what we can find in early Buddhist thought. To do so, I felt, was both uninteresting and didn’t offer a compelling rationale as to why we should grapple with what can seem to the Buddhist, and non-Buddhist alike, as extremely difficult, and opaque material. To make such an investigation worthwhile it was necessary to demonstrate that such an engagement offered new perspectives on Buddhist and non-Buddhist material, and more importantly made a real difference to the ways in which we view our lives and approach the tasks with which we are confronted with daily.

Do existentialist thinkers offer us radically new perspectives; different ways of perceiving existential problems that either fill lacunae in Buddhist thought, or offer stimulating challenges to contemporary western approaches to Buddhism?  Before we get round to examining that question let us reflect on the Buddhism that is often practiced in the west. Most forms of Buddhism are derived from encultured approaches (India, China, Japan, Tibet etc.,) that come with specific meditational and practice traditions. Most of these traditions date back hundreds of years, if not millennia, as in the case of the Buddhism of the Pali and Sanskrit texts. It goes without saying, that the texts and practices of these traditions derive from totally different socio-historical contexts Unfortunately, all too often Buddhist thought, and practice has the appearance of something fossilized within a rigid orthodoxy derived from traditional Asian forms of religious practice, dating back millennia. We can ask the question as to whether traditional forms may still be appropriate and applicable within new social contexts, which vary considerably from their communities of origin? I would contend that engaging with western existentialist thinkers offers a way – not by any means the ‘only’ way – of thinking through unexamined ways of thought and practice that have often been integrated and fossilized into a Buddhist world view derived from traditional Asian forms of Buddhism. As Nietzsche puts it when critiquing western philosophy and philosophers:

You ask me about the idiosyncrasies of philosophers? … There is their lack of historical sense, their hatred of the idea of becoming, their Egyptianism. They think they are doing a thing an honour when they de-historicize it sub specie aeternitatis – when they make a mummy of it … Be a philosopher, be a mummy, represent monotono-theism by a gravedigger mimicry! (Twilight of the Idols, 45)

With the relevant changes being made this critique could equally apply to much of what is purveyed as Buddhism in the contemporary world. With some marked exceptions most western approaches to Buddhism in the contemporary context appear to be in thrall to a de-historicized tradition, and the priests (bhikkhus/ bhikkunis) of those traditions, those that hold the sacred and interpretative authority for how Buddhism is taught. If the so-called ‘lineage’ of authority is never challenged, then like Nietzsche’s philosophers, we become the transmitters of a ‘dead’ artifact and mere Egyptologists regarding what is passed on. We may not be gravediggers for ‘monotono-theism’ but we are doing something incredibly similar if we only parrot out received interpretations without subjecting them to challenge.

To have a ‘living and breathing’ Buddhism, one that is in full vigour and health, this ‘mummified’ tradition requires an urgent blood transfusion. Some obvious ways in which this can be achieved is to put, for example, early Buddhism in conversation with non- Buddhist traditions that supplement and challenge the Buddhist approach; attempt innovative interpretations that retain contact with the source material, but that diverge considerably from the received tradition. This ‘healthy’ approach to Buddhist thought would mean that we test and deconstruct Buddhist concepts and practices on a regular basis looking for vital signs of life within this ancient tradition. If we don’t do this then I suspect, we are dealing with something that is ‘dead’ and needs relegating to the museum of ideas. However, to test these traditions, in the way that I have suggested, can not only invigorate them by placing them much more firmly into our socio-historical milieu, but in addition honour Gotama (The Buddha) by subjecting his ideas to the kinds of rigorous testing that he recommended – it appears that Gotama was no lover of orthodoxies!

