Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Nihilism, Cosmicism, and Nishitani’s Buddhism

In “Buddhists, Pessimists, and the End of Suffering,” I question how the Buddhist gets around the problem of nihilism or how she motivates altruistic choices from the enlightened standpoint, from which conventional life is illusory or wrong-headed, arising as it does from egoism or the attachment to the self. One Buddhist response to that question can be gathered from the Kyoto School, which was an early twentieth-century movement in which Japanese philosophers at Kyoto University grappled with Western philosophy, including existentialism. Specifically, Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness includes some instructive responses to my criticism of Buddhism.

Nishitani on Emptiness and Selflessness

Keiji Nishitani
Nishitani follows Nietzsche and Heidegger in pointing out that nihilism is the core problem for modernity. Western modernity is based on technoscientific progress, which threatens religious and moral dogmas, and that culture is also individualistic, which is to say self-centered. The human individual replaces God and regards all else as subordinate and comparatively insubstantial. Descartes provides the paradigmatic formulation of this dualism: given the philosophical foundation of self-consciousness, we have solipsism on the one hand and empty, soulless matter and mechanism on the other. With no divine source of prescriptions, the self-centered individual objectifies everything outside the self, treating them as means to fulfill the self’s goals, but those goals become arbitrary, or “subjective” and “relative,” as late-modern philosophers show. Eventually, the self, too, is objectified as the self-as-worker or as some other functionary becomes a tool of an amoral social system, such as a corporation or government. The Western modern is thus faced with the problem of nihilism. If nothing is intrinsically valuable, why value anything at all? What should the modern Western individual do?

Here Nishitani swoops in with the Eastern way of handling nihilism, and specifically with insights from Zen Buddhism and from a Zen critique of modern Western philosophy. Nishitani argues that Sartre’s atheistic humanism, for example, founders on his mere egoistic construal of the emptiness at the root of everything presented to consciousness. Here’s Nishitani on Sartre:
Nothingness in Buddhism is "non-ego," while the nothingness in Sartre is immanent to the ego. Whatever transcendence this may allow for remains glued to the ego. Sartre considers his nothingness to be the ground of the subject, and yet he presents it like a wall at the bottom of the ego or like a springboard underfoot of the ego. This turns his nothingness into a basic principle that shuts the ego up within itself. By virtue of this partition that nothingness sets up at the ground of the self, the ego becomes like a vast and desolate cave…Nothingness may seem here to be a denial of self-attachment, but in fact that attachment is rather exponentialized and concealed. Nothingness may seem here to be a negation of being, but as long as it makes itself present as an object of consciousness in representative form—in other words, as long as the self is still attached to it—it remains a kind of being, a kind of object. (33)
Nishitani calls that superficial nothingness “nihility,” distinguishing nihility from the nothingness encountered by the Buddhist who negates nihility, taking nihilism to its furthest limit and finding at that point not the arbitrary choice I posed, between despair and altruism, but an inevitable personal transformation into a benevolent being. Nishitani’s sense that nothingness is a wall for Sartre may mistake a methodological constraint for a moral failing, since Sartre is doing phenomenology, a rigorous description of how things appear to consciousness. In any case, for Nishitani, a more thoroughgoing encounter with nothingness than Sartre’s nihility
must rather be something that points to the realization of a "new man," that originates from the absolute negation of the "human." Our individual actions get to be truly "absolute" activities only when they originate from the horizon that opens up when man breaks out of the hermit's cave of the ego and breaks through the nothingness at the base of the ego; only when they become manifest from a point at which the field of consciousness, where actions are said to be "of the self, " is broken through, while all the time remaining actions of the self. (35)
Here and throughout the book, Nishitani compares Buddhism with Christianity, setting them up as having the answer to modern nihilism, in contrast to Western philosophy which needs to be critiqued from a religious perspective. Thus, the “new man” of the person who’s freed herself from the trap of self-attachment is similar to the born-again believer in God.

