Anyone who reads about or practices Stoicism or Buddhism have probably drawn plenty of parallels between the two. It's not surprising, really, because while Stoicism is not considered a religion, it's core principles align perfectly with the teachings of the Buddha.
Stoicism has its roots in Athens, Greece and was “founded” around 300 B.C. by Zeno of Citium. Later on, the likes of Epictetus, Seneca, and the great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius took up his teachings and were critical in its spread.
Buddhism is generally considered as a religion. Founded by a prince by the name of Siddhartha Gautama in 500 B.C., he left his sheltered life to pursue enlightenment when he saw all the suffering that was happening in the real world.
The first idea that brings these two schools of thought together is their focus on the present moment.
In meditation, which is a key activity for practicing Buddhists, the goal is to bring your mind to the present moment and prevent it from thinking about the past or future.
Why? Because the present is the place where all that is currently happening flows through - not in the past or future. Which means emphasis should be placed on the “Now”.
It allows us to be fully engaged and present in what we do, to concentrate and focus all our energies towards achieving the task at hand. Not only does this allow us to produce superior results (due to lack of distraction), it also allows us to appreciate the moment itself and experience inner peace.
In Buddhism, much importance is placed on the impermanence of things. It teaches that almost everything in our life passes, so we should not focus our whole being into them. Existence is transitory in nature. Instead of attaching our minds (desire) to these passing things and events, we should seek true wisdom and contentment within ourselves.
In Stoicism, it is important master the ability to separate factors not within our control. Things like the weather, other people’s opinion, events that happened in the past, things that will happen in the future - all these are not within our control, and so they’re not worth channeling all our energies and thoughts into. It will not change anything. It will only keep you stuck, paralyzed by your anxiety and dread over something that already happened or you’re expecting to happen.
All the energy, time, and resources spent on complaining about how things are could be better spent on tasks that you have direct control over. And where do you think this calm and collected acceptance of things will lead to?
Exactly - inner peace and satisfaction. The same thing that Zen buddhist masters aim for.
This analogy aligns perfectly if you think about the goal of each school of thought. For the stoics, the goal is to achieve Apatheia - which is a state of mind that is not disturbed or affected by passions. Which leads us to the next similarity below.
Buddha came to the conclusion that all suffering is caused by desire. The ultimate goal of his teachings is to achieve Nirvana - which is a state that transcends feelings of desire, suffering and sense of self. It is the state wherein one achieves true enlightenment.
Stoics, on the other hand, believe that freeing yourself from passion (which can be thought of as desire in some ways) allows us to live using reason as a guiding force. Why? Because being neutral and accepting things for what they are will allow them to decide and act using wisdom and reason - not with their negative or positive biases, which are rooted in passion or desire.
The idea of not being enslaved by desire and passion in order to achieve enlightenment is perhaps the most striking similarity between Buddhism and Stoicism.
Mahayana Buddhists coined the term, “Upaya” which when translated refers to as, “skilful means”, an action that is guided by wisdom and compassion meant to be the perfect solution to a particular situation.
This mindset echoes one of the primary principles of Stoicism, which is to train your perception to see things as they are - neither good or bad, in order to come up with a wise and accurate solution.
In the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha illustrates the Upaya in action. In the story, there was a burning house with children playing inside. The father, upon arriving home and noticing what was happening, immediately rushed in and told his children to get out.
The kids, however, were having so much fun that they didn’t want to go anywhere. Thinking of a way to convince his children to go out, the father told them that there were “pretty carts drawn by deer, goats, and bullocks” outside. Upon hearing this, the kids got excited and dropped everything and got out of the burning house.
Keeping his promise, the father brought them the most beautifully decorated carts he can find.
This is “skilful means” in action, according to Buddha. The father did what he had to to save his children from the burning house. The Enlightened One even went further and said that even if the father didn’t actually stepped up to his promise, he was still blameless because he had to do everything he could to save his children.
Stuck in the same situation, a regular person would (naturally) panic, rush in and grab his kids to get them off the house. One could argue that this is also “Upaya” in action since the father had to do it to save his children. But that is not the moral of Buddha’s parable.
What the Buddha is pointing out is that a particular action, as long as guided by compassion and wisdom, can be the best solution for a particular problem.
Stuck in the same situation, a stoic would probably do two things: One, accept the fact that the house is already burning---and decide on the next course of action (without feeling good or bad about the house). His judgment, not clouded by any emotions brought about by the misfortune, will keep his mind clear and be able to come up with the best possible solution to get his kids out of the house.
Notice that while Upaya (Buddhism) and neutrality towards external factors (Stoicism) are not exactly the same in principle, they parallel each other in terms of execution.
If Upaya roots itself in wisdom and compassion to guide its action, Stoicism clears all external factors first which leads to an action that’s guided by wisdom and compassion (not affected by any biases).
This practical, effective, and compassionate way of executing a solution is the third link that draws the similarity between Buddhism and Stoicism.
Both philosophies share a good deal of similarities rooted from a single point of belief: That true contentment and happiness can only be achieved within ourselves. If we’re able to shed worldly desires and passions, we can live a meaningful life through the lens of compassion and wisdom.
Amiel is a staff writer at Kaiya, who enjoys the simple things that life has to offer. When not reading, he's usually taking long walks, or spending time with his family.