If I were not a Buddhist, I would most likely be a Stoic…

 

buddhism-stoicism

From Stoicism Today

There are huge similarities between Modern Stoic philosophy and Western Buddhist teachings.  Amidst these there are three that I would like to examine in this essay. Firstly, the mutual belief in our innate ability to produce our own personal happiness. Like Buddhists, Stoics believe that happiness is not about the acquisition of assets such as money, celebrity or social position but by developing what we, in Buddhism, might call ‘skilful means’. In Stoic philosophy this same understanding is seen as learning how to develop the pertinent qualities that are essential for a human life; the development of ‘The Virtues’ such as wisdom, courage, justice and self-control.  Secondly, that all sentient beings are naturally beings who want to know and acquire a better understanding and a better world. This in Buddhist terms is known as ‘basic goodness’ or our ‘Buddha nature’.  Stoics would more probably refer to this phenomenon as a natural propensity to help others; an innate altruism which is common to all human and animal life. Like modern Western Buddhist practice, Stoics are encouraged to get involved in family life, in social and political activities[1] and to understand that we are, all of us, members of the one human family; we are brothers and sisters wherever we may be.  This is extremely close to the Buddhist teaching of ‘oneness’ and ‘non-separation’ or in modern philosophical terminology, the teaching of ‘non-duality’.  Finally, like Buddhists, Stoics, in their own particular way, affirm the importance of mind and hold that the universe itself is permeated by a providential principle of rationality and reason which in turn give shape and form to an intelligible universe, the understanding of which can generate a system of beliefs that informs our attitudes and desires in the most positively beneficial and constructive ways.

Before I start I want to explain clearly that the editor has asked me to write a account of my own personal Buddhist journey of 30 years in relation to what I have read and understood about Modern Stoicism.  I must also admit that I have only a nodding acquaintance with some of the principle themes of Modern Stoicism; only what I have gleaned from a very limited number of source-texts, academic publications and recently organised seminars. Therefore what I write is not in any way, shape or form a case of orthodox Western Buddhist teachings being compared to Stoicism but rather a few meagre offerings from one very idiosyncratic Buddhist practitioner.

It was a number of the fascinating articles that I read in the first publication of this journal that first attracted my attention to many aspects of Stoic Philosophy and which immediately inspired me to read once again the magnificently written Discourses of Epictetus [2] and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. [3]  However, my main focus in this short essay will be on the modern movement itself which is being impressively lead by Christopher Gill of Exeter University and by Patrick Ussher in a myriad of seminars and well-organized gatherings in Britain and now also in the US.

I preface my meanderings by saying that often where Stoicism draws a line in the sand, Buddhist practice and teachings do not.  There is a transcendence in Buddhist teachings that is sometimes expressed in terms of ‘crazy wisdom’ or Koans[4]. Both Modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism are, however, obviously firmly rooted in the natural world; in our private and public interactions, our relationship to our environment and neither speak of some other path or way forward rather than by advocating unequivocally the application of wisdom[5] to all our interactions with this world and in our personal relationships with one another; be those relationships private, professional, social, political or any other.

When I say Stoicism ‘draws a line’, I am not implying or trying to insinuate from my perspective that Stoicism is, in anyway, somehow less than Buddhism but rather that it focuses itself on a different set of outcomes.  The example, I would give here is the difference between a Mercedes Benz and a Jeep.  These both can travel equally well along the highway. However, off-road perhaps a Jeep might well be a better choice of vehicle. Then again, if I were planning a long journey across Europe, a Mercedes Benz, I imagine, would be a more preferable choice. But first all, let us look at what Buddhism and Stoicism have in common.

