Nietzsche and Buddhism

This post presents Benjamin Elman‘s views on the relationship between the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Buddhism. Elman holds that a thorough understanding of Nietsche’s philosophy must attend closely to Buddhist teachings. He goes as far as to say that, “Buddhism lies at the center of any attempt to understand Nietzsche’s thought in its entirety.” Citing Guy Welbon, Elman suggests that we consider a direct correspondence between, for instance, eternal recurrence and samsara, and Zarathustra and the bodhisattva-ideal. In short, Elman holds that there “is sufficient evidence to indicate that Nietzsche’s presentations do witness Buddhist influences.”

Who knows? My interest is in Nietzsche’s and Gotama’s (i.e., the Buddha’s) positions vis a vis nihilism. Both Gotama and Nietzsche were, as Elman writes, intent on understanding “the structure and meaning of the human condition,” In their pursuit, both, I think, found themselves at the precipice of nihilism. Nietzsche, of course, retreated to his stone sanctuary of eternal recurrence, stretched his legs, and was heard from no more. Gotama, I am arguing elsewhere (in a paper called “Meditation as Organon of Dissolution”), did not retreat from nihilism, but rather disguised it for political and financial reasons. Or perhaps that was the work of his canonical editors? More on that later.

Elman is currently professor of philosophy at Princeton University. Although the present article is nearly thirty years old, the issues raised by Elman are still important for anyone giving thought to Buddhism in the 21st century West. And by the way, from a Speculative Non-Buddhist perspective–with its insistence on non-decision, debilitation of postulates, cancellation of warrant, and muting of Buddhism’s vibrato– the question of Gotama’s nihilism is far from answered.  Here is Elman’s article. (Glenn Wallis)

Benjamin A. Elman

(Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 44, no. 4 (Oct.-Dec. 1983), pp. 681-686)

In India our religions will never take root. The ancient wisdom of the human race will not be displaced by what happened in Galilee. On the contrary, Indian philosophy streams back to Europe, and will produce a fundamental change in our knowledge and thought. (Schopenhauer, World as Will and Representation, IV/63)

My aim in this article is to discuss and analyze the role Buddhism played in the thought and writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). One of the most persistent twentieth-century debates concerning Nietzsche’s philosophy is over the question of whether or not Nietzsche was a nihilist. Western commentators have seen this as one of the keys to understanding “what Nietzsche means. Given the problems inherent in any attempt to understand Nietzsche’s thought–e.g., Karl Jaspers points out, “All statements seem to be annulled by other statements. Self-contradiction is the fundamental ingredient in Nietzsche’s thought. For nearly every single one of Nietzsche’s judgments, one can also find an opposite-it seems to me that an analysis of Nietzsche’s understanding of Buddhism and an inquiry into the frequently heard claims that Buddhism itself is guilty of nihilism cannot help but shed light on the place of nihilism in Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Open doc to continue–click on title: Nietzsche and Buddhism

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