Stoicism & Buddhism: Similarities and Differences
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Roman Stoic Emperor
One of the things I love about Stoicism is that it operates on an open-minded mindset.
Even though ancient Stoics had some strong (and somewhat dogmatic) opinions on what the good life is, modern stoic practitioners like William Irvine, Massimo Pigliucci, Donald Robertson and Ryan Holiday are cultivating more of an open and respectful attitude towards other life philosophies.
Related article: The Dangers of Being Close Minded: Embracing Open Mindedness
One of these life philosophies is Buddhism. And in this article, we’ll look at both similarities and differences between Buddhism and Stoicism.
At the end of this article, I’ll also give you my top 3 beginner’s books on enlightenment work to get you started on your spiritual journey.
Let’s get started.
Buddhism’ central teachings are the following:
Cause of all sufferings is desire.
All things in life are temporary and clinging to them inevitably produces dissatisfaction.
The goal of Buddhism is to eliminate suffering (dukkha) and reach nirvana – a state of non-desire.
There are 8 main components to reaching the nirvana state:
1- Right Perception
2- Right Aspiration
3- Right Speech
4- Right Action
5- Right Livelihood
6- Right Effort
7- Right Mindfulness
8- Right Concentration
Now let’s look at Stoicism.
First of all, Stoicism tells us to be in accordance with nature – accepting everything that happens. Surrendering unconditionally to the present moment. The idea of “amor fati” – the love of fate.
“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…”
– Marcus Aurelius
Both Buddhism and Stoicism tells us the importance of mindfulness – to be present in the moment. Without mindfulness and clear perception, one can not achieve the state of nirvana (or enlightenment).
Remember the 8 steps to the process.
It is too easy to get carried away with life. Doing this or that. You can literally waste years getting plugged into virtual reality and entertain yourself for hours.
You can get stressed about this month’s rent and payment. You can bring yourself misery by regretting past decisions and mistakes.
What these backward and forward glancing eyes are doing is they are creating illusions. What happens in the present moment is simple, beautiful and effortless.
When you indulge in fantasies, stories, anxieties and regrets, you make life unnecessarily complicated, difficult and stressful.
Make no mistake, it is possible to be completely in the present moment. That is why Buddhist monks spend hours upon hours meditating and raising their consciousness.
As Stoics argue, it is “you” who have these unnecessary thoughts about the future and about the past.
It is a choice. Being unhappy, depressed and sad is a choice very much like choosing between soup over cake for dinner.
When you start to see the effects of thoughts, conceptualizations and irrational emotions, you’ll start to be aware of the illusions and get one step closer to reaching the nirvana state.
One of the biggest differences between Stoicism and Buddhism is their chief end goals. Stoics value virtue on top of everything whereas Buddhism value the pursuit of enlightenment.
The 4 main virtues of the Stoics are as follows:
1- Wisdom – Making the chief operating system reason and sound mind (not for ex. pleasure)
2- Courage – Moral courage to stand up for injustices and taking bold actions
3- Justice – Wisdom applied to social living
4- Temperance (Self Control) – The ability to act in according to nature.
There are also sub-virtues to these main ones.
For example, a sub-virtue temperance is patience. A sub-virtue of courage is self-confidence. A sub-virtue of wisdom is reason. A sub-virtue of justice is social intelligence.
In any case, Stoics claimed that as long as you practice these character traits – regardless of your status, financial situation, assets – you’ll be virtuous and live the best possible life that one can.
If you want to acquire these worldly pleasures like money, success, relationships, Stoics would encourage you as long as these pursuits would not conflict with your virtuous personality.
(for ex. Scamming people and stealing from them for profit would conflict with Stoic virtues.)
Finding your life’s purpose genuinely helping people and building a career based on altruistic goals are strongly encouraged by Stoicism as this helps you to practice virtues as well.
When we look at Buddhism, we see a different end goal. Buddhists value the pursuit of enlightenment – reaching the nirvana state of pure stillness and tranquility – more than anything.
Even though Stoics do advocate stillness and tranquility, they believed that this sense of tranquility is a by-product of living a virtuous life.
As you practice these character traits of virtue, you’ll attain a state of stillness and tranquility.
Due to this approach – even though Stoics advocate many meditation practices – they don’t make meditation and consciousness work as the chief priority as Buddhism does.
In Buddhism, meditation is almost a requirement to attain enlightenment.
Sitting down and using many different meditation techniques like self-inquiry, mindfulness and do-nothing are all ways to still the mind, increase awareness and raise consciousness.
Stoics also have their morning meditations to get prepared for the day ahead and night rituals to learn from their mistakes and improve their lives the next day.
As you can see, Stoicism, when it comes to meditation, takes a more of a pragmatic and results-oriented approach compared to Buddhism that takes meditation as a central activity of raising one’s consciousness and attaining enlightenment.
I find both Buddhism and Stoicism very appealing.
As a Stoic practitioner, I have rigorous and variety of meditation practices (60 minutes every morning). I’m closely interested in buddhism, enlightenment work and read many books about it.
So making a distinction between a virtuous living and enlightenment work is just close-mindedness. Instead, I suggest that we all see these two practices as complimentary activities.
That is also one of the reasons I wanted to write this article.
If you want to know more about Buddhism and its practices like enlightenment and meditation (which will greatly benefit your self-actualization efforts), I’ve prepared some beginner resources on these topics that I’ve personally benefitted from.
TOP BOOKS TO READ FOR GETTING STARTED ON ENLIGHTENMENT WORK:
1- The Book of Not Knowing by Peter Ralston – Make this book your introduction to this field. It is just life transforming.
2- Sextus Empiricus: The Outlines of Skepticism
3- The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
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If you liked this article, you might also like these:
- My Ultimate Vision For You: Why Stoic Leaders exists?
- Stoicism on Wisdom: You Don’t Have Problems
- Stoic Book Review: Ego is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday
- Stoicism Training With Epictetus
- Stoic Reading List: 6 Must-Read Books To Get You Started
- Stoicism on Wisdom: Don’t Rationalize Irrational Behaviour
- Stoicism on Morality: Consequentialism and Virtue Ethics
- Stoicism on Courage: How to Develop Self Esteem?
- What is Stoicism? A Definition and 3 Stoic Exercises To Get You Started
- Negative Visualization: An Ancient Stoic Technique For Creating Happiness
I like your succinct summaries of Buddhism and Stoicism. I agree the two are complimentary.
Hi, Dave! Glad you enjoyed the article. It is definitely a mistake to think in a black and white fashion. Both are strikingly similar anyways. The only difference a Stoic practitioner will do is to practice enlightenment and meditation more seriously. And the only difference a Buddhist practitioner will do is to focus on pragmatism and virtue.
As you can see, even the differences do have similarities. Stoics do have night journals and morning meditations. Buddhists also do value virtues. So these philosophies are brothers and sisters rather than enemies. We should study and learn from both if we want a comprehensive wisdom for living the good life.
What do you think about the books I’ve recommended? Have you read them?
What are your favourites?
As a both a long time practitioner and student of stoicism and a avowed Zen Buddhist Id question if nirvana/enlightenment is the goal and that rather the aim is to live mindfully, with compassion and cultivated wisdom the consequence being enlightment
Hi Haku. That is correct. I didn’t mean to phrase enlightenment into a goal-oriented success path. Awakening is a part of it. Mindfulness, compassion, behaviour changes are all incredibly important on this path.
I’d love to also get your, “Top Books to Read for getting started on Virtuous Living work” 🙂 because I’m a newbie…
My book list on beginner Stoic practitioners is a good start: http://stoic-leaders.com/the-stoic-reading-list-stoicism-books/