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.
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.
At first I found Seneca’s words from his ninth letter to Lucilius confusing.
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.
Because being stoic (in common parlance) is equated with a lack of feeling, the notion that Stoicism promotes compassion may seem like a contradiction.
After all, Epictetus counseled his students not to get caught up in other people’s psychodramas:
When you see someone weeping in sorrow…don’t hesitate to sympathize with him or even…join in his lamentations. But take care that you don’t lament deep inside… Be ready at once with this thought, “It isn’t what has happened that so distresses this person…but rather the judgement that he has formed about it.”
At first glance that might sound like a disingenuous approach. But Buddhism—which is virtually synonymous with compassion—also teaches that we contribute to our own suffering because of the way we think about things.
Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that suffering is like a flower. Flowers are made of non-flower elements: without sun, water, soil, and so on there are no flowers. Reflecting on this shows us how everything is interconnected.
Suffering too is made of non-suffering elements: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, actions, and so on. And these interconnections can have serious consequences.
This echos Marcus Aurelius’s statement that “everything is interwoven in a sacred bond.” He continues,
We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions.
By looking at suffering’s component parts we can better understand where it came from, how it affects other people and things, and what to do about it.
Marcus says we should
See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare—as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.
This approach can help prevent us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.
It starts with ourselves. To react in anger is to lack compassion. And that creates suffering. So the first aspect of Stoic compassion is not to create suffering for yourself or others.
Further, getting mired in someone else’s suffering is unhelpful because we lose our objectivity. A person in deep emotional distress needs someone to lean on, but if we also become too distraught we can intensify that person’s distress.
Rather than compassion in the sense of suffering with another, being a support to your fellow traveler—which requires maintaining a cool head—can help that person gain perspective on the situation and the aspects of it that are and are not within their control.
Mindfulness is another overlap between Stoicism and Buddhism.
From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
External things aren’t the problem
Don’t be driven this way and that, but always to behave with justice and see things as they are (4.22).
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts (5.16).
The mind is roused and directed by itself. It makes of itself what it chooses (6.8). The mind has no needs except for those it creates. It is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. It knows no obstructions, except those from within (7.16). The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever (8.48).
It’s not external things that trouble you but your judgement of them – and this you can erase immediately (8.47). Blot out your imagination. Turn your desire to stone. Quench your appetites. Keep your mind centered on itself (9.7).
Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man — on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. You can if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you (2.5).
If our mind starts to wander, we’ll still go on breathing, go on eating, imagining things, feeling urges and so on. But getting the most out of ourselves, understanding where our duty lies, analyzing what we hear and see, deciding whether it’s time to call it quits — all the things you need a healthy mind for — all those are gone (3.1).
Stick to what’s in front of you — idea, action, utterance (8.22). Focus on what is said when you speak, and the results from each action. Know what the one aims at, and what the other means (7.4).
You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant. And certainly everything self-important or malicious. You need to get used to winnowing your thoughts, so that if someone says, “What are you thinking about?” you can respond at once (and truthfully) that you are thinking this or thinking that. And it would be obvious at once from your answer that your thoughts were straightforward and considerate ones — the thoughts of an unselfish person, one unconcerned with pleasure and with sensual indulgence generally, with squabbling, with slander and envy, or anything else you’d be ashamed to be caught thinking (3.4).
Discard your misperceptions. Stop being jerked like a puppet. Limit yourself to the present. Understand what happens — to you, to others. Analyze what exists, break it all down material and cause. Anticipate your final hours. Other people’s mistakes? Leave them to their makers (7.29).
A healthy pair of eyes should see everything and not say, “No! Too bright!” A healthy sense of hearing or smell should be prepared for any sound or scent. So too a healthy mind should be prepared for anything. Worries such as, “Are my children all right?” or “Everyone must approve of me” are like eyes that can only stand pale colors, or teeth that can handle only mush (10.35).
Four habits of thought to watch for, and erase from your mind when you catch them: Thoughts that are unnecessary, destructive to those around you, saying something you don’t really believe, and allowing self-indulgence to override the more divine part of you (11.19).
If you set yourself to the present task in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience; if you keep yourself free from distractions, and keep the spirit inside you standing strong (as if you might have to give it back at any moment); if you can embrace this without fear or expectation — content with each action as nature intended, with heroic truthfulness in all you say and mean — then you will lead a good life. No one can prevent that (3.12).
