Schopenhauer and Buddhism

My current project is writing a paper on Schopenhauer and Buddhism for presentation at the workshop on “Reception of Buddhism in German Culture,” which will be organized at Chulalongkorn University next month. So this is something I have been thinking for a while.

This led me to go back to Schopenhauer’s “The World as Will and Idea” translated by Haldane and Kemp. The copy from the library that I borrowed is so worn out that it literally crumbles when I open it, so I have to take a rather special care of the book. Moreover, the book has been eaten quite a lot by boring insects. So there is a lot of dust deposited by the book wherever I put it down. So reading it is quite an experience.

As is well known, Schopenhauer expounds that idea that the ultimate reality that underlies what we perceive is the will. The will manifests itself through our body; Schopenhauer said that the body itself is the objectification of the will. What this means is that the will, being the ultimate driving force behind reality, comes to be perceptible empirically only through its action of the consciousness that recognizes itself when it engages in a thought process directed at something. Since only human beings are capable of this action, Schopenhauer says that the will reveals itself through our own (as conscious human beings) act of willing, that is, thoughts, desires, or movement of the consciousness toward something else. And since Schopenhauer has argued earlier that material reality itself is ultimately speaking projection of the individual mind, material or external reality is just a picture that the will puts up. The world is at the same time both “will” and “idea”. It is “idea” in the sense of something directly perceptible as one thing rather than another. It is the same with Locke’s view. The German term for this is Vorstellung, which is perhaps better translated as “representation.” But somehow Haldane and Kemp translated as “idea” so we are stuck with this term in the book.

So the idea of the paper is that I will compare this with the Buddhist teaching, especially Nagarjuna’s view on Emptiness. The will and Emptiness are the same in that they are supposed to be ultimate reality. But there the similarity ends. Nagarjuna himself stated emphatically that Emptiness itself is empty, in that one should not reify Emptiness itself and take it as just another form of ultimate reality. On the contrary, “Emptiness” is just a name for whatever reality that is there for us, only when it is not conceptually or linguistically fabricated. There is absolutely no distinction or difference between Emptiness and perceptible reality. Schopenhauer’s will, on the other hand, has the characteristic of always driving and striving. This is lacking in Emptiness.

This is all for now. I’ll certainly come back to this later.


6 thoughts on “Schopenhauer and Buddhism

  1. Cittasamvaro January 25, 2009 / 1:23 pm

    I have a book by ~Naanajiiako Bhikkhu called Schopenhauer and Buddhism if you are interested. It is quite small, and I can’t remember what was in it.
    I did a lot of work on Buddhism and Wagner – he developed the understanding of Buddhism from the very crude and misguided Schopenhauer interpretation to something very accurate. This became the opera Parsifal. We did a big(ish) presentation of the idea with the Goethe Institue, with one of the German professors invited to the conference you are presenting at -Dr Dieter Borchmeyer.
    I might be able to attend on the Saturday afternoon.

  2. soraj January 25, 2009 / 5:23 pm

    Thanks a lot. We look forward to meeting you at the workshop this weekend. The paper is already finished and I can send it to you if you like.

  3. thanatologist June 20, 2009 / 6:27 am

    Greetings; a very difficult topic you’ve ventured into 😉

    First, I’d like to say that Schopenhauer did not interpret Buddhism and then write his magnum opus; he already formulated his metaphysic long before he was ever exposed to the Upanishads. So, if you are assuming that ‘Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung’ is a development of Buddhist concepts, you are mistaken.

    Second, I don’t recall him ever equating ‘the Will’ with ‘nothingness’, or perhaps the term was mistranslated; this is very easily done since there are so many German words that cannot possibly be translated into English. However, he does equate ‘the Will’ it with illusion, and vapidness, while the absence of Will is a sublime state, and is very difficult to achieve; it requires a well-developed discipline and a high level of intellectual capacity.

