Quora answer: What parallels are there between Nietzsche and modern-day mindfulness and meditation concepts?

May 22 2014

I would say that there is no relation between meditation and Nietzsche’s thought. Mainly this is because Nietzsche did not understand Buddhism. Which is interesting since Hegel understood it much better. But Nietzsche was reacting against Schopenhauer and thought that Buddhism was what Schopenhauer thought it was, which was life denying, so Nietzsche lumped it in with Christianity as being life denying. Actually there is no relation between Buddhism and Christianity, and even if we were to say that Hinayana Buddhism seems life denying, it is hard to maintain that for Mahayana Buddhism. But of course the nature of Buddhism itself is fairly subtle and Nietzsche who otherwise is a very subtle thinker just did not get it at all. Better to stick to Buddhist understandings of Buddhism and its meditation practices. Or if you prefer some other type of meditation practice, stick to those who actually know something about it and do not get mixed up by trying to find parallels between Western Philosophers and Meditation practices. Basically Western Philosophers don’t know anything about that, and it is a gigantic deficiency in Western Philosophy that this is not part of the story of human experience considered by Western Philosophy.


I have  been asked to explain how Nietzsche’s philosophy would be different if he had understood Buddhism better.

For this we need to go back to Hegel. Nietzsche is someone how is applying Hegelianism to the utmost, exploring its cutting edge implications. Hegel understood Buddhism because he understood emptiness and incorporated it directly into his Logic. So he says that the fundamental dichotomy is between being and nothing. But he defines nothing as Buddhist emptiness, which in fact is an interpretation of existence which is nondual. Therefore, Hegel’s philosophy, almost uniquely within the Western tradition can be interfaced with Buddhist insights into the nondual nature of existence under the rubric of Buddhist emptiness, whose opposite is Taoist Void. So there are two nondual interpretations of existence which is Buddhist Emptiness on the one hand and Taoist void on the other hand. Hegel during his time had at his disposal the first glimmers of knowledge about Buddhism which he interpreted correctly, i.e. he realized that it was not a form of nihilism, and that it was an interpretation of existence, so his first duality is Being verses Existence interpreted as Emptiness. This has a lot of implications but one of them is that it gives us perhaps the only good translation point between Buddhist philosophy and Western Philosophy. The next step is that Hegel provides an aufhebung (sublation) by which this duality he posits which is in fact fundamental to the Western worldview, because only the Western worldview has Being in its language base, and all other languages either have an existential or copula as the core concept of the language. Thus for instance Zeus/Apollo triumph over Typhoon/Python, and this triumph is seen as the triumph of Being over Existence. Existence is almost always represented as a reptilian metaphor most notably the dragon. Note the difference in the nature of the Dragon in Chinese culture for instance. So instead of establishing a monism of Being by completely suppressing Non-Being or Existence, as say Parmenides did with the three ways, Hegel instead says that the synthesis of Being and Nothing as Empty Existence is Heraclitian Flux, i.e. Becoming (what Heidegger will later call ready-to-hand in Being and Time). This showed a lot of insight on the part of Hegel. As Zeno showed any movement what so ever generates contradictions or paradoxes. So Heraclitian Flux of Becoming must be something paradoxical, but this can be avoided if instead we use the concept of emptiness as that which delivers the ability to embed a dynamic into Being by an appeal to empty existence. In other words there are discontinuities that becoming jumps over underlying the continuity that is posited by Being, in order to give continuity in time, rather than just a pure plenum  of continuity in the present moment. This in fact gives us an ability to understand what becoming actually is without being contradictory. It is not contradictory because there is just no connection between the moments of Being in the flux of becoming.

The next move that Hegel makes is to posit a new thesis beyond becoming understood in this way, which is Dasein or determinate being, which is the philosophical name for existence in German Philosophy. Heidegger uses this term to describe the a priori projection mechanism thought up by Hegel which is the focus of Being and Time.