For me Existentialism was the obvious choice to put into conversation with what we can refer to as early Buddhism. This, as I have already stated, is not the only tradition – Greek and Hellenistic thought are also other candidates – that appears to say something similar. However, existentialism departs, on some issues, significantly from Buddhist pronouncements.  Existentialist thinkers, from Kierkegaard onwards, have thought deeply about how we confront the problems of living and the existential structures entailed in what it means to be a human being confronted by questions of authenticity, freedom, self, consciousness and meaning. Some, but by no means all, of these thinkers are heavily indebted to the language of phenomenology – a philosophical discipline that reflects on the experience of experience itself – this alone sounds somewhat meditative! Phenomenology, unfortunately, uses a highly technical vocabulary that has alienated many a reader wishing to approach existentialist thought. However, prior to the advent of a systematized phenomenology, with its obscure and technical diction, one thinker – included retrospectively in the existentialist canon of thinkers – writing in a highly accessible manner in the nineteenth century was Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is not only an accessible philosopher, but he is also considered to be a master stylist in his native German language. However, accessibility – and this does not equate necessarily with easy understandability – is only one area of Nietzsche’s work that makes him a relevant subject to investigate; he was also au fait with aspects of Buddhism coming to him via early translations from Pali and Sanskrit.

And yet, Nietzsche’s style marks him out considerably from the language, not only of the Buddhist texts, but of other existential thinkers. In comparison with the rather prosaic and pedestrian language of early Buddhist texts, or the technical vocabulary of the phenomenologically inspired existentialists, Nietzsche’s language is excessive and playful; he is challenging us to argue with him – Nietzsche as a thinker spurns disciples and wants us to engage, albeit critically with him. Even when he says the most outrageous things, he is throwing down a gauntlet, and both goading/ encouraging us to refute him. Nietzsche’s texts, in this sense, are far from reticent in their language, in that he challenges us both to understand him, and to put that understanding into practice.

So far, so good. We have an existentialist thinker who is not only slightly easier to read than most existential thinkers, but we have one who had a rudimentary knowledge of Buddhist texts, albeit through rather shaky early translations.

Nietzsche commenced his professional life as a classical philologist working in the University of Basel. At the astonishingly early age of 24  – he was the youngest professor ever – he was appointed to the chair of classical philology, but he relinquished the chair in 1879 due to ill health. He lived thereafter as an itinerant thinker and writer, moving around southern Europe and Switzerland. It is not inconceivable that when he was a student at Leipzig University that he came across Buddhist texts through the figure of Hermann Brockhaus who was an orientalist and philologist working at the University, whose specialism was Asian languages, including Sanskrit and Avestan (an early Iranian language closely linked to Sanskrit). It may even be possible, although this is speculative, that Nietzsche studied some Sanskrit whilst at Leipzig. Brockhaus was married to Richard Wagner’s sister Ottilie, and there was a highly significant meeting between Nietzsche and Wagner at the home of the Brockhaus’ in 1868 – Nietzsche’s relationship with Wagner was to last until 1876 when he became disillusioned with Wagner’s philosophical aesthetics and severed his connection with him.

What is clear is that Nietzsche maintained a lifelong friendship with Paul van Deussen (1845-1919) who was both a philosopher and Indologist. It is highly probable that Deussen’s work on early Indian Vedic texts was mentioned in their conversations. It is known that amongst the books that Nietzsche possessed were some translations of Indic texts, including Pali Buddhist texts. However, Nietzsche’s use of Buddhist texts in his writings is almost entirely in the service of his sustained demolition of Christianity, and the life-denying nihilism that he perceived within Christianity.  Although he makes many positive comments regarding Buddhist thought he also views Buddhism as nihilistic, and Nirvāṇa yet another expression of the nihilistic trajectory of religious forms of thinking – he is construing nirvāṇa as ‘extinction,’ a view that most early western translators, and interpreters of Buddhism held at the end of the nineteenth century.

Nietzsche regarded Christianity as the apogee of a life denying nihilism, that can be traced in the history of western thought back to Plato. Whilst Plato may be seen as the instigator of such life denying tendencies, with his insistence that the Real existed in a realm inaccessible to the ordinary human senses, Nietzsche conceived of Christianity as being the rather crude successor to such thinking; Christianity, therefore, was nothing other than a rather vulgar and less sophisticated form of Platonism.

The chief characteristic, and driving force that Nietzsche sees within Christianity, is what he terms ressentiment. Ressentiment is seen as a hatred towards life itself and is exhibited in the idea that ‘Real life,’ primarily a freedom from pain and distress, exists in a plane far removed from our earthly abode – a Christian heaven, or even a Buddhist nirvāṇa. Yet, far from being the sole province of Christian thinking, this tendency to speak of a ‘Real’ removed from our living in the world that we know through the senses, is a recurring theme within the history of both western and Asian thinking.

