Stoicism & Buddhism: Lessons, Similarities and Differences

“The brahmans had no cattle, no gold, no wealth. They had study as their wealth and grain. They guarded the holy life as their treasure.” Gautama Buddha

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs.” Seneca


Stoicism and Buddhism are two remarkably similar philosophies that were created independently thousands of miles apart. Buddhism was founded in present-day Nepal around 500 B.C and Stoicism began in Athens, Greece around 300 B.C. They both advocate getting happiness from an internal source, so that the ups and downs of life will not be your master. As philosopher and author Nassim Taleb once wrote on the similarities between the two: “A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude.”

Sure, both of them differ is in their explanations of how our world works. But the critical part is this: both of these systems of thought can be used to improve your life and make you a calmer and wiser human being.

Buddhism is a religion that was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who was sheltered his whole life and was shocked by the suffering he saw when he went out into the world. He meditated and came to the conclusion that the cause of all suffering is desire. All things in this life are temporary and clinging to them inevitably produces dissatisfaction. The desires we have in this life produce a karma that results in our being reborn, because of our longing for life. The ultimate goal of a Buddhist is to eliminate suffering (dukkha) and reach nirvana, a state of pure non-desire.  

According to Buddhist teachings, one reaches nirvana by following the Noble Eightfold Path: “Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the ancient path, the ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times.”

And what about Stoicism? It is a philosophy that stresses the importance of being in accordance with nature and accepting all of the things that happen in life. The stoic philosopher Epictetus advocated an unconditional surrender to the course of nature. As he once put it, don’t be wishing for figs in winter—accept and wish how things actually are instead. This is also best expressed by the concept of amor fati, or loving one’s faith, which as author Robert Greene has remarked in our interview with him, is very prominent in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

The Stoics also teach that one should always have their attention focused on the present moment, exactly like Buddhism. As the Stoic scholar Patrick Ussher has observed on the Stoicism Today blog, these lines from Marcus Aurelius would resonate with any Buddhist practitioner: “Every hour focus your mind attentively…on the performance of the task in hand, with dignity, human sympathy, benevolence and freedom, and leave aside all other thoughts. You will achieve this, if you perform each action as if it were your last…”

In Stoicism, virtue is the only good and vice is the only thing that is bad. Wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance are the four cardinal virtues in Stoicism. As Seneca wrote in Letter 76 in his famous Letters from a Stoic, “Virtue itself is therefore the only good; she marches proudly between the two extremes of fortune, with great scorn for both.”

Stoic ethics are based on using reason to free yourself from passion. It is because of passion, not reason, that people judge the events that happen to them as good or bad, when most of these are indifferent. One of the key tenets and guiding principles of Stoicism is of being indifferent to both pain and pleasure, which is a way of conquering both. Similar to Buddhism, Stoicism advises against being ruled and enslaved by desire.

Stoicism teaches that all people have value and denies the importance of wealth and social status. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught that one should be a dedicated philanthropist, because we are creations of a generous and giving God. Rationality is the key to virtue and happiness (but not a happiness conditional on outside events), while passion is sure to lead to suffering and vice. This is similar to Buddhism, where desire is what causes suffering, however for the Buddhist it is the renunciation of desire rather than reason which is the key to enlightenment.

In regards to the self, according to Buddhist teachings, there is no self, all nature is one and our perceived separation from anything else is an illusion. The Stoics also believe that the entire universe is one, and that it is filled with a divine essence or God.

However, in Buddhism, there is no creator God, but rather an endless chain of causality as we’ll see below.

Buddhist ethics revolve around karma, which means that good or bad acts result in better or worse lives when a person is reborn. Such beliefs bring to mind a remark from Bertrand Russell who has said that, “Among present-day religions Buddhism is the best. The doctrines of Buddhism are profound; they are almost reasonable, and historically they have been the least harmful and the least cruel. But…Buddhism does not really pursue the truth; it appeals to sentiment and, ultimately, tries to persuade people to believe in doctrines which are based on subjective assumptions not objective evidence.” (As a sidenote, the Secular Buddhist Association does not believe in rebirth and its beliefs are “based solely on that which can be verified in the natural world.”)

The Stoics do not believe in reincarnation and place emphasis on accepting death as an important part of the natural process of the world.

To explore further Buddhist ethics, there are five precepts which are the moral guidelines for all Buddhist followers. There are not always punishments for breaking the following rules; the assumption is that one will be punished for evil deeds in the next life. The five precepts are: do not kill any sentient being, do not steal, avoid sexual misconduct, do not lie, and do not take intoxicants of any kind.

Here Buddhism diverges from Stoicism in that Stoicism does not disdain killing animals, whereas in Buddhism saving an animal from slaughter counts as karma towards a better rebirth. Stoicism’s view on sexual misconduct is that one should practice temperance and never over-indulge. Buddhist monks have much stricter rules to follow and breaking them can result in expulsion from the monastery. There can be literally hundreds of rules for monks to follow that are specific to their monastery.

In Stoicism, it is our interpretation of events that causes us to be happy or unhappy, not any intrinsic quality of the events. That’s why it’s so important to not be a mere reaction to outside events, because otherwise someone may feel as though life is treating them unfairly and they could have exercised their ability to not let an unpleasant event make them unhappy.

As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “And here are two of the most immediately useful thoughts you will dip into. First that things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only come from your internal judgement. Second, that all these things you see will change almost as you look at them, and then will be no more. Constantly bring to mind all that you yourself have already seen changed. The universe is change: life is judgement.” Or how Epictetus put it, “Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinion about events.”

Outside events need not disturb you and even if they do, it will soon be over, just as your life will. This way of thinking is very similar to Buddhism, which places great emphasis on the impermanent aspect of human life and the transitory nature of existence. The impermanence of everything is the main reason why desire is the cause of all suffering. As Rupert Gethin has written, “As long as there is attachment to things that are unstable, unreliable, changing and impermanent, there will be suffering – when they change, when they cease to be what we want them to be.”

Desiring an event to go one way or the other for you is a lose-lose situation: lose if you do not get what you want, and lose if you get what you want, because what you got will change or your desire will change.

Both Buddhism and Stoicism teach that you should not spend your life seeking worldly pleasures. There is something far more meaningful to pursue: the perfection of mind and spirit. Our attachment to worldly things is the source of much of human suffering. The philosophy of Stoicism and the religion of Buddhism are excellent ways for humans to gain independence from the circumstances of their lives and become more emotionally stable.

And as Professor Massimo Pigliucci has written, showing the similarities between the two, “The ultimate goal of the Stoic was apatheia, or peace of mind, which I think is akin to both the Epicurean ideal of ataraxia and the Buddhist goal of nirvana…”

Today both Buddhism and Stoicism are resurgent. It is not surprising that TIME magazine recently dedicated one of its covers to “The Mindful Revolution” as mindfulness and meditations are key Buddhist concepts (and the academic interest has also been increasing in recent years). Of course, there was also the popular National Geographic piece from several years ago on the Buddhist resurgence in the West. And here at the Daily Stoic we have discussed at length why currently Stoicism is having its cultural moment.

We hope this helps you clarify the similarities and differences between the two and if you’d like to dive deeper, please see below for suggested readings.

FURTHER READING

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante G

Dhammapada (Multiple translations)

The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by Pierre Hadot

What Is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot

Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life by A.A. Long


Thanks to r/Buddhism for the recommended list of books! And the Stoicism recommendations are from The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, which can also serve as a great introduction to Stoicism and we hope you find time to check it out. You can also see more of our reading suggestions for primary Stoic texts including Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca. And for a deeper dive in Stoicism, sign up for our free 7-day course!


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