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Buddhism Nietzsche and The Superman

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by Sangharakshita

... and then one hears a few minutes later that as a result of that stocks and shares have gone down on the Tokyo Stock Exchange immediately, in response. So all this sort of thing, these political, these economic repercussions, are all so obvious and so well-known there is no need to go into any detail.

And then there's the cultural field, the same sort of thing is happening there. We find that the fine arts, for instance, are all becoming nowadays international, becoming if you like supra-national.

Take for instance the field of music: we find nowadays that oriental music, whether Indian or Chinese or Japanese, is beginning to fertilise Western music; and Western music, classical music, pop music, beginning to fertilise too Eastern music. In this way this sort of reciprocal process, this mutual influence goes on.

And it is just the same in the field, the even more important field, of philosophy and religion. It is no longer one-way. For centuries, we know, Christian missionaries have been going forth from the West to the East to convert the heathen. Catholics and Protestants, Lutherans, Methodists, Salvation Army people, they've all been streaming out to the East to convert people there. But now the traffic is, as it were, reversed. Now we find that missionaries of great oriental religions are, I won't say pouring into the West, but very very many of them are coming as compared with before. Nowadays in the streets of London, the streets of New York, the streets of Paris, you can find representatives of Zen Buddhism, of various Hindu cults, and so on. And the net result of all this, the sort of intermingling of East and West, is that the spiritual teachings of all Ages, and all countries, and all climes, are becoming more and more the common heritage of all mankind.

If you think of some of the popular paper-back series being published in this country and in the United States today, if one reflects upon it, it is a really amazing thing that just for a pound or two you can purchase translations of most of the really great spiritual classics of the East and of the West, and have them all on your own shelf, to read yourself, in your own time, at your leisure; a thing that was not possible before in the whole history of the world.

So we find that all these things, all these spiritual teachings, all these spiritual traditions, all these great spiritual classics, are all as it were in the melting pot together nowadays, all acting upon or influencing one another. This is the situation that we find in the field of philosophy, in the field of religion. Globalisation of thought, also; globalisation of spiritual experience even, is now in process of coming about. And in these circumstances, under these conditions, it is, we may say, inevitable that sooner or later, in one way or another, we should come to the subject matter of tonight's lecture, that is to say Buddhism, Nietzsche and `the Superman'. Inevitable that sooner or later these two should be compared.

Buddhism, as we all know, is one of the three great universal religions of the world (the other two being Christianity and Islam). It is also the greatest, the most highly influential, the best known, of all the spiritual traditions of the East. When you think of the Wisdom of the East, if you think of it all, you think of the figure of the Buddha; and in much the same way, the philosophy, the thought of Nietzsche is one of the most important philosophies or lines of thought that the West so far has produced. In fact, one might even go so far as to say that as a point of departure at present the philosophy, the thought of Nietzsche is the most important of all that the West, certainly the modern West, has produced. Now most of you are already acquainted with Buddhism, the fundamentals of its Teaching, its basic practices, its basic exercises. And some of you I know are even well acquainted with Buddhism. So tonight I am not going to say anything directly on this part of the subject. I am not going to give you, to begin with, an exposition of what we mean by Buddhism.

What I propose to do is to say, first of all, a few words about the life and the work of Nietzsche and then to proceed at once to one of the central conceptions of his thought, that is to say the conception of `the Superman'. After this we will compare his conception of `the superman' and allied ideas with some of the ideas expounded in the course of these lectures. In other words we'll be comparing Nietzsche's thought, especially `the superman', with this whole subject of the Higher Evolution of Man, as well as with Buddhism as the embodiment, the exemplification of that Higher Evolution.

I must say, to start with, and here we have perhaps just another little fragment of autobiography, that I am personally very glad to be able to make this comparison of Buddhism with Nietzsche's thought via the conception of `the Superman'. I became acquainted with Nietzsche, with his writings, when I was about eighteen-and-a-half, and at that time I happened to be in the Army.

