Similarities: Buddhism and Stoicism (24 min read)
By Ma Dingding
“A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude.” -Nassim Taleb (writer, professor, investor, researcher)
In this article we will explore the following topics:
- Historical Background
- Core Beliefs
- Laws of Nature and the Universe
- Interconnectedness of All Things
- Non-Self and the Ego
- The Now and Amor Fati
- Control and Self-Control
- Perceptions, Attention and Mindfulness
- Passions and Desires
- Equanimity and Compassion
- Enlightenment (Nirvana) and Joy
- Death, Memento Mori and Premeditatio Malorum
- God(s) and the Universe
- Scriptures and Books
Did you know that Buddhism, was once part of the Greek Empire? Between 400BC and 500AD, due to conquests by Alexander the Great in the Indian subcontinent, a form of Greco-Buddhism developed among certain people living in the region. Even Afghanistan was a Buddhist country! Even nowadays you can see, in museums, Greek coins with the Greek name for Buddha (ΒΟΔΔΟ "Boddo”) as well as Buddhist symbols like the dharma wheel, the Buddha, etc. The style of most Buddha statues is directly inspired by the Greek sculptures.
Buddhism started in present day Nepal, in Ancient India, about 600-500BC. The historical Buddha was a prince that left home, wife, kids and the life of a member of the royal family to follow other men who were following ascetic practices. After a few years of extreme practise, exhausting the body and almost perishing during meditation, the Buddha realized that the way was not to torture the body, but simply to be aware that life is suffering and transient, and that the way out of this suffering cause by desire and clinging, was to follow a set of guiding rules as well as meditation.
From there Buddhism moved to Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia to form the Theravada tradition, the closest form of Buddhism to the original teachings. Then to the Tibetan tradition and the Mahayana tradition (aka “The Great Vehicle”) in the sinicized world of China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan.
The teachings of Buddhism are transmitted verbally and through practice, face-to-face, from teacher-to-student. This means that each teacher, no matter the tradition, is in line with a lineage that goes back to the historical Buddha himself. Though it is common to see Buddhist concepts written in Sanskrit, the language at the time of the Buddha was the Pali language.
It is an interesting thought experiment to imagine that some men, thousands of miles away, almost at the same time, developed a philosophical system called Stoicism, a philosophy that is strikingly similar to Buddhism.
The Stoic School of philosophy was born in Athens in 330BC and founded by a man named Zeno of Citium. Zeno of Citium insisted that human beings should live in according with the laws of Nature and avoid negative emotions like desire and pleasure (as well as fear and sorrow) and live a life of wisdom and virtue.
The transmission of Stoic thought was done in public speakings, from teacher to studen, by groups of people debating ideas as well as through written works that survived millenia.
Stoicism is a loosely united philosophical school that has well-known figureheads, it is easy for anyone to find information about Stoicism since the writings that survived the past 2,000 years remained somehow intact in their content.
What is interesting in both philosophies is that both are everyday life practices, if not real-life praxis.
In the case of Buddhism, there are so many different traditions, and within those traditions, so many different schools and sects, that is it difficult to summarize the core concepts of Buddhism with a capital B. However, the core Beliefs, for example the belief that attachement to elements that are impermanent is the cause of suffering, is a core belief held by all traditions under the Buddhist umbrella.
Firstly, we will examine the core beliefs of both Stoicism and Buddhism. Secondly, we will dig into the core concepts within each philosophies. As you know, STOIC & ZEN is about Stoicism and Zen rather than Stoicism and Buddhism, but as Zen is also a part of the Buddhist tradition, we decided to write series of articles that will talk about Stoic philosophy and Buddhism, as well as a separate series specifically for the case of Zen’s common points with Stoic thought.
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Antonia Macaro, Professor and author of books on Stoic philosophy, wrote that the similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism can be highlighted in their view of the Human Condition, regardless of their differences. This statement is not surprising considering the fact that Professor Macaro is also an Existential Psychologist.
She is indeed right: existentialism, a philosophical school that puts the emphasis on free will and responsibility of the individual in terms of thoughts, development and action, is compatible with Stoicism and Buddhism to some extent.
It is not surprising that there is a revival of both philosophies nowadays as modern people who are exposed to their ideas sometimes get an existential punch in the gut.
