Wagner, Buddhism and Parsifal
ith any other composers of opera, one would naturally regard exotic settings or other exotic elements as colouring or atmosphere. Therefore it would be natural to regard the Moorish settings and oriental elements in Parsifal as part of the same phenomenon, the search for novel and exotic factors, that is seen in the chinoiserie of Turandot or the japonerie of The Mikado. There are instances of Indian settings contemporary with Wagner's Parsifal: notably Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles (1863), Massenet's Le roi de Lahore (1877) and Delibes' Lakmé (1883). It hardly seems inappropriate, then, for Wagner to have sketched an opera set in north-east India, which he called Die Sieger (The Victors). The location and visual features of these Wagnerian dramas were not, however, chosen for their novelty. For Richard Wagner, opera (or more properly, music-drama or musical drama) was a medium for the communication of aesthetic and philosophical ideas. Even before his encounter with the philosophy of Schopenhauer, according to the Indologist Carl Suneson, Wagner had shown an interest in oriental thought and literature. This interest was stimulated by the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer and continued until the end of Wagner's life. On the evening before he died, Wagner expressed a wish to emigrate to the Buddhist island of Ceylon.
agner was introduced to Buddhism first in Schopenhauer's books, and secondly, in late
1855 or early 1856, by Eugène Burnouf's Introduction à l'histoire du buddhisme
indien. This book was in large part based on Mahāyāna Mahayana Buddhist texts that had been sent to Paris from Nepal
in 1837. Later he read, with some irritation, Carl Friedrich Köppen's Die Religion des Buddha und ihre
Richard Guhr, 'Trias der Wende' (Trinity of Transition). Arthur Schopenhauer, Richard Wagner and Paul Deussen. © Richard- Wagner- Gedenkstätte.
Schopenhauer, Wagner and Nirvana
chopenhauer believed that he had found parallels between his pessimistic philosophy and Buddhism. With the availability in the West of older Buddhist texts, both from Mayahana and Theravada, and better translations, together with 150 years of scholarship, we can now see that Schopenhauer misunderstood many aspects of Buddhism. In particular, his initial identification of the Buddhist state of existence called nirvāṇa with non-being was quite wrong and misled Schopenhauer's followers, including Richard Wagner. Nirvāṇa is intrinsically undefinable and inexpressible, but is still a dharma and as such a "something"; so it cannot be regarded as non-being or nothingness. Of course Schopenhauer and his contemporaries cannot really be blamed for this mistake, because the Pali texts that fully expounded the philosophy of dharma (factors or variables of existence that apply, or which have particular values, at each instant) were not translated into western languages before the end of the century. Schopenhauer's philosophy regarded the will (to live) as fundamental, and advocated the denial of the will-to-live as the path of deliverance. Wagner accepted these ideas and sought to express them in his dramas Tristan und Isolde, Die Sieger and Parsifal:
[Letter from Richard Wagner to Franz Liszt, 7 June 1855, Liszt-Briefe II 73-80, tr. Spencer and Millington]
he extract above is from a letter Wagner wrote in 1855 from London, where he had been sick and had spent his
convalescence reading Adolf Holtzmann's Indiske Sagen1, and before he read Burnouf.
There is undoubtedly some confusion (initially on the part of Schopenhauer; Wagner is paraphrasing the account of the doctrine of
transmigration given in chapter 63 of The World as Will and Representation) here between the Buddhist teaching that Schopenhauer referred to as palingenesis and the Hindu (Brahmin) belief in metempsychosis. Schopenhauer only understood the Buddhist doctrine of palingenesis after reading the Manual
of Buddhism, as he explained in the third (1858) edition of his World as Will and Representation. The essential difference is that Buddhism does not
recognise the existence of an individual soul that could be reincarnated2. This confusion did not prevent Wagner
(before he had read that third edition), in a letter to Mathilde Wesendonk, declaring a belief in reincarnation (
n general, it is fair to say that Schopenhauer at first misunderstood the Buddhist
teachings and their relationship to those of Hinduism (Brahminism), in particular the best-known Hindu school, vedanta. As a result of dharma theory not
being available (at least not until Schopenhauer read Spence Hardy, who discussed the dharmas as they appear in the Ceylonese
tradition), false connections were made between Buddhism and Hinduism (Brahminism), such as the identification of the Buddhist nirvāṇa with the vedantic Brahman, and the Schopenhauerian concept of the
will-to-live was used to interpret both concepts. Later scholarship has shown this to be inaccurate: in theistic Brahminism, deliverance
(mokṣa) consists of absorption into the supreme being Brahman; in atheistic Buddhism, deliverance consists of translation to the state of
being called nirvāṇa. The misinterpretation of the Buddhist state of nirvāṇa as
[Cosima's Diaries, 11 May 1873].
