Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche

By David Loy

Asian Philosophy
Vol. 6, No. 1 (March, 1996)
pp. 37-58

Copyright 1996 by Asian Philosophy



p. 37 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)


In what ways was Nietzsche right, from a Buddhist perspective, and where did he go wrong? Nietzsche understood how the distinction we make between this worm and a higher spiritual realm serves our need for security, and he saw the bad faith in religious values motivated by this need. He did not perceive how his alternative, more aristocratic values, also reflects the same anxiety. Nietzsche realised how the search for truth is motivated by a sublimated desire for symbolic security; philosophy's attempt to create the world reflects the tyrannical will-to-power, becoming the most 'spiritualised' version of the need to impose our will. Insofar as truth is our intellectual effort to grasp being symbolically, however, Nietzsche overlooks a different reversal of perspective which could convert the 'bad infinite' of heroic will into the good infinite of disseminating play. What he considered the crown of his system -- eternal recurrence -- is actually its denouement. Having seen through the delusion of Being, Nietzsche still sought a Being within Becoming. Nietzsche is able to affirm the value of this moment only by making it recur eternally. Rather than the way to vanquish nihilism, will-to-power turns out to be pure nihilism, for nihilism is not the debacle of all meaning but our dread of that debacle and what we do to avoid it.



Buddhism already has -- and this distinguishes it profoundly from Christianity -- the self-deception of moral concepts behind it -- it stands, in my language, beyond good and evil. (The Anti-Christ) [1]

Although Nietzsche viewed Buddhism as superior to Christianity, and went so far as to call eternal recurrence "the European form of Buddhism", he considered both religions nihilistic. Buddhism, which fights ressentiment, was a convenient whip for Christianity born out of ressentiment. Inasmuch as Buddhism attempts to view the world as it is, without the distortions of metaphysics, Nietzsche believed that it offers no moral interpretation of the suffering that necessarily attends the human condition: no one is responsible for that suffering. Yet this did not amount to a recommendation, for Buddhism is nonetheless a religion for the end and fatigue of a civilization, the consolation of weary spirits longing for a dreamless sleep. [2] Sakyamuni Buddha was not an Ubermensch.

    Such a conclusion is not surprising for someone who learned his Buddhism largely through Schopenhauer: But we have learned much more about Buddhism since Nietzsche's day, enough to consider a Buddhist response: in what ways was Nietzsche right, from a Buddhist perspective, and where might he have gone wrong?

    The answer is complex, of course, and there is much that Buddhists can learn from Nietzsche, the first post-modernist and still the most important one. In order to reach that answer, however, it will first be necessary to gain some understanding of anatman,



p. 38 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

the 'no self' doctrine central to Buddhism and to the still-widespread misunderstanding of Buddhism as nihilistic. Of the various ways for us to approach anatman, one of the most insightful is through modem psychology. Buddhism anticipated its reluctant conclusions: guilt and anxiety are not adventitious but intrinsic to the ego. That is because our dissatisfaction with life derives from a repression even more immediate than death-terror: the suspicion that 'I' am not real. For Buddhism, the sense-of-self is not some self-existing consciousness but a mental construction which experiences its own groundlessness as a lack. On this account, our most problematic dualism is not so much life fearing death as a fragile sense-of-self dreading its own nothingness. By accepting and yielding to that groundlessness, however, I can discover that I have always been grounded, not as a self-present being but as one manifestation of a web of relationships which encompasses everything.

    What does this understanding of self-as-lack imply about ethics, truth, and the meaning of life for us? That is the question which motivates this paper, for to raise these issues in the Western tradition is to find ourselves in a dialogue with Nietzsche, whose own texts resonate with many of the same insights: for example, his critiques of the subject ("The 'subject' is not something given, it is something added and invented and projected behind what there is." WP 481) and substance ("The properties of a thing are effects on other 'things' ... there is no 'thing-in-itself.'" WP 557). From this critique, Nietzsche also drew some conclusions quite similar to those of Buddhism: in particular, that morality, knowledge and meaning are not discovered but constructed -- internalised games we learn from each other and play with ourselves. Perhaps the history of his own psyche reveals how momentous these discoveries were; and inevitably his insights were somewhat distorted.

    Nietzsche understood how the distinction we make between this world and a higher spiritual realm serves our need for security, and he saw the bad faith in religious values motivated by this need. He did not understand how his alternative, more aristocratic values, also reflects the same anxiety. Nietzsche ends up celebrating an impossible ideal, the heroic-ego which overcomes its sense of lack, because he does not see that a heroic ego is our fantasy project for overcoming lack.

    Nietzsche realised how the search for truth is motivated by a sublimated desire for symbolic security; his solution largely reverses our usual dualism by elevating ignorance and 'untruth' into conditions of life. Philosophy's attempt to create the world reflects the tyrannical will-to-power, becoming the most 'spiritualised' version of the need to impose our will Insofar as truth is our intellectual effort to grasp being symbolically, however, those who no longer need to ground themselves can play the truth-versus-error game with lighter feet. Nietzsche overlooks a different reversal of perspective which could convert the bad-infinite of the heroic will-as-truth into the good infinite of truth-as-play.

    What he considered the crown of his system -- eternal recurrence -- is actually its denouement. Having seen through the delusion of Being, Nietzsche could not let it go completely, for he still sought a Being within Becoming. 'To impose upon becoming the character of being -- this is the supreme will to power' (WP 617). Having exposed the bad faith of believing in eternity, Nietzsche is nonetheless able to affirm the value of this moment only by making it recur eternally. In place of the neurotic's attempt to rediscover the past in the future he tries to rediscover the present in the future, yet the eternal recurrence of the now can add something only if the now in itself lacks something.

    Rather than the way to vanquish nihilism, Nietzsche's will-to-power turns out to be



p. 39 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

pure nihilism, for nihilism is not the debacle of all meaning but our dread of that debacle and what we do to avoid it. This includes compulsively seizing on certain meanings as a bulwark against that form of lack. If so, the only solution to the dread of meaninglessness is meaninglessness itself: only by accepting meaninglessness, by letting it devour the meanings that we use to defend ourselves against our nothingness, can we realise a meaning-freeness open to the possibilities that arise in our world.

    In sum, when the lack-driven bad infinite transforms into a lacking-nothing good-infinite, the dualisms of good-versus-evil, truth-versus-error, and meaningfulness-versus-meaninglessness are realised to be games. Do I play them or do they play me? As long as we do not understand what is motivating us, we play with the seriousness of a life-versus-death struggle, for that is what the games symbolise for a self preoccupied with its lack. We are trapped in games which cannot be escaped yet cannot be won, since playing well does not resolve one's sense-of-lack. When there is no need to get anything from the game or gain cloture on it, we can play with the seriousness of a child absorbed in its game. [3]


The Lack of Self

Existential psychologists such as Ernest Becker believe that our primary repression is not sexual wishes, as Freud thought, but the awareness that we are going to die. [4] This is closer to Buddhism, yet the anatman doctrine implies a subtle although significant distinction between fear of death and dread of the void: our worst problem is not death, a fear which still keeps the feared thing at a distance by projecting it into the future, but the more immediate and terrifying (and quite valid) suspicion each of us has that 'I' am not real right now.

    Sakyamuni Buddha did not use psychoanalytic terms, yet in trying to understand the Buddhist denial of self we can benefit from the concept of repression and the return of the repressed in symbolic form. If something (a mental wish, according to Freud) makes me uncomfortable, I can ignore or 'forget' it. This allows me to concentrate on something else, but what is not consciously admitted into awareness tends to irrupt in obsessive ways -- as symptoms -- that affect consciousness with precisely those qualities it strives to exclude. What does this imply about anatman?

