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Zen After Zarathustra: The Problem of the Will in the Confrontation Between Nietzsche and Buddhism

From: The Journal of Nietzsche Studies
Issue 28, Autumn 2004
pp. 89-138 | 10.1353/nie.2004.0011

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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 28 (2004) 89-138

The Problem of the Will in the Confrontation Between Nietzsche and Buddhism

Bret W. Davis

Department of Japanese Philosophy
Kyoto University

Is Nietzsche's affirmation of the world and oneself as "the will to power—and nothing besides" the path to a self-overcoming of nihilism; or is it, as Heidegger contends, the "ultimate entanglement in nihilism"? Is Buddhism the purest expression of a "passive nihilism," as Nietzsche claims; or does it teach a radical "middle path" that twists free of both the life of the will to power and a pessimistic negation of the will to live? Does the Buddhist path go so far as to intimate a great affirmation of living otherwise than willing?

From the outset, one thing does seem certain: venturing out to sail on the "open sea" (GS 343) of Nietzsche's thought, we confront Buddhism as one of the most interesting and challenging "foreign perspectives" from which to "question one's own." And yet, rather than let his exposure to this other tradition call into question his own philosophy of the will to power, Nietzsche himself more often used his interpretation of Buddhism as a "rhetorical instrument" for his critique of Christianity, crediting the former religion in the end only with the dubious honor of representing a more honest expression of a more advanced stage of nihilism. Recent studies on this theme often begin by emphasizing Nietzsche's limited knowledge, his misunderstanding, and the distortions involved in his appropriation of Buddhism. Many then go on to develop what Robert Morrison has called the "ironic affinities" between Nietzsche and a Buddhism correctly understood. Although Morrison and others have pursued these affinities with respect to the Theravada tradition, profounder resonances may in fact be found with the Mahayana tradition, of which Nietzsche remained unfortunately ignorant.

Nishitani Keiji, deeply versed in and influenced by both Nietzsche's philosophy and Zen Buddhist thought, has been the major precursor in sounding out such resonances. In a book that focuses on the "self-overcoming of nihilism" in Nietzsche's thought, Nishitani writes: "Ironically, it was not in his nihilistic view of Buddhism but in such ideas as amor fati and the Dionysian as the overcoming of nihilism that Nietzsche came closest to Buddhism, and especially to Mahayana." Nishitani, however, in the end goes beyond marking ironic affinities and develops a "sympathetic critique" of Nietzsche from the standpoint of Zen. A few lines down from the above passage, he writes: "What is clear, however, is that there is in Mahayana a standpoint that cannot yet be reached even by a [i.e., Nietzsche's] nihilism that overcomes nihilism, even though the latter may reach in that direction" (SN 185/180 tm).

In pursuing both this proximity and this difference, in this essay I shall repeatedly return to Nishitani's interpretation of Nietzsche as well as to his own development of a philosophy of Zen. Nishitani's style, however, is to go with a thinker as far as he can in order to finally pass through and beyond him. When he runs up against the limits of a sympathetic interpretation, he marks these limits and then moves on. Hence, Nishitani is scarcely concerned with critically working through the details of Nietzsche's own evaluation of Buddhism; nor does he pay much attention to the cruder formulations of the will to power in Nietzsche's thought. If we, for our part, are to cultivate a more explicit Auseinandersetzung between Nietzsche and Buddhism, we need to step back and work through both of these challenging aspects of Nietzsche's thought more patiently. There are indeed profound points of resonance between Nietzsche and Buddhism, Zen in particular; but there are also points of genuine confrontation that call for careful elucidation and reflection.

I shall begin to develop this Auseinandersetzung by explicating and then critically responding to Nietzsche's critique of Buddhism. Later, I shall back up and begin again by developing and then responding to a Buddhist critique of Nietzsche. Only in this manner, by working from both sides, can we flush out and pursue the more difficult questions regarding irreducible differences and ironic affinities. One...

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