To get back to our main topic, the Buddhists believe that life is suffering, that clinging to things and people in an impermanent world bring unhappiness, and that there is a way out of that happiness. The Buddhists describe the 8 worldly conditions of human condition:
Buddhism: The 8 Worldly Conditions (or 8 Worldly Vicissitudes)
- Gain and Loss
- Fame and Disgrace
- Praise and Blame
- Pleasure and Pain
5 Precepts (or Rules of Training)
- Abstention from Killing
- Abstention from Theft
- Abstention from Sexual Misconduct
- Abstention from Falsehood
- Abstention from Intoxication
The precepts is the basic Code of Ethics for Buddhists, whether they are ordained monks or laypersons. Following the precepts gives character, focus, good karma and constitute a path to enlightenment.
On top of that, ordained monks make the vows to follow the Noble Eightfold Path:
Noble Eightfold Path
- Right View
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
- Right Aspiration
Most Buddhist traditions also have rituals, practices and celebrations such as chanting, bowing, reciting sutras, and last but not least, introspective meditation practices.
We can agree that the rules are pretty straightforward and positive.
Depending on the Buddhist tradition, there are differences in how the above rules are integrated with the beliefs, for example, following them leads to liberation from the cycle of rebirths in one tradition or as an understanding of how the body-mind corruption system works. Those are details that are not the topic of this article.
Stoic philosophy answers Life by providing a set of positive guidelines.
The list is not exhaustive, nor official, but if we had a checklist we could say that Stoic philosophers all respect the below:
- Living in accordance with Nature
- Self-control in regards to pleasure, ignorance, envy, anger, pain, fear…
- Acceptance of events outside of our control
- Freedom from passion by using the rational mind
The 4 Core Precepts of Stoicism are the basis of Stoic Ethics.
As part of the Stoic Ethic’s system, there are what we called the 4 main Cardinal Virtues, just keep in mind that the list is not exhaustive:
Virtue is seen as the way for a Good Life and being a good person.
…and the list goes on:
- Active in Society
Now, when we compare both Greco-Roman religion and philosophy with the Eastern religions, we can agree that they are compatible in terms philosophical direction they give to their practitioners’ lives: be a better person.
The rules are clear and simple.
The precepts are positive and relatively easy to follow.
Even though Buddhism is an organized religion with rituals, temples, chants, ordained monks… we believe that both beliefs systems are compatible and not mutually exclusive.
Concepts: Similitudes Between Stoic Philosophy and Buddhist Religion
To go a little bit deeper in our analysis we will have a look at some concepts.
Laws of Nature and the Universe
Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoa of Attalos, the original Stoic School in the agora of Athens, put a strong emphasis on living in accordance with the Laws of Nature. For Stoics, everything that is, is going in perfect harmony with the flow of nature and everything that happens goes according to its invisible rules. Trying to fight nature is an unnatural endeavor and can only lead to a unhappy life. People evolve in the arena of Life where the rule of Nature is overwhelming when compared to the individual human being.
In the case of Buddhism, we could say that the Laws of Nature are viewed a little differently, with the emphasis put on the Universe. Similarly to the Stoics, Buddhists see the Universe as having its own set of cycles of Birth, Decay and Death.
““All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature.” -Zeno of Citium, Founder of the Stoic School of Philosophy
This brings us to the topic of Impermanence: the core of Buddhists teachings is always linked, one way or another, to the fact that we live in an impermanent world.
“We never set foot twice in the same river” like the saying says. Clinging to conditions, things, people… is THE source of suffering. Liberation only comes to those who can accept the fact that we live in an impermanent world and who fully embrace this basic condition of our Universe.
On the Daily Stoic’s website, Ryan Holiday sums up pretty well the Stoic view on impermanence: “[…] the permanent thing is impermanence. Money, power, fame, influence—these are ephemeral. As is our very existences on this planet. That there’s real wisdom to be found in the notion that you’re a speck in the universe’s broad history, and that your time is limited. Accept that it is, and you’ll open yourself up to a clarity—and possibly even a contentment—that you didn’t know.“
Interconnectedness of All Things
Impermanence affects everything, but it is perfectly logical in the grand scheme of the Laws of Nature: the cow’s dung helps plants grows, plants feed the cows, the cow’s gut bacteria and metabolism process the nutrients, the cow produces milk… and so goes the cycle of Life and Death. Both Stoics and Buddhists agree on this.
