I have long been drawn to Buddhism and to Nietzsche’s ideas. After much thought, I propose a reconciliation; I propose the creation of a Nietzschean Buddhism. How could this be a possibility? After all, the third noble truth of Buddhism is that there is a way out of suffering, and the fourth noble truth gives us the way out. Suffering is optional, as is staying in samsara, the eternal recurrence of rebirth and a life of suffering. How is that reconcilable with Nietzsche, who writes:
You want, if possible—and there is no more insane “if possible”—to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it—that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible—that makes his destruction desirable (Beyond Good and Evil, 225).
Yet it is exactly along the lines of the value of suffering that a most fruitful reconciliation is possible. I want to sketch out a way in which Buddhism and Nietzsche’s thought can combine along the lines of the value of suffering, the nature of compassion, the importance of psychology, and the role of mindfulness. I will not address all of these issues here. Those that I don’t will be addressed later.
The defining motivation of Buddhism is to bring an end to suffering. Pain and suffering are separable. Pain gives rise to suffering only in combination with craving and attachment. Humans cannot escape the preconditions of suffering, namely, impermanence, old age, sickness, and death. But we can control whether those give rise to suffering. Such control is not easy, but we have a hypothetical imperative to attempt such control. And that hypothetical imperative is grounded in the desire to end suffering for ourselves and others.
Nietzsche writes that man’s problem, “was not suffering itself, but that there was no answer to the crying question, ‘why do I suffer?’…The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far—” (Genealogy of Morals, III 28). With the death of God, nihilism threatens, since the previous way to deal with the meaning of suffering was to attribute it to the sufferer. From the Christian perspective, the meaning of suffering is rooted in sin; from the Buddhist perspective, the meaning of suffering is rooted in one’s craving and attachment. Nietzsche’s response is to offer up an alternative ideal, the affirmation of life, the heart of which is the eternal recurrence.
Out of that mess of controversy, we can extract the core idea that Nietzsche’s response to suffering and its meaning is to invert the value of suffering. Nihilism only threatens if we operate under the assumption that suffering is evil and undesirable, something that must be headed off and removed. But how can we revalue suffering? In the Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism, Bernard Reginster argues that the key is through Nietzsche’s idea of the will to power. According to Reginster, the will to power is constituted by a second-order desire for the overcoming of resistance in the satisfaction of a first-order desire. Importantly the second-order desire is not merely the desire for resistance, but also for that resistance to be overcome. Power is expressed by the overcoming of resistance on the way to achieving another desire. Imagine Goethe writing Faust. Goethe’s greatness, his power, is expressed by his wanting not to merely have written Faust, but to have had it be a great accomplishment involving the overcoming of resistance. Reginster interprets this willing of resistance to a first-order desire’s being satisfied as the willing of suffering. Further, according to Reginster, insofar as the power achieved has value, so too does the suffering, not as a means but as a constituent of the power.
The above is one way that Nietzsche can be viewed as giving reason to value suffering. An important question concerns the extent to which the resistance must be experienced as suffering. I want to leave this question aside for now. Nietzsche also seems to go beyond the valuing of suffering through the valuing of power to a more extreme kind of valuing. He seems to say that the affirmation of life (in his sense) requires that one be capable of desiring to live every moment of one’s life again and again, eternally. And doing that requires valuing the moments of suffering in one’s life, not merely as a means, but for their own sake. One example of this is in the Will to Power, section 1041. One thing we might question is whether affirming life really requires that one affirm every part. Might this not be an instance of the fallacy of division?
More importantly, though, we might wonder whether revaluing suffering so that it is not automatically seen as objectionable implies that no suffering is thereby objectionable. We could, after all, say that suffering has value insofar as power has value and suffering is a necessary constituent of power, without saying that all instances of suffering are constituents of power. And doing so would leave open the value of those “non-power” instances of suffering.
Return to Buddhism for a moment. In Buddhism, it seems that suffering could only have instrumental value, namely, as a means for letting you know you’re still operating with attachment and craving. Certain instances of suffering might be valuable as lessons for ways in which we can improve. But here “improve” means ease the suffering of ourselves and others.
One thing that a skilled Buddhist is good at is recognizing the sources of craving and attachment, the sources of suffering. A skilled Buddhist, in other words, has some degree of control of her suffering. If we combine some aspects of Nietzsche’s revaluation of suffering with this Buddhist control over suffering, then we can be in a position to recognize that there may be times in which suffering is valuable not merely as a means but as a component of something worthwhile, while avoiding those instances of suffering that lack value. That is, combining the two positions gives us a person who is skilled in regard to the value, use, and occurrence of suffering. The goal of life is to live well, but living well does not mean ending suffering and/or removing oneself from samsara. Living well consists, in part, in acts of creation and the achievement of knowledge and wisdom, all of which involve suffering.
Let’s note one complication to this hybrid position before this essay is done. If pain and suffering are separable under Buddhism, then why couldn’t we separate resistance and suffering? That is, resistance would have value because it was a part of power, but that resistance would not amount to suffering because of the Buddhist methodology of removing craving and attachment. Perhaps Nietzsche could respond by saying that in order for true power and creativity to be achieved, a person must engage in the activity of creation to such an extent that they crave the object of creation and are attached to it in such a way that the resistance must amount to suffering. But how true is this?