How Buddhist is Stoicism? by Antonia Macaro

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  We continue that series now with this piece by Antonia Macaro, summarizing her plenary presentation at the conference – G. Sadler, Editor

My talk at Stoicon 2018 was based on part of my book More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic wisdom for a skeptical age. Being a sceptical person myself, who had been interested in Buddhism and Stoicism for a long time but who could never quite take on board the more metaphysical principles that were tied up with them, I was interested in finding out what might be left if we discarded those more metaphysical aspects. Would that be just a few tips to be happier, as is often the case in the more popular versions of both Buddhism and Stoicism? This is what often happens with mindfulness.

My hunch was that there must be much more that we could usefully bring into our lives. I was also interested in exploring the similarities and differences between the traditions. Of course the perspective I arrived at is the result of a personal search. Others might choose to highlight different aspects. In any case, I like to think that both the Stoic philosophers and the Buddha would have approved of this kind of questioning approach, even if it were to lead to conclusions that are at odds with traditional ones.

Historical Background

The question of a potential direct transmission of philosophical ideas from Greece to India or vice versa is very intriguing, but the evidence we have is very limited. One way to think about this is that, as Stephen Batchelor points out, there was no East and West at that time, and the area between Greece and India in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE was in many ways ‘a single, interactive cultural sphere’. The area was occupied first by the Persian empire and then by the empire of Alexander the Great, and there must have been channels of cultural transmission through diplomatic and trade routes.

One of the few things we do know is that the Greek sceptical philosopher Pyrrho of Elis travelled to India with Alexander the Great in 334 BCE. He didn’t write anything but is said to have brought back a philosophy of agnosticism and suspension of judgement that had tranquillity as its aim. It has been claimed that these ideas were directly derived from early Buddhism.

Similarities

Of course there are many differences between Buddhism and Stoicism, but here I focus on some of the similarities that seem most striking to me. The overarching commonality is the diagnosis of the human condition. The Buddhist word for this (which is also the first ‘noble truth’) is dukkha: suffering or unsatisfactoriness. The description of dukkha is this:

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.

The main idea is that unsatisfactoriness is inseparable from life. Even if we have a great life we are all going to get what we don’t want and will eventually lose what we want and love. So given the way reality is (impermanent and dukkha), we are completely deluded when we believe, as we do, that the things of the world can make us happy or determine our unhappiness. In Buddhism these things are known as the eight worldly conditions:

  • gain and loss
  • fame and disrepute
  • praise and blame
  • pleasure and pain

The Stoics would have been very comfortable with the view that attachment to the things of the world is misguided. Diogenes Laertius left us the following list of Stoic indifferents (which we mistakenly think of as good or bad):

life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, fair fame and noble birth, and their opposites, death, disease, pain, ugliness, weakness, poverty, ignominy, low birth, and the like.

Medical Metaphors

Both traditions saw themselves as providing a kind of treatment for this delusion. And to describe this they both adopted what we could call medical metaphors. The parallel is with medical explanations of physical afflictions. For instance, an infection is caused by bacteria and the therapeutic procedure is to reduce their population by taking a course of antibiotics, thereby restoring health. In a similar way, the disease that both traditions saw themselves as targeting is in broad terms human suffering; the cause is ultimately ignorance of how things really are and what’s truly valuable in life, which expresses itself in craving for and attachment to the things of the world; the treatment is following the path; the state of health is understanding and non-attachment, leading to tranquillity.

In particular, for the Stoics the disease was the faulty judgements that attribute good or bad to things other than virtue or vice (and which are inseparable from emotions, which are like the symptoms of the disease), and philosophy is the cure.

In Buddhism there are the four vipallāsas, or distortions of perception:

Sensing no change in the changing
Sensing pleasure in suffering
Assuming self where there’s no self
Sensing the unlovely as lovely.

We should, of course, do the opposite: appreciate that everything is impermanent, empty of self and inseparable from suffering, and therefore realise that what looks lovely on the surface actually isn’t.

