Nietzsche on Buddhism

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Nietzsche repeatedly refers to Buddhism as a decadent and nihilistic religion. It seems to be a textbook case of just what Nietzsche is out to remedy in human thinking. It devalues the world as illusory and merely apparent, instead looking to an underlying reality for value and meaning. Its stated goals seem to be negative and escapist, Nietzsche sometimes seems to praise certain aspects of Buddhist teaching—and some of his own core ideas bear a resemblance to Buddhist doctrine. What exactly is Nietzsche’s evaluation of Buddhism? Is it merely unmitigated nihilism, or is there positive value to be found in Buddhism? There is also good reason to believe that Nietzsche’s knowledge of Buddhism was inaccurate and incomplete, if only due to his historic situation in 19th century Europe. Given current greater Western understanding of Buddhism, would Nietzsche still label Buddhism as life-denying and nihilistic? Nietzsche most often addresses Buddhism as a rhetorical foil for Christianity, rather than analysing it directly. Nietzsche exaggerates any aspects he approves in Buddhism as part of his rhetorical strategy. Buddhism is not moral, it is hygienic, prescribing a cure for the horror of the world rather than covering it up in dishonest grammar. In his highest praise of Buddhism, Nietzsche admits that it has dropped the slave morality—and the self-deception that accompanies it. Nietzsche describes Buddhism as clouded by morality. Perhaps specifically defining a thing as beyond good and evil keeps it trapped in the paradigm of defining the valuable by the valueless. But Nietzsche only speaks favourably of Buddhism by comparison: when he mentions Buddhism apart from Christianity, it is all described as nihilism and desire for nothingness. An Indian Nietzsche could easily have given Buddhism pride of place in the hierarchy of dangerous, life-denying institutions to discredit. Buddhism has perfected nihilism, but this is not a perfection to be desired. But while Nietzsche accuses Buddhism of decadence and nihilism in no uncertain terms throughout his work, he still appreciates its honesty: “Buddhism is the only positivistic religion in history; even in its epistemology a strict phenomenalism. In its age, Buddhism has become passive and complacent—feelings of unsatisfactoriness are just accepted without struggle. Buddhism is frail and withdrawn from the world and has resigned itself to weakness and weariness. It no longer desires excuses, it just wants relief. Buddhism according to Nietzsche is degenerate and lifeless. Buddhism is certainly not saying with its delicate constitution and perpetual worries about healthfulness. Nietzsche also praises Buddhism for its discarding of God. But while the Buddhists may know that God is dead, they must overthrow their own lingering paradigm: Nietzsche deplores the last man for his refusal to see the death of God, but Buddhism has its own relics to dispose of. The sensitive and hygienic teachings of the Buddha are just as life-denying as any Christian ressentiment—they propose ways to manage the cruelty of the world, but they do not engage or celebrate the world. For Nietzsche Buddhism devalues the world in favour of an illusory promise. The world as it is is too terrible, so comforting fictions are spun to keep the herd pacified. The world is not a nice fluffy place, and so other realms and places of escape are invented. Rather than accepting and affirming the hard truth, self-deception is perpetuated. Nietzsche describes nihilism as a European Buddhism:

This is certainly further evidence of Nietzsche’s rejection of Buddhism, associating it with a negative, reflex reaction to the devaluation of the world. It is just as bad as the institutions it rebels against. Instead of mindlessly following convention, it mindlessly overturns convention. European Buddhism is active rather than passive, but it still craves destruction as it flails about in the dark. However, as much as Nietzsche rejects...
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