Stoicism and Buddhism: a comparison

Whether we realize it or not, we all have a philosophy of life. That’s the premise of a new book that I co-edited with my colleagues and friends Skye Cleary and Dan Kaufman: How to Live a Good Life — A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy. The book presents an overview of 15 philosophies or religions, as seen and experienced by the 15 contributing authors. Why include religions? Because we argue that a philosophy of life, at a minimum, is made of two components: a metaphysics, i.e., an account of how the world hangs together, so to speak; and an ethics, i.e., an account of how we ought to live in the world. If that account includes transcendental entities, gods, and so forth, then we have a religion; if it doesn’t, then we have a philosophy. Either way, what counts the most is the ethics.

I am taking advantage of the publication of the book to begin a short series comparing Stoicism with some of the other philosophies covered in How to Live a Good Life, particularly the three big eastern ones: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, covered respectively by Owen Flanagan, Bryan W. Van Norden, and Robin R. Wang. Let me start with Buddhism, though I have already commented on its similarities and differences with Stoicism. In the rest of this essay I will follow Flanagan’s outline of Buddhism and comment from a Stoic perspective whenever appropriate.

Right at the onset of the chapter, Owen tells us that “Tibetan Buddhists believe that anger, resentment, and their suite of emotions are categorically bad, always unwarranted, wrong, and ‘unwholesome.’” Which is precisely the Stoic position, as articulated in detail in Seneca’s On Anger. Both the Buddhist and the Stoic approaches are sharply distinct from the more “commonsense” view, which happens to be the one articulated by Aristotle:

“Aristotle says that ‘certain passions, if one makes a proper use of them, act as arms’: which would be true if, like weapons of war, they could be taken up or laid aside at the pleasure of their wielder. These arms, which Aristotle assigns to virtue, fight of their own accord, do not wait to be seized by the hand, and possess a man instead of being possessed by him.” (On Anger, I.17)

Interestingly, every time I tweet a link to this article I wrote in defense of the Stoic take on anger, I get a lot of angry responses from people that loudly claim they are entitled to their anger. Sure, you are entitled to it, but is it good for you?

Flanagan seems to have read my mind here, and he tells us of an instance when he was interviewing the Dalai Lama. Owen was still at the beginning of his journey into Buddhism then, so he was puzzled by the Buddhist claim that not only it is desirable to live a life without anger, but that it is actually humanly possible! He asked the Dalai Lama a question that he thought might cast such view in serious doubt: if I had a chance to go back in time and kill Hitler before he starts WWII and the Holocaust, should I not do it? Would it not be okay for me to be angry at the thought of what Hitler did/was going to do, and indeed use such anger as a motivator to kill him? Setting aside the nowadays predictable reductio ad Hitlerum, this is precisely the objection I get when I talk about the Stoic treatment of anger.

The response of the Dalai Lama could have just as well come out of Seneca: “[he] explained that one should kill Hitler (actually with some martial fanfare, in the way — to mix cultural practices — a samurai warrior might). It is stopping a bad, a very bad, karmic causal chain. So, ‘yes, kill him. But don’t be angry.’” Why not? “The thought is that Hitler is an unfortunate node in the way the world is unfolding. He did not choose to be the evil person he is. He deserves compassion, not anger. And he must die for reasons of compassion: compassion for him and all those who might suffer his awfulness.”

Flanagan continues his explanation by reminding his readers that for Buddhists the point of ethics is to reduce suffering (dukkha), and anger squarely gets in the way of that goal. Worse: anger is the main source of suffering, and certainly not a solution to the problem. While Stoicism’ main goal is a life of virtue, one in which we strive to become the best human beings we can be, at least Epictetus’ version is also in a sense aimed at eliminating suffering, particularly the suffering that comes from attachment to externals, instead of a focus on virtue.

Being compassionate, trying to relieve suffering of all beings (not just humans, hence Buddhism’s adoption of vegetarianism) is not directly analogous to the Stoic take on virtue, but the differences may be more superficial than of substance. Stoic cosmopolitanism is focused on the human cosmopolis, yet it also implies a respect for nature at large. And while as Stoics we are mindful of the fact that other people’s opinions and actions are not up to us, we also have a duty, rooted in the cardinal virtues of justice and courage, to relieve our fellow human beings’ suffering insofar as it is possible.

