Four Thinkers

The Buddha, Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche: A Personal View

For a long time, I’ve been wondering how these thinkers can be put into dialogue.   I have seen Freud and Marx combined in Herbert Marcuse, and, after I did a basic Google search for Freud and the Buddha, I found a number of articles on the subject.  But no one to my knowledge has written on the Buddha, Freud, and Marx, let alone adding Nietzsche to the mix.  What I’ll do here is to sketch out some ideas very informally, with the hope of starting a discussion, as I feel it’s important that public intellectual discussion should be open to all and not left to experts.  If it’s not already clear, let me state that I’m far from being an expert on any of these thinkers.

My first encounter with Buddhism was the Dhammapada, which was provocative and fascinating.  A few of the aphorisms remain with me, such as “there are no chains like hatred.”  I had never seen over-attachment (or clinging, craving) analyzed and criticized so thoroughly.  After reading this book, I was consumed by Buddhism; ironically, I was over-attached.

In my early twenties, I read Nietzsche.  Again, I was captivated.  Nietzsche’s critique of morality was liberating; I read the concept of the overman as an encouragement to each of us to overcome our previous selves and create our own values, the values by which we live.  Also, Nietzsche gave me an idea of what it would be to live non-metaphysically – that is, without a sense of a larger meaning to existence.  For Nietzsche, the meaning in human life is limited to humans; there is no God figure.  Pema Chodron, too, claims that the Buddha avoided questions about the afterlife or gods.  He didn’t see such questions as relevant.  In this vein, Joseph Campbell recounts the story of the flower sermon.  When the Buddha was asked what the meaning of life was, he lifted a flower.  Clearly this action can be interpreted in many ways.  One way is that the meaning of life involves flowering, flourishing.  But the meaning cannot be spoken or articulated, is not separate from life itself.

“Before one reads Nietzsche,” Martin Heidegger said, “one should study Aristotle for fifteen years.”  Not everyone has that kind of time.  But Heidegger makes the influence clear; Nietzsche addresses Plato in his writings far more than Aristotle, but the latter’s notion of eudaimonia (often translated as “flourishing”), as well as his views of ethics, friendship, community, tragedy, and art were often incitements to Nietzsche, spurs to the later philosopher’s thinking.  Thus Nietzsche absorbs Aristotle, responds to him, and often opposes him, though he may not mention him; the earlier thinker is present as a strong interlocutor.

To this day, I have read more about Freud than Freud himself.  However, when a thinker’s writing style is not as important as his ideas, this approach becomes more acceptable.  Nietzsche was supposed (by Walter Kaufmann, among others) to have had a deep effect on Freud, though Freud did not acknowledge the debt, if there was one.  The impact of Freud for me was in part similar to that of Nietzsche: you are not bound by another’s values; live according to your own.  Freud withheld moral judgement of his analysands; what they did was not labelled right or wrong.  According to Kaufmann, when asked about morality, Freud replied that it was a matter of course.  Perhaps this means that morality is a given.  If so, Freud would seem not to have read Nietzsche, for whom morality was highly constructed, taking shape over centuries.  But Freud’s concept of the super-ego (or “over-I,” in literal translation of the German) owes much to Nietzsche: the super-ego, to put it perhaps oversimply, is our inherited morality: what we believe we should do, according to the influence of teachers, parents and others, whose words and actions we invest with value.  Another aphorism from the Dhammapada that Freud seems to have absorbed – perhaps from another source – is that “the mind without judgement watches and understands.”  An analyst can understand her client better when considering the latter’s actions as “beyond good and evil” (to quote the name of Nietzsche’s book).   Moral judgement in this sense impedes understanding; moralizing puts another’s actions into our terms, seeing them from the perspective of our values; withholding judgement generates empathy.