    Buddhism analyses the sense-of-self into sets of impersonal mental and physical phenomena, whose interaction creates the illusion of self-consciousness, i.e. that consciousness characterises a self distinct from the world it is conscious of. The death-repression emphasised by existential psychology transforms Freud's Oedipal complex into what Norman Brown calls an Oedipal project -- the attempt to become father of oneself, i.e. one's own origin. The child wants to conquer death by becoming the creator and sustainer of its own life. [5] Buddhism shifts the emphasis: the Oedipal project is better understood as the attempt of the developing sense-of-self to attain autonomy, like Descartes' supposedly self-sufficient consciousness. It is the quest to deny one's groundlessness by becoming one's own ground: the ground (socially conditioned and maintained yet nonetheless illusory) we know as being an independent, individual subject.

    If so, the Oedipal project derives from our intuition that self-consciousness is not something 'self-existing' but a mental construct. As with Nietzsche, consciousness is more like the surface of the sea: dependent on unknown depths that it cannot grasp because it is a manifestation of them. The problem arises when this conditioned consciousness wants to ground itself, i.e. to make itself real. If the sense-of-self is a



p. 40 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

construct, it can realise itself only by objectifying itself in some way in the world. The ego-self is this never-ending project to objectify oneself, something consciousness can no more do than a hand can grasp itself or an eye see itself.

    The consequence of this perpetual failure is that the sense-of-self has, as its inescapable shadow, a sense-of-lack, which it always tries to escape. In deconstructive terms, the ineluctable trace of nothingness in our non-self-present being is a feeling of lack. The return of the repressed in the distorted form of a symptom shows us how to link this basic yet hopeless project with the symbolic ways we try to make ourselves real in the world. We experience this deep sense of lack as the feeling that 'there is something wrong with me,' but of course that feeling manifests, and we respond to it, in many different ways. In its 'purer' forms lack appears as an anxiety that gnaws on one's very core. For that reason such anxiety is eager to objectify into fear of something, because then we have ways to defend ourselves against feared things.

The problem with objectifications, however, is that no object can ever satisfy if it is not really an object we want. When we do not understand what is actually motivating us -- because what we think we want is only a symptom of something else (our desire to become real, according to my interpretation of Buddhism) -- we end up compulsive. Then the neurotic's anguish and despair are less the result of symptoms than their source; those symptoms are necessary to shield him from the tragedies that 'normal' people are better at repressing: death, meaninglessness, groundlessness.

The ultimate problem is not guilt but the incapacity to live. The illusion of guilt is necessary for an animal that cannot enjoy life, in order to organise a life of non-enjoyment. [6]

    Buddhism agrees yet shifts our focus from the terror of future annihilation to the anguish of a groundlessness experienced here and now. A Buddhist interpretation of self-as-lack accepts much of the psychotherapeutic understanding while offering a way to resolve our unhappiness. Buddhism traces human suffering back to desire and ignorance, and ultimately to our lack of self. Deconstructing the sense-of-self into interacting mental and physical processes leads to Nietzschean conclusions: the supposedly simple self is an economy of forces. [7] The Buddhist solution to its lack is simple although not easy. If it is nothingness I am afraid of (i.e. the repressed intuition that, rather than being autonomous and self-existent, the 'I' is a construct), the best way to resolve that fear is to face up to what has been denied: that is, to accept my no-thing-ness by becoming nothing. The 12th century Japanese Zen master Dogen summarises this process:

To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualised by [or: perceive oneself as] myriad things. When actualised by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realisation remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly. [8]

Forgetting ourselves is how we lose our sense of separation and realise that we are manifestations of the world, not subjects confronting it as an other. Meditation is learning how to become nothing by learning to forget one's self, which happens when I become absorbed into my meditation-exercise. If the sense-of-self is consciousness reflecting back upon itself in order to grasp itself, such meditation practice is an exercise in de-reflection. Consciousness unlearns trying to grasp itself, objectify itself, realise itself. Enlightenment occurs in Buddhism when that usually-automatised reflexivity ceases, which is experienced as a letting-go and falling into a void.



p. 41 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma. (Huang-po) [9]

When I no longer strive to make myself real through things, I find myself 'actualised' by them, says Dogen.

    This process implies that what we fear as nothingness is not really nothingness, for that is the perspective of a sense-of-self anxious about losing its grip on itself. According to Buddhism, letting-go of myself and merging with that nothingness leads to something else: when consciousness stops trying to catch its own tail, I become no-thing, and discover that I am everything -- or, more precisely, that I can be anything. The problem of desire is solved when, without the craving-for-being that compels me to take hold of something and try to settle down in it, I am free to experience my nonduality with it. Grasping at something merely reinforces a delusive sense of separation between that-which-is-grasped and that-which-grasps-at-it. The only way I can become a phenomenon is to realise I am it, according to Buddhism. A mind that realizes this is absolute in the original sense of the term: unconditioned. Meditative techniques decondition the mind from its tendency to circle in safe, familiar ruts, thus enabling its freedom to become anything. The most-quoted line from the best-known of all Mahayana scriptures, the Diamond Sutra, encapsulates all this in one phrase: "Let your mind come forth without fixing it anywhere." [10]

    When anatman is understood this way, as a self-as-lack shadowing our illusory sense-of-self, Nietzsche andve a lot to talk about.


Qualifying for Being

"There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena." [11] That brings the ethical issue back from the other 'true' world to this one, as we inquire into the genealogy of our moral interpretations. Why do we make the interpretations that we do? As we become more conscious of our motivations, what other interpretations become possible?

    Nietzsche distinguishes two basic types of morality. Master morality does not hesitate to affirm the exercise of power, whereas slave morality is based upon rejecting master morality as evil and valuing the opposite of that evil. Behind the piety of conventional Christian morals, Nietzsche detected the fear and ressentiment of the weak who use ethical codes to control the strong. When this fear is projected onto the universe, it becomes a God who tells us to love each other even as he loves us, who will take care of us if we do and punish us if we do not. We may cower before such a God, yet this scheme seems to afford us some grip on our ultimate fate -- and, as Nietzsche emphasises, a pretty good grip on our fellow man. We know who we are, what we can do and where that is likely to get us. But this also destroys the innocence of our existence.

That no one is any longer made accountable, that the kind of being manifested cannot be traced back to a causa prima, that the world is a unity neither as sensorium nor as 'spirit' -- this alone is the great liberation -- thus alone is the innocence of becoming restored... The concept 'God' has hitherto been the greatest objection to existence... We deny God; in denying God, we deny accountability: only by doing that do we redeem the world. (TI 54)

We would be accountable to God because he would want to accomplish something through us. Nietzsche calls our bluff. We say we want to be free, yet we also want



p. 42 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

somebody, somewhere, to he taking care of us. There seems to be a correspondence between monotheism (a consciousness unifying and controlling the external world) and the ego-self (a consciousness unifying and controlling the internal). Then the issue is not only accountability but ego-integrity: without a God to keep us straight, who is strong enough to determine one's own direction? If God expires all is permitted, and the century since Nietzsche's proclamation has certainly fulfilled his predictions of nihilism.

    Perhaps a period of chaos is unavoidable.

