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Buddhism and Nineteenth-Century German Philosophy

Author(s): Heinrich Dumoulin

Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1981), pp. 457-470
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
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intellectual-cultural exchanges between

West and East, Europe and Asia, prefigured in a past stretching over
several centuries, are grounded today in a conscious reciprocal exchange of ideas. In no other modern Asian country has the process of
assimilating new ideas been as dramatic and rapid as in Japan, which
during the Meiji period (1868-1913) opened its doors to foreigners and
to Western thought. However, Asian ideas and cultural values were
slower to gain entry into Europe, depending upon texts and other
materials which became available in a variety of ways (especially
through colonial and missionary efforts) and then met with an interested reception among Europeans.
The intellectual culture of the Chinese was accepted in the West
earlier than the Indian and by a larger circle of people during the
eighteenth century. Interest in Chinese culture had been aroused
through the letters and reports of Jesuit missionaries who portrayed
the traditional Chinese world view and its Confucian ethical teachings
in a favorable light. Some imagined that they found in those teachings
a religion of reason, of special appeal to the Age of Enlightenment.
Influential thinkers like Leibniz, Christian Wolff, Voltaire, and others
showed great interest in Chinese culture and gave rise to something
like a fad for Chinese things (chinoiserie). However, toward the end
of the eighteenth century the enthusiasm for China diminished as
people turned instead to India as the wonderland.
India appeared to European intellectuals in a new, appealing light.
According to J. G. Herder (1744-1803), "In India, the human mind
acquired its first form of wisdom and virtue, with a depth, strength,
and sublimity


. . . has no equal in our cold,


philosophical world." 1 He was the first to translate verses of the

sacred Indian song, the Bhagavadg7tai, from Sanskrit into German.
The Schlegel brothers also learned Sanskrit: August Wilhelm (17691845) was to occupy the first German chair at Bonn in Sanskrit, while
Friedrich (1772-1829) wrote the famous essay "On the Language and
Wisdom of the Indians," evidence of his deep understanding even
though it offered little information. At first, ancient Indian literature,
* Translated

by Julia Ching.
Cited by H. von Glasenapp, Das Indienbild deutscher Denker (Stuttgart, 1960),

14 f.

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especially the Upanishads, aroused Western admiration for the

"Wisdom of the East." Interest in Buddhism, the most influential of
Indian religions, also developed on a wave of enthusiasm which inspired many Western minds. Research on various forms of Buddhism
seems especially important because it has continued to display its
usefulness in our own age, offering occasion for meaningful dialogue
with the adherents of other creeds. A bold survey of the modes of its
reception might give us helpful clues to a correct, and possibly profound, understanding of the Buddhist religion. But we shall limit ourselves here to a survey of nineteenth-century German philosophy,
and particularly to four of its greatest representatives: Kant, Hegel,
Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, each of whom, in his own way, has
been important in the European assessment of Buddhism.
The European philosophers' encounter with Buddhism differs essentially from the efforts of learned Buddhist scholars who moved
much more slowly, making available the texts and materials after
painstaking labor, thus bringing to light the various forms of Buddhist
teaching and practice. Such research could not be expected of the
philosophers. But the German philosophers named above did
know-though not too clearly-that Buddhism was divided into two
principal branches, the Hinayana (or what is still today called
Theravada) and the Mahayana, as well as the different names of the
founder of the Buddhist religion. The dark and pessimistic world view
of the Buddhists profoundly interested them. In spite of their inadequate knowledge of the sources, the German philosophers'
perspectives and value judgments exerted an influence still visible
Kant-The great master of German philosophy, Immanuel Kant
(1724-1804) of Konigsberg, said nothing about Indian or East Asian
philosophy in his philosophical lectures. The wisdom of the East has
as little place in his philosophical thought as the Asian religions. Yet
for forty years Kant taught a course on "Physical Geography," the
first of its kind at a German university.2 He regarded geography as a
"useful and pleasant branch of learning"; concern with distant countries and peoples was for him a hobby and recreation. He found
material for his lectures in the very abundant travel literature of the
eighteenth century, although he himself refrained from travelling and
from learning foreign tongues other than English or French. He could
draw so much exciting, informative, and useful material from his
extensive readings that his course enjoyed a general popularity, and
during his own lifetime some of his lectures, in the form of student

See also for the following H. von Glasenapp, Kant und die Religionen des
Ostens (Kitzingen, 1954).