I read Marx first while in my early twenties, starting with The Communist Manifesto and going on to excerpts from Capital.  I was drawn to his idealism and his passion.  The principle “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” is beautiful and reminds us of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  To leave Marx out of a discussion of key modern thinkers would be egregious; Marx has taught us that our lives are not lived in a vacuum.  We live under a man-made economic system called capitalism that enslaves us as completely as any empire has.  There is a financial hierarchy that involves power and control, and there are economic requirements that we are born into, depending on our class.  To claim that ideology is unimportant is another ideology.  To have the time to think and write involves a certain position within capitalism – a certain education, sufficient leisure time – which are privileges and are paid for with the labour of others.  It is because of the goal of unlimited corporate growth that we are facing climate change.  Rather than putting environmental ethics first – and thus, valuing humans, plants, and animals above profit – making money continues to be the engine of industries based on fossil fuels, with their highly damaging pollutants.  The prioritizing of profits led to colonialist genocide even before the highly interconnected system of capitalism that now exists (as globalization), but the intensity of the current system has put the long-term survival of large numbers of human beings at stake.   Marx thus showed the many ways that capitalism profoundly shapes us, including how much we sleep, what we eat, and how we feel.

Freud and his students – many analysts, but also therapists in general, and pop psychologists – can help with the current ecological situation and the excesses of capitalism, as can the Buddha and his students.  Through psychoanalysis and Buddhism, we can get a better understanding of what we desire and what we need, of addiction and craving, of sexuality and empathy.   Nietzsche shows us how all of our actions occur within a framework of values, involving ethical, political, emotional, and aesthetic dimensions.  Every choice we make is a reflection of our values.  Pitting Marx against Nietzsche involves a rich, exciting debate.

These four thinkers respond to each other in subtle ways, and it seems worth exploring their points of intersection, worth imagining a dialogue between them.

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Night Suit

“Get ready for bed,” Mum and Dad would say in India.

“Go put on your night suit,”

which became “pyjamas” when we came to Canada.

But the Hindi word was less exotic:

Imagine!  Night suit, flying suit, diving suit!

Ready for the adventures of sleep,

Captain Dreamer!

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what i see in you:

a principle of inhabitation

a ritual of birth and thirst and laughter

the curves of your knowing



dew forming



this lower register

a lilypad in darkness



a completion to you

so that i wondered

when you said your age



you told me things that made me smile and shake my head for days:

in elementary school, you were indiana jones for hallowe’en

you’d ask your mother to say “yo-yo” in front of your friends

so she’d say “jo-jo”



this warm night

moon out

and all the stars like trinkets

or jellybeans

waiting for your quarter



evenings out

in your forties

often there’s colour

in your cheeks


in your wrinkles



the vitality of walking

skirts in the morning

reading to children

grinding, needing


a smile at the opera

silence while driving

squint at the wheat

scarf in your hair


on the bed crying

close the door slowly

not lying, sitting

dumb fist at your side



live like a kite-flyer

string paper colour

live like the wind

lifting your voice


sweat on my forehead

is cooler in summer

fields lie in winter

sleepy with snow



me: foraging in darkness

who can hear the spanish whisper

separating archer from target?


you laugh

i feel like teiresias opening for aristophanes



shall i compare thee to a well-made diaper?

thou art more absorbent and unclinging

responsive as a kneecap in reflection


the bionic woman was a cyborg like you

but you know what techne shares with poiesis



ah, residence on earth!

hourly costs, daily rents

the kisses and the bruises


language gives



impassioned dreams

quiet rapture


i smile

that was a time


aria da capo

your tones formed my desire

found me



your knowing

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Twilight blossoms billow and scatter,

Cover concrete

Embellish windshields

Like Indian weddings.

Night’s blue glory fills

Ocean, land, sky.

I walk and scents trickle in,

Tree-dimmed lamps,

Rhododendrons bursting like soft fireworks

A swan glinting in the lagoon,

Willows poring over the water, scholarly.

I head home reluctantly to avoid the sounds of cars,

Uplifted by the season,

Tranquillized by darkness.

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I pray.
I pray to the god of mountains, ships, and silver.
Finding trinkets worthless,
I chase ghosts that hide and dance and chide me.
Ravenous at night,
no silk or cotton fills me like her skin.
Candlelight gathers and overcomes.

Bring the holy time.
Sprinkle the pillow with fairy dust.
Take me to that place
where rest resembles reeds,
breeze-drawn and molten,
to be ravished by darkness,
cannibalized by hobgoblins of plainness and bridges.

