God Is Dead: What Next?
A Buddhist Response to Nietzsche
Robert Morrison (Dharmachari Sagaramati)
IN BRITAIN, during these past ten years or so, interest in the writings of the 19th
century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, has dramatically increased. Nietzsche is
now popular. To meet the new interest in Nietzsche, in 1990 the British Nietzsche Society
was founded, which publishes its own biannual journal. And there has been a sudden flood
of books on and about Nietzsche dealing with his theory of language, his notions of truth,
reason, literature, nature, morality, his relation to Socrates, Kant, Schopenhauer,
Heidegger, Blake, Darwin, Post-Modern Criticism, his attitude to Christianity, Buddhism,
etc., etc. Why there is this sudden increase of interest in Nietzsche I do not know, but
the interests are very diverse: Nietzsche had something to say, mostly polemical, on all
and everything, even on the effects of eating rice on the minds of the early Indian
However, he was not always so popular, especially in this country. For example,
Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy, quotes a line from King Lear as
being 'Nietzsche's philosophy in a nutshell':
I will do such things - What they are yet I know not - but they shall be The terror of
the earth. 2
Russell sees Nietzsche as advocating a kind of universal war that will clear the earth
of all the rubbish-like beings and leave only Nietzsche's 'noble man', 'a being wholly
devoid of sympathy, ruthless, cunning, cruel, concerned only with his own power'. 3 However, I'm glad to say that such an ill-informed and distorted
judgement of Nietzsche's philosophy is no longer espoused today.
It seems, however, to be the opposite case with God: unlike Nietzsche, he certainly was
popular, but of late he (or she) does not appear to be so popular. Indeed, God's
popularity, at least in Western Europe, seems to be fading rather fast. Today, we even
have clergy who, despite the fact that they officiate as priests and ministers at
Christian services, do not, themselves, actually believe that God exists. In an article in
the Independent newspaper, Michael De-la-Noy, who used to be the press officer to the
Archbishop of Canterbury, tells us that:
'In the good old days (about ten years ago) it was enough to run off with a choirboy or
the organist's wife to be unfrocked. But, having dismantled the liturgy of Cranmer, the
[Anglican] Church is now so lazy about language that it allows blatant confusion between
doubt (which any reasonable person experiences) and disbelief. So any friendly atheist who
is above moral suspicion is welcome to stay on board and receive a salary and
accommodation to the value of £20,000 a year'. 4
I am not sure of the state of affairs with the other Churches, but at least in the
Anglican Church it seems you do not even have to believe in the existence of God in order
to become a vicar or even a bishop! It is rather surprising, therefore, that the sex of an
applicant should matter at all!
1. THE DEATH OF GOD
BUT ALL THIS is just by the way to bring us to the first part of this essay: just what
did Nietzsche actually mean when, in Book Three of The Gay Science, he declares that 'God
is Dead'? 5 Not only that, but: 'All of us are his
Nietzsche's assertion that 'God is Dead' is not simply a theological statement.
Nietzsche hasn't come up with the definitive argument to prove beyond all reasonable doubt
that God could not possibly exist-except in the minds of men. This statement, although it
certainly does have its theological aspect, is essentially a statement proclaiming the
plight of modern Western culture. Succinctly stated, the 'Death of God' refers to the
complete loss of belief in the accepted religious and metaphysical world-view along with
the system of values it upholds, in particular its moral values. The 'Death of God'
announces the advent of the age of nihilism, an age of cultural barrenness arising from
this loss of belief, and which may well end in catastrophe as far as any truly human
existence is concerned.
Yet, to Nietzsche, this demise of 'God', this loss of belief in all that we esteemed as
the highest and most valuable, is simply the natural and logical outcome, within the
history of Western culture, of the accepted religious and metaphysical world-view. It all
begins with the original premise of the framework of Platonism, which, according to
Nietzsche, became the ground of all subsequent metaphysical, religious, moral, historical
and political views on man and his place in the universe. Broadly, that original Platonic
or Socratic premise claimed that existence is bifurcated into two separate asymmetrical
realms, one transitory, mundane and of the nature of an 'appearance', the other the
eternally divine and 'True Reality'. It was the latter, this 'True Reality', that gave
life its meaning and value and man his orientation within it, as well as the capacity,
through the 'intellect [nous] which is the pilot of the soul', 7
to discern it. The former, the natural world, was, by contrast, valueless and without any
inherent meaning except, perhaps, as a means of weakly reflecting that 'True Reality' and
reminding the philosopher of its presence. Within this two-world view, the only truly
human life was one lived in pursuit of that eternal reality, was one whose goal was to
gain knowledge of, to commune with and even enter, at death, that 'True Reality'. Our
'true home' was in that other divine realm. Within this two-world framework, the highest
human values, whether religious, moral, aesthetic or otherwise, those which give life
meaning and value, had their source not in this natural world but in that other realm or
being that transcends this natural world. In comparison with that eternal, transcendent
realm or being, the source of all that is called 'good', this transitory and mundane world
is valueless and meaningless, even 'evil'. As a consequence of this two-world view, all
passions, aspirations and goals whose objects and ends are in this natural world are also,
by definition, valueless and meaningless-even 'evil'. As such, they are to be resisted and
conquered by the 'good' man. In the West, this Platonic world-view provided the
theological framework for Christianity. As Augustine tells us, 'Christianity is Platonism
for the people'. 8 Plato's 'True World' becomes Christianised
as the 'Kingdom of God', which is now accessible to more than philosophers as one can
enter it by faith alone. However, the object of faith can only be verified at death-what
is called 'eschatological verification'.
Socrates, speaking through Plato, is therefore seen by Nietzsche as 'the one turning
point and vortex of so-called world history', because, in spite of the fact that
Christianity claims that one can now enter the 'Kingdom of God' through faith alone, it is
this pursuit of knowledge that 'became the real task for every person of higher gifts' 9 down through the ages. As a result, it is this pursuit of
knowledge that became the formative force in determining the way Western culture has
evolved down to the present day. Yet, ironically, it is this very pursuit of knowledge and
truth that is undermining this whole Platonic world-view, that is 'killing off' belief in
God, and giving rise to the age of nihilism: the pursuit of 'Truth' has led to the truth
that there is no 'Truth'; the pursuit of 'Knowledge' has finally led to the knowledge that
there is no 'True Reality' in the Platonic sense, no 'Kingdom of God' or even a God
without a Kingdom. The 'Death of God' means the death of a whole world-view, of a whole
interpretation of existence and a whole set of values, moral and otherwise, that were
inherent in that world-view. How could this happen?
The full story, being a rather long story, cannot be told here. It would involve the
whole history of Western philosophy and theology, and in particular, the growth of modern
science-using 'science' in the sense of the German Wissenschaft, which includes not only
the 'hard' sciences like physics, but any scholarly and critical discipline such as
philology, the discipline Nietzsche himself was trained in. As a philologist, Nietzsche
had first hand experience of the destructive effect the sciences were having: 'the
philologists ... are the destroyers of every faith that rests on books'. 10
But let us very briefly look at what Nietzsche sees as one very important juncture in this
history of Western culture.