Therapy

While both traditions saw themselves as providing a therapy or treatment, it’s best not to take these words too literally when it comes to comparisons with contemporary psychotherapies. Of course there are connections between these traditions and modern psychotherapeutic approaches. But what ‘therapeutic’ meant for them is not the same it means for us. Their aim wasn’t simply to feel better or function better, or even to achieve any particular mental state. What they were interested in was understanding how things really are and acting in accordance with this understanding, so something more like living truthfully.

Happiness

Another similarity between Buddhism and Stoicism is that they are both wary of what we could call ordinary happiness, arising from the satisfaction of our desires and from things going well in the world. For instance, Seneca writes that joy based on external things is constantly subject to turning into suffering:

we often say that we are overjoyed that one person was elected consul, or that another was married or that his wife has given birth, events which, far from being causes for joy, are frequently the beginnings of future sorrow.

Similarly, the Sutta Nipāta says:

what others speak of as happiness, this the noble ones speak of as misery.

There is real joy and happiness to be had in both traditions, joy that is more reliable and lasting, but it’s just not to be found where we normally look for it. Real joy is a by-product of other things, and the main ones I found are these:

  1. ethical conduct
  2. insight and understanding
  3. meditative states (mainly in Buddhism)

Common Elements

It’s interesting that one formulation of the Buddhist path points to these very areas as the fundamental ones to develop:

  • Sīla (morality or ethical action)
  • Samādhi (concentration or meditation)
  • Pañña (insight or wisdom)

Some scholars have argued that it’s sīla and pañña that are the essential elements. The two are described as very interdependent:

Just like two hands washing each other, ‘wisdom is purified by morality, and morality is purified by wisdom: where one is, the other is, the moral man has wisdom and the wise man has morality, and the combination of morality and wisdom is called the highest thing in the world’.

Developing insight helps to identify the right thing to do, just like working on one’s moral attitudes helps to see things in a less self-centred way. Again, a similar interrelation exists in Stoicism.

The third element is samādhi. It might look like this doesn’t have a parallel in Stoicism, but we only have to scratch the surface to see that it does. In the texts samādhi refers mainly to states of concentration, but it is a broad term that can mean meditation more generally. Walpola Rahula, author of What the Buddha Taught, even translates it as ‘mental discipline’. There is also another word in the Buddhist texts, bhāvana, which refers to mental and spiritual exercises intended to cultivate wholesome states. This included things like reading and reciting the texts and seems readily comparable to Stoic askēsis.

Translating this into more current terminology we could say that the elements of a good life are: seeing clearly, living ethically and a daily practice supportive of these aims. We don’t have to agree with either Buddhism or Stoicism about what cultivating each of these means exactly, but we can readily see that they are important areas to develop in a good life, and that this is independent of any good feelings arising from them. Seneca has a good analogy for this:

Just as in a field that has been ploughed for corn some flowers grow up in between, yet all that work was not undertaken for this little plant, however much it pleases the eyes … so too, pleasure is not the reward or the motive of virtue but an accessory.

Seeing Clearly

For both Buddhism and Stoicism, seeing clearly is about learning to mistrust misleading appearances and to value things properly. In Stoicism this means appreciating that virtue is the only good and vice the only evil, and challenging the faulty judgements (also known as emotions) that things other than virtue are good. In Buddhism there are complex views about views, but failing to see the truths of dukkha, impermanence and not-self would clearly be a pretty wrong view.

What could this mean for us? What should we value? To some extent that is for each of us to think through for ourselves. For me seeing clearly does involve accepting dukkha, impermanence and lack of control as givens in our life, and therefore choosing our values carefully, questioning some of the more superficial desires we have.

Buddhism and Stoicism tended towards the ascetic. I would include more of our embodied nature and emotional experience in the good life. There are things that have great importance in our lives and should be valued in full appreciation of their impermanence, such as relationships with people. Yes, valuing these things will make us more vulnerable to suffering, but it seems a price worth paying for the sake of a richer life.

In more general terms, seeing clearly is about critical thinking, valuing reason, looking for evidence, cultivating curiosity, awareness, reflection and intellectual honesty. It is also about a healthy scepticism and humility, about realising that our powers are limited and there’s a lot about the world and ourselves that we can probably never know. In this we could follow Marcus Aurelius, who wrote: ‘Things are wrapped in such a veil of mystery that many good philosophers have found it impossible to make sense of them.’

