Pessimistic Society versus Pessimistic Religion
Schopenhauer and Buddhism

Yasuo Kamata

Part 1: Pessimistic Religiosity in Schopenhauer’s Philosophy and in Buddhism

The Schopenhauerian philosophy is often called pessimistic. This term derives primarily from the philosopher’s own characterization. Considering the small number of instances of this expression in his own works however, the widespread use of the term to give a totalising classification of his thought appears curious. The term “pessimism” was employed in a more general sense with increasing popularity during the rapid growth of modern civil society in the second half of the 19th century, and Schopenhauer’s philosophy was being criticised ever more vehemently as the quintessential representative of pessimism. The term pessimism was therefore mostly used in a pejorative sense.
Behind this evaluation of pessimism lurks the thought and behaviour patterns of the modern individual, who makes self-determination (autonomy) the highest value. However he does not stand only in self-preserving defence against foreign rule (heteronomy), but turns, as it were, to attack mode, since this self-determination of man can come to completion only by the simultaneous determination of his world. The will to live changes into the will to power. He posits first the clear difference between himself and his world, in order then to take over and pacify it by the activity of will (practice) initiated by himself, until he can deal with his world in a “childlike” and playful manner (Nietzsche: Thus spoke Zarathustra). As long as the whole world facing him serves as the object of his will, the will wanting to conquer all must progress in the endless circle of expansion.
In order to make this perpetuum mobile of the self-affirmation of the will possible however, the covering and hiding of this structure of the affirmation of the will are indispensable. Therefore, the will to live, on the way to the will to power, had to dispense with the realisation of the nature of the world, i.e. the insight into the structure of the affirmation of the will, by means of the pejorative label of pessimum. This insight after all contains the question about the condition of the possibility of the affirmation of the will and thus also draws attention to the possibility of asking for the condition of the possibility of the quietening of the will (so called “denial of the will”)1. European pessimism developed in a pessimistically-inclined society, which, directed toward its egocentric and anthropocentric purpose of self-affirmation, yet frustrated constantly by the fear of the actual or alleged failure, needed a concrete sign upon which to derogate its fears, and that sign was given by labelling Schopenhauer a pessimist.
Schopenhauer’s pessimism proceeds from the clear insight into the egocentric structure of the blind and ignorant affirmation of the will, which causes various conflicts and suffering in the charmed circle of desire-production and desire-satisfaction, as he states in the 4th book of the World as Will and Representation. After this knowledge alone has illuminated the cause of suffering and thus also the possibility of liberation from suffering by knowledge, ignorance is identified as a basic factor of suffering. Schopenhauer says expressly that philosophy presents only the structure of the affirmation and denial of the will, without recommending the one or the other. Nevertheless Schopenhauer is confident that the realisation of these structures already illuminates and reduces the ignorance of blind will- affirmation.
In this contention, Schopenhauer follows the thought-traditions of the ancient religions, which developed since the end of Jasper’s "axial age,” in many cultures of the world. Despite the differences between the theories among these religions, the realisation of the danger of the ignorant and uncontrolled affirmation of the will to live, particularly of desire- production and satisfaction, seems to be a common feature of their doctrines, insofar as desire is seen as the cause of human suffering and its abolition through knowledge brings man a peace of mind and of community.
The nature of pessimism, which Schopenhauer noticed in the ancient religions, lay in its critical view of egocentrism and anthropocentrism. It leads to the reconciliation with what is different, i.e. with the other, with the community, with nature and finally with what embraces the whole of being, which was then expressed in these religions in their own ways. These steps of liberation from egocentrism lead thus to reconciliation with what is on the most distant and diametrically opposite side to desire-driven man: reconciliation with the suffering (the opposite of desire) of the other (as the opposite of his self-centeredness): Compassion. Compassion frees man from his desire-driven isolation and founds community. Compassion is the liberation of man from his egoism. That is the reason why Schopenhauer sees compassion as the basis of true ethics, just as Buddhism saw this reconciliation in its Mahayana Bodhisattva. Those who are reared in the occidental Christian tradition will recognise exactly this connection in Jesus Christ, and see why Schopenhauer regarded compassion as the basis of Christianity as well.
