from Wagner, Love and Buddhism
, an article in German from Swiss Radio & Television
Monday, April 29, 2013, Judith Hardegger
Wagner? That is of course the stuff with the Germanic heroes. Was does it have to do with Buddhism? Wagner was not only an opera composer, he was also a philosophical Jack of all trades. And he was especially taken with Buddhist philosophy.
In 1854 Richard Wagner read Arthur Schopenhauer's book "The World as Will and Representation". The lecture led him to an awakening experience. Schopenhauer's main work is completely stamped by old Indian thought. And so in this way Wagner came in contact for the first time with Buddhism through Schopenhauer. This world view would never leave him.
Wagner's intense interest with Buddhism is seen above all in the diary of his second wife Cosima. On September 27, 1882 - just five months before Wagers death she wrote: "In the evening he was up and read the book 'Buddha'. We almost always talk about the Buddha". And on October 1: "He declared Buddhism itself as a flowering of the human mind, in opposition to which the result would be decadence".
Buddhism versus Christianity
Cosima's dairy entries as well as Wagner's letters show that he often compared Christianity with Buddhism. What especially pleased him about Buddhism was the focus on penance and good works instead of churches and compulsory attendance of services. Wagner thought that Christianity should try to measure up to Buddhism. This would however require that Christianity free itself from it's great errors: church hierarchy and dogmatic orientation.
A Buddhist Opera
In May 1856 in Zurich Wagner began writing a Buddhist opera with the title "The Victors". The drama was based on a legend that the composer had discovered in 1844 in the book "Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism" by Eugene Burnouf. It went like this: Prakriti, a girl from the lowest caste, had fallen in love with the monk and attendant of the Buddha, Ananda. She requested permission from the Buddha to be with her beloved. Buddha granted her wish - however in a specific sense: Prakriti could be with Ananda only if she took vows of chastity. Prokriti collapsed in despair. She discovered from the Buddha that she had to endure this fate as penance for a sin from a past life. Due to pride she had once ridiculed an admirer and she must now suffer the pain of unfulfilled love. Prakriti could atone for this sin through chaste renunciation and enter Buddha's community. Renunciation and sexual asceticism is a theme that henceforth would play am important role in numerous works of Wagner's.
A Buddhist Parsifal
"The Victors" never came to production. Nonetheless Wagner worked on this drama to the end of his life. On January 6, 1881 he said to Cosima "If you take good care of me, clothe me and feed me well, then I will still complete 'The Victors'". Nevertheless he never set his Buddhist opera to music and in the end "Parsifal" was his final stage work. In "Parsifal" Wagner found the realization of the themes from "The Victors".
Aside from overcoming sexual desire or even renunciation a second Buddhist theme stands at the center of Parsifal: compassion. Both central themes are especially clear to recognize in the character of Kundry, the female figure of this opera. As with Prakriti from the Victor drama Kundry atones for her sin from previous lives and this sin, or in Buddhist-speak, this karma. forces her to be reborn at the end of her life. Kudry's sin was that she laughed at Jesus bearing his cross on the way to Golgotha instead of showing compassion for him. Ever since that time she commits the same sin over and over again, from life to life, forever dammed to repeat her taunting laughter. Only Parsifal, the counterpart to Ananda from the Buddhist opera, can free her from her curse.
Thus in "Parsifal" as in "The Victors", we have the same the lesson: sexual desire has to be overcome and with it the attachment to worldly existence. For desire always creates new suffering. Whether Wagner himself did justice to this principle in his own life, remains undecided. And likewise whether he truly understood the essence of Buddhism.