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notes, were printed, though without his permission. However, an

authentic edition of his lectures, taken not from student notes but
from several so-called "dictated texts" and from his own notes prepared for his lectures, is now available to us. Kant spoke of individual Asian countries, giving glimpses of "Country and People,"
bringingout characteristicfeatures of customs and morals, sketching
political and social structures, and always includinga section on the
religion or religions of those countries. He spoke of Buddhismin his
lectures on Ceylon, Tibet, Upper India, China, and Japan. He knew a
little of the BuddhistHinayanaand Mahayanasects and a numberof
names for the Buddha used in the different countries of Asia.
His lectures are factual reports in which he seeks to show the
more noteworthy aspects of each country studied. He was sympathetic to the Buddhistbelief in transmigrationof souls (which he did not
exactly understand)because it presupposes preexistence of the soul
and reincarnationin anotherform after death. The moralcharacterof
Buddhist doctrine especially impressed him. He quoted from the
book on Japanby the Germanphysician EngelbertKampfer,who had
visited Japanin the service of Holland (1690-91)and whose memoirs
remaina valuable source of informationon Japan. Kampfertells of a
sermon of a Japanese Buddhist monk "whose application was so
moral and good, the kind that we at home can only yearn for."3 This
episode confirms what we have since learned from many Japanese
sources of the Buddhist practice of the Edo period (1614-68). The
Buddhist monks instructed the people in ethics, often according to
Confucianprinciples,the core of which is expressed in the statement,
"Inspiregood and punish evil." Kant was also convinced of the need
to rewardgood and punish evil.
One piece of travel literaturewhich Kant read in Germanwas the
General History of Travels, or the Collection of All Travel Descrip-

tions," 4 in 21 volumes (Leipzig, 1747-74);the sixth volume deals with

Chinaand contains a section on the "inner or secret teaching of Fo."
(Fo is the Chinese word for "Buddha," which in Japanese is read
Butsu.) Kant read there "that Nothingness being the originand end of
all things, indifference to, and refusal of, all work at some time is
therefore blessed."5 We translate here from Kant's dictated texts;
this passage of the "GeneralHistory" was also to be known to Hegel,
and we will returnto this subject when we discuss Hegel's explanations of Buddhism.
Kant remarkedthat the Buddhist conception of God, or what he
knew of it, was inadequate.He thoughtthat even the Buddhahimself
3 Cited by Glasenapp, Kant . . ., 116. 4 The title reads in German: Allgemeine
a See Glasenapp,
Historie der Reisen oder Sammlung aller Reisebeschreibungen.
Das Indienbild .. ., 10 f.

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must have been involved in the process of transmigration,according

to his own religion. Although, in his lectures on Orientalgeography,
Kant could not be personally satisfied with such a view of the Supreme Being, he did not permit himself to express theological or
metaphysicalcriticisms. On the whole, his sketches were sympathetic, offeringa warm and humanunderstandingof foreign peoples and
customs, and regardingas highly moral all earnestness and sincere
striving for immortality, wherever he learned of such spiritual elements of Buddhism.
Hegel-Only in our own days have we found due attention directed to the fact that G. F. W. Hegel (1770-1831)gave a great deal of
space to non-Christianreligionsin his work.6This does not mean that
foreign cultures or the wisdom of the East enjoyed his special sympathy: "World history moves from East to West, Europe being the
end of world history, Asia its beginning." Hegel remainedfaithfulto
this basic belief all his life. India received no praise from him, and he
made derogatoryremarksabout China. In his philosophy of religion,
he sought to integrate all the world religions into his own grandiose
metaphysical system. Unfortunately,we do not know with any certainty what place he assigned to Buddhism.According to the Lasson
edition, based on Hegel's manuscripts, the first part of the second
step of "Natural Religion" appears before Brahmanism or
Hinduism-"the religion of imagination"-but in the so-called
Jubilee edition the orderis reversed. Hegel was probablynot capable
of assigning any such order on the basis of the historical materialhe
possessed, yet this is not a merely historical question. Any rank or
ordergiven by Hegel would also tell us implicitlyhis evaluationof the
Buddhistreligion. In any case, he did allow Buddhisma certain limited value. Indeed, his fundamentalconception assigns a value to
each religion inside his system. The two subtitles under which Buddhismwas treated-the generic category of "the religionsof substantiality" and the specific name of "the religion of Insichsein"certainly signify categories of value. This becomes clearer when
Hegel distinguishes between Taoism, which he describes as a "religion of magic," in which "consciousness . . . is still located in the

