Exploring the Similarities and Differences between Buddhism and Stoicism

Are you interested in philosophy and spirituality? Then you may have heard of two ancient schools of thought that have been around for centuries. These are Buddhism and Stoicism.


Comparing Buddhism with Stoic philosophy

Buddhism and Stoicism are two age-old philosophical traditions that have garnered considerable attention for their pragmatic methods of attaining a satisfying and joyous life. Each tradition provides an exceptional viewpoint on how there can be peacefulness within oneself, finding purpose when the world is in ruin. Additionally, there is a big difference between these two traditions, such as the originating cultural, historical contexts, but there are many correspondents in philosophies and practices of these two. This piece will be contrasting Buddhism with Stoicism, as well as discovering some of the major similarities and differences of the two religions on how they can guide us to an understanding of personal development and enlightenment.

The Founders of Stoicism and Buddhism

Stoicism and Buddhism originated on other sides of the globe centuries apart. Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens around 300 BCE, while Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama in modern-day Nepal around 600 BCE.

Zeno of Citium

Zeno was a prosperous merchant who lost his wealth in a shipwreck in Athens, Greece. Stranded in Athens with no possessions, he found a bookstore, and his father had highly valued reading before. Feeling bad for himself after seeing the books that cost so much, he mentally said,”what an easy thing learning is, since it wants will only”. He found books of Xenophon (the Memorabilia) and became very interested in philosophy. He started learning more about the philosopher Socrates and asked many people where he could find this kind of knowledge and virtue. He was told to see Crates, the most renowned Cynic philosopher at that time, and he did. After 10 years with Crates, Zeno started to get away from the philosophy of Cynicism, and after another 8 years, he formed his own school, which he named after the place where he was taught – the Stoa Poikile and the philosophy, Stoicism.

Zeno of Citium

The Buddha

The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, entered the world as a prince born into wealth and prestige. Prophecies heralded his birth with predictions of extraordinary destiny: some foresaw him ruling over vast empires while others perceived in him a future spiritual guide – on one condition. This condition required that he renounced palace life to pursue enlightenment outside its gilded confines. Yet, his parents elected to shelter him profoundly by confining their son within those very luxurious walls; they chose seclusion over potential prophecy fulfilment. The king, determined to shield his son from all potential suffering, issued strict orders for the young prince’s environment: nothing decaying or dying should ever touch him. In this sheltered world of perpetual fulfilment-a realm oblivious to pain and hardship-the naive royal grew up.

Siddhartha, as time elapsed, started hearing tales of the realm outside palace walls. One particular day: a musician arrived at the royal residence; his song narrated numerous world wonders – an event that kindled in Siddhartha an urge to explore this kingdom he was destined to govern. Embarking into the world on his 29th birthday: accompanied by Channa–his loyal charioteer, he rode a chariot for transportation; thus began our protagonist’s journey towards enlightenment and self-discovery.

Different versions of the story depict Siddhartha’s journey as either a series of four separate expeditions or one continuous exploration. All accounts, however, concur that “the foresights” triggered an intense metamorphosis in the young prince. The first foresight presented him with an image: that of an old man; this sight engendered within Siddhartha a recognition – all beings inevitably succumb to aging. The second sight–a sick person–initially shocked him; yet, he quickly comprehended: all beings endure sickness and suffering. Siddhartha confronted the sight of a lifeless body, an experience that inundated him with profound sorrow and melancholy; indeed–Chana elucidated: death is inescapable, all living entities will ultimately meet their demise.

An ascetic, dedicating himself to unraveling the cause of human suffering, represented the fourth sight. This sight infused Siddhartha with hope for an escape from suffering and a potential rebirth. Consequently, he chose asceticism as his path – renouncing all Earthly pleasures in pursuit of this liberation.

Siddhartha Gautama, in his pursuit of enlightenment, engaged rigorous asceticism: his practices encompassed minimal food intake; diverse forms of breath control–and forceful mind regulation. The early texts vividly portray him as emaciated to the point where skeletal structures pierced through translucent skin layers. Yet it was only after much introspection that he acknowledged—this extreme self-denial proved ineffective for propelling him towards illumination.

