Stoicism & Western Buddhism

The similarity of Buddhism and Stoicism is not a new observation. But Patrick Ussher in Stoicism & Western Buddhism offers a more nuanced perspective. The similarities apply more to Western Buddhism and modern Stoicism than to the ancient versions of either.

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© Dave DuBay

In both cases, Ussher argues, modern Westerners have revised ancient philosophies to fit current cultural sensibilities. Buddhism has a long history of adapting itself to new cultures. That’s why there’s so much diversity from Zen to Tibetan to Theravada Buddhism. Western Buddhism likewise departs from ancient Buddhism in several key respects: it detraditionalizes, demythologizes, and psychologizes traditional Buddhist beliefs.

The similarities between modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism, then, start from ancient seeds but have been nurtured by modern Western soil. One ancient seed is harmony as an ideal. Buddhism teaches that suffering is an inevitable part of life. Dukkha literally means “bad wheel.” Similarly, virtue is Stoicism’s goal, which is said to result in Eurhoia, or “good flow.” In both cases, wishing things were different results in emotional disturbance.

And while the Buddhist belief that all is mind can be interpreted variously, the Stoic belief that our thoughts are opinions—interpretations of the world—but not reality itself, is also possible in Buddhism.

That we are social beings with social responsibilities is central to Stoic ethics. Marcus Aurelius writes that people must work together like parts of the body work together. Because we are all connected, harming one harms all. This gels with Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing.

There are important differences, however. Mindfulness is one example. Stoic mindfulness, Ussher writes, pays continual attention to the nature of judgments and actions. But Buddhist mindfulness is more expansive. It focuses on greater self-awareness, not only of one’s thoughts but also of one’s body. The Stoic goal is to live according to nature while Buddhism seeks the cessation of suffering.

Further, Stoicism has no tradition of sitting or breathing meditation like Buddhism does. And Stoics have no equivalent of Zen simplicity. Further, while Buddhism has a strong focus on compassion, Stoic virtues center on justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom.

Ussher also points out that modern Buddhist works by Jack Kornfield, Stephen Batchelor, and Thich Nhat Hanh are far more popular in North America and Europe than ancient Buddhist texts are. In contrast, Roman Stoic texts by Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca are very popular among modern Stoics. However, there are significant themes in these texts that many Stoics today ignore—particularly Epictetus’s strong emphasis on God.

Ussher concludes that modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism could benefit from borrowing from each other. Buddhism’s meditation techniques and perspective on compassion can be beneficial even to non-Buddhists. And the same is true for Stoic ethics and practical approach to reframing our thoughts.

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“A Sage wants nothing but needs many things; a fool wants everything.”

At first I found Seneca’s words from his ninth letter to Lucilius confusing.

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Superstition Mountains, Apache Junction, AZ © Dave DuBay

Seneca opens his letter explaining a common misconception: “Lack of feeling” in Stoicism means “a soul which rejects any sensation of evil,” not lack of emotion. That is, Sages “feel their troubles but overcome them.”

A Sage has friends but also is self-sufficient. “If he loses a hand…he’ll be satisfied with what is left. …But while he doesn’t pine for these parts…he prefers not to lose them.”

Seneca goes on to clarify that friendship prevents our nobler qualities from lying dormant.

But his disagreement with Epicurus, ancient Stoicism’s opponent, is that friendship isn’t about having someone by your side in a time of need. That’s a fair weather friend who won’t actually show up.

“Hence, prosperous men are blockaded by troops of friends”—but “a friend because it pays will cease when that pays.” Instead, the value Stoicism places on human connection means that friendship is about you being there in your friend’s time of need.

One who seeks friendship for favorable occasions strips it of all nobility.

This frames the Stoic view of self-sufficiency.

A Sage is self-sufficient when it comes to eudaimonia. Too often translated as “happiness,” Seneca defines it as “an upright soul.”

But a Sage still needs many things for mere existence. Sages are not gods.

It’s here that Seneca quotes Chrysippus, the third leader of Stoicism, whose writing are mostly lost to history:

The wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things. “On the other hand,” he says, “nothing is needed by the fool, for he does not understand how to use anything, but he is in want of everything.”

Desire stems from dependency, but the Sage understands that “the supreme good…arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without it begins to be subject to the play of Fortune.”

