This post is a summary of Dr. Ronald Pies’ talk at the STOICON 2017 conference.
My book, The Three-Petalled Rose, attempts an analysis and synthesis of three great spiritual traditions: Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I have called this synthesis “JuBuSto.” This was also the topic of my presentation in Toronto this past Fall. I began my book by proposing that “…the synthesis of Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism can create a healthy, fulfilled and flourishing life.” Here, I review the main themes explored in my book and lecture.
First, I discussed a theme common to all three traditions; namely, that our happiness and fulfillment in life is critically dependent on the quality of our thinking. I suggested that, in effect, we create our own happiness by thinking “good” thoughts– and create our own misery by filling our minds with “bad” thoughts. More specifically, Judaism emphasizes rational understanding, without which we are spiritually and emotionally “lost”. Thus, I cited the Talmudic teaching of Rabbi Elazar that, “…any person who lacks understanding eventually goes into exile…” Similarly, the Buddhist text, the Dhammapada teaches us that “we are what we think…..with our thoughts we make the world.” I also cited the Thai Buddhist Master, Ajahn Chah (1918-92) as saying,
We want to be free of suffering…but still we suffer. Why is this? It’s because of wrong thinking. If our thinking is in harmony with the way things are, we will have well-being.
In the Stoic tradition, too, pride of place is given to thinking clearly. Epictetus reminds us that
It is not he who gives abuse….who offends us; but the view that we take of these things as insulting or hurtful…” and urges us “….not to be bewildered by appearances.
Moreover, all three spiritual paths emphasize that we often sabotage our chances for living the “good life” through our own distorted thinking. Echoing the views of many modern cognitive-behavioral therapists, Rabbi Dr. Joseph Gelberman tells us that, “Of all the tyrants in the world, our own attitudes are the fiercest warlords.”
Similarly, the Buddhist monk, Chagdud Tulku teaches that
Hell is the reflection of [the] mind’s delusion, of angry thoughts and intentions and the harmful words and actions they produce.
He adds—once again sounding much like our modern cognitive therapists:
It’s our failure to understand the essential nature of an emotion as it arises that gets us into trouble. Once we do, the emotion tends to dissolve.
Indeed, we are often our own worst enemies, as the great Buddhist sage, Santideva (7th c. AD), put it:
Eager to escape sorrow, men rush into sorrow; from desire of happiness, they blindly slay their own happiness, enemies to themselves.
I went on to discuss “the common bond of humanity” as an idea central to all three of our traditions. Thus, Judaism teaches us that we are all created “in the Divine image”, and that, as Rabbi Moseh Lieber puts it,
…we must treat people properly because all people play a role in God’s plans; nobody was created for naught, be it a fool, an ignoramus, or even an evil person. They are all part of the Divine Scheme…
Similarly, Buddhism emphasizes the essential unity of mankind, and, indeed, all sentient beings. This attitude is expressed in the concepts of Buddha nature, suffering, and compassion. As B. Allen Wallace puts it,
…all sentient beings, including humans, are endowed with Buddha-nature…[defined as] the potential for full awakening…
All human beings experience suffering (dukha), and thereby have the opportunity—indeed, the obligation—to cultivate compassion for every other human being. This concept is also stressed in Stoicism, and is given a rather spiritualized treatment in the writings of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations:
All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred…for there is one Universe out of all, one God through all, one substance and one law, one common Reason of all intelligent creatures, and one truth…
The importance of moral obligations appears as a prominent theme in all three traditions, and is intimately connected with the achievement of a “flourishing life.” That is, living ethically is not merely an obligation; it is also a kind of portal into the realm of self-realization. To put it in more colloquial terms, if you live ethically, you will live well and fully. Thus, the Talmud teaches us that “The reward of a good deed is a good deed”—in effect, behaving ethically is its own reward. Furthermore, as Rabbi Alexander Ziskin observes, fulfilling a commandment “…is a time to feel great joy at your relationship with God.”
Among the elements of Buddhism’s “Eightfold Path” are right speech, right conduct, and right vocation, all considered under the rubric of sila (the code of conduct that leads to virtue). Sila, in turn, is the key to living the fulfilled life, according to Buddhist teachings. As Wallace succinctly puts it,
The Buddhist view is simple: non-virtuous behavior leads to misery, virtuous behavior leads to joy.
The Tibetan Buddhist nun, Thubten Chodron defined the essence of the Buddha’s teachings with equal brevity: “…it is to avoid harming others and to help them as much as possible.”
