A Buddhist Nietzsche

A spectre is haunting Europe – and rather than communism, as Marx famously said, this spectre is nihilism. We are at “the advent of nihilism,” or so Friedrich Nietzsche argued in The Will to Power. However, why is only Europe in this predicament? Has the Asian philosophical tradition saved the East from similar demise? During the late 19th century, Buddhism was relatively unknown in detail to Western observers. It was through the work of Jesuit missionaries that Asian thought found itself in Europe. Nietzsche was fond of Buddhism to some degree, but he still considered it nihilistic. He used Buddhism to make comparisons to Christianity, contrasting them to show the futility of Christendom. Nietzsche likely encountered discussions on Asian philosophy through the work of Schopenhauer, who he admired dearly. His examinations between the two did not go in vain and, as historian Guy Welborn describes, he was likely “one of the best read and most solidly grounded in Buddhism for his time” (Elman, 673). Thus, a constructive assessment of Buddhist philosophy can help us fill in the apparent “gaps” in Nietzsche’s philosophy, and see if Buddhism acts as a proper remedy to the ills Nietzsche attributes to Western society.

I. Nietzsche as the “Buddha of Europe”

In a note dated during the 1880s, Nietzsche writes “I could be the Buddha of Europe: though admittedly an antipode to the Indian Buddha” (Halbfass, 128). Here, we find a contradiction of terms. In his writing, Nietzsche affirms Buddhism as the only positivistic religion in the history of humanity; however, he also distances himself from the nihilism and the disaffirmation of life that he believes Buddhism supposedly entails. The reason Nietzsche calls himself “the Buddha of Europe” is because of the ontological similarities between himself and Buddha; however, he also paradoxically claims he is diametrically opposed to Buddhist philosophy, since he does not give the same solutions that are posited in early Buddhist thought. Firstly, apparent in both Buddhist and Nietzschean thought is the utmost rejection of metaphysics. Of course, Nietzsche himself and some Buddhist schools dabble in metaphysical inquiry by establishing criteria of the “self” and other concepts, but they never make it a rule of their inquiry. Rather, it is supplementary to their greater philosophy. To give an example, Gautama Buddha, the original Buddhist sage, demonstrates skepticism of metaphysics in a story known as the “Parable of the Arrow” found in one of the five sections of the Sutta Pitaka. A monk, Malunkyaputta, is bothered by the Buddha’s silence on the fourteen unanswerable questions. Frustrated, Malunkyaputta then issues an ultimatum – if the Buddha does not entertain these questions, he will renounce his teachings as a monk. Gautama Buddha responds by stating that he never promised to uncover “ultimate truths” and then goes on to explain a parable of a man who had been shot with a poisoned arrow to further prove his point.

It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. [We] would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city…’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him (Bhikku, 63).

This parable demonstrates the futility of metaphysics in fixing the suffering (Dukkha) that is inherent in life. When a poison arrow is lodged into you and causing you pain, discovering just where it came from is irrelevant to the more crucial problem at hand, which is actually removing it. Later Buddhist thinkers such as Nagarjuna and Dogen affirm this position as in line with original Buddhist thinking. Dogen, especially, emphasizes this fact by “concern[ing] himself only with what is experienced… he is not concerned with notions of reality outside this process of experiencing consciousness” (Kasulis, 69). Rather than see statements as having “metaphysical significance,” Dogen posits that such claims are misunderstood descriptive statements about experience. In Dogen’s View of Authentic Selfhood, Francis D. Cook talks about metaphysics in relation to authenticity and the self. He writes:

Metaphysical systems… are constructed and defended to the death in order to solace and defend minds that are primarily concerned with their own reality, importance, and survival. As Nāgārjuna argued in the second century and Dōgen continued to insist in the thirteenth, all positions and ideologies arise from and, in turn, nourish the inauthentic self (Cook, 136).