Buddhism and Schopenhauer’s philosophy try to illuminate and make transparent the structure of the emergence of suffering in the blind and ignorant affirmation of the will to live by the knowledge of this blindness. Since knowledge belongs, however, to the range of representation, consequently the structure of the affirmation of the will is presented also as the structure of representation. Schopenhauer with his philosophy of the world as will and representation took this step, by presenting the structure of the world coherently as representation. Schopenhauer’s will as the thing in itself may not be understood as a metaphysical substance2. The development of the post-Kantian German Idealism, which was the most philosophically fertile ground for Schopenhauer, demonstrates this rejection of substantialism convincingly. In addition, Buddhism, in particular the Vijnanavadins3, presented the reinforcement and deactivation of the karma (the latter of which is nirvana) constantly on the level of the unsubstantial representation.
Finally we could characterise the difference between pessimistic religiosity and pessimistic society as follows: The pessimistic society is originally based on the affirmation of the will, which manifests as a hatred of the world when the produced desires cannot be satisfied. The pessimistic religiosity however derives from the self-denial i.e. turning (conversion) of the will, which liberates man from himself, from his ego, knowing the suffering of others and constituting the community of compassion.

Part 2: “World as Representation” as Fundament of Pessimistic Religiosity: Schopenhauer and the Vijnana School.

The world is my representation (the first sentence from Schopenhauer: The world as Will and Representation).
The threefold world is only representation (the first stanza from Vasubandhu: Vimsatika Vijnaptimatratasiddhih [twenty verses establishing that only representation is]).
This comparison does not only concern the fact that Buddhism, here particularly the „Vijnana School (Vijnanavada)“ and Schopenhauer both regarded the world as representation, since there were many other religious and philosophical teachings with similar doctrines. What distinguishes the two is that they pushed the thesis of the world as representation to an extreme consequence and at the same time were led by the same basic aim, namely to present all of reality within this unsubstantial world as representation coherently, as a closed system, without presupposing anything behind the world as representation. This radical representation doctrine stands in a close relationship with the pessimistic religiosity, which, behind the "open" progressive optimism of endless desire- production and satisfaction, discovers and reduces the destructive impulse of human selfishness (both on the level of the individual as well as the collective). The comparative study of the Mahayana Buddhist Vijnana School and the philosophy of Schopenhauer is justified by this common understanding of their representation doctrines in connection with the notion of pessimistic religiosity. In the following a brief outline of the possibility of a philosophical dialogue between Buddhism and Schopenhauerian philosophy shall be given.
The general anti-metaphysical tendency of Buddhism since its origin has been to point out the lack of substance (lack of Ego, anatman) of the person and in Mahayana Buddhism in addition the lack of substance of the dharmas, based on the circumstance that the perception and identification of suffering occur primarily on the level of the representation, not in their bare condition. For it is the nature of suffering that there is no suffering, where the representation of suffering is missing, i.e. where suffering is not perceived as suffering. The very first of the early Buddhist four noble truths: the truth of suffering, uncovered and unified the deeply felt adversities of life like aging, illness and finally death, which each have their own particular negative aspects, under the term "suffering". Thus suffering can not only be treated and dealt with as a single outward happening, but as an affair of representation in the total context of life as it is imagined. Therefore, the Buddha and Schopenhauer could say that life does not only contain suffering, but life is suffering.
The dharma analysis (abhidharma) of early Buddhism outlines both the elements of representing in the broadest sense (citta) as well as the elements of the represented (rupa) next to each other. At this seam of mind and things several points of issue developed. The argument between the Sarvastivadins and Sautrantikas over the carrier of karma can be understood also in this context. This was how Vasubandhu understood it anyway, who belonged to the Sarva-asti School but also had a thorough comprehension of the Sautrantikas. He postulated in his Trimsika Vijnaptimatratasiddhih [thirty verses establishing that only representation is] following the Sautrantikas' "process of the transformation and origin" (samtati-parinama-visesa) his thesis of representation transformation (vijnana-parinama), in order to combine the entire range of topics on the level of the mere representation. However, in order to do this, the acceptance of the substantial existence of the object categories had to be given up. A parallel idea developed in the Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy, even if it was completely different in its basic intention, though even this difference is eliminated by Schopenhauer. I will return this at the end of this paper.