immediatelyhuman," and Buddhism, with which "the true and objective generality-objective accordingto content-begins."
Throughnearly twenty pages, Hegel describes Buddhism in the
terminologyof his own system, obviously very differentfrom that of
Buddhistthought.To grasphis understandingof Buddhismit is useful
to look into the sources which he understoodand utilized in his own
way. A passage from the General History reports:

See R. Leuze, Die ausserchristlichen Religionen bei Hegel (G6ttingen, 1975), on

Buddhism, 61-75.

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They say that Emptiness or Nothingness is the beginningof all things,

that out of this Nothingness and the combinationof elements, all things are
produced,and that all must go back (to Nothingness), that all things, organic
and nonorganic,are differentfromone anotheronly in form and characteristics, but remainone in the perspectiveof that which is not the fundamentalii
or matterof all things.
This Grundstoff, they say, is a wonderful thing. It is extremely pure,
entirelyfree from flux, very delicate, simple and-on account of the simplicity of its own being-the perfectionof all things. In short, it is very perfect,
forever still, without productivity,power, or intelligence. What is even better, its natureconsists in havingneither intelligencenor motion, nor desire.
Should we wish to live happily,we should make efforts, throughmeditation
and frequentacts of self-conquest,to become like this Grundstoff.Hence we
should accustom ourselves to do nothing, to desire nothing, to refrainfrom
being sensitive about anything, and to think of nothing. Vices and virtues,
rewardand punishment,Providenceand immortality-none of these belong
Holiness consists entirely in ceasing to be, i.e., being submerged in
Nothingness. The closer one approachesthe ultimatenatureof a stone or of
a stick, the more perfect he becomes. In brief, virtue and bliss consist in an
entire insensitivity and motionlessness, in the cessation of all desires, in a
deprivationof all bodily movements, in the annihilationof all the powers of
the soul, and in the entire stillness of thought. Should a humanbeing attain
this blissful state, all change and transformationwould come to an end, and
he would have nothingfurtherto fear, since he is, to put it truthfully,nothing
any more, or rather,should he still be something,he has become happy, and
in one word, as perfect as the God Fo (Buddha).7
This passage portrays, although not entirely accurately, one form
of Mahayana Buddhism in China. Obviously, the author of this travel
description had an extremely difficult task, one which he courageously undertook (to mention only the language barrier) without
having been entirely aware of the difficulties. From this text, Hegel
derived the two ideas of Nothingness and Grundstoff. Glasenapp
prefers the key word 'Emptiness' to 'Nothingness'-and
reason-in the philosophy of Nagarjuna, his "Doctrine of the Middle
Way," upon which the metaphysics of the principal schools of
Chinese Buddhism is built. It was impossible for Hegel, who probably
had access to only the few paragraphs quoted above, to reach an
accurate understanding of the Buddhist concept-and particularly of
the Mahayana version-of Nothingness. Yet he realized, it would
seem, that the "interior and secret teaching of Fo" was not pure
Nihilism. He understood that his source saw in Nothingness the
Highest and the Ultimate, "the absolute Foundation, the Indeterminate, the state of annihilation of all particular beings, and that all
7 The passage is
quoted in full by Leuze, 64, and by Glasenapp, Kant ...,

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105 f.