Thus, for Dogen and Nagarjuna, metaphysics functions as a means to selfishly bolster the individual rather than cure the condition. Nietzsche, too, sought to bring philosophy back to the experiencer rather than put it in hands beyond ourselves. Therefore, he rejected abstractions as needless constructions that merely separate us from our actual-existing reality. He uses Christian imagery of God becoming man through Christ as a means to allegorically demonstrate that divine instruction, metaphysics, and “objective” knowledge has now grounded itself in man, for all of us to experientially explore.

That God became man only indicates that man shouldn’t search for blessedness in the infinite; rather, he should ground his heaven on earth. The delusion of a world beyond has cast human spirits and minds in a false relation to the earthly world: it [that delusion] was the product of a childhood of peoples (Porter, 1).

Buddhism (particularly the Madhymaka School) and Nietzsche reach their anti-metaphysical position by, firstly, rejecting theism. For Gautama Buddha, the idea of God was a non-issue since it has little to do with “seeing things as they really are” – as Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering(Nisker, 23).  It is because both Nietzsche and Guatama Buddha reject God that they also reject metaphysics, objective value, and any purpose behind suffering.

II. Suffering as Perpetual

Both Nietzsche and Buddhism affirm suffering as always present. Nietzsche derives his concept of Dukkha from the work of Schopenhauer, who might had very well come to the idea through Buddhism.  For Schopenhauer, suffering was “an obstacle placed between the will and its aim” (Elman, 675). Thus, “because all efforts of will arose from the constant dissatisfaction with its present state, there could be no end to striving; therefore, there could be no end to suffering either” (Elman, 675). Schopenhauer took this fact to mean that Dhukka can never be overcome and the only proper solution is to negate our own will, since we can never escape suffering. Nietzsche rejected this view and instead inverted Schopenhauer’s conclusion – the solution was not to negate the will, but to elevate it above all else. Although we live without God and objectivity, that does not mean we are doomed to nihilism. If we reject metaphysics and realize that Dukkha is ever-present in our current reality then there are two possible solutions: (I) we either appeal to Buddha’s Bodhisattva ideal in an effort to ultimately end it or (II) we affirm suffering itself and take it as a form of strength through Nietzsche’s idea of the Ubermensch. For Nietzsche, Buddhism is life-negating because it fails to affirm suffering as a means towards improvement. Rather, it wishes to escape it. As Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil:

The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, preserving, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness – was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering? (Kaufmann, 344)

From this common position of suffering, two potential roads open up: the “life-negating” ethics of the Buddha’s Bodhisattva ideal, or the life-affirming ethics of Nietzsche’s own Übermensch ideal. It is because Buddhism accepts suffering as paramount that Nietzsche places it higher than Christianity, since it does not succumb to ressentiment. Nietzsche’s characterization of Buddhism as “life-negating” comes from a misunderstanding of Asian philosophy. While the goal of Buddhism is to negate yourself and realize your self is an illusion (Anatta), you make yourself empty in order to affirm life. This same concept is present in Daoism, found in the Dao De Jing chapter 11:

By adding and removing clay we form a vessel. But only by relying on what is not there, do we have use of the vessel. …And so, what is there is the basis for profit. What is not there is the basis for use (Ivanhoe, 11).

Thus, it is through “negating” yourself that you become an empty vessel in order to be filled with everything else – you destroy the distinction between the self and the universe, in order to be fully realized and reach enlightenment. Nietzsche seems to be missing this characteristic of Buddhist doctrine; instead he focuses specifically on Anatta as a means to prove Buddhism is inherently nihilistic, a position which Gautama Buddha and Nagarjuna reject.

III. Impermanence and the Self

Heraclitus was a Pre-Socratic thinking known as the

Heraclitus was a Pre-Socratic thinking known as the “weeping philosopher.” He was an influence on Nietzsche. Here he is depicted on an oil canvas by Hendrick Bloemaert.