t is not surprising that Buddhism came to be regarded in the West as a pessimistic religion (which is quite the
opposite of Buddhism in reality), so that Nietzsche could write,
agner became increasingly preoccupied with Buddhist traditions and Brahmin philosophy and literature during the 1850s, one of the most difficult periods in his life. It might be that he sought an authentic, true religion. In the relatively late texts of Buddhist literature that were available to him, Wagner thought that he could discern an ancient and authentic teaching. It seems that during this period he had turned away from Christianity, which for Wagner had been corrupted by Jewish influences. He even speculated that the roots of Christianity might have been in eastern teachings that had reached the Near East during the third century before Christ.
uring these years Wagner's marriage to Minna Planer had become intolerable to him. Then he met a woman who shared his interests and was eager to discuss his ideas. This was Mathilde, the wife of his patron Otto Wesendonk. Mathilde had interests of her own: she was a passionate opponent of vivisection (today, we would call her an "animal-rights activist") and a poet. Recently W. Osthoff has drawn attention to her poem about Buddha and the wounded swan, which he regards as significant in relation to the swan incident in Parsifal (Richard Wagners Buddha Project 'Die Sieger': Seine ideellen und strukturellen Spuren in 'Ring' und 'Parsifal').
The Ring, Tristan and Die Sieger
[Carl Suneson, Richard Wagner och den indiska tankevärlden, 1985]
his drama was to be based on an avadana (a tale of heroic and miraculous acts performed by the Buddha in any of his incarnations) from the collection Divya vadana, called Sardulakarna vadana. From some of Richard Wagner's letters to Mathilde Wesendonk, the reader might form the impression that Wagner was well on the way to completing the poem of Die Sieger (The Victors). By 16 May 1856 he had written a short prose sketch, but then the project seems to have stalled. Wagner's attention turned back to Siegfried, to Götterdämmerung and forward to a new project, Tristan und Isolde.
[Guy R. Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters, 1968, p.178]
ere, it should be noted, Guy Welbon is one of many commentators on Wagner's later dramas who notes that the
[Guy R. Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters, 1968, p.178]
nder the influence of Indian thought, Wagner yet again changed the ending of Götterdämmerung, that is, the valedictory oration given by Brünnhilde before she ascends the funeral pyre. In the existing text, she declared that now she knew everything, which could be taken to mean that the Rhine daughters had explained to her about the ring and the potion that Hagen had given to Siegfried. But now, in the 1856 version, her knowledge was to be expanded: now she declared that she became die Wissende, which, Carl Suneson suggested, we are to interpret in the Buddhist sense of a bodhisattva.
Above: Act 3 of Parsifal in the recent production at Oper Leipzig.
The New Path of Salvation
[Guy R. Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters, 1968, p.175]
agner's admiration for Schopenhauer did not prevent him from attempting to correct the philosopher:
[R. Wagner to M. Wesendonk, 1 December 1858, tr. Spencer and Millington]
[Guy R. Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters, 1968, p.181]
agner never completed his Buddhist drama Die Sieger. The most likely reason for
him abandoning the ascetic Shakyamuni and his community of monks and (later) nuns, was the failure of his related attempt to correct the philosophy of
Schopenhauer, so that it might accommodate the possibility of
[Carl Suneson, Richard Wagner och den indiska tankevärlden, 1985]
Left: Act 2 of Parsifal in Friedrich's production for Bayreuth 1983. ©Bayreuther Festspiele.