One interpretation has collapsed; but because it was considered the interpretation it now seems as if there were no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain. (WP 55)

As with the adolescent forging an independent identity, some disorientation is inevitable before humankind matures enough to forego its projected parent and determine this-worldly criteria for moral interpretations. This would also explain the difficulty with Nietzsche's own solution, which understands the problem yet cannot quite escape it. Nietzsche saw that the dualism of good versus evil is an internalised game we learn to play with ourselves. "In every ascetic morality man worships a part of himself as God and for that he needs to diabolize the other part". (BGE 227) Since Christianity is the victory of pity over aristocratic values, his alternative is, in part, revaluing those aristocratic virtues. "The great epochs of our life are the occasions when we gain the courage to rebaptise our evil qualities as our best qualities". (BGE 116) This includes embracing the fact that "life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one's own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation." (BGE 259) [12] However, this famous passage is easily misunderstood. Nietzsche idealises the aristocrat, and especially the overman, insofar as they are masters of their own 'inward chaos', self-over-come men: "You shall become master of yourself, master also over your virtues. Formerly they were your masters; but they must be only your instruments beside other instruments." [13] Yet from a Buddhist perspective the concept of self-mastery contains a problematic ambiguity: who is master of whom? If the ego-self is that which vainly tries to grasp itself, the project of self-mastery is not only questionable but impossible. That for the sake of which it is worthwhile to live on Earth: does that happen when I master myself or when I let go of myself?

    For Buddhism these questions reduce to how our sense-of-lack may be overcome, and for Nietzsche that involves our embodiment of will-to-power. Retracing the genealogy of this, his master concept if he has one, will help us relate his will-to-power to the Buddhist sense-of-lack.

    The will-to-power cannot be separated from its sublimation (or 'spiritualisation'), for Nietzsche discovered them together. He was one of the first classicists to realise that the original Olympic games were a sublimated form of war. Nietzsche contended that Greek civilisation was noble and sublime precisely because it had been so cruel and bloodthirsty; the 'golden age' was created by bringing this original ferocity under control. "The thought seems to be: where there is 'the sublime' there must have been that which was made sublime -- sublimated -- after having been for a long time not sublime." [14] Having detected this phenomenon in ancient Greece, Nietzsche began to notice sublimated 'base' impulses in many kinds of activity; for example, Wagner's ferocious will sublimated into the Bayreuth festival. This makes Nietzsche the first, as far as I know, to undertake a systematic study of repression.



p. 43 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

    Nietzsche sees the sublimity of Greek culture as the sublimation of its original ferocity, yet here perhaps the genealogist of morals does not trace his genealogy back far enough. What makes man so ferocious? Can even the will to power, irreducible for Nietzsche, be deconstructed? What, after all, does power mean to us?

All power is in essence power to deny mortality. Either that or it is not real power at all, not ultimate power, not the power that mankind is really obsessed with. Power means power to increase oneself, to change one's natural situation from one of smallness, helplessness, finitude, to one of bigness, control, durability, importance. (Becker) [15]

We feel we are masters over life and death when we hold the fate of others in our hands, adds Becker; and we feel we are real when the reality of others is in our hands, adds Buddhism. From that perspective, however, desire for power is little different from the slave morality Nietzsche criticises. Both become symptoms of our lack, equally frustrating inasmuch as we are motivated by something that cannot be satisfied in the way we try to satisfy it. No wonder Nietzsche's will-to-power can never rest, that it needs to expand its horizons, and that for most of us morality has been a matter of collecting religious brownie points. In both cases we think that we have found the way to get a grip on our eligibility for immortality -- or being.

The whole basis of the urge to goodness is to be something that has value, that endures... Man uses morality to try to get a place of special belongingness and perpetuation in the universe... Do we wonder why one of man's chief characteristics is his tortured dissatisfaction with himself, his constant self-criticism? It is the only way he has to overcome the sense of hopeless limitation inherent in his real situation. (Becker) [16]

When I realise that I am not going to attain cloture on that diabolical part of myself, it is time to project it. "The Devil is the one who prevents the heroic victory of immortality in each culture -- even the atheistic, scientific ones." [17] As long as lack keeps gnawing, we need to keep struggling with the Devil, and as we all know the best devil is one outside our own group. Evil is whatever we decide is keeping us from becoming real, and since no victory over any external devil can yield the sense of being we seek, we have become trapped in a paradox of our own making: evil is created by our urge to eliminate evil. Stalin's collectivisation programme was an attempt to build a more perfect socialist society. The Final Solution of the Nazis was an attempt to purify the Earth of its vermin.

    The Buddhist critique of such ressentiment includes understanding the self-deception involved in such dualistic thinking, when I identify with one pole and vainly try to eliminate its interdependent other. [18] Buddhism gets beyond good and evil not by rebaptising our evil qualities as our best, but with an entirely different perspective. As long as we experience ourselves as alienated from the world, and society as a set of separate selves, the world is devalued into a field-of-play wherein we compete to fulfill ourselves. That is the origin of the ethical problem we struggle with today: without some transcendental ground such as God, what will bind our atomised selves together? When my sense-of-self lets-go and disappears, however, I realise my interdependence with all other phenomena. It is more than being dependent on them: when I discover that I am you, the trace of your traces, the ethical problem of how to relate to you is transformed. [19]

    Of course, this provides no simple yardstick to resolve knotty ethical dilemmas. Yet more important, I think, is that this absolves the sense of separation between us which



p. 44 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

usually makes those dilemmas so difficult to resolve, including the conceit that I am the one who has privileged access to transcendental principles, or who embodies more fully the will-to-power. Loss of self-preoccupation entails the ability to respond to others without an ulterior motive which needs to gain something from that encounter. Buddhist ethical principles approximate the way of relating to others that nondual experience reveals. As in Christianity, I should love my neighbour as myself -- in this case because my neighbour is myself. In contrast to the 'Thou shalt not -- or else!' implied in Mosaic law, the Buddhist precepts are vows one makes not to some other being but to one's to-be-realised-as-empty self: "I vow to undertake the course of training to perfect myself in non-killing," and so forth. If we have not developed to the degree that we spontaneously experience ourselves as one with others, by following the precepts we endeavour to act as if we did feel that way. Yet even these precepts are eventually realised not to rest on any transcendental, objectively-binding moral principle. There are, finally, no moral limitations on our freedom -- except the dualistic delusions which incline us to abuse that freedom in the first place.


Grasping the Symbols that Grasp Reality

How much one needs a belief in order to flourish, how much that is 'firm' and that one does not wish to be shaken because one clings to it, that is a measure of the degree of one's strength (or, to put the point more clearly, of one's weakness). [20]

If one's final delusion is the belief that one has lost all delusions, and if there is no greater delusion than the one that eliminates all others, mustn't that delusion be... the truth? "What really is it in us that wants 'the truth'?" begins Beyond Good and Evil, a question that echoes throughout Nietzsche's writings. The value of truth must be called into question. Perhaps no one yet has been sufficiently truthful about what truthfulness is in which case we should be careful, for that may be for good reason. Nietzsche warns that one might get hold of the truth about truth too soon, before humankind is strong enough to give up the need for truth.

Look, isn't our need for knowledge precisely this need for the familiar, the will to uncover under everything strange, unusual, and questionable, something that no longer disturbs us? Is it not the instinct of fear that bids us to know? And is the jubilation of those who attain knowledge not the jubilation over the restoration of a sense of security? [21]

Then what might truth become for a person who no longer seeks to restore a feeling of security? Nietzsche saw the relationship between our will-to-truth and our need for being: "Man seeks 'the truth': a world that is not self-contradictory, not deceptive, does not change, a true world -- a world in which one does not suffer; contradiction, deception, change -- causes of suffering!" (WP 585) The will-to-truth manifests will-to-power; the problem with this form of will is when it thinks the world rather than creates it. "Actual philosophers, however, are commanders and law-givers... Their 'knowing' is creating, their creating is a law-giving, their will to truth is -- will to power". (BGE 211) Even basic logical categories reflect our need to perceive things in a stable way. That some things are equal, that there is such a thing as matter, that things naturally fall into categories: these are fictions, even if more or less indispensable in daily life. Such instrumental truths work to preserve us and give us a grip on our situation. In his later writings, when Nietzsche saw through the illusion of a unitary ego-self, he realised that



p. 45 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

these truths derive from the sense-of-self objectifying its own self-image. Then what would happen if we could cease believing in ego as a self-determining cause? If we cling to these 'facts' for survival, can those who let-go of themselves let go of them?

