According to a paper titled Nietzsche's Reception of Buddhist Psychology With Constant Reference to Christianity by McDonald (2012), given at a conference in Copenhagen, Nietzsche's work contains 158 references to Buddhismus and its cognates within 137 textual units in the collected Digitale Kritische Gesamtausgabe of Nietzsche’s Werke und Brief.

Nietzsche's engagement with the thought of Schopenhauer in 1865 seems to have been the main stimulus for his interest in Buddhist and Brahman texts, interestingly the article cites that Nietzsche's library and reading included:

Otto Böhtlingk’s Indische Sprüche, 2nd ed. 3 volumes. Paul Deussen’s Die Elemente der Metaphysik, (Aachen, 1877); Das System des Vedanta (Leipzig, 1883) and Die Sutras des Vedanta aus dem Sanskrit übersetzt (Leipzig, 1887); Max Müller’s Essays, II. Beiträge zur vergleichenden Mythologie und Ethnologie (Leipzig, 1869); Jakob Wackernagel’s Über den Ursprung des Brahmanismus (Basel, 1877); Hermann Oldenberg’s Buddha. Sein Leben, seine Lehre, seine Gemeinde (Berlin, 1881); and Louis Jacolliot’s Les legislateurs religieux. Manour-Moiser-Mahomet (Paris,1876). He also borrowed, from the university library in Basel, Martin Haug’s Brahma und die Brahmanen twice (in 1873 & 1879), and the two volumes of Carl F. Koeppen’s Die Religion des Buddha in October 1871.

The foundation of his critique is his characterisation of Nirvana (as a nothingness) as a form of nihilism. According to McDonald this is the result of having been introduced to Eastern thought through the works of Schopenhauer, who in his conflation of Buddhist and Brahman notions incorporates the tenets of both into his conception of the will as a chaotic, aimlessly striving unity.

Both Nietzsche's and Buddhist writings share the fact that they are a direct response to nihilism, however was he right in characterising Buddhism as advocating a negation of the will, as a will to nothingness, or was this a misunderstanding stemming from his reading of Buddhist texts through the works of Schopenhauer?

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    Just some thoughts about the context: if I recall correctly, Nietzsche characterizes Eastern philosophy and its nihilism as a very advanced case -- he indicates its depth and infinities. This is really just to suggest it seems clear to me he studied this material closely and appreciated it greatly -- it seems like this dimension of his critique should be emphasized for context. Nietzsche is sometimes imagined as having a hatred for sacred texts; but he upholds the beauty and grandeur of the old testament as a literary document. I think the same clearly goes for certain Eastern works as well. – Joseph Weissman Aug 9 '12 at 23:52
  • A good point, Nietzsche's interest in studying Buddhism seems to be seeing it as a psychological symptom, as well as a historically embedded phenomena. There are some beautiful passages in Ecce Homo about how his treatment of Christianity is an extension of a deep appreciation of the magnitude of its influence, i think his having chosen Buddhism as a perspective to comment on is in line with his idea of having the courage to engage with worthy adversaries – Dr Sister Aug 10 '12 at 4:52
  • just thinking about what Nietzsche called the tragic perspective, Apollo as the principal of individuation, appearance in plastic form and redemption in appearance, and primordial unity of Dionysus, Nietzsche's criticism of BOT is that it was offensively Hegelian, a thesis generating antitheses getting synthesised in artistic dissolution states. The interplay of appearence in form and chaotic unity .. I Think this is to some degree comparable to Maya and Nirvana, but with Nietzsche there's no end to the cycle .. – Dr Sister Aug 14 '12 at 14:18
  • Nothing? is there anything that could improve the question? – Dr Sister Aug 19 '12 at 0:15
  • You might try developing the concern a bit further, taking into account some of the notes we have put here in the comments. I might also suggest you try to specify the primary concern more precisely -- perhaps there is some particular layer or moment of Nietzsche's critique here which is "really" at issue? – Joseph Weissman Aug 19 '12 at 14:56

Both Nietzsche's and Buddhist writings share the fact that they are a direct response to nihilism, however was he right in characterising Buddhism as advocating a negation of the will, as a will to nothingness, or was this a misunderstanding stemming from his reading of Buddhist texts through the works of Schopenhauer?