The question for Nishitani is what the world really looks like from a selfless “viewpoint,” where selflessness isn’t a moral condition but a psychological or metaphysical one. That is, what is a person like who no longer identifies with her mind? Indeed, what would such a person do who also no longer objectifies anything else, no longer treats phenomena as though they were implanted with souls too? For the Buddhist, everything is interdependent so we shouldn’t attach ourselves to the apparent forms of things in our experience. The ego is insubstantial, but so is everything else. As I say in “Is there Something rather than Nothing?” all things are human-made: “When we speak of finite things, we’re really praising ourselves for our conceptions of them, since it’s we who bind things in the act of understanding them. The limits of finite things are our cognitive limits.” For Nishitani, when we realize that everything is insubstantial or “empty”—that is, empty of independent, free-standing being or of dummy selves that secretly flatter our original sin of clinging to ourselves as our home ground—we exchange dualism for monism. We see that all “things” are one in their causal interdependence, and it’s from that universal, non-egoic standpoint that enlightened action flows.

Here’s an important passage in which Nishitani explains the Buddhist root of moral selflessness (my emphasis):
On the field of emptiness, then, all our work takes on the character of play. When our doing-being-becoming, when our existence, our behavior, and our life each emerges into its respective nature from its outermost extreme, that is, when they emerge from the point where non-ego is self into their own suchness, they have already cast off the character of having any why or wherefore. They are without aim or reason outside of themselves and become truly autotelic [self-directed] and without cause or reason, a veritable Leben ohne Warum [life without a why]. At bottom, at the point of their original, elemental source, our existence, behavior, and life are not a means for anything else. Instead, each and every thing exists for their sake, and each gets its meaning from its relationship to them, while they themselves are their own telos. To the extent that they become manifest at that point of their elemental source, existence, behavior, and life assume the character of play. (252)
The “suchness” of a thing such as a bird or a rock is what that thing is in its noumenal reality, independent of any ego-centric reduction. Mahayana Buddhism calls this suchness “Tathata,”and “Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana,” a fifth-century CE Chinese Buddhist text clarifies the fortunate nature of noumenal reality, which I’ll quote from at length (my emphases):
Suchness has two aspects if predicated in words. One is that it is truly empty (sunya), for this aspect can, in the final sense, reveal what is real. The other is that it is truly nonempty (a-sunya), for its essence itself is endowed with undefiled and excellent qualities…Suchness is empty because from the beginning it has never been related to any defiled states of existence; it is free from all marks of individual distinction of things, and it has nothing to do with thoughts conceived by a deluded mind…Any corporeal aspects that are visible are magic-like products of Suchness manifested in accordance with the mentality of men in defilement…The essence of Suchness is, from the beginningless beginning, endowed with the "perfect state of purity". It is provided with suprarational functions and the nature of manifesting itself (literally, the nature of making the world of object). Because of these two reasons it permeates perpetually into ignorance. Through the force of this permeation it induces a man to loathe the suffering of samsara, to seek bliss in nirvana, and, believing that he has the principle of Suchness within himself, to make up his mind to exert himself…From the beginning, Suchness in its nature is fully provided with all excellent qualities; namely, it is endowed with the light of great wisdom, the qualities of illuminating the entire universe, of true cognition and mind pure in its self-nature; of eternity, bliss, Self, and purity; of refreshing coolness, immutability, and freedom. It is endowed with these excellent qualities which outnumber the sands of the Ganges, which are not independent of, disjointed from, or different from the essence of Suchness, and which are suprarational attributes of Buddhahood.
We saw above and we’ll again see shortly how Nishitani adapts the ancient Greek concept of telos (of metaphysical purpose or normative potential) to that Buddhist formulation of the “permeation” of suchness even into the world of samsara, of illusion and suffering through ignorance. In any case, Nishitani goes on to say that enlightened activity is more like play than work, in that once attachment to the ego is dissolved along with its self-centered conceptions, everything is allowed to be what it really is. Being shines forth in the Heideggerian sense, and there are hints of Daoism, too, in Nishitani’s view of enlightened play as “spontaneity” or as letting the purpose within the self’s suchness flow. In Nishitani’s words (my emphases),
our being possesses for us the character of an obligation imposed on us, which our doing is constantly dissolving and working off [as in karma]…Shouldering the burden takes on the sense of play, and the standpoint appears from which we go forward bearing the burden spontaneously and of our own free will. The labor imposed, without ceasing to be an imposition, is transformed into play by arising spontaneously in an elemental way…This elemental spontaneity is but the standpoint of samadhi and its standpoint of non-mind, or of non-doing, both of which were mentioned above. Elemental spontaneity, true spontaneity, comes into being on a field where non-ego is self, where self emerges into its nature from non-self. (253-255)
Once everything is experienced as unified, given the recognized illusoriness of the self that imprisons itself with its objectivizing conceptions, the self that’s metaphysically one with everything spontaneously loves the world unconditionally, according to Nishitani (my emphases).
To open up such a field in the self is to love one's neighbor as oneself with the non-differentiating love that makes one "like unto God." The non-differentiating nature of love, and the equality it contains, consists of all others, each and every one without exception, being loved "as oneself." Furthermore, "as oneself" means making oneself into a nothingness in order to return to stand on the field where all things become manifest just as they are. It is here indeed that the love of oneself is broken down even in its most secret recesses. But it is also here, and here alone, that the mode of being of loving all others as oneself can come about. When that takes place, this "as oneself" comes about where each and every "other" has its being as other, namely, at its own home-ground; or again, where all things are gathered into one circuminsessional interpenetration as a "world" and "All are One." (278)
Nishitani elaborates (my emphasis):
The opening up of this field in the self means that the self, in the absolute negation of self-love, becomes a subjectum lying beneath all things at their service, loving each thing "as itself" on its own home-ground…Hence the standpoint on which one sees oneself in others and loves one's neighbor as oneself means that the self is at the home-ground of every other in the "nothingness" of the self, and that every other is at the home-ground of the self in that same nothingness. Only when these two are one—in a relationship of circuminsessional interpenetration—does this standpoint come about.
Notice, finally, the appeal to telos in this explanation, which presumably adapts the Mahayana concept of suchness (my emphasis):
If this is what loving one's fellow man as oneself is, it follows that the field where that love obtains is in fact not simply a field of the love of fellow man, a love between men; but must be a field of Love toward all living beings, and even toward all things. It must never cease to be a field where man himself can stand. And yet it is not a field given only to the human or to human relations. Here the self departs the standpoint of the autotelic person and takes up a vantage point where it can see its telos in all others and see itself as a thing (Sacbe) that is completely a means for all other things. (279-280)
Buddhist vs Cosmicist Enlightenment

