In the story of Wagner's opera, everything is symbolic and contributes to the mythic realm he creates. While this use of mythology and symbolism creates a sense of distance from reality, for Wagner it is the most profound way of speaking about our life and humanity. His characters often embody both the flaws and grandeur of human nature, on the one hand possessing the uncontrollable desires that cause suffering to all beings, and on the other hand celebrating the most immense love that one could ever imagine. Wagner, as a 19th-century artistic alchemist, drew inspiration from a wide range of sources, from medieval Scandinavian mythology to the story of Buddha's enlightenment journey. He mixed elements from various religions, philosophies, beliefs, and symbolism, fusing them into his magical hodgepodge. As a result, although it may have been clear to him what the stories signify, they can be obscure for an audience without the intellectual context he came from. Even Wagnerian scholars can sometimes miss his intended meaning and interpret it in a completely different direction. From my perspective, the complexity of Wagner's story is derived not only from his idiosyncratic interpretation of different knowledge, but also from the intrinsic conflicts between the various realms of interests. 
If observed closely, there appears to be a 'paradigm shift' in Wagner's thinking around the year 1854. Prior to that point, Wagner's work often took inspiration from ancient stories and was filled with themes such as love, renunciation, and salvation. But after 1854, his works seem far more complex. For example, while both Lohengrin and Parsifal draw inspiration from the same story – 'Parzival' by Wolfram von Eschenbach – they are vastly different pieces. Lohengrin, in essence, is a simple tale about the impossible love between two lovers: one executing God's will with noble responsibility and the other consumed by human emotion. Parsifal on the other hand is much more complex, featuring religious motifs, Buddhist ideas, the spiritual journey of a fool, and themes of desire, salvation, and compassion that cannot be fully explained from either a Christian or Buddhist perspective. Other examples include the strangeness of how the symbolism of day and night in Tristan and Isolde subverts a Western tradition that sees the day as positive - representing the rising of life, enlightenment, hope, and possibilities, while the night is seen as negative - symbolizing the end of life, death, ignorance, and decay. In contrast, in Wagner's work, day signifies deception and false appearance, while night signifies enlightenment and the true nature of reality. Moreover, it is difficult to explain why Tristan chooses to drink the "poison" (which is not a poison) despite his awareness that it will lead to his death, and the ending of the lovers' story remains obscure. 
To solve these mysteries, one cannot fully understand them from a single perspective, but must take into consideration one of the most important episodes in Wagner's life: his encounter with Arthur Schopenhauer's writings in 1854. Of all the major influences on Wagner, including Weber, Beethoven, Meyerbeer, and Feuerbach, Schopenhauer can be credited for single-handedly giving birth to the new Wagner after 1854. As Magee points out in his essay "Schopenhauer-Wagner," Wagner began to worship Schopenhauer, reading his works before bed every night, speaking about him to family and friends, and eventually adopting his mannerisms. Most importantly, despite never meeting in person, Schopenhauer in some way helped Wagner realize his individuality. 
However, despite Schopenhauer's deep and insightful wisdom on human nature, aesthetic, ontology, and metaphysics, which has profoundly influenced generations of thinkers such as Darwin, Tolstoy, Brahms, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Einstein, Mahler, and Wittgenstein, among many others, and has influenced many aspects of Western civilization and culture in a more general sense, Schopenhauer is by no means without contraction. In highly generalized speaking, Schopenhauer's philosophy is essentially a fusion of Kant's philosophy and Buddhist thinking. As a result, although Schopenhauer successfully brings ideas from two completely different traditions into a cohesive form, there are still aspects where these two different traditions are intricately conflicted. Wagner, as a devoted follower of Schopenhauer, not only materialized but also intensified the inner conflict that is originally embedded in Schopenhauer's philosophy in his later works. Together with Wagner’s attempts to preserve some of his core ideas before he reads Schopenhauer, for instance, the significance of individual love, the result of Wagner’s works adds another layer of complicity. That is to say, it is not possible to fully understand the complexity of Wagner's later works without taking into consideration his influences from Schopenhauer's philosophy.
