Stoicism vs. Buddhism – What’s the Difference?
There are a number of striking similarities when comparing Stoicism vs. Buddhism, but also some important differences.
Though these two philosophies were created in different centuries and thousands of miles apart, they are both practical philosophies that help individuals find peace and happiness from an internal source rather than the external world.
If you’re a person that is seeking the truth and a path towards a good life, both Buddhism and Stoicism offer plenty of rich material to engage with and contemplate.
Let’s take a look at some of the most notable similarities and differences between these two schools of thought.
What Is Stoicism?
Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C. and is a school of Hellenistic philosophy. One of the central ideas in Stoicism is that virtue is the only good and vice is the only bad. Many of the things that we typically see as good or bad, in the eyes of the Stoics, are neither good nor bad but instead are valuable as “material for virtue to act upon.”
The goal of Stoicism is to achieve eudaimonia (happiness, welfare, or good spirit) through living a virtuous life that is in accordance with nature.
There are four cardinal virtues in Stoicism, which are present in other schools of classical philosophy as well as Christian theology. These are:
The Stoics also believed that how a person behaved was the best indication of their personal philosophy rather than what they said. They also held that errors in judgment often led to certain destructive emotions and that this can be overcome by developing self-control and fortitude. In the Stoic worldview, a sage or wise man would be emotionally resilient to adversity or misfortune.
Stoicism thrived until the 3rd century AD throughout the Greek and Roman world and had a significant influence on western history in the millennia that followed. One of the most famous adherents of Stoicism in the ancient world was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. After Christianity became the state religion of Rome, however, Stoicism experienced a decline.
There have been a number of revivals of Stoicism throughout history. Stoicism occurred during the Renaissance, and there is a major Stoic revival occurring right now in the form of modern Stoicism.
It’s hard to sum Stoicism up in a few short paragraphs, so be sure to check out our complete guide to Stoicism.
What Is Buddhism?
One of the largest religions in the world, Buddhism originated in India 2,500 years ago. Based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha, there are more than 520 million Buddhists in the world, which accounts for more than 7% of the global population.
It’s hard to summarize Buddhism in one paragraph because there are many different beliefs, traditions, and spiritual practices that fall under the umbrella term of Buddhism at this point in history as philosophies that are based on Buddha’s teachings.
That being said, some of the main concepts in Buddhism include the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Four Noble Truths as developed by the Buddha are:
- Dukkha– Life is suffering
- Samudaya– Suffering is caused by desire and attachment
- Nirodha– Escaping the cycle of suffering is possible
- Magga– The way to end suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path
The eight steps that make up the Noble Eightfold Path are:
- Right view– Understanding the Four Noble Truths
- Right resolve– Having the right motivation and intentions in order to pursue enlightenment
- Right speech– Only speaking the truth, without harm or lies
- Right action– Do not steal, do not do wrong, do not harm a living thing
- Right livelihood– Earn your living through ethical means
- Right effort– Continuously strive to be better
- Right mindfulness– Live in the present moment
- Right concentration– Be able to focus on one thing with the entirety of your attention
The goal of Buddhism is to overcome suffering, which is caused by ignorance of reality’s true nature and desire. The true nature of reality includes both impermanence and the non-existence of the self.
Most traditions of Buddhism in the world focus on attaining Nirvana or following the path of Buddhahood by transcending the individual self. This is what leads to the end of the cycle of death and rebirth.
There are two major branches of Buddhism that exist today in the eyes of most scholars: Theravada and Mahayana. There is a widespread following of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar as well as Sri Lanka. Mahayana Buddhism is prominently practiced in mainland China, Nepal, Bhutan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, and the Korean peninsula.
The Similarities Between Stoicism and Buddhism
There are some remarkable overlaps between Stoicism and Buddhism. Notably, both of these schools of thought can help individuals become wiser and calmer while greatly improving their lives.
The Buddha was faced with a grim realization when he first visited the world– it is filled with suffering. This was the catalyst behind the creation of Buddhism, as his discovery of the reality of suffering is what compelled him to search for the truth.
The founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, Zeno of Citium, was also potentially driven by suffering in its creation.