Beginning with the 18th century Italian thinker, Vico, various philosophers sought in
the bowels of history for intelligible signs so as to make sense of their own times in
terms of the past and, like augurs of old, discern how the future might unfold. All,
however, despite their differing views, because they were looking at history through some
version of this Platonic framework, whether consciously or unconsciously, concluded that
the course of human history, at least in the West, revealed an intelligible purpose: human
history was characterised by a gradual progress towards some end, and this end was, in
some manner, the fulfilment of human striving and potential. Man and his actions were
cosmologically central within a universe that was purposeful and inherently structured to
fulfil that end. But to Nietzsche, because of what one scientist in particular-Charles
Darwin-had revealed, such a philosophy of history was now beginning to be seen as no more
than gross human conceit and wish fulfilment. With the appearance of Darwin's On the
Origin of Species, the scientific data available tended to premise an opposite conclusion:
man was now seen as the centre of nothing other than his own existence; there was no
evidence of any extra-terrestrial providential force or being looking after his destiny;
nor was the natural world structured for his welfare any more than for any other animal.
There was simply no evidence to premise such an optimistic conclusion. With Darwin, man
becomes just another animal without any necessary laws to guarantee his future progress.
As Nietzsche puts it in Daybreak:
'Formerly one sought the feeling of the grandeur of man by pointing to his divine
origin: this has now become a forbidden way, for at the portal stands the ape, together
with other gruesome beasts, grinning knowingly as if to say: no further in this
One of the main avenues by which we came to see ourselves as essentially separate from
the rest of Nature, see ourselves as created by some divine fiat or possessed of a soul
that had its natural home in that other, transcendental realm, was now, for many
thoughtful people, barred. But perhaps, Nietzsche asks, our feeling of grandeur might be
still be derived from the opposite direction:
'One therefore now tries in the opposite direction: the way mankind is going shall
serve as proof of his grandeur and kinship with God. Alas this, too, is vain! At the end
of this way stands the funeral urn of the last man and gravedigger (with the inscription
'nihil humani a me alienum puto' [I hold nothing human alien from me]). However high
mankind may have evolved ... it cannot pass over into a higher order, as little as the ant
or earwig can at the end of its 'earthly course' rise up to kinship with God and eternal
life. ... why should an exception to this eternal spectacle be made on behalf of some
little star or for any little species upon it! Away with such sentimentalities'. 12
Yet it would be wrong to think that Nietzsche was pleased with all this and rejoiced in
the fact that God was dead. He did not welcome the advent of nihilism because, putting on
his prophet's hat, he foresaw that as a consequence of the 'Death of God' what we regard
as human civilisation and culture, all that we hold as most worthy and valuable and the
source of our self-esteem, is now likely to be overtaken and destroyed by a more brutal
and animal-like age. In one of his Untimely Meditations, he reveals his fears:
'[If] ... the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal-doctrines which I
consider true but deadly-are thrust upon the people for another generation ... no one
should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification and greed, falls
apart and ceases to be a people; in its place systems of individualist egoism,
brotherhoods for rapacious exploitation of non-brothers ... may perhaps appear in the
arena of the future'. 13
The 'Death of God' and the advent of nihilism, although they arise from a more honest
and critical look at ourselves and the institutions we have created, rather than leading
us on to something more worthy of our humanity, are more likely, instead, to create a
cultural vacuum into which will pour the hordes of the more obnoxious aspects of human
nature. The demise of God may unleash forces whose consequences, as far as the future
potential of human civilisation is concerned, will be disastrous. The only consequence of
God's demise may be the destruction of all that we have regarded as truly human, as we
have, as yet, nothing of any real value to replace 'God' with. We may be left with what
'the terrifying Either/Or: "Either abolish your reverences or-yourselves!"' 14
All this comes about, because, realising that the values we saw in the world were put
there by ourselves-were our own creation-when we pull those values out again then 'the
world looks valueless'. 15 ' One interpretation has
collapsed, but because it was considered the interpretation it now seems as if there were
no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain'. 16
We are left feeling 'as if one had deceived oneself all too long' 17
and, as a consequence, feel a certain despair and hopelessness concerning the future. The
world now looks valueless and meaningless. However, as it only looks valueless and
meaningless because of this sense of loss, its true status is still as yet unknown to us.
Consequently, for all we know, 'the world might be far more valuable than we used to
think'. 18 Nietzsche thought it was and saw as his next task
the creation a new world-view and set of values to replace the old ones, values that would
take us through the on-coming stage of nihilism and out the other end. The 'Death of God'
simply puts the question as to the value of life and man's place in it back in our laps,
which is where it belongs. The question as to the value and meaning of life is once again
an open one. As Nietzsche puts it in the Gay Science:
'At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at
long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring
of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps
there has never yet been such an 'open sea'. 19
Individual human beings have an unknown potential, and that potential may yet reveal to
us that our lives can become far more valuable, meaningful and satisfying than we ever
Just because one false avenue has been shown to be a kind of evolutionary cul-de-sac,
this doesn't mean that there are no more avenues, even though that is what it may feel
like. Nietzsche, of course, did venture out onto that 'open sea' but, unfortunately, he
did not travel very far. His proposed answer to nihilism, his projected 'revaluation of
all values', was cut short by his death. Nevertheless, he did leave us with a few hints as
to its general outline. However, at this point, before moving on to have a look at
Nietzsche's general outline, I must say something about one fear Nietzsche had, and this
was that many of his contemporaries, in their despair at having lost all that they had
held in esteem, might actually turn to Buddhism as a means of seeking solace in the now
2. BUDDHISM AS A DANGER
NIETZSCHE SAW an historical parallel between his own age and that of the Buddha. 20 The Buddha, according to Nietzsche, saw in his own age, just
like Nietzsche, that 'God is Dead'. But, rather than create a new avenue by which human
potential could unfold, thereby passing beyond nihilism, the Buddha failed by creating a
new religion that simply helped man adjust to nihilism. The Buddha's response to the
possible 'awe inspiring catastrophe' 21 of his own time was
to found a religion which, rather than help people overcome the newly felt meaninglessness
of existence and create a new more meaningful vision of existence, simply helped them
adjust to nihilism with a certain degree of cheerful acceptance. According to Nietzsche's
view of Buddhism, the Buddha taught his contemporaries how to face up to the stark, cold,
meaninglessness of existence, face up to the fact that in this universe human existence
has no special place, and remain aloof, untroubled and cheerful. To attain this state, and
Nietzsche considers that it was actually achieved, 22 is to
attain the Buddhist goal of nirvaa.na. Although the Buddha avoided what Nietzsche
considered the greatest danger resulting from the 'Death of God'-destructive anarchy, a
'war of all against all' in the Hobbesian sense-he nevertheless failed to understand
nihilism for what it actually is-a world-view expressive of a psychological reaction of
despair that comes from seeing through the illusion we were living under, seeing that 'the
world does not have the value we thought it had', 23 and
concluding that the world, therefore, must be worthless and meaningless. The Buddha, by
failing to understand how nihilism arises, accepts nihilism as the ultimate statement upon
existence. Consequently, if human existence has to be given an aim, it must reflect this
ultimate judgement and present a goal appropriate to it. The Buddha gives us nirvaa.na,
the ultimate panacea, a state of cheerfulness and desirelessness wherein all terrestrial
troubles and existential Angste are extinguished, and death will be met with nothing more
than a cheerful sigh of ultimate relief. Nietzsche therefore sees Buddhism as 'a religion
for the end and fatigue of civilisation'. 24 Yet, although
the Buddha ultimately failed to transcend nihilism, Nietzsche does regard the Buddha as
being a real physician of the psyche who offers a real cure. Unlike other religions,
Buddhism does not offer man fictitious goals, but only real ones: the Buddhist path does
lead 'to an actual and not merely promised happiness on earth'. 25
But the Buddha's 'cure' fails to go beyond nihilism, and, instead, only strengthens the
spirit in the face of a cold, meaningless universe. And as Nietzsche sees that many of his
cultured contemporaries, having lost their Christian faith, were beginning to be attracted
to Buddhism, he is rather worried that Buddhism will gain ground in Europe. After all, it
offers a real cure for the 'diseased nerves' of these 'late human beings ... grown kindly,
gentle, over intellectual, who feel pain too easily' 26 and
allows them to sit at ease with nihilism. But the 'cure' does not go far enough.
