Sunday 24 January 2010

Borges, Buddhism and the Eternal Recurrence

The relationship between Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer, and Nietzsche is, perhaps, a little more complex than some would allow. Consider Borges' Lecture on Buddhism. Here is a brief sampler:

The history of the universe is divided into cycles and in these cycles there are long eclipses during which there is nothing or in which only the words of the Veda remain. Those words are archetypes which serve to create things. La divinity Brahma also dies and is reborn. There is a quite pathetic moment when Brahma is in his palace. He has been reborn after one of the calpas, after one of the eclipses. He walks through the rooms, which are empty. He thinks of other gods. The other gods appear at his command, and they think that Brahma has created them because they were there before.

Let’s pause at this vision of the history of the universe. There is no God in Buddhism; or there could be a God, but it isn’t the essential thing. What is essential is that we believe that our destiny has been predetermined by our karma or karman. If I was to be born in Buenos Aires in 1899, if I was to be blind, if I am to be giving this lecture to you tonight, it is all the result of my previous life. There isn’t a single event in my life which hasn’t been predetermined by my previous life. This is what is called karma. Karma, as I have already said, is like a mental structure, an extremely fine mental structure. We are weaving and inter-weaving in every moment of our lives. For not only our volitions, our deeds, our semi-dreams, our sleep, our semi-waking are woven: we are perpetually weaving that thing [karma]. When we die another being is born who inherits our karma

There is, of course no act of redemption; no defining moment; no unique event; no singular point in time, and no Saviour. History, in other words, does not hinge on an instant. If Christ returns he will be received by The Grand Inquisitor. It is the same, but different.


  1. Hello, Ana.

    "... There isn't a single event in my life which hasn't been predermined by my previous life ..."

    Hence to the infinite despair of Buddhism. I suppose the only hope for Buddhists is a stable life ; stable aristocracy, stable beggary, stable disease. The reliable returns of war and strife.

    But, I suppose they have a get-out. Some little thing that defeats predetermination. Free will, perhaps? Karmic intervention?

    I prefer the Myth of Er, because it conforms a little more closely to life as we actually experience it here in the West. The Fates are kinder (in their own way).

    But, you will have guessed by now that I prefer most the straightening out of time ; the end of the stultifying cycles. :)

  2. I tend to agree with the neoreal view of history being cyclical. The roulette wheel can only bring up the same numbers again and again: a continual movement, as Antoine Lavoisier said: 'Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transforme.'

  3. Yes, I'm rather inclined to that view myself.