“Man conquers the world by conquering himself.”
“Greater in combat
Than a person who conquers
A thousand times a thousand people
Is the person who conquers oneself.”
“Get rid of the judgement, get rid of the ‘I am hurt,’ you are rid of the hurt itself.”
“All things are not-self”
Seeing this with insight,
One becomes disenchanted with suffering.
This is the path to purity.
-Dhammapada 20: 279
“Where is the good? In the will. Where is the evil? In the will. Where is neither of them? In those things which are independent of the will.”
“All the suffering of this world arises from a wrong attitude.
The world is neither good or bad.
It is only the relation to our ego that makes it seem the one or the other. “
-Lama Anagorika Govinda
While stoic has come to mean unemotional or indifferent to worldly things, it was a lively and popular philosophy to the ancient Greeks and Romans, influential to it’s many adherents. It appealed to many people of different swaths of life, from the slave Epictetus, to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. And as we’ve seen, it shares some similarities and perhaps even connections with Buddhism. So what is Stoicism and how similar is it to Buddhism? Of course, one person’s definition of Stoicism and Buddhism will differ from another’s so you will have to bear with me as I try to make the connections.
Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium in 301 B.C.E. He was a merchant who studied under the Cynics and carried with him some of their thoughts. He spoke from his porch (the stoa), and taught his students to ease their suffering by becoming indifferent or “apathetic” to the rising and falling of emotions and desires, our passions. Interestingly, passion is also equivalent to suffering in Christianity, although the meaning and use of the word may be different. While Christians are to live in line with God, Stoics were to live in line with the rational Universe, which to them was virtuous. Zeno taught that by becoming indifferent to the passions that arise in us, we learn wisdom and learn to live in line with the Universe. Ignorance of this leads to suffering.
By becoming less moved by our emotions, it seems, we learn to be restrained without emotion instead of restrained by emotions. This has translated to the modern definition of stoic. For the Stoics, living stoicly was not just to become a stubborn rock, unmoved by anything. Living in such a way means to live peacefully, with a sense of inner tranquility. This is similar to the Buddhist arahats who become awakened through renunciation and letting go of attachments and desires. Both claim to achieve a state of inner peace from suffering, which are the two traditions’ common goal. The Stoics as well as the Buddha and his disciples sought to free people of suffering. The difference however is that Zeno taught the suppression of the passions whereas the Buddha spoke of becoming open and free from passions.
Apparently, the Stoics also used meditation to practice. The Stoics used “contemplation of death, training attention to remain in the present moment” to gain that indifference that they are now so famous for. Contemplation of death is also a practice used by wandering forest monks in Buddhism. They would settle into cemeteries and contemplate the similarities of their own aging bodies with that of the corpses, the only difference being that of time. And the practice of training attention to remain in the present moment is common to all of Buddhism. Known as dhyana, practitioners begin by focusing on the in and out of the breath, eventually extending their attention to other sensations in their body and mind. It is said that a peaceful state of bliss arises during dhyana, and is emphasized in the tradition of Zen (chan, seon, thien, etc).
Stoics had one major difference in their beliefs with Buddhism. Stoics upheld, paradoxically, both determinism and free will. They believed that the Universe was rational and that it carried people along with it. While people had the free will to act in whatever way they saw fit, voluntarily conforming to the Universe led to the freedom of suffering.
It has been said that Marcus Aurelius was the last Stoic philosopher. Stoicism has since then kept itself in the background, but it’s ideas have re-emerged or taken a different representation. Examples include the French expression, “C’est La Vie”, or the Christian serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference….”
P.S. After a little search on the Interwebs, it seems some have already beat me to the punch. There’s even a Japanese Zen monks who wrote a blogpost noting the similarities (though I wish he had a greater command of the paragraphical indentation). There are even some class notes for a philosophy class comparing the two.
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