The Nietzschean Bodhisattva: Part I

One of the tasks that Joan Stambaugh pursues in her chapter on “Creativity and Decadence,” is to explain what it means to say that “Nietzsche sees art as fundamental to life, as the ‘truly metaphysical activity of man’” (The Other Nietzsche, 21). Nietzsche, Stambaugh says, sees art as not, “a sphere of culture, not as a highly specialized, privileged area for the few, but as that activity of man that is most crucial to his life” (ibid.). Stambaugh finds such a claim rather strange, for aren’t other things crucial to life before art? She sees the resolution of the strangeness in her interpretation of Nietzsche on truth. She writes:

For Nietzsche, there is no truth in the traditional sense of that word. The world of the will to power is in constant flux, not the undefined, undetermined flux of Heraclitus, but the flux of shifting centers of power that increase and decrease, but never remain the same. True knowledge of this world is impossible, in fact, it is incommensurate with the very nature of the world. “Knowing” is simply a pragmatic falsification of the world for the purpose of dealing with it more effectively. Therefore, instead of despairing over the fact that there is no static, finished world to be known, the meaningful activity in this world of flux and the will to power becomes art, shaping this world, giving it meaning and values. The previous institutions and endeavors of man are forms of decadence, they distort the world. “Our religion, morality, and philosophy are decadent forms of man. The counter movement: art” (The Will to Power, No. 794). “The belief that the world as it ought to be is, really exists, is a belief of the unproductive who do not desire to create a world as it ought to be. They posit it as already available, they seek ways and means of reaching it. ‘Will to truth’—as the impotence of the will to create” (The Will to Power, No. 585). (22-23)

This denial of truth is very much in line with Nietzsche’s pronouncements about the death of God, which signals the death of the power of the idea of a fixed transcendent world giving meaning to this world. The world is not finished, with its meanings and values already determined. Instead, the world is in a very important sense continually underdetermined as a result of both there being no transcendent, fixed meaning giver, while at the same time that the world we inhabit is in constant flux. So, Nietzsche’s denial of truth is the denial of a kind of Platonic conception of truth/meaning/value.

But Nietzsche thinks that there are those who not only believe that the world comes predetermined in regard to values and meaning, ones given by some form of “God,” but that the values and meanings so determined are ones that should be thus and so. Hence, “The belief that the world as it ought to be is, really exists, is a belief of the unproductive who do not desire to create a world as it ought to be. They posit it as already available, they seek ways and means of reaching it. ‘Will to truth’—as the impotence of the will to create” (The Will to Power, No. 585).

But is it only the art of the artist that can be creative, that can shape a world into what the creator thinks it should be, at least for that moment? Stambaugh:

… The only meaningful way for man to live in a world of the will to power is to create. For create Nietzsche uses the German word schaffen, which means to do something, accomplish something, to work, rather than the narrow word schöpfen, which more exactly corresponds to creating. This is evidence for the fact that he means creativity in a very broad sense, which includes the artist as a prototype of the higher type of man, but is not restricted to him. (23)

Stambaugh does two important things for my purposes here. First, she broadens the understanding of creativity beyond the literal artist, such as a Goethe or Beethoven. Those latter artists remain for Nietzsche the prototype, the paradigm of the creator, the meaning giver. Second, she notes Nietzsche’s identification of the artist, the creator, with the higher type of humanity.

While he may not be the opposite of one, whatever that might look like, Nietzsche is certainly not an egalitarian. He has no compunction about dividing humanity into various types, very often higher and lower types. One of the marks of a higher type, for Nietzsche, is the ability to suffer well and take on great responsibility. The following two passages are representative:

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—makes his destruction desirable.
The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? (Beyond Good and Evil, 225)

And Nietzsche says that a philosopher:

… if today there could be philosophers—would be compelled to find the greatness of man, the concept of “greatness,” precisely in his range and multiplicity, in his wholeness in manifoldness. He would even determine value in rank in accordance with how much and how many things one can bear and take upon himself, how far one could extend his responsibility. (Beyond Good and Evil, 212)

So, here we have a number of important ideas for Nietzsche. Greatness is correlated with great suffering and taking on as many things and responsibilities as one can bear. Again, here we find the Dionysian artist as Nietzsche’s paradigm of the higher type, the creative genius. In addition to these aspects of Nietzsche’s thought, he clearly deplores the idea of seeking not to suffer. And here we find an obvious “butting of heads,” so to speak, between Nietzsche and Buddhism. The whole raison d’être of Buddhism is the cessation suffering. And so, while Nietzsche certainly has a higher opinion of Buddhism than he does of Christianity, he nevertheless finds Buddhism to be world and life denying, and hence nihilistic.

I find a number of things fascinating about Nietzsche’s treatment of suffering—in particular his desire to question its presumed evil—all while thinking he gets quite a bit wrong. It is for these two reasons that I want to appropriate Nietzsche’s framework of the creative genius as a higher type, one who is willing to take on profound suffering, and whose life is centered around creativity. I want to appropriate it and apply it to the Mahayana Buddhist idea of the Bodhisattva Ideal. That is, it may provide interesting insights if we think about the Bodhisattva as a Nietzschean higher type whose life is centered around creativity, namely, the creativity required to try to save all other sentient beings.

Under the assumption of rebirth and that human beings are continually reborn in the cycle of suffering that is life after life, Mahayana Buddhism introduces the idea of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is one who practices to become/to be enlightened, but who does not enter “final enlightenment,” whereby one would cease to be reborn in samsara, at least not until one has helped to awaken everyone else. Hence the Bodhisattva Vow:

Beings are numberless; I vow to awaken them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to transform them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to comprehend them.
The awakened way is incomparable; I vow to embody it.
(in Kazuaki Tanahashi, Zen Chants: Thirty-Five Essentail Texts with Commentary, 30)

The first three of the vows, in particular, speak to the impossibility of the task. Nevertheless, the Bodhisattva takes on this boundless and impossible task as her life’s work. In doing so, I want to suggest that while her task is the anti-Nietzschean one to “abolish suffering,” nevertheless, this does not mean seeking to abolish pain: the Buddhist practitioner does not seek to stop pain from occurring. And insofar as Nietzsche does not clearly distinguish between pain and suffering, as can be done in Buddhism, this greatly complicates what would surely be Nietzsche’s judgment about Buddhism, namely, that it is nihilistic insofar as it seeks to abolish suffering. Moreover, I want to suggest that the Bodhisattva meets other criteria Nietzsche gives for higher types, namely, a willingness to take on great responsibility—as we saw above, boundless responsibility—in attempting to save all others. And in doing so, the Bodhisattva must be akin to, if not actually a, creative genius, in order to try to help the countless myriad sentient beings in existence to become awakened. I will elaborate on all these points in Part II of this, presumably, two-part blog series on the Nietzschean Bodhisattva. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think!

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