3. NIETZSCHE'S ANSWER TO NIHILISM
NIETZSCHE'S ANSWER to nihilism begins with the question: if the source of 'Truth', the
'Real World', has been negated by truth, what now is the status of that world previously
seen as 'mundane', seen as a mere 'appearance'? Nietzsche replies:
'We have abolished the real world: what world is left? The apparent world perhaps? ...
But no! With the real world we have also abolished the apparent world!' 27
What we are therefore left with is simply 'the world' or, more correctly, the world and
life as encountered and interpreted by its own latest prodigy, man. And when the man,
Nietzsche, contemplates life and the world, he eventually concludes that 'the world
described and defined according to its 'intelligible character'-it would be 'will to
power' and nothing else'. 28 This notion of the 'will to
power' becomes Nietzsche's replacement for 'God', and it is a notion derived from
contemplating this world. It is through this notion of 'will to power' that the world and
life become, once again, intelligible, and a new, more truly meaningful vision of
existence can be created, taking us beyond nihilism. So how did Nietzsche arrive at this
Throughout the whole history of Western culture there has only ever been a single
people who, in terms of Nietzsche's view of culture, achieved a perfect form of it: the
ancient Greeks. For Nietzsche, they have been 'the only people of genius in world history'
29 because they created so many great individual human beings
30 who, he says, 'shine in the radiance of a higher
humanity'. 31 For a glimpse of what humanity can become, it
therefore is to the ancient Greeks that Nietzsche turns. And when Nietzsche looks for the
reason why Greek culture threw up so many great individuals, he finds it in its attitude
towards and creative response to our natural desires and passions. Briefly stated, the
Greeks Nietzsche so admired, whilst acknowledging the blind destructiveness that human
nature is capable of, did not, like Plato and Christianity, alienate man from nature: they
did not seek to explain what is best and most worthy in man by appealing to some
fictitious, higher non-natural source but, instead, saw what is most worthy and best in
man as a continuation of nature, as having its roots solely in this natural world:
'... the 'natural' qualities and the properly called 'human' ones have grown up
inseparably together. Man in his highest and noblest capacities is Nature and bears in
himself her awful twofold character. His abilities generally considered dreadful and
inhuman are perhaps indeed the fertile soil, out of which alone can grow forth all
humanity in emotions, actions and works'. 32
The Greeks accepted that human nature contains some 'dreadful and inhuman' traits, but
their genius, according to Nietzsche, was in their methods of dealing with them. The
paradigmatic model is found in the Works and Days of the 8th century poet, Hesiod. For
Hesiod, the most common characteristic of life is 'Strife' or Eris. But Hesiod, in his
poem, personifies two forms of 'Strife' upon the earth in the form of two Eris-goddesses,
a cruel one who 'makes battles thrive, and war'; and the other, 'first-born child of
blackest Night' who 'is good for mortal men', because, through envy, she makes 'even lazy
men to work'. Thus 'potter hates potter, carpenters compete,/ And beggar strives with
beggar, bard with bard'. 33 Nietzsche comments that 'this is
one of the most noteworthy Hellenic thoughts and worthy to be impressed on the newcomer
immediately at the entrance-gate of Greek ethics'. 34 More
importantly, it shows that the natural passions can incite 'men to activity but not the
action of war to the knife but to the action of contest ... [making of Eris] ... a
beneficent deity'. 35 The Greeks did not judge human passions
and desires as being either moral or immoral in themselves: they were simply natural. But
they could be used by men, as in Hesiod's example, either destructively thereby becoming
'dreadful and inhuman'-the 'bad' Eris, or creatively-the 'good' Eris, which, through the
notion of 'contest' or agon, can become a pursuit of 'excellence' or aret. Even the great
tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, works that are still held in esteem
today, were created out of this spirit of agon. As Nietzsche comments: 'the Greek knows
the artist only as engaged in a personal fight'. 36
It is through the example of following Hesiod's 'good' Eris, through this Greek model
of agon based on the pursuit of 'excellence', that Nietzsche finds his answer to nihilism.
Hesiod's 'Strife' becomes, in Nietzsche, the 'will to power'; and just as Hesiod's
'Strife' has the potential for both 'good' and 'bad', so too with Nietzsche's 'will to
power'. However, in Nietzsche's model, for the creative aspect to flourish fully, the
'contest' must move on from being between individuals to one between the vying drives and
passions within the individual, what Nietzsche calls 'self-overcoming'
(Selbstüberwindung). It is this path of 'self-overcoming' that constitutes Nietzsche's
answer to nihilism proper. It is this path of 'self-overcoming', the 'will to power'
become individualised, that is his proposed replacement for the old, displaced spiritual
or religious quest. The goal is now not in some other world, but is the re-creation of
one's own being in this world into something more exalted, what he calls an Übermensch.
