Nietzsche and Buddhism

I started reading the following with low expectations:

Panaïoti, Antoine. Nietzsche and Buddhist philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Turns out it’s a great read! The author has a good grasp of Nietzsche and at least a decent one of Buddhist philosophy.

One aspect I’d like to recommend is Buddhism and nihilism. I always thought that while the Buddha speaks against nihilism he mostly doesn’t make clear enough how his Dhamma differs from it. And I think that by highlighting Nietzsche’s take on nihilism I understand much better how to interpret Buddhism in order to stay away from a nihilist interpretation.

For the author nihilism and anatta are connected, and I think this understanding is correct. Thus his discussion of anatta is also enriching to me.


I haven’t read the book but I had look at parts of it; one important distinction relative to the EBT is that in the book rebirth is not taken account of, as an integral part of Buddhism.
There have been several studies on Nietzsche and Buddhism also by people belonging to the FWBO.
It’s question that has interested me in the past; for example Nietzsche wrote explicitly of no-self (e.g. he said that when we say ‘I do’ the ‘I’ has the same reality as the ‘it’ when we say ‘it rains’) but in practice the ethics he tried to develop and the goals he thought we should set for ourselves are not in agreement with those of Buddhism.
One of the reasons why he understood life meaning so differently from Buddhism, is because rebirth was not part of the picture for him.
A second reason is his epistemology, since of course meditation played no part for him as a way to ‘see things as they are’.

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My recollection is that Nietzsche rejected Buddhism because it was “life-denying”. He thought we should somehow affirm or embrace all of human nature, including its aggressive and violent drives expressing the will to power. I imagine he viewed Buddhism as in some way similar to Christianity in its repudiation of the “noble morality” of the warrior cultures that preceded the rise of those religions.

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Nietzsche contrasted Buddhism very favourably to Christianity, for example in Ecce Homo. However according to some scholars he did this chiefly as a way to help him in the task he had set himself to demolish Christianity, which he considered harmful to our civilisation.
The ethics he wanted to develop in his Transvaluation of values were certainly very different from those of Buddhism.

This is the view he gives in The Anti-Christ:

I do not want my condemnation of Christianity to lead me to be unfair to a related and - measured by the number of adherents - even more prevalent religion, Buddhism. The two belong together as nihilistic religions - they are religions of decadence -, but there are the most striking differences between them. Critics of Christianity owe scholars of India an enormous debt of gratitude for the fact that these two can now be compared. Buddhism is a hundred times more realistic than Christianity, - its body has inherited the art of posing problems in a cool and objective manner, it came after a philosophical movement that lasted hundreds of years, the idea of ‘God’ had already been abandoned before Buddhism arrived. Buddhism is the only really positivistic religion in history; even in its epistemology (a strict phenomenalism -) it has stopped saying ‘war against sin’ and instead, giving reality its dues, says ‘war against suffering’. In sharp contrast to Christianity, it has left the self-deception of moral concepts behind, - it stands, as I put it, beyond good and evil. - It is based on two physiological facts that it always keeps in mind: first, an excessively acute sensitivity that is expressed as a refined susceptibility to pain, and second, having lived all too long with concepts and logical procedures, an over-spiritualization that has had the effect of promoting the ‘impersonal’ instincts at the expense of the personal ones (- at least a few of my readers, ‘objective’ types like me, will know both these states from their own experience). These physiological conditions give rise to depression. The Buddha took hygienic measures against this, including: living out in the open, the wandering life, moderation and a careful diet; caution as far as liquor is concerned; caution when it comes to all affects that create bile or raise the blood temperature; no worrying about either yourself or other people. He insists on ideas that produce either calm or amusement - he comes up with methods for phasing out all the others. He sees goodness and kindness as healthy. Prayer is out of the question, as is asceticism; there is no categorical imperative, no compulsion in any form, not even within the monastic community (- which you can always leave -) . All of these would be means of exacerbating that already excessive sensitivity. This is why he does not try to rout out heterodoxy; there is nothing his teachings resist more than feelings of revenge, aversion, ressentiment (- ‘enmity will not bring an end to enmity’: the moving refrain of all Buddhism … ) . And rightly so: these are precisely the affects that would be disastrously unhealthy with respect to the primary, dietetic objective. The Buddha detects a spiritual fatigue that manifests itself in an all-too-great ‘objectivity’ (which is to say an individual’s diminished sense of self-interest, loss of a centre of gravity, loss of ‘egoism’), he combats this by leading even the most spiritual interests directly back to the person. In the Buddha’s teachings, egoism is a duty: the ‘one thing needed’, the ‘how do you get rid of suffering’, regulates and restricts the entire spiritual diet (- we might remember a certain Athenian who also waged war on pure ‘science’, which is to say Socrates, who raised personal egoism to an ethic, even in the realm of problems).

