The intriguing similarities between early Buddhism and Stoicism are not a well-kept secret. How to go about even beginning to map them is not so easy. A systematic approach to listing all the similarities and differences would probably take several PhDs. When I finally resolved to attempt the daunting task of comparing the two systems, after years of thinking about it, I decided the only way to do it was to adopt a broad brush approach. Here I will sum up some of my conclusions.
Life is Dukkha
The starting point for both Buddhism and Stoicism is the human condition and the suffering state of humanity. Most of us tend to believe we will be happy when we achieve certain worldly things – wealth, comfort and material goods, success and popularity, romantic relationships and so on. In practice it’s not that easy, as happiness has a persistent habit of eluding us. Almost as soon as we achieve these things, we start wanting something else. It’s been called the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Ultimately, of course, all of us will lose everything, and this is hard to accept.
It’s impossible to go through life without constantly failing to get or losing the things we want and being afflicted with those we don’t want. The Buddhist word for this is dukkha: suffering, or unsatisfactoriness. In the timeless words of the Buddha, ‘birth is dukkha, ageing is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha’. While the Stoics didn’t have a similar word for this sorry state of affairs, their writings eloquently capture the impermanence and uncontrollability of worldly things.
There is an Alternative. Both Buddhism and Stoicism speak to this unsatisfactory and pained state and see themselves as offering an alternative to it. Their most pressing message is that we are systematically deluded about what is genuinely valuable in life. Therefore they urge us above all to see through the delusion that worldly goods, impermanent and outside our control as they are, can make us happy ever after.
If the pursuit of worldly goods is not the path to the good life, what is? In one sense Buddhism and Stoicism diverge substantially on this, as we would expect of traditions born in completely different cultural spheres. In Buddhism the highest ideal is that of nirvana, in Stoicism that of ‘living in accordance with nature’.
Nirvana is a complex ideal, which has several aspects: cognitive, experiential, ethical and existential. Through the experience of nirvana a person (usually a monastic) comes to ‘see things as they really are’. This has existential implications in that after nirvana the endless chain of rebirths, which is assumed in Buddhism, is said to cease. If, like me, you are sceptical about the concept of rebirth, you could focus on the ethical transformation that endures once the experience has ended. For instance, the unwholesome states of greed, aversion and delusion are completely conquered and replaced by non-attachment, kindness and wisdom.
The Stoic ‘living in accordance with nature’ instead refers to conforming to the providential rational principle that orders the world. This means coming to see that virtue is the only good and vice the only evil, and acting accordingly – always remembering that we have complete control over our faculty of choice but no control over external goods. All the worldly things that dazzle and lure us are in fact indifferent, so we should not overvalue them or spend too much effort pursuing them, certainly not if this clashes in any way with virtue. The litmus test for this is the presence of emotions – a sure sign that we are valuing things incorrectly.
Then there is the issue of self or soul. Buddhism is said to deny the ‘self’. In reality the Buddha never denied there was such a thing as a functioning self, it’s just that this breaks down into components, much like a chariot is made up of pole, axle, wheels and so on. We’d be wrong to conclude there is no such a thing as a chariot, we only need to realise it has no lasting essence. What the Buddha denied was more like what we might mean by ‘soul’. The Stoics did posit a soul, but this wasn’t incorporeal, and it’s not clear to what extent it endured after death.
Overall, the two traditions have quite different visions of the good life, although it is worth noting that both require a complete reassessment and challenge of our default priorities, leanings and desires. But while the ultimate promise of Buddhism and Stoicism may differ, if we leave metaphysics behind and concentrate on how to live, the two traditions converge again.
Beyond the metaphysics, what matters in both traditions is endeavouring to be a good person, cultivating the dispositions and intentions to act well. This is what produces real happiness, as opposed to the bogus ordinary version that depends on the impermanent and unreliable things of the world happening to go our way. The joy that arises from virtue ‘never ceases or turns into its opposite’, says Seneca. Pleasure and joy spring from thinking good thoughts, speaking good words and doing good deeds, says the Buddha.