This goal of the creation of Übermenschen now becomes 'the meaning of the earth'. 37
However, although it was the Greeks who provided Nietzsche with his paradigm, on its
own, in the modern world, it would not be enough. For any new view of man and his place in
the world to be taken seriously, it would also have to be underpinned by science, whose
confidence and prestige at that time was extensive. Yet although Nietzsche admired
science, especially its hard-headed search for the truth, he judged that modern science
was itself a danger. It too was leading mankind to a thoroughly nihilistic end by way of
its mechanistic interpretation of the world, which is still with us today. As he says
about this mechanistic interpretation of the world:
'A 'scientific' interpretation of the world ... might ... be one of the most stupid of
all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it would be one of the poorest in
meaning. This thought is intended for the ears and consciences of our mechanists who
nowadays like to pass as philosophers and insist that mechanics is the doctrine of the
first and last laws on which all existence must be based as on a ground floor. But an
essentially mechanical world would be an essentially meaningless world. Assuming that one
estimated the value of a piece of music according to how much of it can be counted,
calculated, and expressed in formulas: how absurd would such a 'scientific' estimation of
music be! Nothing, really nothing of what is 'music' in it!' 38
Just as a scientific analysis of a Mozart symphony cannot evaluate it as a work of art
or determine what the human being Mozart might have been trying to express, mechanistic
materialism, as a philosophy of life, is quite useless in any evaluation of life, in any
attempt to understand what a human being is, or what human goals are worthy of being
pursued. Nietzsche feared that this mechanistic philosophy was well on its way to becoming
the victorious world-view. But to Nietzsche, science, by itself, cannot create values, but
actually requires 'a value-creating power, in the service of which it could believe in
itself'. 39 To oppose it he required a non-mechanistic theory
of nature which, whilst being scientific, could also be adapted to his notion of human
nature derived from the Greeks. When reading Friedrich Lange's History of Materialism,
what Nietzsche called his 'treasurehouse', 40 he found the
means by which to undermine dogmatic, mechanistic materialism: the dynamic theory of
nature put forward by the 18th century Jesuit scientist and mathematician, Roger
Boscovitch. 41 Here, Nietzsche found his 'servant'. In
Boscovitch's theory of matter, the atomic lumps of rigid, inert matter are replaced by
puncta: indivisible, dimensionless, point-like centres of force, what Nietzsche, after
Lange and others, variously calls Kraftcentren or 'force-centres', Machtquanta or
'power-quanta' and Kraftquanta or 'force-quanta'. What we think of as solid matter is, in
fact, better described as a 'constellation of forces'. 42
What we conceive of as 'impenetrability' and 'solidity' are no more than the experience of
All natural phenomena, in this model, from the simple atom through to that of a human
being, are viewed as various dynamic configurations of forces. Yet, according to
Nietzsche, whatever we understand, even in the realm of science, we can do so only in our
own image, only on the analogy of our own experience. 43 This
being the case, given that we are the evolutes of nature and that our most intimate and
direct experience of nature is the forces that vie within us-our drives, instincts,
emotions and passions-on the analogy of this experience Nietzsche asks: 'is it not now
permitted to make the experiment and ask the question whether this which is given [in our
experience] does not suffice for an understanding even of the so-called mechanical (or
"material") world', thereby making life and nature 'intelligible'? 44 If so, then Boscovitch's dynamic theory of nature still needs to
be completed: an 'inner-will' analogous to that of the forces within us must be ascribed
to it-even the atom must be characterised as possessing a Wille zur Macht or 'will to
power'. Thus, by adding a primitive nisus to Boscovitch's puncta, turning them into
Willens-Punktationen or 'will-points', 45 Nietzsche is
attempting to give his theory of human nature derived from the Greeks a scientific basis.
Our drives, instincts and passions-our affects-can be seen as the latest 'fruits' in a
dynamic continuum whose roots are the forces studied by physics. Consequently, there is no
'matter', there is no mechanistic materialism, but only something more analogous to 'will'
struggling with 'will'. 46 Nietzsche therefore proposes that
the 'world seen from within, the world defined according to its 'intelligible character',
would be 'will to power' and nothing else'. 47 Given this
paradigm, it follows that if it is these very natural forces vying with each other that
have not only created rocks but also us, then if mankind is to have any kind of future
spiritual quest to replace the old one, it is only by consciously working on and with the
forces within us-our drives, emotions and passions-through a process of 'self-overcoming'
(Selbstüberwindung), that we can achieve this. We are free to re-create ourselves and
release the potential that we each have. It is only by following such a path that we can
once again find more meaningful and deeply satisfying lives. We will come to experience
ourselves as living life as it should and can be lived. However this is all very well in
theory, but when we turn to Nietzsche to find out just how we are to achieve this, we are
given little help.
Practically the whole of Nietzsche's reflections and advice on how one can work on and
with our affects and so 'recreate' ourselves is found in a few extended dicta in Daybreak,
The Wanderer and his Shadow and one in The Twilight of the Idols. Firstly, he considers
that we have so far been blind to the possibility of self-development:
'What we are at liberty to do.-One can dispose of one's drives like a gardener and,
though few know it, cultivate the shoots of anger, pity, curiosity, vanity as productively
and profitably as a beautiful fruit tree on a trellis; one can do it with the good or bad
taste of a gardener ... one can also let nature rule and only attend to a little
embellishment and tidying-up here and there; one can, finally, without paying any
attention to them at all, let the plants grow up and fight their fight out among
themselves ... All this we are at liberty to do; but how many know we are at liberty to do
'Disposing of one's drives like a gardener' requires 'weeding', 'pruning' and
cultivation through 'nourishment'. With respect to 'weeding' and 'pruning', he gives us a
few hints as to his gardening methods.
'First, one can avoid opportunities for gratification of the drive, and through long
and ever longer periods of non-gratification weaken it and make it wither away. [Secondly]
one can impose upon oneself strict regularity in its gratification: by thus imposing a
rule upon the drive itself and enclosing its ebb and flood within firm time-boundaries,
one has then gained intervals during which one is no longer troubled by it-and from there
one can perhaps go over to the first method. Thirdly, one can deliberately give oneself
over to the wild and unrestrained gratification of a drive in order to generate disgust
with it and with disgust to acquire a power over the drive: always supposing one does not
do like the rider who rode his horse to death and broke his own neck in the process-which,
unfortunately, is the rule when this method is attempted. Fourthly, there is the
intellectual method of associating its gratification in general so firmly with some very
painful thought that, after a little practice, the thought of its gratification is itself
at once felt as very painful. ... Finally, ... he who can endure it and finds it
reasonable to weaken and depress his entire bodily and physical organisation will
naturally thereby also attain the goal of weakening an individual drive: as he does, for
example, who, like the ascetic, starves his sensuality and thereby also starves and ruins
his vigour and not seldom his reason as well'. 49
And, elsewhere he comments:
'Overcoming of the passions.-The man who has overcome his passions has entered into
possession of the most fertile ground; like the colonist who has mastered the forests and
swamps. To sow the seeds of good spiritual works in the soil of the subdued passions is
then the immediate urgent task'. 50
Nietzsche gives us a few gardening analogies, but as to what it is we are to 'plant',
what is we are to 'weed', what it is we are to 'cultivate', what is and what is not
'nutritious', we are left only with a few hints. And as to how we are to proceed, he is
even less forthcoming. However, if one scours his writings, one can get his general trend.
For example, he tells us that 'the first preliminary schooling in spirituality' for the
spiritual aspirant is 'not to react immediately to a stimulus, but to have the
restraining, stock-tacking instincts in one's control'. 51
One firstly has to 'become master over his wrath, his choler and revengefulness, and his
lusts' as any attempt to 'become master in anything else, is as stupid as a farmer who
stakes out his field besides a torrential stream without protecting himself against it'. 52 But, apart from these hints, that is about it. It is time to
turn to Buddhism.
