I was chatting to a devout Buddhist about how difficult I am finding it to want to transfer merit to people that do evil acts. They replied that merit is just not something you can even do evil with, and evil doers "should" (the rest is a paraphrase) be "punished", we just have to show compassion and help them to learn more about the dharma in the future, so that they can end their suffering by converting to the buddha dharma. This has settled my mind a little, but I wondered how that sits with Nietzsche's wish to destroy the will to punish and replace it with the will to power.

The phrase was meant to be offensive and loaded against you, but if Nietzsche doesn't believe that the evil should even be punished at all, then isn't he in some sense a better Buddhist than those relying on some distant conversion to true religion to not will harm on others? Everyone seems like a fraud sometimes.

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    Pondering. Connecting Nietzsche and Buddhism is useful, but I doubt that people will understand generally. Yes, helping people learn and develop beyond selfish and harmful behavior is better. But becoming a Neo at that point might not work out as desired. We have people who don't understand the objective of Buddhist practice, helping people who also don't understand, towards something they haven't seen and probably don't currently want. Maybe this is what N. saw? Why he stopped writing? I haven't really studied his work in a long time.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 10:44
  • i've read this but lost the notes for it
    – user67675
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 12:46
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    the obvious answer is yeah he deleted it @ScottRowe and not if karma is actual
    – user67675
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 16:00
  • Could you rephrase that in a more balanced form? Why would 'Was Nietzsche more compassionate than the Buddha?' not work? What might 'Was Nietzsche's teaching more compassionate than the Buddha's?' lack? Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 20:41
  • Whatever your devout Buddhist buddy said, '… merit is just not something you can even do evil with' doesn't sound Buddhist. Can you cite any support for that view from reputable sources? Further, the idea that anyone or thing 'should (anything)…' least of all 'be punished' sounds quite unlike Buddhist philosophy. Again, can you give citations? Ever so broadly, doesn't Buddhism set aside any idea of 'punishment' and instead suggest that what goes around comes around? Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 20:50

2 Answers 2


“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

―Buckminster Fuller

I see this as strongly echoing Nietzsche's perspective. He made a lot of provocative statements about what he would accept or advocate, that were widely condemned in his lifetime. But his point was that the direction towards 'lifeliness', towards embracing amor fati and Eternal Recurrance is simply more important. I do think that strongly echoes Buddhist thinking, and not the Therevada that Schopenhauer and others were discovering around this era, but Zen, like in the Nansen Cuts The Cat and the Wild Fox koan. Not the patient accumulation of merit, but a seizing of our capacity to wake up and live, as the highest good, even over compassion.

To understand the merit thing, I think you need two bits of context.

First that in Sanatam Dharma (the wider tradition of Hindu religious culture, both Vedic & not), there are many accounts of performing ascetic tapas to recieve boons, like moksha, or saddhus and hermits that are thought to be able to intervene spiritually to end droughts like Indra did against Vritra, or to get boons directly from Brahma (the highest power or divine reality) like the Tripurasura brothers who meditated on one leg for a century. Memorising and reciting Vedic and Buddhist texts were one such practice, and the respect and support for that was so effective that the Tripitaka was able to survive with more than 1500 suttas, over 80,000 pages, and 52 million characters. There are special sirnames Dwivedi and Trivedi granted to families with a member that had memorised one or all of the Vedas, it was considered such a source of merit that it could transfer to an entire family. This points to the 'spiritual economy', supporting of the sangha of monks who preserve the dharma texts, which also included their chanting protective prayers dharanis and mantras, pitched as rewarding those who pay for them. A system like this was necessary in the past to support monasticism and transmission of texts. It's also worth observing how culturally widespread the idea of praying for yourself or others is.

Second, you should understand that Buddhism doesn't truly have an equivalent of evil - which anyway is a highly contentious and problematic word in English. See a list of duscussions of candidate ways to define evil here: Does philosophy have a dark side? In particular, the Problem of Evil and theodicies to address it as a genre of Christian text, have been a major preoccupation of Western philosophy, and I would argue the discourse from that continues to be inextricable to understanding discussions of Free Will, which just does not have such prominence or even much meaning at all in other traditions. In Buddhism the closest to an evil person is an iccantika, and while evil acts will cause you bad karma that even Enlightenment (the cessation of the causes of suffering) can't get you out of, the real dangers we face are ignorance and delusion that cause people to act against their own interest and that of those they care about, ie hating someone that harms you is the real harm. See the story of the salvation of Angulimalia by the Buddha, for an example. Or:

"Monks, even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching."

-MN21 Kakacupama Sutta: The Parable of the Saw

Which is not to say there is some switch you can flip to become like this -I'm not!- but, to say it's the goal of the teaching, of the practice, this is an aim and we have to do spiritual work to understand how to get there.

If you don't want to transfer merit - don't. I see it as like asking a new Christian to pray for serial killers, or put their energy into prison chaplaincy. Like, that's advanced practice, for people deeply rooted in what they are doing. Find your feet first. But know that hatred is not just about a wish to harm others, it harms your own mind through using it for that:

  1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

  2. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow

  3. "He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me." Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

  4. "He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me." Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

  5. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

  6. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

-opening lines of the Dhammapada

How you use your attention, is how you shape your mind. In Buddhism there are many practices for developing metta (loving kindness), like say this list of sutta references (fixed link). And it's crucial to cultivate, or recognise bodhicitta, the wish to help all beings, which is like the engine or the battery of this practice which is essential for it to go forward. Dhyana or samatha meditation seem to be almost all even Therevada traditions focus on now, never mind Zen where you won't hear mention of anything else, or Tibetan style where it depends a lot on exact lineage. Vipassana or insight meditation, is an essential part of understanding what Buddhism even is in my view, distinct from other types of meditation-focused practice. See for instance Stephen Batchelor's reframing of the Four Noble Truths as active practices to apply to your own life, discussed here: Which discipline of philosophy is most interested and relevant to studying the nature of change?

The goal of (Mahayana) Buddhism is not conversion, it is to help all sentient beings to be free from suffering. It pictures a vast cosmos, with just one yuga or age being longer even than the time science thinks stars will shine for (>200 billion years), and in which long timeline of past yugas all beings have been your father and mother, and so are owed a debt for having nurtured you. We can actively situate ourselves in that 'big picture' view, by thinking about it and relating it to our experiences. These aren't catechisms, but rather truths to be realised, in how we pay attention to them and they shape our minds.



The will to power is a more realistic world view than Buddhism, in my view. What is considered compassion varies greatly according to moral perspective. My answer to your question is yes. To me, compassion involves positive action. That excludes inaction resulting from moral passivity, and includes action to destroy corrupt moral systems.

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    What qualifies as a “corrupt moral system”? Nietzsche is pretty critical of slave moralities that fight oppression under the guise of being self-righteous.
    – Hokon
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 14:39
  • Sorry, I thought that my answer was clear that positive action is morally superior to passivity. My view is within that context. Btw, I have seen lots of pure opinion here.
    – Meanach
    Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 8:00

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