Then, his recollection stirred: a past meditative experience nestled in childhood; under the watchful shade of a tree he sat–while nearby, his father toiled. In some renditions of this tale – an expansive narrative web woven by memory and interpretation – there emerges another character: the homeless man found solace through meditation. This vivid remembrance spurred him towards an illuminating realization–that indeed, meditation paved the way to enlightenment. The texts assert: the Buddha indeed conquered all four meditations, subsequently mastering the three higher knowledge; ultimately culminating–through his unprecedented achievement–in enlightenment.

Buddha Meditating

The Magic of Four: The Four Stoic Virtues vs The Four Noble Truths

The Stoics formulated a set of values that embodied the essence of their philosophy, which aimed to help individuals lead meaningful life. These values included four cardinal virtues that served as a guide for living a virtuous life.

  1. Wisdom – acting rationally and seeing the world with objectivity
  2. Justice – treating others with fairness and kindness
  3. Courage – being brave when confronted with adversity and understanding that fear can often cause more harm than the thing we are afraid of
  4. Temperance – resisting temptations and choosing virtuous actions over vice.

The Stoics believed that living in accordance with these values was equivalent to living in accordance with nature. Just as nature is rational and well-ordered, so are human beings. Therefore, living a virtuous life meant living in harmony with the natural order of the universe.

Epictetus, a prominent Stoic philosopher, emphasized the importance of distinguishing between things we can control and things we cannot. According to him, focusing on the former and letting go of the latter is the key to living a good life.

On the other hand, Buddhists sought to achieve enlightenment or Nirvana by letting go of all attachments and living in the present moment. Unlike the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism, Buddhism promoted the Four Noble Truths developed by the Buddha.

  1. Dukkha – Life is suffering
  2. Samudaya – Suffering is caused by attachment and desire
  3. Nirodha – It is possible to escape the cycle of suffering
  4. Marga – The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to end suffering

The Eightfold Path is not a straight linear line but rather a middle way, which refers to the way of life between excess and deficiency, also known as moderation. The Noble Eightfold Path includes the following steps:

• Right View: Understanding the Four Noble Truths and the nature of reality.
• Right Intention: Developing the intention of non-harming and goodwill towards all beings.
• Right Speech: Speaking truthfully and kindly, avoiding lies, slander, and harmful speech.
• Right Action: Acting ethically and avoiding actions that cause harm to oneself or others.
• Right Livelihood: Earning a living in a way that is not harmful to oneself or others.
• Right Effort: Cultivating wholesome states of mind and abandoning unwholesome ones.
• Right Mindfulness: Cultivating awareness and attention to the present moment and avoiding distraction.
• Right Concentration: Developing the ability to concentrate the mind through meditation, leading to deeper insight and understanding.

Noble Eightfold Path

Nirvana is the ultimate state one reaches when following the Noble Eightfold Path. Nirvana is the state of having no desires and the cessation of suffering. In Sanskrit, Nirvana means “the blowing out,” and it refers to the extinguishing of the flame of personal desire and the quenching of the fire of life. Nirvana is considered the ultimate refuge, providing safety, emancipation, peace, and freedom.

Similarities Between Buddhism and Stoicism

The quest to alleviate suffering lies at the heart of both philosophies, given the harshness of life in the ancient world due to war, famine, and lack of technology. Consequently, ancient thinkers sought ways to reduce suffering and attain a state of calmness and stability. While the Stoics aimed to be like resilient rocks standing firm against the waves of life’s ordeals, Buddha taught resisting carnal desires and pursuing Nirvana, where attachments are severed and suffering extinguished.

After alleviating suffering, how does one attain happiness? Both schools advocate for moderation as the path to happiness. By eliminating excess and focusing on the essential aspects of life, one can experience true satisfaction and harmony.

Buddha expressed this idea by saying, “Temperance is a tree which has for its root very little contentment, and for its fruit calm and peace.”

Both philosophies recognize that happiness is not dependent on pleasure or material possessions. Anxiety, a common source of suffering, is often caused by our obsession with the past or fear of the future. The stoics encourage us to stay in the present moment and tame our minds, while the Buddhists recommend meditation as a way to stay grounded in the present and avoid anxiety. As a famous stoic saying goes, “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” By letting go of our attachments and focusing on the present, we can find inner calm and peace.