4. THE 'WILL TO POWER' AND 'THIRST'
TO ME, all this leads to a certain irony. Here we have Nietzsche seeking for an answer
to the on-coming nihilism, searching for some new spiritual quest to replace the old
theistic one and, but did he realise it, it is only in Buddhism that he could have found
fully worked out methods to achieve the kind of ends he was searching for. Buddhism,
rather than being the nihilistic religion he thought it to be, is in fact something more
akin to kind of the spiritual path he sought as an answer to nihilism. This is not to say
that Nietzsche would have accepted Buddhism unconditionally, but as a method of spiritual
development he would certainly have found much that would have helped him in his task.
As Buddhism is essentially a spiritual path addressed to the individual, its primary
concern, as the suutras make clear, is to aid the individual in his or her spiritual
quest. As such, it has nothing to say about the constitution of the natural world, except
that it is, like everything else, governed by the law of pratiitya-samutpaada or
'conditioned co-production'. In other words, whatever comes to be does so in dependence
upon other conditions and is, therefore, characterised by impermanence and lack of any
substantial, autonomous or unchanging essence or soul. The very same law applies to all
phenomena, whether spiritual, psychological, biological or inorganic. As Buddhism has
nothing to say about the scientific constitution of the natural world, except that it is
also governed by the law of pratiitya-samutpaada, there is no point in trying to find any
affinity between Nietzsche's notion of the natural world characterised as 'will to power'
and some Buddhist notion of the world. However, when we turn to man, one can see such an
affinity. Nietzsche's general conception of man as 'will to power' has an affinity with
Buddhism's dynamic conception of man.
In Buddhism, the most basic trait in any unenlightened being is t.r.snaa or 'thirst', a
term found mainly in poetic literature. Although not clearly stated in the Buddhist texts,
this 'thirst' can be understood as the affective ground out of which all unenlightened
action springs, the ground out of which all our instincts, drives, passions, emotions,
aspirations, etc.- what I will call, after Nietzsche, our 'affects' - evolve. In the
A'nguttara Nik1ya the Buddha is reported as saying that the 'first beginning' of t.r.s.naa
'cannot be known' [na paññaayati], 53 implying that
'thirst' is no ordinary affect, but is rather, in the language Nietzsche uses to describe
the 'will to power', the most 'primitive form of affect' from which 'all other affects are
only developments'. 54
Understanding t.r.s.naa in this way, we can see an affinity between this Buddhist
notion of 'thirst' and Nietzsche's notion of man as 'will to power': both are
characterised by a primitive and innate striving, a striving from what is perceived to be
a less satisfactory to a more satisfactory state, from a less powerful to a more powerful
state. The 'will to power' in its crude and basic human form is concerned with conquering
others, cruelty, tyranny, enmity, revenge, sex, crude selfishness, etc. However, it can be
transformed into expressions of love, justice, gratitude, forgiveness, generosity,
independence of spirit, etc., 55 all of which Nietzsche
considers as manifesting a greater quantum of power than the cruder aspects. Therefore, in
Nietzsche's terms, and this is an important point for what follows even though it needs to
be qualified, 'love', relative to 'hate', manifests more power; self-restraint rather than
laissez-aller manifests more power. Traditionally, in Buddhism, 'thirst' is practically
always negative as it is seen as the subjective ground for the arising of mental states
coloured by greedy self-centredness, aversion and animosity, and mental confusion with
regard to what life can become. As such it is detrimental to one's spiritual development.
However, one can look at it in a more neutral light through the lens of
pratiitya-samutpaada. Putting what is a very detailed argument into a short formula, we
can say that without t.r.s.naa there would be no beings; without beings there would be no
Buddhas. If we view t.r.s.naa in an evolutionary context, see it as the basic drive that
gives rise to the desire to find security, happiness and fulfilment, we could say that
what is wrong is not so much t.r.s.naa itself, but, as in Nietzsche's 'will to power', its
crudeness and spiritual blindness: it seeks happiness and fulfilment in ways that are
inextricably linked to pain and frustration, which, in turn, create such secondary affects
as cruelty and violence, despair, etc. In this way one thereby ends up in an eventual
self-frustrating loop, what in Buddhism is called sa.msaara, or the 'continual round' of
unsatisfactory and unenlightened existence. What t.r.s.naa has to do, using Nietzsche's
terminology, is to 'overcome' (überwinden) itself, overcome its atavistic and primitive
characteristics that had their role to play in early human evolution. T.r.s.naa, when it
does this, when it becomes cognizant of the spiritual path, is transformed into
dharma-chanda, the desire or aspiration (chanda) to enter the spiritual path that
culminates in Buddhahood or Enlightenment, which is seen as the goal and fulfilment of all
human striving. But for t.r.s.naa to become dharma-chanda, for this 'sublimation'
(Sublimierung) of our deep seated desires to come about, there has to be a kind of
'epistemic shift' wherein we come to see and understand the world and our lives in a new
way, a way which opens up possibilities we had not seen before. These possibilities offer
the promise of a new and more fulfilling way of life. This is the Buddhist view. However,
there is no such epistemic shift mentioned in Nietzsche's account, but given his account
of Hesiod's two Eris goddesses, we must assume one.
We have moved from a glance at Nietzsche's notion of man as 'will to power' as compared
with the Buddhist notion of man governed by the most basic characteristic of 'thirst',
from Nietzsche's notion of the sublimation of 'will to power' as 'self-overcoming'
(Selbstüberwindung) to the Buddhist notion of the sublimation or overcoming of t.r.s.naa,
which is dharma-chanda. What I will to do now is to try and show that it is something like
the Buddhist notion of dharma-chanda that fills out and completes Nietzsche's replacement
for the old spiritual quest, his notion of 'self-overcoming'.
5. BUDDHISM AS THE PATH OF 'SELF-OVERCOMING'
AS WE SAW earlier, Nietzsche viewed the person as a constellation of various
fluctuating forces whose individual and collective nisus was expressed in terms of a
striving to overcome all resistance and accumulate more power, i.e., the will to power.
Man is 'the totality of his drives' 56 or, as Nietzsche puts
it elsewhere, is 'subject as multiplicity'. 57 For Buddhism,
also, man is 'subject as multiplicity', he is also 'the totality of his drives'. Buddhism
sees man as a complex, psycho-physical continuum of vying drives and passions. What we
call our 'self' is no more than a label for whatever particular configuration of these
various psycho-physical energies happen to be manifesting at any particular moment. As
Sangharakshita tells us, Buddhism regards man ...
'... as one manifestation of a current of psycho-physical energy manifesting now as a
god, now as an animal, revenant, tortured spirit or titan, and now as a man, according to
whether its constituent volitions are healthy, unhealthy or mixed. Thus Buddhism does not
think of sentient beings in terms of separate forms of life, one absolutely discrete from
another, so much as in terms of separate currents of psychic energy each of which can
associate itself with any form. Energy is primary, form secondary. It is not that man
wills, but rather will 'mans'. 58
What we are at present, our present 'form', comes to be as a consequence of our past
affective-action, our past willing; our present action, our present willing, in turn,
determines what we will become in the future. Therefore, if we wish to become something
other than we are at present, or have been in the past, then it is our present
affective-action, our present willing, that will be the primary and determining factor. In
other words, using Nietzsche's language, what we will become is a matter of our present
'willing', our present striving, which, as we see, is also the language of Buddhism.
