Friedrich Nietzsche is without question infamous for, among many other things, how much he despised Christianity.  Especially significant, as many also know, is Nietzsche’s portrayal of Jesus in contrast to the Pauline version of the faith that energized and proliferated the widespread religion of Christianity that Nietzsche knew and that people still see today.  The villain for Nietzsche is not Jesus but Paul of course.  No doubt Nietzsche’s view of both Christianity and Jesus has been substantially called into question,[i] but it simultaneously has served to correct some less than praiseworthy attributes of the Church in some cases, and to hold the faithful accountable in others.[ii]  In addition, significant attention has been given to Nietzsche’s analysis of Buddhism as compared to Christianity.  While Nietzsche’s clearly regards the former to be more realistic, he still considers both to be nihilistic and decadent.  Others have also wondered about the degree to which Nietzsche’s depiction of Buddhism is consistent with authentic Buddhism – it may depend on which Buddhist tradition is being considered.  This is partly of what will be considered in this essay.

What is discussed less often, however, is the extent to which Nietzsche’s selective picture of Jesus parallels his (mis?)characterization of the Buddhist worldview.  Hence, what will be conducted here is an overview of how Nietzsche construes Jesus of Nazareth, placed alongside of a synopsis of his appreciation and understanding of Buddhism.  A short assessment and response will follow.  Less background in Buddhism than Christianity is assumed on the reader’s part, so a very basic and pithy overview of the features of Buddhism that are related to Nietzsche’s treatment of it will be supplied in necessarily broad strokes before drawing any conclusions.  Beforehand though, it will be useful to give a short account of what Nietzsche says about two of the other great world religions.


The Law of Manu is considered to be words of Brahma recorded in the Dharmasastra tradition of Hinduism.  As such, for many it has an authoritative tone.  The Bible, as we have already seen, can only be used for bad purposes according to Nietzsche: “negation of life, hatred of the body, the degradation and self-violation of humans through the concept of sin,” but Nietzsche gets the opposite feeling when he reads the law book of Manu (AC 56).[iii]  For this reason, Nietzsche regards it as a far superior work.  The main reason for this is because it permits the noble classes to embrace and defend their privilege.  In other words, it preserves the natural order – the order that Christianity corrupts.

Via an approximate application of the cast system, Nietzsche maintains that three main levels of society should exist.  The highest class consists of those who are the most “spiritual” and therefore the “strongest,” which is essentially to say that they are the most knowledgeable (AC 57).[iv]  This group is small.  The second class is also strong, but more so in the physical sense.  This level includes the vanguards of the law – those like the king, the judges, soldiers, and anyone who works to ensure protection and security of the political order.  These actors behave in accordance with the interests of the first class – the nobility.  Lastly there is the mediocre caste, which makes up the vast majority.  It might be acceptable to name these people the laborers.  They are the farmers, traders, factory workers, and even many of the artists.  To summarize what Nietzsche means here, “Everyone finds his [or her] privilege in his [or her] own type of being . . . [m]ediocrity is needed before there can be exceptions: it is the condition for a high culture.”[v]  Said another way, rights are only privileges.  Thus, injustice – as opposed to Christianity’s notion of injustice – only arises when rights are demanded as warranting equality for all, which disrupts the necessary social ladder.  This happens, for instance, when “chandala-apostles” – those promoting Christian values (chandala refers to the lowest caste rung in some Indian societies) – challenge the otherwise happy and modest sentiments of the mediocre class by encouraging them to expect equality and act with ressentiment, or revenge and envy.

Though this might sound politically incorrect at best or like outright discrimination and prejudice to many modern readers at worst, it would perhaps be too simplistic to completely dismiss Nietzsche’s argument without further consideration.  The word “mediocre” is not meant to have the same derogatory connotation that people today typically associate with it.  It is rather simply describing the way life is for Nietzsche as he observes it.  The description coheres with what Nietzsche believes is instinctive and natural.  Religion as reflected in books like the Law of Manu merely serves to authorize or normalize what has already been true throughout human history.  It is not mean to necessarily be explicitly evaluative.  What Nietzsche judges to be misleading, however, is the extent to which such teachings are presented as having been inspired by a higher power once and for all rather than developed and superimposed after much reflection and experimentation on the part of rulers, priests, and other elites.

So while Nietzsche appreciates the more realistic philosophical underpinnings of the Indian traditions he knew, they still posed a threat to the good of European society because of what Nietzsche determined to be a renunciation of the world in their thought:  “Knowing him, the Atman, Brahmans relinquish the desire for posterity, the desire for possessions, the desire for worldly prosperity, and go forth as medicants.”[vi] According to Richard Brown, Nietzsche “falsely regarded Hinduism (Brahmanism, Vedanta), like Schopenhauer, as singularly life-denying.”[vii]  Indian philosophy in general was seen by Nietzsche as essentially pessimistic, supporting the ascetic denial of the will.  Because Nietzsche read Shopenhauer, it is likely that that he understood the text of the Bhagavad Gita as a predominately non-dualistic or Advaitic variety following Sankara.[viii]  As such, Nietzsche equates the concept of maya with the unreal and illusion in general, which is textually inaccurate.[ix]  Ironically, as what will be highlighted below concerning Buddhism, it has been suggested that maya resembles something similar to Nietzsche’s will to power.