    Third, ‘Idea’ is the best technical term in which to translate Vorstellung, because Schopenhauer is using the Platonic interpretation of the term, which means something different outside of Philosophy. Language changes in meaning over time, and now vorstellung means ‘representation’ but that was not true during Schopenhauer’s time; it was clear that it was a reference to Platonic Forms.

    Fourth, perhaps most important, to be able to comprehend Schopenhauer, it is necessary to first comprehend Plato and Kant, his two main influences. I don’t claim to have expertise knowledge in any of the three philosophers, but I do know from reading Schopenhauer, that he was carrying on the long-time Western tradition of contemplating ‘the-thing-in-itself’, ding-an-sich, and in doing so, he opposed Kant’s conception that the ding-an-sich is ultimately rational in nature, that though it can only be inferred, as all laws of physics are, it still is ultimately part of the rationaly. In contract, Schopenhauer claimed that the Will, the ding-an-sich, the ultimate reality, that is, the Eternal, is irrational, and does not follow the laws of logic the way that the rational/physical does.

    So, in my interpretation, the Will is not equivalent to Emptiness or Nirvana, rather the complete absence of the Will, that is, the transcendence of the Will through an immersion in Beauty or the Sublime, is something similar to the Upanishadic conception of Nirvana.

    We must also remember that Plato had discussions with the the Ancient Indians, and Aristotle as well, and in the latter case, both created syllogisms during the same time, that appear basically identical. I don’t think these concepts of Eastern Nirvana and Western Absence of Will are contrary when we look much more closely, beyond mistranslated or miscomprehended words, at what each are actually saying in essence.

    One last little note: His doctoral disseration, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, appears to be mainly about how to use the four very different ways humans have of arriving at the concept of ‘truth’… that not all that we call ‘truth’ can be arrived at through the same method; that we must use the method that is natural to the thing under consideration rather than forcing everything to conform to only one method of arriving at truth. In other words, the four arenas of knowledge each have their own distinct foundations and must not be confused, otherwise we will use illegitimate means to make claims on truth.

    P.S. – this is not an attack 🙂 … just clarifying my own thoughts on the matter while attempting to defend mein schoenste geliebte Schopenhauer. 🙂 x

  4. soraj June 20, 2009 / 8:40 am

    Hi, thanks a lot indeed for your great comment.

    First of all, I did not write that Schopenhauer kind of ‘obtained’ his philosophy from Buddhism. You are right about the historical matter. The two philosophies just happened to share something in common.

    2. You may also be right about the will and the Buddhist concept of Emptiness. I have to look at my paper again, but I believe that the will is not one and same as Emptiness. Nothingness is another matter. Emptiness is not nothing, but Emptiness is the characteristic of all things when they are perceived directly without conceptual fabrication. Nothingness is just that, no thing. Emptiness, on the other hand, can be full of things, but those things are ultimately empty.

    So if Schopenhauer understands by ‘the Will’ as something that is the underlying structure of all things, something that Kant talked about when he talked about ‘the thing-in-itself’, then the Will shares this characteristic with Emptiness. Ordinary objects are manifestations of the Will; our individual mental episodes (like my thought that I will have noodle for lunch, etc.) are also manifestations of the same Will. I take this to be Schopenhauer’s great contribution. And it corresponds with Buddhist idea too.

    I remember that Schopenhauer talks about the absence of the Will in the last part of the book, when he talks about ‘asceticism’. This is perhaps the most important and most interesting part of the book. There is an indication of a “crossing over” from the state where one is subject to the Will (through the principium individuationis) to the one where the individual ceases to be so since he has denied the Will that gives himself and every ordinary object its individuality. This is a very important point that would be beneficial if compared to the Buddhist idea. Thanks for pointing this out to me.

    So nice to know you, and by the way I have already visited your blog. 🙂

  5. Noel T. Jones October 25, 2011 / 8:18 am

    Professor Hongladarom,
    I am a student in Brooklyn, NY, whose final thesis paper is based on Buddhism and Schopenhauer. If you have any information which I may use and cite, it would be very much appreciated.
    Thank you,
    N.T. Jones

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