In Buddhism, the 'psycho-physical continuum' that we are is analysed, for pragmatic
purposes, into what are called the five skandhas or five 'collections'. What we call a
'person' can be divided into five types of process. Firstly, there is ruupa or 'form',
which is all that is other than our subjectivity, i.e., our bodily form. Then there are
the other four 'groups' which constitute our subjectivity: firstly, vedanaa or 'sensation'
or 'overall feeling tone', which is either pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent; secondly,
sa.mjñaa or 'apperception', in the sense of the process by which our present experience
is assimilated and formed on the basis of our past experience; thirdly, the sa.mskaaras or
'affective and volitional dispositions' both determined and determining; and, lastly,
vijñaana or 'consciousness', which in this set-up simply 'lights up' the rest, or makes
the rest its object. But, as in Buddhism it is our past sa.mskaara-skandha, our past
'affective and determining dispositions', our past willings, that have determined what we
now are, and it is our present action, our present willing, that will determine what our
future being will be, it follows that the methodologically cardinal skandha is our present
sa.mskaara-skandha, in other words our present volitions, our present willing, our present
actions. It is here, therefore, that we will find Hesiod's good and bad Eris-goddesses, it
is here that we will stumble upon Nietzsche's 'garden' and find the various weeds and
flowers and dormant seeds; find what is to be nourished and cultivated and planted; find
what is to be weeded out and thrown on the psychic rubbish-heap. The good Buddhist, is, in
Nietzsche's analogy, the good gardener. But this Buddhist gardener has a much better idea
of what it is he or she is trying to achieve: they have the advice of previous gardeners
who have gone before and who, according to the Buddhist tradition, have created the most
beautiful gardens the world has ever seen by re-creating themselves in the light of a
vision of what is it possible for a human being to become.
The first thing that the Buddhist has to do is to look at their various drives,
passions and emotions-one could even say, 'look at their souls', using that term in a
strictly poetic sense-and learn to discriminate between the weeds and the flowers, learn
to tell the difference between what are traditionally called the ku'sala-karmans or
'skilful-volitions'-we could say, 'skilful-willings'-and aku'sala-karmans or
'unskilful-volitions'. 'Skilful-volitions' are those which express those aspects of our
nature that are worth cultivating and developing; 'unskilful-volitions' are those which
spring from aspects of our nature that, being a hindrance to our efforts to spiritually
develop, are to be overcome and even rooted out. So how do we tell one from the other? The
general guideline that Buddhism gives us is that any activity, whether of body, speech or
mind, that is, to some degree, motivated by unconditional generosity, unconditional
friendliness and mental clarity, is to be cultivated and developed as that is where one's
spiritual future lies. And any action, whether of body, speech or mind, that is motivated
by acquisitive greed, animosity and ill-will, or mental muddle and confusion, is deemed
detrimental to one's development as a human being. As such, it is regarded as a kle'sa, a
'defilement' or 'affliction' or, we could say, a 'weed'. The former are
'skilful-volitions' because they express an intelligent and open-minded awareness of what
it is that leads to a more fulfilling human life. 'Unskilful-volitions' express the
opposite. Some Buddhist texts give extended lists of these volitions. For example, listed
as 'skilful-volitions' are 'friendly concern' (maitrii), 'compassion' (karu.naa),
'sympathetic joy' (muditaa), 'generosity' (daana), 'confidence' ('sraddhaa), 'mindfulness'
(sm.rti), 'concentration' (samaadhi), 'moral shame' (hrii), 'moral propriety'
(apatraapya), 'greedlessness' (alobha), 'hatelessness' (adve.sa), 'non-viciousness'
(ahi.msaa), 'vigour' (viirya), 'diligence' (apramaada), 'equanimity' (upek.saa),
'contentment' (santu.s.ti), 'non-delusion' (amoha), 'alertness' (pra'srabdhi) and certain
qualities of the mind in general such as the 'agility' (lahutaa), 'elasticity' (mudutaa),
'adaptability' (kammaññataa), 'proficiency' (paaguññataa), and 'uprightness'
(ujukataa) with regard to these 'skilful-volitions'.
As for a list of 'unskilful-volitions', we have 'hatred' (dve.sa), 'envy' (iir.syaa),
'selfishness' (maatsarya), 'worry' (kauk.rtya), 'attachment' (lobha), 'sensual desire'
(kaamaraaga) 'opinionatedness' (d.r.s.ti), 'conceit' (maana), 'mental obduracy' (styaana),
'sloth', (middha), 'unreasonable scepsis' (vicikitsaa), 'vindictiveness' (krodha),
'resentment' (upanaaha), 'hypocrisy' (mrak.sa), 'spite' (pradaa'sa), 'deceit' (maayaa),
'dishonesty' ('saa.thya), 'mental inflation' (mada), 'malice' (vihi.msaa), 'lack of moral
shame' (ahriikya), 'lack of moral propriety' (anapatraapya), 'mental restlessness'
(auddhatya), 'lack of confidence' (a'sraddhya), 'lust' (sneha), 'laziness' (kausiidya)
'carelessness' (pramaada), 'forgetfulness' (mu.sitasm.rtitaa), 'inattentiveness'
(asamprajanya), 'sexual infatuation' (preman), and 'desultoriness' (vik.sepa), etc., etc.
When we come upon these lists, we can see how important self-awareness and the practice of
mindfulness and meditation are in Buddhism. Also, it shows that the context in which our
emotions express themselves makes no difference as to their being 'skilful' or
'unskilful'. Therefore, if one reacts to criticism of one's religion, its founder, one's
teacher, one's bishop, rabbi or imam, or any of its beliefs, practices or doctrines with
hatred, arrogance, resentment, self-righteousness, defensiveness, etc., such reactions
are, from a Buddhist perspective, simply irreligious and 'unskilful'. As such they have no
place at all in the truly religious life. But, back to the 'garden'.
The Buddhist tradition gives us many different methods and doctrinal reflections to
help the individual overcome the more unskilful aspects of their nature and develop the
more skilful. But all fall into one of four categories, traditionally called the 'Four
Right Efforts' or the four ways to skilfully strive. Firstly, one can strive to prevent
potential unskilful volitions not yet arisen, from arising. For example, one can at least
stay away from situations that stimulate those potential unskilful volitions. Secondly,
one can strive to overcome those unskilful volitions that have arisen. Here one can, for
example, contemplate the likely consequences for oneself and others of those unskilful
volitions, or one can try and develop a counteractive skilful volition. Thirdly, one has
to try and create and develop skilful volitions not yet arisen. And, fourthly, one strives
to maintain and develop further those skilful volitions that have arisen. The first two
'Right Efforts' are, to go back to our gardening analogy, concerned with 'weeding'; the
second two 'Right Efforts' with 'cultivation' and 'planting'. To give an example of
Buddhist 'self-overcoming', a Buddhist example of 'cultivation', there is the meditation
practice known as the maitrii-bhaavanaa or the 'cultivation of loving-kindness'-bhaavanaa
quite literally means 'cultivation' or 'development'.