Keep calm and carry on
If someone asked you how to write your name, would you clench your teeth and spit out the letters one by one? Or would you just spell out the individual letters? Remember that your responsibilities can be broken down into individual parts as well. Concentrate on those, and finish the job methodically, without getting stirred up or meeting anger with anger (6.26).
Things that happen to the body are meaningless. It cannot discriminate among them. Nothing has meaning to my mind except its own actions, which are within its own control. And it’s only the immediate ones that matter. Its past and future actions too are meaningless (6.32).
Don’t worry about what other people think
Don’t pay attention to other people’s minds. Look straight ahead, where nature is leading you (7.55). No one ever came to grief from ignoring what goes on in other people’s souls. But you’ll be unhappy if you don’t keep track of your own soul’s doing (2.8).
Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people — unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, what they’re saying, what they’re thinking, what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind (3.4).
Nothing is more pathetic than people who run around in circles, “delving into the things that lie beneath,” and conducting investigations into the minds of other people, never realizing that all you have to do is to be attentive to the power inside you and give it true service. This keeps it from being muddied with passion, triviality, or being discontented with nature (2.13).
If you can cut your mind free of what other people do and say, of what you’ve said or done, of the things that you’re afraid will happen, the impositions of the body that contains you and the breath within, and what the whirling chaos sweeps in from outside, so that the mind is freed from fate, brought to clarity, and lives life on its own recognizance — doing what’s right, accepting what happens, and speaking the truth. If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past — then you can spend the time you have left in tranquillity and kindness, at peace with the spirit within you (12.3).
They kill you, cut you with knives, shower you with curses. But how is that relevant to self-control — keeping your mind clear, sane, and just? It’s like a man standing by a spring of clear sweet water and cursing it while the fresh water keeps on bubbling up. He can shovel mud or dung into it, but the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, and remain unstained. How can you secure not a cistern but a perpetual spring? By keeping yourself intent on freedom at all times, and staying kind, simple, and decent (8.51).
Resist your body’s urges. Things driven by reason and thought have the capacity for detachment — to resist impulses and sensations, both of which are merely corporeal. Thought seeks to be their master, not their subject. Avoid rashness and credulity. (7.55).
No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. Don’t let your mind settle into depression or elation. Allow some leisure in your life (8.51).
Do external things distract you? Then make time to learn something worthwhile. Stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct their thoughts and impulses are wasting their time, even when hard at work (2.7).
An undisciplined mind is degrading
The human soul degrades itself when it becomes an abscess, a kind of detached growth on the world:
To be disgruntled at anything that happens is a revolt against nature (the nature of all things).
When it turns its back on another person or sets out to do it harm, as the souls of the angry do.
When it is overpowered by pleasure or pain.
When it puts on a mask and does or says something artificial or false.
When it allows its action and impulse to be without purpose, to be random and disconnected. Even the smallest things ought to be directed toward a goal. But the goal of rational beings is to follow the rule and law of the most ancient of communities and states (2.16).
How to act: Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought, or with misgivings. Don’t dress up your thoughts — no surplus words or unnecessary actions. Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier patiently awaiting his recall from life, needing no oath or witness. Keep a cheerful demeanor without requiring other people’s help for serenity. Stand up straight — not held straightened (3.5).
Let philosophy guide you
People try to get away from it all — to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. Which is unphilosophic: you can get away from it anytime you like by going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful — more free of interruptions — than your mind (4.3).
Condition of Body: decaying.
Soul: spinning around.
Lasting Fame: uncertain.
Summary: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion (2.17).
Then what can guide us? Only philosophy. Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly; and with integrity, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure to accept what happens and what is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another then why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil (2.17, see also 4.2 & 12.20).
Impermanence is usually associated with Buddhism. But it’s important in Stoicism too.
From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Existence is like a river
Everything’s destiny is to change, to be transformed, to perish – so that new things can be born (12.21).
Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone (4.43).
Existence flows past us like a river: the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us — a chasm whose depths we cannot see. It would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either — as if the things that irritate us lasted (5.23).
Life is like smoke
See human life for what it is. Smoke. Nothing. Especially when you recall that once things they are no more for all eternity. Then why such turmoil? To live your brief life rightly, isn’t that enough? (10.31)
Before long everything will be transformed, to rise like smoke or be dispersed in fragments (6.4). All substance is soon absorbed into nature, all that animates it soon restored to the logos, all trace of them soon covered over by time (7.10).
