“Diversions assuage the sense of our miseries, only by causing more real and substantial misery, for more than any thing else, they prevent self-reflection, and cause our time to elapse unnoticed. Were it not for them, we should be weary of ourselves, and this weariness would lead us to seek for some more effectual method of relief. But diversion deceives and amuses us, and brings us to the grave by imperceptible advances.”- Blaise Pascal, Pensees.
Moving forward in the Western philosophical tradition we arrive at Friedrich Nietzsche who remarks on Buddhism in The Antichrist. Clearly his focus there is a complete repudiation of Christianity – a religion he believes praises weakness, condemns power, and discounts life in this world in favor of a sham afterlife in a non-existent divine realm – for him a nihilistic creed. But he contrasts it with Buddhism – still seen as nihilistic and decadent – but more realistic, free of the myth of God, and “the only genuinely positivistic religion in history.” 1
Nietzsche notes that instead of urging a struggle against sin, Buddha targets a struggle against suffering. He praises Buddhism for the absence of the self-deception of morality, noting “it stands beyond good and evil.”2 In his view, Buddhism originates in response to two realities: (1) excessive sensitivity to pain and (2) over-spiritualization and subordination to the impersonal. These lead to depression which the Buddha treats with ‘hygienic measures’ such as open air living, moderation, and cessation of worry. Prayer, asceticism, compulsion, monasticism, and conflict with nonbelievers are discouraged. Buddha, in Nietzsche’s opinion, “fights with a rigorous attempt to lead back even the most spiritual interests to the person. In the Buddha’s doctrine, egoism becomes a duty, ‘the one thing needful,’ the question ‘how can you escape from suffering?’ regulates and limits the whole spiritual diet.”3
Unlike Christianity which is a response to the suffering of barbaric man’s cruelty, Nietzsche sees Buddhism as a response to suffering related to late man’s excessive sensitivity and susceptibility to pain. Buddhism is thus more truthful and objective; suffering and pain are not made “respectable by interpreting them in terms of sin – it simply says what it thinks: ‘I suffer.’ ”4 Barbaric Christianity requires an exegesis and the devil.
So Nietzsche recasts the First Noble Truth; suffering is due to over-sensitivity, but is effectively existential – a blunt fact of a mature human’s subjectivity. In elegant words he offers his view, contrasting the Greek tragic worldview (he identifies as Dionysian) with Christianity:
“Life itself, its eternal fruitfulness and recurrence, involves agony, destruction, the will to annihilation. In the other case, suffering – ‘the Crucified One as the Innocent One’ – is considered an objection to this life, as the formula of its condemnation. Clearly the problem is that of the meaning of suffering: whether a Christian meaning or a tragic meaning. In the first case, it is supposed to be the path to a sacred existence; in the second case, existence is considered sacred enough to justify even a tremendous amount of suffering. The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering; he is sufficiently strong, rich, and deifying for this; the Christian negates even the happiest life on earth; he is sufficiently weak, poor, and disinherited to suffer from life in any form. The God of the cross is a curse on life; a pointer to seek redemption from it; Dionysus cut to pieces is a promise of life; it is eternally reborn and comes back from destruction.” 5
1Kaufmann, Walter (editor), The Portable Neitzsche. Penguin Books, New York, NY, 1976. ISBN 978-0-14-0150629, page 587.
3Ibid. Page 588.
4Ibid. Page 590.
5Ibid. Page 459.