Building Bridges, Climbing Walls: On “Nietzsche and Other Buddhas”

September 23, 2019   •   By Rolando Pérez

Nietzsche and Other Buddhas

Jason M. Wirth

WE LIVE IN a divided world. Our politicians talk of either building walls so that others will not “invade us” or of creating spaces where diversity may bear fruit to new forms of life. Much of what reaches the general public is in the form of opinions espoused by either television pundits or social media celebrities. If in the past artists and thinkers — philosophers in particular — had a voice in the public sphere, that is certainly no longer the case. At some point, philosophy seems to have gone inward: it disappeared from the public stage and, among other things, it ceased to be concerned with the humans’ relation to the nonhuman world. True, to a large extent, the specialized, often incomprehensible, jargon-driven discourse of the philosophers themselves has contributed to this withdrawal. In the English-speaking world in particular, the disputed territories are between Anglo-American analytic philosophy and Continental (or European) philosophy. That, of course, leaves out a whole lot of philosophy that is not part of either tradition: African, Latin-American, or Asian philosophy, for example. For many mainstream philosophers of today, non-Western thought (putatively imagistic, mystical, mythological, and non-discursive) fails to constitute true “philosophy.” To give an example rather close to home, Latin-American philosophy is usually referred to just as “thought.” But “thought,” as James Maffie points out in Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion, is usually understood as something naturally possessed by everyone, whereas philosophy is thought to be a deliberate doing. Ironically, as Maffie points out, for all their implicit colonization of philosophy, Western philosophers have not been able to arrive at a consensus as to what philosophy “proper” is. Indeed, until relatively recently, they have not even considered meaningful parallels between Western and non-Western philosophy. And this brings us to the special import of Jason Wirth’s new book, Nietzsche and Other Buddhas: Philosophy after Comparative Philosophy.

In his latest book, Wirth does something different from what he did in his previous books, something specific and general at the same time, to which the entirety of the title alludes. First, it is the “comparison” between Nietzsche and this thing which goes by the name of “Buddhism” in the West. Wirth begins the book with a kōan: “Nietzsche and other Buddhas?” — a pairing that for the nonspecialist who has some general knowledge of both Nietzsche and East-Asian philosophy, at least on the face of it, may seem rather paradoxical. Yet, as Wirth explains:

Plenty of books have been written on the relationship between Nietzsche and Buddha Dharma as if comparison were an issue of weighing what one term of the comparison is, weighing the second term of the comparison, and then bringing them together in a third act of weighing and measuring.

Such an enterprise is further complicated by the fact that, as Wirth reminds us, “Buddha Dharma generally holds that there are no isms — there is not even Buddhism!” How, then, can you compare one with the other?

In concrete philosophical terms, one of the things that makes the comparison problematic — but positively worthy — revolves around Nietzsche’s affirmation of the self and the will (to power), and Zen’s negation of the same. While Bret W. Davis, for example, conceives of this difference as a “confrontation” between different conceptions of the will, Graham Parkes argues that such a confrontation does not exist, because for Nietzsche the ego is simply a fiction, and the will to power a manner of interpreting the world, not a force to exercise over others. As Wirth points out, Parkes is not alone in seeing Nietzsche’s conception of the ego in this light. For the Japanese philosopher Tanabe Hajime (1885–1962), Nietzsche’s egoism “is actually nothing more than a disguise.” However, the debate does not end there. In the Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Davis responded to Parkes’s “Open Letter” with a conciliatory article aptly entitled “Nietzsche as Zebra: With both Egoistic Antibuddha and Nonegoistic Bodhisattva Stripes.” Curiously, all of this debate takes places against the background of Nietzsche’s own negative pronouncements about the Buddhism he knew, most of which was aimed at Schopenhauer’s interpretation of the Vedas and the Buddha in The World as Will and Representation.