If what is truly good comes from within then the removal of external objects of desire—the ploy of conquerors—has no power. That’s how the conquered conquers the conqueror.

In other words, the Sage “deems nothing that might be taken to be good.” A Sage practices non-attachment much like a Buddhist monk.

In the end, Seneca is distinguishing needs and wants. Not that he, or I, or you are Sages. It’s an ideal aspired to if rarely attained.

Reconsidering God’s existence (or, the value of agnosticism)

Knowing and believing are separate issues.

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Flagler University, St. Augustine, FL. © Dave DuBay

I’ve been an atheist for 20 years. Or more specifically, an agnostic atheist. That’s not a redundancy. Nor do I think that “agnostic Christian” would be an oxymoron, though I’ve never heard anyone describe themselves that way.

Agnosticism is about what we know or don’t know. Religious belief or atheism is about what we believe or don’t believe. You can say you don’t know if God exists. But this agnosticism says nothing about whether you believe God exists or not.

I became an atheist because there were too many supernatural beliefs—the virgin birth, resurrection, walking on water—that I could not honestly say I believed. On top of that, none of the alleged proofs of God’s existence actually prove anything. They may provide reasons that God might exist, but proof is a much higher standard.

So I decided that while I don’t know if God exists, it seems unlikely. I could not truthfully say I believed in God.

Of course, you can believe in God without believing that some dude walked on water. Perhaps God chooses not to suspend the laws of nature. But the biggest problem with believing in God is evil: if God were all-powerful He could stop evil, and if He were perfectly good He’d have to. Maybe there’s a bigger plan—which requires quite a leap of faith. Or God isn’t perfect. Or there is no God.

But a major objection to atheism is the question of why there is something rather than nothing. And while that raises the question of who created God, one strand of Christian theology holds that God is not a thing that exists but instead is existence itself.

In a previous post I argued that without God morality must be relative. This doesn’t mean atheists are less moral than religious people. No one (except psychopaths) believes that everything is permitted. But a relativist cannot say that certain things are wrong no matter what anyone thinks.

In a similar way, without God life has no meaning beyond what each individual might assign to it. Put differently, self-constructed meaning has no meaning beyond one’s ego.

Note that moral relativity and lack of universal meaning could be true. And we can’t say that God exists just because we want meaning and morality to be universal.

Further, even if God exists this does not automatically prove other Christian beliefs. I think Christians too often leap from “God exists” to “and therefore all Christian beliefs are true.” Instead, each claim must be taken separately. And this is a monumental task considering the Bible’s numerous contradictions and fantastical claims.

Earlier I wrote that we should trust no one who claims special knowledge about God, including whether God exists. And we should distrust our own beliefs about God most of all. The temptation for self-justification is too great.

I’m still doubtful of a personal God. Or if there is a God then I find it hard to believe that God is all-powerful.

On the other hand, the ancient Greeks articulated logos—the organizing principle of the universe—which pantheistic Stoics identified as God. This is perhaps more palatable in our modern scientific age. But we shouldn’t mistake this for a scientific viewpoint. And for many people I’m sure this is a doubtful abstraction.

The universe’s organizing principle—which I see as impersonal—is the closest I can get to something I could call God. But I don’t expect anyone to agree with me. It’s a personal opinion.

Progress and relativism

If morality is relative then by what standard can we say society is or is not making progress?

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© Dave DuBay

Saying that right and wrong are social constructs implies that actions aren’t intrinsically right or wrong. In other words, if human opinion is the essence of morality then we can’t say something is inherently wrong regardless of what some people might think.

That’s a common criticism of moral relativism. But taking this a step farther one can argue that the idea of progress makes no sense because progress implies an external standard along which a person or a society can move from a lower to a higher state. Sure, you can make progress toward your personal goals. But your goals are not universal. Other people or cultures might think your values are wrong.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that anything is permissible under relativism. Every culture and every person (except maybe psychopaths) believes certain things are wrong. So it does not follow that behaviorally secular relativists must be less moral than religious people. After all, Islamists believe Allah wants them to blow people up. On the other hand, there’s no basis for a relativist to claim that their moral beliefs should be considered universal.

But if we do believe certain things are right or wrong no matter what anyone thinks—and most of us do believe this—then we’re implying that morality is objective. If morality is objective, however, then how do we distinguish what really is right or wrong from people’s misconceptions?