As soon as the Buddha, Siddhartha, sits under the Bodhi tree in order to attain enlightenment, it is said that the devil, Mara, who in reality represents the unruly inclinations of the human mind, brings before him his daughters.  At first, they try to seduce him and then, when this fails, attempt to induce fear and terror in the Buddha.  But Siddhartha remains completely unperturbed and free of his passions – both the lustful passions of desire and also any experience of revulsion, or the passions of aversion.  Now if we look at this tale in the light of what Epictetus tells us, we quickly discover that when the prokoptôn, or the person wishing to follow the Stoic way, embarks upon developing “The Virtues”, that person will, we are told, consequently bring about his or her own eudaimonia or happiness.  Like most Ancient Greek words, the word, eudaimonia, has a more differentiated meaning than its English equivalent.  Eudaimonia in its original Greek meaning is happiness as in a form of a ‘flourishing of life’. It is a happiness that has within its constituent parts ‘ataraxia’ – imperturbability, ‘apatheia’ – freedom from passion or aversion and ‘eupatheiai’ – a sense of good feelings.  So these aspects of the desired Stoic ‘eudaimonia’ or enlightened state, are also key in the relationship of Siddartha to the daughters of Mara where he shows both imperturbability ‘ataraxia’ and ‘apatheia’ leading subsequently to  ‘eupatheiai’  or in Buddhist terms Nirvana.  It is quite clear that so far there is complete concurrence here with Buddhist thinking.  Where perhaps, Buddhist thinking diverges from the Stoic world-view, is when Stoics speak of our inability to change certain things because they are “outside our power” to do so. Stoicism would certainly hold to the position of there being many things that cannot be changed or influenced such as the fact that we are all going to die, that we, as conscious beings, will cease to exist and this is outside of our control and so must be accepted as such, if we are to proceed wisely focussing our energies and attention on those things in our lives that can be changed.  For Stoics, this philosophy is about life now, at this very moment, and living each moment in the most wise and positive way. However, in my own personal Buddhist understanding there is no such thing as death.  Death, illness, the world itself are all part of mind – an illusion. So what then is real?  Only experience is real.  The experience of pain, joy, the physical world, the world of forms is very real but its actual essence is empty and devoid of any real substance.  This, I believe, is a massively significant difference between the two philosophies and has far-reaching consequences as Buddhism interprets the observable material world as a manifestation of mind rather than “a-thing-in-itself”. This Buddhist belief brings with it the understanding that there is nothing outside of awareness and consciousness. So in philosophical terms, if Buddhism might be placed closer to the solipsism of George Berkley, Stoics would most probably be nearer to the worldview of John Locke. [6]

There have been a number of heated discussions in the past couple of years between Modern Stoics, in regard to interpersonal detachment.  Professor Gill addresses this issue in one of his seminars on Stoicism where he raises the concerns of scholars such as Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum who consider that Stoic detachment might possibly hinder a fuller and more loving commitment to others due to a distancing of oneself or a remaining, to some extent, aloof from others.  In Stoic terms, Professor Gill directs our attention to two strands of development. Firstly, the development of wisdom and secondly our involvement in sustained interaction with those in our personal spheres and with those in public or global communities.  He points to the Stoic understanding that we are all brothers and sisters with one shared humanity and that Stoics have always maintained that there is an innate desire in humans and animals to look after and care for others. Wisdom dictates that there are no frozen truths in how to behave and he brings the example of a parent staying by the bed of its very sick child, rather than doing something “useful” like going to work.

However here again there is a notable difference in my Buddhist approach.  ‘Non-attachment’ in Buddhist terms is the realization that there is in fact no ‘other’ – ‘oneness’ is ‘non-separation’ and so ‘non-attachment’ is our ability to let go entirely of any concept of duality, i.e. the mistaken idea that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, a ‘me’ and a ‘what is not me’. We have seen this realization ermerge recently, albeit in a rather cloaked fashion, with popular protest slogans such as: “Je suis Charlie… Je suis Muslim… Je suis Juif… etc”. This solidarity phenomenon is now appearing spontaneously across the globe after major tragedies or any major acts of unethical aggression.  People instinctively feel today that they are one brotherhood and as Shakespeare’s Shylock put it so well “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?”  This human unity of our nature and being is very clearly emphasized and understood by the Stoics, but unlike Buddhism, there is a recognized separation inherent in Stoic teaching – a ‘me’ and a ‘not-me’.  In Stoicism the world is populated by individuals working together to achieve a mutual happiness or flourishing, whereas in Buddhism – there is no self, merely habituations and there are no individuals – simply a deluded conscious awareness misguided by a misleading world of perceptions[7].  So when a Stoic speaks about ‘interpersonal detachment’ – it makes little sense to a Buddhist like me as there is nothing to be detached from, except perhaps, our deluded perceptions.  The central teaching in regard to ‘non-attachment’ in Buddhism is compassion and pure compassion is ultimate wisdom.  Chögyam Trungpa[8] once defined compassion as “fearless generosity” and this is what the Buddhist ‘non-attachment’ means in it fullest sense.