Living Ethically

The second element of the Buddhist path is ethics. Of course this is a central part of the Stoic path too, as virtue is synonymous with living according to our rational nature. Both traditions have a very high ethical ideal. Both the sage and the awakened person are thought of as having internalised morality to such an extent that their moral judgements are always correct and appropriate, and wholesome actions always flow effortlessly. In Buddhism, the awakened person has completely overcome the three ‘unwholesome roots’ of greed, aversion and delusion, and acts only out of their opposites – non-attachment, kindness and wisdom.

There are several perspectives we can take away in this respect, for instance the importance of intentions. In Buddhism there is a concept of wholesome actions, which are those that have wholesome consequences on ourselves and others, and these tend to be actions that are untainted by greed, aversion and delusion. So it comes down to intentions.

In Stoicism too, it is important to act with a virtuous intention, as in the famous archer’s analogy: what matters is intending to hit the target and doing our best to do so; what happens when the arrow leaves the bow is beyond our control. Seneca writes that when

a person sits by a sick friend, we approve. But doing this for the sake of an inheritance makes one a vulture awaiting a corpse.

Another way to think about this is in terms of ideal qualities, and a central one is compassion.

Compassion

In Buddhism, compassion is very strongly emphasised. According to the texts the Buddha agreed to teach out of compassion, despite being initially reluctant. Compassion is strongly related to kindness but is not very clearly defined in the texts, which often rely on stories:

Someone on a long journey becomes sick and exhausted. He is alone between two villages, both far away. Someone comes along and, seeing this, reasons that if the sick traveller were to be accompanied to a village and given food and medicine he would definitely recover.

The message is that we should be concerned about other people being free from suffering. But compassion has a tricky side, because too much dwelling on suffering can lead to aversive, unwholesome mental states. The dangers of compassion were felt even more strongly in Stoicism, in that compassion will often involve a judgement that something bad has happened to someone, and most of the time this would be a faulty judgement.

If we feel compassion for a beggar in the street, for instance, it’s probably because we think they are in a bad situation. In Stoic terms this is an emotion, which like other emotions betrays faulty thinking about the value of indifferents. Just like in our own case it’s not appropriate to feel pain as a result of things going wrong in the world – because these are really neither good nor bad – for the same reason it’s not appropriate to suffer alongside another person. Epictetus advises not to think of a consul as a happy man, or a poor man as wretched:

All these are judgements, and nothing more; and judgements concerning things outside our choice.

In both traditions it is important to be concerned for others’ wellbeing and motivated to do what we can to help others to be free from suffering. But compassion needs to be handled carefully. In Stoicism being compassionate without buying into faulty judgements means remembering that what is bad is not the actual situation but the suffering person’s understanding of it. In Buddhism we should counter aversive feelings by practising compassion without attachment, like the Buddha himself. Compassion, therefore, should be understood more as a slightly detached concern than anything like ‘feeling with’. That is why it needs to go hand in hand with equanimity.

Equanimity

Equanimity is a central goal in both Buddhism and Stoicism. The Stoics used the term apatheia to refer to their ideal of being free from passions. This is similar to upekkha in Buddhism, which refers to a sense of looking upon the goings-on in the world with a balanced awareness, without getting too involved in the ups and downs of the eight worldly conditions. It is important to point out that equanimity was valued not because of the mental state itself but because it reflected a truthful understanding of the world. Like compassion, equanimity runs the risk of being corrupted, in this case by indifference, and therefore it needs to be tempered by compassion.

Compassionate equanimity

Compassion and equanimity are complementary, and should be developed together, as a kind of compassionate equanimity. This marriage of compassion and equanimity is a slightly awkward one, in that there is a tension between withdrawal and engagement. Epictetus defended this by saying that some detachment is actually essential for fellow feeling, because if we allow love, for instance, to follow its natural course it can easily turn into its opposite. For me it’s an open question whether this is really viable, or whether caring inevitably involves attachment and leaving oneself vulnerable to suffering, just like any kind of complete tranquillity is likely to slide into indifference.

But if we take the ideal of compassionate equanimity with a pinch of salt, we can definitely adopt the two qualities as inspiration, because in practice most of us are likely to be very much in need of bringing both more kindness and more even-mindedness into our lives.

