West meets East in the pursuit of happiness: Stoicism and Buddhism

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There’s been a good deal of talk on Stoicism as of late, about how it may be applied and what it really means. The same could be said about buddhism and the raise of mindfulness these past couple years. Though both schools of thought are different there are fundamental similarities that tie them, particularly regarding one’s pursuit of happiness in life.

Stoicism is an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy. A philosophy of the western world that is turn quite similar to its Eastern counterpart, Buddhism. Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early third century BC. The philosophy is based on the idea that virtue (and the four cardinal virtues of self-control, courage, justice and wisdom) leads to happiness and it is our perception of things — rather than the things themselves– that cause most of our troubles. The ideal for the Stoic, as with the Buddhist, is to show complete composure and self control in the face of adversity.

Buddhism, on the other hand, is a religion that was founded by Siddhartha Gautama. He was a sheltered prince his entire life who was shocked by the suffering he saw when he ventured out into the world. Siddhartha meditated and afterwards concluded that the cause of all suffering is desire. All things in this life are temporary, clinging to them only causes disappointment and much unhappiness. The desires we have in this life aid in producing a karma which results in our being reborn after death, because of our longing for life. The ultimate goal of a Buddhist is to eliminate this suffering (dukkha) and reach nirvana, a state of pure non-desire.

This quote from Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor best known for his meditations on Stoic philosophy, should undoubtedly adhere 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…”

Stoicism teaches that all people have value while at the same time denying the importance of wealth and social status.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught that one should be a staunch philanthropist, because we are creations of a generous and giving God. Epictetus also taught that rationality ought to be the key to virtue and happiness (but not a happiness that is solely 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.

That said however, many seem to believe that the sum total of the philosophy of Stoicism is to simply be able to take all the misfortunes and slights that life and nature throw at you. To the people who believe this, they see their use of stoicism as a great stone wall, standing strong, upright and true. Firmly holding back all that negativity, or knocking it straight off of themselves. They see it as a giant mountain, there to weather the storm. But the wall will eventually fall, and the mountain will collapse.

The 14th Dalai Lama mentions with regard to suffering and one’s ability to finding happiness that:

“When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realise that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn both joy and peace.”

This also adheres to the belief that in holding back negativity and making the realisation of when one turns inward or within instead of placing blame on the external world. Then one would be able to grasp that both the good and bad– everything springs from our perception of it. It is that awareness that would bring us both happiness as well as peace.

But what of our perception regarding our external world or the universe then?

The Stoics 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. Buddhist ethics revolve around karma, which means that good or bad acts result in better or worse lives when a person is reborn.

Photo by Liam Pozz on Unsplash

Though both of Stoicism and Buddhism differ is in their explanations of how the world works. The critical part where they connect is this: both of these schools of thought can be used to improve your life and make you a calmer and wiser human being.

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

In Stoicism, it is our interpretation of events which causes us to be either happy or unhappy, not the intrinsic quality of the events of our lives. That is why it’s so important to not allow one’s self to react to outside events. Otherwise one may end up feeling as though life is truly treating them unjustly, when they could have merely exercised their ability to not allow any upsetting event to end up making them feel unhappy.

By being one with the natural order of things — with life and how it flows with both the good and the bad — it is only then that we are able to achieve a greater sense of serenity and a higher sense of happiness.

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