    Nietzsche does not consider this Buddhist possibility, yet he contemplates "the most extreme form of nihilism", which might also be called "a divine way of thinking": the view "that every belief, every considering-something-true, is necessarily false because there simply is no true world. Thus: a perspectival appearance whose origin lies in us (in so far as we continually need a narrower, abbreviated, simplified world)". Nietzsche describes this as another reversal: just as our rebaptised evil qualities trade places with our best qualities, so truth becomes lie –

Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are. Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live. The value for life is ultimately decisive. [22]

-- and lie becomes a kind of truth, for this makes the will to appearance, even the will to deception, "deeper, more metaphysical, than the will to truth" insofar as that will-to-truth is motivated by the need for security. Nietzsche accordingly calls his own philosophy "inverted Platonism: the further it is from actual reality, the purer, more beautiful, and better it becomes. Living in illusion as the ideal". There are no objective facts, no Immaculate Perception, no ultimate revelation of truth. Everything becomes a matter of perspective since "there is no solely beatifying interpretation". [23] Like eternal recurrence, perspectivism is a test and an intensification of our will-to-power. Perspectives gain in power by competing with each other. Superior perspectives develop by refuting or refining lesser ones. In this way the will continually surmounts itself, as individuals develop according to their own ability.

    Ernest Becker also believes that illusion is necessary. The Denial of Death starts with an insight of William James: "mankind's common instinct for reality ... has always held the world to be essentially a theater for heroism". Why do we want to be heroes? Our narcissistic need for self-esteem mean that each of us yearns to feel of special value, "first in the universe". Heroism (in the broad sense: e.g. Nietzsche as an intellectual hero) is how we justify that need to count more than anyone or anything else. Human society can be understood as a codified hero system, a symbolic-action structure whose roles and rules function as a vehicle for heroism. That raises the essential question:

If transference is a natural function of heroism, a necessary projection in order to stand life, death, and oneself, the question becomes: What is creative projection? What is life-enhancing illusion? ... Man needs a 'second' world, a world of humanly created meaning, a new reality that he can live, dramatise, nourish himself in. "Illusion" means creative play at its highest level. Cultural illusion is a necessary ideology of self-justification, a heroic dimension that is life itself to the symbolic animal. [24]

"The essence of normality is the refusal of reality", a refusal that Becker, like Nietzsche, justifies as psychologically necessary. Yet he too goes for what Nietzsche calls the bloody truths, peeling away repressions to arrive at "the potentially most liberating question of all, the main problem of human life: How empirically true is the cultural hero system that sustains and drives men?" [25] Thus Becker ends up with a double-tiered truth similar to Nietzsche's, between a life-enhancing illusion and the truth about this illusion, too painful for most of us to cope with. From the first perspective, the important truths for Becker too are the ones that defend my existence, all the more important if they are believed to help me qualify for eternal existence (or self-being,



p. 46 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

according to Buddhism). From the second and deeper perspective, however, the question is how much truth we can bear.

    Buddhism also has a two-truths doctrine which distinguishes the usual truth of the everyday world from a higher truth that is not only difficult to understand but dangerous to misunderstand. The paradigmatic formulation is in chapter 24 of the Mulamadhyamikakarikas [26] of Nagarjuna, the most important Buddhist philosopher:

    The teaching of the Buddhas is wholly based on there being two truths: that of a personal everyday world and a higher truth which surpasses it.

    Those who do not clearly know the true distinction between the two truths cannot clearly know the hidden depths of the Buddha's teaching.

    Unless the transactional realm is accepted as a base, the surpassing sense cannot be pointed out; if the surpassing sense is not comprehended nirvana cannot be attained.

    The feeble-minded are destroyed by the misunderstood doctrine of sunyata, as by a snake ineptly seized or some secret knowledge wrongly applied.

    For this reason the mind of the enlightened one was averse to teaching the Truth, realising how difficult it would be for those of feeble insight to fathom it. (MMK XXIV, v. 8-12)

In this version, the higher truth that is fatal to the feeble-minded is sunyata, a term usually translated as 'emptiness' yet better understood as 'lack of self-existence'. In the West the two-truths have often been understood in a Kantian way, as distinguishing the higher Absolute from the relative phenomenal world. Yet they do not presuppose another Reality transcendent to this world. If the terms absolute and relative are used, it is better to reverse their meaning: the 'lower truth' is our usual, commonsense but illusory world of apparently discrete, hence self-existing, unconditioned (absolute) things, while the 'higher truth' is that phenomena are empty of self-existence because they are relative to each other.

    Candrakirti's commentary on this MMK passage explains that someone who misunderstands sunyata will reject the self-existence of things only to fall into the opposite extreme of believing that everything is merely illusion, and will get into trouble by ignoring the physical and moral laws of cause-and-effect. Yet the higher truth is bloodier than that. Buddhism is more than a philosophy that refutes self-existence: it is a practice which deconstructs our sense-of-self, and letting-go of ourselves in order to realise our own sunyata is seldom easy. If normality is the refusal of reality, it is because few of us are ready to face the truth about our lack of self-existence and the social games whereby we reassure ourselves. For many, the alternative to self-illusion is not Becker's creative play but a nihilism that no longer sees any reason to live. No wonder, then, that after his enlightenment Sakyamuni Buddha hesitated to teach what he had realised, according to the traditional account. The problem is not only that we are unable to understand such a difficult doctrine "beyond the reach of reason"; we resist it, for it does not grant us the kind of salvation we want, a grounding being for the ego-self.

    One form of that danger is that we will cling to sunyata, by accepting it as the correct description of the way things are. So Nagarjuna emphasises that the concept of sunyata is relative to the self-existing things it refutes; having fulfilled that function, sunyata refutes itself Sunyata is "the exhaustion of all theories and views" and those who make sunyata into a theory are "incurable". (MMK XIII, v. 8). While Nietzsche ends up with an infinity of possible perspectives, Nagarjuna seems to conclude with none, since



p. 47 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

sunyata is merely a heuristic device. Are these really contradictory, or does the exhaustion of perspectives liberate us for the polyvalence of many perspectives?

Ultimate serenity is the coming to rest of all ways of taking things, the repose of named things; no Truth has been taught by a Buddha for anyone, anywhere. (MMK XXV v. 24)

If truth is a matter of grasping the symbols that grasp reality, all truth is error on the Buddhist path. When nirvana is the end of all ways of taking things, the game of truth-and-delusion is turned upside-down. There is no truth to be taught because nothing needs to be attained; delusion is something to be unlearned. In the Diamond Sutra Subhuti asks the Buddha if his realisation of supreme enlightenment means that he has not gained anything.

Just so, Subhuti. I have not gained the least thing from supreme enlightenment, and that is called supreme enlightenment. [27]

Buddhism does not provide a metaphysical system to account for reality but shows how to deconstruct the socially-conditioned metaphysical system we know as everyday reality. It does not give us truths but shows how to become aware of and let go of the automatised truths we are normally not aware of holding. Buddhism agrees with Nietzsche's and Becker's insight that our truth consists of illusions which we have forgotten are illusions, yet the Buddhist path is predicated on the possibility of deconstructing the ones that cause us to suffer: most of all, the ones that maintain our delusive sense-of-self.