Parsifal Beneath the Bodhi Tree
nyone who encounters Wagner's Parsifal, previously knowing Wolfram's MHG epic poem Parzival, will most likely be puzzled by the second act of the music-drama. (The drama and the poem have been compared by Jessie Weston). The magician who lives in a tower of the castle has a similar name to the castrated sorcerer Clinschor who, in Wolfram's poem, controls the Castle of Maidens. In this castle, however, the maidens are not imprisoned princesses, but nymphomaniac vegetation. Wagner's magician, Klingsor, has castrated himself; whereas Wolfram's Clinschor suffered this indignity at the hands of an outraged husband. He has in his power the seductive Kundry, whose double nature is not shared by Wolfram's Condrie (although there are two Condries in the epic poem: one of them is a sorceress and the other one Gawain's sister, a captive of Clinschor). Kundry encounters Parsifal, who resists her, and in this episode, Kundry has been related to Wolfram's Orgeluse; but Wolfram makes no connection between Kundry and Orgeluse.
o there are points of contact but also significant differences, as Wagner himself acknowledged, between the drama Parsifal and the epic Parzival. In particular, the action of the second act of the music-drama is not closely related to Wolfram's epic. Approaching this act (and less obviously, the outer acts too) of the music-drama from an Indological perspective, a consistently Buddhistic theme can be detected beneath the surface. Even in surface details there are points of contact with the life of the Buddha, suggesting that here Wagner is portraying his hero as a bodhisattva or even as an incarnation of the Buddha or as a future Buddha. In this view, Parsifal is seeking specifically spiritual wisdom and enlightenment (vidya, in the Buddhist sense of the word) rather than just the chivalric wisdom that is acquired by Parzival in Wolfram's poem. This radical interpretation3 is, as we shall see, well supported both by internal evidence and Wagner's own writings. Here is Wagner's description of his intended treatment of the Buddha and spiritual liberation in the opera that never was, Die Sieger.
[Letter to Mathilde Wesendonk, 5 October 1858, Wesendonk-Briefe 108-10, tr. Spencer and Millington]
his is, of course, exactly what happens to Parsifal! In his case,
the shock that induces Welthellsicht is Kundry's kiss. As with Brünnhilde
(see above), it may have been Wagner's original intention that the knowledge imparted to Parsifal was
limited; in this case, to understanding what he had seen at the Grail Castle; an understanding gained by Parsifal himself experiencing the same seduction that had been the downfall of Amfortas. Then Wagner's scheme became greatly expanded, as it had been with both Brünnhilde and the Buddha, so that Parsifal was now to be granted, through Kundry's kiss, the hidden
knowledge or vidya.
his analysis (originally by Carl Suneson) suggests that Parsifal is a Bodhisattva in the Buddhist tradition, one who attains vidya, knowledge, and
pragnyāmā (Pali) or paramartha (Sanskrit), highest wisdom or ultimate reality, that level of truth which
is known only to a Buddha. At the end of his path, the bodhisattva (as he has been described by Western scholars) stands on the edge of nirvāṇa. Pragnyāmā is one of the
sankhārokhando, categories of discrimination. Another of these is karunā, pity or compassion,
[Spence Hardy, Manual of Buddhism, 1853. Hardy was writing about the southern tradition, in which the Bodhisattva ideal is less developed than it is in Mahāyāna.]
ut if we look more closely at the events of Act 2, we can even see parallels with the enlightenment of the Buddha. Klingsor attempts to prevent this enlightenment, even to destroy Parsifal, in the same way as Mára (Lord Death, Lord of Illusion, Lord of Pleasure5) attempted to prevent the enlightenment of the Buddha and to destroy him. Mára sends his warriors against Buddha, but they cannot harm him. Klingsor sends his knights against Parsifal, but he defeats them. Mára sends his seductive daughters to Buddha, but he does not allow himself to be seduced by them. Klingsor conjures up his magic maidens and sends them to Parsifal, but he cannot be seduced. Mára does not have a Kundry, it is true, and the attempted seduction of Parsifal by a woman must have been inspired by something else (see below). Finally, Mára attacks the Buddha by hurling a discus (not, as D.W. Dauer mistakenly states 6, a spear) at him. It seems highly probable that this version of the Mára-Buddha contest, drawn from Ceylonese tradition (not, as D.W. Dauer mistakenly states, from the Buddhacarita), was the source of Wagner's suspended spear.
