Nietzsche & Buddha’s Lessons On Suffering

Blessed is the man who has suffered; he has found life.

Gospel of Thomas 58

Suffering is a universal fact of existence. This is the starting point of two of history’s greatest psychologists. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the ancient Indian sage known as the Buddha.

(You can watch the video version of this article here.)

Nietzsche On The Necessity Of Suffering

Now, dwelling on suffering is often gratuitous and makes a bad situation worse… But not always. To grasp human life in earnest, you must explore not only its sunny hills, but its shadowy valleys too. Nietzsche says joy cannot thrive without suffering. The two are inseparable in what he calls the economy of the soul.

Painful experiences often lead to

the breaking open of new springs and needs, the healing of old wounds, the shedding of entire periods of the past…

[T]here is a personal necessity of misfortune… [T]errors, deprivations, impoverishments, midnights, adventures, risks, and blunders are as necessary for me and you as their opposites; indeed … the path to one’s own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one’s own hell…

For happiness and misfortune are two siblings and twins who either grow up together [or] remain small together!

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Science

Nietzsche refuses to divide life in pairs of opposites. Good and evil, joy and suffering, right and wrong are, to him, conventional labels. In the conflict of opposites, he sees a creative process of mutual nourishment. In this, he joins company with the Taoists and Heraclitus, who we’ve explored in an earlier piece.

Nietzsche’s life was marked by illness, loneliness, rejection and, ultimately, insanity. Despite his misery (or perhaps because of it), he insists on the benefits of suffering. In a passage obviously derived from personal experience, he writes:

Only great pain, that long, slow pain that takes its time … forces us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths and put aside all trust, everything good-natured, veiling, mild, average…

I doubt that such pain makes us ‘better’ – but I know that it makes us deeper.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Science

Nietzsche sees pain as a teacher. To him, misfortune provides the resistance necessary for growth of character. If one has the correct attitude, suffering can become the soil out of which joy, wisdom, and health blossom. The mud out of which the lotus rises.

Nietzsche On The 2 Ways Of Suffering

Nietzsche says there are two basic ways in which we may respond to suffering. To use his language, we may call them the way of the weak and the way of the strong.

The way of the weak is to see suffering as something that consumes us. This is the impulse to avoid pain by all means, to preserve ourselves from it. To retreat back to safety, back into the womb, back into nothingness if possible. Nietzsche sees this as a cowardly, ignoble response.

The way of the strong, on the other hand, is to see suffering as something we consume. This is the impulse to build strength through challenge, to actively seek out discomfort. What Nietzsche sees as true nobility of spirit is the act of seeking out suffering. As he famously wrote:

What does not kill me makes me stronger.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

So, Nietzsche says suffering is universal, but its meaning depends on our attitude to it. For the strong, suffering is a source of strength, reassurance, and expansion. For the weak, it is a source of weakness, doubt, and shrinking.

This does not exhaust Nietzsche’s analysis. In fact, he says pleasure and pain, joy and suffering are epiphenomena. He sees them as by-products of the real drive of human activity.

The Will To Power

To Nietzsche, everything in life is driven by the impulse to discharge power. Inorganic processes, sentient beings, and societies alike.

He was never too specific in his definition of the ‘will to power’, but one thing he didn’t mean is brute power or political power as such. Nietzsche’s example of the will to power par excellence was the artist, striving always beyond himself, creating what has never been created before. And the greatest artists, Nietzsche tells us, are philosophers and religious leaders. Through their art, these put reins on life and define how whole generations see and experience the world.

So, we can see the will to power as a creative impulse of expansion and novelty. This reminds me of Wilber’s evolutionary principle: ‘transcend and include’. We discussed this in a previous piece.

For Nietzsche, what we call ‘suffering’ is simply the felt experience of the will to power being restricted. And the undisturbed flow of the will to power is the feeling we’ve come to call ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’.

Now let’s relate this to the two fundamental attitudes to suffering.

The Will To Power & Suffering

Remember, Nietzsche says all of reality is the will to power in action. So, both the strong and the weak response to suffering arises from this principle.

