an excerpt from:
Beyond good and evil? A Buddhist critique of Nietzsche
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1996)
Full-Text at

In what ways was Nietzsche right, from a Buddhist perspective, and where might he have gone wrong?

The answer is complex, of course, and there is much that Buddhists can learn from Nietzsche, the first post-modernist and still the most important one. In order to reach that answer, however, it will first be necessary to gain some understanding of anatman, the 'no self' doctrine central to Buddhism and to the still-widespread misunderstanding of Buddhism as nihilistic. Of the various ways for us to approach anatman, one of the most insightful is through modem psychology. Buddhism anticipated its reluctant conclusions: guilt and anxiety are not adventitious but intrinsic to the ego. That is because our dissatisfaction with life derives from a repression even more immediate than death-terror: the suspicion that 'I' am not real. For Buddhism, the sense-of-self is not some self-existing consciousness but a mental construction which experiences its own groundlessness as a lack. On this account, our most problematic dualism is not so much life fearing death as a fragile sense-of-self dreading its own nothingness. By accepting and yielding to that groundlessness, however, I can discover that I have always been grounded, not as a self-present being but as one manifestation of a web of relationships which encompasses everything.

What does this understanding of self-as-lack imply about ethics, truth, and the meaning of life for us? That is the question which motivates this paper, for to raise these issues in the Western tradition is to find ourselves in a dialogue with Nietzsche, whose own texts resonate with many of the same insights: for example, his critiques of the subject ("The 'subject' is not something given, it is something added and invented and projected behind what there is." WP 481) and substance ("The properties of a thing are effects on other 'things' ... there is no 'thing-in-itself.'" WP 557). From this critique, Nietzsche also drew some conclusions quite similar to those of Buddhism: in particular, that morality, knowledge and meaning are not discovered but constructed -- internalised games we learn from each other and play with ourselves. Perhaps the history of his own psyche reveals how momentous these discoveries were; and inevitably his insights were somewhat distorted.

Nietzsche understood how the distinction we make between this world and a higher spiritual realm serves our need for security, and he saw the bad faith in religious values motivated by this need. He did not understand how his alternative, more aristocratic values, also reflects the same anxiety. Nietzsche ends up celebrating an impossible ideal, the heroic-ego which overcomes its sense of lack, because he does not see that a heroic ego is our fantasy project for overcoming lack.

Nietzsche realised how the search for truth is motivated by a sublimated desire for symbolic security; his solution largely reverses our usual dualism by elevating ignorance and 'untruth' into conditions of life. Philosophy's attempt to create the world reflects the tyrannical will-to-power, becoming the most 'spiritualised' version of the need to impose our will Insofar as truth is our intellectual effort to grasp being symbolically, however, those who no longer need to ground themselves can play the truth-versus-error game with lighter feet. Nietzsche overlooks a different reversal of perspective which could convert the bad-infinite of the heroic will-as-truth into the good infinite of truth-as-play.

What he considered the crown of his system -- eternal recurrence -- is actually its denouement. Having seen through the delusion of Being, Nietzsche could not let it go completely, for he still sought a Being within Becoming. 'To impose upon becoming the character of being -- this is the supreme will to power' (WP 617). Having exposed the bad faith of believing in eternity, Nietzsche is nonetheless able to affirm the value of this moment only by making it recur eternally. In place of the neurotic's attempt to rediscover the past in the future he tries to rediscover the present in the future, yet the eternal recurrence of the now can add something only if the now in itself lacks something.

Rather than the way to vanquish nihilism, Nietzsche's will-to-power turns out to be pure nihilism, for nihilism is not the debacle of all meaning but our dread of that debacle and what we do to avoid it. This includes compulsively seizing on certain meanings as a bulwark against that form of lack. If so, the only solution to the dread of meaninglessness is meaninglessness itself: only by accepting meaninglessness, by letting it devour the meanings that we use to defend ourselves against our nothingness, can we realise a meaning-freeness open to the possibilities that arise in our world.

In sum, when the lack-driven bad infinite transforms into a lacking-nothing good-infinite, the dualisms of good-versus-evil, truth-versus-error, and meaningfulness-versus-meaninglessness are realised to be games. Do I play them or do they play me? As long as we do not understand what is motivating us, we play with the seriousness of a life-versus-death struggle, for that is what the games symbolise for a self preoccupied with its lack. We are trapped in games which cannot be escaped yet cannot be won, since playing well does not resolve one's sense-of-lack. When there is no need to get anything from the game or gain cloture on it, we can play with the seriousness of a child absorbed in its game. [3]

The Lack of Self

Existential psychologists such as Ernest Becker believe that our primary repression is not sexual wishes, as Freud thought, but the awareness that we are going to die. [4] This is closer to Buddhism, yet the anatman doctrine implies a subtle although significant distinction between fear of death and dread of the void: our worst problem is not death, a fear which still keeps the feared thing at a distance by projecting it into the future, but the more immediate and terrifying (and quite valid) suspicion each of us has that 'I' am not real right now.

Sakyamuni Buddha did not use psychoanalytic terms, yet in trying to understand the Buddhist denial of self we can benefit from the concept of repression and the return of the repressed in symbolic form. If something (a mental wish, according to Freud) makes me uncomfortable, I can ignore or 'forget' it. This allows me to concentrate on something else, but what is not consciously admitted into awareness tends to irrupt in obsessive ways -- as symptoms -- that affect consciousness with precisely those qualities it strives to exclude. What does this imply about anatman?