    The crucial issue is whether our search for truth is another attempt to ground ourselves by fixating on certain concepts that are believed to give us an effective fix on the world. When there is this compulsion, certain ideas become seductive: i.e. they become ideologies. The difference between samsara (this world of suffering) and nirvana is that samsara is this world experienced as a sticky web of attachments which seem to offer something we feel the lack of, a grounding for the groundless sense-of-self. Intellectually, that seductive quality manifests as a battleground of conflicting ideologies competing for our allegiance. Ideologies offer to ground the sense-of-self by providing the mind with a sure grasp on the world: now we know how the world is meaningful and what our role in that meaning is.

Ideology is the assumption that since the beginning and end of history are known there is nothing more to say. History is therefore to be obediently lived out according to the ideology. [28]

If there is no specifiable difference between nirvana and the everyday world (MMK XXV, v. 19) then very different ideologies such as religions, metaphysical systems, Marxism and psychoanalysis are in the same dimension insofar as they serve the same psychological function: trying to resolve the sense-of-self's intellectual sense-of-lack by identifying with a belief-system. The problem is that ideologies tend to become computer-viruses of the mind. When we assent to them -- let them in -- ideologies take it over and fill it up.

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms -- in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are: metaphors which are worn



p. 48 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. (Nietzsche) [29]

As metaphors lose their sensuous power they gain another role, as emblems. The freshness of the original meaning decays into tokens. Once objectified and socially-validated, a truth enters the exchange market: it can be gained, possessed, and lost.

Explanations succeed only by convincing resistant hearers of their error. If you will not hear my explanations until you are suspicious of your own truths, you will not accept my explanations until you are convinced of your error. Explanation is an antagonistic encounter that succeeds by defeating an opponent. It possesses the same dynamic of resentment found in other finite play. I will press my explanations on you because I need to show that I do not live in the error that I think others think that I do.
Whoever wins this struggle is privileged with the claim to true knowledge. Knowledge has been arrived at, it is the outcome of this engagement. Its winners have the uncontested power to make certain statements of fact. They are to be listened to. In those areas appropriate to the contests now concluded, winners possess a knowledge that can no longer be challenged. (Carse) [30]

In this antagonistic encounter the will-to-truth is readily identifiable as will-to-power. When sense of lack evaporates because sense-of-self evaporates, however, the seductive web of sarasara transforms into polyvalence, where each viewpoint is able to appreciate others because it no longer identifies with a Truth-project that is threatened by those others. This is not Nietzsche's perspectivism, the competition among perspectives each trying to impress its own will-to-truth upon the world, but a non-abiding wisdom that can wander freely among truths since it does not need to fixate on any of them.

    Is this relativism, the bugaboo of all value-theory? Even if all ideologies are competing in the same intellectual arena, there are some important internal differences. Many ideologies are difficult to escape once you are committed. An old-style Marxist who began criticising Marxism would be told to purge himself of his bourgeois tendencies; a psychoanalyst will tell the analysand that she is resisting. On the other side are what might be called metaideologies because they are designed to self-negate: to free us from all ideologies including themselves. Derrida writes about the need to lodge oneself within traditional conceptuality in order to destroy it, [31] which nicely expresses one of the reasons Nagarjuna insists on two truths: the everyday transactional realm must be accepted in order to point to the higher truth that negates it. According to Nagarjuna's Madhyamika Buddhism, sunyata is like a poison-antidote that expels the poison from our bodies and then expels itself, for if the antidote stays inside to poison us we are no better off than before. The difference between ideologies and meta-ideologies rests on whether the sense-of-self's anxious groundlessness is to be resolved by providing something to identify with or by letting-go of itself. Then the important issue is the liberating function of any truth or practice. The same thought that is liberating in one situation may be binding in another. Even the most valuable insights can lose their freshness and become 'sticky' because they are now understood as something to cling to rather than a pointer to freedom; or rather, clinging to them is now misunderstood as the path to freedom. [32]



p. 49 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

The Nihilism of Eternal Recurrence

If everything manifests the will to power in one way or another, why bother to sublimate? Nietzsche found his answer in eternal recurrence, which solves the problem ingeniously: not by grounding this life in some otherworldly eternity but by impressing the form of eternity on this life. Eternal recurrence has been celebrated as the capstone of his philosophy, yet I shall argue that, instead of vanquishing nihilism, it eternally defers it. That is because nihilism is not the always-impending debacle of all meaning, but our fear of that debacle and flight from it -- which perpetuates the debacle and gives it power over us. The dread of nihilism, which Nietzsche rightly saw as our collective shadow, the ghost that haunts Western civilization, is the true nihilism. From a Buddhist perspective the problem is not our nothingness but the ways we try to evade it.

    This puts Nietzsche in the same camp as Plato. If the Platonic invention of another Reality is an attempt to escape the lack we experience now, so too is Nietzsche's attempt to fill in the lack of that now by making the now recur eternally. The basic problem is that eternal recurrence of the now can add nothing unless the now-as-now lacks something. Again we encounter sense-of-lack, here in its implications for meaning. This lack is not the meaninglessness of life but the threat of meaninglessness, and therefore it manifests as the devices we use to deny meaninglessness. In this way too the repressed returns, sublimated into symbols/symptoms. Tillich believed that the problem of meaninglessness is the form in which non-being poses itself in our time, and that all human life can be interpreted as a continuous attempt to avoid despair. [33] He also gave the solution: the meaning of life must be reduced to despair about the meaning of life, in order to take more non-being of the world into ourselves. Yet one must despair in the right way.

    How to overcome nihilism was the fundamental problem for Nietzsche, whose sensitive nose detected its stink almost everywhere. It is not a late development of Western civilization but man's normal condition, which is why the Overman is an overcoming of man. Then does nihilism have an essential connection with lack, also humankind's normal condition? Nietzsche defines nihilism as increasing gloom, then terror at the exhaustion of all meaning, a grand disgust directed at oneself as well as at the world. Goals are missing, the desert grows. What Nietzsche, the posthumous man predicted, we post-modem men are now living, and no one can say yet when or how nihilism -- today becoming recognised as a global problem -- might be resolved.

    At first, nihilism disguised itself by creating Platonic-type values. Nihilism shows its disgust at life by creating a "true world" having all the attributes that life does not: unity, stability, identity, goodness, happiness. This invention of another world is the nihilistic act par excellence because it devalues this world. The incomplete nihilism which constitutes the development of Western civilisation is the slow decomposition of that true world, and when it finally disappears we are left with this one, the "apparent" world that can no longer be considered apparent if there is nothing to juxtapose it with, yet nonetheless remains devalued and therefore experienced as unsatisfactory.

    Nietzsche's solution to this is eternal recurrence. As many have noticed, the key to what is otherwise a peculiar doctrine seems to be the ethical motivation behind it. "The question in each and every thing, 'Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?' would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight", because this thought would transform us in one way or the other: either crash us under its weight or prompt the supreme affirmation that Zarathustra makes: "Was that life? Well then! Once more!" [34] This would be the great liberation that restores the innocence of Becoming



p. 50 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

because it makes one accountable only to oneself -- which from a Buddhist viewpoint, however, is still one too many.