All that you see will soon have vanished, and those who see it vanish will vanish themselves, and the ones who reach old age have no advantage over the untimely dead (9.33).
Everything that exists is already fraying at the edges and in transition, subject to fragmentation and decay. Everything was born to die (10.18).
Nature is like a sculptor
Nature takes substance and makes a horse, like a sculptor with wax. And then melts it down and uses the material for a tree. Then for a person. Then for something else. Each existing only briefly. It does the container no harm to be put together, and none to be taken apart (7.23).
Grapes. Unripe. Ripened. Then raisins. Constant transitions (11.35). Everything in flux. And you too will alter in the whirl and perish, and the world as well (9.19).
Have constant awareness that everything is born from change. The knowledge that there is nothing nature loves more than to alter what exists and make new things like it. All that exists is the seed of what will emerge from it. You think the only seeds are the ones that make plants or children? Go deeper (4.36).
Acquire the ability to see how all things change into one another. Apply it constantly. Use it to train yourself. Nothing is as conducive to spiritual growth (10.11).
This too shall pass
The speed with which all things vanish — the objects in the world, and the memory of them in time. Especially those that entice us with pleasure or frighten us with pain or are loudly trumpeted by pride. (2.12)
To understand those things — how stupid, contemptible, grimy, decaying, and dead they are — that’s what our intellectual powers are for. And to understand what those people really amount to, whose opinions and voices constitute fame. And what dying is — that if you look at it in the abstract and break down your imaginary ideas of it by logical analysis, you realize that it’s nothing but a process of nature, which only children can be afraid of (2.12).
Don’t fear change
Frightened of change? What can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you eat food without transforming it? (7.18) There is nothing bad in undergoing change — or good in emerging from it (4.42). What follows is always in affinity with what went before. Not a random collection of things, but harmonious and interconnected (4.45).
Think of the whole of existence, of which you’re the tiniest part, how brief and fleeting your appointed time is, and how small a role you play in universal fate (5.24). By contemplating this you can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind — things that exist only there — and clear out space for yourself (9.32, see also 12.32).
What goes around comes around
Constantly bear in mind that all of this has happened before and will happen again — the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging (10.27).
The world’s cycles never change — up and down, from age to age. Either the world’s intelligence wills each thing (if so, accept its will), or it exercised that will once and for all and all else follows as a consequence (and if so, why worry?). The waves of change and alteration, endlessly breaking – see our brief mortality for what it is (9.28).
So give yourself a gift: the present moment. People out for posthumous fame forget that the generations to come will be the same annoying people they know now. And just as mortal. What does it matter to you what they say or think? (8.44)
Human life in perspective
Condition of Body: decaying.
Soul: spinning around.
Lasting Fame: uncertain.
Summary: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion (2.17).
I am made up of substance and what animates it, and neither one can vanish into nothing, any more than it emerged from nothing. Every portion of me will be reassigned as another portion of the world, and that in turn transformed into another. Ad infinitum (5.13).
Both teach nonattachment, impermanence, and interconnectedness.
Both advise self-control, especially when strong emotions are involved.
Both teach that how we think about things determines how we experience life.
Both say that we create our own suffering by constantly yearning for more while failing to appreciate what we have.
And most of all, both place a strong emphasis on virtuous thoughts and actions.
But there are differences as well. Stoicism focuses on reason rather than mysticism. Concepts like Nirvana and rebirth are absent from Stoicism, as is the Buddhist practice of meditation.
The historical record is scant. I created this crude timeline to show the key interactions between Greek and Buddhist cultures:
You’ll notice that there is no known interactions between Buddhists and Stoics in ancient times. Stoicism grew out of Cynicism, however, and Cynic philosopher Onesicritus did interact with Indian ascetics after Alexander the Great reached the Indus River. We don’t know if these Indian ascetics were Buddhist, though they could have been. Besides, Cynicism had independently developed asceticism and non-attachment prior to contact with the East.
After Alexander’s empire split into smaller empires, Indo-Greek King Menander I became a Buddhist. And through trade routes it’s possible that some Buddhist ideas made their way back to Greece. And Caesar Augustus is known to have met with a Buddhist Indian king. A century and a half later the Stoic philosophy of Emperor Marcus Aurelius emphasized impermanence and interconnectedness.