For the Stoics, too, the key to living “the good life” lies in living the morally responsible life. Every other notion of “the good” proves to be illusory. Thus, Seneca writes in one of his letters, “A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.” Similarly, Epictetus argues that “The good for human beings lies in this one thing alone: for each of us to perfect our moral character…” In sum, the JuBuSto tradition emphasizes that only by living ethical lives can we achieve genuine happiness and become fully human.
All three of our traditions stress the importance of reducing, or modulating, what I have termed “desires and attachments.” While none of the traditions argues for the total elimination of desires, each admonishes us to “detach” ourselves from intense and overwhelming cravings. From the Jewish perspective, probably nobody has put the matter more clearly than Maimonides (ca. 1135-1204), in The Guide for the Perplexed: “All the difficulties and troubles I meet [in daily life] are due to the desire for superfluous things…the more I desire to have the superfluous, the more I meet with difficulties.”
Maimonides the rationalist is joined by Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810), the mystic, in pointing to the dangers of excessive attachments and desires. Nahman tells us that, “Worldly desires are like sunbeams in a dark room. They may seem solid, but the person who tries to grasp a sunbeam finds nothing in his hand. The same is true of all worldly desires.”
The Buddhist tradition is, if anything, even more focused than the rabbis on the dangers of “grasping onto things” (upadana). As Ajahn Chah puts it,
The extraordinary suffering is the suffering that arises from what I call upadana, grasping on to things. This is like [receiving] an injection with a syringe filled with poison.
At the same time—and in this, the rabbis would concur—Buddhism teaches that there’s nothing inherently wrong in enjoying life’s pleasures, or even indulging in an occasional luxury. In fact, as Tibetan Buddhist nun, Thubten Chodron, points out, “…it’s attachment that makes us restless and prevents us from enjoying things.” In effect, we become so fixated on the object of our attachment that we can barely appreciate it.
Buddhism goes on to teach us that the way to reduce excessive attachment is by realizing the impermanence of everything—including, of course, our own lives. As Aitken Roshi tells us, “Renunciation is not getting rid of the things of this world, but accepting that they pass away.” (italics added)
The Stoics, too, emphasize simplicity, lack of pretension, and non-attachment to fame, fortune and status symbols. For the Stoics, the only real “good” in life is virtue. As Marcus Aurelius puts it,
There is but one thing of real value—to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men.
It follows, then, that acquiring possessions, wealth, honor, prestige, and influence are merely illusory goods. But like the rabbis and the Buddhist sages, it is not “things in themselves” that are judged unworthy of the fully-developed person; rather, it is our intense attachment to these things. Thus, in describing his father, Marcus Aurelius writes,
My father enjoyed, without pretension or self-indulgence, the luxuries that his fortune lavished upon him; but when these were not available, he never seemed to miss them. (1.23).
I next discussed the attitude of the three traditions toward impermanence and mortality. All three recognize that our earthly existence is alarmingly short (though a proper understanding of life might lead us to be far less “alarmed”). In the Jewish tradition, we are put here on earth in order to refine our moral character and serve God. As Rabbi Moshe Lieber teaches us,
Life is a fleeting opportunity to gather [spiritual] treasure; once the time is up, [one] can no longer earn anything.
Given that we never know when our “time is up,” we must treat every day as if it were our last. Thus, as Rabbi Lieber puts it, the righteous person
…must always assume that today is the last day of his life and not push off his repentance. Hence, he will spend all his life in perpetual self-improvement.
Similarly, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches us that,
Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death…[Judaism’s] central concern is not how to escape death but rather, how to sanctify life.
This teaching is very close in spirit to the Buddhist teaching in the Dhammapada:
Neither father, sons nor one’s relations can stop the King of Death…[One] who is virtuous and wise understands the meaning of this, and swiftly strives with all his might to clear a path to Nirvana.
Buddhism, however, takes a somewhat different attitude than Judaism when it comes to placing value on our earthly existence. Whereas in Judaism, life is sanctified and valued as an opportunity to perfect ourselves in God’s ways, Buddhism sees earthly existence in more detached terms—not fundamentally different than other things governed by anicca (impermanence). Thus, Ajahn Chah writes,
Suppose you were sick and had to go into the hospital. Most people think, “Please don’t let me die, I want to get better.” That is wrong thinking, [and] it will lead to suffering. You have to think to yourself, “If I recover, I recover; if I die, I die.” This is right thinking…
Though this is not the typical attitude of Judaism—at least in modern times—I noted a similar sentiment in the viduy prayer in Judaism, said when the person is near death; i.e., the righteous Jew says to God, “May it be Your will to heal me. But if death is my lot, then I accept it from Your hand with love.”