[Wagner's stage directions in Parsifal Act 2]
Die Erlösung des Weibes
olfram's epic poem Parzival refers many times to a Queen Secundille, who rules the land of Trîbalibôt beside the river Ganges. Thus even in Wolfram, there is a remote connection between India and the adventures of Parzival and Gawan. The name Trîbalibôt has been derived from the Greek Βαλιβοθρα, in turn derived from the Sanskrit Pataliputra (the modern Patna), which was the capital of Magadha in eastern India. Hearing of the Grail, and wishing to know more, Secundille sent to Anfortas gifts, including one of her people as a page, the dwarf Malcreatiure. Wolfram tells us that the sister of this dwarf was Condrie. So Wolfram's Condrie is, by a remarkable coincidence, a native of India, a point which Wagner might have noted.
here is a strange tale of Barlaam and Josaphat, which possibly has its origins in Christian missionary expeditions to India. It has been suggested that the name Josaphat is derived from Bodhisattva and Barlaam from Bhagavan. The original was probably composed in the seventh century of the Christian era. In the form in which the tale was eventually written down, it concerns a convert to Christianity, called Josaphat. In an attempt to persuade him to renounce this faith, a nameless woman is sent to seduce him. Of course she is by no means the only seductive woman in literature. The relevance of this particular "Indian" tale is that a German edition of the story, in a version by Rudolf von Ems and from 1325-1330, was published in Leipzig in 1843; and a copy was present in the library that Wagner abandoned when he left Dresden in great haste. Wagner's recollection of the attempted seduction of Josaphat could have been one inspiration for the attempted seduction of another Bodhisattva, Parsifal.
n Cosima Wagner's diary entry for 8 January 1881, she notes that Wagner speaks again of his intention to compose Die Sieger. Also that both this work and Parsifal address the same theme, the redemption (Erlösung) of women. Although, as we noted earlier, the resolution is quite different in the respective cases of Kundry and Prakriti. The theme is similar, however: Kundry is a despised servant, treated like an animal by the male society of the Grail knights, and Prakriti is a despised low-caste (Chandala) maiden in a society dominated by male Brahmins, whose admission to the Buddhist community is not even considered, initially, because of her sex. Each of these women carries the burden of a sin she had committed in an earlier life.
Kundry Must Sleep
[Wagner's Prose Draft of 1865]
his description of Kundry's sleep suggests the state of suṣupti a very deep sleep described in Indian (not Buddhist but Brahmin) scriptures (the Upanishads), from which it became known to the philosopher Schopenhauer. Suṣupti is described as a state in which the soul, or ātman, is temporarily released from the bands of matter. It might be that Wagner intended each awakening of Kundry to be regarded as a kind of rebirth, a return to the wheel of life, saṃsarā.
[Madhyamakakarika, attributed to Nagarjuna (ca. 200 BC) 7.]
agner's interpretation of Buddhism was as idiosyncratic as his personal form of Christianity. The former was partly based on his repeated reading of Schopenhauer, and therefore on the numerous misunderstandings of Buddhist concepts in the writings of the philosopher (which are understandable given the limited source material available in the west), conflated with Wagner's earlier beliefs in, for example, redemption through love. Like many of his contemporaries, it appears that Wagner perceived Buddhism as rather more negative than it really is; and wrongly understood the goal of nirvāṇa as a desire for extinction. It could be said that Tristan und Isolde was the result of this mistake. Wagner's Tristan can be understood as a drama of unsatisfied desires, above all the desire for extinction. Like all forms of desire, Wagner knew from reading Schopenhauer and Burnouf, this desire causes suffering.
