Richard Wagner: “We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word.”


richard wagner

Wagner’s advice, that we need to learn to die, may bring up thoughts of our mortality: thoughts we may not be comfortable dwelling upon. But Bodhipaksa suggests learning to die really means learning to live fully, embracing the ungraspable flow of life.

“We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word. The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness,” wrote Richard Wagner.

In Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, Siegfried is the hero precisely because he lives by a code: never to let your life be shaped by fear of its end.

Religion is often supposed to free us from fear of death, and yet that doesn’t always happen. A recent study of patients with terminal cancer revealed that those who regularly prayed were more than three times more likely to insist on receiving intensive life-prolonging care than those who relied least on religion. Those who prayed most were most afraid of dying.

That’s rather sobering. Those who you think might be most happy to meet their end — so that they could meet their God — were those who most resisted death and clung desperately to life.

 …never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind.

This is ironic, and not just in the obvious sense; those who insist on heroic measures being taken to prolong their lives experience greater levels of psychological and physical distress because of the invasive nature of the medical and surgical interventions they insist upon. Clinging leads to suffering. Seems like I’ve heard that before, somewhere.

Siegfried’s code could, I think, be expanded into something wider — never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind, with death being just one particular thing to be afraid of.

Life is full of “little deaths.” There are million things in each and every day of our lives that we can either cling to, or let go of.

Every thought we have, every sensation we experience, every feeling and emotion that arises is an opportunity for either clinging or for letting go. There are a million opportunities for experiencing fear: a million opportunities to live heroically, in small ways.

Examples: I’m driving to a class I’m teaching, going smack on the speed limit. A car behind me is driving too close, looking for an opportunity to blast by me. I’ve lost the “safe space” that I like to have between my car and the vehicle following. Fear arises. Will I just let this discomfort arise and pass, or will I tense up, start cursing the other driver, or speed up to try and put some distance between us, or slow down in order to get revenge? If I just keep driving, allowing the fear to exist, I find I can be comfortable with discomfort. I don’t, after all, have to fear the loss of the sense of ease that I previously had.

The driver passes me. I experience the loss of the sense of being in front of someone. I fear a loss of status. It seems absurd, but that’s what happens. And it’s OK. I remind myself that driving’s not a competition (a useful mantra, I find). I wish the other driver well.

We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.

A few minutes later in the same drive, and I feel a little bored. I’ve lost my sense of enjoyment. I fear the boredom. Will I turn on the car radio and see what’s on?

Maybe instead I’ll go deeper into my experience, take enjoyment in the quiet sensuality of driving, notice the movements in my body, the scenery passing by.

The vast majority of the time we don’t even notice these opportunities, nor do we notice when we capitulate to fear. These examples may seem trivial, but my point is that life is composed, in the main, of these supposedly trivial things.

“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness.” In each of the examples I gave above there’s an opportunity to love. I can relate to my own fear and discomfort with love. I can cultivate lovingkindness for the driver who tailgates and then passes me. After all his bad driving habits are no doubt being fueled by his own suffering. I can remind myself to appreciate (love) the ordinary experiences involved in driving, rather than assuming that I have to look outside of myself for fulfillment.

Wagner said we have to learn “to die in the fullest sense of the word.” I wonder if the fullest sense of the word “dying” is to die in every moment. Every time some experience arises that we can cling to or push away, we simply accept it and allow it to pass. And in doing so we have an opportunity to create moments of love that fill our lives.

Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to let clinging and aversion die. Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to live in the fullest sense of the word.

If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling.

“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness” because when we attempt to hold on to something that can’t, by its very nature, be held on to — and ultimately nothing can be held on to — we’re unable to appreciate. We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.

Wagner, in the same letter where he talked about the necessity of learning to die, pointed out that the lesson we must learn is “to will what necessity imposes.” If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling. In order to live fully we have to learn to let go completely, to make it our “will” to embrace change and to cease clinging.

But what about “real” death. Siegfried embraced life, but the death that he didn’t fear was a literal one. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, frequently reminds us that “meditation is a preparation for death, and that death is a state of enforced meditation.” Learn to let go in life and we won’t end up like those sad terminal cancer patients, unable to accept the inevitable. We’ll perhaps be able to love death itself and see it as another opportunity to let go.

The next time you’re meditating, look at what’s going on as an illustration of the truth that you can either try to hold on, or you can love. When you feel frustration because your mind’s busier than you want it to be, realize that you can instead simply appreciate and love the sheer busyness of your mind. When you find yourself longing for some joy that has now passed, realize that you can instead simply love whatever happens to be present in your experience, and in that way experience a renewed joy.