Despite attributing an inescapable nihilism to Buddhism, one of the claims that Nietzsche makes in his reading of Buddhist texts is that the Buddhist path to freedom is free from the slightest feelings of ressentiment or vengefulness, what Buddhists may call ‘ill will’ (vyāpada). Nietzsche claims that:

Nothing burns one up quicker than ressentiment. Vexation, morbid susceptibility, incapacity for revenge, the desire, the thirst for revenge, poison brewing in any sense – it causes expenditure of nervous energy, a morbid acceleration of excretions, for example of gall, in the stomach … This was grasped by that profound psychologist Buddha. His ‘religion’ which one would do better to call a system of hygiene so as not to mix it up with such pitiable things as Christianity, makes its effect dependent on the victory over ressentiment: not by enmity is enmity overcome, by friendship is enmity overcome’ – it is not morality that speaks thus. It is physiology which speaks thus. Ressentiment born of weakness, to no one more harmful than the weak man himself – in the opposite case, where rich nature is the supposition a superfluous feeling to stay master of which is almost proof of richness. Nietzsche, (Ecce Homo).

What Nietzsche appears to grasp about Buddhism, despite his many criticisms, is that it is a psychological approach – rather than a religion it is ‘a system of [mental] hygiene.’ When we look at the endless lists that are found in early Buddhist texts this appears to ring true, in that mental factors are divided primarily into the categories of what is skillful (kuslala) and unskillful (akusala): the emphasis here being that one should cultivate the skillful and put down the unskillful. Amongst the many approaches to life that one is encouraged to relinquish is ressentiment, in Buddhist terms, ‘Not by hatred are hatreds ever quenched, but they are quenched by non-hatred.’ This is the ancient rule. (na hi verana verāni sammant’ idha kudācana averena ca sammanti, esa dhammo sanantano.) – this verse from the Dhammapada (1. 5)  is cited by Nietzsche in the quote above. The primary ‘hatred,’ that Nietzsche identifies, is a fundamental hatred towards our ordinary lives, replete as they are with loss, pain and suffering, and the longing for something other – this ‘other, so it is believed, is free from these all too present facets of life. Happiness and true affirmation are reckoned to be found elsewhere – as if ‘real life’ can occur somewhere else, and in some other realm not associated with the ravages of time. This attitude, for Nietzsche, was life denying, and thus nihilistic.

Nietzsche is asking us to examine our own ‘life-denying’ tendencies by placing them under question. What escapist tendencies, whereby we negate and deny aspects of life, do we exhibit in our own lives?  What is it that we are refusing to entertain, or look at closely in the hope of escaping to a ‘sanctuary’ that is free from the distresses of temporality? We may not long for a heaven or nirvāṇa – a metaphysical realm free from pain and distress – but we may still hanker after something in our lives to be certain, solid, and secure. However, subtle that longing may be, it still represents for Nietzsche the spirit of nihilistic life denial.

Equally, as practitioners on a path that is said to ‘end’ suffering we must be extremely careful that this doesn’t fall into the kind of life denial and ressentiment that Nietzsche cautions against. By positing an escape from suffering and distress, are we not seeking to evade the very texture of life, as the weave of life has inextricably bound into it suffering as one of it foremost threads? Is not the ultimate revenge that we can take against life, in the face of distress and pain, to deny its reality in the longing for something ‘free’ from its pervasiveness.

Nietzsche in his work Also Sprach Zarathustra, has Zarathustra speaks of ‘the eternal return’ as the ultimate test of life’s affirmation. In traditional Buddhism, certainly as it was understood in Nietzsche’s time, and continues to be understood in long-established contexts, rebirth is conceived of in a literal sense – one moves from life to life determined, in terms of destination, by the way one has lived one’s previous life. Becoming, in this literal sense, is depicted as a rise and fall through various possible forms of existence, each possessing suffering as an attendant quality of that existence. In this traditional context one seeks to put an end to this endless cycle by becoming awakened or ‘enlightened,’ and escaping this endless cycle. Nietzsche, however, takes something like the notion of rebirth and transfigures it into an eternal return. Unlike the notion of rebirth, in Nietzsche’s eternal return everything, ‘absolutely everything’, that has occurred in your life is going to occur again and again, in exactly the same way an infinite number of times. The challenge of the eternal return is this: Could we say a wholehearted ‘Yes’ to such a proposition, rather than viewing it with horror?