Tristan and Isolde" is often seen as one of the milestones of Wagner’s opera style and is considered by many to be his most Schopenhauerian opera. In the letter Wagner wrote to Liszt in 1854, at the time he first encounter Schopenhuar and right after he stretch out the opera based on Tristan theme: I begin to find out more and more that you are in reality a great philosopher, while I appear to myself a hare-brained fellow. Apart from slowly progressing with my music, I have of late occupied myself exclusively with a man who has come like a gift from heaven, although only a literary one, into my solitude. This is Arthur Schopenhauer, the greatest philosopher since Kant, whose thoughts, as he himself expresses it, he has thought out to the end. ” This is when Wagner first showed his admiration of Schopenhauer, and often time people associated Tristan to Schopenhuar’s philosophy and therefore buddhism. At the surface level, as Barry Millington points out in his book "Wagner," there is a paradox between the seemingly incompatible elements of the story that suggest self-indulgence and the pessimism of Schopenhauerian philosophy. However, at a deeper level, I believe Tristan carries a more fundamental paradox that arises from the conflict between the view of individualism, nihilism, and Buddhist philosophy.
As Millington notes, "Tristan" was conceived during a tumultuous period of Wagner's life, which included witnessing the failure of the revolution, exile from his native land, problems in his marital relationship, and struggles with mental and physical illness. These difficulties led to Wagner's depression in the early 1850s, and even suicide attempts, just before he began work on "Tristan." The confluence of these difficulties resulted in Wagner's immense longing for love and being loved, the craving for love as something transcendental and higher than worldly existence.
In the paradox Millington introduces, on the one hand, "Tristan" seems like a four-hour-long celebration of self-indulgence, but on the other hand, it embodies Schopenhauer and Buddhism’s ideas of renunciation and denial of will. How can the two reconcile with one another? Millington resolves the paradox by pointing out that although superficially one could think of “Tristan” as self-indulgence, it is at its core, expressing the Buddhist ideas that only death, or the denial of will, is one’s way to salvation and reincarnation. Applying Buddhism thinking, the two lovers can only unite into the realm of the unity through death and renunciation at the end of the story. This also suggests that other than seeing Tristan as a reflection of Wagner’s inner longing at that specific time, there is another dimension which expresses an idealization of romantic love as the ultimate road to the noumenal world. Consequently, Barry suggests: “This is the meaning of their yearning for the oblivion of death and it is also what underlies the work’s imagery: “day” is shunned because it represents the outer material world of phenomena; “night” is welcome because it is the domain of inner consciousness, the noumenal, the ultimate “reality.” Thus there is no actual paradox in the concurrence of Tristan and Wagner’s discovery of Schopenhauer.” Barry’s passage responds to the subversive nature of day and night from Western tradition I mentioned earlier and points out how Wagner adopted Schopenhuer’s philosophy– the separation of the world as two parts– the world of will and representation.  
However, in my view, there is a deeper-level paradox involving Tristan, Schopenhauer, and Buddhism. If we think about “Tristan” from either a merely Schopenhuarian or Buddhist perspective, there are things that do not make sense. As Megee also alludes to in his essay, in Buddhism, there is no remnant of individuals in any capacity after death, which means the lover will fail at united after their death in the story in we are taking a Buddhist world view. The realm of the noumenal world in the buddalist’s thinking, and in Schopenhuar’s thinking is a world of pure unity–  has no separation between any objects and individuals. Therefore, Tristan and Isolde will be united with all the trees, animals, and even their enemies after their death. What is the condition to make their love possible in the first place? Either Buddalism and Schopenhauer encourage suicide and individual love, what does the lover have to die in order to be united in the end? To understand this deeper-level paradox, we need to examine the relationship between Wagner, Schopenhauer, and Buddhism in a more holistic manner.
In his work "The World as Will and Representation," Schopenhauer posited a division of the world into two aspects: will (Wille) and representation (Vorstellung). The world of will is the reality that exists in itself, while the world of representation is the appearance of reality. This division can be traced back from Buddhism in the fifth century BCE, Plato in 387 BCE, to Immanuel Kant in the 18th century among others. In Buddhism, the notion of emptiness refers to the separation of the world into appearance and reality as "nothingness," while in Plato's allegory, the world is also divided into representation and actual reality. Despite these two major inflences, as a follower of Kant, Schopenhauer's concept of will was in part strongly influenced by Kant's notion of the 'thing-in-itself,' which refers to the true nature of things that we cannot directly access, in contrast with the appearance or representation of things. While Kant sees actual reality as the cause of sensation and representation, Schopenhauer suggests that the world of will is not the foundation of sensational reality, but rather the two aspects are different perspectives of the same reality. Schopenhauer embraces the Western thinking tradition, whereby through one’s self-introspection, one can reach the true essence of self and therefore the true essence of the universe. Unlike German Idealism, which is deeply rooted in Cartesian thinking that privileges one’s self-consciousness and intellect, Schopenhauer considers the world of will as not derived from one’s self-consciousness. Instead, taking from the Buddhist worldview, it is derived from an instinctual drive that is mindless, irrational, and aimless.