But beyond this cycle lies another important concept in Buddhism: the Interconnectedness of All Things. Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh talks about “interbeing:” in the flower we can see the sun, and in the sun we can see the flower; in yourself lies your ancestors’ genes, in your kids lies yourself…
Some traditions of Buddhism talk about Reincarnation (where Death is a liberation from the cycle of rebirth and suffering) and Karma (a concept greatly misunderstood, “Karma is action and reaction” rather than some kind of accounting book of good and bad deeds.)
Marcus Aurelius, the famous Roman Emperor, also talks about the concept of interconnectedness in his Meditations: "Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other—for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.” In Stoicism this concept is referred to as “Sympatheia.”
Non-Self and the Ego
For the Buddhists, the Self, or the Ego like the Stoics would say, is an illusion.
This mean that fundamentally the Self is a creation of the Self.
To go beyond the Self, to see through the figments of the imagination, we need to acknowledge that there is no Self.
Non-Self does not mean that there is No-Self. Both terms are not to be mixed.
Non-Self means to go beyond the constructed Self.
Non-Self is a way to go beyond “Me, Myself and I.”
Non-Self transcends what the Buddhists call material forms, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications and consciousness… which are the source of clinging and thus, suffering.
The Stoics may disagree on this specific reading of the Self, but would probably agree on the fact that the Ego is a false representation of who we can be, that stops us from attaining higher degrees of Wisdom.
With this information in hands, we could agree to disagree that the Non-Self is a way to see the world with a clarity that would not be possible to attain with the Ego in the way.
There is a physical person, with a mind, and this mind tends to be self-centered, judgemental, narcissistic… and the Ego is a filter which sole objective to do everything it can to satisfy its own agenda, regardless of objectives conditions.
By reminding ourselves that the Ego is in the way to clarity, we can see the world how it really is, but only if we are able to overcome it.
“All human beings are deluded by our brains and become absent-minded because of our discriminating minds.” -Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought
The Now and Amor Fati
If we live in an impermanent world, where everything is doomed to decay and disappear, where there is no yesterday and no tomorrow… then what do we have?
“Two elements must be rooted out once and for all”
The fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering.
Since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.”
The Now brings us to the Stoic concept of “Amor Fati.”
No matter what happens to you, “Love your Fate.”
Embrace everything that happens to you, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Live it fully, do not reject it.
Buddhism gives us tools to bring us back in the Now and go beyond the Ego: Meditation.
Control and Self-Control
“Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinion about events.” -Epictetus
To be fully immersed in our own Now, we need to have the capacity for introversion, this is even true for someone who is extroverted.
Everything and anything outside our control is… well, outside of our control. Politics, conflicts, the weather, the economy, what people say on social media, accidents happening around the world… even though we are all interconnected, we do not necessarily have a direct influence on things, people and conditions outside our reach.
Even life-altering events such as sickness, the death of a loved one, accidents, adversity, injustice, and other negative events should not unbalance our psyche. We should be prepared for anything and everything. The practice of Premeditatio Malorum, pre-emptively thinking about what could happen to us, our friends, our loved ones and people we come across in our lives as social beings is a good exercise to be ready if things were to happen, and not let emotions overwhelm us. This is not an excuse not to pursue wisdom, but it is a rational constatation of what reality can sometimes be, and the type of rocks that life can sometimes throw at us.
In order not to be fooled, one needs to be prepared and somehow detached.
Control what you can control, the rest will go according to the flow of the Laws of nature.
The only person control is yourself, and the only things you can control as the things within arm’s reach would say the Stoics.
Buddhists put the emphasis on the concept that attachment is a source of suffering. A way out of suffering is to attain Enlightenment, through a process of transformation that is done by exploring the grand themes of human existence, such as Death, Life, Relationships, the Universe and the Meaning of Life, but also via a practice of sitting meditation. Enlightenment is thought to be a non-rational, non-logical understanding of the Truth of Life, the Universe and Being.
In some traditions like the Hinayana tradition (e.g. Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos) Enlightenment is a personal matter (hence the name “The Small Vehicle”) and in the Mahayana tradition (e.g. China, Japan, Korea), Enlightenment is seen as a more collective endeavor (“the Great Vehicle”) where monks also help others attaining this supreme state.
One big advantage of meditation is that it brings a balance of body-mind as well as a development of the intuition faculty. But the biggest advantage of meditation practice is when the practitioner is able to reach a mental state of that the Buddhists call the “non-Thinking Mind”.