‘Behold this gateway dwarf … it has two faces. Two ways come together here: nobody has ever taken them to the end.’

‘This long lane back here: it goes on for an eternity. And that long lane out there – that is another eternity.’

‘They contradict themselves, these ways; they confront one another head on, and here, at this gateway, is where they come together. The name of the gateway is inscribed above it: “Moment” (augenblick) …

…. ‘Behold,’ I said, ‘this moment! From this gateway Moment a long eternal lane runs backward: behind us lies eternity.

‘Must not whatever among all things can walk have walked this lane already? Must not whatever among all things can happen have happened, and been done, and passed by already?’

‘And if everything has already been, what do you think, dwarf, of this moment? Must this gateway too not already – have been?

‘And are not all things knotted together so tightly that this moment draws after it all things that are to come? Thus – – itself as well?’

‘For whatever among all things can walk: in this long lane out, too – it must walk once more! –

In one of his notebooks Nietzsche toys with the idea that the eternal return is something that could physically happen. Given an infinite amount of time, he conjectures, and a finite amount of material stuff wouldn’t all things, at some point, be reassembled in exactly the same configuration? However, it is unclear whether Nietzsche took this thought experiment seriously, and the scholarly literature remains divided on the issue.

From the point of view of our exploration of this concept, it is only necessary to think of this as an ‘as if’. What, in other words, would your reaction be ‘if’ the eternal return were true, and that everything in your life that has been, will be once again. The pains and joys that sit side by side in your life, these will occur in the same way, with absolutely no divergences, from now to eternity – even sitting reading this will occur again and again time without number, a prospect you would most probably not relish!

Taken in this way, as an ‘as if,’ the eternal return would be one of the most stringent of ethical tests that you could ever subject your actions of body, speech, and mind to. It would entail that this action, the one that I am engaged in right now, I would have to be willing to affirm for eternity – not just this action, but all my actions. And not just my actions, but everything that has ever occurred to me in my life I would again have to be willing to say ‘yes’ to for infinity. To embrace the eternal return, even as an idea and ethical test, is to come closer to embracing the whole of life, without residue. To do so, would mean that we would have to be prepared to accept unconditionally all that is most painful in our life experience. Could we do this? That is the challenge Nietzsche sets us. Unlike Buddhism, Nietzsche does not seek to evade the pain of existence, no matter who it is construed.

Although the eternal return exhibits some similarities to traditional notions of Buddhist rebirth it differs markedly in the challenge that it offers to us ethically. This action, this very action of body, speech, or mind that I am engaging in now, is not something that I should be careful about simply because it could lead to unfortunate future births. And, even if we interpret rebirth in a psychological manner, as the danger of being ‘reborn’ into similar psychological states repeatedly, both interpretations could be seen as disaffirmations of the present moment and fixated on a future that is ‘pain free.’ This present moment, Nietzsche is arguing, is not an ‘empty moment’ but a plenitude. The moment when we inhabit it fully is the effect of an endless stream of past actions that have culminated in this present ‘now.’ It is also the origin of the endless potential experiences that stretch out ahead of us, and that originate in this moment, full as it is, of the past. This moment, so Nietzsche is claiming, must be embraced in toto. What this means is that the whole of our past, the pleasant and painful, ethical and unethical, must be affirmed as giving rise to our possible and potential futures. Rather than reject our past and look upon it scornfully, or try to deny it, we are encouraged to embrace it completely. A person that can achieve this is on their way to becoming an Übermensch.