The strong type receives suffering as the resistance necessary for growth. The overcoming of pain, the transformation of misfortune into fortune… This is what drives the noble one. She sees difficulty and suffering as necessary conditions for greatness. This is her will to power. In this view

Only great pain is the liberator of the spirit.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Science

The weak type, on the other hand, receives suffering as an insurmountable obstacle. However, his will to power cannot simply disappear. As Nietzsche says:

man would much rather will nothingness than not will…

Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morals

So, the weak type turns the will to power against itself. As the will cannot assert itself in the world, it rejects the world, it rejects itself even. The weak type achieves his greatness in self-annihilation. The desire to abandon desire, the effort to cease effort, the dissolution of the self… This is how the weakling asserts his will to power.

Religion = The Way Of The Weak?

Nietzsche sees this as the root of most religious traditions. We read:

[A]n ascetic life is a self-contradiction … an unsatiated instinct and power-will that would like to become lord not over something living but rather over life itself…

[A]n attempt is made here to use energy to stop up the source of the energy; here the gaze is directed greenly and maliciously against physiological flourishing itself…

Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morals

The ultimate power move of the weak is to cast their own inferiority onto existence. To label the world of the senses illusory, to see the self and the will as enemies, and to escape into an imagined world of abstract perfection.

Now what would the Buddha say to this, with his idea of nirvāṇa, the illusory self, the overcoming of craving, and the ending of rebirth? Is the Buddha’s response to suffering what Nietzsche calls weak and cowardly?

Is Buddhism an ignoble philosophy?

The Buddha On Suffering

The English words ‘suffering’, ‘pain’, ‘dissatisfaction’, ‘stress’, ‘discomfort’ and so on all fall under the same category in Buddhism. They are different forms of what the Buddha calls dukkha. Dukkha describes all unpleasant experience, but not only that. It also describes all experience subject to change and all experience arising due to causes and conditions.

Pain, impermanence, and conditionality all lead to that background of uneasiness which underlies the human condition. It is this uneasiness, dukkha, that the Buddha set out to cure. He says:

Both formerly and now, it is only dukkha that I describe, and the cessation of dukkha.

Anuradha Sutta; SN 22.86

Like Nietzsche, the Buddha too does not end his analysis with the existence of suffering. He too sees dukkha as a by-product of the real drive of human existence. He says:

What is the cause by which dukkha arises? Craving is the cause by which dukkha arises.

Nibbedhika Sutta; AN 6.63

Craving As The Root Of Suffering

In other words, it is the craving of experience that generates suffering. Craving is the ever-present drive for something more, something better, something different. Being of the nature to seek satisfaction, craving manufactures dissatisfaction whenever it appears.

As the song goes:

If I was where I would be

Then I’d be where I am not

Here I am where I must be

Where I would be, I cannot

Katie Cruel

The Buddha tells us craving not only generates suffering – it is what generates existence itself. He says:

Fettered with the fetter of craving, beings conjoined go wandering and transmigrating on for a long, long time.

Itivuttaka; Iti 15

The Buddha sees sentient beings as prisoners of endless cycles of rebirth. The force fuelling these cycles is the endless appetite of craving. We’ve covered this before.

Craving vs The Will To Power

So, to what extent can we compare the Buddha’s craving with Nietzsche’s will to power? Thankfully, the Buddha defines his terms more carefully. He says:

Craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming. These are the three cravings.

Itivuttaka; Iti 58

This overlaps neatly with Nietzsche’s will to power. To crave the world of the senses and its becoming is the creative, noble expression of the will to power. To crave the non-becoming of the world is the decadent, ignoble expression of the will to power.

And now we’ve stumbled on something fascinating!

Remember, from the two attitudes people can have towards suffering, Nietzsche extrapolates two fundamentally different ways of life. A person responds to suffering either with the will ‘to be’ or with the will ‘not to be’. The noble spirit is nourished by suffering, he seeks it out. The weak spirit is nourished by consuming himself; he seeks escape not only from pain, but from the very existence where pain is possible.

This is a profound insight of the German philosopher, but it appears the Buddha was there before him. He too recognizes these two opposite approaches, the craving for becoming and the craving for non-becoming. But unlike Nietzsche, the Buddha rejects both. Instead, he opts for a ‘middle way’.

The Buddhist Path

This middle way is the Noble Eightfold Path. This is the path of Buddhist practice and we’ve already explored it. In short, this path temporarily strengthens craving for some things (like enlightenment) in order to ultimately end craving itself. It combines the strategy of the weak and the strategy of the strong to achieve a shift of consciousness where there is no longer any strategy whatsoever.