For Buddhists, not much is in our control, the Laws of the Universe just work tirelessly day and night, no matter what the circumstances are. But choosing the path to a better life is possible. What the Stoics would call “Living a life of wisdom” the Buddhists would call “Living a life following the path.” The path being choosing to follow the 5 Precepts and the Eightfold Noble Path. As we mentioned, Non-Self is not No-Self. So individuals can indeed make their own choices.
In a Universe where even supernovas are not eternal, the best way to live a right life is to avoid becoming dependent on worldly pleasures, letting emotions control us, denying the importance of ephemeral and vain things like wealth, status and glories… or at least, be comfortable and content with what we have and what we have not.
Perceptions, Attention and Mindfulness
There is a famous story that I cannot remember the name, nor all the details. Roughly, it goes like this:
“A monk was drinking with a friend who was complaining that he was poor, unsuccessful and unhappy. While is friend, in his drunken state, lost a bit of his attention to what was going on around him, his monk friend secretly put a big diamond in his pocket. They both went their way later in the evening.
A long time after this evening, the poor man ran into his friend, the monk. The monk asked him how he was. As usual, he replied that he is poor, unsuccessful and unhappy.
The monk asked his friend to look into his pocket… and the poor man found the big diamond and suddenly realized that he had been rich this whole time without even realizing it.”
This is a typical Zen riddle, called a koan, with a twist that intends to teach us important lessons without the usage of the rational thinking mind. This story is pretty explicit compared to other Zen riddles, but the matter of fact is that fundamentally, the story teaches us that it is all a matter of perspective.
What is important in this story is not the diamond. The gist of the story is the fact that the man believed himself to be poor, when he was factually rich.
The lesson is: our perceptions trick us.
They trick us about ourselves, our emotions, our status, our situation, being offended and getting emotional over a post on social media…
They trick us about others, their real value as human beings regardless of their social status, what people intended to say or do…
The world is all a matter of perspective.
“Go Wash your Bowl” is a good Buddhist story that fits precisely with Stoic’s stance on perceptions: they trick our Self and our Ego into falsehoods, false black-or-white unipolar statements and self-centerness.
Stoics were also proponents of the use of puzzles, propositional logic, paradoxes and argument analysis in order to bring people to be aware of their own inherent and universal knowledge. This practice was done through their study of Logic (along with Ethics and Physics.) Dialectic was a preferred mode in Ancient Greece to bring people to knowledge by using the rational mind and intellectual reflections.
The Stoics believe that false conceptions (oiêsis,) which are the results of false perceptions in a certain manner, that cause a breakdown of the soul and the lives of people. False conceptions are a cause of error and can be classified in the same realm as emotions, something we need to be weary of.
The Stoics had a concept of introspective attention called “prosochē,” attention given to the thoughts, the actions, the perceptions, the present moment… to be wary of the delusions that are the fruit of our imagination and our minds. It is almost like taking the viewpoint of a 3rd party outside our bodies and minds in order to look and reflect, rationally, on “what is going on” in the flow of thoughts and feelings. We could say that this practise of “prosochē” is a reminder of the Stoic rules of life separating what is advisable from what is not.
The Buddist term “sati,” which means “to remember,” is often translated as “mindfulness.” Both terms are somewhat similar in the sense that they both put the emphasis on the present moment and choosing the good over the bad, however mindfulness has more aspects to it:
“And what is the faculty of mindfulness? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering & able to call to mind even things that were done & said long ago. He remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves... the mind in & of itself... mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. This is called the faculty of mindfulness.”
-"Indriya-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of the Mental Faculties" (SN 48.10), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), August 1st 2019, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn48/sn48.010.than.html
Passions and Desires
Rationality and logic are extremely important for Stoics whether as for Buddhists intuition and experience are more valuable.
For the Stoics, the Rational Mind is the main element of Virtue, and thus, Happiness. It is a Happiness that is not overwhelming, no Stoic is hyper hypo dancing on the rainbow, and this type of happiness is more an inner sense of being satisfied no matter what the external elements are. Apatheia is the term that the Stoics used to refer to the concept of being free from passions.
Buddhist will usually avoid the rational thinking mind as they believe that the Ego, or the Self, cannot see the fundamental True Nature of the world. Buddhism is sometimes tagged as “anti-Life,” which is a judgement that is a bit harsh. Let’s not forget that Buddhism comes from a time where extreme ascetic practices were common.
