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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Stoic compassion

Stoic compassion isn’t an oxymoron.

© Dave DuBay

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.