Upon a deeper analysis of Buddhism and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, subtle similarities emerge in their understanding of self-overcoming. Both philosophies assert that human life is characterized by suffering and the notion of ‘self’ as a mere construction. Through deeper analysis of the notions of ‘self-overcoming’ present in Buddhism and Nietzschean philosophy, this paper uncovers realms of philosophic agreement between the two, while providing a critique of Nietzsche’s misinterpretation of Buddhism as passively nihilistic. I also provide clarification on the disparity between early Buddhist philosophy and Buddhism as interpreted by Nietzsche; the latter being deeply affected by colonial forces and the limited European exposure to Eastern philosophy. I explore Nietzsche’s misunderstanding – and consequent rejection – of Buddhism as a form of “passive nihilism” and nirvana as a practice of denying reality. In spite of their divergences, I conclude that Nietzsche’s existential philosophy is ironically close to the Buddha’s, as their prescription to a meaningful life requires overcoming of the self.
While Nietzsche’s early mentor, Schopenhauer, was a great admirer of early Buddhism, Nietzsche scarcely stands alone in his misunderstanding of Buddhism as a nihilistic religion. With Buddhism’s primary teachings surrounding concepts of no-self and nonexistence, it is understandable why nineteenth century Europe held a predominantly negative conception of Buddhism. More importantly, however, Nietzsche’s criticism of Buddhism reveals his own misinterpretations and shortcomings at the time; predominantly due to Europe’s limited – and colonial -understanding of Eastern philosophy. It is important to note that Eastern philosophy was beginning to appear in the West during the early nineteenth century. The true meaning of Eastern ideologies – like Buddhism – was often lost in translation, and as a result, Buddhism was often misinterpreted through second-hand sources.
Nonetheless, Nietzsche was one of the first Western pioneers to explore Buddhism. His work On the Genealogy of Morals categorized early Buddhism as fundamentally life-denying, aimed at nothingness, and standing antithetical to human existence (Nietzsche, 1994, 61). In The Will to Power, Buddhism is described as passively nihilistic with the purpose of acting as a temporary salve for those suffering (1968, 18). According to scholars, Nietzsche’s misconceptions were connected to the general view of Buddhism during his time, and such portrayals were more of a reflection of what was happening in Europe – the complete collapse of traditional values, the menace of atheism, and the ‘death of God’ – than an accurate description of Buddhist philosophy (Van Der Braak, 2010, 6).
Nietzsche thus understood early Buddhism as a form of “passive nihilism”; indicative of a “decline of the power of the spirit” (1901, 22). He contrasts this to active nihilism – an ‘increased power of the spirit’– which pushes for the conscious destruction of all beliefs that previously held meaning. For Nietzsche, the passive nihilist succumbs to his despair and delves blindly into herd mentality, while the active nihilist faces the realities of existence and human suffering.
Still, Nietzsche’s appraisal of Buddhism is nothing short of utterly complex. In one of his notebooks he wrote: “I could become the Buddha of Europe though frankly I would be the antipode of the Indian Buddha (Panaïoti, 2013, 2). Nietzsche’s description of himself as a type of “Anti-Buddha” illustrates the distinction he makes earlier regarding passive and active nihilism. Throughout his writings and teachings, he recalls nihilism as a plague permeating European culture; a hatred for life and a rejection of action. When discussing the Buddha’s encounters with a sick man, an old man, and a dead man, Nietzsche writes in Thus Spake Zarathustra:
‘There are those with consumption of the soul: hardly are they born when they begin to die and to long for doctrines of weariness and renunciation. They would like to be dead, and we should welcome their wish. Let us beware of waking the dead and disturbing these living coffins! They encounter a sick man or an old man or a corpse and immediately they say, “Life is refuted”. But only they themselves are refuted, and their eyes, which see only this one face of existence.’
Nietzsche was quick to reject European Buddhism as a life-negating and innately pessimistic philosophy. One of his early mentors, Schopenhauer, had been greatly exposed to Eastern philosophy in comparison to his Western counterparts. Nietzsche’s fear, however, was that the rise of pessimistic philosophy would result in the triumph of passivity and decadence within Europe; steering men away from the world and leading them to nothingness. Also, it was during this era where Nietzsche renounced the ‘death of God’ and the collapse of Europe’s traditional value system.