The authentic person, the Übermensch, is someone, so Nietzsche thinks, who is willing to embrace the whole of life in this way. Übermensch is a term that has various translations, the most common being ‘superman’ – shades of a ‘blond beast’ in lycra are suggested by this translation! The ‘Overman/ Over person’ are other suggestions that get closer to some sense of the German term but are still unsatisfactory. The Übermensch can embrace the thought of the eternal return because she/ he has overcome the powerful feelings of ressentiment, and all the other petty reactivities that go with a disparaging, and hatred of what life has offered, or is offering. As an authentic individual the Übermensch has overcome themselves and their reactivities. Is Gotama, the Buddha, a candidate for being a Nietzschean Übermensch? And did Nietzsche have the Buddha in mind when he conceived of the Übermensch? Certainly, the Übermensch, so Nietzsche thought, was a goal that humanity should set itself, just as the Buddha thought the goal we should aspire to was to ‘wake up’ and overcome our reactive tendencies. However, does Nietzsche’s conception of the Übermensch surpass the claims made about the Buddha, and those that follow his path?

Human beings, according to Gotama, have the capacity to wake up from their animal like consciousness – tiracchāna vijjā – and take up a path to moral and ethical excellence. Nevertheless, again and again the Buddha speaks of following the way or path that he teaches as ‘going against the current,’ and that his path represents a ‘crossing over’ and standing on the further shore of freedom. Similarly, Nietzsche conceives of human being as the potentiality for a ‘crossing over,’

Zarathustra looked at the people and wondered. Then he said: Man is a rope, stretched between beast and Übermensch across an abyss.

A dangerous crossing over, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.

The meaning of the future, the journey from beast to Übermensch is a journey fraught with danger, and those on that journey across the abyss – the abyss (abgrund) is the lack of any solid ground that humans can stand upon, as there is no metaphysical underpinning to human existence – God, for Nietzsche, is dead, and with the death of the certainty guaranteed by God, all things are ungrounded, including our values and ethics. The danger represented by the abyss is that there is the constant peril of falling into a bovine complacency and mediocrity, which is represented by the ‘marketplace.’ Those that inhabit this marketplace are the contented majority whose ‘souls,’ Nietzsche claims, ‘will be dead before their bodies.’ This danger is further symbolized by Nietzsche in the figure of the ‘Last Human,’ who is meant to engender a fear within us regarding humanity’s destiny – arising out of this fear is the urgency to make the Übermensch the meaning of the future.  Zarathustra says to the assembled listeners in the marketplace:

‘Behold! I show to you the ast human.

What is love? What is creation? What is yearning? What is a star?” thus asks the last human and then blinks.’

For the earth has now become small, and upon it hops the last human, who makes everything small. Its race is as inexterminable as the ground-flea; the last human lives the longest.’

‘” We have contrived happiness” – say the last humans and they blink (augenblick).

… ‘No herdsman and one herd! Everyone wants the same thing; everyone is the same: whoever feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse. (TSZ, 16)

To free oneself from the spectre of the last human, becoming authentic, one must ‘live dangerously’ – always with the possibility of a ‘fall’ in mind – by becoming the creator of values that potentially enhance our ways of living. Hitherto, humans have, according to Nietzsche, been the receivers of values. These values originate with the mores of the herd – associated with the nihilism of Christianity – and culminate in the ‘last human.’ Yet, the received moralities of our cultures may not be fit for the contemporary world, with its unique challenges, and simply induce a complacency that passes for contentment. God’s death – announced in The Gay Science and reiterated at the beginning of Zarathustra has left secular human beings in a nihilistic moral vacuum. In an unawareness of the dangers of nihilism people are left struggling to ascertain a ‘meaning of life,’ and often do so within the spiritual supermarket of ‘New Ageism’; here there is something for everyone. Alternatively, they seek for their ‘good life,’ to cover up the ‘spiritual’ pain of nihilism with the ‘religion’ of capitalist materialism. Without some shared consensus as to what constitutes authentic living, people flounder in what Nietzsche refers to as ‘decadence culture’ – both the spirituality of new age religious movements and the religion of materialism are ‘decadent,’ for Nietzsche.

