Nietzsche & Buddhism; the Purpose of Morality

The following are thoughts and notes from reading the article Nietzsche and Buddhism by Benjamin A. Elman.

Before I get into the insights on and aims of morality that some Buddhist teaching and Nietzsche’s philosophy share, it’s important to consider the parallels between this 19th century scholar and this Eastern philosophic tradition. As Elman describes and compares the moral philosophies of Nietzsche, Kant, and Schopenhauer, he refers to Guy Welbon to explain Nietzsche’s undeniable parallels to Buddhist philosophy that make his writings more than just haunting warnings of meaninglessness and nihilism gripping the modern Western society. He notes that Nietzsche was probably the “best read and most solidly grounded in Buddhism for his time among Europeans”, and so his writing is greatly influenced by its philosophy (Elman 673). He explains that Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence is paralleled with the cycle of birth and rebirth in Buddhism called samsāra; that Zarathustra parallels the bodhisattva, or the person able to reach nirvana who delays doing so to help others become enlightened and free of suffering; and that Nietzsche’s program for the transvaluation of all values is paralleled with nirvana, the release from samsāra. Similarly, Schopenhauer’s philosophy also parallels Buddhist philosophy. Similarly to some sects of Buddhism that claim the material world is inherently an illusion-like dream our consciousness experiences, Schopenhauer states that there is no essentiality to matter beyond mental perception, and “…there [is] a pure knowing subject – the thing-in-itself – that gives significance to our ideas. This inner subject [Schopenhauer] describes as ‘will’, and he regarded it as the inner mechanism of man’s being. The body was the objectification of the will” (Elman 675). This greatly parallels the Buddhist teaching, specifically within the Mahāyāna tradition, that the world is an illusion, disguising true, objective reality under our indirect perception of its physical manifestations. And just as the physical world is the material manifestation of objective truth, so are our bodies the physical manifestations of our being in reality.

Schopenhauer states that the essential aspect of our existence is will, but will does not exist alone. Will, intrinsically related to desire and intent, must have with it something that is willed to be. Elman describes Schopenhauer’s consideration of will within the context of the will to live as such, “the will to live preys upon itself in a blind striving for existence, without end or aim. The inner nature of will was characterized by eternal becoming and endless flux, leading to a ‘fearful ennui that paralyzes life'” (675). If I understand this correctly, the will to live compels one to live, but not necessarily to do much else. So without any other will, or desire, one goes on living for the sake of just being alive, doing whatever is necessary for that to happen, but because there are no other goals one’s life is not directed anywhere, and your life feels stagnant as the will which would normally change from one aim to the next is now sent in any direction without care or value so long as it is not towards death of self. This is what people often refer to when they talk about existential dread and the struggle of existence. If all you want is to stay alive, then all your goals will always be met, and there is nothing left to do but be alive. But since the nature of our existence is constant change into what we are becoming, then a life in which all our goals are already met is contrary to our intrinsic nature, and it will cause us suffering because of that. Considering the idea that “the will to live preys upon itself in a blind striving for existence”, it’s not hard to see how people develop mindsets of egotistic vanity and feelings of anomie when there aren’t any other clear values.

Another mindset that could potentially be explained by a blind striving for existence is that of altruistic suicide. At a first glance, it seems odd how a lack of value in anything but continued existence would prompt someone to altruism, but it might only take a slight modification of values to arrive at this mindset. What if instead of valuing one’s own continuation, someone associated their continuation with that of another while still not holding any other values? Could it be that the lack of value for anything but existence prompts them to literally sacrifice their own life for the life of another? And if this is the case, is this altruism right or good? Altruism is often described as selfless action committed to the interests of others over self-interests, but neurological findings have reported that no action can be sanctioned, for lack of a better word, by the brain without consideration of selfish reward. By selfish I do not mean the mindset of someone who is conceited or self-absorbed in a way that neglects the interests of others, rather one in which any interest at all, whether it aligns with the interests of others or not, is a self interest. As far as neurological processing goes, I believe that the way the reward circuitry in the brain affects decision-making makes it so that you always do whatever it is that is most rewarding to do, what your self wills, and most of the cognition is simply calculating the pros and cons and reminding yourself of the consequences (it is not guaranteed that these considerations reach conscious recognition, however). Regardless of the motivations, a person can never truly make an objective, or selfless decision unless what they desire is to be objective or selfless. But the fulfillment of that desire is a self-prioritized desire, negating the selfless motivation altogether in a way the seems to be another beautiful paradox of life. So then what could be the motivation of altruistic suicide? Following the philosophies of ethics outlined by Nietzsche, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Buddhism, and Elma, I argue that the motivation is an attempt at moral action. The significance of morality as an ethical guide is that it offers stability and fulfillment in a deterministic world that does not protect anyone from meaninglessness or nihilism by providing stability for the ever-fluctuating will of consciousness. Altruistic suicide motivated by nothing but the will to for another to continue living fails at being properly morally motivated because of the lack of value placed in anything other than living. To explain this conclusion, I’ll refer to morality’s relation to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment, which Nietzsche focused much of his philosophy on as well.