In a similar vein, Nietzsche believes Islam to be a “lesser evil” compared to Christianity, and for analogous reasons.  Muslims assert noble values through masculine instincts, for example, and say “Yes” to life in this way (AC 60).[x]  More specifically, Nietzsche expresses admiration for Islamic culture, which Europe lost when the Moors and the Jews were expulsed from Spain.  Christians were sure to take their riches, which empowered their propagation in Europe and beyond (to the “new” world) even more than Nietzsche acknowledges.  Lastly, Nietzsche complains about how this money was used by the Church to buy German aristocratic support over the centuries.


            The first issue Nietzsche addresses in this second portion of The Anti-Christ is the notion of the “psychology of the redeemer.”  Particularly problematic for Nietzsche is Renan’s concept of Jesus’ type as a “genius” or “hero,” which Nietzsche calls  “unevangelical.”  Jesus’ teachings negate struggle and immoralize the “capacity for resistance” according to Nietzsche (AC 29).[xi]  Thus the world that matters is completely internalized.  The eternal kingdom lives inside each of us.  Consequently, Nietzsche says Jesus promotes 1) a hatred for every kind of reality, and 2) an understanding of natural instincts like reluctance, aversion to pain, and self-preservation as inherently harmful.  These two principles lay the groundwork for the doctrine of redemption, which Nietzsche also describes as a “refined development of hedonism,” and somewhat related to Epicureanism (AC 30).[xii]  Pleasure or bliss then, as Nietzsche reads Jesus, can only comes by adopting love for all, even enemies.  This is the religion of love that inevitably develops as a result of the fear of pain.

In this way, Nietzsche challenges Renan’s depiction of Jesus as a “fanatic of aggression” and as a “mortal enemy” to the priests and the theologians of the day (AC 31).[xiii]  Instead, Nietzsche insists that the redeemer psychology is a “childlike” faith – not a “hard-won faith” (AC 32).[xiv]  And this respect it seems, Nietzsche associates Jesus more closely with the teachings of Buddhism, which as we’ve seen he holds in slightly higher esteem.  Hence, Nietzsche sees Jesus committing to a faith that is not formulaic, and certainly not combative.  Jesus is an anti-realist, so the Last Super, or language about the “Son of Man,” or the “Kingdom of God” for instance, only functions allegorically and is limited by the Jewish religious context.  In Nietzsche’s reading, everything Jesus believes as “true” is just an inner light – nothing solid.  He is a “free spirit.”  Thus, dogma is only symbolism, in spite of every crude ecclesiastical temptation to suggest otherwise.  Indeed, Nietzsche calls Jesus “the great symbolist” (AC 34),[xv] implying that the outer, material world is just that – a symbol, nothing more.  It’s a symbol that can tell us something about the world that truly matters, which is the inner world.

Doctrines like the Trinity, or even the personhood of God, are complete inventions and without base in “the redeemer,” according to Nietzsche.  Furthermore, Jesus’ knowledge is “stupidity” concerning worldly systems and structures like religion, culture, or the state.  Guilt, punishment, sin and hope for reward are apparently absent from the mind of the “evangel” (AC 33).[xvi]  The blessedness of the “glad tidings” announced by Jesus is not conditional by Nietzsche’s rendering – meaning, not a promise.  It’s a fully realized way of relating to the world in the present – of practicing and acting, not believing (e.g., having no enemies, not showing favoritism, letting one’s “yes be yes,” and not getting angry).  This kind of life would make a person feel divine, eternal, and perfect.  This is what Jesus means when he promises “paradise” for the thief on the cross.  To take an example, Nietzsche claims that the word “father” expresses this feeling itself, and the word “son” represents the “entrance” into that feeling (AC 34).[xvii]  Furthermore:

“Atonement and praying for forgiveness are not the way to God: only the evangelical practice leads to God, in fact it is ‘God’ – What the evangel did away with was the Judaism of the concepts of ‘sin’, ‘forgiveness of sin’, ‘faith’, ‘redemption through faith’ – the whole Jewish church doctrine was rejected in the ‘glad tidings’” (AC 33).[xviii]

In sum, the psychological reality of redemption consists solely in material and interior rather than otherworldly terms.  Jesus promises nothing about afterlife in Nietzsche’s view.  It is this life that matters – a new life, not a new faith, which is everywhere and nowhere as an experience of the heart (AC 34).[xix]  John Charles Evans has shed light on Nietzsche’s Jesus in very positive terms: “The abolition of sin in deference to conceptions of living and acting is a dramatic and critical interpretation.  It connects Nietzsche’s Jesus, not only with life affirmation, but also Nietzsche’s concept of ‘beyond good and evil.’  Nietzsche ascribes to Jesus the concept of value creation through living rather through the pursuit of a higher moral code.”[xx]  The suggestion that Nietzsche understands Jesus as life affirming might be somewhat a misinterpretation here.  It is fair on the other hand to highlight Nietzsche’s appreciation of Jesus’ value creation.  Jesus just doesn’t create the values that Nietzsche is convinced are best for people, but Nietzsche is willing to admit that Jesus’ spiritual program is a viable option.