One major point of departure between Buddhism and Stoicism has to do with their respective metaphysics. Owen explains the cycle of samsara, that is, birth, death, and rebirth, which means most Buddhists — the exception is the materialist Charvaka philosophers — believe in reincarnation. The Stoics are closer to the Charvaka, being thoroughgoing materialists, for whom the soul — however understood — is made of matter and dies with the body (with the possible partial exception of Seneca, who wavers on the issue).

The early Buddhists were reacting to the dominant Brahminic tradition in India during the 5th century BCE (one or two centuries before the birth of Stoicism in Athens). The Brahmins thought that the only way to escape samsara is to achieve excellence at ritual performance. Conveniently, this was possible only for the priestly sect, who were also the originators of the doctrine. Too bad for everyone else, I guess. Buddhists democratized the escape route from samsara, claiming instead that everyone can get out of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, based only on their ethical excellence (hence the necessity of keeping scores, via the concept of karma).

Interestingly, Buddha grounded his criticism of Brahminism on an empirically-based rejection of Brahminic metaphysics: he noted that for that system to work, there must exist a permanent essence characteristic of every being, called atman. But experience tells us that everything changes (echo of the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus, who influenced the Stoics), so that (likely) there is no atman. (How this squares with the Buddhist concepts of reincarnation and karma, however, is not clear, at least not to me.)

This leads straight into the Buddhist notion of no-self, or anatman, which is often presented as antithetical to the Stoic strong conception of self. But the more I read about both philosophies the more I’m convinced that there is less friction here than it may at first appear. Owen elaborates: “The Buddhist concept of no-self is difficult and prone to misinterpretation. Note I just said [in the previous paragraph in the book] that there are persons. I am one. And persons are conscious. I am; you are. We also have personalities and temperaments. We just don’t have an immutable essence.”

That’s how I think of the self as well, and I’m confident the Stoics would be happy with this way of looking at things. After all, their own metaphysics, based on Heraclitus’ panta rhei (everything changes) suggests that everything is in flux, including ourselves. Marcus Aurelius connects this notion — which nowadays is called process metaphysics — directly to Stoic ethics, just like the analogous concept from Buddhist metaphysics is connected to their ethics:

“Acquire the contemplative way of seeing how all things change into one another, and constantly attend to it, and exercise yourself about this part of philosophy. For nothing is so much adapted to produce magnanimity.” (Meditations, X.11)

While Buddhism is often considered a religion, Flanagan points out that the philosophy is well suited to a secular society, as the historical Buddha was indifferent to the various deities that later became official gods within Hinduism. Buddhists don’t worship an all-good and all-loving creator god, and they are skeptical of god as the first cause of the cosmos.

Stoics, of course, went further, literally identifying god with the universe, thereby practicing a form of pantheism. And many modern Stoics, such as myself, are thoroughgoing atheists with a bit of an allergic reaction to any talk of gods, however metaphorical.

Again, though, a significant difference between the two philosophies is rooted in their metaphysics. Owen clearly states that “none of the Buddhist sects in the countries where Buddhism is a settled tradition conceive the self naturalistically — most are dualist and thus consider mental states to be nonphysical — and hardly any sects deny rebirth.” This has no traction in Stoicism, which is a monistic and materialistic philosophy.

Flanagan suggests that what he calls Buddhism modernism is based on three intertwined strands:

I) Wisdom, a minimalist metaphysics, and a theory of human nature. As we already saw, everything is impermanent; the world is filled with suffering; a major source of this suffering is the grasping ego (the same one that is prone to anger); deflating ego makes people more attentive to the suffering of others; everything that happens is part of a great unfolding; opportunities to leverage the world or oneself are scarce; we must be attentive to catch such opportunities for diminishing our and other people’s suffering.

II) Ethics. This is centered on four conventional and four exceptional virtues. The conventional virtues are: right resolve (aiming to accomplish what is good), right livelihood (work in a way that doesn’t harm sentient beings); right speech (tell the truth, no gossip); and right action (no killing, no sexual misconduct, no intoxicants). The exceptional virtues are: compassion (alleviate suffering), loving-kindness (bring happiness), sympathetic joy (feel good about other people’s successes), and equanimity (serenity in accepting that we are not the universe’s main concern).