As far as I can tell, then, Nishitani’s answer to my challenge would be that in the state of samadhi, which is the experience of everything’s oneness, egoism is inverted: we become morally selfless because we no longer think we have narrow-minded selves that could be the source of selfish actions. We identify with the world as a whole, which lets “our,” that is, the universe’s intrinsic power, purpose, or suchness flow through us, in which case we view ourselves as an interconnected means to the fulfillment of the universe’s overall end; instead of being selfish by way of narrow-mindedness, we become altruistic, albeit playfully so, since we experience ourselves as servants to the will of nature or to the sublime whole which might be identified with God. Enlightened benevolence must be selfless not in any psychological sense of being mentally chosen by the isolated individual, but in the sense of arising spontaneously from the universe as a whole through the individual. The universe is allowed to work through the enlightened person only when that person recognizes the emptiness of self-centered attachments and of all self-serving conceptions, and identifies with the universal order that’s hidden in plain sight. In short, the Buddhist needn’t be stuck with nihilism or with a groundless choice between despair and altruism, because the universe as a whole (by way of its suchness, telos, or permeation) supplies the enlightened drive towards benevolence. The Buddhist’s benevolent playfulness, as it’s depicted, for example, in fictional characters ranging from Yoda to Master Oogway (from Kung Fu Panda), who are based on Buddhist tales of monks and masters is effectively miraculous.

To lay out my problem with this Buddhist response, I’ll compare samadhi and Nishitani’s account of nothingness or universal emptiness, to what I’ve called the aesthetic stance. Suppose, for example, you witness a murder: one person shoots a bystander with a gun. Ordinarily, you may have the following reactions: sadness for the victim, fear for your safety, shock at the extraordinariness of the situation, and anger at the killer, perhaps even a desire to avenge the victim by calling the police or attacking and subduing the killer yourself. From the Buddhist’s or Daoist’s perspective, these are all self-centered reactions, since they presuppose the practical, ignorance-based logic that holds between things in so far as they’re conventionally conceived. Most importantly, these reactions assume the victim differs from the killer and from you, the witness, whereas the enlightened experience is of everything’s interdependent arising. There is no victim or killer, since those conceptions are empty. The suchness or noumenal reality of those two is a sublime non-thing that encompasses the entire universe, including you. So for Nishitani, rather than feeling ambivalent or trapped by anxiety in the face of the unreality of rational conceptions, an enlightened Buddhist would react spontaneously and playfully to that murder. Just picture what Yoda or Oogway would do, but perhaps without the overt, exaggerated miracles.