A Christian might immediately object and reply that Jesus at least appears to directly and intentionally oppose the political powers and religious leaders of his day, but Nietzsche doubts whether Jesus was even conscience of or concerned about this at all, leaving some readers to suspicious of Nietzsche’s hermeneutical key.  It is not the concern of this essay to analyze at any length the exegetical problems posed by Nietzsche’s rendering of Jesus. Nietzsche was surely aware of the discrepancies between his construal and that found in Gospels; he just thought that the psychology of the disciples and the first followers would reconcile the differences.


A Very Brief Philosophical Background

“It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of ‘knowing the truth.’” – Richard Rorty[xxi]

Nietzsche rejects Hegel’s dialectical unfolding of historical progress with hierarchical stages in the world (though Nietzsche does seem to maintain that there is an inner logic at work in history, a process and a dynamism, as Hegel did).[xxii]  But his revaluation of values can be expressed in positively Hegelian terms insofar as he negates a negation, for he considers Christianity as the ‘revaluation of all the values of antiquity.’”[xxiii]  And this double negation does not lead back to the same place, but beyond – beyond pessimism and optimism, and even theism and atheism.

Nietzsche is far more concerned about the individual, however, and takes a psychological approach in his work more than that of an attempt to conduct a totalizing synthesis of history.  As Gianni Vattimo has put it, Nietzsche is convinced that “seeking metaphysical consolation in essences and the rational structure of the universe was characteristic of an enfeebled and decadent culture.”[xxiv]  In this manner, Heidegger paints a stark picture of Nietzsche:  “The suprasensory world is without effective power.  It bestows no life.  Metaphysics, i.e., for Nietzsche, Western philosophy understood as Platonism, is at an end.  Nietzsche understands his own philosophy as the countermovement to metaphysics, and that means for him a movement in opposition to Platonism.”[xxv]  Consequently, Nietzsche rejects the root idea that morality is in place with its source in something transcendent.  And even if some metaphysical reality existed, and one could somehow know it, such knowledge would be useless for Nietzsche.[xxvi]

Nietzsche criticizes Kant for drawing what Nietzsche thinks is an epistemological boundary line, but Nietzsche misunderstands Kant on this point, as Kant only means to make a limit distinction.  So Nietzsche really accepts Kant’s view of the empirical limitations of knowledge in a certain sense, but vehemently disallows for any kind of faith – a position at which Kant never arrived – as faith for Nietzsche would only reflect human misguided desire instead of anything about truth.

The trouble with the enlightened thinkers then, irreligious as they may be, is that they still conceive of reality in a two-world framework.  The Socratic pursuit of knowledge about reality is their chief objective and is presumed to lead to happiness.  Like Hume before him, Nietzsche understands reason to be a slave of the passions.[xxvii]   Bearing this in mind, once one has detected the “human, all too human” foundation of metaphysical systems, there is nothing remaining on which to stand.  Nietzsche has perhaps moved the farthest away from Descartes at this point.  And to a significant degree, Nietzsche has followed Leibniz’s awareness that human perceptions and beliefs are not always conscious, and certainly that they are not static; nor is reality dependent upon these thoughts, though on the other hand we are constantly being shaped by them.  Nietzsche “thus helps us take seriously the possibility that there is no central faculty, no central self, called ‘reason.’”[xxviii]

Nietzsche adheres to Feuerbach’s admonition that Gods are the result of a projection of unconscious human qualities,[xxix] by assuming that “religions are created by humanity according to perceived spiritual needs.”[xxx]  Nietzsche goes further than Feuerbach though, because Feuerbach is still conceiving of a common humanity.  As soon as humanity is universalized, Nietzsche is appalled.  Instead Nietzsche inverts Feuerbach by individualizing this truth.  God can no longer be the idealized objectification of the best possible human being because, not only is there no such agreed-upon human being, but the Christian God would be antithetical to the kind of God Nietzsche would idealize.  The only common nature is that some are strong and others are weak.  Epistemologically then, it begins to become clear why Nietzsche shares more with Buddhism or Hinduism than Christianity.

Nietzsche on Buddhism

Buddhism presupposes a very mild climate, extremely gentle and liberal customs, the complete absence of militarism, and the existence of higher, scholarly classes to give focus to the movement.  The highest goals are cheerfulness, quiet, and an absence of desire, and these goals are achieved.  Buddhism is not a religion where people only aspire to perfection: perfection is the norm (AC 21).[xxxi]

As mentioned above, Nietzsche does judge Buddhism to be superior to Christianity, as it is situated beyond good and evil, departs from morality and has no conception salvation from sin or sin itself for that matter: “This is the main distinction Nietzsche makes between the two nihilistic religions: Buddhism has no ground in ressentiment against life whereas Christianity – or, as we might say, Christendom – is a product of it.”[xxxii]  By confronting the reality of suffering, Buddhism is at least for Nietzsche not dishonest.  It doesn’t manipulate suffering or purport to overcome it in a Christian fashion by conjuring up a masochistic redemption or heavenly reward story a result of innocent death and sacrifice.  It has no ‘idea’ of God, and as such is phenomenological and positivistic rather than metaphysical (AC 20).[xxxiii]  Prayer, asceticism, and compulsion are absent.  Buddhists do not hope for any eschatological or judgmental triumph – unlike Christianity, whose values are otherworldly.  They concern themselves instead with living the present life.

