Buddhism and Stoicism: East Meets West

Stoicism and Buddhism: East Meets West (3 min read)

By Ma Dingding

It was already all mixed 2,000 years ago.

Few people know, even in Asia, that a lot of Buddhist sculptures draw their inspiration from the sculptures of Ancient Greece. Just look at the waves in the fabric of Buddha and other Buddhist statues and compare it to the drapes on Greek and Roman sculptures… both look almost the same.

Greek conquests in Eurasia and the Silk Road both promoted the exchange of goods and idea.

Just think about this: it is mind boggling to think that Afghanistan was once a Buddhist country! 

The Ancient Graeco-Roman worlds gave the West a rich heritage in terms of culture, language, philosophy, aesthetics, knowledge, etc.

This includes school of thoughts and philosophy such as the Cynics, the Epicureans, Aristotle and Plato’s schools and of course, the Stoics.

For Chinese, both Buddhism and Zen Buddhism came from the “West,” that is from their perspective, India. And Japan inherited Buddhism from China, via Korea.

So when we talk about East/West, it is really relative to where we stand. 

Stoicism started in Greece and eventually reached Rome, which explains why one of the most famous Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, was a Roman Emperor.

If you go to your local library, you can grab a copy of books, translated into your mother tongue, about concepts that were invented thousands of years ago in lands that are far away.

You could buy yourself an airplane ticket and walk into a bookstore in China or Japan and get a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditation in the local language.

Amazing to think that the works survived pretty much every historical period until now. Maybe because they were the fittest ideas to adapt and survive. East meets West or West meets East, it is all a matter of perspective. 

As we are intellectually flexible, we consider Zen Buddhism as a philosophical system and a practice, more than a religion. The same principle applies to Stoicism.

This means you can bring the ideas on this website at the Church, without fear of conflict with your beliefs, even if you are an atheist. We do not promote any doctrine, any rules, any ritual, any God or Gods, any view of life or afterlife, nor any list of Do’s and Don’ts. We are opportunistic and take what is best in both Zen and Stoic systems, no matter what your personal beliefs are. 

When we think about Buddhism, we sometimes have the image of a bunch of people doing meditation in yoga pants in front of a small, cute statue of Buddha, burning incense, having expressions of happiness in their face.

But zen is also a samurai burning incense in his helmet so that his head “smell good” in case it gets chopped off in the battle he is about to walk into… or a Shaolin monk pushing the boundaries of the body by doing all sorts of crazy tricks. Zen is also Leonard Cohen singing beautiful love songs, Jack Kerouac penning Buddhism-inspired novels, Mishima Yukio writing about the Golden Pavillion Temple in Kyoto and committing the ultimate sacrifice in 1970.

Zen is also temples with quiet rock gardens, beautiful calligraphies and flower arrangements, monks and nuns with shaved-heads wearing long Buddhist robes, sitting and listening to a Zen Master giving a talk, etc. Zen is all of that. 

The Zen Buddhism that is practiced in the West, in Europe and North America, originates from Japan. The transmission of Zen from Japan to North America, and then to Europe, is fairly recent, we are talking about post-WWII.

When it comes to Stoicism, we could say that Greek and Roman influences permeate the way we speak, write and think, especially if we take into consideration of the concept of logos, or reason. In the West we tend to be very “logical and rational” in our approach to life.

To push it a little further, we could say that there is a form of Stoic atavism, a revival of Stoicism in the past few years.

Our cultures are very “brainy,” the individual is the basis of society, the mode of communication is usually straightforward more than intuitive, everything needs to be “clear,” “logical” and “make sense.”

A lot of countries in Asia are the complete opposite: intuitive, indirect, group-oriented, contextual, etc.

What is interesting on this website is that we mix both concepts and take the best of each system. 

Stoicism is now transmitted in writing, but in the old days, students could join schools to listen to speeches by teachers.

Zen is usually transmitted face-to-face from teacher to student, and the writings are not considered important; Zen is a practice of the body and the mind, rather than an intellectual pursuit.

Still, there are a lot of things you can learn by reading about Zen. And if your curiosity brings you to discover more, you can visit a Zen temple and meet a Zen Master face-to-face.

Visiting a temple may actually be easier if you live in the West as most Zen temples in Japan, and even China, do not allow laypersons to come for meditation practice.

It may be difficult to have a real-life group practice when it comes to Stoicism, as the Stoic philosophy is not “organized.”

Nonetheless, there are a lot of online groups that exchange views about Stoicism, so do not hesitate to explore and be flexible in your exploration. 

Be Stoic. Be Zen. My friend. 

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