If suffering (Dukkha) is reality, then what does it mean to be resentful towards that reality? What does it mean to deny it? For Nietzsche, such thinking is an act of ressentiment and a characteristic of slave morality. However, suffering is only one aspect of reality. Nietzsche also agrees with the other Buddhist mark of existence, impermanence (Anicca) or the idea that everything is in constant flux. Nietzsche was introduced to this concept not through Buddhism, but rather through the works of pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. Nietzsche writes that “Heraclitus will remain eternally right with is assertion that being is an empty fiction” (Common, 15). Nietzsche hoped to transform the talk of an ontological and static “being” into one of a more dynamic “becoming.” This dynamism he attempts to capture in his conception of will to power (Barrett, 178). Reality does not create fixed entities such as subject, being, object, and essence. These words are created for convenience since we cannot possibly see this flux in full; we do not see the interaction between different beings, temporally and spatially, which leads to their co-dependent creation. By postulating “being” as fixed, Nietzsche argues, we make ourselves foolishly comfortable by grounding a reality which is, ultimately, never constant and always changing. It is from this idea that Nietzsche attacks truth:

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding (Magnus, 29, 30).

In the same vein, Nietzsche affirms that the self is co-dependent and of “great intelligence, a multiplicity with one sense, a war and a peace, a herd and a herdsman(Hollingdale, 61). He also describes the self as a “social structure of… drives and emotions” (Hollingdale, 25) In the Will to Power, he expounds on this idea by describing the subject are more multi-faceted than just a “self.” He writes:

The assumption of one single subject is perhaps unnecessary; perhaps it is just as permissible to assume a multiplicity of subjects, whose interaction and struggle is the basis of our thought and our consciousness in general?… My hypothesis: The subject as multiplicity (Kaufmann and Hollingdale, 270).

Nagarjuna, specifically, speaks of Buddhist co-dependent origination in Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness where he writes in poetic form:

Entities do not exist In their causes, in their conditions In aggregations of many things, or in individual things Therefore, all entities are empty (Lindtner, 3).

In this stanza, “empty” does not mean “not existing.” It simply means empty of an essence. There is no static being that is a thing-in-itself; rather, an object is dependent on other entities for it to exist temporally and spatially.

Without one there are not many, and Without many there is not one. Therefore, dependently arisen entities [like these] Have no characteristics (Lindtner, 7).

The co-dependency of all entities also implies that these same entities are in constant flux. In these two stanzas, Nagarjuna outlines the case for impermanence. From the position of impermanence, both Nietzsche and Buddhists run into a problem – how can individuals overcome Dukkha in an ever-changing world? How can one create value or affirm anything in a world that does not have constant or eternal entities? Ultimately, these questions are where Nietzsche and Buddhists overlap. They both seek to solve the issue of nihilism which is inherent in an impermanent world. They do this by striving to recognize reality for what it is and then offering a solution with which to solve the problem of suffering. For Buddhists, this is found in denying the self and its desires, which will ultimately put an end to Dukkha. Nietzsche, conversely, affirms suffering as necessary to fulfillment which is the inspiration for his aphorism: “What does not kill me, strengthens me” (Common, 6). Despite the differing solutions, Antoine Panaioti in Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy attempts to reconcile these two views of suffering by arguing that both philosophies attempt to make its followers so strong and healthy that they no longer perceive suffering as an obstacle. In other words, both seek the elimination of suffering as an impediment – for Nietzsche, this is done through will and self-affirmation; for Buddhism, this is done by disaffirming the self and one’s will.

IV. Final Remarks

I find the Buddhist response to suffering to be much more sound, since impermanence of the self implies a lack of a subject. Nietzsche, paradoxically, triumphs the individual will above all else while also arguing that the self is multi-faceted and not just an essence. He is an individualist that denies the individual. The Buddhist philosophy is consistent because it denies the self as an entity of itself, but it goes even further – it also denies the subject as an individual agent. Thus, Nietzsche’s formula is left incomplete. Buddhism correctly fills in the gaps. At the root, both Buddhism and Nietzsche seek to destroy ideals. For Nietzsche, this was the entire Western tradition. The nihilist, in all its negative connotations, is in actuality a frustrated idealist that realizes abstractions will never reach perfection. The solution, then, is to simply destroy these notions of “ideals” and to live according to the “real.” In other words, in order to fully overcome nihilism, we need to kill Platonic forms, metaphysical tribulations, and conceptions of “noumenon” that cloud our perceptions. Therefore, nihilism is a kind of product of Western metaphysics. Buddhism had no such institutional opposition, and thus had no need to break down ideal forms as Nietzsche did. Nietzsche overlaps with Buddhism in his ontological conception of the self, in his ideas on “becoming,” and the reality of constant suffering. The difference is, largely, the historical context and the solutions for the problems posed. For all his denouncing and rejection, it seems that Nietzsche was much more of Buddhist than he cared to realize.


