Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities,
                       By Robert Morrison
The Journal of Religion
Vol.79 No.1(Jan 1999)
COPYRIGHT 1999 University of Chicago
            MORRISON, ROBERT G. Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and 
            Ironic Affinities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 250 pp. 

            Any mention of Nietzsche necessarily raises the question of which 
            Nietzsche one has in mind. In recent years, French 
            deconstructionists have awarded him posthumous admission to the 
            Academie Francaise. Jaspers and then Kaufmann taught an earlier 
            generation to think of him as a prophet of existentialism. Robert 
            Morrison has made Nietzsche recognizable once again as a German 
            Romantic. More precisely, Morrison presents Nietzsche as a kind of 
            romantic guru: a teacher interested in spiritual practice. 
            Curiously, Morrison's return to Nietzsche's romanticism is made 
            possible by rereading him using Pali Buddhist thought. Morrison's 
            reading of Nietzsche is all the more intriguing when we note that 
            Nietzsche himself not only predicted the West's current interest in 
            Buddhism, but he was ready with a harsh dismissal of it. With the 
            death of God, a weakened and degraded bourgeoisie will be attracted 
            to Buddhism's nihilism and passivity. Western dalliance with 
            Buddhism should be seen as a symptom of a cultural disease. For 
            Nietzsche, Buddhism's nihilism and passivity must be overcome by 
            means of the will to power. 
            In Morrison's view, Nietzsche was wrong about Buddhism as a form of 
            passive nihilism. In fact, Buddhism and Nietzsche bear "ironic 
            affinities" with one another. To highlight these affinities, 
            Morrison provides his readers with close textual comparisons 
            bringing together a multitude of Nietzsche's works with texts taken 
            from the Pali Buddhist canon. Morrison's attention is focused almost 
            exclusively on the correspondences between Nietzsche's ideas 
            regarding will to power and self-overcoming (Selbstuberwindung) and 
            the Buddhist notions of desire (tanha) and mind cultivation 
            In a godless universe, a world without any transcendent basis for 
            values, new values must be established through the assertion of 
            will. Nietzsche's notion of will, in Morrison's reading, is similar 
            to early Buddhist teachings regarding the transformation of tanha. 
            Rightly understood, the goal of Buddhist spiritual practice is not 
            to annihilate desire. Buddhism seeks the transformation of desire 
            from egocentric clinging to compassionate action. Tanha can thus be 
            either skillful or unskillful. This distinction is central to 
            Morrison's retrieval of Nietzsche. Like tanha, will to power can 
            also be either skillful or unskillful. Skillful will to power leads 
            to self-overcoming and the rise of the Ubermensch. Morrison also 
            finds affinities between Nietzsche's demand for self-overcoming 
            (Selbstuberwindung) and Pali Buddhism's notion of mind cultivation 
            (citta-bhavana). For both Pali Buddhism and Nietzsche, the human 
            being is a welter of conflicting wills struggling for supremacy. The 
            Ubermensch arises in the establishment of a higher quantum of power 
            by means of the overcoming of lower drives. Morrison makes 
            connections with Pali Buddhist traditions regarding the cultivation 
            of mind through spiritual practice. 
            Morrison's is not the first effort at comparing Buddhism to 
            Nietzsche. The relationship between the two, however, can vary 
            considerably depending on what side of the Pacific one is working 
            from. Japanese interpreters of Nietzsche and Buddhism, such as 
            Nishitani Keiji, in his The Self Overcoming Nihilism (Albany, N.Y., 
            1990), and Abe Masao in his various essays on Nietzsche, offer their 
            own critiques of the West. If Nietzsche thought of Buddhism as 
            symptomatic of the disease of nihilism, these Japanese thinkers 
            return the compliment in kind, only now Nietzsche is symptomatic of 
            the disease and Buddhism is held up as the cure. Contrary to 
            Nishitani and Abe, Morrison would make of Nietzsche a latter-day 
            practitioner of the Dharma by reading Buddhism as a kind of 
            Nietzschean call to will to power. Morrison ends several of his 
            later chapters with the observation that Nietzsche, had he the 
            benefit of a more critical understanding of early Buddhism, could 
            have learned much from its practical experience in spiritual 
            practice. The book even concludes with the suggestion that we might 
            think of the historical Buddha as a kind of Ubermensch. 
            Did Siddhartha Gautama really preach a form of the will to power? 
            One of Morrison's many virtues is that he does not ask his readers 
            to accept this conclusion without benefit of a carefully argued and 
            critical treatment of the texts in question. He also provides an 
            evaluation of the materials on Buddhism available to Nietzsche, even 
            speculation on the import of Oldenberg's mistranslations of early 
            Pali texts. An affinity, no matter how ironic, does not a difference 
            make. The affinities Morrison traces between Nietzsche and Pali 
            Buddhism allow him to read both Nietzsche and Buddhism in unusual 
            ways. The same, I believe, can be said for the differences that 
            distinguish the two. If will to power can be construed as a form of 
            skillful desire (tanha), should not compassion (karuna) be 
            recognized as a Buddhist form of ressentiment? Should this prove to 
            be the case, the historical Buddha would be a far cry from 
            Nietzsche's Ubermensch.