Zeno had been a wealthy merchant, but his entire life changed course when he suffered a shipwreck. He made his way to Athens after the fact and visited a bookseller. There he found Xenophon’s Memorabilia, in which he found a portrayal of Socrates that he was quite pleased with.
He asked the bookseller where he could find men like Socrates. The bookseller pointed to a man that was walking by at that exact moment– the most famous Cynic living in Greece at the time, Crate of Thebes. Zeno went on to study with him, and soon thereafter began lecturing in the Stoa Poikile, from which Stoicism gets its name.
The realization and experience of suffering weren’t just an integral part of why these two schools of thought exist, but suffering also plays a key role in both Buddhism and Stoicism.
Both Buddhism and Stoicism focus on the elimination of suffering, though through slightly different means. The Stoics aimed to get rid of suffering by accepting what they can’t control and focusing on what they can control, while Buddhists dispel suffering from their lives by detaching themselves from their desires.
While the Stoics teach us that suffering and adversity actually make us stronger and more capable, the Buddha taught the idea that to live is to suffer and all life is suffering. Stoicism argues that even the bad things that happen to you are actually good, as it is fate unfolding and giving you the opportunity to practice virtue.
Both Stoicism and Buddhism seem to propose that pain, in itself, is real. If you were in pain and suffering, a Stoic would likely advise you to view the experience as an opportunity for growth. A Buddhist, on the other hand, would explain that you are only suffering from your pain because you desire not to be in pain. If you are able to get rid of this desire, you won’t suffer anymore.
While there are certainly differences in the way that the Stoics and Buddhists relate to suffering, you can fairly say that both schools of thought aim to deal with suffering by grasping its role in life and coming to peace with it.
“The wise man accepts his pain, endures it, but does not add to it.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinion about events.” — Epictetus
Pain in life is inevitable, but suffering is not. Pain is what the world does to you, suffering is what you do to yourself.” – Gautama Buddha
Both Buddhism and Stoicism argue that individuals can find happiness from an internal source, and, in doing so, don’t have to be at the whim of the rollercoaster ride of life.
The way to happiness is: keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simply, give much. Fill your life with love. Do as you would be done by. – Gautama Buddha
In Stoicism, one of the four cardinal virtues is temperance, which is basically just another word for moderation. This means that you shouldn’t be depriving yourself of the things you need (in the way that some ascetic schools of thought propose,) but you also shouldn’t be overindulgent. Basically, there is a happy medium in all things.
In Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path consists of eight steps that are all interrelated, with each helping to cultivate the others. These eight steps are also referred to as the Middle Way, which points to a way of living balanced in- between deficiency and excess– essentially, moderation.
“Everything in moderation, including moderation.” – Gautama Buddha
“Hold fast, then, to this sound and wholesome rule of life—that you indulge the body only so far as is needful for good health.” – Seneca
Being Present in the Moment
One concept that both Buddhism and Stoicism share is the idea that our attention should always be focused on the present moment.
In Buddhism, the idea is that it’s impossible to have desires if you are truly living in the present moment. Having a desire means that you are dreaming about something that isn’t presently with you, and being mindful of the moment means you can’t be thinking about desires.
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.” — Seneca
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” – Gautama Buddha
The Importance of the Practice Itself
One of the prominent similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism is that they are both practical philosophies. This is perhaps one of the biggest reasons that both of these schools of thought are still attracting more followers more than two thousand years after they were first created.
Both of these ways of living are based around changing the way one thinks in order to live a good life. Even though they both focus on taking control of your mental processes, they require constant and deliberate action.
In Stoicism, followers use the four cardinal virtues (wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage) to guide their actions. Buddhists, on the other hand, follow the Noble Eightfold Path.
“However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them?” – Gautama Buddha
“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” – Epictetus
There is a prominent emphasis placed on the impermanent aspect of human life in Buddhism– the impermanent nature of everything is the primary reason why suffering is caused by desire. Basically, we are bound to suffer if we are attached to things that are changing, unstable, and unreliable.