There is an urgency to Nietzsche’s message in Also sprach Zarathustra that I find strangely absent in the early Pali texts of Buddhism – there are infrequent references to saṃvega, but these are never really investigated thoroughly – with their language of mental cultivation spoken in a supremely measured tone.  Nevertheless, despite the differences in tone and style (an important concept for Nietzsche) there is much within Zarathustra that almost leaps off the page as having its origins in an understanding of Buddhism. I stress the word ‘origins,’ because if Nietzsche is using Buddhist thought, he is using it in a way to stimulate his own thought, rather than simply reiterating what he discovers within Buddhism. Overall, his attitude to Buddhism remains critical. And yet, he discovers in Buddhist thought a therapeutic ethic of freedom. In The Anti-Christ he states that,

Buddhism is the only positivistic ‘religion’ history has to show us, even in its epistemology (a strict phenomenalism) it no longer speaks of ‘the struggle against sin’, but quite in accordance with actuality of the struggle against suffering … against a state of depression that has arisen, the Buddha takes hygienic measures. The Anti- Christ, 20.

What Nietzsche is applauding here is that Buddhism takes suffering as its existential starting point. In doing so it avoids the language of ‘sin’ and ‘guilt,’ that is so prevalent in theistic religion, opting instead for psychologically ‘hygienic’ measures as a means of dealing with the suffering and distress of human existence.

Instead of parroting Buddhist concepts, what we discover when reading Nietzsche is that he thinks like a Buddhist but eschews the conservative dogmatism that insidiously creeps into Buddhist thinking, all too soon after Gotama’s death. He does this in a way that is certainly more original and authentic than many early Buddhist scholars for whom ‘thinking’ is simply offering commentary and exegesis on canonical texts – Buddhaghosa ia a good example within the Theravāda tradition, whose very name proclaims him to be ‘The voice of the Buddha!’

I asked the question earlier as to whether Gotama – ‘The Buddha’ – could have been an exemplar for Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch. This is not so far-fetched as we may think as within the Pali Canon we find the term uttarimanussa, which refers to a being with ‘superhuman’ qualities – you could almost literally translate uttarimanussa by the German Übermensch – and in the Uttarimanussadhamma Sutta (AN. 6. 77) we find the following descriptor:

… without giving up six things, one is incapable of realizing any superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. What six? Lack of mindfulness and situational awareness, not guarding the sense doors, lack of moderation in eating, duplicity, and flattery. Without having abandoned these six things one is incapable of realizing any superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones.

… having abandoned six things, one can realize a superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. What six? … (repeat of passage above).

Such a person, as the text says, is ‘worthy of the noble ones,’ and yet in Nietzsche’s terms are they the creators of new values, and an ethics responsive to modern dilemmas? What Nietzsche gives us in the Übermensch is a version of the Uttarimanussa who is responsive to the problems and dilemmas of the modern world, and less narrowly focused on the relinquishment of a range of unskillful individualistic qualities. However, the Uttarimanussa, as mentioned in the passage from the Numerical Discourses, does describe some aspects of the morally transfigured human being – one who has given up six things – who has crossed to the shore of freedom. The Buddha described his teaching as an Uttarimanussadhamma – a crossing over to the further shore of freedom, or authenticity.

 As we have seen, ‘Übermensch’ is almost a literal translation of Uttarimanussa, and delineates this ‘crossing over’ and relinquishment of all that is petty and to be overcome – an Übermensch is thus someone who has succeeded in overcoming everything that is petty within themselves. Does the giving up of a lack of mindfulness and situational awareness, and not guarding the sense door etc., as described in the Uttarimanussadhamma Sutta, constitute the overcoming of all that is petty within oneself? In Nietzschean terms, we could perhaps say that this is start!

Buddhism since is very inception has had the accusation directed at it of being nihilistic. This complaint has echoed down through the ages, and yet we see no direct attention being given to the question of nihilism and its dangers.  Nihilism is certainly identified. The first text of the Dīgha Nikāya, the ‘Brahmajāla Sutta, for example, details out various species of nihilistic thought amongst contemporaries of the Buddha, and critiques them as not being conducive to liberation. Nietzsche, however, sees nihilism as the supreme danger that we are confronted by, in the wake of the death of God. When Buddhism does direct its attention to a critique of nihilism – usually in the later schools of Buddhism (Mahāyāna) that grew up after the Buddha’s death – it usually veers doctrinally toward the shore of metaphysical eternalism.