What enlightenment in Buddhism provides, regarding the Mahāyāna Zen tradition which holds the most parallels to Nietzsche’s philosophy, is freedom from any pre-supposed narrative or predestination of one’s life. Through accepting the extreme degree of existential freedom we have and the illusory, ever-changing nature of material existence, enlightenment provides the necessary conditions for self actualization and the fulfillment of having purpose to existence. Our essential nature, being desire rather than will in the case of Buddhist philosophy, is also inescapable, just as the suffering that results from desire is inescapable. Nirvana is not meant to be a singular achievement, but a state of being that must be continually reinforced in which you come to understand the whole picture and your place in it. There is no existential dread because there is no objective value to the way things are, so you are free from living in a way that is objectively bad. The freedom from objective valuations does not protect you from subjective valuations however, and this marks the importance of morality. Morality is the guide to making sure that we live lives acceptable by our own standards while allowing others to do the same. As far as suggesting what sort of behaviors are ethically acceptable, morality compels harmony. If the nature of behavior affecting relations between self and others (people or not) can be classified into a dualistic set, this set could be described as being between harmonious dispositions and cancerous dispositions. A harmonious disposition is an enlightened one in which the sense of self does not deny the fact that everything is within a natural system, and the pieces of the system must work in tandem with the system to perpetually sustain themselves, allowing the freedom for fulfilling one’s interests at the risk of inevitable conflict resulting from inevitable change in circumstances. A cancerous disposition is an un-enlightened one in which the sense of self is singular or exclusive, denying the natural systems one is a part of in favor of purely self-serving interests. Furthermore, morality does not compel self sacrifice alone, it also compels self prioritization. Relevant to circumstances, both are needed for yourself and others to successfully actualize your existential freedom. It is also through the philosophic teachings that help to outline a spiritual understanding of existence and reality that we can realize that self never dies or disappears, it is only changed, and so there should be no fear of loss or death. And the nature of self being an illusion means that you cannot be disconnected from the existence of the rest of reality, and you must consider the fact that your existence is just a part of the system you are participating in. Fortunately, natural systems are self regulatory for the most part, as we can see from various examples from organic bodies to celestial bodies and even environmental ecosystems. Every part of these natural systems are already somewhat inclined to preserving its role in the system by the fulfillment of its own interests in harmonious ways. So long as something exists, the system is self fulfilled. However, moral agents have a very wide range of interests and can radically affect the sustainability of a system, causing systems themselves to change and fluctuate in an evolutionary way. What morality compels us to do, is to be harmonious with the nature of our existence, fluctuating will, and harmonious with the nature of reality, fluctuating circumstances, in a way that allows absolute existential freedom and enlightenment with respect to balancing the interests of all. If something adheres to this harmony and maintains a natural balance, it is moral, but if it adheres to the self-imposition of will and the denial of a natural balance, it is immoral. Something that is absolutely important to remember however, is that immorality is just as necessary and significant to the ever-changing nature of reality as is morality. Obviously it is better to limit the amount of negativity and harm that is perpetuated, but we cannot do without it or else positivity and fulfillment would have no meaning. If there’s never a legitimate chance of meaningless, there can never be any meaningfulness. So if one wants to live a meaningful, fulfilling life, know that everything is always changing, and all we can be expected to do is our best at making the most of it. And try not to ruin it for the rest of us please.


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