Stoicism and Western Buddhism: A Reflection on Two Philosophical Ways of Life
© 2018 Patrick Ussher
We read philosophy in order to live philosophy.
In Stoicism and Western Buddhism, Patrick Ussher explores the kindred beliefs and practices of these two philosophies, and argues that their similarity is not an accident. Modern Stoicism and western Buddhism are custom builds; their teachers and students drop what they dislike and emphasize what they do, and a common goal, mindfulness, drives modern expressions of much older thought. In consequence, modern Stoicism and western Buddhism are both rather unlike their traditional antecedents, and very close to one another. That these traditions have been so hand-tailored to western countries is not a cause for distress, Ussher writes; evolution and cultural adaptation are the norm for philosophies of life. He then surveys the full extent of Stoicism and western Buddhism’s commonalities, and ends by suggesting what they can learn from the other.
Those who have read even an overview of Buddhism as a world religion will know it originated in India, then spread widely across southeast Asia, absorbing elements of the local cultures and developing into several schools. The core idea of Buddhism is that all beings are trapped in a cycle dominated by suffering, created by our own desires, and that to escape this cycle we must accept the four noble truths and follow the eight-fold path. Those who fail to learn the lesson are doomed to repeat it, forever being reincarnated and forced to endure the travails of life in perpetuity. Teachers of western Buddhist philosophy, however, focus chiefly on the practical boons of Buddhist habits — their immediate returns, not the escape to Nirvana. Their students are very unlikely to have read original Buddhist texts, instead drawing their studies from western Buddhist writers: Thicht Nhat Hanh, Stephen Batchelor, and Jack Kornfield are all considered, and are all purposely fine-tuning Buddhism for a western audience which is increasingly nonreligious. Similarly, Stoicism — based on conforming oneself to a rational order of the universe emanating from God — is being tailored to work sans Zeus, its teachers again focusing on the everyday boons of the Porch’s practice. Although the original Stoic authors are still very much read by students (Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, chiefly), there is growing pile of books by modern Stoic authors which might supplant the original texts, eventually.
Both philosophies, as expressed for modern audiences, give their students a way to live well despite the harsh reality we are born into. Both recognize that we often create or exacerbate our suffering by dwelling on what we want — and wanting isn’t simply about greed, lust, or envy, but can be as simple as our frustration that things do not happen the way we wish them to. Our idea didn’t succeed, our object d’amor loved another — that fool in front of us was driving slow and now we have to sit through the redlight. Both philosophies call for letting go of this wanting, and for accepting what we have and finding a productive way to work with it. There are differences in Buddhist and Stoic mindfulness, as Stoicism’s is more like mental hygiene (letting go of troublesome thoughts) and western Buddhism’s meditation calls for intense immersion in the moment. Ethically, the two philosophies have an identical cosmopolitan basis, urging students to view their fellow H. sapiens as brothers and sisters, members of one body. Western Buddhism is more activist-oriented, Ussher notes, as its students are urged to go out and do good, rather simply respond to what happens with grace. In both, this call to help ones brothers balances the inward-focusing tendency of the philosophy.
Although this book is quite small, I appreciated getting a proper introduction to some of the commonalities between Stoicism and Buddhism, being a member of a facebook group that often discusses the common ground between them, as well as Epicureanism. I may later read Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom, which appears to be a longer evaluation of the same topic.