– Elman, Benjamin A. Nietzsche and Buddhism. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 44, No. 4. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. pp. 671 – 686.

– Halbfass, Wilhelm. India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. State University of New York Press, New York. 1988. Print.

– Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 Nov. 2013. Web. <http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html&gt;.

– Kasulis, T. P. Zen Action: Zen Person. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. 1989. Print.

– Cook, Francis Dojun. Dogen’s View of Authentic Selfhood. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. 1985. Print.

– Porter, James I. The Invention of Dionysus and the Platonic Midwife: Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. 33, No. 3. John Hopkins University Press, 1995. Print.

– Nisker, Wes. Buddha’s Nature, reprint ed. Bantam, 2000. Print.

– Kaufmann, Walter. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Modern Library of New York, New York. 2000. Print.

– Ivanhoe, Philip J. The Daodejing of Laozi. Seven Bridges Press, New York. 2002. Print.

– Common, Thomas. The Twilight of the Idols and Antichrist. Digireads.com, 2010. Print.

– Barrett, William. Irrational Man; A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1958. Print.

– Magnus, Bernd. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge, England. Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

– Hollingdale, R. J. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Penguin Press, 1974. Print.

– Kaufmann, Walter. Hollingdale, R. J. The Will to Power. Vintage, 2011. Print.

– Lindtner, Christian. Nagarjuna: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. New Delhi, 1997. Print.

– Panaioti, Antoine. Nietzsche and Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2013. Print.

1 comment
  1. Anonymous said:

    Thank you for this article. I have definitely seen many similarities between existentialism and Buddhism. I have been trying to understand if there is any difference. In summary, from your article my tentative conclusion is that Buddhism (when viewed as a philosophy) is an existentialist philosophy.

    I have been generally puzzled by the Buddhist railing against the “self.” It appears to me that perhaps there is a difference in understanding here in what the word “self” means. I have seen references to Buddhists referring to “the I” so to me this would seem to equate to “ego.” However, I would say that from an existentialist point of view the self of Nietzsche is simply the human body, while it is alive / physically functioning, from the subjective point of view of the body. So this would include all subjective experiences, not just ego.

    I also think that from an existentialist point of view the idea you describe here as “being empty” is simply a “perception of emptiness.” This also goes to a quite common misunderstanding of existentialism. Existentialism is not nihilism. However, for the westerner, nihilism does seem to be a necessary step just before the arrival of existentialism. Existentialism sees life as lacking any inherent meaning. In this case you used the word “essence,” which for all practical purposes I think there is no difference. The next step though from lacking inherent meaning is that existentialism would say that now you are free to ascribe to your life whatever meaning you choose.

    In the case of Buddhism, as you describe it here at least, I would see that meaning to be “the quest for a perception of emptiness.” However, I do not know that it would be correct to say that you actually ARE empty because you do have something. That something is the perception of emptiness.

    In any case, all perfectly valid. So what I am seeing right now, and please correct me if you think I am wrong, is that if viewed as a philosophy, Buddhism is one possible concrete existentialist philosophy. However, in seeing itself as a religion perhaps Buddhism does need to say it has THE answer. On the other hand, any philosophy allows itself to be “wrong” on any particular point, even perhaps many many points. I see that as the essential differing characteristic between philosophy and religion. Religion is a closed system. Started and finished. On the other hand, philosophy asks open questions and gives open answers.

    So existentialism and Buddhism neither have to be the same nor opposing. In this case, it appears to me that, at least from the point of view of existentialism, Buddhism can live quite neatly within itself, without being its entirety.

    Again, this is my current understanding, as I am trying to understand Buddhism. So far I do not see any substantive differences, from my own point of view anyway.

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