Nietzsche cites the Buddhist maxim, ‘enmity will not bring an end to enmity,’ which illustrates well the difference between Buddhism and Nietzsche’s experience with Christian ressentiment.  On the other hand, this notion discloses some of Buddhism’s anti-instinctive tendencies in Nietzsche’s view, like the suppression of the self and the ego. Nietzsche wants to overcome resistance more so than self (AC 2).[xxxiv]  Preventing trouble by not acting – what a terrible way to live, Nietzsche might charge. It is withdrawal for Nietzsche, fatigue of civilization having grown too sensitive to pain.  Furthermore, Nietzsche is troubled by the aversion to suffering demonstrated by both religions.  Suffering for Nietzsche is not to be feared or escaped, nor sought, but utilized.  It is an opportunity (BGE 201).[xxxv]  Nietzsche gives his diagnosis of Buddhism and its perspective on suffering as follows:

Buddhism has two physiological facts that it has always kept in mind: first, an excessively acute sensitivity that is expressed as are refined susceptibility to pain, and second, having lived all too long with concepts and logical procedures, an over-spiritualization that has had the effect of promoting the ‘impersonal’ at the expense of the personal ones. These physiological conditions give rise to depression (AC 20).[xxxvi]

“According to Nietzsche, both Christianity and Buddhism define redemption as the absence of suffering.”[xxxvii] What is problematic for Nietzsche is that, like Christianity – even though it does so in a more natural way – Buddhism gives itself the disease for which it claims to be the cure.  It is too weak, Nietzsche would say, to truly welcome suffering as that which life entails.  Buddhists rightly see that the condition of suffering itself must be accepted.  But that is precisely where they stop and turn to seek Nirvana, which for Nietzsche is the life of enlightened self-interest – just not in a noble way.[xxxviii]  Nobles are not afraid.  Accordingly, the Buddha has to come up with all kinds of tricks:

The Buddha took hygienic measures against this [depression], including: living out in the open, the wandering life, moderation and a careful diet; caution as far as liquor is concerned; caution when it comes to all affects that create bile or raise the blood temperature; no worrying about either yourself or other people.  He insists on ideas that produce either calm or amusement – he comes up with methods for phasing out all the others.  He sees goodness and kindness as healthy (AC 20).[xxxix]

Nietzsche is convinced that the same process he sees happening in Europe already occurred with the Buddha five centuries before “the European calendar.” The age of idealism had reached an end there as well, leading to the depression described above.  Nietzsche is proposing an alternative solution – one that does not end with the move from “Christian conscience” to “scientific conscience,” the latter of which interpreted history with “divine reason” (GM iii. 27 – he quotes The Gay Science here).[xl]  Instead, because “all great things destroy themselves by an act of self-cancellation” – a reference to the Hegelian dialectic – the “will to truth” itself has become aware of its own problem (GM iii. 27).[xli]  And with this Nietzsche is able to conclude the following about suffering: “Man, the bravest animal, the one most accustomed to suffering, does not deny suffering in itself.  He desire it, he seeks it out in person, provided that people show him a meaning for it, the purpose of suffering.  The curse that earlier spread itself over men was not suffering, but the senselessness of suffering – and the ascetic ideal offered him a meaning!”  Thus, Buddhism for Nietzsche is exactly what he has predicted for Europe: “man will sooner will nothingness than not will . . .” (GM iii. 27).[xlii]  None of this will do for Nietzsche, since humanity is better off with “I will” rather than “thou shalt” (Zarathustra, 60-64):[xliii] “The world seen from within, the world described according to its ‘intelligible character’ – it would be ‘will to power’ and nothing else” (BGE 36).[xliv]

Nietzsche’s Alternative

Insofar as will to power relates to freedom, it is not freedom from [suffering, for instance, out of fear] but freedom to – freedom to act and realize oneself.[xlv]  This is what Nietzsche does not find in Buddhism.  Though they both have an ambition for a kind of self-overcoming, their respective motivation and means are incongruent.  And while an extensive excursus on the will to power cannot be done here, it should at minimum be clarified that the idea does not denote a superficial, corrupt idea of power that leads to ruthless evildoing, for example.  It is rather an “enobling” of the mind for Nietzsche.[xlvi]  The truly powerful as he sees it would never intentionally harm, as that would be a display of weakness.  Harm could happen, but only as a byproduct of creative enactment.[xlvii]  This is why some artists and philosophers can be considered by Nietzsche to be the most valuable, powerful people, while barbarians for him are some of the weakest, most uncultured, and least valuable.[xlviii] At the same time, the will to power is more than a “struggle for existence” as Darwin has it; it is what drives enhancement, growth, and the generation of life.[xlix]

No less important is the idea of the will itself as a type of desire for improvement and not just the fulfillment of any fleeting impulse.[l]  As Rorty has argued in his interpretation of Nietzsche, “The drama of an individual human life, or of the history of humanity as a whole, is not one in which a preexistent goal is triumphantly reached or tragically not reached.”  Self-overcoming in Nietzsche’s mind therefore is something definitely divergent from Christian redemption and Buddhist enlightenment.