The historical Buddha himself succumbed to this false belief that emotions need to be suppressed and bodily needs removed to the point of reaching near Death. But after a few years of practice the Buddha realized that torturing the body was not “The Way” to a real deep understanding of the True Nature of everything.
So we should not see Buddhism as being an “anti-Life” religion. Nobody whips themselves in Buddhist temples.
The Greeks referred to ascetism (askēsis) as a rigorous training or an exercise that applied to both spiritual practice and physical competition training. In the case of the Greeks, the term does not have a connotation of bringing the body in self-denial extremes.
Even though the medium to see the world and interpret it is different, the objective remains the same: not letting passions and desires take over, and avoiding the slippery slope of vice, overindulgence and addiction to external conditions. Practitioners of Stoic philosophy use Rationality; practitioners of Buddhism use the precepts and ethics to guide their thoughts, actions and judgements. Meditation is a real-life tool used to achieve a greater sense of awareness, and who is more aware, is less tempted.
There is also a term in Buddhism, similar to ”apatheia“ but you may not hear it very often in Buddhist circles, except maybe in older Buddhist traditions practiced in Thailand, Sri Lanka… and possibly in Tibetan Buddhism as well. The term is “upekkha.” A balance brought by a combination of awareness, understanding of the human nature and respect for the Buddhist Ethics.
It is important to point out that equanimity was valued not because of the mental state itself but because it reflected a truthful understanding of the world.
Equanimity and Compassion
With all those conceptual tools in hands, we can assume that both Stoics and Buddhists can face the world in a balanced manner.
This brings us to the topic of equanimity. Equanimity is not a word we hear in every day life so let’s have a look at the definition first: even-tempered, to bear with a calm mind, emotional calmness and balance in times of stress.
Stoics are often accused to be emotionless. This could not be further from the truth. Indeed a lot of militaries around the world have Stoic characteristics in their demeanor. A lot of Stoics themselves were soldiers and saw action like Marcus Aurelius, who probably survived assassination attempts and conspiracies as a Roman Emperor, like Epictetus some were former slaves, some were even forced to commit suicide, ask Seneca. Stockdale survived 7 years at the Hanoi Hilton, tortured, starved, humiliated, during the Vietname War.
What few people are aware of is that a lot of military figures were Buddhists, it is believed that even the founder of the Zen tradition, Bodhidharma, was an ex-soldier himself in India, before crossing to China. This probably explains why he founded the Shaolin Kung Fu school with Chinese monks, a school that is still in operations as we speak today. Samurai warriors were also followers of the Rinzai Zen tradition. Anyone who has been to Kyoto can still see the impact that samurai and Zen cultures had on the city. The city was even attacked by warrior monks multiple times in the course of its history.
Who else needs to be better equipped to face adversity than the warrior who may be hurt, imprisoned, tortured and executed?
Equanimity is a great quality in a world where everything is impermanent. It goes hands in hands with the Laws of Nature, ready to ride any wave that the ocean of life sends their way.
So equanimity is the result of a balanced body and mind. Equanimity is a state. Equanimity requires taking control over ourselves. Body for all the hormones, chemicals, body reactions that arise within the body. Mind for all the emotions, good and bad, that arise from our operating system that we call the mind.
Someone who is balanced can well have compassion for people, animals, insects and things around his or her world. The concept of compassion in Buddhism sometimes gives the impression that Buddhists are “weak and overly emotional.”
In some Buddhist traditions you will often hear that the Buddha has compassion for all living creatures in this world. But compassion, like anything else, should be practiced in a manner that does not include attachment, attachment that could be the cause of suffering.
The correct compassion in Buddhism should be practiced in a way where the practitioner recognizes the feelings and the situation of other beings, without “feeling with.” It is more an observation of the “feelings” and recognition of our human nature; an awareness that fundamentally we all have the same conditions regardless of social status, religion, race… a detached concern for other creatures.
Some people may say that the “Abstention from killing” in Buddhism is a strict rule. Of course, Stoics do not see anything wrong with killing animals and eating them, they believe that eating meat is part of the Law of Nature. But even in some Buddhist circles, refusing a meal containing meat may be seen as a “form of killing.” By refusing to eat an animal that sacrificed its life for us, and by rejecting a meal cooked by a host, we are killing the moment, killing the generosity, killing the sacrifice…
For Stoics compassion can also be seen as recognizing that no matter how rich or poor someone is, how bodily able or crippled, how intelligent or less gifted someone is, there is a human in front of you, not a bank account on two feet.