Buddhism presupposes a very mild climate, extremely gentle and liberal customs, the complete absence of militarism, and the existence of higher, even scholarly classes to give focus to the movement. The highest goals are cheerfulness, quiet, and an absence of desire, and these goals are achieved.


I think a statement like this belies the overt emphasis on morality in Buddhism.

In reference to the OP, I think from a certain perspective, Buddhism can be said to be nihilistic. Definitely not morally nihilistic, but existentially so; not in a metaphysical denial of existence but in the claim that existence itself (in any realm of being) is inherently dukkha. The goal is to never be born again, and in that sense I think it can very rightly be classified as anti-natalist.

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There’s nobody like Nietzsche to lift one from the doldrums of apathy and gloom. :slight_smile:

My impression of him was that he was always dancing around the Buddha, never quite sure what to make of him. With his caricature of the Christian bent over with moral debt, he was furious and sharp. But, even though he painted a picture of a world-weary ascetic as one who gives off a foul, putrid smell, he spared the Buddha and called him as a cheerful prophet who wandered freely in forests. The one similarity between them was Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. He never dwells on this idea in detail and it is mentioned in his works maybe a few times, but I wonder how he got that idea in the first place.

Other than this, I personally did not find any commonality between the Buddha’s teaching of life-denial and Nietzsche’s life-affirming thought. His style of writing too was starkly different from that of Schopenhauer, who had a sedate, methodical manner of writing. Schopenhauer was able to write down all of his thoughts in a systematic manner without any bombast, but Nietzsche’s aphorisms were compressed fury and anger. I wish I were young again - it was exhilarating to read him while wandering in remote and desolate mountain ranges. :slight_smile:

I stopped jotting down lines from his books - there was just no point. :slight_smile:
Almost all of his writings are eminently quotable, but some of them:

Ajahn Chah also uses the phrase “beyond good and evil” several times, and said good and evil were “worldly dhammas.”

He wrote in one essay:

THE TEACHING OF BUDDHISM is about giving up evil and practising good. Then, when evil is given up and goodness is established, we must let go of both good and evil.


Yea, I can see that. I just think it’s treading the line towards mischaracterization if one glosses over the crucial intermediary step of giving up evil & establishing goodness by jumping right to beyond.


It has occurred to me that an aphorism by Nietzsche that brings into relief his difference with Buddhism is the following : ‘Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.’ Nietzsche wrote this within the context of his critique of the utilitarians (e.g. John Stuart Mill) whom I have instead seen praised in a talk by Ajahn Brahm (I think that AB once defined Buddhist ethics as utilitarian ‘avant la lettre’).
Basically for Nietzsche the meaning of life was to achieve greatness (particularly in art) since happiness was impossible; but the fact that life is suffering was not for him an objection agains life.
As I wrote above this is also linked to his not believing in rebirth: in the Buddhist world view one is aimlessly wondering through samsara and the aim is to put an end to this; for Nietzsche the aim is rather to give meaning to the one life we live (and which according to the ‘eternal recurrence’ we will re-live, exactly in the same way, innumerable times).

There’s that story of a man hanging off a cliff with a tiger above and a giant serpent below. Then by chance a drop of honey falls into his mouth, and he thinks ‘how wonderful life is!’ The drop of honey is craving- it makes the suffering seem worthwhile, when it actually isn’t.

with metta

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thanks for your feedback. If one doesn’t believe in rebirth, and one thinks that suffering that permeates life isn’t worthwhile, then wouldn’t the rational solution be suicide? I think the reason suicide is not a solution for Buddhists is that you risk being reborn in a worse state; now as a human you have the possibility to practice. But if, like Nietzsche, you don’t think there is the risk of rebirth, and you recognise that life is suffering, you either kill yourself, or try to find something (as in the case of Nietzsche) that gives life meaning. What do you think?

