Buddha’s Take on Suffering vs. Nietzsche’s

If you think about it, we respond to whatever arises into consciousness with desire, aversion, or neutrality. And the things that appear to consciousness are always in flux: they arise, they ripen, they decline from attention and disappear. Then others things arise in their place. Consciousness is like this, an endless series of bell curves. A winding snake. One cloud comes, another cloud goes. Nothing is permanent or substantial. That’s existence.

Is this a problem?

Gautama Buddha’s (c. 500 BCE) answer is yes. His advice is to stop desiring and averting (pushing things away). Practice instead habits of emotional neutrality toward all that comes and goes. Treat the dips and peaks of bell curves as one. “One to me is loss and gain, praise and blame, pleasure and pain.” That’s the song the Brahman sings (to loosely quote a poem of Emerson’s). It’s Buddha’s song as well. If this is your song, you’ll end your suffering; you’ll get off the wheel of each moment’s birth, ripening, and decline to death.

That, in any case, is the theory.

One of the great texts of Buddhism, which the poet T.S. Eliot likened to the “Sermon on the Mount,” is Buddha’s “Fire Sermon.” In a nineteenth century translation by T. W. Rhys-Davids and Herman Oldenberg, it begins thus:

Everything, O Bhikkhus [monks], is burning. And how, O Bhikkhus, is everything burning? The eye, O Bhikkhus, is burning; visible things are burning; the mental impressions based on the eye are burning; the contact of the eye (with visible things) is burning; the sensation produced by the contact of the eye (with visible things), be it pleasant, be it painful, be it neither pleasant nor painful, that also is burning. With what fire is it burning? I declare unto you that it is burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of anger, with the fire of ignorance; it is burning with (the anxieties of) birth, decay, death, grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection, and despair.

In the sermon, Buddha makes the same observations about the other “gates” of consciousness–the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, and the intellect (mind). Here’s how the deconstruction sounds as applied to the intellect:

The mind, O Bhikkhus, is burning; thoughts are burning; the mental impressions based on thoughts are burning; the contact of the mind with thoughts is burning; the sensation produced by the contact of the mind with thoughts, be it pleasant, be it painful, be it neither pleasant nor painful, that also is burning. With what fire is it burning? I declare unto you that it is burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of anger, with the fire of ignorance; it is burning with the anxieties of birth, decay, death, grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection, and despair.

And what is the result of experiencing existence as aflame? According to Buddha, it’s disenchantment. Once you get fed up trying to make permanent what is, by its very nature, not permanent, then you’re teachable: you have come to the end of your illusions, your delusions. This is followed by a loss of passion, which, according to Buddha, is a desirable arrival point, since passion is at the root of suffering.

In Buddhism, as is typical of other world religions, suffering is a problem to be solved. Not so for Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Taking his cue from Darwin and the ancient ass-kicking and hero-worshiping Greeks, Nietzsche has a novel response to the problem of suffering, arguing that suffering, being inescapable, should be embraced as part of your own self-fashioning.

The lesson Nietzsche takes from Darwin and the Greeks is that life is an agon of competing drives–a will to power. Who will be the master and who be the slave in service to the master? This is the great question for Nietzsche. Not how to escape suffering.

Contra Buddha, for Nietzsche the best way to spend one’s life is to participate fully, creatively, and self-consciously in the burning world–to take hold of its fiery and spinning wheel, not extract oneself from it, knowing full well that it’s ultimately futile to build upon it. Nihilism (emptiness), suffering, complexity, and your inwardly contradictory and agonistic drives are all grist for the mill–the mill of your own creative and necessarily temporary self-fashioning.

Don’t, in other words, be a Buddha wussy. Face life and suffering. No emotional disassociation. The Buddha is right that you should not get caught or mesmerized by illusions of permanence, but be “all in” anyway. Let the world burn you and burn the world back. That’s Nietzsche. He sees what Buddha sees–the cosmos as flux, forms as ultimately empty, suffering as not extractable from desire–but concludes from this that the self game should be doubled-down upon, not abandoned.

Nietzsche is like the ad man Jack Draper, in the first season of Madmen, when he has his epiphany about tobacco growers. Ultimately, they are selling the same cigarettes regardless of brand; there is no objective distinction between their products. All tobacco leaves are grown, dried, and toasted in the same manner. All of them are carcinogenic when smoked. There’s no safe cigarette. But rather than throwing up one’s hands and walking away from the advertising game, Jack Draper concludes the following: “We can say anything we want.” Lucky Strikes are toasted. They’re for grown-ups. They’ll get you laid. Creativity, not withdrawal from the field because it’s all ultimately indistinguishable and painful, becomes the name of the game.