et unlike many of his contemporaries, Wagner realized that there was an authentic core to Buddhism that could not be seen, at least not clearly, in the limited material available. In his last stage-work Parsifal he portrayed the enlightenment of a Buddha, not in the semi-historical representation he had intended for Die Sieger, but in an allegorical or symbolic fashion. On first encountering Parsifal, it might be possible to regard it (indeed many commentators have regarded it) as a treatment of Wolfram's epic poem Parzival. On better acquaintance, however, it becomes clear that the themes of Wolfram's bildungsroman are only incidental to Wagner's work. On the surface there are both Christian and Buddhist symbols, even elements that could be considered Manichaen (Cathar, Gnostic or Persian in origin) or Hindu. At a deeper level, however, it deals with fellow- suffering as (for Parsifal at least) the path to wisdom, even to supreme enlightenment, and with Kundry's release from the endless cycle of rebirth. Wagner's drama is an account of a spiritual journey, in which the seeker finds and follows the path of deliverance.
Parsifal and Buddhism
ince I wrote the article above, in November 1999, my understanding of the Buddhist ideas and symbolism in Parsifal has been significantly improved and expanded as a result of intensive studies in the related literature, combined with visits to Bayreuth and Zürich in the summer of 2000. The outcome of these investigations is an article written in the autumn of last year which has now appeared in the journal Wagner, volume 22, number 2, July 2001. The inquiring reader is directed to that journal for further details.
Appendix: Wagner's books from the East. A list of books, each of which Wagner at some time had in his possession, concerning the literature, religion or other aspects of India, Nepal, Ceylon and other eastern countries.
Footnote 1: Holtzmann's Indiske Sagen is a reworking of the epic cycle Mahabharata. In Holzmann's version, these stories, originally part of an Indian mythical- allegorical cycle, become tragiheroic sagas in a Germanic style. After the Mahabharata, the longest epic in this tradition is Ramayana, attributed to one poet, Valmiki. The original is in seven parts, of which part 2 was paraphrased by Holtzmann as Rama, ein indisches Gedicht nach Walmiki (1843). The entire poem was translated into French by Ippolyte Fauch as Ramayana, poème sanscrit de Valmiki, first published in 1854-58. In 1865 Wagner read the Ramayana with great enthusiasm:
[Das Braune Buch, entry for 16 August 1865. Just ten days before Wagner began writing the first Prose Draft of Parsifal]
Footnote 2: Wagner was in error in his belief that the Buddha had taught the transmigration of souls. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha Shakyamuni rejected not only the concept of a soul or ātman, but also that of the self or individual. In the Buddha's teaching, as it is explained in chapter 9 (The Ontology of Buddhism) of Hardy's book (where his information was almost entirely drawn from the Suryodgamana Sutra), what is erroneously perceived as a 'self' is a temporary combination of five aggregates or skandha (Pali: khanda). The first of these aggregates (Pali: rúpan) corresponds, roughly, to the body, and the remaining four aggregates (Pali: wédama, sannyá, sankháro, winyána) are concerned with mental processes and might be, again roughly, equated with the western concept of 'mind'. Each of these aggregates changes over the lifetime of the individual; in fact, smaller or greater changes occur from one moment to the next. Despite the apparent continuity of each individual, they are subject to constant change, so that man may be compared to a river, which retains an identity, though the drops of water that make it up are different from one moment to the next. At death, all of the constituent parts of what we usually regard as an individual, including the mental aggregates, are dissolved. So what is it that, according to Buddhist teaching, can be reborn? It seems that what is carried over from one life to the next is not a soul, but rather an entry in the book of life: karma. The balance of a karmic account is reassigned to an individual at the moment of their conception, becoming the germ of one of the five aggregates, which Hardy translated as "consciousness" (Pali: winyána or Sanskrit: vijñana). Har Dayal took the view that it was "consciousness" that survived from one life to the next; other books about Buddhism deny that any of the skandha survive death, except in the sense given above. Dayal also disputed the translation of ātman as "soul", taking the alternative view that ātman means "spirit", while considering vijñana closer in meaning to "soul" than to "consciousness". It seems implausible that ātman means "spirit", when brahman is spirit also. Dayal was probably right to the extent that the Buddha would have preached both against the concept of "soul" and that of "spirit". In general it is difficult to relate some of the skandha to western religious concepts and care should be taken when using western terms such as "consciousness" or "soul" which are, at best, only approximations to the Buddhist term vijñana and the Brahminic term ātman respectively.
