Thursday, 29 August 2002  
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Nietzsche and Buddha

Between the Blinds by Dr.Nalin Swaris

It is in the context of the problematic of secular liberalism that Nietzsche's fascination with the teachings of the Buddha takes on contemporary significance. In the Buddha's Teaching and Ethical Path Nietzsche felt, he found what he was looking for a clear and coherent ethical system which was self-validating and which did not to require any external authority or supernatural sanction. "Buddhism", he writes, "is the only positivistic 'religion' history has to show us, even in its epistemology - a strict phenomenalism, it no longer speaks of `the struggle against sin', but quite in accordance with actuality, of the struggle against suffering... against a state of depression that has arisen, the Buddha takes hygienic measures. He promotes ideas, which produce repose and cheerfulness. He understands benevolence, being kind, as health producing" (The Anti-Christ 20).

Nietzsche regarded the Buddha's Ethical Path as a therapeutic ethic, a prescription for wholesome living in this world. Going beyond the conventional categories of good and evil, the Buddha speaks of skillful (kusala) or unskillful (akusala) responses to the predicaments of the human condition - a condition which is subjected to the necessary condition of impermanence and mortality. This life becomes a source of suffering and frustration because humans refuse to accept impermanence and cling to their chimerical selves and to things and people as if they are eternal and unchanging. Human suffering is not predicated by the nature of things 'as such' but because of a delusion about the actual character of experienced realities produced by craving for permanence.

It is this craving for personal and collective self-perpetuation, which generates lust for whatever is perceived as a means to this end and hatred for whatever is perceived as a threat to it. Buddha did not promise people an escape hatch to immortality. Rather, he asked the more pertinent question: Knowing that we must all die, how should we live?

Neitzsche was not unqualified in his admiration of Buddhism. In some passages he places Buddhism alongside Christianity as a decadence religion, because it, like Christianity, had come to terms with the prevalent culture and provided it moral sanction in exchange for the patronage of the state and of the socially privileged. Nietzsche criticized Buddhism when and wherever it appeared to be only nominally non-theistic. Scholars familiar with Theravada canonical works and the Nietzsche's writings (like our own Bhikkhu Nanajivako), have been struck by Buddhist influences in key elements of his philosophy. Like the Buddha, Nietzsche vivisects systems of thought and human behaviour and discloses the power of desire which underlies them. He discovered that "even our moral judgements and valuations are only pictures and fantasies about psychological process unknown to us". The Buddha's technique for establishing right mindfulness is aimed at dispelling the mists of delusion and bringing to clear awareness, the subconscious drives of lust and hatred which condition our perceptions, our conscious thoughts and actions. Nietzsche's observation that " our so-called consciousness is a more or less fantastic commentary on an unknown, but felt text", is consistent with Buddhist insights.

Nietzsche feared that once people are freed from external restraint or from inner psycho-religious repression of their desires they would give free rein to their impulses.

Today's consumerist values, 'evangelized' by overt and hidden persuaders, especially through TV advertisements, are calculated to break down such inhibitions. They incite individuals to 'go with the current' of the dominant culture and to indulge themselves. They set false standards of social esteem and prestige. The Buddha's Fire Sermon is more relevant today than when it was first preached to a group of greedy fire priests. It can be read as a powerful exposure of the way consumerist culture inflames all the senses with desire.

"Burning, burning. The eye is burning, the ear is burning, the nose is burning, the tongue is burning, the body is burning, the mind is burning... burning with the fire of craving". The consumerist ethos turns people into "slaves of desires" (tanha dasa), as the Buddha observed. Desires when frustrated, turn into their opposite - vengeful hatred. Nietzsche argued that frustrated power of desire and thwarted desire for power produce one of the basest of human passions which he called ressentiment.

In Nietzsche's usage the term corresponds to the Pali vera and the Sinhala vairaya. Ressentiment is a dark and negative drive which dements those who see themselves as social impotents and losers.

Netszche was suspicious of most projects of political liberation, because he feared they were impelled by feelings of resentment of the exalted position enjoyed by the rich and powerful. Resentful rebels covet what their enemies enjoy. Once in power, the former 'slaves', become ruthless rulers. They anxiously cling to their new-found power and seek to gain more power, ever fearful of the ressentiment of those they defeated and rendered powerless. Ressentiment produces an endless spiral of hatred and desire for revenge. Nietzsche turns to the Buddha for the remedy to end this vicious circle of violence: "Nothing burns one up quicker than ressentiment. Vexation, morbid susceptibility, the desire, the thirst for revenge, poison-brewing in any sense: it causes a rapid expenditure of nervous energy, a morbid accretion of excretions, for example of gall, into the stomach ... This was grasped by that profound physiologist Buddha. His 'religion' which one would do better to call a system of hygiene ... makes its effect dependent on victory over ressentiment: "Not by enmity is enmity overcome, by friendliness is enmity overcome":

This stands at the beginning of Buddha's teaching. It is not morality which speaks thus. It is physiology which speaks thus. Ressentiment born of weakness, to no one more harmful than the weak man himself - in the opposite case, where a rich nature is the presupposition, a superfluous feeling to stay master of which is almost proof of richness (Ecce Homo,Why I am so Wise.6). Nietzsche regarded the Noble Eightfold Noble Path as the most positive of moralities because it goes beyond 'the slave morality' of 'Thou shalts' and 'Thou shall nots' and calls humans to cultivate positive virtues, which are prefaced by the adjective "samma". The Path culminates with the realization of concentrated and continued mindfulness. The liberated person is fully awake, whereas the average person, that is to say most of us, who according to Nietzsche, are "somnambulists of the day".

Being awake like the Buddha, is not a matter of cognitive apprehension, but a moral realization as well, requiring wisdom and fellow feeling in equal measure.Neitzsche sought to complete the project of political liberalism with the ideal of total inner freedom to be realized through the perfection of one's aesthetic and moral sensibilities.

This ideal, he discovered was, had been proposed centuries ago by the Buddha: "Buddhism is not a religion in which one merely aspires after perfection; perfection is the normal case" (The Anti Christ 21).

HNB-Pathum Udanaya2002

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