Buddhism analyses the sense-of-self into sets of impersonal mental and physical phenomena, whose interaction creates the illusion of self-consciousness, i.e. that consciousness characterises a self distinct from the world it is conscious of. The death-repression emphasised by existential psychology transforms Freud's Oedipal complex into what Norman Brown calls an Oedipal project -- the attempt to become father of oneself, i.e. one's own origin. The child wants to conquer death by becoming the creator and sustainer of its own life. [5] Buddhism shifts the emphasis: the Oedipal project is better understood as the attempt of the developing sense-of-self to attain autonomy, like Descartes' supposedly self-sufficient consciousness. It is the quest to deny one's groundlessness by becoming one's own ground: the ground (socially conditioned and maintained yet nonetheless illusory) we know as being an independent, individual subject.

If so, the Oedipal project derives from our intuition that self-consciousness is not something 'self-existing' but a mental construct. As with Nietzsche, consciousness is more like the surface of the sea: dependent on unknown depths that it cannot grasp because it is a manifestation of them. The problem arises when this conditioned consciousness wants to ground itself, i.e. to make itself real. If the sense-of-self is a construct, it can realise itself only by objectifying itself in some way in the world. The ego-self is this never-ending project to objectify oneself, something consciousness can no more do than a hand can grasp itself or an eye see itself.

The consequence of this perpetual failure is that the sense-of-self has, as its inescapable shadow, a sense-of-lack, which it always tries to escape. In deconstructive terms, the ineluctable trace of nothingness in our non-self-present being is a feeling of lack. The return of the repressed in the distorted form of a symptom shows us how to link this basic yet hopeless project with the symbolic ways we try to make ourselves real in the world. We experience this deep sense of lack as the feeling that 'there is something wrong with me,' but of course that feeling manifests, and we respond to it, in many different ways. In its 'purer' forms lack appears as an anxiety that gnaws on one's very core. For that reason such anxiety is eager to objectify into fear of something, because then we have ways to defend ourselves against feared things.

The problem with objectifications, however, is that no object can ever satisfy if it is not really an object we want. When we do not understand what is actually motivating us -- because what we think we want is only a symptom of something else (our desire to become real, according to my interpretation of Buddhism) -- we end up compulsive. Then the neurotic's anguish and despair are less the result of symptoms than their source; those symptoms are necessary to shield him from the tragedies that 'normal' people are better at repressing: death, meaninglessness, groundlessness.

The ultimate problem is not guilt but the incapacity to live. The illusion of guilt is necessary for an animal that cannot enjoy life, in order to organise a life of non-enjoyment. [6]

Buddhism agrees yet shifts our focus from the terror of future annihilation to the anguish of a groundlessness experienced here and now. A Buddhist interpretation of self-as-lack accepts much of the psychotherapeutic understanding while offering a way to resolve our unhappiness. Buddhism traces human suffering back to desire and ignorance, and ultimately to our lack of self. Deconstructing the sense-of-self into interacting mental and physical processes leads to Nietzschean conclusions: the supposedly simple self is an economy of forces. [7] The Buddhist solution to its lack is simple although not easy. If it is nothingness I am afraid of (i.e. the repressed intuition that, rather than being autonomous and self-existent, the 'I' is a construct), the best way to resolve that fear is to face up to what has been denied: that is, to accept my no-thing-ness by becoming nothing. The 12th century Japanese Zen master Dogen summarises this process:

To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualised by [or: perceive oneself as] myriad things. When actualised by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realisation remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly. [8]

Forgetting ourselves is how we lose our sense of separation and realise that we are manifestations of the world, not subjects confronting it as an other. Meditation is learning how to become nothing by learning to forget one's self, which happens when I become absorbed into my meditation-exercise. If the sense-of-self is consciousness reflecting back upon itself in order to grasp itself, such meditation practice is an exercise in de-reflection. Consciousness unlearns trying to grasp itself, objectify itself, realise itself. Enlightenment occurs in Buddhism when that usually-automatised reflexivity ceases, which is experienced as a letting-go and falling into a void.

Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma. (Huang-po) [9]

When I no longer strive to make myself real through things, I find myself 'actualised' by them, says Dogen.

This process implies that what we fear as nothingness is not really nothingness, for that is the perspective of a sense-of-self anxious about losing its grip on itself. According to Buddhism, letting-go of myself and merging with that nothingness leads to something else: when consciousness stops trying to catch its own tail, I become no-thing, and discover that I am everything -- or, more precisely, that I can be anything. The problem of desire is solved when, without the craving-for-being that compels me to take hold of something and try to settle down in it, I am free to experience my nonduality with it. Grasping at something merely reinforces a delusive sense of separation between that-which-is-grasped and that-which-grasps-at-it. The only way I can become a phenomenon is to realise I am it, according to Buddhism. A mind that realizes this is absolute in the original sense of the term: unconditioned. Meditative techniques decondition the mind from its tendency to circle in safe, familiar ruts, thus enabling its freedom to become anything. The most-quoted line from the best-known of all Mahayana scriptures, the Diamond Sutra, encapsulates all this in one phrase: "Let your mind come forth without fixing it anywhere." [10]

When anatman is understood this way, as a self-as-lack shadowing our illusory sense-of-self, Nietzsche andve a lot to talk about.