Thus, both Judaism and Buddhism share with Stoicism a certain reserve toward earthly existence, as expressed by Marcus Aurelius: “[T]he one who lives longest and the one who will die soonest lose just the same.” But for Marcus, as for the rabbis and Buddhist sages, this equanimity does not relieve us of our ethical responsibilities. Marcus admonishes us,
Since it is possible that you may depart from life this very moment, regard every act and thought accordingly.
By this, Marcus means that we must live honorably, reasonably, and in accordance with Nature, at all times. He cautions us,
Don’t act as though you’ll live to be a thousand…in what remains of your allotted time, while you still can, become good. (4.17).
Seneca sums up the Stoic view of mortality when he writes, “The man whom you should admire and imitate is the one who finds it a joy to live, and in spite of that, is not reluctant to die.”
I went on to explore the importance of gratitude in the three traditions, and found that each places great importance on this quality of mind. In the Talmudic tradition, gratitude is expressed for whatever one has been allotted in life, as when Ben Zoma asks, “Who is rich?” and replies, “One who rejoices in one’s portion.”
Perhaps reflecting a much earlier Stoic teaching, the 13th century sage, Jacob Anatoli taught that, “If a man cannot get what he wants, he ought to want what he can get.” (Toperoff 1997, p. 197). In the Jewish tradition, it is impossible to conceive of “the flourishing life” without the capacity to feel thankfulness and gratitude. I cited the Yiddish proverb about being grateful: “If you break a leg, be grateful that you didn’t break both legs!” Or, as a cartoon by Mankoff in the New Yorker put it—showing a woman standing next to her worried-looking husband—“But why not be happy about all the diseases that you don’t have?”
In Buddhism, too, gratitude (katannuta) is a foundational virtue. This is summed up in the saying attributed (perhaps spuriously) to the Buddha:
Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little; and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick; and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so let us all be thankful.
And, as Phillip Moffit observes, gratitude yields additional rewards. It becomes part of a “virtuous cycle” and is an integral part of the flourishing life:
Cultivating thankfulness for being part of life blossoms into a feeling of being blessed, not in the sense of winning the lottery, but in a more refined appreciation for the interdependent nature of life. It also elicits feelings of generosity, which create further joy…
For the Stoics, gratitude is summed up in Seneca’s teaching, which sounds remarkably like Jacob Anatoli’s comment:
It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.
And, I took note of Cicero’s gratitude, in the midst of his old age, for the “…supreme satisfaction to be derived from an old age which has knowledge and learning to feed upon…”
Finally, I explored the foundational value of self-restraint, and in particular, the necessity of controlling our anger. All three of our traditions would concur in arguing that no one who seeks a flourishing life can give vent to uncontrolled anger. The rabbinical tradition emphasizes the virtue of being slow to anger, and recognizes that the total elimination of all angry feelings is virtually impossible for all but a few saints and sages—and even some sages doubt that the complete eradication of anger would be entirely a good thing. The rabbis also recognized the element of narcissism in unbridled anger, which is compared to “worshipping idols.”
Similarly, in the Dhammapada, the Buddhist tradition holds that,
A man is not on the path of righteousness if he settles matters in a violent haste. A wise man calmly considers what is right and what is wrong, and faces different opinions with truth, non-violence, and peace.
Buddhism holds that patience is the antidote to anger and aggression, and urges us to look deeply within ourselves to find the real cause of our anger. As Thich Nhat Hanh observes, “You yourself may have created the hell inside you.”
The Stoics, too, saw intense anger as a genuine evil—even one that could “beget madness,” as Epicurus put it. Furthermore, the one who is overcome by anger forgets important truths about our place in the overall order of things. As Marcus Aurelius observes,
I cannot be angry with a brother or resent him, for we were born into this world to work together like the feet, hands, eyelids and lower rows of teeth…
Whenever you lose your temper or become upset about something…you’re forgetting that everything is what your opinion makes it, and that the present moment is all you have, to live and lose.
Modified and condensed from The Three-Petalled Rose (iUniverse), 2013. References available upon request to the author (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Ronald Pies is the author of Everything has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living and The Three-Petalled Rose.