The Stoics were also proponents of an active life in society, most Stoics were actively participating in Roman and Greek societies as writers, soldiers, politicians, statesmen and even as philanthropists.
When someone reaches the ability to have equanimity and a detached compassion, to move forward and evolve that person needs one important thing: focus.
Focus is not about productivity, focus is also about paying attention to all details of our demeanors, both in thoughts and in actions. Marcus Aurelius sums it up perfectly: “Every hour focus your mind attentively…on the performance of the task in hand, with dignity, human sympathy, benevolence and freedom, and leave aside all other thoughts. You will achieve this, if you perform each action as if it were your last…”
The ability to focus also means that one needs to be in the present moment, in the Now.
Focus brings us to the idea of Mindfulness: focusing on what we are doing now, nothing else.
In the Gateless Gate, there is a great Zen riddle that give us an insight on the Buddhist perspective of mindfulness. It is the case 7 with Zhaozhou in the collection of riddles (or koans in Japanese:)
A young monk arrived at the temple and asked Zen Master Zhaozhou: “Master, I am new here, ready to learn. Please teach me.”
To which the Master replied “Have you eaten?”
The young student said “Yes”
The Zen Master then replied “Then go wash your bowl!”
Living in the Now requires simplicity.
Doing something well requires Mindfulness.
In our modern world, we think of so many things, that we often forget to do the most basic of things.
Meditation is also another term for concentration.
If you can attain a high degree of concentration, then focus will naturally follow.
There is nothing fancy or complicated about meditation.
For the Greeks, meditation takes the form of intellectual reflection on a given topic.
Focus is developed with practice. In Buddhism this takes the form of meditation (samādhi), controlling the breath, having the proper body posture and emptying the mind of thoughts to reach a non-Thinking Mind. The ultimate goal of meditation is to attain Enlightenment.
As the Buddha put it, “Gain and loss, status and disgrace, blame and praise, pleasure, and pain: these conditions among human beings are ephemeral, impermanent, subject to change. Knowing this, the wise person, mindful, ponders these changing conditions. Desirable things don’t charm the mind, and undesirable ones bring no resistance ” -The Failings of the World Sutta
Enlightenment (Nirvana) and Joy
Professor Massimo Pigliucci, a specialist of Stoic philosophy, said that “The ultimate goal of the Stoic was apatheia, or peace of mind, which I think is akin to both the Epicurean ideal of ataraxia and the Buddhist goal of nirvana (Enlightenment)…”
Our opinion is that in some Buddhist traditions, for example the Theravada and Tibetans traditions, reaching Enlightenment, an non-rational deep understanding of the True Nature of all things, brings Nirvana, which is attaining a state when one is no longer in the cycle of birth, death an reincarnation. In other words, Nirvana is a state of liberation from suffering in this world. For some other traditions, for example in some Zen schools, Enlightenment may not necessarily be linked with the concept of Nirvana.
We have seen that meditation is a real-life practice used to attain Enlightenment. It is one of the numerous tools that some traditions use. Some other traditions will make use of the study of Zen riddles, some will make use of meditative work (cleaning, cooking, harvesting food…) and some traditions will even use esoteric Buddhism practices of chanting mantras (for example “om” is a mantra) that have “powers.”
Whether Enlightenment is a single step on the way of a long spiritual journey or a constant state that is reached until one passes away is up for debate.
But what about laypeople?
Laypersons can of course also spend time meditating.
But just the awareness of the fact that we can transforms ourselves and be more attentive to our actions and thoughts is enough to make a difference.
This heighten awareness and mindfulness, combined with appreciating the simple things in life, naturally result in feelings of joy.
Not an unbalanced joy, but rather a contentment with all the conditions that surround us.
Joy is only possible in those conditions:
- Ethical thought and action through wisdom and virtue
- Awareness, mindfulness and detached compassion
- Insights in the nature of all things and acceptance of their impermanence
- Meditative spirit (Buddhism) and reflective intellect (Stoicism)
Seneca wrote that “[…] a person sits by a sick friend, we approve. But doing this for the sake of an inheritance makes one a vulture awaiting a corpse.“
The Buddhist have the 5 Precepts and the Eightfold Path as ethical guidlines to direct thoughts and actions.
One of the ethical element in the Eightfold Path is “Right Intention.”
