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).
he 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 Entstehung.
An unedifying book, was Wagner's verdict. But to Burnouf's book, Wagner was to return repeatedly during the rest of his life. Wagner's interest in Indian
literature might also have been encouraged by conversations with his brother-in-law, Hermann Brockhaus, who edited and partially translated the compilation of Hindu stories,
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:
The true geniuses and the true saints of all ages ... tell us that they have seen only suffering and felt only fellow-suffering (Mitleid). In other words, they have recognized the normal condition of all living things and seen the cruel, eternally contradictory nature of the will to
live, which is common to all living things and which, in eternal self-mutilation, is blindly self- regarding; the appalling cruelty of this will, which even in sexual love wills only its own
reproduction, first appeared here reflected in that particular cognitive organ which, in its normal state, recognized itself as having been created by the will and therefore as being subservient to it;
and so, in its abnormal, sympathetic state, it developed to the point of seeking lasting and, finally, permanent freedom from its shameful servitude, a freedom which it ultimately achieved only by
means of a complete denial of the will to live.
[Letter from Richard Wagner to Franz Liszt, 7 June 1855, Liszt-Briefe II 73-80, tr. Spencer and
This act of denying the will is the true action of the saint: that it is ultimately accomplished only in a total end to individual
consciousness — for there is no other consciousness except that which is personal and individual — was lost sight of by the naïve saints of Christianity, confused, as they were, by Jewish
dogma, and they were able to deceive their confused imagination by seeing that longed-for state as a perpetual continuation of a new state of life freed from nature, without our judgement as to the
moral significance of their renunciation being impaired in the process, since in truth they were striving only to achieve the destruction of their own individuality, i.e. their existence. This most
profound of all instincts finds purer and more meaningful expression in the oldest and most sacred religion known to man, in Brahmin teaching, and especially in its final transfiguration in Buddhism,
where it achieves its most perfect form. Admittedly, [Brahminism] puts forth a myth in which the world is created by God; but it does not praise this act as a boon, but presents it as a sin committed
by Brahma for which the latter atones by transforming himself into the world and by taking upon himself the immense sufferings of the world; he is redeemed in those saints who, by totally denying the
will to live, pass over into nirvāṇa, i.e. the land of non-being, as a result of their consuming sympathy for all that suffers. The
Buddha was just such a saint; according to his doctrine of metempsychosis, every living creature will be reborn in the shape of that being to which he caused pain, however pure his life might
otherwise have been, so that he himself may learn to know pain; his suffering soul² continues to migrate in this way, and he himself continues to be reborn until such time as he
causes no more pain to any living creature in the course of some new incarnation but, out of fellow-suffering (Mitleid), completely denies himself
and his own will to live.
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 (
Seelenwanderung). The libretto of his Parsifal contains at least one direct reference to reincarnation (Gurnemanz in the first act wonders aloud about whether Kundry carries a burden of sin that results from actions in a previous life — an odd speculation for a Christian to
make; although a Buddhist might have spoken of negative karma, akusala, rather than of sin) and there are some indirect, ambiguous references to rebirth (in the first act Parsifal reveals that
he has had many names but forgotten them all; in the third act he speaks of all that lives and will live again).
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
the land of non-being led to an association with the romantic concept of death -wish:
[Cosima's Diaries, 11 May 1873]
The suicide of two lovers, which touches me, brings from R. the remark: "It is in fact the highest affirmation of the will — they would
rather not live than not find satisfaction. Why do they not defy all the obstacles? This shows that the tendency toward suicides is something preordained; here one could call it a deep insight, in the
sense approximately of: What help would it be to us to overcome all obstacles? For such cases there should be convents, such as the Buddhists have, in which complete resignation as well as complete
togetherness would be possible. But our civilization offers nothing."
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,
Er schmeichelt jedem nihilistischen (-buddhistischen) Instinkte ... [Der Fall Wagner], as though
nihilism and Buddhism were almost synonymous. Buddhism is not, in fact, nihilistic, although to Western scholars (who had difficulty in distinguishing between emptiness and non- existence) it might have
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. During 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]
Only with the greatest caution should one attempt to stipulate Indian models for Wagner's works, of course with the exception of Die
Sieger, which is entirely derived from an Indian source of inspiration.
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]
As an independent composition, [The Victors] progressed no further than that sketch. Asked about the work two decades later, Wagner responded
that its essence had been pressed into his Parsifal. It it not altogether clear, however, what essence he had in mind. Suggestions have also been made that certain passages in Die
Götterdämmerung [sic], Tristan and Parsifal were originally noted for the Buddhist opera.
ere, it should be noted, Guy Welbon is one of many commentators on Wagner's later dramas who notes that the
essence of Die
Sieger was adapted for Parsifal but is unable to define exactly what it is that Wagner carried over from the drama that was not completed to the one that he did complete. Welbon goes on to
make an important observation:
[Guy R. Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters, 1968, p.178]
More important than an attempt to find Buddhist scenes in parts of the other operas will be the effort to identify a pervasive influence
traceable to his conception of Buddhism. And one must be prepared to look for this musically as well as dramatically.
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.