    Given Nietzsche's attitude towards truth ("Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy..."), this may have been his self-conscious attempt to promulgate a myth. "By what myth do you live?" asked Jung. Well, this one is better than most. Like Heidegger's analysis of death in Being and Time, it can inspire us to live the way we want to live rather than let life pass by while we are making other plans. For Nietzsche and the early Heidegger, the future is necessary to focus us in the now, for otherwise we are diverted and scattered by chance possibilities. In lack terms, both try to resolve our sense-of-lack by making the sense-of-self more efficient. But do their solutions replace one type of evasion with another? Unamuno dismissed eternal recurrence as "a sorry counterfeit of immortality", yet that puts the shoe on the wrong foot: the problem is not that it is a poor immortality but that it is an immortality, which still reflects a felt need to "stamp the form of eternity upon our lives". Eternal recurrence seems to exalt the now by refusing to evaluate it according to some other standard or to ground it in some other reality, yet here too the now is weighed and found wanting: its lack can be filled up only by repeating it. The now as now -- just this! -- is still not enough. A Buddhist may agree with Nietzsche that "this life is your eternal life!", but the eternity of this life must be understood differently, as a not-falling-away eternal now that, when it lacks nothing, may be discovered to be all we need.

    Nietzsche calls eternal recurrence the basic conception of Thus Spake Zarathustra, yet it becomes a dominant theme only near the end of part four. Zarathustra teaches the Higher Men how to overcome the Spirit of Gravity, and at the beginning of "The Intoxicated Song" one of them asserts: "For the sake of this day -- I am content for the first time to have lived my whole life... 'Was that -- life?' I will say to death. 'Very well! Once more!'" At that moment Zarathustra hears the sound of the midnight bell and sings its song, "whose name is 'Once More', whose meaning is 'To all eternity!'":

O Man! Attend!
What does deep midnight's voice contend?
'I slept my sleep,
'And now awake at dreaming's end:
'The world is deep,
'Deeper than day can comprehend,
'Deep is its woe,
'Joy -- deeper than heart's agony:
'Woe says: Fade! Go!
'But all joy wants eternity,
' -- wants deep, deep, deep eternity!'

This roundelay is so important that it appears at the end of both part three and part four; and the reason it is so important is that it reveals the origin of eternal recurrence to be joy. This joy wants to recur eternally, and because it is deeper than the heart's agony such joy can even will that suffering to recur again too, if necessary for its own recurrence.

Did you ever say Yes to one joy? O my friends, then you said Yes to all woe as well. All things are chained and entwined together, all things are in love;
    If you ever wanted one moment twice, if you ever said: 'You please me, happiness, instant, moment!' then you wanted everything to return. [35]



p. 51 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

Alas, for the failure of Nietzsche's moment of joy! However deep it was it was not deep enough, for he needed it again, and again... "Joy, however, does not want heirs or children, joy wants itself, ... wants everything eternally the same." (Z, p. 331) This reaction is natural yet nonetheless ruinous. Ironically, that very desire for its recurrence is the worm which burrows in to destroy it, as in those most-cherished musical moments that inspire us to think "this is so beautiful, I wish it would never stop" -- only to discover that the moment has ceased, destroyed by the self-consciousness which reflexively distinguishes itself from the music in order to enjoy enjoying it. Nietzsche yearns for that moment of joy again, because it absolves his sense of lack, yet his desire for its recurrence is itself part of the problem that the deepest joy resolves. For contrary to his roundelay the deepest joy does not even will to recur: it wills nothing because it lacks nothing, if it is the deepest joy. By wanting to retain that joy Nietzsche separates himself from it and thereby loses it into the past as a memory, then can only try to bring it back by willing the recurrence of everything -- not realising that his moment of pure joy was a temporary collapse of willing. Since the will-to-power always strives to overcome itself, it must project a future, which is why the only consummation it can attain is in the eternal recurrence of such moments. However, striving to find the past in the future is less a formula for joy than a psychoanalytic definition of neurosis.

    What is attractive about eternal recurrence is that it foregoes the need for any other Reality to compensate for the defects of this one. It is an affirmation of this world, yet this world not as let-go but as grasped-at, fixated by being brought back again and again. "Very well: once more!" is his deep affirmation; yet deeper would be: "To all that has been: thanks! To all that will be: yes!" To say yes! to a single moment of joy, completely affirming it, is by definition an experience of no lack. At that instant one wants nothing else, no void needs to be filled in or evaded, which means (if, as Buddhism implies, sense-of-lack is the shadow of sense-of-self) that this must be a moment of egolessness. Then one cannot have such a joy, one can only be such a joy. Blessed are those who have had or rather been such a moment, for it transforms all other moments as well -- although not because of the entwined contingency that Nietzsche refers to. "An affirmation that is truly full and complete is also contagious: it bursts into a chain of affirmations that knows no limits." (Haar) [36] Yes, but this chain is not each contingent affirmation causing another. Just the opposite: a complete affirmation breaks all causal chains. The joy of just this! -- the Buddhist experience of tathata thusness -- needs nothing, desires nothing, and thus reveals that the causal chain is a succession of just this! in an eternal-now where there is nothing to gain or lose. Paradoxically, when the causal chain is such a succession, our experience is that there is no causal chain and no succession. As long as we experience the causal chain as a means to get somewhere else, we lose just this/and the eternal-now. In sum, life becomes joyous not when we get something from it but when we become it.

    So a moment of deepest joy does not banish woe by discovering the interdependence of joy with eve everything else, past and future. Rather, it reveals that what we thought was the means for solving our lack is what maintains the problem. End of lack is not an effect that can be experienced at the conclusion of some causal chain, but the shattering of all causal chains insofar as they are our means for trying to overcome lack. Eternity is found not in the recurrence of time but in the evaporation of that objectified time whereby and wherein we hope to end our lack. This realisation is embodied in perhaps Nagarjuna's most important verse, which distinguishes between samsara and nirvana:



p. 52 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

    That which, taken as causal or dependent, is the process of being-born and passing on, is, taken non-causally and beyond all dependence, declared to be nirvana. (MMK XXV, v. 9) [37]

    Nirvana cannot be caused and therefore cannot be attained. We might think of it as some kind of substratum pervading all our experience but that is still too dualistic: it is simply the nature of our experience when there is not the delusive sense of a self-conscious yet ungrounded self that has the experience and therefore feels something to be lacking in it. The joy of that experience is deeper than the heart's agony.

    On this account, happiness in the form we seek it -- "that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss" [38] -- cannot be gained. All we can do is realise that nondual "perspective" where nothing has ever been lacking. The amor fati Nietzsche celebrates is not accepting everything due to its interdependence with a moment of complete Yes! but the absence of any need to will that things be any different. The amor is not willing that everything be exactly the same, over and over again, but that everything be as it is; that, however, is not something which needs to be willed. Or, finally, which can be willed. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche came close to this: only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence justified, which amounts to saying that existence experienced aesthetically does not need to be justified. Are what we call "aesthetic experiences" tip-of-the-tongue tastes of something that we have always been immersed in?

    Instead of yielding to this groundlessness, eternal recurrence is a last gasp at self-grounding being, for it attempts to fill up lack by discovering a being within becoming. "That everything recurs is the closest approximation of a world of becoming to a world of being" (WP 617). Nietzsche can find infinite value in the now only by having it recur an infinite number of times. Therefore he ends up not with the end of nihilism but with another, more willful reconstitution of it.

    For Buddhism the problem of lack can be resolved only by ceasing to avoid it and instead becoming-one with it: letting-go of oneself and falling into the void, in order to realise that the void is not really void but the nondual realm of the Buddha-dharma, as Ch'an master Huang-po put it. What does this mean in terms of nihilism? To stop evading the debacle of all meaning and accept it, which requires experiencing the meaninglessness of one's life -- an anguish not to be recommended lightly. Such understanding of the solution also transforms our understanding of the problem, for this solution is usually understood as the problem. This implies that true nihilism is less the debacle of meaning than our terror of that debacle and the ways we flee it, which includes a compulsive need to find some meaning in life as a bulwark against that threat. If so, nihilism is not our lack but the fear and denial of that lack, experienced in this instance as impending loss of meaning. Insofar as Nietzsche's will-to-power is in flight from lack, then, the will-to-power is nihilism. Eternal Recurrence insures that flight will have no cloture, for it tries to fill up lack by flight itself, by repeated recurrence of the passing moment. Thus eternal recurrence would not be final victory over nihilism, but the final victory of nihilism: in grasping at the fleeting now by making it recur, it misses and loses the now that right now does-not-fall-away, and deflects us from the opposite solution of yielding to the nonbeing we most dread, which we might discover to be not so dreadful after all.