Spiritual practice

Our mental habits are engrained and hard to shift. Even if we know that everything is impermanent and no worldly thing can ever give us lasting satisfaction, it’s still difficult not to perceive things otherwise. This is why we need some kind of spiritual practice (the third element of the path).

Seneca for instance wrote:

Just as some dyes are readily absorbed by the wool, others only after repeated soaking and simmering, so there are some studies that show up well in our minds as soon as we have learned them; this one, though, must permeate us thoroughly. It must soak in, giving not just a tinge of colour but a real deep dye, or it cannot deliver on any of its promises.

Both Buddhism and Stoicism knew that to achieve the deep transformation they were after intellectual understanding was not enough, so the practical training was an integral part of the path. In Buddhism there were different kinds of meditation and a formal meditation practice, whereas in Stoicism as far as we know the practice involved more things like reading and memorising texts, daily reflection and visualisations, with the aim of really embedding the principles into daily life.

In concrete terms, the first aim of this daily practice is to become more aware of the contents of our mind, in particular the embryonic initial appraisals of good and bad that are normally outside our awareness. In Buddhism, for instance, that involves learning to catch what are usually called ‘feelings’, or immediate reactions to things in terms of good, bad and neutral. Similarly with the Stoics’ ‘impressions’ about the world, which tell us that things outside our control are good or bad, and that we should pursue or avoid them.

If we learn to notice these impulses we’ll be more able to take some distance from them and avoid acting on them automatically, therefore we’ll also be more likely to respond to things in a more reasoned and balanced way. Being able to do this could certainly be useful for any of us, as a lot of the time we do tend to react on the basis of habitual patterns and unreflective values and impulses.

Doing this requires developing what we could call mindfulness. We could spend a long time talking about the many definitions of mindfulness, but at bottom it’s a way of paying attention, a skill used differently in different Buddhist meditation practices. There are various analogies for this skill in the Buddhist texts. One is that of a cowherd watching his cows from the distance. Another is that of a gatekeeper of a town. Again this has a parallel in Stoicism. Epictetus, for instance, says that the philosopher ‘keeps watch over himself as over an enemy in ambush’.

Mindfulness can help to de-automatise habitual responses. And this is the foundation of ethical behaviour, because by creating that space between impulse and reaction we give ourselves the opportunity to respond to things with kindness and wisdom instead of greed, aversion and delusion. Of course this is difficult, which is why we need practice (which can but does not have to be a formal meditation). This is something that would surely come in handy for most of us in our daily lives.

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.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

5 thoughts on “How Buddhist is Stoicism? by Antonia Macaro”

  1. The core doctrines of buddhism and stocism seems different: No-Self View vs. Virtue and Indifference.

    But they come very close in the aspect of “control”

    Buddha teaches, that nothing (no thing / object) should be viewed as I or myself because:
    – It underlies changes
    – There is no complete “control” (no complete control in mind, body )

    The first wouldn´t be the great problem if the second (control) would be full possible in the changes.

    So buddhism and stoicism teach there the same: “Let go of things outside your control”

    For me the orthodox buddhist doctrins don´t fit in the today´s world (karma/rebirth) and the orthodox want to get out of nature (no birth, out of samsara ) and see animals with low value.

    If you let this doctrines go you can say stoicism is a kind of modern buddhism 🙂

    Other the stoics (live according nature, and all in nature is good and has it value, we are alle living with and out of the logos )

    The buddhist seems to have deeper meditation techniques but the stoics can use them, too. And they have more techniques for the everyday life.

    To loose the karma/rebirth doctrine in buddhism will always be difficult for an applicant because it is in so much orthodox texts and traditions.

  2. I thought the article was spot on. Thank’s for posting it. I noticed that she’s an “existential psychotherapist.” Does that mean that in her professional role she uses counseling techniques based on Existentialist philosophy?

    I’ve heard of CBT and believe Stoicism played some part in its formation. I’ve also heard of, but have no knowledge of, Existential therapy. I assumed, maybe wrongly, that these were two very different approaches- one based on, at least in part, Stoicism, and the other based on Existentialism. Is this not the case?

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