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 the 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 the other major 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.
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.
In other words, face life and suffering without 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 when he has his epiphany about tobacco growers in the first season of Mad Men. 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.
The difference between the Buddha and Nietzsche on desire is thus 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?
Trying to answer that question is part of what it means to theorize about desire.