Schopenhauer concludes that all religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, or Hinduism are getting at something fundamental, in which the highest virtue among all three is through showing compassion and the diminishment of desire. They are the keys to attaining peace and tranquility in a world of universal striving and suffering. In other words, Schopenhauer's moral view can be seen as an adaptation of the ideal image of a moral agent in Christianity - the Christian Saint who possesses holiness, i.e. the denial of will. However, it is fused with Buddhist ideas at its core, in the sense that peace and tranquility are the end goals for one's life through showing compassion and setting aside striving.
Wagner took on Schopenhauer's idea of seeing the denial of will as the core of holiness in Christianity and Buddhism. In a letter to Liszt in 1855 6/7, Wagner mentioned “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 judgment 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 find 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 soul 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.”
This passage accurately represents the issues with Wagner's understanding of Buddhism and the influence of Schopenhauer on his ideas. As many Buddhist scholars have noted, Wagner's views on Buddhism were heavily influenced by his reading of Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer initially misunderstood the concept of Nirvana as a state of non-being or emptiness due to the limitation of translation in the 19th century, but later corrected this mistake in his third edition of "The World as Will and Representation" after reading further on the topic. The notion of Emptiness (Śūnyatā) in buddhism often time means "emptiness", "vacuity", and sometimes "voidness", is a terms sepeating the appearance of things versus the ture nature of reality. On the other hand, Nirvana in Buddhism is the highest state one can achieve, which liberates individuals from suffering and desire, and the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Despite Schopenhauer's corrections in his third edition, Wagner continues to insists his misinterpretation of Nirvana through his readings of Schopenhauer's earlier works, and even attempted to correct Schopenhuar’s view on the individual love. All of which resulted in two significant departures from Buddhist ideas in his own work. 
First of all, Wagner equated Buddhism with Schopenhauerian pessimism and nihilism, a view of Buddhism that is more negative than it actually is. This tendency was not only evident in Wagner's reading but also among many people in his time, including Nietzsche. Schopenhueaur’s way of seeing the denial of will as the way to attain peace and tranquility carries the weight of Christianity and is in some way differ from a buddalist's approach. In Christianity, the will-denying is for the purpose of salvation from the original sin, an active wishes to be loved by Jesus. So in other words, the more will-denying, the more holliness one will become. In contrast, in the story of Siddhartha (the story of buddha’s journey of enlightenment), Buddha does not support the will-deniling in an extreme way, nor does the self-indulgence. But rather emphasizing on the understanding of desire as the origin that causes the suffering. Moreover, the denial of desire is very different from the praising of death. Neither Buddhism nor Schopenhauer has once supported the idea that one should end their life in order to gain liberation. Confusing Buddhism with Schopenhuarian pessimism and took it one step further eventually led to a glorification of the "death-wish," as it romanticized the role of dying as a path to ultimate salvation and the totality of existence. At the same time, for Wagner there is no difference between the death-wish to the denial of life, desire, and will. They all became the same thing, materialized as the night in Tristan, the final death at the ending, all together became a totality of romanticism– it is the ideal love that can only happen in the ultimate reality. 