    The "discovery" of objective meaning is one of our main ways of dealing with lack. As Zarathustra points out, man assigns values to things only to maintain himself. We can usually cope with anxiety and guilt as long as we know what the meaning of life is, for there is security in that even if we don't always do what that meaning implies we



p. 53 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

should do. However, such meaning-systems corrupt "the innocence of becoming" because in projecting and understanding them as objective we repress the fact that these meanings are our own creations, socially-constructed and -validated. Insofar as they originate in lack they are based on fear, so a test of our maturity is whether we are able to face that fear. "It is a measure of the degree of strength of will to what extent one can do without meaning in things, to what extent one can endure to live in a meaningless world because one organises a small portion of it oneself." (WP 585A)

    If the autonomy of ego-self is a delusion, we can see why that is difficult. Common-sense subject-object dualism presumes the sense-of-self to be the locus of awareness; subjectivism goes further to make the subject the only source of value and meaning, which devalues the world into a field-of-activity wherein the self labours to fulfill itself. Apparently objective meanings paper over the problem of lack because they provide some objective security. In order for the illusory self to feel secure, however, its meanings must be unconsciously projected. The sun that motivates me must not be realised to be my own creation, if I am to be inspired by it. When I am aware of constructing my own meaning, the absence of any external grounding for that meaning means I have nothing to lean upon. The natural response is a deepened sense of lack, experienced as anguish and ontological guilt: by what right do I create such meanings? Who am I to decide that this is the way to live?

    Juxtaposing the possibilities in this way clarifies the Buddhist approach, which contra Nietzsche does not find any solution in strength of will. If the collapse of objective meaning exposes my sense of lack, that will be painful yet it is nonetheless desirable, since becoming aware of my lack is necessary in order to eventually solve it. Then realising the subjectivity of meaning does not by itself resolve the matter, for it becomes a stage to be endured in order to realise something else.

    If despair is a stage, however, one must despair in the right way. Odd as it sounds, the danger with despair is that one will cling to it. In Kierkegaard's school of anxiety (recommended in The Concept of Anxiety) despair is the final exam: it dredges up our most cherished meanings and devours them, leaving us disconsolate. But we do not become completely empty unless despair devours us wholly and also itself. Despair (literally "no hope") is the reverse side of hope and both are relative to the sense-of-self, for the ego-self alternates between the hope it will finally fixate itself and the dread it never will. Then despair evaporates with the self, like the matter and anti-matter of particle physics which disappear by collapsing back into each other. Yet often this does not happen, because when despair finally occurs after a lifetime of avoiding it, it appears with a force that makes it seem more real than the meanings it roots out, which had been used to repress it. From the Buddhist standpoint, the recurring thoughts and feelings that constitute despair are no more real and no less impermanent than any other thoughts and feelings. When we despair, however, our usual psychological defenses fail and we identify with self-pitying thoughts and self-destructive inclinations. Then, instead of despair consuming the self, it reinforces the worthlessness of that self. We end up not becoming-nothing but with a sense-of-self nourishing itself on self-disgust. This is the "reactive" tendency that so disgusted Nietzsche and he saw what the problem is: "He who despises himself still nonetheless respects himself as one who despises." (BGE 78) Man would rather will nothingness than not will. [39] Yet the void Huang-po recommends is not something that can be willed.

    When we despair in the right way, what happens? Abandoning the hope that we will eventually become something, we yield to our nothingness and discover how we have always been everything. As Dogen expressed it in Genjokoan, to forget oneself is to be



p. 54 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

actualised by myriad things, which is to perceive oneself as all things. What does such mutual interpenetration imply about the meaning of life? For Buddhism, meaning too is neither objective nor subjective. Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless but what might be called meaningfree. To forget oneself ad become nothing is to wake up and find oneself in or, less dualistically, as a situation -- not confronted by it but one with it -- and if one is not self-preoccupied then meaning arises naturally within that situation. As Buber put it, you start with yourself in order to forget yourself and immerse yourself in the world; you understand yourself in order not to be preoccupied with yourself.

    The existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom has discussed the formidable problem posed by the 'galactic' point of view, which seems to trivialise us into microscopic specks flickering in the vast expanse of cosmic time. He points out that this renders life meaninglessness only from that perspective, a perspective that moreover is delusive from the Buddhist point of view: it abstracts me from my actual situation, yet there is no such "sub specie aeternitas" perspective outside our various perspectives. We are nondual with the whole only by virtue of our particular position within that whole. We are free to experience and appreciate different perspectives, but there is no perspectiveless-perspective. The therapist's goal, according to Yalom, is:

not to create engagement nor to inspirit the patient with engagement -- these the therapist cannot do. But it is not necessary: the desire to engage life is always there within the patient, and the therapist's clinical activities should be directed toward removal of obstacles in the patient's way. [40]

Searching for the meaning of life is searching for something that enables us to stop searching. When lack comes to an end, so does the problem of meaninglessness. And life becomes ... play. [41]



Mature manhood: that means to have rediscovered the seriousness one had as a child at play. (BGE 94)

For Nietzsche, like Derrida today, the death of God unleashes limitless play. [42] Yet whether our god has died or not, we are already playing. The question is not whether we play but how. Do we suffer our games as if they were life-or-death struggles, because they are the means whereby we hope to ground ourselves, or do we dance with the light feet that Nietzsche called the first attribute of divinity? His philosophising exceeds any system that can be constructed out of it, for, the will to power notwithstanding, it demonstrates how thinking can be such play.

I do not know what the spirit of a philosopher might wish more to be than a dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his art, and finally also his only piety, his 'service of God.' (GS 381)

A friend once complained to Samuel Johnson that he had tried to be a philosopher but cheerfulness kept breaking in; Nietzsche shows that the two need not be incompatible.

    Zarathustra teaches three metamorphoses: from camel (a weight-bearing spirit) to lion (who captures freedom) to the child, who "is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning ... a sacred Yes." Unless we become children, we shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven -- which does not mean that children will enter therein, for they are already there, since without a matured sense-of-self they do not yet have a debilitating sense-of-lack.



p. 55 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

Of course, the normal child can soon distinguish easily and quickly between what adults call 'real life' and 'play.' The more psychological way of stating the matter is to say that the child acts out his fantasies and seriously tries, through the play-situation, to resolve conflicts in which these fantasies play a part. But he normally recognises reasonably well which of these selves and lives are defined as real by the adults around him; and he learns to go along with their game -- until finally he is quite unaware that it was their game, for it is now his, too. [43]

One grows up by learning the socially-acceptable ways to try to overcome lack.