In many regards, Nietzsche viewed the Buddha as a physician prescribing a cure for the fundamental human condition of suffering. Both Nietzschean and Buddhist philosophy and grapple with the idea of nihilism, while rejecting the notion of revealed truth. Nietzsche’s primary project was revealing the errors in Christianity, and rejecting the idea of ‘morality’ itself. For him, morality was the greatest plague; limiting people from transcending to the highest version of themselves, and thus inimical to self-actualization. In this regard, Nietzsche viewed Buddhism as superior to Christianity, and went further to directly compare the two in The Anarchist (1968). From his comparisons, he concludes that Buddhism is far more “realistic” than Christianity – accredited to Buddhism’s understanding of suffering and the Buddha’s ‘prescription’ to eradicate it. Moreover, Buddhism eliminated the concept of a monotheistic God, and continued as a positivistic religion. Nietzsche paints a far more positive picture of Buddhism in the Anarchist, however, many scholars believe this is merely due to the comparisons he was making with Christianity – a religion he despised and often described as “a degenerate religion” founded on “a rancor against everything well-constituted and dominant” (Elman, 1983, 689).
Paradoxically, Nietzsche utilizes the notion of “active nihilism” as a tool in his own project against Western nihilism. His philosophy contends that the self-overcoming of nihilism is essential to becoming a “true” version of yourself. Furthermore, in The Will to Power, Nietzsche describes himself as the “perfect nihilist of Europe”, who has lived through the “entirety of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind, outside himself” (Nietzsche, 1968, 3). In this view, overcoming the “great nausea” of nothingness allows Nietzsche to emerge as a victor.
Nietzsche aimed to overcome nihilism by affirming the unconditional embrace of existence. For him, life was not to be denied but rather created by one’s own value system, and built on the foundation of understanding that there is no inherit meaning in the universe. Nishianti describes this process as “dying the great death in the abyss of nihility and coming back to life again” (1983, 233). In doing so, active nihilism becomes a transitional stage rather than an end in itself. It is the abyss into we must descend, “the darkest night before the dawn” (Nietzsche, 1968, 12). It is through the experiential stages of active nihilism that an individual strives for the heights of the ideal being, the übersmench. He asserted that living by one’s own ‘noble morality’ is characterized as a vigorous, free and joyful existence, ruled by an innate “will to overpower, and will to rule” (1968, 16). From his works, it is evident that Nietzsche detested the weak and humble man who sought to escape the realities of life.
Ironically, Buddhism aims to release from the wheel of samsara (cycle of life and death) instead of affirming its eternal revolution. For Nietzsche, he interpreted this as a mere negative release of the karmic world of samsara. However, liberation of nirvana, as understood by Buddhism, is the removal of the ego and attachment to worldly desires. The mere idea that one could escape the state of life, described by Nietzsche as eternal reoccurrence, was illusory to Nietzsche at the time; often described as “the fable song of madness” (1968, 12). An excerpt from his personal notes reveals that human existence, as it is, “without meaning or aim, yet inescapably recurring without any finale in nothingness” is the most extreme form of nihilism (55). For Nietzsche’s interpretation to sustain, the Buddha must preach an eternally recurring samsara. Not only this, the Buddha must also prescribe no possibility of freeing oneself of samsara, or achievement of Enlightenment. In juxtaposition, the middle path – madhyama pratipad – found by the Buddha is the death of the ego, and the end of cyclical birth; an exertion of nihilism’s will towards freedom from samsara. After further examination, it seems that the Buddhist advocates precisely for the opposite of an empty nihilism – one that Nietzsche feared and aimed to alleviate Europe from.
One may also turn to the four noble truths of Buddhism when analyzing Nietzsche’s initial critique of Buddhism. The first, dukkha, asserts that life is suffering. The eternal samsaric life is clouded with existential intolerability (Nishitani, 1983, 169). The second, samudaya, attributes this suffering to the craving or aversion as the cause of suffering. The third and fourth truth, nirodha and magga, reveal the way to end suffering and the truth of the path. Detaching oneself from these cravings leads to liberation from cyclical death, thus leading to nirvana. The final noble truth further asserts this idea by illustrating the Noble Eightfold Path. As part of the eightfold path, samma vayama, or “right effort” advocates for a powerful will, parallel to Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power. This energetic will aims to alleviate one of all craving, which leads to suffering. Evidently, Buddhism advocates for a positive sort of willful action, rather than a pursuit of passivity that Nietzsche initially believed.