Now if we return to Stoic ‘interpersonal detachment’ we can perhaps now see that it is, in fact, a subset of ‘non-attachment’. And hence the principal of Buddhist non-attachment would, for me, provide a more comprehensive answer to those concerns raised by Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum.  If we ask ourselves what would the compassionate person do (i.e. the wise person) then there is no doubt that he or she would organise their actions in such a way as to lessen the distress and the pain of “others” no matter what “personal” cost (or courage) that might entail.

Finally, from what I have read on Stoicism, our belief-systems also enjoy other similarities. If Buddhism is, as the Dalai Lama suggests “a science of mind” then Stoicism is every inch a science of mind. Modern Stoicism is an uncompromising investigation into the workings and the relationships of mind with the world.  The belief in a Providential and rational world implies that the universe is intelligible and, according to the ancient Stoics at least, benign.  Both philosophies also construct their beliefs, not from sacred texts, but from negotiable beliefs that have been wrought and derived out of human experience.  Texts are, of course, consulted in both Buddhist and Stoic debates but are not the dogmatic glue of either philosophy.  In the case of Buddhism, the differing traditions have a wide variety of texts according to their specific lineages and as for the Stoics, they gather together their various strands of thought from a wide variety of sources that have been developed through wise and intelligent observations in all areas of human activity from the writings of Emperors to the deliberations of modern psychologists. But for both it is within the mind itself that all heaven and hell are created and reside. One very telling text from Marcus Aurelius explains clearly this central understanding in Stoic reasoning which I’m sure Modern Stoicism would also endorse. In this particular passage, Marcus Aurelius is observing how people are generally inclined to go off somewhere, to a different place far away; to a retreat or off to the coast in order to relax and find some peace. But in the text Aurelius wisely, to my mind, observes:

“…this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself at any time you want.  There is nowhere that person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind, especially if he has within himself the kind of thoughts that let him dip into them and so at once gain complete ease of mind; and by ease of mind, I mean nothing but having one’s own mind in good order.” [9]

If this excellent translation does not implicitly imply that we should seek solutions within oneself then Marcus Aurelius again emphasizes his point by recommending that we all should constantly give ourselves time-out for this inner personal retreat in order to renew and replenish our lives.[10]

And Aurelius is right, we are frequently inclined to think that if only we could manage to go somewhere else, or to acquire some particular item then we would achieve true contentment but my Buddhist practice has shown me over the years the exact opposite, i.e. that Nirvana is not achieved by the acquisition of anything material but rather by the removal of that which obscures and creates confusion.

So, if I’m correct, that the bedrock of Modern Stoicism is a deeply compassionate philosophy rooted in rationality, logic and analytical observation of the natural world around us, it is therefore, in its essence, fundamentally materialistic and follows to some greater or lesser extent a Feynmanian[11] attitude, whereas my understanding of Buddhism would be, hopefully, an eventual transcendence of the very beliefs and science that inform the precepts of my perceived worldview.  There is a wonderful and greatly celebrated Buddhist tale which, for me, quintessentially identifies this key and very basic distinction between the two philosophies.  And it goes like this:

Hui-Neng was totally illiterate and looked after himself and his elderly mother by collecting and selling firewood.  One day Hui-Neng was going about his business when he heard some verses being recited from the Diamond Sutra[12].  He was so impressed by this that he immediately went to the monastery of the 5th Patriarch, Hung-Jen.  Hung-Jen took Hui-Neng into his monastery to do menial tasks. Eventually however, it was time to choose a new Patriarch. Shen-Hsui was the most intellectually brilliant of all the monks in the Monastery and so he composed a poem to prove that he was worthy of the position:

“The Body is the Bodhi tree, The mind – a mirror bright, Take care to keep it dust-free, So it may reflect the light”

Shen-Hsui’s verse, like Marcus Aurelius in his meditations, urges us to maintain clarity in our thinking and constant vigilance in regard to our behaviour, for only then shall we cultivate and maintain a mind that is “in good order”.  Nonetheless Hui-Neng was not greatly impressed by this and so he decided to compose his own poem:

‘In truth there is no Bodhi tree, No mirror on a stand, There’s nothing there but emptiness, No place for dust to land.’