particularbeings, and that all particularexistences and realities are

only forms and that only Nothingness is truly self-subsistent,while all
other realities are not. .. ."8 He finds it strange and striking "that

man should think of God as Nothingness" but recognizes the true

meaningof this mannerof thinking:"This does not mean that God is
nothing, but that He is Indeterminateand that this Indeterminateness
is God," 9 or "the Being which is without further determination."
He sees in Buddhistteachingneither mysticism nor negative theology
but rather, in the context of his own system, "a definite and necessary step of religious representation."10
Hegel identifies the second concept in the travel report as the
concept of Grundstoff. It occurs in a somewhat puzzling passage
which refers to the "inner or secret teaching ofFo," but this is quite
different from all known teachings of Chinese Buddhism. True, in
Chinese Buddhism one frequently finds thoughts and concepts that
are influencedby Taoism or by some other school of ancient Chinese
philosophy, but the Grundstoff,that "wonderfulthing" describedby
the travel report, can only signify a material substance. In this case
Hegel's introductoryreflections on this concept of Grundstoff rest
simply upon a misunderstanding,so that his classifying Buddhismas
a "religion of substantiality" is misleading. When Hegel calls the

. something operating unconsciously, in so far as it is

for itself substantial,"11he is obviously contradicting his source,

which recognizes the Grundstoffas "having neither intelligence nor
movement." Conceivingthe Grundstoffas a substancemisled Hegel.
It is noteworthy that Hegel should treat the Buddhistteaching of
Nirvana not in his impressive explanationsof Nothingness and Emptiness, but in his section on Cult. The externalcause for this is that he
is here dependent upon another source, namely, Francis Buchanan's
On the Religion and Literature of the Burmese, which contains a

section on the "Religion of Gautama."12The author explains the

state of Nirvana (Burmese:nieban) as liberationfrom the sufferingof
this world of becoming (sasara), which is an applicationcertainly of
the fundamentalmeaning of Nirvana found in early Buddhism. To
attainthis state, one must-as Hegel understoodit- "do ... nothing
for oneself. ...

The principal aim in this cult is to unite oneself with

this Nothingness, and to turn away from all consciousness and all
passions." 13

8 Translated from German,

Philosophie der Religion, ed. Lasson, I, 2; 124.
1Ibid., 126 f.
9Ibid., 125.
"On the Religion and Literature of the Burmas," Asiatic Researches, 6; cf.
Leuze, loc. cit., 65.
Philosophie der Religion, I, 2; 134.

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We here find a close connection between the attainment of Nirvana and meditative introspection. Hegel emphasizes the importance
of meditation in Buddhism. His brief but instructive reflections in this
direction have, of all that he has written on Buddhism, most strongly
influenced the Western understanding of Buddhism. He describes
and evaluates in a straightforward and clear manner the Buddhist
"sinking into the self." Two points are important here: Hegel emphasizes silence, stillness, retreat of the self into pensive solitude,
that is, the passive and world-fleeing aspect of the effort of meditation, which leads to Nirvana.

"One must . . . make efforts to will

nothing, to wish nothing, to do nothing. One must be without passion,

without desires, without actions." 14 Thus will one attain the state of
perfect detachment. This description of Eastern spirituality has
brought upon Buddhist meditation the reproach of passivity, of lack
of feeling, of apathy.
Yet Buddhist meditation-and this is the other point-is important to our philosopher, not as a religious exercise but as the precondition and expression of the metaphysically relevant step of inwardness (Insichsein). Here Hegel is relying upon Buddha's image, which
he describes thus: "The image of Buddha is in this thinking posture,
arms and legs placed upon each other in such a way that a toe enters
into the mouth-this returning into oneself, this sucking on oneself."15 It is not known where Hegel could have seen such an image
of the Buddha.16 It obviously occurred to him to characterize the act
of profound meditation (Versenktsein) as a return into one's self.
Thus meditation is completely assimilated in Hegel's philosophical
Hegel's understanding of Buddhism confirms the opinions of
those obstinate critics of Asian spiritual ways who see in them what
they believe to be radically introverted practices of meditation, and a
real danger for the Westerner. But lovers of Eastern wisdom seek
vainly in Hegel for a sincere effort to understand the Buddha's religion as it is and as it is lived by Orientals. Glasenapp judges that
Hegel, "as the prototype of Westerners, saw in Western thought the
measure of all universality which embraces the whole world." 17
Hegel sought to press Buddhism into his
own philosophical system, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) found
the fundamental ideas of his philosophy confirmed in Eastern
thought, particularly in the Upanishads and in Buddhism. His first
meeting with Oriental wisdom came in the year 1813, in Weimar,

15 Ibid., 122.
14Ibid., 133.
As Glasenapp thinks, Hegel may have mistaken a picture of the child Krishna
for an image of Buddha, see Das Indienbild . . ., 56.

