My Fellow Sufferer: Schopenhauer and Buddhists on the Nature of Suffering

To a blank white fan:
Searching in earnest
Whether deep in my own heart
I have a selfish will; I find my heart wholly blank,
Nothing but air blowing there. – Ryokan[1]

It is often said that philosophers throughout time have sought to understand the nature of the world. However, it could be argued that they have merely sought to understand the nature of suffering. Pain, misfortune, grief, and despair are just a few of the universal feelings that greet us upon birth. Is life necessarily and inevitably bound to suffering? Or, is transcendence possible? Perhaps metaphysics, epistemology, religion, and ethics could be reduced to various theories of how to solve the problem of suffering. Or, perhaps they are only more evidence of suffering.

If one accepts the categorization of painful experiences as that which proves that life is suffering, then the consideration of how to avoid or minimize our suffering would be of primary importance. In the Shobogenzo[2], Dogen explains three ways (referred to as ‘vehicles’) by which one can transcend suffering. (p.332) For the sake of comparing Schopenhauer’s philosophy with Buddhist philosophy, let us consider the first vehicle, that of the contemplation of the Four Noble Truths[3].

The first Noble Truth taught by the Buddha is the truth of suffering. In this translation of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, it is written that the Buddha explained what is now popularly referred to as ‘the first Noble Truth:

“This, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of ill: birth is ill, decay is ill, disease is ill, death is ill, association with the unloved is ill, separation from the loved is ill, not to get what one wants is ill, in short the five aggregates of grasping are ill.” (p.4)

If we assume that the word ‘ill’ in this text can be translated as ‘suffering,’ then we have a comprehensive definition from this account. It could be argued that the Buddha had not intended the conclusion to be drawn that, based on these instances of suffering, all of life is suffering. However, for the sake of this paper, I will make this leap.

In the ‘Lotus Sutra,’ another well-known text in the Buddhist tradition, the definition of suffering is elaborated further. It is written that beings are:

“…tormented by every kind of suffering. They are continually being born as tiny embryos in one world after another. These people of few qualities and little merit are afflicted by various sufferings. They enter into the jungle of sixty-two false views such as “This exists” or “This does not exist.”[4](p. 36)

Some might argue that these conditions of existence (such as birth, disease, old age, and death) are not necessarily pitiable. If, for instance, one’s experience of life has been padded with privilege, it may seem that the suffering of others is due to their own fault or limitation. Schopenhauer, in agreement with Buddhists about the universality of suffering, might argue that such an objection to the truth of suffering shows only that the person asserting the objection simply had not lived long enough to realize this truth. In the essay, On the Sufferings of the World[5], Schopenhauer states, “Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.”(p.1) In other words, the truth of suffering is immediately obvious by experience. To those who may object he states that if “…things have gone with you tolerably well, the longer you live, the more clearly you will feel that, on the whole, life is a disappointment, nay, a cheat.” This disappointment is, for Schopenhauer, more evidence of the truth of suffering.

The ‘second Noble Truth’ taught by the Buddha was about the cause of suffering:

“This, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the source of ill: the craving which causes rebirth is accompanied by passionate pleasure, and takes delight in this and that object, namely sensuous craving, craving for existence and craving for annihilation.” (p. 4)

There is no further explanation of this passage in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. The concept of craving includes attraction. However, there is no mention of repulsion. It could have been asserted that there is a craving for existence and an avoidance of annihilation. Instead, the Buddha notes a craving for annihilation. Interestingly, the Buddha held that even the craving for annihilation would cause rebirth. The details of the causal relationship are left to our imagination. Perhaps, for the sake of this paper, we could imagine that cravings are the energetic forces that cause the manifestation of bodies. If we accept the idea of rebirth, we could imagine that the energy from a body, after being released at death, might be propelled by the momentum of the force of craving, or, desires. Birth, then, is the manifestation of energy by the force of desire.

In response to Western philosophers who had been contemplating the issue of how to explain the relationship between object and subject or between matter and ideas, Schopenhauer proposed the idea (perhaps adapted from Buddhist and Hindu philosophies) of the will to live.[6] Schopenhauer’s concept of will can be understood as similar to the Buddha’s concept of craving, although there are significant differences. Schopenhauer did not argue that the will causes existence or rebirth. For Schopenhauer, the will (to live), is key to understanding the relationship between body and idea. He proposed that philosophers before him had made a mistake by presuming that subject and object are separate. He argued the will is that which proves the inseparability of mind and object. Moreover, beings are preoccupied with the assertion of their will, which, grounded in suffering, only begets more of the same.

For both the Buddha and Schopenhauer, craving is a problem. The Buddha taught the third Noble Truth about the solution of the problem of suffering:

“This, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of ill: the complete cessation, giving up, abandonment of that craving, complete release from that craving and complete detachment from it.”

The idea here is that if one can detach oneself from craving/desire, then one will not be subject to rebirth. This is an essential distinction between Schopenhauer and Buddhist philosophy. Schopenhauer does not address the idea of rebirth. Presumably, he would argue against any such possibility based on his self-proclaimed “Christian philosophy.” For Buddhists, however, the idea of rebirth is not an expendable part of the noble truths. If desire causes birth, then unless one can let go of that desire at every level of cognition, then one will necessarily experience rebirth.