After reciting this poem, Hui-Neng was installed as the 6th Patriarch but he had to run for his life from the other monks and go into hiding. Buddhist practice is not about dealing with life, it is life. It’s aim is to reflect the true nature of the mind its reality which is, in Buddhist terms, absolute emptiness.

Therefore, may I end this short essay by commending all my Stoic friends whose philosophy in worldly terms offers, for all those who practise it correctly, clarity of mind, an ordered and purposeful life, but most importantly of all a deep inner eudaimonia or happiness that cannot and will not be frustrated by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.  I am firmly convinced that it is those who follow such a resourceful philosophy who will, in the end, achieve their personal dreams and aspirations by accessing their own maximum inner potential… fearlessly, wisely and of course, with good temperance. It is undoubtedly people with such a mindset as the Stoics, who will become the best captains of industry, the most honest politicians, the wisest and the wealthiest in this material world while alas, I and my Buddhist friends will be still up a mountain somewhere in Tibet, watching our village being ransacked by hostile invaders.  But, I suppose, that is why I am a Buddhist and not a Stoic.

Garry Bannister was born in Sligo, Ireland, in 1953. His first encounter with Buddhism was at the age of 16 when a friend purchased a book of Buddhist Koans.  It was not until his mid thirties, however, that he became a practising Buddhist.  At first, it was Zen that attracted his interest because of its simplicity and minimalism.  Bannister has a wide experience in various western Buddhist teachings and presently practises Nichiren Buddhism. He attended Trinity College Dublin where he studied Irish and Russian. On receiving a scholarship, he went to Moscow State University where he graduated with an MA in Russian language and literature and also, later, successfully defended a PhD in comparative linguistics.  Bannister’s main interest today is the Irish language and its literature. He has many publications in this area and is presently working at St Columba’s College, Dublin.

Notes [1] The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Volume 1, Soka Gakkai: “No worldly affairs of life or work are ever contrary to the true reality….the Lotus Sutra  explains that in the end secular matters are the entirety of Buddhism.” (page 1126). [2] Our knowledge of the philosophy of Epictetus and his method as a teacher comes to us mainly via two works composed by his student Arrian, The Discourses and the Handbook. [3] One of my main references being Prof. Gill’s Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6, translated with an introduction and commentary (Oxford University Press, 2013). [4] A ‘koan’ is a story that points to the ultimate nature of reality. Paradox is essential as it transcends conceptual or logical thought. [5] I would argue that in both Stoicism and Buddhism wisdom is key because if we are wise then we will undoubtedly be courageous, just and capable of maintaining self-control. [6] This is a very loose comparison just to illustrate the huge chasm that lies between the metaphysical and the materialistic strands in philosophy. [7] In Mahayana schools reality is often described in terms of two truths– relative and absolute. Relative truth can be either perverted relative truth or pure relative truth.  The example is often given of a person observing a rope and perhaps believing the rope to be a snake (i.e. perverted relative truth)or another person who sees the rope as a rope (i.e. pure relative truth… perhaps the stoic view?). Whereas absolute truth is the understanding or realization that there is no rope there at all. [8] Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a Tibetan monk who came to Britain in 1960′s an is the founder of Shambhala Buddhism in the West; one of the largest Western Schools of Modern Buddhism. [9] Prof. Christopher Gill – Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6, translated with an introduction and commentary (Oxford University Press, 2013); Book 4, section 3. [10] ibid. “So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself” [11] ‘Feynmanian’ –  a word I made up myself, based on the modus operandi of the world famous scientist, Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988) whose approach to investigating all phenomena of the natural world was consistently rooted in factual observation. James Gleicksummed Feynman’s approach up as “What scientists create must match reality.” from ‘Genius, The life of Science of Richard Feynman’ (1992) page. 324. [12] The Diamond Sutra is a very ancient text containing a discourse between the Buddha and one of his senior monks, Subhuti.
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