Here we find a clear example of Nietzsche's 'sublimation' proper, i.e., the
transference of an affect from one object to another, so as to sublimate it into a
'higher' or, in Nietzsche's language, more 'powerful' state. The first step of this
practice is to 'cultivate' (bhaavanaa) maitrii or 'loving-kindness' towards one's own
self, in other words, to develop a healthy attitude towards oneself. To this end one can
recollect happy and contented moments in one's life and desire that one's life will become
more satisfying and fulfilling, thereby giving one's mind room for appropriate affects to
arise. Then, from that state of healthy self-regard one calls to mind a friend and, on the
basis of being in that state of healthy 'self-regard', a feeling of friendliness towards
the friend can arise naturally.
Now, in a sense, this feeling one has both for oneself and the friend is not maitrii
proper, simply because both these affects can be said to be quite natural to all. In other
words, they are not affects most people would have to make an effort to develop. And there
is no inconsistency between having a feeling of friendliness towards one person whilst
hating another. Also, such affects can involve a good deal of attachment and give rise to
petty jealousies, etc., affects that Buddhism categorises as 'unskilful'. Consequently,
although we call them stages of maitrii, they are more like the necessary conditions out
of which true maitrii can arise. Yet these more everyday emotions are the only conditions
out of which maitrii can spring. So, in a sense, the real task starts at stage three. Here
we are trying to extend ourselves, overcome our natural inclinations by thinking about
someone whom we have little or no feeling towards, someone we feel quite indifferent to,
what is usually termed 'a neutral person'. The underlying context here is that if one's
mind is imbued with the feeling of friendliness which has extended beyond one's own self
to a good friend, that is the ideal condition, the ideal 'soil', within which to
contemplate some 'neutral person', someone we normally feel indifferent to. If we heard
that they has just been run over, we might exclaim 'Oh, dear!', but it wouldn't really
bother us. In making them the object of one's concentrated mind, one then tries to
empathise with them, tries to see them as people just like oneself, with desires, worries,
hopes, fears, etc., and begins to cultivate kind and caring thoughts about them. In this
way, feelings of kindness may arise towards them as one is already in a friendly state of
mind because of thinking about the good friend. Then, in the fourth stage, one tries to do
the same with someone one normally feels hostile towards, someone one might hate, an
'enemy'. If one can come to develop kind and friendly thoughts towards a person one
normally hates the sight of, then that is what maitrii really is as distinct from more
ordinary feelings of friendliness. One has then overcome the limitations of the 'self'
that started the practice, which was incapable of such affects towards an enemy. Then,
having developed this more developed feeling of maitrii towards someone whom one's earlier
'self' regarded with hostility, one can then extend the feeling to encompass the whole of
existence, extend it towards all sentient beings throughout the cosmos.
What we have here is a kind of self-engendered dialectic. As Nietzsche says, our
affects need nourishment in the form of objects, but the processes by which they come to
be nourished are arbitrary. What is nourished is, therefore, usually a matter of chance.
This being the case, what one becomes in the future is also a matter of chance. But, here,
by consciously selecting appropriate objects to present to the mind, one begins to have
some say on the kind of affects that will be stimulated, and, therefore, the kind of
person one will become. We start from the most natural feeling people have for themselves
which has an objective counterpart as a perspective on the world. It is a world that more
or less revolves around 'me and mine'. Its perspective is therefore rather narrow and
overtly self-referential and, being such, excludes other possibilities and perspectives.
Stage two opens the self up and includes another, who having their own interests and being
someone you like, extends the field of interest outside of one's own direct interests.
That 'having to consider' engenders a different, even though slight, change in
perspective: others are now part of one's world. But it is, as I have said, the third
stage that represents a real shift from the norm. The dialectic comes about when one finds
oneself in stage two, open to considering others. By focusing one's mind, which is now
imbued with a degree of friendliness, onto the 'neutral person', there is the chance of
seeing them in a different way than before, and that seeing is accompanied by a 'new'
affect: that of feeling kindness towards someone one previously felt completely
indifferent to. It is a different affect, although it has, in Wittgensteinian terms, a
'family resemblance' to the former. In this way, the mind becomes more concentrated and
more malleable, becomes a focus of maitrii-like energy. Therefore, when calling to mind an
enemy there is now an opportunity of seeing them differently, of seeing them less
subjectively, i.e., not just from the narrow perspective of what wrongs they have
committed against 'me', or based on some narrow-minded prejudice, etc. This new seeing
affords the possibility of actually feeling differently towards them, i.e. with some
degree of friendliness and kindness, which in this case is no everyday affect, but
maitrii, a new kind of volition that does not come about without trying to cultivate it.
This is possible because of the condition one is in, because of the kind of 'self' one now
is or, better, has become. This new volition, maitrii, whatever its strength, represents a
transformation of one's attitude towards the world, a transformation of the way we see and
understand the world. This example also gives another dimension to the often popular but
misunderstood Buddhist doctrine of anaatman or 'no-self': what we have here is an
unfolding series of 'selves', none of which can be said to be the 'real' self, and this
series can unfold as it does because there is no 'real self' over and above the changes,
which, in itself, remains unchanged. In Nietzsche's terms, what we end with here is a new
constellation of forces, a new 'self', whose overall constitution exudes 'love', which, as
we saw earlier, in his terms represents a greater quantum of 'power' than hate. And this
has come about through what he would call a process of 'self-overcoming', which was his
replacement for the old spiritual quest. However, unlike Nietzsche who only has the
general idea, Buddhism gives us well tried methods as well as theories. In this example of
Buddhist 'self-overcoming' I have used the maitrii-bhaavanaa practice, but the same can be
done with other affects such as 'sympathetic joy' (muditaa), 'compassion' (karu.naa) and
'tranquillity' (upek.saa), and this principle can be methodologically applied to all the
affects and states of being that Buddhism wishes to develop and nourish. This is why the
Buddha referred to his teachings, his Dharma, as like a raft-it is a means by which we can
get from this shore, sa.msaara, to the other shore, nirvaa.na. Therefore, being strictly a
means, it follows that anything that helps us achieve this is also the Buddha's teaching,
can form part of the Dharma, whether he actually said it himself or not. And it is because
Buddhism is such a methodology that it avoids the dogmatic intolerance that infests so
much of what goes under the name of religion.
TO CONCLUDE, then, we can say that the Buddhist path can be regarded, in Nietzsche's
terms, as a path of 'self-overcoming'. It is a path on which one attempts to overcome
one's relatively limited and restricted ways of being with their corresponding limited
perspectives on life and the world, limited perspectives on the possibilities of human
development. Generally speaking, we are restricted and limited by being all too often
governed by mental states expressive of either greedy acquisitiveness, ill-will and
aversion, or simply lack of mental clarity. This being the case, Buddhism wholeheartedly
agrees with Nietzsche when he says that 'the first primary schooling in spirituality' for
the spiritual aspirant is to 'become master over his wrath, his choler and revengefulness,
and his lusts'. But, unlike Nietzsche, Buddhism does give us various well-tried methods to
help free us from these restricting and debilitating ways of being, methods such as the
maitrii-bhaavanaa practice, which help us break down these barriers and release deeper
levels of our humanity. It does seem slightly paradoxical that it is through developing
such 'other regarding' affects such as maitrii, 'compassion' and 'delight in the
well-being of others' that we find our own lives more deeply satisfying and meaningful.