(III) Mindfulness, or meditation. Meditating on breadth, bodily posture, and our stream of consciousness assists us in understanding impermanence and experiencing no-self. We are not defined by our aches, pains, worries, desires, obsessions, and anxieties. And nothing stays the same. There is also loving-kindness meditation, which involves imagining oneself in a situation where others are in need of help, and ourselves ready and willing to help (e.g., sharing food with an hungry person, even though we’d like to eat that same food). Interestingly, Owen points out that it is a North Atlantic misconception that Buddhism is mostly about meditation. The average Buddhist meditates about as much as the average Christian prays.

Let’s pause for a moment and think of these three strands of Buddhist modernism in reference to Stoicism. Concerning strand (I), Stoicism also features a concept of wisdom, based on the four cardinal virtues of practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. It features a straightforward science-friendly metaphysics, it counsels a rather minimalist outlook on life (beware of too many material possessions), and has a theory of human nature. The latter claims that the two most distinctive characteristics of the human animal are that we are highly social and capable of reason, from which it follows that we should use reason to improve social living (“live according to nature”). The root of human suffering is our ignorance of the dichotomy of control, the notion that some things are up to us and others are not (Enchiridion 1.1), or at least our inability to internalize the chief consequence of the notion, i.e., that we should preoccupy ourselves with what is up to us and develop an attitude of equanimity concerning the rest.

For the Stoic strand II, the ethics, can be framed in terms of the above mentioned four virtues, or, alternatively, in terms of Epictetus’ three disciplines of desire, action, and assent. Either way, it is about achieving ethical excellence as a human being, which is the result of acting properly toward oneself and others.

In terms of strand III, the Stoics arguably have a far larger arsenal of practical techniques than the Buddhists, though nothing that is equivalent to breadth or bodily posture meditation. Stoics do use visualization exercises, similar to loving-kindness meditation, but they tend to focus either on anticipating negative outcomes and getting mentally ready to deal with them, the so-called premeditatio malorum, or on achieving a broader perspective that facilitates non-attachment, as in the view from above.

Flanagan ends his essay by tackling the question of the relationship between Buddhism and happiness. He states out right that — despite the title of a famous book by the Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness — the business of Buddhism is not to make you happy. It is to reduce suffering (dukkha) in the world. Indeed, happiness, at least as commonly understood, is all about the ego, and therefore antithetical to the fundamental Buddhist notion of no-self.

Amusingly, Owen has come up with a term summarizing a lot of what passes for Buddhism in the Western world: Buddhshit. As he puts it, “every spiritual tradition is prone to bullshit on its own behalf. ‘Buddshit’ is simply distinctively Buddhist bullshit.” As my regular readers know, I think there is a lot of bullshit in modern Stoicism as well (see here, here, and here, for example).

Flanagan points out that the original Buddha, just like Confucius or Jesus (and we could add Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius) “would not be someone we would call happy according to any modern conception.” Buddhism — again just like Stoicism — offers a metaphysical perspective, an ethics, and a set of practices, the overall goal being to deflate ego and reduce one’s own as well as other sentient creatures’ suffering. Indeed, if happiness is conceived as nirvana, “one becomes happy by becoming nothing, nothing at all, emptied of all desire.”

In this sense, then, Buddhism’s goal is even more extreme than that of Stoicism. Stoicism too does not aim at making us “happy,” whatever that means, but eudaimon, that is, capable of living the best life a human being can live. That amounts to practicing virtue in order to help others. A side product of Stoic practice is ataraxia, a life lived without disturbance, particularly without being under the spell of the negative emotions (a condition the Stoics referred to as apatheia). Either way, you don’t practice Buddhism, or Stoicism, or Confucianism, or Christianity, in order to be “happy.” In fact, I increasingly suspect that a lot of suffering in the world is caused precisely by our obsession with being happy, which usually realizes itself at the expense of other people. It is remarkable that so many and varied philosophies have arrived at such a similar conclusion across so disparate cultures.

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