Schopenhauer claims that the solution to the problem of suffering is merely the denial of the will to live. He wrote:

“The will alone is; it is the thing-in-itself, and the source of all phenomena. Its self-knowledge and its assertion or denial, which is then decided upon, is the only event in itself.” (WWR Section 2, Part 35)

Schopenhauer states that life is just a “job to be done” and, since he does not assert a possibility of rebirth, death, in most cases, is what liberates beings from suffering.

One might wonder how to transcend suffering on either account. Interestingly, neither philosophy proposed suicide or murder, at least not as the best alternative. Schopenhauer may not argue for suicide or murder because, in his view, we are sinners who are suffering to atone for our sins. Our lives of suffering are necessary punishments, and no one sinner is better than another. We are fellow sinners, fellow sufferers of our own making. The Christian concept of an external god is omnipresent in Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and his aim, in part, is to prove that God is beyond reproach for the world and its suffering. It would be unethical to kill oneself to escape the punishment of suffering.

By contrast, Buddhists would not argue for murder or suicide because it is not logical. If one has not transcended suffering by complete detachment from desire, then the force of desire will cause one to be born again anyway. Death is not an escape from suffering, at least not until there is no possibility of rebirth. If one craves death, one is still attached to that craving. For instance, perhaps you will be born many times only to experience the force of your desire to die.

For Buddhists, the path to the end of suffering is a bit more complicated than the death of the body. The suggestion of the possibility of detachment from the body and mind gives rise to the idea of the potential for the cessation of suffering despite the condition of living. However, for those who need more instruction about the ‘complete cessation’ of craving, the fourth Noble Truth, on how to transcend suffering, was translated as follows:

“This, bhikkhus is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of ill; only this noble eightfold path namely, right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.”

The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta did not elaborate on the specifics of these right actions, although there are many texts, such as the Shobogenzo, that do. What is ‘right’ is not to be understood as that which has been established by or justified by external authorities. I believe that what is ‘right’ in these instances can be understood with reference to the previous Noble Truths. Action and understanding (etc…) are right (as in correct) in the instances wherein there is no attachment to desire. Desire is neither good nor bad; it is simply what is. Attachment and all the ways in which we relate to desire by thought and action are what gives energy and momentum to the problem of suffering.

Schopenhauer’s path to transcend suffering is different. He wrote: “At the same time it [his philosophy] is candid in confessing that a man must turn his back upon the world, and that the denial of the will to live is the way of redemption.” (On Suffering, p.10) For all beings, suffering is the inevitable consequence of life. For all beings, death is the final liberation; the “job” is done. Except for a few possible “geniuses” who can momentarily transcend suffering in life by the complete objective contemplation of it, or perhaps, right thinking, the rest must wait for their lives to end and endure the world and, compassionately endure the company of their fellow sufferers.

Although on the surface one could claim that Schopenhauer and the Buddha held similar views, a closer investigation reveals that while Buddhists are concerned with proper knowledge as the path and the goal, Schopenhauer’s philosophy takes existence to be at once the problem and the solution. The Buddha made no value judgments of the experience of suffering, nor were any theories proposed about the moral character of beings. Where Schopenhauer saw sinners serving time in the world of suffering as atonement, Buddhists saw beings in an evolutionary process. And, although both proposed that beings should modify behavior in some way to transcend suffering, the Buddha suggests that each being must take personal responsibility for the cessation of suffering while for Schopenhauer, liberation is ultimately in the hands of an external god. Schopenhauer’s denial of the will to live is little more than the resignation of any idea that life is not suffering. Moreover, he argues, we should be overjoyed at the moment of death knowing that our time of suffering has come to an end. Ironically, perhaps, his optimistic view of death as the necessary end of suffering for all beings may not have helped him to transcend suffering.


[1] Ryokan, Taigu. “Yuasa, N.: The Zen Poems of Ryokan (Paperback and Hardcover) | Princeton University Press.”      Princeton University. 1981. Accessed March 18, 2018. Written between 1758–1831

[2] Dogen, Eihei. “Shobogenzo – Shasta Abbey.” Shasta Abbey. 2007. Accessed March 18, 2018. Dogen wrote and lectured between the years of 1231 – 1253.

[3] Buddha, Gautama. “DHAMMACAKKAPPAVATTANA SUTTA – London Buddhist Vihara.” London Buddhist Vihara. 2010. Accessed March 18, 2018. Buddha lived sometime between 563 – 400 BCE.

[4] “BDK Translation of the Lotus Sutra –” Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (BDK). 2007. Accessed March 18, 2018.

[5] Schopenhauer, Arthur. “Studies in Pessimism, by Arthur Schopenhauer.” On the Sufferings of the World. University of Adelaide. 2016. Accessed March 18, 2018. Schopenhauer wrote this essay between 1788 – 1860.

[6] Schopenhauer, Arthur, Richard E. Aquila, and David Carus. The World as Will and Representation. (WWR) New York: Pearson Longman, 2008.