Nietzsche, howver, stridently challenges us to confront the terrifying spectre of modern nihilism by embracing the sheer contingency and un-grounded-ness of life – using the thought of the eternal return as a way of authenticating and embracing our lives.  He does so, not by formulating an alternative metaphysical ground (on my reading the eternal return is not another metaphysical starting point) that we can base our existence and actions upon, but by putting us into the position of the creators of affirmative values. As creators of values, we do not cling to what has been delivered to us from the past. This means that we must, under an imperative, test the teachings, and values that we receive from the past, as one would test a bell – Nietzsche’s subtitle to his Twilight of the Idols, is ‘how to philosophize with a hammer.’ This indicates that we should ‘sound’ each value to see whether it ‘rings true’ or hollow. Similarly, those that follow the path of liberation have this kind of ‘testing’ placed upon them both as a burden, and a liberating movement. As I have already suggested, to thoroughly test the teaching with our ‘hammer’ is the greatest honour that we can accord a thinker who lived two and a half millennia ago. In thoroughly examining those insights that have been received from the past, without treating them as mere metaphysical doctrine, is to revivify what may be ailing but not quite dead yet. If, however, we engage in treating these insights as historical artifacts, we are in danger of becoming those that are simply handling the mummified relics of a past civilization and passing on the ‘corpse’ of a tradition.

Reading Nietzsche in conjunction with our reflections on Buddhist thought and practices enables us to put down the kind of reverential attitudes with which we often treat the figure of Gotama the Buddha, and his teaching. In laying down these attitudes, that often hinder genuine thinking, we can engage with them, and subject them to a thorough examination as to their viability in the contemporary world. If we utilize Nietzsche’s test of the eternal return it allows us to put some real ‘flesh’ on the bones of Buddhist ethical thought. There are many other areas where a Buddhist-Nietzschean dialogue would illuminate both areas of thought, but these must be left until another time …

John Peacock





























Buddhism, for Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ, was to be understood as a therapeutic ethic to freedom.


Buddhist parallels appear on almost every page of Nietzsche’s most famous work Also Sprach Zarathustra the title implies the reflex: evaṃ me sutaṃ ‘I have heard it said’, or in the more common translation ‘Thus have I heard.’



What we find is that Nietzsche thinks like a Buddhist, perhaps more authentically than most Buddhist scholars, who generally do little more than provide commentarial exegesis of canonical texts.]


Transformed is Zarathustra: a child has Zarathustra become: wide awake is Zarathustra; what business have you among sleepers?

Zarathustra answered, ‘I love mankind.’


Zarathustra looked at the people and wondered. Then he said: Man is a rope, stretched between beast and Übermensch across an abyss.

A dangerous crossing over, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.

Human beings have the capacity to wake up from their animal like consciousness – tiracchāna vijjā – and take up a path to moral and ethical excellence. Again, and again the Buddha speaks of taking the way as ‘going against the current’ (Das Man, mauvais foi?) … a crossing over and standing on the further shore of freedom.


Zarathustra’s words of farewell to his disciples remarkably parallels the last conversations the Buddha had with his own [See the Mahaparinibbāna Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya]

… One repays a teacher badly if one remains a pupil. And why do you not pluck atm y laurels?

You respect me: but how if one day your respect should tumble? Take care that a falling statue does not strike you down.

You had not yet sought yourself when you found me. Thus do all believers: therefore, all belief is of little account.

Now I did you lose me and find yourselves …


Is Zarathustra a coded reference to the Buddha?

Once you said ‘God’ when you gazed upon the distant seas: but now I have taught you to say Übermensch.



Unlike traditional Buddhism, certainly as it was understood in Nietzsche’s time, which views rebirth in a literal sense, Nietzsche transfigures it into the eternal return. Everything, ‘absolutely everything’, that has occurred in your life is going to occur again an infinite number of times. Can we say ‘Yes’ to such a proposition, rather than being horrified? The Übermensch, the authentic person, is someone who can embrace and affirm such a possibility. The ‘eternal return’ is a test of our affirmation of life, with all its contingency and suffering.


Freedom in Nietzsche hinges on the concept of self-mastery, or ‘self-overcoming’ and is instantiated in his idea of the Übermensch.