However, on the other hand, Buddhism does have practices that are more 'self-regarding'
such as the 'mindfulness of breathing' meditation practice and various visualisation
practices that help us break down emotional and mental barriers by going deeper into one's
own mind, thereby releasing energy from deep within the psyche, energy that we did not
know we had. At each stage on this Buddhist path, there is a corresponding perspective on
the world-one begins to see differently-the cognitive and affective aspects of our being
are inextricably interlinked. According to Buddhism, this process of enhanced seeing and
willing can carry on, in a dialectical fashion, until there is such a radical shift in
one's state of being, with a corresponding transformation in the way one sees, such that
we can never be the same again-we can never again become what we were, we are completely
free from any possibility of falling back into our old ways and habits, our old ways of
being. But not only are we 'free from', we are also 'free to': we are now free to enter
what one Buddhist scholar (H. V. Guenther) has termed 'the open dimension of Being', 59 within which the possibilities for ways of being are endless:
the possibilities for what 'we' can become are infinite.
Nietzsche's claim that 'God is Dead' does seem rather prophetic-we can see the
consequences around us today. However, for the Buddhist, the 'Death of God' does not mean
very much at all as 'God' has never had any part to play in the Buddhist spiritual quest.
In Buddhism, he has never died simply because he was never considered to have existed in
the first place - at least not as he has been conceived of in the West. In the early
Buddhist texts, there is the god Brahmaa who thinks he has created the world with its
various beings, and is its lord and master. However, when questioned by a Buddhist monk he
is made to eventually admit his spiritual ignorance, but asks the monk not to tell the
other gods! 60 So Brahmaa, in Buddhism, is a bit of a joke!
The 'Death of God', therefore, in Buddhism, has no meaning. This being the case, for those
for whom such notions have now become unbelievable and meaningless Buddhism offers an
alternative spiritual path-a path which, rather than simply help them adjust to the
apparent purposeless of human life-adjust to the apparent nihilistic reality of the
universe as Nietzsche thought it did-actually now offers them a real answer to nihilism.
Nihilism means that life has no real meaning and purpose apart from the immediate
satisfaction of our animal-like drives and passions, but Buddhism says that life does have
a much greater meaning and purpose than we ever thought it had-from its perspective, we in
the West have simply failed to discover it. So, when Nietzsche says: 'One can dispose of
one's drives like a gardener... but how many know we are at liberty to do it?', Buddhism
replies: 'We have known this for the past 2,500 years: it is you, Friedrich Nietzsche, who
are only just beginning to catch on'.
Adapted from a talk given at the St. Mungo Museum
of Religious Life and Art, Glasgow, Sunday, 24th October, 1993.
Robert Morrison (Dharmachari Sagaramati) is
writing a book on Buddhism and Nietzsche shortly to be published by Oxford University
© copyright retained by the author
- The Gay Science, trans. W. Kaufmann, NY, 1974, section 134. [Die fröhliche
Wissenschaft, subtitled la gaya scienza. Fröhlich means "merry, cheerful,
joyful"; therefore given the connotations that the word "gay" has in the
modern West, to translate fröhlich as "gay" is rather inappropriate.].
- Russell, B. History of Western Philosophy, London, 1946, p795.
- The Independent, Wednesday, 16 September 1993.
- Gay Science, 108.
- ibid. 125.
- Phaedrus, trans. W. Hamilton, Harmondsworth, 1973, 247c.
- Chadwick, H. Augustine, Oxford, 1986, p25 but without source.
- The Birth of Tragedy, trans. W. Kaufmann in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, NY, 1968,
- The Gay Science, 358.
- Daybreak, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge, 1986, section 49.
- Untimely Meditations, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge, 1983, II, section 9.
- Gay Science, 346.
- The Will to Power, trans. W. Kaufmann and R .J .Hollingdale, NY, 1968, section 12.
- ibid. 55.
- ibid. 12.
- ibid. 32.
- Gay Science, 343.
- Genealogy of Morals, trans. W. Kaufmann in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, NY, 1968 , III,
- Birth of Tragedy, 18.
- The Antichrist, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, 1968, section 21.
- Will to Power, 32.
- The Antichrist, 22.
- ibid. 42.
- ibid., 22. As many people today are, indeed, attracted to Buddhist meditation as a means
of relieving neurotic anxiety, stress, etc., Nietzsche's prognosis is quite apt. However,
as a Buddhist, I would argue that the real danger here is to Buddhism itself: Buddhism's
spiritual message being undermined and appropriated by the purveyors of the latest
fashionable 'psycho-babble', especially in America. This is not to deny that Buddhist
meditation can help relieve stress and other unwanted psychological symptoms - it can; but
that is not the spiritual aim of Buddhist meditation.
- Twilight of the Idols, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, 1968. IV.
- Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R .J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, 1968, section 36.
- We Classicists, trans. W. Arrowsmith in Unmodern Observations, New Haven, 1990, p360.
- ibid. p348.
- ibid. p344.
- Homer's Contest, trans. M .A. Mügge, Vol. II of The Complete Works of Friedrich
Nietzsche, Edinburgh, 1911, p51.
- ibid. pp54-55 but translation taken from Hesiod and Theognis, trans. by D. Wender,
Harmondsworth, 1973, p59.
- ibid. p54.
- ibid. p55.
- ibid. Translation from Kaufmann's The Portable Nietzsche, NY, 1954, p37.
- Zarathustra, trans. R .J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, 1961, Prologue, 3.
- Gay Science, 373.
- Genealogy of Morals, III, 25.
- Nietzsche refers to Lange's Geschichte des Materialismus as: "a real treasure-house
to be looked into and read repeatedly". Quoted in George C. Stack, Lange and
Nietzsche, Berlin, 1983, p13, from a letter to von Gersdorff.
- For an account of the influence of Lange, Boscovitch and others on Nietzsche's thinking,
see Stack's Lange and Nietzsche .
- As Nietzsche puts it in The Gay Science, "matter is as much an error as the God of
the Eleatics" .
- Will to Power, 619 and Beyond Good and Evil, 36.
- Beyond Good and Evil, 36.
- Will to Power, 715.
- Beyond Good and Evil, 36.
- Daybreak, 560.
- ibid. 109.
- Human All Too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge, 1986, The Wanderer and his
Shadow, section 53.
- The Twilight of the Idols VIII, 6.
- The Wanderer and his Shadow, 65.
- A v, 116.
- Will to Power, 688.
- These latter are all terms taken from Nietzsche's various writings. When contrasted with
the former terms, one can see just what Nietzsche means by "a greater quantum of
power". It also gives us an idea of the kind of affects that are to be cultivated,
and what some of the "weeds" actually are..
- Daybreak, 119.
- Will to Power, 490.
- Sangharakshita, The Three Jewels, Glasgow, 1991, p98.
- Guenther, Herbert V. Kindly Bent to Ease Us, Emeryville, 1975, p169.
- See the Kevaddha Sutta in the Diigha Nikaaya.