Whereas orthodox Indian religions claim that every person has an eternal soul (atman) as part of the metaphysical absolute of Brahman, the Buddha denied the existence of any such eternal or immutable spiritual essence.  The principle end for Buddhism is the cessation of suffering and rebirth, which is defined negatively, but the path is construed positively, aiming to fulfill humanity’s potential for goodness and happiness.  The final and highest goal is the summum bonum of Nirvana, which literally translates to “quenching” or “blowing out,”[li] but Nirvana does not have an unambiguous, fixed meaning.[lii]  Though the means by which one reaches Nirvana is often assumed to be by way of virtuosity, living morally as such is considered by some Buddhist scholars to actually be a hindrance. [liii]  This is because it reproduces karma, which binds one to the cycle of rebirth. Hence it can be explained instead that virtue and wisdom – a profound philosophical understanding of the human condition – are fused together in Buddhist thought.  The latter, however, seems to takes precedence.

Concerning wisdom, what must first be acknowledged and embraced is the truth of suffering (Dukkha).  There are different levels of suffering though ranging from sickness, pain, and grief to not getting what one wants and discovering a lack of control of one’s environment.  It’s not that pleasures and fleeting enjoyments are ignored in Buddhism, or even unappreciated, but the futility of pleasant moments is definitely underlined.  Addiction to the desire for these moments and experiences is what causes reincarnation.  Even a pain-free life can be incredibly unsatisfying.  The teaching here is not implying that all desire is bad.  It is “bad” only when excessive or perverted, described as Tanha (greed, hatred, delusion – not unlike ressentiment). Buddhist sources also speak of desire in more positive terms as chanda.[liv]  This understanding of desire, however – which evokes the idea of wanting to reach a particular goal, for instance, like Nirvana itself – departs from Nietzsche’s rendering of the primal instincts.

Cravings and thirsts are inevitable, but what must be remembered in the Buddhist universe is cyclic change, whereby everything that exists is characterized by unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), impermanence (annica), and the absence of self-essence (anata).[lv]  Thus the burning flame of these cravings and thirsts must be put out.  It should not be inferred that Buddhism is a suicidal route to annihilation, however – though one can see why this might be deduced by Nietzsche or anyone else opposed to nihilism.[lvi]

The eightfold path, which is the fourth noble truth, is intended to exhibit how a Buddhist would live, and how one would eventually become like the Buddha and reach irreversible liberation from worldly existence, or samsara.  It is comprised of three kinds of practices and categories that steer between indulgence and austerity: morality, mediation, and wisdom. Beginning with wisdom, one develops the right understanding and resolve.  In morality, right speech, action, and livelihood are cultivated.  This is achieved by right effort, mindfulness, and meditation.[lvii]

The word Mahayana specifically means the “Great Vehicle.”  It is the universal way to salvation.[lviii]  This immediately poses a problem for comparison to Nietzsche, since he would be bothered, if not scandalized by the audacity of universal and salvific claim.  As will be noted below, however, Nietzsche was primarily exposed to Theravada Buddhism and apparently was not as familiar with the role of a bodhisattva.


It has been argued by Jay Garfield that through the Mahayana tradition, one can see Nirvana not as an escape from the world but as an enlightened and awakened engagement with it.[lix]  Correspondingly, Garfield finds resemblance between joyful participation in the world seen as divine play in Mahayana Buddhism and the will to power.  If this is the approach one wishes to take is evaluating Nietzsche’s interpretation of Buddhism, however, the same could be said of various types of Christianity – one in which followers orient themselves around the kingdom of God as a reality to be realized here and now, for instance, rather than a personalistic focus on individual salvation for the life hereafter or evacuation to heaven.  Zen Buddhism especially, because it so stresses monism, has some equivalence with “beyond good and evil.”  Even Zen presents difficulties though, with its quasi-Kantian understanding of language itself as dualistic.  Nietzsche does not have the same confidence in a referent.  What appears is all there is.[lx]

It has been concluded that Nietzsche probably studied primarily texts from the Theravada tradition rather than the Mahayana, because the former tend to be more focused on the phenomena of Buddhism’s historical origin, which was Nietzsche’s interest, and he had access to sources for both.[lxi]  Moreover, we know that Nietzsche read Hermann Oldenberg’s book Buddha, which provides further corroboration for this theory.

