Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities
By Morrison, Robert G.

Reviewed by David R. Loy

Asian Philosophy
Vol. 8, No. 2 (July 1998)
pp. 129-131

Copyright 1998 Journals Oxford Ltd. (UK)



    Comparing Nietzsche with Buddhism has become something of a cottage industry, and for good reason: there seems to be a deep resonance between them. Morrison points out that they share many common features: both emphasise the centrality of humans in a godless cosmos and neither looks to any external being or power for their respective solutions to the problem of existence. For Nietzsche the problem is overcoming nihilism, for Buddhism it is the unsatisfactory nature of our lives. Both understand human being as an ever-changing flux of multiple psychophysical forces, and within this flux there is no autonomous or unchanging subject ('ego', 'soul'). Both emphasise the hierarchy that exists or can exist not only among individuals but among the plurality of these forces that compose us. For Nietzsche the pinnacle of that hierarchy is the Ubermensch, a goal not yet achieved although a potential at least for some; for Buddhism that potential was attained by Sakyamuni Buddha, and at least to some degree by many after him, for it is a potential all human beings are able to realise. More controversially, Morrison argues that these goals are to be achieved by a process of self-overcoming (Selbstuberwindung for Nietzsche, citta-bhavana in early Buddhism) understood as the spiritual expression of a more basic natural force: will to power for Nietzsche, tanha in Buddhism.

    Problems arise when one tries to fill this in. The first one is: Which Nietzsche? What Buddhism? Both are moving targets. 'Buddhism' today encompasses a large array of religious school and teachings, due to the fact that it has been so adaptable; and not all of them are obviously compatible with each other. To become a Buddhist, then, is unconsciously or consciously to construct a personal belief-and-practice system out of the diversity of teachings available. There is a similar difficulty on the other side, for it is not easy to extract Nietzsche's 'system' from the often aphoristic books he published -- and did not publish, such as the scraps of paper posthumously assembled into The Will to Power.

    Although there are important continuities in both Buddhism and Nietzsche, of course, their internal unity and self-consistency cannot just be assumed One must address (or at least acknowledge) the inner dissembling tensions within Nietzsche, for whom a philosophy can be written to hide a philosophy. There is a problem with supporting one's argument by citing The Will to Power in the same way as an essay of the 18-year-old student; and with relegating eternal recurrence, which preoccupied the later Nietzsche, to one footnote (on p. 153). To avoid thinking we have tamed the excess that subverts any system we derive from Nietzsche's views, it is necessary to emphasise that any interpretation is also a construction; then the issue becomes whether one's construction is defensible, as Morrison's certainly is.

    Morrison shows that Nietzsche was interested in early Buddhism, not Mahayana, which gives his comparison the focus it needs. This does not imply, however, that important similarities are not found in later Buddhist teachings. For example, Nietzsche's understanding of truth-as-security ("Isn't the jubilation of those who attain knowledge the jubilation over the restoration of a sense of security?", Gay Science, no. 355) may be fruitfully compared with Nagarjuna's deconstruction of truth in his Karikas ("no truth has been taught by a Buddha for anyone anywhere", 25:24). Nietzsche casts light on Nagarjuna's deconstruction of the lower truth: insofar as the search for truth is an attempt to secure ourselves by grasping the symbols that grasp reality, truth is error for both thinkers.

    With these qualifications out of the way, I can say that this book is nonetheless the best work I have read on the topic. It raises the discussion to a higher level of sophistication that is informed both by Morrison's detailed familiarity with Nietzsche's life and works and by his deep sympathy for Buddhism, an appreciation evidently derived from Buddhist practice as well as study of its scriptures. (This means, however, that he wholly accepts the Buddhist self-description, which Nietzsche never did.) Chapter 2 summarises Nietzsche's views of Buddhism; he believed that Buddhism was superior to Christianity in its psychological insight and understood its attraction for the West, but still considered it a form of passive nihilism that would be dangerous for Europe to follow. Chapter 3 is a thorough and persuasive defence of Buddhism against Nietzsche's critique. Chapter 4 seeks the source of Nietzsche's wrong ideas about Buddhism, and notes his familiarity with the anthropological literature of his day as well as with the books on Buddhism that were beginning to be published in Europe.

    Part Two shows how the Theravada understanding of citta-bhavana could be used to fill in the few hints on Selbstuberwindung in Nietzsche's texts (most in Daybreak and Twilight of the Idols) and construct a Nietzschean path for self-overcoming. This is the best and most original part of the book. Morrison offers a sophisticated understanding of 'Right Effort' well grounded in the Pali texts and the Visuddhimagga. He goes on to argue, more controversially, that tanha, the 'craving' that the second Noble Truth of the Buddha identifies as the cause of our dissatisfaction, might be similar to Nietzsche's will to power. Morrison's point is that tanha need not be viewed only negatively, as a hindrance. If it is understood more neutrally as our basic way of being in the world, we can distinguish its 'unregenerative' aspect from a self-overcome 'regenerative' one.

    The main argument focuses on a little-known version of pratitya-samutpada (S-N, ii.30ff.) which in my opinion cannot bear the burden of support the argument seeks; the causal relationship between the various links is too loosely defined to leap to such a strong naturalistic conclusion. "The regenerative depends upon the unregenerative", but in what sense? Morrison's argument does not contradict the Pali sierras but they do not provide enough support for it. The basic problem is that the nature of nirvana is ambiguous in early Buddhism, so we do not know how naturalistically or transcendentally to understand it; different texts can be cited to support either. While nirvana is not supernatural in the sense that some outside power saves us, it remains unclear what this 'regenerated' natural order really is since the Buddha chose to say so little about it. Ironically, the argument could be made stronger by bringing in later tantric Buddhism, which is more explicitly concerned with purifying and redirecting our psychophysical energies.

    None of this refutes Morrison's interpretation of tanha -- it remains a plausible and suggestive one -- but it remains an interpretation, only one of various possibilities. He concludes by suggesting that Sakyamuni may have been an Ubermensch, and that Nietzsche may have recognised this had he lived in an age when Buddhism was better understood. My reservations notwithstanding, Morrison makes a plausible case for this.

    The clear prose style may itself be an example of the Selbstuberwindung of its own dissertation genealogy. I was pleased to see notes return to the bottom of the page where they belong. But the fact that Nietzsche and early Buddhism both seem to have been somewhat misogynist does not justify the lack of gender-free language; and I was disappointed by an old-style bibliography which does not give publisher, only the place of publication. Minor problems indeed in this valuable contribution to an important topic.