Now that we understand the underlying framework established by Hegel that Nietzsche is taking for granted, we can skip to Schopenhauer who had the insight that Kant’s being in itself, or noumena within the human being, rather than in objects is the Wille. So we have noumena within ourselves and we k now it as our Will, or Desire, or in Freud the Trieb. Schopenhauer thought he was translating Hinayana Buddhism into Western parlance and created a very pessimistic philosophy. But unfortunately Schopenhauer did not really understand Buddhism very well, because there is nothing negative about Buddhism because Buddhism is essentially nondual, cannot be negative or positive in its essence. Nietzsche rejected Schopenhauer’s pessimism and reversed it searching for a basis of optimism instead. Nietzsche also reversed Hegel’s idea that all self-consciousness comes from slaves, and that nobles or masters cannot be self-conscious by definition. Note that Hegel said this because slaves are ready-to-hand for the masters, but the slave sees what the masters are doing as present at hand. On the other hand the masters are trapped in the present at hand and cannot reach the ready to hand because that is the domain of the slave, thus we get the master slave dialectic in which the slaves actually become the master of the master in an aufhebung. The slaves we are talking about are the greek philosophers in Rome who were Roman slaves. The master slave dialectic appears perfectly worked out in Waiting for Godot in the relation between Pozzo and Lucky. Nietzsche wanted a philosophy what was Positive in its essential nature and gave self-consciousness to the masters as well as the slaves. Because masters actually established their mastery though works and thus they did have access to the ready-to-hand in warfare by which they established their mastery.

Given these two moves of reversal Nietzsche established the goals of his philosophy and to obtain those goals he attempted to understand the Value of value. In other words he attempted to take values to a meta-level, and he concluded that the ultimate value is life itself based on a Darwinian and Atomistic model. And thus from this point of departure he railed against everything that was life denying, like Schopenhauer, like Christianity, and since he accepted Schopenhauer’s interpretation of Hinayana Buddhism, like Buddhism. But, of course, he was wrong about Buddhism because emptiness is nondual and thus does not affirm or deny life, but merely takes it as an existence, a fact of life.

Now we are entering a very speculative arena. If Nietzsche had actually understood Buddhism at least as good as Hegel did or better, as we can understand it today, then Nietzsche would have had a measuring rod for  his own thought. Buddhism is the most sophisticated philosophical tradition on the planet ever. We can mention Nagarjuna, Mipham, Fa Tsang and of course the myriad Mahayana Sutras that explore the subtle nuances of attainable states of consciousness through meditation that they describe in detail. There is nothing like this in Western Philosophy which spends its time just trying mundane everyday experience with no knowledge of the heights possible in the refinement of human spirituality as it interrogates the nondual. Without that measure it is only possible to push the limits of philosophy so far. So for instance we see that Nietzsche thinks by reversing the positions of his predecessors. So he never departs from duality. His only ideas that are are monistic, like Will to Power is everything, or eternal return but even between those there is a duality. But if he had understood Mahayana Buddhism and nonduality he might have been able to go on to other higher types of thought rather than just reacting against what went before. One way to look at it is that his UberMench is really just those who understand Mahayana, but all Nietzsche could only do is say that there is something beyond the Last Man, but not really be able to say what the Ubermench might be. Of course, anyone who knows anything about meditation and its benefits can see that there is a path beyond common humanity, or deeper into ones own humanity as the case may be, is through meditation. So, of course, having philosophies that take into account altered states of consciousness are going to be more sophisticated and more advanced than theories that do not. So if Nietzsche had taken seriously Buddhism then his thoughts would have been very different, but then of course we would not have the Nietzsche we do have who is the master of irony, absurdity, and paradox who reverses all the fundamental assumptions of our tradition so we can see what lies beneath the surface. We are better off to have Nietzsche as he is, without the pollution of nondual ideas. Because after all most of use have no idea about these things anyway, and at least we can relate to Nietzsche as the ultimate heretic of our tradition, and thus in his own way a measure for us of our tradition, but this measure is week compared with the measure of the Buddhist tradition, which we not understand better than we did through earlier Western interpretations that saw it as merely nihilistic without comprehending its intrinsic nonduality. But today we can have both the proto-postmodern outlook of Nietzsche who sees no headland above the world, and the Buddhists who see through the fundamental illusion of our dualistic worldview. Or at least that is a possibility if we read widely enough to encompass both our own tradition and the traditions that are nondual from other countries  The real question is how we can come to understand nonduality within the Western Tradition, a lone example of which is Meister Eckhart.

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