I remember very well that one day I had the day off, and I remember I took advantage of the day off and went to Box Hill in Surrey, a famous beauty spot, as many of you know. It was a glorious summer's day and I climbed up to the top of Box Hill, and I lay there in the brilliant sunshine, on the grass, and read Thus Spake Zarathustra. I can remember even now the tremendous impression made upon me then by this work, generally considered Nietzsche's most famous and popular work. As I read those words, those sentences - as some of you know they are not only profound thought but very beautiful poetry - and as I looked up at the blue sky it seemed almost as though the words of Zarathustra, the words of Nietzsche, were written across the blue sky in scarlet letters. So I have entertained a sort of weakness, if you like, for Nietzsche ever since, and have returned to him, read him, from time to time.

Now Nietzsche was born in Germany in 1844. His father was a Lutheran minister. It was, in fact, Nietzsche who said that the Lutheran minister was the father of German philosophy; but that's another story. His father died in 1849, when Nietzsche was only four or five, and Nietzsche spent his whole childhood surrounded by his mother, his sister, his grandmother, and two maiden aunts. And he was sent, I am glad to be able to tell you, when he was a little older to boarding school, and from there he proceeded to the universities of Bonn and Leipzig where he studied Classical Philology3; this was his subject. But for one reason or another he didn't obtain his doctorate, but in spite of that he received a call, at the age of 24, to Basle University to occupy the Chair of Philology. This came about on account of the strong recommendation of the very great scholar and philologist, Ritschl, who had been very much impressed by Nietzsche's work as a student. So there was Nietzsche at Basle University teaching Classical Philology. But he didn't drop his studies, he studied Philosophy4, especially Schopenhauer5, and he took an interest in music, especially the music of Wagner. And in 1872, when he was still a very young man, he published his first book which carried the title of The Birth of Tragedy. This was a short but very brilliant work of quite exceptional interest. During the next few years he published a number of other important works. But in 1879, when he was only 35, he resigned his University appointment, terminated his academic career, and thereafter he spent most of his active, that is to say his writing, life in Switzerland and in Italy.

As one reads the life of Nietzsche, despite his tremendous achievement in the field of philosophy, in the field of thought, quite brilliant, quite exceptional achievements, one cannot help feeling a little sad because Nietzsche's whole life from the time that he left the University was a life of intense, even increasing loneliness. He was completely on his own. There was, apparently, nobody, or at least hardly anybody who understood him or with whom he could be really friends, except in one or two cases just through the medium of correspondence. And he also had to suffer, more and more, very great physical pain. He wasn't a healthy person, and one of the scholars who have written about him has left a very moving, a very touching, portrait of Nietzsche and the way in which he used to live, this very lonely, this very secluded, very isolated life with continual mental and physical suffering. But despite all this, Nietzsche continued to write, and between 1883 and 1885 he wrote most famous and most popular work. And he continued writing until 1888, but he continued writing amidst increasing isolation and increasing physical suffering, sometimes quite unbearable physical suffering. Not only that, but there came to him, as a result of his work, hardly any recognition. When he published, for instance, the fourth part of Zarathustra, I believe only a few dozen copies were sold. Nobody seemed to take any notice at all of his writing, of his ideas, and so on. So he had no recognition, or at best just a very tiny, very faint glimmer of recognition, certainly nothing commensurate with the importance of his work. And then in 1889, Nietzsche became insane and he died, still insane, in 1900 at the age of 55. So such was the life, such was the work of Nietzsche.

Now I have referred already from time to time to Nietzsche's philosophy, but this is really a misnomer. The word `philosophy' doesn't really apply to Nietzsche's thought, or to his thinking as we perhaps ought to say. Nietzsche elaborated, he excogitated6, he struck out as it were a number of ideas, brilliant, illuminating ideas, and these ideas, certainly the leading ideas amongst them, hang together, they belong together. But at the same time, Nietzsche certainly ...

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