I can speak less strongly to Nietzsche than I can to Buddhism, but let me say this: Buddhism is (and has been for than a millennium) as stricken by sectarianism as any Western religion. In the particular case of the approach to will, consider two almost orthogonal cases:

  1. Theravada Buddhism. To vastly oversimplify, Theravadins practice something that approaches an ascetism. In a very real way, Theravada practice focuses on denying--and thus subduing--the will and any sense of desire. I think this most completely meshes with Nietzsche's conception of Buddhist thought as a negation of the will and a will to nothingness. This conception is very easily supported--and is supported in Theravada--through the Second and Third Noble Truths ("Desire is the root of suffering." and "There is a path to the cessation of desire.").
  2. Zen Buddhism. Most notably in its theoretical form, Zen looks almost nothing like Theravada in respect to its approach to will and nothingness. Zen thinking relies heavily on the Diamond and Heart Sutras, which pretty explicitly say that the Buddhist conception of nothingness envelops even the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. As such, Zen practitioners reach for a stillness of mind that manifests as a totally natural motion of mind. This looks almost identical to Taoist Wei-Wu-Wei (action without action), which is harmonious natural activity. In Zen (as in most forms of Buddhism when practiced in their highest forms), the fullness of nothingness is recognized: it is not a negation of anything, but rather an affirmation of everything which is in the phenomenally experienced world. In Zen, it is said that "It is right to want flowers and to hate weeds." This is quite obviously NOT a negation of will, but perhaps rather an attempt to free one's will from what Zen would call the confines of ego-bound or conceptual thought.

The point is that Nietzsche's interpretation of Buddhist will and nothingness is quite defensible, and it is a very natural conclusion from certain forms of Buddhism--especially many of those that are approached in a more scholarly and academic fashion. On the other hand, there are Buddhist schools in which there is no reasonable way to reconcile Nietzsche's conception with what the practicing Buddhists talk about.

Unfortunately, however, there is a massive caveat to this, and that is that most practicing Buddhists (even those who practice Sutra-driven forms of the religion) will tell you that Buddhism cannot be completely accurately expressed in academic words. There is a requirement for the suspension of self that requires the suspension of thought, and "nothingness" (to most Buddhists) is simply a word-symbol that points to the unencapsulable idea that is that suspension and the access it gives.

The only serious way to enquire about the philosophical validity of Western takes on Buddhism that are laden with basic philosophical conceits regarding thought, self, and truth is in terms of their psychological and cultural impact, and that's a completely different question.

  • much appreciated for the response! will get back to you when i have a bit more free time. Cheers ;) – Dr Sister Dec 19 '12 at 7:38

Nietzsche had many misunderstandings of Buddhism, but his critique of certain forms of Buddhism (e.g. Therevada) is pretty valid. I discuss this issue in this essay (Calm and the Cataract: Zen and the Antichrist), where I compare Nietzsche's thought with Thich Nath Han, the founding figure of the Plum Village school of Mahayana Buddhism. See below:

Nietzsche inherited most of his understanding of Buddhism from Schopenhauer, who considered his own philosophy a European relative of Buddhism: “up till 1818, when my work appeared, there was to be found in Europe only a very few accounts of Buddhism” (17). As one of his students and early disciples, Nietzsche “was predisposed to react to Buddhism in terms of his close reading of Schopenhauer” (Elman). Many Buddhists have disputed Schopenhauer’s comprehension of their religion. It is enough to say Nietzsche’s knowledge of Buddhism is nowhere near complete: it came secondhand from a Western philosopher whose own understanding is questionable. But there is also evidence that Nietzsche scoured the sparse texts he had available, especially the ancient Sanskrit Upanishads, and he referenced complex Buddhist topics with some awareness of the nuance involved (Bilimoria, 363).

So there are problems with Nietzsche's reading of Buddhism - it was usually secondhand and Westernized. But despite that, it's a rich experience to explore his connections and disagreements with Buddhist thought. He also loves Buddhism far more than Christianity:

“Buddhism, I repeat, is a hundred times more austere, more honest, more objective. It no longer has to justify its pains, its susceptibility to suffering, by interpreting these things in terms of sin—it simply says, as it simply thinks, ‘I suffer’”

Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 23

There are also several books on this topic, one of the best of which is Morrison's Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities.

The combination of these two bodies of thought is incredibly fascinating and deep. I highly recommend digging into both - you'll come out with a better understanding of both Nietzsche and Buddhism. And you'll probably find that Nietzsche's critique is strong and not unfounded, but should be tempered with a Buddhist response.

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