Bergson, Buddha and other fruits

Karma – the Ripening Fruit
Bhikkhu Ñāṇađivako
from Main Currents in Modern Thought, Vol. 29, No. 1 (1972)


With the decline of Newtonian physics and the emergence of quantum theory and relativity, the physical world-picture in the West became centered around a process-concept. Natural sciences and nineteenth century scientifically oriented philosophy were in quest of new criteria that could be better adjusted to their specific aims than the crude causal interpretation of the whole world, “with its men and gods” (as the Buddha would say) in bare analogy to “dead matter” in its macroscopic common-sense aspect. This was the end of the stiff mechanistic absolutism based on the substance-view, and the corresponding conception of causality as the universal pattern of blind determinism in nature. The dominant role of physics was about to be replaced by a prevalently biological orientation. This at least was the tendency of the new vitalistic philosophy, whose most preeminent representative was Henri Bergson.
By this essential turning, modern philosophy seemed to return to pathways that closely, though not explicitly, resembled certain specific features of Buddhism, which have arisen out of different contexts and much earlier in time. The first to advert to this analogy explicitly, in the terms of a new philosophy of culture, was Friedrich Nietzsche. The idea of his “eternal recurrence” of cosmic and historical cycles, taken over from early Greek philosophy, was not sufficient for his dynamic “transvaluation of all values.” Yet the way from the early Ionian world-view to the Indian heritage in the dissolving civilizations of the Near East—out of which ultimately the Ionian Renaissance had arisen—was not very long. Thus Nietzsche discovered in the teaching of the Buddha an archetypal model for his own vitalistic attitude in philosophy. His interpretation of Buddhism became a paradoxical counterpoint accompanying Nietzsche’s antithetic position to Christianity.
Despite its rather strange position in the structure of Nietzsche’s own thought, his interpretation of Buddhism is neither vague nor unauthentic. Nietzsche found his access to Buddhism through the basic text of The Dhammapadam (probably Fausboll’s masterly Latin translation of 1855, the first in Europe). In Chapter I, 5, the Buddha is quoted as saying: “Enmities are never appeased by enmity, but they are appeased by non-enmity. This is the eternal law.” In Nietzsche’s interpretation, this statement is “the moving refrain of the whole of Buddhism … and quite rightly: it is precisely these emotions ‘of resentment’ which would be thoroughly unhealthy with regard to the main dietetic objective,” since Buddhism “no longer speaks of ‘struggle against sin’ but, quite in accordance with actuality, ‘the struggle against suffering.’” Suffering is in Nietzsche’s existential interpretation “a state of depression arisen on the basis of physiological conditions: against this depression Buddha takes hygienic measures.” The Buddha was a “deep physiologist, whose ‘religion’ should more properly be called a ‘hygiene’ … whose effect depends on the victory over resentment: to make the soul free from it—this is the first step towards health. ‘Enmity is not ended by enmity’ … this is not a moral advice, this is an advice of physiology.”

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