Nietzsche despised Christianity, because he believed—falsely—that it was essentially hostile to life, that it substituted a fictitious afterlife for life in this world and taught a hatred and despising of the body. I believe this is a false understanding of true Christian teaching although this kind of thing is certainly something heretical Christians have fallen into from time to time.
The despair and world-weariness that Nietzsche reproaches Christianity with he called nihilism, and it is something he found to be the essence of Buddhism as well. He referred to Buddhism as a “passive nihilism” and found it far less dangerous than Christianity, which was “active nihilism” insofar as Christian love, in contrast to Buddhist resignation, actively engages in the world to help the weak and suffering (the contradiction between Christian activity in the world and Christianity’s supposed hatred for the world seems not to have occurred to him).
Anyhow, I was reading some Buddhist texts, and I find that Buddhism suffers from (1) bad metaphysics—the Buddha present arguments that Aristotle would tear to shreds in seconds, and (2) exactly the kind of nihilism that Nietzsche charges it with. As far as I can tell, Buddhism really does despise life and the body.
I am going to juxtapose the Buddha’s words with those of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.
The Buddha says
The learned noble disciple feels loathing for the body, for feeling, for perception, for the aggregates, for consciousness. Feeling disgust, he becomes free from passion, through freedom from passion he is emancipated, and in the emancipated one arises the knowledge of his emancipation. He understands that rebirth is destroyed, the religious life has been led, done is what was to be done, there is nothing beyond this world.
The Buddha teaching “loathing for the body” put me in mind of Zarathustra’s speech “On the Despisers of the Body,” but the nearby speech “On the Preachers of Death” is even more appropriate.
Here is Zarathustra:
ON THE PREACHERS OF DEATH
There are preachers of death; and the earth is full of those to whom one must preach renunciation of life. The earth is full of the superfluous; life is spoiled by the all-too-many. May they be lured from this life with the “eternal life”! Yellow the preachers of death wear, or black. But I want to show them to you in still other colors.
“Yellow and black,” i.e. Buddhist monks and Christian priests.
There are the terrible ones who carry around within themselves the beast of prey and have no choice but lust or self-laceration. And even their lust is still self-laceration. They have not even become human beings yet, these terrible ones: let them preach renunciation of life and pass away themselves!
This passage is odd, since Nietzsche and Zarathustra both usually praise “beasts of prey” as an ideal to be aspired to.
There are those with consumption of the soul: hardly are they born when they begin to die and to long for doctrines of weariness and renunciation. They would like to be dead, and we should welcome their wish. Let us beware of waking the dead and disturbing these living coffins!
They encounter a sick man or an old man or a corpse, and immediately they say, “Life is refuted.” But only they themselves are refuted, and their eyes, which see only this one face of existence. Shrouded in thick melancholy and eager for the little accidents that bring death, thus they wait with clenched teeth. Or they reach for sweets while mocking their own childishness; they clutch the straw of their life and mock that they still clutch a straw. Their wisdom says, “A fool who stays alive—but such fools are we. And this is surely the most foolish thing about life.”
“Old man, sick man, corpse.” These are three of the Four Sights beheld by Prince Siddhārtha Gautama that set him on his journey to becoming the Buddha. Zarathustra does not mention the “fourth sight,” which was a monk who had renounced the world—but of course that is what this speech is about.
“Life is only suffering,” others say, and do not lie: see to it, then, that you cease! See to it, then, that the life which is only suffering ceases!
The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is “Life is Suffering [duḥkha]. Everything else in Buddhism follows from this rejection of life.
And let this be the doctrine of your virtue: “Thou shalt kill thyself! Thou shalt steal away!”
I can honestly see no reason that suicide would not be the immediate course of every Buddhist if it were not for the additional belief in rebirth. If the Buddhist believed, like the modern Western atheist, that the end of mortal life ended existence, this seems to be a direct and immediate good.
“Lust is sin,” says one group that preaches death; “let us step aside and beget no children.”
Upon the birth of his son, Rāhula, the Buddha pronounced “A son is born to me, a fetter has been forged for me.” [Rāhu jāto, bandhanam jātam.] In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says
The wise do not call that a strong fetter which is made of iron, wood, or hemp; far stronger is the care for precious stones and rings, for sons and a wife. That fetter the wise call strong which drags down, seems soft, but is difficult to undo; after having cut this at last, people leave the world, free from cares, and leaving desires and pleasures behind.
The Buddha does not teach a doctrine of sin as Christians understand that concept, but he does teach that lust is a fetter, and that one ought not to desire a family or children. Back to Zarathustra:
“Giving birth is troublesome,” says another group; “why go on giving birth? One bears only unfortunates!”
I do hear this often said today, but not by Christians.
And they too are preachers of death.
“Pity is needed,” says the third group. “Take from me what I have! Take from me what I am! Life will bind me that much less!”
This too seems to be a fairly direct expression of the Buddha’s teaching, although it is much more passive.
If they were full of pity through and through, they would make life insufferable for their neighbors. To be evil, that would be their real goodness. But they want to get out of life: what do they care that with their chains and presents they bind others still more tightly?
And you, too, for whom life is furious work and unrest—are you not very weary of life? Are you not very ripe for the preaching of death? All of you to whom furious work is dear, and whatever is fast, new, and strange—you find it hard to bear yourselves; your industry is escape and the will to forget yourselves. If you believed more in life you would fling yourselves less to the moment. But you do not have contents enough in yourselves for waiting—and not even for idleness.
This restlessness and relentless drive for distraction is an important modern phenomenon. We moderns are busy, but rarely happy. Here is Pascal on this point:
Back to Zarathustra:
Everywhere the voice of those who preach death is heard; and the earth is full of those to whom one must preach death. Or “eternal life”—that is the same to me, if only they pass away quickly.
This spoke Zarathustra
What I find interesting is that throughout his denunciation of the “preachers of death,” Zarathustra alternates between the teachings of Buddhism and various moderns, but nowhere actually directly cites a Christian teaching—instead he relies on his usual hermeneutic of finding in the Christian teaching of eternal life a concealed preaching of death.
Why does he do this? The answer is obvious. If one takes Christian teaching at face value, Christianity preaches not death, but life. It teaches, in fact, the total and complete victory of life over death. Consider the following:
As we Orthodox (and also Byzantine Rite Catholics) sing in our Paschal Troparion:
Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν,
θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας,
καὶ τοῖς ἐν τοῖς μνήμασι,
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
For the Christian, these words, Χριστὸς ἀνέστη—Christ is risen—signify the ultimate defeat of and repudiation of death.
For Buddhism, the only possible goal is detachment and renunciation, by means of liberation from selfish craving [taṇhā], to a state of nonbeing [nirvāṇa; literally “blowing out” as of a candle, or “quenching” as of a fire; “extinguishing”; “extinction”].
Life is suffering, says the Buddha, and so he preaches nirvāṇa, extinction—death.
The Buddha’s understanding of the human condition was not false, but he was unaware that this condition was that only of fallen humanity, suffering the twin sicknesses of sin and death. Nor can the Buddha’s path, noble though his effort was, attain its aim. His [selfish?] desire for detachment from selfish passion led the Buddha to mistakenly attempt the annihilation of the self. The Buddha, alas, became a preacher of death.
I close with one final contrast between Nietzsche’s teaching and that of the Buddha. I like to think of this as Nietzsche’s One Sentence Refutation of Buddhism (he has several of those):
Nietzsche has the right of it. Any doctrine that stands against laughter is eo ipso false!
[NOTE: Nietzsche has a good deal more to say about Buddhism and the Buddha. Perhaps I will return to this topic later.]