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through the mediation of the Orientalist Friedrich Maier who gave

him a selection of the Upanishads in Latin translation18and evoked
great enthusiasmin the young man. Overwhelmedby his emotion, he
wrote, "I confess .. .that I do not believe that my teaching could

have arisen before the Upanishads;Plato and Kant were first able to
throw light upon a man's mind." 19Yet Eastern thought did not have
any decisive influence upon the fundamentalideas of Schopenhauer's
principalwork, The Worldas Willand Idea (Vol. I, written 1814-18,
published 1819). We owe his assurance on this subject to a letter he
sent to Adam Ludwig van Doss: "The agreementwith my own teaching is especially wonderfulsince I wrote the first volume in 1814-1818,
and did not know anythingabout all that, not havingbeen then able to
acquire all that knowledge."20His enthusiasm for Eastern wisdom
continued without diminution, while his knowledge of it increased
steadily as he read the new books on Buddhismwhich came into his
hands. He read them in the fixed perspective of his own world view
which had taken form earlier, and never grappled with Oriental
studies in a philologicalor historicalmanner:it was sufficientfor him
that the wise men of Asia should have given such impressive confirmation of his own work.
That Buddhismshould be known in Germanyand in Europe as a
pessimistic religion is largely to be attributedto its introductioninto
Western thinking by Schopenhauer, whose own pessimism was
rooted in his personalityand character. Childhoodtragedies, such as
the sudden death of his fatherand a tense relationshipwith his eccentric mother, led him to travel around the world, which gave him
occasion to see much suffering and unhappiness everywhere, and
thus contributed to his pessimistic world view. Just as Buddha
learned in his youth when he saw sickness, old age, suffering and
death, so Schopenhauer also learned that human life in this world
develops in a "place of lamentation," a "vale of tears" (a Jammertal, the ancient Germanword he liked to recall).21
In his work, The World as Will and Idea, Schopenhauer describes

humanexistence as does early Buddhistliterature,as a state of inextinguishable suffering. The First of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, that human life is full of sorrow laden experience, is echoed
The collection which appeared with the title Oupnekhat comprises 50 upanishads and is a translationby the French OrientalistA. H. Anquetil-Duperron
(1731-1805),not from the Sanskritoriginalbut from a Persiantranslation.

Ibid., 92.
by Glasenapp, Das Indienbild . . ., 68.
See A. Hiibscher, Denker gegen den Strom. Schopenhauer: gesternheute-morgen (Bonn, 1973), 11. The term stems from psalm 84 (vallis lacrimarun)

and was familiarto the Pietists. The pietistic movement influenced Schopenhauer,
as Hiibscherpoints out in his standardwork.

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throughout Schopenhauer's writings, but the similarity with Buddhism goes even deeper, as when Schopenhauerlike Buddha sees in
the insatiable covetous will the cause of all suffering. Influenced by
Kant, Schopenhauerasserts the primacy of the blind will, thus approachingthe religious teaching of the Buddha: craving or desire is
the cause of suffering. Sufferingand desire are inextricablybound up
with each other, for accordingto Schopenhauerthe appearanceof the
will "is a vanishingexistence, an ever decreasing, always frustrating
striving, and the world which is given to us is full of suffering."22
In agreement with pre-BuddhisticIndian mythology, Buddhism
believes that desire drives living creatures into a cycle of existences,
an idea also to be found in Western thinking, though it came to
Schopenhauerprobablythroughhis contact with Eastern thought. In
the first volume of his work, where he speaks of the myth of transmigration, he refers especially to the Vedas. The sorrowful aspect of
this myth is immediately clear to him; he names several of the tormenting stages of the cycle in order to cast light upon their relationship to human existence. When Schopenhauer first mentioned the
myth of transmigration,he knew little of Buddhism,even though he
referred to it as a religion. Later, he studied more extensively the
Buddhist version of transmigrationand rebirth. As in his study of
early Buddhism, however, he never grappledsatisfactorilywith that
idea of metempsychosis which found its widest circulation in the
popularreligion of Asian peoples.
The first three of Buddha's Four Noble Truths-which deal with
human suffering, with desire as the cause of suffering, and with the
need to destroy this desire-found their echoes in Schopenhauer's
own life and in his Weltanschauung.When looked upon with a sober
sense of reality, human life is seen to be comprised of sufferingand
desire, and Schopenhauerderived as a consequence the conviction
that the will to life must be destroyed and denied. Here, too, his
thought finds confirmation in Eastern religion. What he calls "the
denial of the will to life," Buddhismmakes its goal and calls Nirvana.
But before takingup Schopenhauer'sconception of Nirvana, we shall
first explain briefly how the philosopher represents the way to the
denial of the will. He speaks of two ways, both of which can be found
also, at least in part, in Buddhism: the way of "wholesome suffering" and the way of asceticism.
Throughouthis life man is subjectto "wholesome sufferings." He
places himself on the right way to the goal when he diligently practises such daily virtues as friendliness,kindness, and compassion. He
comes then to a "turning point of the will and salvation, which is

