Stoic Buddhism? Or Buddhist Stoicism? Or neither?

ancient art asia buddha
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Stoicism and Buddhism have many similarities, but significant differences as well. What follows is my attempt to modify Stoicism with aspects of Buddhism.

I also modify aspects of Stoicism I don’t fully agree with, such as describing a spectrum rather than a dichotomy of control, and saying that things that are not up to us (externals) don’t cause the greatest harm instead of saying they can’t harm us. Extreme circumstances can cause people to mentally decompensate, and dementia can result in loss of the ability to make effective choices.

Stoicism’s focus is aretê, usually translated as virtue or excellence—the best of what human nature is capable of. One’s practice of these higher ideals defines one’s character.

Buddhism’s focus is the cessation of suffering.  I argue that being people of character—reflecting the best humanity has to offer—would greatly reduce suffering.

Certainly the Buddhist focus on loving kindness—which I more generally refer to as goodwill—is among the best of what human beings have to offer. And goodwill toward self and others is a choice that is under our control.

I would even argue that goodwill is the common thread of values such as justice, courage, self-control, and wisdom (good judgement). As such, goodwill is integral to eudaimonia, or human flourishing. But kindness and compassion are sometimes weak spots for Stoicism.

And while similar to the Buddhist concept of nonattachment, I find the Stoic notion of indifference toward externals to be less realistic.

Further, while Stoicism seeks to restrain destructive emotions through reason, Buddhism seeks enlightenment by transcending the self (which is said to be an illusion). And I would argue that recognizing the illusion of a permanent self—along with Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing—is a rational perspective that can decrease anger and greed while increasing compassion.

I hope what follows is a coherent framework:

  • We all suffer.
  • But the greatest harm comes not from things or events but rather from our judgments of them.
  • Thinking we can control anything other than our choices, values, and deliberate thoughts can result in actions that cause harm, especially to one’s character. We must realize that external things are not up to us.
  • Practicing goodwill toward ourselves and others is a choice that is up to us, and it’s the surest path to human flourishing (eudaimonia). To promote goodwill, reason must restrain overpowering emotions and focus on:
    • Correct understanding: the spectrum of control (externals are not up to us), interbeing, and the illusion of a permanent self. So we must practice nonattachment and realize that life is constant change—everything is impermanent.
    • Good intentions focused on values such as:
        • justice,
        • courage,
        • self-control,
        • and good judgment
    • Compassionate communication.
    • Non-coercive action based on the four values listed above, as well as recognizing what belongs to us and what does not belong to us.
    • Pursuing our livelihood in an ethical manner.
    • Full effort.
    • Focus.
    • And mindfulness.

Practice combines Stoic exercises such as morning and evening reflections, and Buddhist-style meditation. And the inspirational texts of both philosophies are utilized.

This is a viewpoint that accepts modern science as the best explanation for the functioning of the natural world. But it’s open-ended regarding other metaphysical questions. Diversity of thought about God, atheism, life after death, rebirth, nirvana, free will and determinism, and so on is accepted.

And it is tolerant of disagreements regarding what political approach best produces human flourishing. Conservatives, progressives, libertarians, and others honestly believe their political ideals are best for humankind. But there are unacceptable ideologies, such as those that promote hate or deny human rights.

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

3 thoughts on “Stoic Buddhism? Or Buddhist Stoicism? Or neither?”

  1. Thought-provoking post. I think a Stoic-Buddhist synthesis is in order and could be of great benefit to both philosophies, for in many ways the one complements the others deficits and seem to somewhat approach the same truth from slightly different angles. I admire you making a schematic attempt at it here. The Stoicism I practise is undoubtedly strongly influenced by Buddhism (which I encountered first).

    On the point of dichotomy of control I would interesting to hear your reasoning to shifting to a spectrum view.

    Also, I would see the concepts of Buddhist non-attachment and Stoic ‘indifference’ to be more similar than different, since I would see ‘indifference’ not as absolute indifference in the way we usually use the term, but that one only allocates the indifferent secondary and contingent importance. Have you come across Massimo Pigliucci’s (or one of his readers) framing of it as ‘lexicographical ordering’?

    I wrote a post a while ago pretty much merging the ‘expanding circles of concern’ with metta/loving kindness meditation. Very similar. You might be interested https://willtofreedom.wordpress.com/2018/07/15/exercise-expanding-circles-of-concern/

    I think you’re quite correct to highlight the Buddhist critique of the metaphysical self. From my reading of Stoicism it seems that there is little discussion of this in the ancient texts. There seems to be some consideration of developing/identifying with an enlightened, rational, self rather than some other self, but there is no critique of the concept per se.

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    1. Thanks. My hope is this will create a discussion. I could see different combinations happening. And I’ll be sure to check out your link.

      Re: spectrum of control: There are many things over which we have 0% control, but we have degrees of influence (with a reserve clause) over other things. But there are few if any things we have 100% control over. Our aversions and desires, for example, are often unconscious. And while we can expend effort to change them, sometimes with high degrees of success, it’s only in the rare person that aversions and desires would be totally up to them.

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