This is often solved with an appeal to religion. God establishes right and wrong. And the Bible explains it all. Or the Koran. Or another scripture. It depends on your opinion about which scripture is the true Word of God, and how to interpret that scripture. So we’re stuck in a cycle of opinion.

Scriptures have others problems as well. Should gays and never married women who are not virgins be executed? The Bible says yes (Leviticus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 22:20-21).

Despite apologetics that try to explain it away, it’s hard to honestly say that a perfectly good deity would command such a thing. Further, if humanity has morally progressed beyond such barbarism then humans have morally surpassed the biblical God. This implies that if morality is objective then God didn’t create it.

But could the laws of morality, like scientific claims about the laws of nature, have emerged spontaneously without a divine creator? The problem is that morality necessarily entails conscious intentions, so how does one construct a convincing argument that the laws of conscious intentions emerged by chance with no consciousness or intentionality behind them?

I don’t have perfect answers to these questions. One challenge of being human is that we’re smart enough to ask questions that we’re not smart enough to answer. But I can reach a few tentative conclusions.

A non-theist must accept the implications of relativism or develop a more compelling answer to these questions. But if God exists, and if God is the source of morality, then it seems to me that the best we can do is strive to understand morality while acknowledging that our perceptions are deeply flawed, and that we are easily led astray. And religion, rather than being a corrective, has long been a great catalyst for leading us astray. Scriptures, then, are human attempts to understand God, not the inerrant revelation of God.

We should trust no one who claims to know God’s will. And one should distrust one’s own beliefs about God’s will most of all—the temptation for self-justification is too great. This means that morality is primarily about rigorous self-criticism, which includes the realization that pointing a finger at others is usually just an avoidance tactic.

 

Dia de los muertos

We would not be here were it not for those who went before us.

I was at an October Día de los Muertos event in Arizona when my phone rang. The Day of the Dead is an ancient Aztec holiday honoring those who have gone before us. Historically celebrated in August, the holiday was moved to coincide with All Saints’ Day when Catholicism took over. A similar process happened with the Celtic holiday Samhain. The evening before All Saints’ Day, or Hallowmas, became known as Halloween.

But Día de los Muertos is not Halloween. The Day of the Dead isn’t about scary ghosts. Though painted skulls are ubiquitous at Day of the Dead events, the purpose is to show reverence for the dead.

My father couldn’t talk long. He had a lot of phone calls to make. He told me that my grandfather had died an hour ago. It did not come as a surprise. He was 95 years old and had been in failing health for the past few months.

How you feel when told that someone close to you has died is revealing. My grandfather, whom I called Pepere (pronounced “pepay”) was my last grandparent. My mother’s father died over a decade ago, and that was cause for great sadness for me. He was a quiet, decent, hardworking man whose latter years were stolen by Alzheimer’s. Both of my grandmothers died a year later, and my childhood memories of time spent with them were replaced with an empty space.

When I learned that Pepere had died I felt a sense of relief, but not sadness. His declining health caused him great suffering, and now that was over. But I never felt as close to him as I did to my other grandparents.

The eighth of eighteen children—all born to the same woman and man—his childhood was one of work. A native French speaker who grew up on Maine’s Canadian border, he quit school after seventh grade to help support the family. After a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps—a New Deal program to put young men to work—he served in the United States Navy throughout the entirety of World War II. After the war he married, had four children, and owned a grocery store.

Fathers from his generation were not known for close relationships with their children, especially their sons. But most modern fathers, including my father, have chosen to be emotionally available.

I can’t say I ever really knew who my grandfather was deep down. I’m not sure if he knew. It’s all in the past now. But were it not for those who went before me, I would not be here.

Anxiety and locus of control

Do you focus on your choices or on events you don’t control?

© Dave DuBay

In book two part thirteen of his Discourses Epictetus makes an astute observation:

When I see someone in a state of anxiety I say, “What is it that he wants?” For unless he wanted something that was not within his power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a lyre-player feels no anxiety when singing on his own, but becomes anxious when he enters a theatre, even if he has a fine voice and plays his instrument well. For he wants not only to sing well, but also to win the approval of his audience, and that his something that lies beyond his control.