Furthermore, an analysis of Theravada Buddhism reveals that Buddhism’s primary goal is a radical transformation of the self through action. The arahant, the highest form of a human, does not accumulate karma according to Theravada Buddhism, since he has already transcended cyclical rebirth. Free from the ego, and fabricated idea of the self, the arahant is free from samsara. Nietzsche’s critique targets the notion of passive nihilism and the complete negation of existence. Similar to passive nihilism, the metaphysical extreme of absolute discontinuity and nothingness, ucchedavad, is forbidden by the Buddha. The Buddha also rejects the notion of vibhava tanha, which is the human craving for non-existence. This may also mean the craving for non-becoming, and complete aversion towards the unpleasant suffering of current or future life. These teachings by the Buddha emphasize Buddhism’s negative viewpoint on the negation of life itself, and his emphasis on an energetic will.
Ironically, Nietzsche’s prescription for self-overcoming allures to many parallels with Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism advocates for transcendence beyond the condition of society, maya, and creating an individual path for oneself. This “path” reflects the famous eight-fold path; reflecting greater awareness and compassion. Nearly forty-five years following Buddha’s enlightenment, he spent his life spreading wisdom with compassion and love for others around him – indicative of the importance of this Buddhist precept.
Lastly, the notion of the perfect and most ideal being, as presented by Nietzsche and Buddhism strike subtle similarities. Both philosophies assert the importance of individual will, and reject the notion of a true morality. In Buddhism, the arahant is one that has transcended beyond samsara. A passage from Mulapariyaya Sutta the Buddha discusses the root cause of enlightenment from suffering. He tells his disciples what exactly an arahant, or ideal human constitutes:
A monk who is a Worthy One, devoid of mental fermentations—who has attained completion, finished the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, destroyed the fetters of becoming, and is released through right knowledge— directly knows earth as earth. Directly knowing earth as earth, he does not conceive things about earth, does not conceive things in earth, does not conceive things coming out of earth, does not conceive earth as ‘mine,’ does not delight in earth. Why is that? Because he has comprehended it, I tell you. (Thanissaro, 1998)
This passage illustrates that the monk is the worthy one, who has freed himself from the bonds of suffering which traps one in the cycle of birth. The arahant must achieve enlightenment by becoming ‘devoid of mental fermentations’ – not necessarily free from any thoughts – and viewing the world as it truly is, without the distortion of craving and suffering.
For Nietzsche, the übersmench, or ‘overman’, creates his own values out of his utter freedom. The term overman refers to the kind of people that are greater than an ordinary human being. However, for the übersmench the ultimate goal is not to merely overcome suffering, but rather overcome the passive and ordinary condition of a human. This contrasts with the arahant, who avoid mental fermentations as a way to overcome the bond of suffering. The arahant is also freed of the sense of self when attaining liberation. For Nietzsche, by transcending into the übersmench, the self is affirmed rather than denied. The notion of self is re-created in the overman, as the fundamental, defining quality of the overman is to create his own values. However, this seems to contradict what Nietzsche affirms in his later works. In a key passage from On the Genealogy of Morality Nietzsche exclaims:
There is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming: the ‘doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed [or doing: Thun]—the deed is everything … our entire science still lies under the misleading influence of language and has not disposed of that little changeling, the ‘subject’.
Through this reading of Nietzsche, it may strike many similarities with Buddhism. The self in Buddhist philosophy is merely an array of mental and physical components that create a person. These are known as the five ‘aggregates’ of form, feeling, mental formation, perception, and consciousness. The self is a function of these five aggregates working together. While Nietzsche affirms the self through self-overcoming, he also asserts that there is no ‘being’ but rather an action carried out from the subject. Through analysis between Buddhism and Nietzsche’s notion of self in the concept of self-overcoming, these subtle similarities emerge.
In conclusion, this paper demonstrated Nietzsche’s misinterpretation of the notion of passive nihilism present in Buddhist philosophy. Furthermore, I offered an account of self-overcoming present in both philosophies, and where areas of agreement emerge. Through engagement with one’s suffering, Buddhism aims to remove the causes and condition of suffering by detaching oneself from the cravings for fulfilled desires, and for the desire for permanence in an impermanent and transient world. Similarly, Nietzsche warns of the danger of primarily seeking happiness and worldly pleasures, while rejecting the other extreme: passive nihility. It is through this interpretation that subtle similarities emerge. This paper also opens up new avenues for increased research, such as the differences in Buddhism and Nietzsche’s metaphysical notion of rebirth. Given the discussion presented, Nietzsche may have found areas of agreement with Buddhism if he had correctly interpreted notions of active nihilism, rather than rejecting it as another verse in the ‘fable song of madness’.
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