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15 Comments. Leave new

  • Matthew Brown
    March 20, 2009 1:05 pm

    BK, a really good post, and for me, a timely one (although come to think of it, when am I not about to let go of something I’ve been clinging to). I have been trying to save what appears to be an unsalvageable relationship. But the more I am able to turn my mind toward loving what I can do now, the more I am able to let go, it seems.

    BTW, paragraph 11 was cut off, I think.

  • Great post. The parallel of letting go/detachment from a given attachment/desire as a “death” (with its subsequent “rebirth” of being free from attachment) makes sense. As for Wagner (the composer) … Nietsche’s only friend, right? Another German Stoic, another European Buddhist…

    Pavel Somov, Ph.D.

  • David Shalom
    April 1, 2009 8:49 am

    I am reminded of another quote: “While I thought I was learning to live, I have been learning how to die.” – Leonardo da Vinci

  • One of the strongest temptations I have when writing these “quote” articles is to mention other quotes it reminds me of.

  • No! I’m afraid this is nonsense. The idealism of the ‘heroic’ Siegfried epitomised the sickness of Europe. This was the gothic Romantic belief that suffering was good – and death was a the glorious conclusion to this.

    When Wagner wrote that “We must learn to die”, he is advocating Schopenhauer’s philosophy of pessimism. This is the negation of everything that life is; above all – morality. Wagner was the source of inspiration for the revolutionary nihilism of Nechaev and ultimately European fascism and the Russian Soviet revolutionaries.

    It is a nice belief that this quote is a suggestion to ‘let go’, but in fact it is referring to Siegfried, an evil figure of a anarchist ideal – it is craving death and suffering as the fulfillment of life. Siegfried was an iconoclast that attacked not just political institutions, but the moral authority as well.

    As for Nietzsche, he realised this after seeing the Ring and wrote a ironic polemic named “A Case of Wagner” that explains all this in far better detail and language than I ever could. Nietzsche detested all that Wagner and his Siegfried stood for. Also read “Wagner’s Hitler” by Kohler, which explains how Wagner’s nihilism had a direct bearing on the rise of European fascism.

    • I appreciate you presenting the historical perspective, which I’m aware of, incidentally, although in the context of what I’m doing it’s not actually at all relevant. Sure, as well as being an amazing creative force Wagner was a thoroughly objectionable man. He was antisemitic, utterly egotistical, a traitor to friends and colleagues, and he treated women abysmally. But when I find a quote that resonates with me, I don’t offer that as an endorsement of the whole life of the originator of the quote, whether it’s the proto-Nazi Wagner or the Nazi sympathizing Anne Morrow Lindbergh (who I’ve also quoted). The quotation is just the starting point for my own thoughts.

      My understanding is that Nietzsche was originally Wagner’s friend and supporter, but that as Nietzsche matured he became more critical of Wagner’s behavior and philosophy.

      I find your perspective on Siegfried rather one-dimensional, as is your characterization of Schopenhauer, who most certainly was not teaching “the negation of everything that life is; above all morality.” I’m no philosophy student, but I know that Schopenhauer taught that compassion was the primary basis for morality. Not exactly “the negation of … morality.”

      I doubt very much whether the course of the development of European Fascism would have been significantly different had Wagner never existed. He was part of cultural trend, and not the prime cause of it. But all this is rather beside the point. As I said, the quotes are just the starting point. In this particular case I think Wagner, for all his faults, had a glimpse of something true.

  • I have to concur with Sam on this one. The Romantic ideal is not a Buddhist ideal. Just read Dharma Bums to see how they don’t work together!

    There’s a real danger in looking to the past for inspiration (the Romantics were wont to make up a past for inspiration!). Once you remove a quote like this from its historical context, you are headed for the Land of Misinterpretation.

    It’s rather like all those folks that think the Buddhism is a form of nihilism because it doesn’t posit an afterlife and is “all about suffering.”

    • I wasn’t aware I was claiming that the Romantic ideal was the Buddhist ideal. If I quote Heraclitus in an essay on Buddhism I’m not saying that the Buddhist ideal is the same as Heraclitean ideal. If I quote St Paul I’m not saying that the Buddhist ideal is the same as the Christian ideal. Sometimes there are parallels in different streams of thought, even when those streams are ultimately heading in very different directions.

  • Yes, I appreciate that you used the quote as a ‘starting point’ for your thoughts, but you did go on to pick the character of Siegfried as a specific example. I’m not sure you can mix this bizarre kind of fatalism with your beliefs – they would appear to be completely incompatible.

    Both Nietzsche (the later, less zealously youthful Nietzsche) and the awful George Bernard Shaw said the same about Schopenhauer and the philosophers of pessimism. They do advocate the negation of life. Very strongly. In fact Wagner himself – an awful man, as you said – used this idea as a premise for much of work: Parsifal, Tristan and Isolde, The Ring Cycle etc.