Nietzsche’s Criticism Of The Buddha’s Approach

So!’ Nietzsche would exclaim here, ‘I was right after all! The Buddha uses the will to overcome the will. He takes us into

the Oriental Nothingness – called Nirvana – into mute, rigid, deaf self-surrender, self-forgetting, self-extinction…

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Science

the hypnotic feeling of nothingness, the rest of the deepest sleep, in short, absence of suffering – this may count already as the highest good, as value of values for those who suffer and are thoroughly out of sorts, this must be appraised by them as positive, felt to be the positive itself.

Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morals

Nietzsche is clearly a psychologist with few equals, if any. But I think there is one thing he fails to account for in his analysis of Buddhism. He had no access to the Buddhist science of mind cultivation and so he overlooked its significance.

Buddhist Meditation

No, I don’t mean the modern varieties of meditation for stress relief. We can envy Nietzsche for being spared seeing these. I mean the ancient tradition of Buddhist meditation which produces, on-demand, states of consciousness inaccessible to the ordinary mind.

To discuss Buddhist philosophy apart from meditation is like discussing food apart from its taste.

In short, meditation gave the Buddha the insight that experience falls into two broad categories. The conditioned and the unconditioned – or saṃsāra and nirvāṇa.

The Conditioned & The Unconditioned

What most of us call ‘life’ is really the realm of saṃsāra. It is the flow of experience according to causes and conditions, marked by impermanence and dissatisfaction. An infinite web of relationships with no substance or essence to be found anywhere. Within this web, sentient beings arise and disappear in cycles, all driven by the impulse of craving.

When the Buddha teaches liberation from craving, liberation from suffering, and liberation from rebirth – he is not teaching nihilism or extinction. Of course, it would seem he is teaching that to a mind familiar only with the conditioned. But Buddhist meditation reveals an altogether different kind of experience is possible.

It is this second kind of experience, nirvāṇa, that the Buddha is leading us to. He says:

There is that dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither … the infinitude of space, nor … the infinitude of consciousness, nor … nothingness, nor … perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world…

And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor stasis; neither passing away nor arising …

This, just this, is the end of dukkha.

Nibbāna Sutta; Ud 8.1

Describing The Undescribable

Nietzsche would probably dislike the negative language here. But let us for a moment assume the Buddha was right about nirvāṇa. In fact, imagine you yourself had the experience of an eternal, unconditioned reality. Obviously, this reality would be unlike anything in ordinary experience; it would be unlike everything words were invented to describe.

If you wanted to communicate it to others who have not had the experience, how would you do it?

To compare the unconditioned with conditioned things would be misleading. The sincerest, most accurate way of describing the indescribable is to say what it is not. The only form of language that can communicate the incommunicable is negative language.

And even this is ultimately misleading. As the Buddha tells one of his disciples

Deep, Vaccha, is [nirvāṇa], hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise.

Nibbāna Sutta; Ud 8.1

Nirvāṇa deserves it’s own separate discussion and I’ll leave that for the future.

Nietzsche’s Criticism Of Nirvāṇa

But now, let’s give the German philosopher his due and assume the Buddha was wrong. It is certainly not impossible that meditation is a form of self-hypnosis and faith in nirvāṇa is wishful thinking. This would make Buddhism a philosophy of the weak in Nietzsche’s book. He writes:

All preachers of morals, and all theologians, share one bad habit: they all try to talk people into thinking they are in a very bad way and need some severe, final, radical cure.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Science

This world is illusory – consequently there must be a world of truth. This world is conditioned – consequently there must be an unconditioned world. This world is contradictory – consequently there must be a world free from contradiction…

Suffering inspires these inferences; they are wishes that such a world should exist; hatred of a world which inflicts suffering likewise expresses itself in imagining another world, a valuable one…

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will To Power

[T]his longing away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, wish, longing IS itself … a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life; but it is and remains a will!

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will To Power

Nietzsche vs The Buddha

So, is there a dimension of experience free from suffering, impermanence, and conditions? Or is this a pipe dream of the weak? On this point the whole argument hangs. This decides whether the world and its suffering must be embraced or overcome.

But before we rush to a conclusion, let’s take a step back. Let’s appreciate just how much in common Nietzsche and the Buddha have.

Nietzsche & The Buddha

People often overlook a key event in the Buddha’s biography. That is, his mother, Māyā, dies shortly after giving birth to him. Legend or not, this tells us trauma has accompanied the Buddha from his very entry into life. And the loss of the mother figure, the eternal comforter, could well have motivated his search for nirvāṇa, the end of suffering.