Now consider the aesthetic interpretation of the murder. If we extend the scope of aesthetics, as I’ve argued we should, we can imagine that the enlightened aesthete would likewise eschew the self-centered reactions, as she would when viewing paintings in an art gallery. If the world is treated as though it were such a gallery, this aesthete will likewise focus on the intrinsic features of the event, on the bark of the handgun, the thudding in the aesthete’s chest as her heart races, and the way the blood spatters, catches the light and is blown by the wind. In both cases, then, we have a lack of self-centeredness, although that’s not to say both views are equally monistic, as I’ll clarify in a moment. Of course, the aesthetic interpretation of an event is ordinarily at least indirectly self-interested and profane, as it were, since when viewing art you temporarily suspend your personal preoccupations to enjoy or learn from the experience. But here we’re assuming a mystical kind of aesthetics: we’re imagining someone who’s trained to appreciate the aesthetic qualities in everything and who’s lost trust in mundane kinds of self-interest. She’s enlightened in a non-Buddhist manner. To this extent, then, Buddhist nonduality and mystical aesthetics are similar.

Nishitani’s Buddhism distinguishes itself, though, with its normative characterization of the universal reality that’s supposed to work through the enlightened person. Presumably, then, the Buddhist witness to the murder would respond helpfully in some fashion rather than, say, by aiding the killer and shooting other innocent persons. In so far as the extension of aesthetics is meant to recover respectable values on the basis of philosophical naturalism and is thus consistent with the cosmicist upshot of modern science and Western philosophy, as it is in my account, there’s no such benevolent purpose in nature as a whole. On the contrary, when that Chinese Buddhist text says, “Suchness in its nature is fully provided with all excellent qualities,” including “the light of great wisdom…eternity, bliss, Self, and purity” as well as “refreshing coolness, immutability, and freedom,” even Nishitani should have to agree that that’s a conspicuous lapse into anthropocentrism. To endow the universe as a whole with those qualities is to personalize nature. This animism proceeds by mental projections that are familiar from our childhood, when we talk to invisible friends and treat inanimate objects as though they were alive, whereas the enlightened Buddhist is supposed to have outgrown those techniques for reinforcing the delusions that arise from ignorance. It’s one thing to say the enlightened person feels wise, blissful, pure, and free, but it’s another to say the rest of the universe feels the same way.

No, a more naturalistic philosophy will be dualistic in the sense of being grounded in rational methods which objectify whatever they help explain. The widespread result is indeed the modern problem, part of which, at least, Nishitani recognizes: the problem is Western egoism which confronts us with the threat of nihilism and which destroys the ecosystem and justifies various other catastrophes such as war, the subordination of women to men, the consumer’s infantilization, and so on. However, with Nishitani we can follow the later Western philosophers, such as the existentialists, in condemning those outcomes. Instead of doing so on the basis of Buddhism, though, we can look for resources in naturalism and elsewhere, as I’ve done. So instead of entertaining the Buddhist or Daoist conviction that universal reality is fortunate, benevolent, or at least redemptive—that is, instead of conceding that the universe’s endpoint will justify all of our suffering in ignorance and madness or that the universe is divinely striving to reach a wise and loving goal—I maintain with biologists, cognitive scientists, and naturalist philosophers that subjective qualities are rare, not universal, since they’re based on the evolutionary development of the brain. Therefore, the rest of the universe in its deepest reality is inhuman or at least hardly familiar to any of us. Fear of the universe, therefore, is the natural response, since we fear the unfamiliar as a potential threat, evolving as we did in an environment in which the nonhuman frequently threatened us in the form of predators, diseases, natural disasters and the like.