The World as Will and Idea, I, ? 68.

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achieved by way of the frequent sufferings of this life." So

Schopenhauer says: "For this is the way of sinners, which we all

Higher even than the way of "wholesome suffering"is that of the

"ascetics, who choose to lead a life of poverty, hardship,and solitude
because they keep in mind their ultimate and true end."24 Regarded
philosophically,the path leadingfrom virtue to asceticism culminates
at the point where the will of the ascetic negates its own being in the
world of appearances:"Basically being nothing else than an appearance of the will, he ceases to desire anything, and does not seek to
attach his will to anything, while trying to keep himself in a state of
great indifference against attachmentto anything."25Schopenhauer
had great respect for the ascetics in whom he saw the realizationof a
communityof minds: "The Indian, Christian,Moslem ascetics are all
different,not only in the inner meaningand spiritof their teachings."
What is common to them is "the formal denial and abandonmentof
all transitory things.26 . . . The enviable lives of many holy men and

beautiful souls among Christiansand even more among Hindus and

Buddhists, as also among other religious people," illustrate "the
inner nature of holiness, self-denial, mortificationof one's own will,
an ascesis expressed in the form of a denial of the will. . . " 27

Schopenhauer'sparticularterm, quietiv (quietude), refers to such

mental states as abandonment,denial of one's will, renouncingthe
temporary, indifference-terms which also appear in Buddhist
literature-and Schopenhauerhas referred correctly to the Eastern
spiritualityof the Hindus and Buddhists. In the Pali Canon of Buddhism, the term upekkha(Sanskrit:Upeksha) is especially conspicuous: it refers to the "state of entire indifference"in the fourthstage of
Dhyana. Perhaps this meaning of upekkha comes closest to what
Schopenhauercalls "quietude." In any case, this word has a relevance which is not philosophical but spiritual, religious, and
psychological. Schopenhaueralso found insights of his philosophy in
the writingsof his venerated Madamede Guyon. He quotes from the
autobiographyof this "beautiful and great soul": "Everything has
become indifferentto me: I can no longer desire anything. I often
don't know whether I am here or not."28The reception of Buddhism
throughSchopenhauerhas often led in the West to the attributionof a
Stoic teaching of apathyto Buddhism.People thoughtthat Buddhists
were devoid of emotions and in a state of absolute indifference. Yet
this judgment appears in only one kind of Buddhism, and even there
has its limits.


Ibid., II, ch. 49.

Ibid., II, ch. 48.
Cited by Hiibscher, 47.



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Ibid., I, ? 68.
Ibid., I, ? 68.



Schopenhauer's way of salvation leads from the knowledge of

one's will and of the afflictions of the world to the denial of the will
and salvation from the suffering of human existence. In Buddhism,
this state of liberation from desire and suffering is called Nirvana.
Schopenhauer grappled intensively with the meaning of Nirvana. Obviously, he noticed especially the negative import of the term. He saw
a direct path leading from his own negative formulations to the
Buddhist Nirvana:
The privilege of the resigned person is to die willingly and gladly and joyously, since he has given up and denied the will to life. Only he is really
willingto die and notjust do so in appearance,since he needs and desires no
personal survival. This human existence which we know, he gives up willingly. What happens to him instead is nothing in our eyes, because our
human existence in its light is nothing. In Buddhist doctrine this is called
Nirvana, that is, extinction.29
In his footnote, Schopenhauer explains "extinction, for example, of
However, Schopenhauer does not represent any radical nihilistic
view of Nirvana. He understands the relative meaning of the negative
term. What is negated is the world of Samsara, the world of becoming: 'If Nirvana is defined as nothingness, this can only mean that the
Samsara contains no element which could serve as the definition or
construction of Nirvana."30 Schopenhauer makes a distinction between relative and absolute nothingness. What we call nothingness is
a relative, not an absolute, nothingness: "For if something is not
anything of what we know, it ... does not therefore follow that it is
absolutely nothing, that from every possible standpoint it... must be


