The Frowning Western Buddha

Yup, I think it’s Nietzsche.

They personalities and philosophies are very different; and I do not mean to suggest that Nietzsche was secretly a Buddhist, nor do I mean to suggest that Buddhism is somehow fundamentally similar to Nietzschean (pretty sure I spelled that right) thought.

But I do think there is a connection. This is a twofold connection. The first is that German idealism, starting with Schopenhauer, in its insistence in metaphysics, a world of ‘essence’ that we are unable to fully ‘grasp’ through normal observation, is capable of insights that seem to mirror eastern philosophy.

The Buddha’s fundamental insight – Enlightenment – is a spiritual and psychological state. It’s a total break with reality. It’s the ultimate seeing through (the ‘phenomena’?) to the reality (‘essence’?) of things. You have moved beyond the petty travails and emotional roller-coster of life. Your ‘old self’ you merely remember; but your are fundamentally one with the universe. Buddha totally let go of the world, lets go of everything, even every fiber of his own being and psychology. The Buddha smiled when he achieved Enlightenment.

Nietzsche, of course, went insane.

It was due to syphilis, but still. Even when he was sane, he was writing things like “I am not a man, I am dynamite” in his published work.

But this leads us to the real – dare I say it – beauty of Nietzsche. When he writes things like “I am dynamite” (in Ecce Homo) do not assume this is bombast, nor is it the onset of insanity. Nietzsche understood that any text is subject to an infinity of interpretations. ‘Truth’ and ‘knowledge’ are simply compliments paid to successful discourse. Every philosopher’s system is merely his own opinion thought out aridly and abstractly. Nietzsche was writing partially as an aid to each individual reader, to help them discover themselves. Do you think that “I am dynamite” is a joke? Megalomania? Hyperbole in the service of making a larger point? Provoking the reader to a dismissive judgement? Is it an ironic joke on the seemingly modest writing style and rhetorical techniques of Socrates? All of the above, really. And possibly none of the above, too, if I’m honest.

His books, which correspond to no genre, are notoriously hard to “pin down”. This has led to a mass of different interpretations of his work, and I suspect that in some way, that is what Nietzsche would have wanted. He seemed to aim at ‘working’ on the thoughts, emotions and reactions of the reader to his writing, instead of laying out another philosophic system.

Nietzsche’s ideas have a “self-consuming” (this phrase seems extremely Buddhist to me) aspect; they tend to annihilate themselves; they seem to logically lead to paradox. One of Nietzsche’s main ideas was that of “eternal recurrence”. It is not exactly like reincarnation, but the simple fact that Nietzsche held, at the least, a fascination with the idea of an exact recurrence of the same events endlessly speaks to a certain parallel in thinking perhaps. I tend to interpret this aesthetically; Nietzsche wants us each to live lives that we would instantly affirm to live over and over again. Life as perfect art? No regrets?

Nietzsche talks about learning to see life as ‘myth’, from Greek tragedy, and the mixing of Apollonian (rationality, order, perfection) and Dionysian (organic, spontaneous, vital) principals. It’s a bit like when Thoreau speaks about being able to “see eternity in a grain of sand”. We are in a territory that is far from traditional western philosophy here.

Most ‘Buddhist’ for me is Nietzsche’s talk of ‘self-overcoming’. One relentlessly challenges oneself, and through a painful process gradually forges a new self; you create your own values and truth out of yourself. Yes, this is related to his idea of ubermensch or “super/over man”, but we are in an intensely personal ( your loneliest loneliness).

This is where I get the “frowning buddha” from. On one hand, this can be tremendously life-affirming; its about self discovery; finding a unique truth within yourself by yourself.

On the other hand, Nietzsche does seem to authorize cruelty, savagery, and elitism that would make even Louis XIV blush. In this self discovery; all actions are authorized, it would seem. But again, multiple interpretations are possible. It’s not a system; it is not an attempt at pure universal truth; its an attempt to prompt us to see things as the are. 

Buddhism and Nietzsche have this sense of seeing past the appearances of the world and forging a new self that is both unique and universal; Nietzsche seems to want us to see things as they are: mythically.

I do like to think that these two very different traditions have to a similar ‘place’ or conclusion. I like to think that they both postulate a “breaking- through” psychologically to the other side.

Though I admit that might just be madness.


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