In his comments noted above about Buddhism, it could be inferred that Nietzsche is submitting something like the following: “For those not strong enough to respond to this challenge of the open sea, the appeal of a cheerful and refined nihilistic and non-theistic religion like Buddhism might be irresistible.”[lxii]  It is evident from a personal letter to his friend, Carl von Gersdorff, that Nietzsche himself was perhaps tempted by and struggled with the lure of obtaining tranquility in life through the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom as the very drive for the will to live, as this ideal is comparable to Nietzsche’s comprehension of Nirvana.[lxiii]

Buddhism is a particular renounced form of nihilism for Nietzsche – a passive nihilism in fact.[lxiv]  Nietzsche thought this nihilism could be overcome.  While this overcoming eliminates the categorical imperative, utilitarianism, or any universal justice, Nietzsche was only a nihilist himself insofar as this is taken to mean that he intended to abolish the old “lies” in order to make room for creating something new and an “increased power of the spirit” (WP 22).[lxv]  The Buddha in some sense for Nietzsche may have done a noble act by coming up with the Dhamma teaching to help others not necessarily overcome their psychological despair, but relate differently to their recognition of life’s meaninglessness in such a way that cheerfulness rather than depression constitutes one’s attitude toward this perceived emptiness.  It can be and has certainly been argued that Buddhism is one feasible way of responding to existential Angst.  It serves to overcome insecurity and “incompleteness” by equipping persons to cheerfully welcome their annihilation after death.[lxvi]  Indeed, some have even posited that if Nietzsche would have had access to more profound elaborations on the depths and varieties of Buddhism, and particular its notion of citta-bhavana, which is rooted in humanity’s psychological makeup, he might have even considered the Buddha himself to be an Ubermensch.  As the argument goes, Buddha, unlike some of his followers, advocated a practical, spiritual path of which the purpose was to “become such as can see things as they really are.”  From this point of view, there is admittedly some analogy to Nietzsche’s project.  What Robert Morrison has put forth, for instance, is the explanation that transcending consciousness leads precisely to a new level instinctual being, or something like the governing nature to which Nietzsche says we must be true.

Is not this instinctual existence, however, of which Morrison speaks, more akin to what results after the Christian concept of the sanctification process has begun, whereby a person “puts on” the character of Christ and is conformed to “God’s image”?  Though with difficulty at first, a person is eventually thought to develop his or her own identity more fully, confidently, and determinately, as it should be.  And while this is obviously a different notion than that of Nietzsche’s primordial, animal nature that must be retrieved and embraced, it is not as drastically counter to Nietzsche’s idea of self-overcoming as he lets on.  But ultimately, whereas Buddhists are striving on the whole and in general to overcome selfhood, ambition, desire – that is, disentanglement from natural or default instincts (i.e., Nietzsche’s view of instinct) – doesn’t Nietzsche’s unequivocally digress from this, if not directly opposes it?  It is true that both Nietzsche and Buddhists can speak of mastering desire or instinct to a certain degree, and perhaps this is where they share some inhabitance.

The Buddhist, however, is not to be concerned with or “fettered” by the “wrong views” of other religions (or miccha-ditthis).[lxvii] Nietzsche, on the other hand, is transparently disturbed by Christianity’s “wrong views.”  In other words, one could submit that Nietzsche is much more “evangelistic” than any good Buddhist ever could be.  In the additional ending to the AntiChrist, Nietzsche even advises very coercive, legal measures that should be taken against the practice of Christianity for the greater good of society.[lxviii]

If Nietzsche had a genuine precursor in Spinoza, why not wonder whether he defended a new Dionysian, pantheistic religion much like what Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani said was similar to the standpoint of Meister Eckhart, who speaks of ‘living without why, within the Godless desert of divinity’?”[lxix]  This might seem like a stretch, but Graham Parkes makes the case that Nietzsche comes close to Mayana Buddhism, which he didn’t know as well, with ideas like amor fati and the Dionysian as the overcoming of nihilism.[lxx]  Later on in his career, however, under the influence of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche (Nashitani studied with Heidegger), Nashitani himself was much more critical of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and in particular of the will to power, thereby problematizing Parkes’ theory.    

A bodhisattva is one who refuses to enter Nirvana until all beings have become enlightened.  This sounds remarkably like Zarathustra at the beginning of the Nietzsche’s book.  But while Zarathustra proclaims his love for humanity, he is not striving for the realization of self-emptiness through interrelatedness with all things – regardless of how naturally his existence gives way to an overflowing “generosity and re-engagement with the world.”[lxxi] In a limited respect, Nietzsche does order an outlook of the world as divine, but whether this makes him a Mahayana Buddhist is another question:

For Zarathustra, as long as human beings feel themselves subordinated to transcendent forces in the form of divinities, they will lack confidence in their own will to create.  But if they are able to face up to the impermanence of ‘becoming’ and fully engage the cycles of death and rebirth and destruction and creation that characterize the world of a deity like Dionysus, such self-overcoming will allow the force of the creative will to work at play – perhaps even dance – through them . . . atheism is merely a provisional stage in the transformations of the human spirit.[lxxii]

This argument citing Zarathustra provides perhaps the best support for identifying any parallels between Nietzsche and Buddhism.  Both Nietzsche and figures like the Daoist sage or the Zen master are unified to an extent in their alignment against anthropomorphism, in saying “Yes” to cosmic life, in underscoring the tremendous contingency of human existence, and in their affinity with the Buddhist teaching of ‘dependent arising’ (pratitya-samutpada), which emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things and the consequent ‘emptiness’ of any ‘self-nature’ to them.”[lxxiii] Furthermore, as was noted before about Nietzsche’s appreciation for the caste, the modern, secularized Christian idea of human “rights” and equality before God is absent in these philosophies.