How, then, would the aesthetic stance contribute to an enlightened state of mind? Wouldn’t such a witness to the murder bumble into harm’s way, lost as she is in aesthetic contemplation of the nuances of the event and ignoring the moral or practical implications? Certainly, if all she had in mind were aesthetic considerations, as though she were a robot programmed to treat stimuli purely as art, she couldn’t sustain her mode of life, let alone seem an enlightened being. For example, she wouldn’t sleep or feed herself and might wander into the path of the killer’s gun. But again, we’re supposing this aesthete is programmed also, as it were, with at least the totality of my philosophical writings as well as with some understanding of the scientific worldview and of Western philosophy. In that case, she doesn’t just experience the world as art, but judges that world according to whether the art is creative or clichéd. The former kind of art inspires, the latter appalls and disgusts. The shooting of an innocent person due, say, to the killer’s psychopathy or to his selfish desire to rob the victim would be clichéd, animalistic art, since it would evoke the billions of times wild animals have hunted and killed persons during the rise of our species. Moreover, the murder would be a person’s creative act and would thus have to be judged in view of our potential to respond honourably to the universe, given our common existential situation of being thrown into a world that doesn’t care about us as we do. In that case, the aesthete would doubly condemn the killer for also failing to appreciate the tragedy of that situation. On the basis of those aesthetic values and that naturalistic philosophy, the aesthete would side with the victim against the killer and act accordingly. The enlightenment would consist in the lack of religious or moral delusions in her thinking.

Now, Nishitani will say this science-centered philosophy doesn’t overcome nihilism, since Cartesian dualism and technoscientific instrumentalism lead inevitably to the loss of values. I think not, as I’ve argued elsewhere. Aesthetic values (and their extension for philosophical purposes) are abundant, since nature and clever primates are supremely creative, and those values are consistent with scientific objectivity since both artistic judgment and scientific investigation flourish when we detach from our parochial concerns. In any case, I charge Nishitani, Mahayana Buddhism, Daoism, as well as ancient Greek myths and Aristotelian philosophy with encouraging the embarrassment of anthropocentrism. Science is the colossal hammer that flattens that sin into absurdity.

But there’s another problem for Nishitani. He wants to say that religions complement science and philosophy, by providing the answer to nihilism. On the contrary, Western religions and particularly Christianity, at least, are infamous for having been part of the problem. From the wild hypocrisy of early Christianity’s allegiance with the Roman Empire to the consequent corruption of the Catholic Church to the wars between Protestants and Catholics to the abomination of late “Christianity” in the United States, if anything Christianity contributes to nihilism, as Nietzsche explained. Christian supernaturalism is nihilistic since that religion grounds values in unreality (in a divine realm supposedly beyond nature), which indeed motivated Descartes’ substance dualism. The rest of the universe is an amoral machine since God created the world to serve us, according to monotheistic myth. The audacity of those theistic posits set up the Western world for disaster, since when we looked into the heavens and found only more nature, not any angels or gods or souls, whereas we’d been indoctrinated for centuries to worship a supernatural (extraterrestrial) order and to obey commandments issuing from that order, we were shocked and threatened with despondence. Beginning with the Renaissance, the modern age reckoned with that humungous error of Western religions by leapfrogging the Christian Age and turning for inspiration to the secular bounty of ancient Greek culture.

At this point, Nishitani might hasten to distinguish between what we could call exoteric and esoteric or mystical religion. Exoteric religion consists of noble lies for the unenlightened and is thus part of samsara. To that extent, the failures of Christianity, for example, may indeed have contributed to Western nihilism. But Christian mysticism comports with Zen Buddhism and with Daoist wisdom, and it’s on that common ground that Nishitani would stand. My response would be that to the extent that mystical traditions are anthropocentric rather than cosmicist, I don’t think they're sufficiently wise. Again, the fact that religious mystics feel emotionally fulfilled when they experience paradoxical, nondual consciousness or when they appreciate the universe’s unity doesn’t show that the universe in general has that emotional fulfillment, exhilaration or goal at its core. The Buddha is still an embodied animal with a brain. As interconnected as the universe may be, that doesn’t establish that a tree can fly like a bird or that the moon is a star or that a breathing person could be as lifeless as a rock on Mars. If that Buddhist doctrine of oneness isn’t to collapse into gibberish, the interconnections must be causal and thus natural and rationally confirmed. Cosmicism rather than anthropocentrism follows, as does property dualism, which is to say some consideration for nature’s broader inhumanity. After all, those causal connections establish, for example, the blood-brain barrier as well as the neocortex's overview of the conscious products of the brain's other functions, which protect the emergent mind or self. Moreover, there’s a naturalistic, even secular form of mysticism which is also available. This is the kind of loose pantheism that awes physicists and mathematicians as well as many Western philosophers, including me.