But this is all circumstantial. It’s possible that Buddhist thought had an indirect influence on Stoicism, first through Cynic contact with the East and later through trades routes. But if so, it’s unlikely that Stoic philosophers knew the Buddhist origin of these influences.
Meditations is a disjointed book. It’s the personal journal of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180), which he called “To Himself.” He didn’t intend for it to be published, so he didn’t bother to do much polishing.
Aurelius’s journal rambles a bit. But his perspective comes down to the notion that, “All is as thinking makes it – and you control your thinking. Remove your judgments and there is calm” (12.22).
Life is Like a River
Many of his musings are metaphysical speculation. Today’s scientific knowledge renders some of it moot. The rest parallels Buddhism in some ways. The Buddha lived many centuries before Aurelius. So who knows, maybe some Buddhist ideas had already made their way West by the second century A.D.
Aurelius likes the analogy of a river (5.23-24 & 6.15). The universe is a constant succession of change. Things that exist or which are coming into existence are quickly swept away in the ceaseless flow of time. Even some aspects of what is still coming into being have already been extinguished.
All things vanish into the past. We cannot gain a foothold but must go with the flow and not worry when some things race past us. So ambition or indignation at our lot in life is folly. Considering all of existence, we are but the tiniest part. And we’ve been assigned only a brief and fleeting moment of it.
Everything is Connected
Depressing? Not really. Everything in the universe is interwoven, so we are all connected and stand in relation to all things. We can think of others as part of a large extended family. And that’s the common spirit, the unity of all being (6.38).
Being in relationship to the whole, we should not resent any part of it or do anything anti-social. We should be happy with whatever happens to us because the whole contains nothing that doesn’t benefit it (10.6). All is right in the world in the sense of being just (4.10).
I find that last part hard to swallow. Being tortured or catching a nasty disease and dying a painful death are things I should be happy about because it benefits the whole? How does it benefit the whole? Certainly it sucks for me.
Aurelius’s psychology says nothing external can touch the mind. If something external causes us distress then it’s not the thing itself but rather our internal judgments of it. Reducing anxiety is a matter of correcting our misjudgments (4.4 & 8.47).
And we shouldn’t be concerned about other people slighting us because this mostly stems from ignorance, not maliciousness. Identifying someone’s flawed sense of what good or bad, right or wrong, can help us put other people’s negative judgments of us into perspective without getting angry (6.20 & 7.26).
Besides, why should we desire praise from someone who has a negative view of life? (8.53)
Dangers of Hedonism
Negativity is often the result of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. Bad people often enjoy pleasure while good people suffer. Nature is indifferent, so expecting the world to be different only leads to resentment. And avoiding pain leads to fear of what might happen in the future, while pursuing pleasure can lead to taking advantage of others for one’s personal gain (9.3-4).
It’s better for us, like Nature, to be indifferent – in the sense of impartial to cause and effect, which is the inevitable result of fate (9.4-5). After all, healthy eyes don’t want to see only one color. A healthy nose can handle any odor, not just pleasant ones. So a healthy mind is ready for anything life might throw at it (10.35).
Aurelius repeatedly says that the ultimate is to be indifferent even to death. We’re all going to die one day anyway.
His determinism is also a hard to swallow. Is it really possible to be indifferent? It seems that would require having no sensation at all. Maybe accepting external events (even if it’s a bummer) is a more realistic goal.
Reason is Humanity’s Strength
But Aurelius is right that we control nothing outside of ourselves (though we can have degrees of influence in some situations). Aurelius says that reason – which we all possess – is like sunlight: a steady, inexhaustible stream that flows in all directions. Its path is straight. Sunlight settles on an object and doesn’t slip off. But it doesn’t do so forcefully. Sunlight isn’t violent. Rather, it illuminates whatever it settles on (8.57).
Anger, however, is not reasonable. Anger just causes more grief. And anger is a sign of weakness and pain. There’s strength in keeping your cool (11.18.8).
Kindness is invincible if it’s without pretence or fawning. Kindness can diffuse aggression because in the face of kindness the other person will have no cause for further aggression. This doesn’t mean being a pushover, but rather correcting his vice by living rather than preaching virtue (11.18.9).