    Thomas Mann and Shaw both equated Siegfried to later Bolshevik nihilist thinking. In fact the pro-Wagner Shaw even compared Siegfried to the infamous anarchist Bakunin, whom Wagner organised the Dresden revolution (or attempt thereof) with.

    • The only aspect of Siegfried’s character I refer to in the article is where I say “Siegfried is the hero precisely because he lives by a code: never to let your life be shaped by fear of its end.” He’s the hero because he’s unafraid of death. I think there’s something admirable in that, whatever other flaws his character may have had.

      As for Schopenhauer’s “negation of life,” I could quote you plenty of people who said, erroneously, that the Buddha did exactly the same thing. But the mere assertion of that as a fact, and the linking of one thinker with a later historical development, does not make it so.

      The Stanford dictionary of philosophy has this to say about Schopenhauer: “Often considered to be a thoroughgoing pessimist, Schopenhauer in fact advocated ways — via artistic, moral and ascetic forms of awareness — to overcome a frustration-filled and fundamentally painful human condition.” In many ways his approach, his goals, and his thinking remind me of Buddhism.

  • Curiously enough, in ‘A companion to Nietzsche’ by Keith Ansell-Pearson, the author does refer to Buddhism as a nihilist religion. Wagner himself was also very interested in Buddhism at some points in his life.

    • Many people have called Buddhism “nihilistic” or “pessimistic.” Pope Benedict called it a “negative soteriology” and “autoerotic spirituality” (spiritual masturbation). But these views betray a prfound lack of understanding of what Buddhism is and how it is practiced.

      Wagner was indeed interested in Buddhism, and had a Buddha statue in Tribschen, but of course at that time Buddhism was very poorly understood. I’d be interested in finding out more regarding what his conception of Buddhism was. If only I had the time!

  • Matthew Brown
    April 14, 2009 3:53 pm

    “The coward dies a thousand deaths, the hero only one.”
    “No second arrow.”
    Not too unalike, really.

    I think the main things that come to mind when I consider the Romantic movement are its glorification of death and its making history up to create national myths, both of which culminated in Nazism (when you throw in a helping of pseudoscientific racism, among other things). So some might consider using Romantic sources dipping into a poisoned well.

    On the other hand, I just listened to a talk by Ajahn Amar (from my other favorite Buddhist site, in which he quotes extensively from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium.” Very effectively, too.

    I can imagine that a great many non-Western Buddhists have a problem with this kind of thing, but I don’t. How do you speak to a Western audience without drawing from the Western tradition? But Sam seems to be pretty well versed in the Romantic tradition (much more than I am!), and apparently finds it a poor match with Buddhism.

    What I find most interesting is that so many Westerners — B, you mention the Pope — find Buddhism nihilistic, in a way that others find the Romantics nihilistic. But there’s a lot of life-affirming stuff in the Romantic movement, and there’s quite a bit of bizarre fatalism heard in some Buddhist circles (karma=destiny to some, it seems).

    Maybe it all comes down to HOW to face death fearlessly. For my part, I’m working on facing life less fearfully, and maybe once I improve at that, I’ll be able to handle death a little better.

  • I think that like virtually all cultural movements, Romanticism contained elements of over-reaction. But just because Romanticism went to extremes doesn’t mean that it was all extreme, or that there was something intrinsically “bad” about it. There was much that was positive in the Romantics’ embrace of nature, their acknowledgment of the power of intuition and emotion, and their embrace of the heroic ideal. Yes, those things can be taken to extremes, but then so can their opposites.

    I think it grossly overestimates the power of artists to think they were somehow responsible for Nazism, etc any more than you could say they were responsible for the Russian or American revolutions. I’m not saying that artists can’t be leaders, but perhaps to an even greater extent they themselves are following trends that are unfolding historically, crystallizing and reflecting the zeitgeist. And remember that Wagner died before Hitler was even born, and 50 years before he came to power. It’s not very flattering to Wagner to say say that his malign influence took so long to take effect. [Joke alert]It’s like blaming the current recession on Chuck Berry.[/joke alert]

    Sam, incidentally, hasn’t said anything at all about Buddhism. For all I know he thinks Buddhism is nihilistic as well.

    I think your point about facing life fearlessly in order to face death fearlessly is exactly what I was trying to get at in my article.

  • “facing life fearlessly in order to face death fearlessly is exactly what I was trying to get at in my article” – a favorite theme of Camus, another European non-buddhist-buddhist that could be stereotyped as pessimist although he certainly wasn’t (see his lesser known essays about Greek beaches). acceptance of reality as is – often – is mistaken for morbidity. realism threatens idealism. an ancient tension.


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