In light of this, it is not insignificant that Nietzsche lost his father when only four years old. This loss of the paternal figure cannot be entirely unrelated to his most famous proclamation: the death of God.

Both the Buddha and Nietzsche grew up with an intimate experience of pain. They arrived at the problem of suffering not as disinterested intellectuals, but as heart-broken men. It just so happened they were also geniuses.

At first, both sought the cure for suffering in life-renunciation. Nietzsche in his passion for Schopenhauer and the Buddha in his practice of extreme asceticism. Both were soon disappointed. They broke with tradition and retreated into a life of seclusion and there made their greatest discoveries.

Nietzsche’s kinship with the Buddha was not lost on him. He writes:

Buddhism is the only genuinely positive religion to be encountered in history … It does not speak of a ‘struggle with sin’, but, yielding to reality, of the ‘struggle with suffering’.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist

So, before we pit Nietzsche against the Buddha, we should recognize that, at root, they are kindred spirits.

Their language betrays that too.

Nietzsche & The Buddha On The ‘Noble’

Nietzsche keeps speaking of nobility of spirit, of the noble way of life. And what does the Buddha speak of? The Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path. Both describe a way of life attainable for the few, opposed to popular values, requiring insight, courage, and perseverance.

For both, this noble way of life arises as a response to the problem of suffering.

I’m stressing these parallels to make a point. Obviously, there’s a lot Nietzsche and the Buddha do not agree on. But this doesn’t mean we cannot learn from both.

That Nietzsche and the Buddha advise different ways of responding to suffering is secondary. If we read between the lines, we see the same core lesson. That is – when we encounter suffering, we shouldn’t look away. Tragedy and disappointment strip away our illusions; they remind us of the impermanence, fragility, and vanity inherent in everything. This is why they are so painful. But this is why, also, they are a gift.

Suffering is our greatest teacher. Everything trivial, vain, and artificial is burned in its fire. The greater the fire, the more gets burned away. What remains then is what is not trivial, not vain, and not artificial. Only this can resist the flames.

Nietzsche & The Buddha On Facing Suffering

Here the paths of Nietzsche and the Buddha diverge. Nietzsche says ‘turn up the heat, let suffering forge you strong and pure – befriend the fire!’ On the other hand, the Buddha says ‘contemplate the fire, study its ways until you’ve learned how to put it out.’

There is strong disagreement here, but there’s also common ground. Both Nietzsche and the Buddha encourage us to take a stance towards suffering. Suffering alone does not bring wisdom. Suffering, confronted with courage, acceptance, and curiosity – this brings wisdom.

Nietzsche and the Buddha teach us the alchemy of transforming tragedy into triumph. As Nietzsche writes:

A serious author … is one who tells us what he has suffered and why he is now reposing in joy.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

The Buddha, as we’ve seen, couldn’t agree more. Of his whole teaching he says:

Both formerly and now, it is only dukkha that I describe, and the cessation of dukkha.

Anuradha Sutta; SN 22.86

The noble life they both describe constitutes, finally, the creative act of making joy out of suffering, light out of darkness, victory out of defeat. This is the message; this is the core agreement.

But there is also the core disagreement.

Nietzsche vs The Budda (Cont.)

Is there a mode of experience free from suffering, change, and conditions? Or is the world of the senses all that there is?

The answer to this question would decide between the Buddha and Nietzsche. I would love to give you a sage’s opinion here, but I am neither a sage, nor do I have an opinion. The ultimate nature of experience is not to be encountered in books, lectures, or blog articles.

The ultimate nature of experience is to be encountered… well, within experience.

If you wish to have an understanding of reality rather than a mere opinion, you must make the experiment yourself. You would be surprised how much there is to discover from simply sitting in silence and observing the breath.

And yet, much of what you discover will be your own projected ideas and desires. Your will to power is endlessly creative in its disguise. That is why knowing some Nietzsche will come in handy.

No serious Buddhist today should spare themselves the pain and pleasure of reading Nietzsche. And no Nietzschean should scorn a little meditation practice. In both cases, one will be saved from the lethal trap of certainty. And who knows, perhaps once we are free of this trap, we will have new ears for that timeless call of the Heart Sutra:

Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.

The Heart Sutra

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