Buddhist vs Cosmicist Humility

But let’s return to the main question. How does the Buddhist avoid nihilism, given her skepticism about the conventional, self-centered standpoint? According to Nishitani and Mahayana Buddhism, the universe as a whole feeds the Buddhist a direction in life; the universe acts through the enlightened person, because her suchness or noumenal foundation shines forth once the illusions are disposed of. Regardless of the Buddhist’s religious experience, which I assume is genuine rather than a fraud, this explanation of Buddhist enlightenment is dubious in light of scientific understanding of nature. Just because a Buddhist learns to be spontaneous after shaking off her egoistic routines, doesn’t mean the rest of the universe outside our galaxy has anything to do with her playfulness, nor would the quantum foam or the Big Bang singularity express its unity more fully in her deeds than in any other set of events; the loss of human arrogance and conventional myopia are surely not that powerful. Indeed, the appeal to playfulness betrays the unfalsifiability of these Buddhist and Daoist ideas: to say that the Buddhist avoids nihilism by playing is to say there’s no predicting what she’ll do. Maybe the Buddhist witness to the murder would indeed pick up a gun and start shooting. She wouldn’t do so for mundane selfish reasons, but maybe she’d do so for the universe’s reasons, and who but another playful, inscrutable, Yoda-like fellow could gainsay the universe?

I reject the notion that realistic enlightenment consists of an experience of oneness with literally everything. No, Gautama Buddha didn’t know what the whole universe is or why it’s here and where it’s going. He certainly didn’t learn those truths by meditating and becoming less arrogant. Here we can compare Buddhist humility with the cosmicist kind. A Buddhist like Nishitani says the universe works through the enlightened person, and this humbles her since the Buddhist realizes she counts for nothing by herself, the dualistic concept of the self being illusory. The cosmicist says the universe is at odds with our species, since we struggle for life whereas most of the universe is metaphysically indifferent about whether we survive or go promptly extinct, and this humbles the cosmicist because she realizes her parochial concerns are foolish in light of the common horror of our existential predicament. Now, to say that the Zen Buddhist might resort to some playfulness is to admit this enlightened individual may not be consistently selfless, after all. And how could she be if she believed she’s a special agent of a universal whole that has those divine characteristics of wisdom, bliss, freedom, and so forth? Arguably, recognizing the natural antagonism between life and nonlife is a more reliable basis for humility, since the cosmicist (the philosophically-informed and duly-disgusted and horrified naturalist) understands she’s destined to lose in that struggle. The universe is our master since natural causality slays us all and makes us fools in the end. That’s humbling!

But as Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and the existentialists intuited, that unsentimental science-centered philosophy is also an inspiration for avoiding nihilism. Dualism between self and world doesn’t entail that all values are nonsensical or futile or that we ought to be social Darwinians or Randian egotists. There can be no straightforward argument in that direction, because of the naturalistic fallacy. That’s why we naturalists have to get our values indirectly, and it’s why I do so by turning to the aesthetic, artistic stance. In any case, struggling against nature, as natural creatures that evolved with godlike traits of rationality and creativity can just as easily be a source of camaraderie and honour as one of libertine selfishness. The difference-maker is the depth of our understanding of the existential issues, and this is where Buddhism is most instructive, I think, since Buddhism has an extensive story to tell about how ignoble suffering is caused by delusions which in turn are caused by blindness to the big picture. Nishitani’s worry is that this unsentimental philosophy is likely to terrorize us, but we shouldn’t blame the messenger, nor should the philosophically-inclined take comfort in Daoist or Buddhist substitutes for God. Philosophy and science may need to be supplemented with religion, but the religion doesn’t have to be preposterous, nor should religion be counted on for a rationalization for amorality, as with the Zen or Daoist notions of playfulness and spontaneity.


  1. Have you read Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities by Robert Morrison? If not, I highly recommend it. Buddhist philosophy has been so syncretized with Indian and Chinese thought that it is now impossible to be utterly certain what the Buddha originally taught, but Morrison offers a more interesting interpretation than most; even if he's wrong, that book was worth reading. You may also want to examine what is known as Critical Buddhism. It seems that the concept of an original, ublemished and enlightened 'Buddha nature' may not have been part of Gautama's original teachings, but was a later development (possibly inspired by Confucian and Taoist notions of innate goodness).