Becker, like Nietzsche, concludes that 'childlike foolishness' is the calling of mature men. [44] But few of us are ready to hear it. "So the grand destiny of man is... to play?" Does our incredulity reflect the absurdity of the proposal, or how far we have trudged from the Garden of Eden? Perhaps the negative connotations of the word reveal less about play than about us: our self-importance, our need to stand out from the rest of creation (and from the rest of our fellows) by accomplishing great things -- the ones we hope will make us more real. We are to play not because there is nothing else to do, not because the lack of some higher meaning means we just while away our time, but because we realise the nature of meaning and time. This is not inconsistent with the selflessness of the bodhisattva, for loss of self-preoccupation is what makes true play possible, what enables the bodhisattva to manifest the liberation he or she teaches:

To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence. It is, in fact, seriousness that closes itself to consequence, for seriousness is a dread of the unpredictable outcome of open possibility. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself. [45]

The problem, ultimately, is 'not enjoying yourself', Nietzsche's definition of original sin which is as good a definition of lack. This fits nicely with an equally simple definition of Buddhism offered by the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: a clever way to enjoy your life.



1. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1968) in: Twilight of the Idols [hereafter "TI" in the text, with section number] and The Anti-Christ, R. J. Hollingdale (Trans and Ed.) (Harmondsworth: Penguin), No. 20, p.129.

2. Nietzsche, Friedrich, (1968) in: Walter Kaufmann, & R. J. Hollingdale (Trans.) The Will to Power ["WP"] (New York: Random House). No. 55. See also, e.g. WP Nos. 179, 23, 64, 55.

3. This paper does not address the important question about how much Nietzsche's texts constitute a system or whether "there is no such thing either as the truth of Nietzsche, or of Nietzsche's text" (Derrida, Spurs). I assume that it is valuable to discover/construct a consistent philosophy. My interpretation of eternal recurrence is more 'literal' than is fashionable nowadays, yet there is abundant textual support for it. In my opinion the apparent absurdity of such an identical repetition, rather than any lack of textual evidence, has led to the vast literature denying its literality. But to argue for this would leave little space for the rest of the paper.



p. 56 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

Some other comparative studies, with rather different approaches, are found in: Mistry, Freny (1981) Nietzsche and Buddhism (De Gruyter); Nishitani (1982) Religion and Nothingness (Berkeley: University of California Press) and Parkes, Graham (1990) (Ed.) Nietzsche and Asian Thought (University of Hawaii).

4. See, for example, Becker, Ernest (1973) The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil (New York: The Free Press) and Yalom, Irvin D. (1980) Existential Psychotherapy (New York: Basic Books).

5. See Brown, Norman (1961) Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History (New York: Vintage) p. 118 and passim.

6. Life Against Death, p. 268.

7. See, e.g. WP Nos. 489, 518, 561.

8. Tanahashi, Kazuaki (Ed.) (1985) Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen (San Francisco: North Point Press), p. 70.

9. Blofeld, John (Trans.) (1958) The Zen Teaching of Huang Po (London: Buddhist Society), p. 41.

10. For more on the Buddhist approach to repression and the return of the repressed, see Loy, David (1996) Lack and Transcendence: the Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism and Buddhism (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press).

11. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1973) in: R. J. Hollingdale (Trans.) Beyond Good and Evil ["BGE"] (Harmondsworth: Penguin), No. 108, p. 78.

12. See also WP 273.

13. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1986) in: R. J. Hollingdale (Trans.) Human, All Too Human (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 9.

14. Hollingdale, R. J., in a note to his Ed. of Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, p. 196.

15. Escape from Evil, pp. 81, 114.

16. The Denial of Death, p. 154.

17. Escape from Evil, p. 123.

18. BGE 2 also identifies the fundamental faith of metaphysicians as "faith in antithetical values", but the Buddhist solution is different than, e.g. WP 272, where Nietzsche is concerned to demonstrate "how everything praised as moral is identical in essence with everything immoral." Buddhism instead emphasises how the meaning of each term in such dualisms is dependent upon the other, so that, e.g. concern to be 'pure' involves a preoccupation with 'impurity'.

19. WP 786 dreams of the antithesis between egoism and altruism disappearing in the future, when finally "one grasps that altruistic actions are only a species of egoistic actions -- and that the degree to which one loves, spends oneself, proves the degree of individual power and personality." Buddhism implies the reverse, that egoistic actions are a subspecies of altruistic (i.e. nondual) ones, inverted by the delusion of a self/subject which believes itself to be other than the world.

20. Kaufmann, Walter (Trans.) (1974) The Gay Science "GS", (New York: Vintage), No. 347, p. 287.

21. GS 355. Because Nehamas (1985) in his Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), does not perceive how this desire for security motivates our search for truth (which becomes a sublimated, intellectualised form of being), his discussion of truth in chapter 2 is weakened.

22. Kaufmann, Walter (Trans & Ed.) (1964) "On truth and lie in the extramoral sense", in: The Viking Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking), p. 47; WP 493. On the necessity of ignorance, see, e.g. WP 609.

23. Letter to Fuchs, 26 August 1888.

24. Escape from Evil, p. 124; The Denial of Death, pp. 1, 5, 189.

25. The Denial of Death, pp. 178, 6.

26. The translation ["MMK"] used here is from Sprung, Mervyn (1979) Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way (Boulder, CO: Prajna Press), Candrakirti's classic commentary on the MMK. The following verses, and Candrakirti's commentary on them, are on pp. 230-234.

27. Price, A. F. & Moulam, Wong (Trans.) (1990) The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui Neng (Boston: Shambhala), p. 43.

28. Carse, James P. (1986) Finite and Infinite Games (New York: Free Press) p. 145.

29. "On Truth and Lie in the Extramoral Sense," pp. 46-47.

30. Finite and Infinite Games, p. 106.



p. 57 Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)

31. Derrida, Jacques (1978) Writing and Difference, Alan Bass (Trans.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 111.

32. The particular danger with Buddhist meta-ideology is the version of dualistic thinking that motivates it: the distinction between nirvana and samsara, enlightenment and delusion. Enlightenment includes realising how the distinction we come to make between enlightenment and delusion is itself delusive, that enlightenment does not liberate us in the fashion we look to be saved. What makes the game of enlightenment-versus-delusion a meta-ideology is that this realisation is essential to the game.

33. Tillich, Paul (1952) The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. 57.

34. GS 341, p. 274; Nietzsche, Friedrich (1961) Thus Spoke Zarathustra ["Z"], R. J. Hollingdale (Trans.) (Harmondsworth: Penguin), "The Intoxicated Song", p. 326.

35. Z, pp. 333, 331-332. The passage from GS that discusses ER says: "Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment..." (No. 341) See also WP 1032.

36. Haar, Michel (1979) "Nietzsche and metaphysical language", in: David B. Allinson (Ed.) The New Nietzsche (New York: Delta) p. 31.

37. In this way Madhyamika dependent-origination refutes itself to become non-dependent non-origination. For more on the Buddhist understanding of time and causality, see Loy, David (1988) Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press), chapter 6.

38. Rilke, Rainer Maria, Duino Elegy, IX.

39. The last sentence of The Genealogy of Morals.

40. Yalom, Irvin D. (1980) Existential Psychotherapy (New York: Basic Books), p. 482.

41. The Buddhist concern to overcome the delusion of subject-object duality adds another dimension: to become enlightened is to forget one's own suffering only to wake up in (or one with) a world of suffering. Mahayana Buddhism found its ideal in the bodhisattva, who is devoted to helping others: not because one ought to, but because one is the situation and through oneself that situation draws forth a response to meet its needs.

42. Derrida, Jacques (1980) The Archaeology of the Frivolous, J. P. Leavey (Trans.) (Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press), p. 118. In Derrida's terms, it is the difference between dreaming of deciphering a truth which will end play by restoring self-presence, and affirming the play which no longer seeks to ground itself.

43. Hillman, James (1975) Re-Visioning Psychology (New York: Harper and Row) p. 191.

44. The Denial of Death, pp. 201, 202. The "need for legitimate foolishness" was Otto Rank's cure for neurosis.

45. Finite and Infinite Play, p. 15.