Buddhism breaks down Right Intention is three “subcategories:”
- Good will, not ill will
- Renunciation, not desiring
- No causing harm, not harming
No matter what we do, the nucleus of the action lies in the intention as no movement is possible without intention.
This reminds us of Newton’s first law: an object remains idle or motionless unless an external force comes into play.
This external force is the intention, the will… that paradoxically originates in our minds.
Stoics would say that free will and rational choice bring right intention.
An action should follow the nature of the end result it is launched for.
Virtue-oriented intentions should guide actions that are within the inherent nature of the action itself.
Epictetus said that “When you are going about any action, remind yourself what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, "I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature."
It all lies in the intention.
If the intention is virtuous, then the action and the results are very likely to be filled with virtue.
If the intention is not virtuous, then the action and the results are very unlikely to be virtuous.
But humans being humans, we sometimes err in perceiving well-intended actions as non-virtuous.
Death, Memento Mori and Premeditatio Malorum
“The longest and the shortest life, then, amount to the same, for the present moment lasts the same for all and is all anyone possesses. No one can lose either the past or the future, for how can someone be deprived of what’s not theirs?” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
In Tibetan Buddhism Death is celebrated as a liberation. There is a practice called “Sky ritual” where the body is dismembered, left in nature on top of a mountain where vultures usually take over the other natural elements like wind, rain and snow… Of all the traditions, Tibetan Buddhism is probably the one with the most details about Death both in terms of beliefs and what actually happens when one dies. The famous “Tibetan Book of the Dead” was writing specifically for this event that all living organism go through sooner or later.
In Theravada Buddhism it is not uncommon for monks to meditate in front of a decaying body. In some instances monks are mummified and put in temples to be part of the temple’s life. So in Buddhism Death is more than just a topic of discussion, it is a subject to study and even meditate on. Meditation about Death, maranasati, has been written about by Atisha, a monk in the Tibetan Tradition, who wrote in the 11th century the The Nine Contemplations:
1. All of Us Will Die Sooner or Later
2. Your Life Span Is Decreasing Continuously
3. Death Will Come Whether You Are Prepared or Not
4. Your Life Span, Like That of All Living Beings, Is Not Fixed
5. Death Has Many Causes
6. Your Body Is Fragile and Vulnerable
7. Your Loved Ones Cannot Keep You from Death
8. At the Moment of Your Death, Your Material Resources Are of No Use to You
9. Your Own Body Cannot Help You at the Time of Your Death
-Atisha (excerpt taken from Zen Master Joan Halifax, Upaya)
Those practices may sound morbid and barbaric to modern folks, but let’s remind ourselves that it was very common for people to have open casket wakes in the house of the deceased before “modernity” came to us.
In Mahayana Buddhism, people who did good deeds and reached Nirvana go to heaven as Boddhisattvas… those who did not are simply reborn after 49 days.
In the Zen school, some people may well say that there is simply nothing after Death, some others may held similar beliefs to Mahayana Buddhism to which the Zen school belongs to. In Japan, there is a saying that one is “born Shinto and dies Buddhist.” Shintoism is a native religion in Japan, similar to a lot of animist religions, around the world, who revere nature (sumo wrestlers throwing salt around before the fight is a Shinto ritual.)
Of course, we are oversimplifying, but you can see that Death is an important topic in pretty much all branches of Buddhism. This is why we say that Buddhism is the religion that talks probably the most about Life and Death as part of its “curriculum.” The body is seen as being part of the material world, like a temporary vehicle for the soul.
To make a short and brief explanation of the Stoic view on Death, simply put, the Stoics do not believe in reincarnation. Death is seen as a natural process, like the Buddhists, that is the inherent part of our Universe.
Memento Mori, remember that you must die, is probably one of the most famous concept that we inherited from Greco-Roman times. But Memento Mori is more than just a catchy term that we can quote or get as a tattoo; Memento Mori implies a reminder of our own mortality, an active reflection on the fact that we must all perish, sooner or later, regardless of riches, wealth, social status, fame, glories…
Memento Mori was seen as a way to motivate people into action, in taking into consideration that our life is temporary and that we should make a virtuous use of this limited resource that we call them.
Premeditatio Malorum (Pre-Meditation of Evils or Misfortune) an exercise that Epictetus promoted, had for objective to make us practice visualizing the loss of people we love, our friends, our possessions, our health, our life… so that when tragedy and misfortune hit us, we are not taken aback. The word “malorum” is better translated in Latin languages such as French and Italian as it implies something very negative. The closest word to the concept is probably the French word “malheur,” which implies a mix of unlucky destiny, some kind of fatality inducing suffering.