Differences Between Stoicism and Buddhism

At first glance, it may appear that Stoicism and Buddhism share many practical teachings and a similar understanding of the human mind. However, one notable difference is that Buddhism is widely recognized as a religion, while Stoicism is regarded as a philosophy. Around 8% of the world’s population practices Buddhism, but it doesn’t conform to the traditional definition of a religion or a philosophy. Buddhism is non-dogmatic and doesn’t require its followers to worship any supreme deity or creator. Its primary aim is to seek the truth. Unlike Christianity, Buddhism doesn’t have a savior figure, and individuals must find their own path and use the Buddha as a guide rather than blindly following him. Unlike Buddhism, Stoicism is not an organized religion but a philosophical school of thought that anyone can adopt and apply to their own lives. Stoics do not gather in shrines to pray or participate in communal worship, but instead, they share a common bond of spirit and ideology.

Stoicism is widely taught and studied as a philosophy in many universities across the West, while Buddhism has a stronger presence in the East, particularly in countries like India, Japan, China, Myanmar, and others. However, it’s worth noting that many Buddhists also reside in the West, just as stoic ideas are becoming increasingly popular in the East. Despite this, Stoicism remains primarily a Western philosophy, while Buddhism is an Eastern teaching.

Benefits of Living According to Buddhist and Stoic Principles

Living according to either Buddhist or Stoic principles can result in significant psychological benefits. Both practices can lead to a calmer and more serene state of mind and promote spiritual refinement and inner peace.

Stoicism, in particular, emphasizes the importance of personal well-being and a harmonious relationship with society. The philosophy encourages individuals to do the right thing for themselves and for the world at large without expecting any external rewards or validation. Stoics believe that true satisfaction cannot come from external sources and that wisdom and self-improvement are their own rewards. This honest and truthful approach to living can make Stoicism more appealing and attainable in contemporary society. As the world becomes increasingly materialistic and focused on external rewards, the stoic philosophy offers a refreshing alternative that focuses on inner peace and self-improvement.

Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of the Roman Empire (Aurelius column), was a Stoic philosopher whose teachings have endured for centuries. His personal diary later published as ‘The Meditations‘ is considered one of the most influential works of philosophy and spirituality. He wrote these personal notes to himself during battles against germanic armies while also suffering from a deadly plague. In these writings, Aurelius offers his stoic views on how to live a good and meaningful life no matter what life throws at you.

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The central concept of all Buddhist teachings is Dharma, which can be translated as truth, reality, or law. The ultimate goal of life is to achieve nobility of the spirit, a form of purity that stems not from a God but from oneself. Dharma exists both in the minds of individuals and as a universal law of righteousness imbued in every aspect of the universe, from the tides of the seas to the changing of the seasons.

Living in accordance with Dharma allows individuals to escape mystery and reach Nirvana, the ultimate release from all suffering. Buddhists believe that through meditation, yoga, and concentration, individuals can train their memory to see their rebirth as a succession of links, even gaining insight into their previous lives.

Furthermore, Buddhism teaches that through enlightenment and true wisdom, individuals can attain Nirvana in this life and eventually arrive at the end of the chain of rebirths.

The Mauryan Emperor Ashoka is one of the most iconic rulers of India’s ancient past. A powerful and ambitious ruler, Ashoka was also a great patron of Buddhism. He converted to the religion following his conquest of Kalinga and went on to become one of its most influential supporters. Ashoka is remembered today for his reforms and the patronage he showed towards Buddhism and its spread across India and beyond. His legacy of peaceful rule stands as an example to the world.

I have enforced the law against killing certain animals and many others, but the greatest progress of righteousness among men comes from the exhortation in favor of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings.

Ashoka The Great

Conclusion

Although separated by continents and through Time, Buddhism and Stoicism are remarkably similar as much as they are different. As one Japanese anecdote narrates, Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), once welcomed a Western university professor to his temple. The guest was interested in learning about Buddhist practices and sharing his views on the matter. Nan-in served tea to the professor and as he poured, he continued well after the cup was full. The professor grew puzzled at first and then frustrated as he watched the overflow; unable to contain himself any longer, he yelled, “But the cup is overfull and cannot take any more tea!” Nan-in replied, “Like this cup, you too are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I teach you Buddhism unless you first empty your own cup?” The professor fell silent, and thus his training began.

This story highlights the importance of emptying one’s mind of prejudices and opinions when learning a philosophy, whether from the East or West. It emphasizes the need to focus on the essentials and cultivate dedication to the teachings to become a master of philosophy. However, it also reminds us that everything in life is impermanent, and we should keep this in mind even as we strive to deepen our understanding of philosophy.

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