The New Path to Salvation
[Guy R. Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters, 1968, p.175]
By the end of autumn in 1854, Wagner had swallowed Schopenhauer's material whole, not excluding the latter's
bitter tirades against those who had ignored him. It is clear, however, that Wagner had by no means digested all that Schopenhauer said. He appropriated a major idea —
denial of the will — and affixed it to his own lebensphilosophie ...
agner's admiration for Schopenhauer did not prevent him from attempting to correct the
[R. Wagner to M. Wesendonk, 1 December 1858, tr. Spencer and Millington]
During recent weeks I have been slowly rereading friend Schopenhauer's principal work, and this time it has
inspired me, quite extraordinarily, to expand and — in certain details — even to correct his system. The subject is uncommonly important, and it must, I think, have been reserved for a man
of my own particular nature, at this particular period of his life, to gain insights here of a kind that could never have disclosed themselves to anyone else. It is a question, you see, of pointing out
the path to salvation, which has not been recognized by any philosopher, and especially not by Sch., but which involves a total pacification of the will through love, and not through any abstract human
love, but a love engendered on the basis of sexual love, i.e. the attraction between man and woman ...
[Guy R. Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters, 1968, p.181]
Now it is clear — if, indeed, it has not been so all along — that the Buddha of [Die Sieger] is Schopenhauer and Ananda, Wagner. Prakriti could be taken as Mathilde, of course; but I
suspect that the so-called affair with Mathilde was as much a creative projection of Wagner's imagination as Prakriti or Isolde. Perhaps, in
fact, Mathilde is the least real of all.
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
a total pacification of the
will through love. In other words: Wagner was forced to abandon the idea of redemption through love, one that is found through many of his earlier operas. In the interpretation of App the corresponding idea that appears in the post-Schopenhauer dramas of Tristan and Parsifal is that of redemption from love, where
love is identified with mankind's fundamental desire (Grundverlangen).
[Carl Suneson, Richard Wagner och den indiska tankevärlden, 1985]
"Parsifal" is in my opinion, of Wagner's completed music-dramas, that in which the Indian influence is most demonstrable.
[Ulrike Kienzle, ... daß wissend würde die Welt, page 217]
Kundry is without doubt the figure in the Bühnenweihfestspiel in which Wagner's inclination towards Indian thought — apart
from the representation of the protagonists after the model of Buddhas and bodhisattvas — is most immediately reflected. Kundry is, at the same time, the personified World-Will of Schopenhauer.
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 Laidlay 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]
The difficulty here was to make the Buddha himself - a figure totally liberated and above all passion - suitable for dramatic and, more
especially, musical treatment. But I have now solved the problem by having him reach one last remaining stage in his development whereby he is seen to acquire a new insight, which - like every insight
- is conveyed not by abstract associations of ideas but by intuitive emotional experience, in other words, by a process of shock and agitation suffered by his inner self; as a result, this insight
reveals him in his final progress towards a state of supreme enlightenment.
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.
[Kundry in Act 2 of Parsifal]
So war es mein Kuss,
der welthellsichtig dich machte?
Mein volles Liebes Umfangen
lässt dich dann Gottheit erlangen.
Die Welt erlöse, ist dies dein Amt;
schuf dich zum Gott die Stunde,
für sie lass mich ewig dann verdammt,
nie heile mir die Wunde!
So was it my kiss
that gave you world-perception?
Then the full embrace of my loving
surely will raise you to godhead!
Redeem the world, if that's your mission;
let me make you a god, for just an hour,
rather than leave me to eternal damnation,
my wound never to be healed!
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,
that which desires the destruction of the sorrow of the afflicted. One of the "perfections" (pāramitā) 4 of the Bodhisattva is prajñāpāramitā, the virtue preceding from wisdom or the perfection of wisdom, in which that wisdom becomes available to
other sentient beings.
[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.]
There is a kind of wisdom called chintā-pragnyāmā, which is received by intuitive perception, and not from
information communicated by another. It is possessed in an eminent degree by the Bodhisats; but the wisdom that discovers the four great truths is received only by the Pasé-Buddhas and the supreme
Buddhas in their last birth.
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]
Klingsor appears on the rampart and prepares to throw the Spear
towards Parsifal... He hurls the Spear, which remains hanging over Parsifal's head.
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]
Then someone chances upon her in a cave, or in dense undergrowth, in a deathlike sleep, lifeless, numb, bloodless, with all limbs rigid.
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,
[Madhyamakakarika, attributed to Nagarjuna (ca. 200 BC) 7.]
There is nothing whatsoever differentiating saṃsarā from nirvāṇa. There is nothing whatsoever differentiating nirvāṇa from saṃsarā.
The limit of nirvāṇa is the limit of saṃsarā. Between the two, there is not the slightest bit of difference.
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.
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]
Oh, Rama is divine! How grand, how vast everything becomes for me at having to deal with such people! — A glorious drama stands there
before me, different from all others! But who is to make it? Rama with Sita and Lakshmana marching into the jungle — who would not like to be Rama, who not Sita or Lakshmana. — It is almost
the finest thing I know! — Divine Land of the Ganges! —
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
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
Brahminic term ātman
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
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
. They thought that it related to pāram
, which means "opposite shore", and therefore that it referred to the metaphor of the the "great vessel",
. 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.
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
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.
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
are the same in the sense that they have in all respects the same nature, i.e. absence of inherent existence. The view that
is empty or illusory while nirvāṇa
is a world that really exists is one that Buddhists reject, regardless of variations in their doctrines of
) 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
is not so much one between two worlds as between two levels of truth, the everyday and the