Andre van der Braak has framed Nietzsche’s revaluation of values as a reinvention of a soteriological scheme, albeit after for a post-theistic age, in place of the perverted Christian one.[lxxiv]  The need for redemption is a sign of decadence for Nietzsche, as has been noted already.  But what if “being healed from a spirit of revenge and resentment is how Nietzsche envisions redemption, where all life is considered to be justified and worthy of ecstatic affirmation . . . embracing passionately the horrifying reality of eternal recurrence”?[lxxv]  In this light, redemption is seen as neither a static state nor endpoint but a process of functioning without the friction of the conscious ‘I’:[lxxvi]

The crucified innocent one (EH) is a condemnation of life for the sake of redemption in the afterworld.  The suffering of Dionysus on the other hand, is a natural and ecstatic expression of the fullness and richness of life, not an objection to life but its celebration.  Therefore there is no need to give it a meaning beyond itself.  It is part of life, and does not need any further justification . . . The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering: he is sufficiently strong, rich and capable of deifying to do so.[lxxvii]

Thus van der Braak too tries to assimilate Nietzsche to another take on Buddhism, or visa versa.  At the same time, he points to several major weaknesses, only in this case he does so via the Christian tradition, remarking and confirming once more that Nietzsche does in fact take insist on a different outlook toward suffering.  In several places, it is apparent that van der Braak can’t help but recognize the difficult truth that Nietzsche is unable to sufficiently deal with the horror of suffering, specifically in the Nazi death camps.  Van der Braak cites an implicit reference to a theology of the cross analogous to Moltmann’s crucified God as the best Christian response.


Nietzsche is adamant about the importance and centrality of being governed by natural instincts in a way that much Eastern thought would shun.  But in the same way that Nietzsche grossly misrepresents the nature of Christianity and Jesus’ teachings on occasion, so too is there little reason to doubt that he does the same with Buddhism, and drawing attention to these mischaracterizations is a constructive and necessary exercise.  It is also probable that Buddhism and Christianity are made into straw men for Nietzsche at times.  In certain light, it can be shown that far less conflict exists between these various ideologies than Nietzsche is inclined to concede.  Is it not reasonable to suspect that Nietzsche partially fed off of this antagonism?  This notwithstanding, and while I profess no expertise on Buddhism, it is nevertheless quite speculative in my view to recommend that Nietzsche himself be understood as having elicited anything remotely congruent to the kernel of historical Buddhism or Christianity in his concepts like the will to power, eternal recurrence,[1] or the Ubermensch[2] – as vast and diverse as the Christian and Buddhist streams are.

What can be asserted, however, is something to which has already been alluded – namely, that Jesus and Buddhism mirror each other substantially in Nietzsche’s study.  It is they who are the worthy competitors with the AntiChrist, and who present plausible redemption plans.  This is a sign of respect.  Christianity on the other hand, is straightforwardly condemnable.[lxxviii]  One could summarize by delineating things thusly: About Christianity, Nietzsche abhors both its form and content, though that content as Nietzsche saw it was not spelled out in any detail here.  Regarding Jesus and Buddhism, however, it is content rather than form that troubles Nietzsche.  The form is that of which Nietzsche approves.  The reason is that both Jesus and the Buddha were more interested in incarnating practices than dogmatizing systems of belief, and concerning this very limited formulation – without saying anything more – it is perhaps safe to concede that Nietzsche is right.

[1] “Eternal recurrence” has not been touched on here, and it is often a neglected theme in Nietzsche’s work, so at least a terse summation is needed: “if one affirms one’s own life in its becoming, one can come to affirm it as worthy of infinite repetition despite the lack of this-worldly or other-worldly compensations,” (Hill, Nietzsche, 88.).  This is subtle but not insignificant distinction from Buddhism’s cyclical philosophy of both the world and rebirth.

[2] Against an allegedly reductionist image of Nietzsche offered by Habermas, who regards Nietzsche as representing an impasse of extreme subjectivism one view of Nietzsche’s ubermensch (overman) as portrayed by Vattimo is depicted as an affinity with revolutionary movement: See Gianni Vattimo and William McCuaig, Dialogue with Nietzsche (Columbia University Press, 2008), 91-92.

[i] Kent A. Heimbigner, “Nietzsche on Christianity: a baptismally informed analysis,” Logia 13, no. 1 (January 1, 2004): 35-45.

[ii] Merold Westphal, “Nietzsche as a theological resource.,” Modern Theology 13, no. 2 (April 4, 1997): 213.

[iii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche: The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols: And Other Writings (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 56.

[iv] Ibid., 57.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Robert G. Morrison, Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities (Oxford University Press, USA, 1999), 17.

[vii] Jim Urpeth and John Lippitt, Nietzsche and the Divine (Clinamen Press Ltd., 2000), 163.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, 63.

[xi] Ibid., 29.

[xii] Ibid., 31.

[xiii] Ibid., 28.

[xiv] Ibid., 29.

[xv] Ibid., 34.

[xvi] Ibid., 30.

[xvii] Ibid., 31.

[xviii] Ibid., 30.

[xix] Ibid., 31.