The other possible standpoint, only suggested here, is that of mysticism. Schopenhauer has not confused the two standpoints. Mysticism was for him important; he highly respected true, inner experiences although he distinguished clearly between mystical experience
and philosophical knowledge. In the first volume of his principal work
he refers to the state "which those who have succeeded in denying
their will perfectly have experienced, and which has been given such
names as ecstasy, withdrawal, enlightenment, union with God and so
on; a state which cannot properly be called knowledge ...," and then
goes on to philosophy which "must content itself with negative
knowledge."32 Nirvana is in Schopenhauer's understanding "the
point at which all human knowledge, as such, always remains without
access." 33If "all religions ... lead up to mysticism and mysteries,"

The World as Will and Idea, II, ch. 41.

I, ?71.

32 Ibid.,


Ibid., II, ch. 48.
Ibid., II, ch. 44.

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then philosophical thought must necessarily take on in the end "a

negative character."34
Schopenhauerdecisively influencedthe Germaninterpretationof
Buddhismalthoughunfortunatelynot always with balance and accuracy. On the popularlevel Buddhismtends to be judged as radically
pessimistic, as culminating in the nothingness of Nirvanaextinction, knowing no love except a dull compassion for afflicted
creatures, and so on. These judgments are frequently made about
Schopenhauer'sphilosophy which has been often misunderstoodand
misinterpreted. In our own day, progress in the interpretationof
Schopenhauerhas not yet made much impacton the understandingof
Buddhism. Several points should be taken into account.
Schopenhauer'spessimism, or Buddhism's, is not entirely hopeless;
there are manifest signs of positivity, for the ultimate end is not
absolute nihilism.
Further,while Buddhismin Schopenhauer'saccount is frequently
regardedas an "atheistic religion," it is, accordingto its own nature,
not at all first and foremost atheistic. Schopenhauer distinguishes
religions, according to their world views, into optimistic or
pessimistic-or realistic-religions. He rejects belief in a personal
God as "obscurantism," and there is much in his work which can
justify calling him an "atheist." Yet his profound religious sense
should not be left unnoticed. The classification of Buddhismamong
atheistic religions is misleading.
It is difficult to decide how much Schopenhauerowes to mysticism. He took mysticism seriously, for he says of the Theologia Germanica: "The agreement with my philosophy is wonderful." He
compares the "admirableand incrediblyprofoundAngelus Silesius"
with the seers of the Vedas, and he acknowledges, "Buddha,
Eckhart, and I, we basically teach the same things." 35These are not
words said in jest. As he accepted as a philosopherthe path of negation duringhis whole life, so in youth and old age he revealed a strong
attractionto mysticism.
Nietzsche-In German intellectual history, the line leads from
Schopenhauer to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Another line
branches off from Schopenhauerto RichardWagnerwho was especially inspiredby certain motifs coming from Schopenhauerand from
Buddhism. An opera, Die Sieger, which he had planned, was exclusively Buddhisticbut remainedunfinished.36Wagnerlater took up the

Ibid., II, ch. 48.

See Hiibscher, loc. cit., 46 ff.; cf. The World as Will and Idea, II, ch. 48.
Cf. D. Watanabe Dauer, "Richard Wagner and Buddhismus," The Eastern
Buddhist, New Series, IX, 2 (Oct. 1976), 115-28. See also G. R. Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters (Chicago, 1968), 171 ff.

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chief motif of this work in his Parzifal though Schopenhauer'sinfluence is already present in Tristan und Isolda.