If you think life is suffering, like Nietzsche, you find coping mechanisms, like finding meaning, finding love, finding an addiction, finding a reason to be a slave for some cherished purpose, or some other distraction, including religion. The Buddha said two things happen to those who are suffering- confusion or a search. All of what I mentioned probably belong to the category of confusion. The search is where one rationally looks for the cause of suffering, and not how to temporarily plaster over it… with a plaster! She then goes to remove the cause… this is the dhamma.

with metta

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ok thanks, but isn’t the cause of suffering craving because, in the deepest sense, it is what causes rebirth? You suffer because you were born. So I understand that the Buddhist aim is the cessation of craving because that way you will no longer be reborn.
Even if you are a arahant, your experience of life is, as Ajahn Brahm says quoting the suttas, ‘suffering arising and suffering passing away’. Suffering will always be there and it will only truly cease with parinibbana.
Then if you don’t believe in rebirth, and you object to life because of suffering, you can make it cease simply by suicide.
The alternative would be to find a meaning. I remember reading the story of Rossini visiting Beethoven and expressing his great admiration for his music; and Beethoven saying at the end of the conversation something like ‘Sono un uomo infelice’ (‘I am an unhappy man’). But in Western culture we admire people like Beethoven because of they achievements as we feel they give a meaning to their life, in spite of their suffering. I think that reflect Nietzsche’s view if I understand it correctly.

Yes of course. It inspires many others, like yourself, too. Life is not for wasting away, and it should be lived in a purposeful way in inspiring oneself and others. However to crave is to sing in tears. It would be better to sing and not crave either!

We can remove the one of the two arrows, by removing craving. The other one falls away at death of the arahanth, as you said. Life becomes much better- its like having good emotional weather all year round, and not just in the summer time. However we mistakenly assume that craving makes things better- it just makes for patchy weather.

Craving for becoming (bhava) prevents suicide. Craving however creates the suffering for which suicide becomes an answer for (most of the time, end of life euthanasia being an exception). Ignorance is the source of craving, according to the Dependent origination, and it is so in this life. So ignorance is the actual culprit behind the scenes, IMO. So reduce craving (and ignorance) reduced suffering- this is why arahanth don’t commit suicide, but make a contribution the best way they can and know. Even reducing a small amount of craving is freeing from the chains of being forced to do a particular thing, that craving wants us to do.

with metta

As ‘EBT-Buddhists’ we know from experience how people oversimplify the Buddha’s teaching and reduce it to easily digestible bits. Let’s not do the same with Nietzsche. Before passing judgment on him one should read him slowly and carefully and might actually discover something, e.g. Twilight of the Idols.

I just watched a BBC documentary on Nietzsche from the series Genius of the World. *
Although it is intended for a wide audience, it describes his thought quite accurately I believe (as a student I had attended lectures on Nietzsche at Cambridge University so I had formed a reasonable good idea of his thought I believe). The final remarks in the documentary are quite revealing of the contrast between Nietzsche and Buddhism. They are about the ‘last men’, for whom Nieztsche reserved his ‘most fervent fury’. ‘These were men and women who turned their backs to the most challenging ideals, but felt they were content’. I think this makes it clear how Nietzsche despises the ideal of developing content, which is at the centre of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. To Nietzsche instead, the aim of life was to aspire for greatness and in doing so overcome obstacles through pain and striving. This gave for him meaning to life, and the joy came from the overcoming of obstacles.
I find this ideal quite diametrically opposite to the one of EBT, and I believe that attempts by academics or lay Buddhist like the ones from the FWBO to associate Nietzsche with Buddhism are flawed.

*available on Netflix and perhaps Youtube


Hm, is that so? And your assessment comes from his book “On the joy of pain and striving”? Usually people who can be reduced to slogans are not considered geniuses of world history. How about reducing the Buddha to “Everything is suffering”? It would fall a tad short, wouldn’t it.

Since Nietzsche didn’t write a book with that title I must conclude that your message is meant to be sarcastic? That’s all right, I just wanted to share my understanding here and mention a documentary made for the general public that is quite an accurate portrait in my opinion.

By the way, in my experience you can say what the teaching of great thinkers is about in a short sentence. It’s only those who don’t have an overarching view of a thinker’s work (or of the history of Western thought) and just ‘dip’ into philosophy books from time to time, that believe that things are ‘too complex’ to find a common thread running through a great mind’s life work. But having a unifying theme is actually part of what defines greatness (as opposed to aimlessly writing about this and that, based on the ‘inspiration’ or the mood of the day - which is I guess what some people think Nietzsche did, probably because of his aphoristic style).

For example Heidegger’s work is all about the meaning of Sein.

And Shopenhauer’s work is all about understanding Kant’s ‘Ding an sich’ as Wille.

And Nietzsche’s thought was all about the problem of suffering and of life’s meaning in a world where Christianinity was no longer believeable.

The solution he offered to these questions (the creation of new, life enhancing values) is diametrically opposed to that of the Buddha (who instead of the affirmation of the will, taught the cessation of willing - which is what meditaiton is about). That’s at least what I have been able to understand.

Anyway I aprreciate the fact that you have reached a different understanding and I respect your point of view. Best wishes.

The core of the buddhist teaching can be expressed by the 4 noble truths (in about a dozen words), as far as I understand.

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