The structure of the world as representation, in Vasubandhu’s Trimsikavijnapti, is a circular endless transformation of the processes of representation (vijnana-parinama), i.e. of the hidden transformation of representation, within the storehouse representation (alayavijnana), and is presented as the visible appearance (pratibhasa) with its multifarious distinctions. The storehouse representation determines the basic forms of appearance, i.e. the subject-object split, and due to this split appears then the tendentious self-attached self-consciousness as a virtual subject of representing and the concrete-individual representation as the virtual object of representing. However, the storehouse representation is not an absolute substance like a creator God, from which all being would flow. It is rather the retention of the past acts in unconscious-latent processes (therefore the designation: storehouse), it is a representation itself, remaining however hidden for the individual-concrete self-consciousness, since this only recognises what is conceivable as its object. In the storehouse representation, not only the shapes and connections of the world as representation are kept as invisible seeds and brought to maturity, but also the dispositions or inclinations are strengthened to their maturity. In other words, to the extent this transformation of the representation is stained by self-attachment (will affirmation). If this inclination of self-attachment is strong, the storehouse representation is led to a further transformation, where the inclination to the self-attachment (usually) continues to accumulate. However, if this process is deactivated and quieted by right insight and practice (therefore the term yogacara), this deactivation can lead to nirvana. Thus Vasubandhu modified the traditional Karma teachings in his theory of representation transformation.
This relation of the concrete representations (including self-consciousness) and the latent storehouse representation has a structural parallel to the Schopenhauerian World as Will and Representation. The idea is introduced in the second book of the "World as Will and Representation" according to the generally lucid model of the emanation as objectivation of the will. On this first stage the will makes visible to itself the basic form of representation, namely the splitting of subject and object as well as the species of things. The idea is then subjected to the principle of sufficient reason (consisting of time, space and causality), splintered in the individual perceptions, which accounts for how concrete-individual things develop. This embracing doctrine of ideas is one-sided, though. The Schopenhauerian doctrine of ideas has yet another aspect, which stems from the post-Kantian German idealistic tradition, according to which the idea is a representation, which develops in co-operation of imagination and reason and serves as archetype (original) for the identification of the concrete things (as representation). Since imagination is, however, according to Schopenhauer the effect of the will on the imaginative faculty, one can recognise the will underlying the idea. Hence the expression: the idea is the objectity (Objektität, totally different from Objektivität) of the will is justified, but not to be understood in the sense of the emanation model but in the actual sense of the "visibility", while the will for the normal representative activity (without philosophical meditation) remains invisible and incalculable, therefore the designation "the blind will to live", which can be enlightened only in the world as representation. Thus here a self-supporting or self-affirming cycle structure of will, idea and representation is also recognisable.
This extreme monism of representation has the advantage of giving a clear answer of yes to the question about the possibility of the nirvana and/or the turning of the will, since it does not have to assume anything behind the world as representation, which after the vanishing of the world as representation could let another world as representation develop.
Vasubandhu’s Trimsikavijnapti provided for further discussions and even a schism of the school4. One could also say that Vasubandhu’s thinking always gave many competing philosophical views inspiration, so why did this not also ensue from Schopenhauer research?
The discussion with the Vijnana School offers the further possibilities to intensify Schopenhauerian philosophy. Furthermore, the discussion of Schopenhauerian philosophy, which is investigated now increasingly in the context of post-Kantian philosophy, can extend the representation and redemption teachings of the Vijnanavada beyond the psychological, in particular deep-psychological analytical hermeneutic common in the Western world today, into the social and world theory.
The fusion of will and representation is not original with Schopenhauer, but has a long tradition in the history of European philosophy. Nevertheless Schopenhauer is probably the first philosopher, who saw in this fusion the condition of the possibility of the self-abolition of the will, i.e. at the same time also of the representation and the world: “No will: no representation, no world”5.