The second departure is Wagner's view on individual reincarnation. Through interpreting Nirvana as emptiness, Wagner also mistakenly acknowledged the possibility of individual reincarnation in Buddhism. As Osthoff points out, Wagner had widely mentioned his believe in the reincarnation, and which also shown in Parsifal among others. The concept of Nirvana in Buddhism means a state of enlightenment and liberation, as well as liberation from the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Although one can phrase this endless cycle as a form of reincarnation, it is, in fact, very different from the idea of individual reincarnation in Christianity. The belief in reincarnation, therefore, provides a ground for the fulfillment of individual love after death. Despite Schopenhauer's view on individual romantic love as always being rooted in sexual desire, which leads to inner suffering, Wagner tries to correct Schopenhuar in his view on Romantic love. Wagner elevates romantic love to the same place as the aesthetic experience in Schopenhauer's philosophy. In Schopenhauer's philosophy, art has a special significance for transcending human inner conflict, as one always struggles between their inner desire and boredom. This inner conflict is proportional to the degree of "individualization" and the separation from universality. Schopenhauer believes that through the subjective perception of the aesthetic experience, the status of consciousness transforms from subject-oriented to universality, thus removing conflict and reaching a state of peace and tranquility.
As a result of these two main departures, we can discern an underlying structure in the ending of Tristan that grants it the status of ideal love. The only way to fulfill the forbidden love between the two lovers is through death, or, in other words, the denial of will. Eventually, the two lovers become one in the realm of actuality, a state of nothingness and unity. What unites them is a noble journey of reincarnation, denial of will, salvation, and renunciation. At this point, our paradox is no longer a paradox. The conflict between Buddhist views and the ending of Tristan can be explained by Wagner's misinterpretation of Buddhism through his reading of Schopenhauer, as well as his insistence on maintaining this view. We can also see it as Wagner’s attempted to preserve three sources of ideas that he admired: Schopenhauer, Buddhism, and the Western romanticizing of love and death. 
These complex philosophical and religious ideas, and the way Wagner plays with these ideas, are in some way contributed to Tristan's significance as a milestone that changes the music history since 19th century. On the other hand, Wagner is the best embodiment of Schopenhauer's concept of the creative genius, who uses artistic intuition to express the transcendental nature beyond the limitations of everyday experience. Through art, subjective experience and the objective world become united, and this is what Wagner brings the rest of the world. 
After Tristan, Wagner's works consist of a mixture of idiosyncratic interpretations of Schopenhauer and Buddhist ideas, combined with Western religious motifs, Norse mythological stories, Greek philosophy, and the ideal of individual transcendental salvation, among other themes. He continued to incorporate these ideas throughout his life. 
For example, he originally intended to write a Buddhist-themed opera, Die Sieger, but later decided that Parsifal already embodied the message he wanted to convey. Instead, he incorporated the story of Siddhartha into the original Parsifal, which was also inspired by the same story that influenced Lohengrin. In the story of Parsifal, there are the Schopemhuarian buddhist elements such as the denial of will and compassion as the key route to the inner peace, individual journey to the enlightenment, the parallelism between the mis-intpretation of individual reincarnation to salvation in Christianity, among many others, mix with the heavy Christianity motifs and symbolism all add up to the conundrum and convolution. 
All of these suggests that Wagner’s later works bear more layers of complexity, conflicts, and mystery than any of his operas before his encounter with Schopenhauer. The maximalist interest in the pluralities of ideologies, but situating Schopenhauerian Buddhism at its core, in some way gave rise to an extremely unique late Wagner style. On the other hand, Wagner is the quintessential embodiment of Schopenhauer's vision of the creative genius, who utilizes artistic intuition to convey the transcendent realm that surpasses the confines of ordinary perception. Through his works, Wagner encapsulates a revolutionary and visionary spirit that transcends sensory, intellectual, and spiritual experience, integrating elements from a wide range of myths, religions, philosophies, beliefs, and symbols into his Gesamtkunstwerk. 





citations:
 Wagner, R., Goldman, A., & Sprinchorn, E. (1988). Wagner on music and drama. Da Capa. p 271-272
 Schopenhauer, A. (1966). The world as will and representation. Dover Publications.
 Wagner, R., Spencer, S., & Millington, B. (1988). Selected letters of Richard Wagner. W.W. Norton & Company.
 Everett, Derrick. “Parsifal under the Bodhi Tree.” Wagner, 2001.
 Millington, B. (2002). Tristan and Isolde. In Wagner. essay, Macmillan. p228-230
sthoff, W., Wagner, R., Wagner, R., & Wagner, R. (1983). Richard Wagners Buddha-Projekt “die sieger”: Seine Ideellen und Strukturellen Spuren in “Ring” und “parsifal.” Steiner.
Back to Top