I feel anxious when I want a certain outcome but I’m not sure if it’ll happen. Or worse, there’s an outcome I don’t want but I may not be able to prevent it from happening.

Psychologists talk about an internal or external locus of control. People who believe they can control the outcome of events have an internal locus of control while those who think they have little power have an external locus of control.

This is important because people with an internal locus of control are more likely to take action and to take responsibility for themselves. But people who think things are the result of dumb luck are more passive and more likely to blame the circumstances.

Stoicism makes a key distinction between things that are not up to us—which includes all external events—and things we do control, namely our deliberate choices.

So does Stoic philosophy promote an internal or external locus of control?

Some might say that Stoicism’s locus of control is external due to its claim that external events are not up to us. In a Facebook discussion someone asked why a Stoic would even try to accomplish something if the outcome is not up to her. But that’s anxiety talking—it ignores what is up to her.

I think Stoicism’s locus of control is internal due to its claim that our deliberate choices are up to us. Put differently, we have no power over events (though we may have degrees of influence), but we do have power over how we respond to these events.

Let’s return to the lyre player. Why even bother learning to play in the first place? Because trying or not trying to learn a musical instrument is a deliberate choice. How hard he practices is also a deliberate choice.

Innate talent, or talent relative to other musicians, is not a deliberate choice, however, so the musician must approach his endeavors with a reserve clause: I’ll do my best but also try to practice non-attachment regarding my desired outcome.

Besides, the musician must realize that ultimately he will lose his ability to play. He’ll get older and less nimble. Arthritis may strike.

And most important for Stoics, the only thing that cannot be taken from him is his character. Even if Alzheimer’s strikes and he begins exhibiting inappropriate behavior we cannot say that he willfully sacrificed his character but rather that his brain has become diseased.

But for now the musician must focus on his chosen response to events. Even if the audience boos him he can still maintain his character by not retaliating and instead holding his head high with dignity.

My disagreements with MGTOW

What does it mean to be independent?

© Dave DuBay

A few months back I wrote that men’s roles are changing in unexpected ways. One example I gave are men going their own way (MGTOW).

MGTOW are against marriage, and many eschew relationships with women altogether. They claim society is gynocentric:

  • men being expected to accommodate feminism while also fulfilling the traditional male role,
  • the welfare state being primarily a forced transfer of resources from working men to women via taxation,
  • women’s marital obligations ending at divorce (which mostly women initiate) while men’s obligations continue as alimony,
  • family court’s discrimination against men, who typically are not given equal child custody and can be forced to pay child support even when a DNA test shows no biological relationship,
  • and the specter of false rape allegations.

Mgtow.com says they’re all about individual sovereignty—“the manifestation of one word: ‘No.’”

Avoiding marriage and fatherhood are legitimate choices. But there are three disagreements I have with MGTOW:

First, women seem to be one of the primary discussion topics. Imagine a man who quit drinking but continuously talks about alcohol. He’d seem like a dry drunk rather than someone who truly left alcohol behind. Or imagine a man who rarely mentions football and seems bored when others bring it up. He’d seem like a man who is truly not a sports person.

Why, then, do so many men who say they’ve gone their own way—that is, away from women—when spend so much time talking about women? A man whose life does not revolve around women, it seems to me, would instead talk about his hobbies and interests. MGTOW who rarely talk about women and instead talk mostly about how to unplug for society, live off the grid, etc. seem like they’ve truly gone their own way.

Second, MGTOW beliefs about women’s “true nature” are mostly a collection of crude stereotypes: women don’t think logically, they’re narcissistic, they’re manipulative, and the female brain is inferior — that’s why women can’t take responsibility for anything.

However, MGTOW are outraged over feminists’ pejorative claims about masculinity being about domination, misogyny, and homophobia. The irony, apparently, is lost on them.

This enmity, however, not only comes at the expense of our shared humanity—a person can’t be happy so long as he’s focused on blaming someone else.

Finally, MGTOW seem too focused on the blame game. Life is unfair, but do MGTOW really think they have it worse than other people? If MGTOW don’t believe society will change then why even bother collecting grievances?

A man can choose to focus on what is under his control—his deliberate actions and choices. And he can focus on his goals—what he wants to do now that romantic relationships are no longer an issue for him. But focusing on women and societal wrongs will only hold him back.