Is Buddha’s relation to Nietzsche therefore that of John the Baptist to Jesus? In other words, is Nietzsche actually the culmination of Buddha’s original insights and proclamations, a man whom Buddha would have recognized, smiled upon, and blessed? Or is Nietzsche’s heightening of the contradictions between the self (persona) and no-self (nihilism, emptiness, transience), embracing them both, yet another way for a person to get lost in what Buddha calls ignorance (avidya)?

This is a question of happiness and how you pursue it. As Buddhist meditation practitioner and psychoanalyst, Ron Leifer, puts it in his book, The Happiness Project (Snow Lion 1997, pp. 97-98):

The cure for ignorance is ‘right view.’ […] Right view reveals self and the world as ephemeral appearances, luminescences which are born from emptiness, enter the ceaseless river of samsaric change, and ultimately disappear into emptiness. The secret of happiness is to accept this reality.

But Nietzsche does accept this reality. He just draws a very different conclusion from the Buddha. Buddha would have us wind down the wars of the self; Nietzsche would have us wind them up. Buddha’s motto is hippie: “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” Nietzsche’s motto is Olympic: “Let the games begin!” Who’s right? Be ironic about life’s dramas or enter into them balls-to-the-wall? Maybe it’s a mixture. Maybe timing, context, and state of mind are all. In the pursuit of happiness, it’s always your call.

Now choose.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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11 Responses to Buddha’s Take on Suffering vs. Nietzsche’s

  1. colinhutton says:

    Nice post. Ditto recent others.

  2. It’s a rare treat to find someone who writes about Nietzsche and his philosophical ideas in an intelligent yet “entertaining” manner. I really enjoyed this! I’d like to invite you to my blog: http://tonguesandwich.wordpress.com/tag/nietzsche/

  3. Alan says:

    As a non-philosopher, often anti-philosopher, I see philosophy, at its core, as games with words. Hairless apes with oversized brains invented language. Some ones (as many a philosopher chooses to do) should, it seems, torment them with words as suitable retribution for their arrogance. Such are both, Buddha and Nietzsche.
    Buddha draws the unwitting and suffering into his spell with seemingly divinely inspired insight into their pain – and delivers a poison antidote that ends the contribution into the Darwinian process of any who take him at his word. If everyone took the advice of the Buddha, human suffering would end on this earth in a generation. A catastrophic (to humanity, perhaps a blessing to non-humans), suicidal antidote.
    Nietzsche’s answer is to amplify the suffering to its limit and drag it on forever. A non-antidote, holding to the status quo.
    Calvin (in my tenuous grasp of his doctrine) addresses the only constructive solution, a slight modification to Nietzsche: ceaseless labor in the service of Mother Nature.

  4. Santi Tafarella says:


    You wrote the following: “Buddha draws the unwitting and suffering . . .”

    All humans are unwitting and prone to suffering. In relation to the future, you don’t know what you’re walking into, making you unwitting. And existence qua existence is suffused with suffering.

    Buddha and Nietzsche are addressing existential problems that aren’t going away because one chooses not to think or talk about them.

    The Calvinist’s silent and stoic marshaling on without thinking too much is a method that might work for you, which is fine.


    • Alan says:

      Your response makes perfect sense for a world where every man is an island. There is no such world. While we all suffer, we can shift the load. Let’s take four timely examples of alternatives:

      The Buddha response (withdraw): Mom comes home and says ‘pack up all your things, kids. Dad has run off with his secretary and we are moving in with grandma.’ Dad has unloaded his suffering while amplifying the burden for those he abandoned.

      The Nietzsche response (exercise what little power you have over those with less): Dad comes home and demands: ‘Gimme a beer woman and make dinner good – I’ve had a rough day. Get out of my chair kids and gimme the remote. No whining, I’ve heard enough today.’ Dad may feel better flexing his authority, but everyone else suffers even more.

      The don’t worry, be happy response (Jesus saves, we are forgiven and untroubled): Dad comes home, all smiles: ‘Great day, great day. Wonderful to be home and see all of you. We’ve no money, but no worries. Mom’s found something in the pantry for dinner and this weekend I’ll cash my pay and we’ll all have ice cream at the park.’ Ignore the pain, someone else caries it for us. – for Marx, this was the ‘Opium Response’, I suppose.

      Calvin accepts the suffering and expects everyone to carry their share: Dad: ‘Boy, it was a tough day at the salt mine, but tomorrow should be tougher. Don’t stop your cooking and cleaning for me, mom and kids don’t stop your homework or your chores – no idle hands in this house. Soon as I get the oil changed in the car, we’ll have dinner.’

      We cannot end the suffering of the world, but we can respond appropriately, even constructively. To me, the Buddha and Nietzsche represent selfish, destructive responses.

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