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” -Seneca
God(s) and the Universe
A lot of people believe that the Stoics were atheists. It may be true for some Stoics, in many writings some Stoics refer to the Pantheon of Greek and Roman Gods. Their approach was probably similar to the French philosopher Blaise Pascal who said that it was better to believe in God, so that if God exists, we are on the safe side… and if not, we lose nothing by believing in God.
The Way of the Buddha implies that the Buddha is the focus point of reverence, that the Buddha is a God. Depending on the tradition and the context, Buddha can be either the Buddha as a deity, or the symbol of the Buddhist tradition, that is, the historical Buddha as being a man of bones and flesh just like you and I.
Buddhism pushes the concept a little bit further. People who are on the way to Buddhahood (another loose term for “bound for Enlightenment” or Nirvana or Awakening) may be considered Bodhisattvas. This is why in Buddhist temples you will see Buddha statues as well as other statues (bodhisattvas, guardians…)
The most famous bodhisattvas are Avalokiteśvara (Kannon in Japanese) that represents compassion, usually standing, in the form of a female or a male depending on the culture, as well as Kṣitigarbha (Jizō in Japanese), in the form of a bald male monk carrying a staff and prayer beads, representing the Great Vow (as well as being the one who accompanies souls of children who died before their parents.)
You can do more research on the topic if it interests you, but what we are saying is that followers of Buddhism may or may not believe in God(s) even thought they prostrate in front of statues.
A lot of Buddhist monks and practitioners are atheists or agnostics. This is why a lot of believers in other religions can also practice Buddhism, there are no doctrinal rules.
No matter if followers of the school started by Zeno of Citium and the religion introduced by Shakyamuni Buddha believe in God or Gods, we can say without a doubt that both understand that human beings are part of something infinitely bigger than us that we call the Universe.
Already 2,000-2,600 years ago people knew that our existence in this vast Universe is transient and that we cannot truly understand it. We can observe it, we can make assumptions and theories regarding the visible phenomena, but we cannot truly understand its inherent nature.
The Stoics believe that the Universe has a God-like nature. They did not talk about multiverse or other dimensions. The Universe was the Big Thing.
For the Buddhists, everything within the Universe is one with the Universe, in other words, we are the Universe and the Universe is us, and a cycle of cause and effect, and interdependence, make up the fundamental laws that run Universe.
Buddhists, like Stoics, live in the Now.
Scriptures and Books
One major common point between Buddhism and Stoicism is that both philosophies do you have an official Holy Book nor any main reference book.
There are a lot of writings about the Buddha’s philosophy, commentaries by famous monks, sutras, chants, stories, riddles… but there is no Bible or Quran of Buddhist religion.
Same goes for Stoic philosophy. We do have writings that fortunately survived millenia of turbulences and historical changes, but none is used as the magnum opus of Stoicism. A lot of the writings were also written by students of the Greek and Roman philosophers which means some of the teachings do not even come from their own hand.
Like the Buddha and many of his followers did, Stoic philosophers were using the way of the oral transmission as a way to awaken people.
In conclusion we could say that both philosophies are pragmatic and aim to make us attain better versions of ourselves.
We can also say that the similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism far outweigh their differences.
Stoicism and Buddhism have both been misconstrued as individualistic or quietist because of their focus on tranquility and self-discipline. Contrary to this caricature, Stoicism emphasizes virtue, wisdom, human dignity and civic responsibility. Buddhism promotes the idea of a person that follows a set of rules to evolve in a Right manner in the temporary life that we all live.
For the Stoic, all happiness is internal. The ideal Stoic is just as happy with great wealth as they are in poverty. The “goal” of Stoic teachings is to help the individual move past reaction to external events and find true peace of mind.
The goal of Buddhism is to liberate the individual as well as all sentient beings from suffering through non-attachment, non-thinking Mind, awareness of the interdependence of all things including our own Self, mindfulness in thoughts and acts, and meditation.
Both understood the divine nature of the Universe, no matter what the word divine precisely means.
Once all attachment to what is beyond our control is surrendered, we are free to live both joyful and useful lives.
Joy, Happiness, Mindfulness.
Be Stoic. Be Zen. My Friend.
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