Two influences coming from Schopenhauerand Wagner had an

important impact on Nietzsche's life; from there the poet of
Zarathustrafreed himself only with difficulty. He owes his understandingof Buddhismentirely to Schopenhauerand to the mannerin
which he understoodSchopenhauer.Yet, for Nietzsche, the denial of
the will to life is not the best part of the religionof the Buddha. Even
as early as The Birth of Tragedy, he speaks in pejorativeterms of the
"Buddhist denial of the will," the very will from which the sensitive
Hellenes found salvation throughart and life.
When Nietzsche wrote this, he was still under the influence of
Schopenhauer's philosophy, but he did not follow that admired
thinker unreservedly. He especially liked Schopenhauer's
metaphysics of music. He also liked his atheism. He thus found in
Buddhism by preference the religion of "explicit atheism . . . which

forbids ultimatelythe lie of belief in God."37 He was much impressed

that this "decisive point" was reached "five centuries before the
Europeancalendar, in the Buddha."38In Asia, "what Europe must
still do .. ." was achieved much earlier, when "the teacher of Self-

redemption,the Buddha, appeared... ." 3 In spite of this statement

and several more positive expressions of approval of Buddha,
Nietzsche's work reveals a preponderantlynegative attitude toward
Nietzsche's chief criticism of Buddhism was expressed in his
Birth of Tragedy. Accordingto him, the Buddhistreligion is, like the
Christian, an enemy of life and of the body, and is fundamentally
nihilistic:"The longingfor a mystical union with God is the longingof
the Buddhist for Nothingness and Nirvana-and nothing more."40
This does not mean that Nirvana was conceived as the height of true
mysticism. Mystical union and Nirvana are both regarded by
Nietzsche as empty formulas;he found the opposite of Nirvanain the
eternal recurrence of all things. In his own nihilistic conception he
believed he had found "the highest formula worthy of universal approval, which could be achieved anywhere."41
The two philosophers' fundamentallydifferent attitudes toward
Buddhism appear in their different evaluations of Nirvana, the
Buddhist term for the denial of the will to life. While Schopenhauer
highly esteemed and praised Buddhism,Nietzsche saw in it a religion
for the weak, those not mature enough for life and its struggles, a
"hygiene" for the sick, whose illness was especially "ressentiment,"


Genealogy of Morals, III, 26.

Genealogy of Morals, I, 6.

38 Ibid.

3 Dawn, I, 96.
Ecce Homo, On Zarathustra No. 1.

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bornout of weakness: "Buddhismis a religionfor humansgrownkind,

gentle, overintellectual races that feel pain too easily. ...

42 The

same refrain is echoed in an aphorism of his opus postumum:

"Buddhismagainstthe Crucified:amongnihilisticreligions, one must
always distinguish sharply between the Christian religion and the
Buddhist. The Buddhist religion portrays a beautiful evening, a perfect sweetness and mildness...."
The ambivalence of Nietzsche's attitude toward Buddhism persists in the West through his great influence. The autonomous
Buddha, whom Nietzsche saw from afar, impressedhimself upon the
free and independent minds of many Western intellectuals. The
spread in the West of the evaluationof Buddhismas a religionfor the
weak and the passive has many causes, among them surely
Nietzsche's work, but Nietzsche never bothered to learn very much
about Buddhism. If he spoke of Buddhism and Christianity as
"nihilistic religions," he did not consider it necessary to discuss the
matterfurther.Easternwisdom did not touch his heart as it did that of
Schopenhauer,the philosopherwho found inner strengthand consolation to the end of his life in his favorite text, the Oupekhnat.
So long as Buddhismis considered by many in the West to be a
pessimistic or even nihilistic religion, culturaldialogue between East
and West will remain difficult. This misunderstandingcan be traced
back to the nineteenth century, but the fault should not be attributed
exclusively to the thinkers and scholars of that period. They saw, as
Schopenhauershows us, many things more clearly than their interpreters. The popularizationof scholarly theses and opinions brought
strange simplifications. Unfortunately, philosophy and positive science were more widely pursued, and a religious-spiritualway of
seeing things was hardly considered. This neglect leads, even today,
to failure in the understandingof Buddhism. If the origins of some of
the unhappy misinterpretationsand prejudices have been successfully shown in the present study, new research may yield better
Sophia University, Tokyo.

Antichrist, No. 22.

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