[xx]  John Charles Evans, “Nietzsche on Christ vs. Christainity,” in Soundings 78 (1995): 571-88. 575.

[xxi] Harold Bloom, Friedrich Nietzsche (Infobase Publishing (Facts on File/Chelsea House), 1987), 196.

[xxii] Walter Arnold Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton University Press, 2002), 240-241.

[xxiii] Ibid., 112.

[xxiv] Gianni Vattimo, Nietzsche: An Introduction, 1st ed. (Stanford University Press, 2002), 23.

[xxv] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays (Harpercollins College Div, 1977), 61.

[xxvi] Morrison, Nietzsche and Buddhism, 12.

[xxvii] Frederick Copleston, History of Philosophy, Volume 5 (Image, 1993), 288.

[xxviii] Bloom, Friedrich Nietzsche, 202.

[xxix] Urpeth and Lippitt, Nietzsche and the Divine.

[xxx] Jason Rappoport, “Rav Kook and Nietzsche: A Preliminary Comparison of Their Ideas on Religions, Christainity, Buddhism and Atheism,” in The Torah u-madda Journal no. 12, (January 2004): 102.

[xxxi] Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, 17.

[xxxii] Morrison, Nietzsche and Buddhism, 28.

[xxxiii] Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, 17.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 4.

[xxxv] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, Unabridged. (Dover Publications, 1997).

[xxxvi] Nietzsche, Nietzsche, 18.

[xxxvii] Andre van der Braak, “Nietzsche, Christianity and Zen on redemption,” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 18, no. 1 (January 1, 2008): 7.

[xxxviii] Morrison, Nietzsche and Buddhism, 26.

[xxxix] Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, 18.

[xl] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo (Vintage, 1989), 160.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Thus spoke Zarathustra: a book for everyone and no one (Penguin, 1961).

[xliv] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.

[xlv] Kaufmann, Nietzsche, 186.

[xlvi] Ibid., 194.

[xlvii] Ibid.

[xlviii] Ibid., 196.

[xlix] Ibid., 246.

[l] Kevin R. Hill, Nietzsche: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2007), 72.

[li] Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, USA, 2000), 55.

[lii] Braak, “Nietzsche, Christianity and Zen on redemption,” 11.

[liii] Keown, Buddhism, 46.

[liv] Ibid., 53.

[lv] Ibid., 54.

[lvi] Ibid., 56.

[lvii] Ibid., 58.

[lviii] Ibid., 60.

[lix] Braak, “Nietzsche, Christianity and Zen on redemption,” 13.

[lx] Michael McGhee, “The Turn Towards Buddhism.,” Religious Studies 31, no. 1 (March 1, 1995): 73.

[lxi] Morrison, Nietzsche and Buddhism, 7.

[lxii] Ibid., 14.

[lxiii] Ibid., 15.

[lxiv] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (, 2010), 17.

[lxv] Ibid.

[lxvi] Morrison, Nietzsche and Buddhism, 224.

[lxvii] Ibid., 217.

[lxviii] Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, 66-67.

[lxix] Urpeth and Lippitt, Nietzsche and the Divine, 182.

[lxx] Ibid.

[lxxi] Ibid., 183.

[lxxii] Ibid., 187.

[lxxiii] Ibid., 190.

[lxxiv] Braak, “Nietzsche, Christianity and Zen on redemption,” 5.

[lxxv] Ibid., 8.

[lxxvi] Ibid., 12.

[lxxvii] Ibid., 10.

[lxxviii] John Charles Evans, “Nietzsche on Christ vs. Christainity,” 572.


Bloom, Harold. Friedrich Nietzsche. Infobase Publishing (Facts on File/Chelsea House), 1987.

Braak, Andre van der. “Nietzsche, Christianity and Zen on redemption.” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 18, no. 1 (January 1, 2008): 5-18.

Copleston, Frederick. History of Philosophy, Volume 5. Image, 1993.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Harpercollins College Div, 1977.

Heimbigner, Kent A. “Nietzsche on Christianity: a baptismally informed analysis.” Logia 13, no. 1 (January 1, 2004): 35-45.

Hill, Kevin R. Nietzsche: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum, 2007.

Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton University Press, 2002.

Keown, Damien. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, USA, 2000.

McGhee, Michael. “The Turn Towards Buddhism..” Religious Studies 31, no. 1 (March 1, 1995): 69-87.

Morrison, Robert G. Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities. Oxford University Press, USA, 1999.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Unabridged. Dover Publications, 1997.

———. Nietzsche: The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols: And Other Writings. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

———. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Vintage, 1989.

———. The Will to Power., 2010.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Thus spoke Zarathustra: a book for everyone and no one. Penguin, 1961.

Urpeth, Jim, and John Lippitt. Nietzsche and the Divine. Clinamen Press Ltd., 2000.

Vattimo, Gianni. Nietzsche: An Introduction. 1st ed. Stanford University Press, 2002.

Vattimo, Gianni, and William McCuaig. Dialogue with Nietzsche. Columbia University Press, 2008.

Westphal, Merold. “Nietzsche as a theological resource..” Modern Theology 13, no. 2 (April 4, 1997): 213.