    In any case, I agree that there is no reason why shedding the human ego should make anyone more compassionate or buddha-like (it's more likely to simply lead to apathy, which is my own experience). I suspect that, through the doctrine of dependent-origination, Buddha may have been attempting to expand the notion of self to encompass all life rather than simply eliminate it. Self-love is not just the root of human evil, but human compassion as well. It's our capacity to project our own psychological states onto others which allows us to to relate to them and it is our regard for our own well-being which allows us to love others as much as we love ourselves. Take that human tendency too far and you get animism, but the scientistic objectivication of life has, I think, led to something far less innocent than the naive psychological projections of our pre-enlightenment ancestors. The Buddhist doctrines of anatma and the five skandahs foreshadowed Descarte's notion of living automota; Buddhism simply did the rational thing and declared humans to be just another animal, as souless and evanescent as every other phenomena. Morris Berman's The Reenchantment of the World suggests that what we need now is a higher synthesis of those two perspectives if our species is going to survive 'progress',

  2. I think it's well-established that Mahayana Buddhism reflects later developments and doesn't always go back to the original kind. The difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism is like that between Shia and Sunni Islam, regarding their views of scripture. The question is whether later texts in the tradition--written after the founder's death--count as authoritative. Mahayana Buddhists add sutras to the original canon, including sutras on "Buddha nature" and so forth, which sound Daoist to me in certain respects. Mind you, I don't claim to be an expert on Buddhism.

    I agree it's plausible that motivated selflessness depends on self-interest, so complete detachment from the ego would lead likely to apathy or to random, arbitrary "playfulness." Later Buddhists seem to have realized that original Buddhism is liable to lapse into nihilism, so they introduced Daoist or Shinto metaphysics (or sentimentality?) to save the day: the world's nature is already benevolent, so the selfless Buddhist just needs to tap into primordial Being to obtain the right direction in life.

    No, I haven't read that book on Nietzsche and Buddhism, but it sounds interesting indeed. Judging from a couple of reviews I found online, it seems that Morrison wants to rehabilitate Nietzsche as a Buddhist with a way out of nihilism (will to power), contrary to the Kyoto School; conversely, Morrison would want to rehabilitate the Buddha as an Ubermensch.

    On the surface, at least, Nietzsche's view is that Buddhist compassion is nihilistic (i.e. unnatural), just like Christian compassion and flagrant supernaturalism. But Nietzsche was likely reacting more to Schopenhauer's interpretation of Eastern philosophies than to Buddhist texts themselves. I don't know how many Eastern texts Nietzsche read directly, but what he really opposed was the ascetic withdrawal in fear or disgust from natural reality.

    In any case, I don't see much point of going back to Nietzsche's ethics in detail, since his view of how to become an Ubermensch is hardly systematic. He was wrestling with social Darwinism and with some visionary aesthetic ideals. I've tried on this blog to flesh out the latter while mostly ditching the former (alpha male psychopathy).

    One of the book's reviewer's says, "Rightly understood, the goal of Buddhist spiritual practice is not to annihilate desire. Buddhism seeks the transformation of desire from egocentric clinging to compassionate action." My question is likely one Nietzsche would want to ask: How does the Buddhist avoid nihilism, given her sterling naturalistic reductions? Why should the Buddhist be compassionate? What motivates it other than some type of clinging? An example of such clinging would be pity for deluded folks who still suffer due to ignorance. So how can a Buddhist be a Bodhisattva without adding much to original Buddhism? I haven't found a convincing answer, which is why I wanted to quote some Mahayana Buddhist texts at length above to show how they make good on their claim that Buddhism is the solution to Western nihilism.

    No culture has an exclusive claim on nihilism: the threat of nihilism is universal because nihilism derives from the methods of scientific investigation (or from those of rationality/philosophy in general), which are universal.

  3. I think the primary source of nihilism for artists is just the realization that art is ultimately pointless like our entire species. That's our existential predicament which science makes clear. Our species will go extinct and every trace of what we've done will be obliterated (unless we acquire transhuman power and immortality).

    The artist's ego does seem to dissolve in the flow state, as happens also for the athlete and anyone else who gets lost in a favourite practice. The "aesthetic enlightenment" I'm talking about is the view that all real values are only aesthetic, so that creativity becomes ultimately important--creativity, for example, in solving our political, economic, environmental and existential problems.

    The enlightenment aspect is the replacement of delusive rationales for values (such as exoteric religious ones) with more honourable, less embarrassing ones that align with philosophical naturalism. The mystical experience here would be a vision of everything purely as art. My next article might clarify this, since I think I'll follow up by focusing on a comparison of Buddhist monism with the aesthetic ontology I have in mind.