Take breaths,
give rice, give wood.
These are yours.
What will be mine?
I listen, trust, obey.
Still you elude me
and I feel alone.
Every moment, you say, I’m guided.
All you comforting spirits,
let me sense you,
melt into these sheets,
buried by these quilts.

Honour me like a bough in springtime.
Favour me with granted wishes and abundant promise
like a field of pumpkins,
seeds bursting to life.
Rain and cold, unwelcome,
pain rising, insurgent,
tides of chaos and beauty,
leaves gusting in trees,
flickering in grey.
Lovers serve the curving act,
dogs show loyalties like seasons
and pancakes tempt the clever skeptic.

Love, lift this balloon to stars I’ve never seen,
remind me how life unfolds past recognition.
Make me worthy.
Show me strength.
I want to know about china and cheeses
smell the wet earth with you,
taste corn again, juices spraying off the cob,
dance close with you,
hear that parachute
descend into the compass hollow
where we rise,
fresh and fed.

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In Search of Lost Proust

There are novels that change our lives.  For me, perhaps the most decisive work of fiction has been In Search of Lost Time.  I discovered it in the summer of 1995, and fell in love.  It took me about five years to finish the whole novel (with its 3700 pages), but it was the first volume, Swann’s Way, that remained my favorite.  And it seems to me that every summer since I finished the novel, I have returned to the first volume, trying to recapture the blush of that lost but unforgotten love.  And every summer I have failed.  Including this summer.

Seeing a new translation remaindered at my neighborhood Book Warehouse, I picked up (the freshly entitled) The Way by Swann’s with exquisite excitement.  Would I this time, finally, penetrate through to the Proust I have not been able to find for fifteen years, the Proust of the first encounter?  So far, again, the quest has been fruitless.  Perhaps it is because we vitally cherish the memory of the best of a novel that we are frustrated when it presents itself with greater banality than we remembered it ever having.  We recall most vividly the thrill of the peaks of the work, but have forgotten laboring over many foothills to get there.  It is like a past romance for which we have tremendous affection and nostalgia; we forget that the feeling we have for the whole is made up of its essence, a condensation of days, perhaps weeks and months, of forgettable mundanity, without which, however, that distillation could not have been formed.

Over the years, I have sought to return to that lost way by numerous paths: the first page of the book; the first page of the second section, of this section’s second part, of the third section; and by dipping into passages according to the brief descriptions (with their accompanying page numbers) provided in the editors’ “Synopsis” (or quasi-index).  Nothing–or almost nothing: occasionally a faint whiff of that fragrance, of past–but not entirely lost–time.

It was the same with my attempt to reread To the Lighthouse.  Certainly I have my favorite section of that novel (Part One, Section Eleven), which I return to periodically, enraptured, astonished, bewildered, inspired.  But that’s all I have.  Starting from the beginning of the novel has repeatedly led to dead-ends.

So I grieve this lost Proust: the unique extreme of pleasure, delight, awe, satisfaction, mental extension and spiritual liberation that came from the first reading.  It may never return; I have to accept that.  All I have now are shards, when once I had the whole stained-glass window.  Still I try and will keep trying.  Because even to glimpse those colours is to expand one’s being.

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The Singularity of Jazz

If God made music, it would be jazz.  Improvisation is instantaneous creation, the fusion of intelligence and contingency.  In the best jazz, there is individual play but responsive reception, autonomous expertise at the same time as yielding interdependence.  This is one meaning of grace: acceding to the other, allowing the other in.  Cortesia, the Latin root of “courtesy,” refers to the opening of a door, the invitation to cross a threshold.  Martin Heidegger, in explaining the etymology of “poetry,” the Greek word poieisis, described it as a process of letting be, accepting, allowing the other to enter.  When poiesis is practised with techne–which is the root of our “technique” and “technology,” and implies mastery, control–the synthesis is spellbinding.  These Greek ideas can be interpreted as the two basic modes of human being, each at one end of a continuum; every human action can then be seen as a blend of techne and poiesis, controlling and letting be, falling at one point along the continuum.  Jazz at its best, however, represents a rare union of absolutes–techne and poeisis–such as is seen in only the greatest art.  That live, improvised jazz is evanescent only augments its loveliness.

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