Conceiving the world as will and representation does not always entail pessimism. In the case of a pessimistic religion (to which tradition Schopenhauer belongs) the notion of the world as representation transcends the unsubstantial and pulls the world towards the abolition of the blind and uncontrolled attachment to the will to live. But knowing the world as mere representation can also be led by a completely different interest: the affirmation of the will. The modern European era took up and even assumed its lack of substance, although this led humans to the experience of the death of God and nihilism and accordingly into loneliness, at the same time willingly, since this lack of substance legitimised the revolution of traditional values to new ones, which now praise the pursuit of desire-production and satisfaction. Thus capitalism, which was from the outset ascetically oriented, now received a moral authorisation to transform into consumer society. There its engine, perpetuum mobile of desire-production and satisfaction, i.e. blind will to live, remains sealed even in the intended hiding of the world as simulacra (Baudrillard).
From this point of view the Mahayana Buddhist critique of the early Buddhist schools as “Hinayana”, which allegedly presupposes the substantiality of dharmas6 and therefore unable to rid itself of the habit of self-attachment as such, is not fully valid. It is true that this kind of thought, the belief to be in possession of the ultimate truth, has been the origin of many suppressive regimes and dangerous fanatical movements. The original intention of the assumption of the universal substance was not primarily to stress the existence of this absolute being itself but to render relative the individual ego and to liberate it from its self-attachment and finally to make it humble and considerate to other beings. The restrictive manner of exact definitions about what they were or claimed to be increased the contradiction between Early Buddhism (Theravada) and Mahayana Buddhism. Maybe a different way of thinking about what they are not or claim not to be (neti), in other words: about what they try to avoid in order to find their common space of communication, will open a space for the community of different doctrines, and this could apply to many more schools than merely Theravada and Mahayana7.


1  In The World as Will and Representation the expression “denial” is often used in order to make a contrast to “affirmation of the will”. Schopenhauer also uses the expressions “quietening” (Quietiv in contrast to Motiv), “turning” (sich wenden) and „abolishing“ (sich aufheben), also frequently in his Manuscript Remains.[zurück zum Text]
2  We have to be very careful in using the term thing in itself. Schopenhauer changed his understanding of “thing in itself” at least twice before he wrote The World as Will and Representation. cf. Y. Kamata, “Platonic Idea and the World of Perception in Schopenhauer”. original: „Platonische Idee und die anschauliche Welt bei Schopenhauer“. Schopenhauer-Jahrbuch, 70 (1989), 84?93. Y. Kamata, Der junge Schopenhauer. Freiburg/München, 1988, p.178-187 (§36).[zurück zum Text]
3  I am not very content to translate “vijnana” as “representation”, sometimes better into “idea”, “cognition” or “consciousness”. In any event, we should be aware of the intention of the school, not to presuppose any substances behind the representation. At the same time I would like to stress that the Schopenhauerian philosophy is also a strict idealism. The translation of „Vorstellung“ into “representation”, “idea” etc. is not adequate either. [zurück zum Text]
4  For instance in the schools of Dignaga and Sthiramati, later Sakara-jnanavada and Nirakara-jnanavada.[zurück zum Text]
5  The World as Will and Representation, § 71. “Kein Wille: keine Vorstellung, keine Welt.“ (WI, 486)[zurück zum Text]
6  The Sarvastivadins’ ontological arguments for the substantiality of dharmas were vehemently criticised by Mahayana, though this critique cannot be limitlessly applied to the earlier Buddhist dharma doctrine. On the contrary the Buddha’s many statements prohibiting inquiry into the substantiality and non-substantiality of the world were normative. The Buddha taught repeatedly that this kind of questioning would not liberate man from his self-attachment.[zurück zum Text]
7  Cf. Y. Kamata: „Die Schopenhauersche Wende der Philosophie - Einführung in die Philosophie als sanfte Wissenschaft“, Schopenhauer in der Philosophie der Gegenwart. Beiträge zur Philosophie Schopenhauers Band 1, Würzburg 1996, S. 107 ff.[zurück zum Text]