Footnote 3: This was a new idea when it was advanced by Carl Suneson 30 years ago and it was still considered radical when this article was first written. Now it seems to have entered the mainstream and even the academic Wagner specialists are taking it seriously. For example, concerning Wagner's earliest concept of the drama, Dieter Borchmeyer recently wrote:
The eponymous hero of Parsifal evolved from initial blindness to a Buddhist saint (bodhisattva) in Christian garb.Wagner Spectrum: Schwerpunkt 'Wagner und der Buddhismus', 2007, page 27.
Footnote 4: Unfortunately, from its very beginning the reception of Buddhist ideas in the western world has had considerable difficulty in understanding the path of the Bodhisattva (as distinct from the eightfold path, for example) and the (various) doctrines concerning the perfections. It did not help that Burnouf and other western scholars mistranslated the Sanskrit word pāramitā. They thought that it related to pāram, which means "opposite shore", and therefore that it referred to the metaphor of the the "great vessel", Mahāyāna. Actually pāramitā means "spiritual perfection", "virtue" or "transcendant action", and it refers specifically to the six perfections or virtues that a Bodhisattva must develop (to perfection) as he follows the path to Buddhahood, from life to life and from world to world.
Footnote 5: In the standard western text on the boddhisattva doctrine, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature (1932), Har Dayal distinguishes between Mára as he appears in the Pali Canon and in the Sanskrit literature respectively. In the former, Mára often appears as a mythological figure. Dayal points out that the following phrase recurs in the Pali Canon:
this universe, with the devas, Mára and Brahmá, recluses and brahmins. This suggests that there may have been an older religious tradition in which Mára was a dark lord who opposed Brahmá. In other texts Mára seems to be more of a Trickster, very often he appears as a tempter (as in the Padhána-Sutta). Dayal also notes that Mára is sometimes called Namuci in Buddhist texts, and this name appears in the pre-Buddhist Rig Veda as the name of an asura or demon. In general he appears as a symbol of evil, sin, desire and temptation. His domain is one of sensuous pleasure. In Sanskrit texts he is a deva, lord of desire and lust, and appropriately his daughters are named Rati (lust or attachment: she is the Hindu goddess of love), Arati (aversion, discontent or unrest) and Tṝṣṇā (craving, desire or thirst). These are the three daughters who are sent to seduce the bodhisattva as he approaches total enlightenment.
Footnote 6: Richard Wagner's Art in its relation to Buddhist Thought, Dorothy W. Dauer, Scripta Humanista Kentuckiensa, Supplement to the Kentucky Foreign Language Quarterly, vol. VII, 1964, pages 1-35. Carl Suneson, in his review of the literature relating to Wagner and Indian thought, remarked that Dauer's article failed to deliver all that was promised by its ambitious title.
Footnote 7: This teaching of the noble Nagarjuna (perhaps the most important figure in the development of Buddhism after Shakyamuni himself) has been interpreted as meaning that nirvāṇa and saṃsarā are the same in the sense that they have in all respects the same nature, i.e. absence of inherent existence. The view that saṃsarā is empty or illusory while nirvāṇa is a world that really exists is one that Buddhists reject, regardless of variations in their doctrines of emptiness (śūnyatā) and nirvāṇa respectively. The same world, as a flow of perceptions or experiences, can be perceived or experienced at one (everyday) level in saṃsarā (as it is by those of us who are not enlightened) and at another (ultimate) level in nirvāṇa (by those beings who are enlightened). Thus the distinction between saṃsarā and nirvāṇa is not so much one between two worlds as between two levels of truth, the everyday and the ultimate.