Arguably, in both Buddhism and Stoicism the highest ideal is that of equanimity. This is not valued just because it might ‘feel nice’, but because it is a lived expression of having adopted the right principles. (Incidentally, this makes claims that the traditions offer prototypes of contemporary psychotherapy problematic.) In Stoicism, this means having come to value things appropriately, and understood that external things are neither good nor bad. In Buddhism, it is about truly understanding that all phenomena are dukkha, impermanent and lacking a stable core.
In practice, in both traditions equanimity means being steady and even-minded in the face of the ups and downs of worldly fortune. This is achieved by turning away from and drastically reducing our desires for the shifting and unsatisfactory things of the world that most people value and pursue without questioning. In Buddhism these are referred to as the eight worldly conditions: gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. The Stoics would agree.
Equanimity on its own risks sliding into indifference, and in both Buddhism and Stoicism it is balanced with compassion. In neither tradition is compassion seen as any kind of ‘feeling with’ another person; instead it is more to do with understanding someone’s predicament and being motivated to help. While acknowledging the importance of compassion, both traditions recognise it is a slightly tricky virtue, as we have to be aware of the danger of taking it too far and being pulled into unwholesome mental states, or into adopting a mistaken worldview. Just like equanimity needs compassion, compassion needs equanimity. It seems to me that the two sit in a slightly uneasy embrace, though, potentially pulling us in different directions.
How do we transform ourselves from the benighted creatures who run after the wrong things and suffer to wise beings who see things for what they are, value them accordingly, and are able to maintain equanimity in the face of worldly upheavals? Even though in both Buddhism and Stoicism intellectual understanding is crucial, equally crucially it must be complemented by some kind of discipline that helps to put theory into practice.
The practices of the two traditions have a different emphasis. In Buddhism there are two main kinds of meditation, to some extent complementary: one based on concentration and aiming at tranquillity, the other based on the realisation of impermanence and aiming at insight.
The Stoics didn’t, as far as we know, have that kind of meditation practice, and their training was primarily based on reasoning. But meditation is a vague word, which has come to be identified with the Buddhist kind but could just as well refer to the Stoic exercises of memorising texts, looking ahead to the day to come and back to the day just gone, visualisations, preparing for the worst and so on.
A practice common to both traditions is the contemplation of death, which aims to bring home the impermanence and unpredictability of all things, including ourselves. These meditations range from those that don’t spare the gory details to gentler reminders of mortality: ‘There’s no way to know the point where death lies waiting for you’, says Seneca, ‘so you must wait for death at every point.’ The Buddha, for his part, advises similar daily recollections: ‘I am of the nature to grow old; I cannot avoid ageing. I am of the nature to become ill; I cannot avoid illness. I am of the nature to die; I cannot avoid death.’
The main aim of daily practice is to become increasingly mindful of the automatic leanings towards pleasure and away from pain that normally rule us. By building up our awareness we can begin to create some space between impulse and behaviour, and so increase the scope for an ethical and wholesome response to life events.
In conclusion, away from the metaphysics there is a lot of commonality between Buddhism and Stoicism. Do we really need the metaphysics anyway? I personally don’t think so but it is ultimately an individual choice. In any case I believe we should take care in adopting ideals of equanimity. Yes, most of us could definitely do with more equanimity. We do tend to be pushed around by questionable feelings based on mistaken values, as both Buddhism and Stoicism tell us. We should question our value system and aim to live an ethical life. We’d do well to adopt some version of a daily discipline to help us along. But the ideal of complete equanimity runs the risk of alienating us from aspects of our humanity that are indeed impermanent and outside our control, but can also be precious and make life worth living
Antonia Macaro is an existential psychotherapist with a long-standing interest in both Buddhism and Stoicism. She is the author of Reason, Virtue and Psychotherapy. Her most recent book, More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age, is published by Icon.