In any case, the point of Nietzsche and Other Buddhas is not to argue — in Western philosophical terms — for one position or the other. As Wirth writes: “I appreciate the force of both readings and note in agreement that neither Davis nor Parkes presents the conflicting strands as an ‘either/or’ but rather as a ‘both/and.’” What is positive about the comparisons and contrasts between Nietzsche and Zen is what they bring to light: “I settle […] for engaging a problem that gains new vigor when pursued in and between some aspects of the Japanese Zen tradition and Nietzsche’s inadvertent contribution to new ways of thinking in a contemporary Zen idiom,” writes Wirth. This “co-illuminating confrontation,” as he calls is, is the main “concern” of his book, which brings us to the more general aspect of the project that is invoked in its subtitle: the place of philosophy “after comparative philosophy.”

This broader aspect lends Nietzsche and Other Buddhas even greater significance as it points to a philosophy without walls. Wirth says the following of both Nietzsche and Zen:

Nietzsche challenged the conventions that govern how issues come to have philosophical value as well as the values by which we patrol the borders of philosophy. Given that Nietzsche’s experience of philosophy is a non sequitur from the prevailing practices of philosophy, one could not say that he derived his sense of philosophy […] from the status quo. […] Zen practice also does not originate from or primarily conduct itself in discursive activity.

And at the end of the introduction, Wirth again reminds us that his “ruminations” are meant to go beyond the traditional, East-West philosophical borders in order to illuminate the paths to new ways of doing philosophy.

Therefore, if rather than arguments what Nietzsche and Other Buddhas presents are different perspectives that one may or may not connect with, depending on one’s lived experiences, then we have moved away from a traditional conception of philosophy as an exclusively discursive practice. When Jason Wirth declares that he sees the debate between Parkes and Davis as one that calls for an “and/both” rather than an “either/or” response, I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s “disjunctive synthesis” of the “and … and … and,” and of the former’s rejection of “debate” and philosophical argumentation. But that is not surprising given that Wirth himself often refers to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of philosophy as emerging from “non-philosophy,” just as art emerges from non-art, and science from non-science. For instance, writes Wirth, “the true Dharma eye is not in itself philosophical, but it is related to the possibility of philosophy as such.” Such an understanding of philosophy undoubtedly takes philosophy out of philosophy departments, and makes it much more inclusive, while no less rigorous as an experiential practice encompassing both body and mind.

What, then, should philosophy be about “after comparative philosophy”? Certainly not about comparing “apples and oranges,” or about having to choose between different manners of living and thinking the world, but rather about a way of having differences illuminate each other. It is “not correct that Nietzsche is a Buddhist, although it still may be ‘true,’” says Wirth, in a way that returns to the kōan with which he began the book.

What is at stake for the future of philosophy after comparative philosophy, notes Wirth, “is not comparing and contrasting various philosophies but rather renewing a more philosophical commitment to exploring and unleashing the powers of philosophy,” and in doing so, I dare say, the power of love, for in the composite word philo-sophy, let us recall, the first part comes from the Greek word for “love” (philia). Deleuze was once asked why he only wrote books about philosophers he liked, to which he responded: if you don’t love something, you have no reason to write about it.

Jason Wirth has written a book that is the product of his love for both East-Asian and Western philosophy, and as such a book that bridges differences. In that respect, then, Nietzsche and Other Buddhas is an important book for an age marked by intolerance and disregard for the “other” (the environment, the immigrant, the non-gender-conforming individual), and where the love of thought, spirit, and body that is indeed philosophy has an important role to play.


Rolando Pérez is professor of Spanish and Latin American literature and philosophy in the Romance Languages Department of Hunter College. He has written on Nietzsche, Deleuze and Guattari, Badiou, and Latina(o)/Latin American philosophy (Las Casas, Martí, Dussel, Anzaldúa), and on the relation between philosophy and Spanish & Latin American literature. His creative writing has been featured in The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, and his latest non-academic publication is Tea Ceremonies for Winter (2018).