The Stoics also touch upon these ideas– Marcus Aurelius repeatedly mentions the general idea that “the universe is change.” These ancient philosophers also discussed the reality of death as a natural part of life, reflecting the fact that our lives are impermanent. For example, Aurelius noted that:
“Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both.” – Marcus Aurelius
Both schools of thought recognize that everything is constantly in flux, and that recognizing this reality is a part of the path to truth and a peaceful mind.
”Every single moment we’re undergoing birth and death. This is the way things are.” – Gautama Buddha
Another similarity worth mentioning is the fact that both Stoicism and Buddhism place the responsibility of living a good life on the individual.
In Stoicism, it is the individual’s responsibility to understand how to be virtuous and live that way. It is also in one’s own power to recognize what is and isn’t in one’s control and to only put attention on those things that one can control. In Buddhism, one’s experience is similarly placed squarely in their own lap. No one else can walk the Eightfold Path for you.
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” – Marcus Aurelius
By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.” – Gautama Buddha
While Stoic meditation and Buddhist meditation certainly aren’t the same thing, it’s worth noting that both schools of thought employ meditation as an important practice.
While entire books could be written on both topics (and have been,) the short story is that Buddhist meditation often focuses on quieting your thoughts, while Stoic meditation is more of a contemplation exercise, such as imagining what could go wrong to prepare oneself or meditation on death.
“Your mind is a powerful thing. When you filter it with positive thoughts, your life will start to change.” – Gautama Buddha
Material Possessions and Worldly Pleasures
Both of these schools of thought teach that people shouldn’t spend their time pursuing the pleasures of the world. When you chase after material possessions or worldly pleasures, you are missing the opportunity to pursue something much more meaningful.
What is it that is so much more meaningful than enjoying pleasures on the earthly plain?
Perfection of the spirit and the mind.
Though we think that things will make us happy, they are actually the source of an incredible amount of suffering in the human realm.
Both Buddhism and Stoicism can help people stop seeking out quick pleasures and material possessions in order to live a life that is more emotionally stable and happy.
Happiness cannot be found in material possessions. Rather, people must find happiness within themselves and their experiences. Buddha often taught about the power of giving and how letting go of one’s possessions will never lead to emotional harm. – Gautama Buddha
“Again, let us possess nothing that can be snatched from us to the great profit of a plotting foe. Let there be as little booty as possible on your person.” – Seneca
Compassion is heavily emphasized in Buddhism, but Stoicism also values the importance of being motivated to do what we can to help others. To the Stoics, it’s important to be compassionate while remembering that what is bad about a person’s situation isn’t the actual event, but their own understanding of it. To the Buddhists, it’s essential to practice compassion without attachment.
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” – Seneca
“Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.” – Gautama Buddha
Training the Mind
Another notable similarity is the idea that we can train our minds.
Stoic mind training has become increasingly popular in recent years, but Buddhism also has a rich collection of mind training tools.
“A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.” – Seneca
“Quiet the mind and the soul will speak.” – Gautama Buddha
Both Stoicism and Buddhism have very high ethical ideals. Ethics is the second element of the Buddhist path, while virtue is the only good in Stoicism and necessary for living according to nature (and thus, a happy life.)
“What is the goal of virtue, after all, except a life that flows smoothly?” – Epictetus
“He who walks in the eightfold noble path with unswerving determination is sure to reach Nirvana.” – Gautama Buddha
Valuing things properly is important in both schools of thought. To the Stoics, seeing things clearly is about challenging faulty judgments and emotions with the understanding that virtue is the only good and vice is the only evil.
In Buddhism, on the other hand, it’s important to see the truth of dukkha, which includes the ideas of not-self and impermanence.
The Stoics believed that our happiness or unhappiness relied on our interpretation of events, not on the events themselves. We are able to control how we react to events, and this is how we are able to lead a happy life even though we are unable to control all of the external events that affect us.
A part of this thinking is related to the impermanence of life, which is an idea shared by both Stoicism and Buddhism. Both schools of thought focus on the transitory nature of existence and the fact that all human life is impermanent. To the Stoics, external events shouldn’t disturb you because they won’t last forever– whether that means the event ends or your life does.
Attachment, Desire, and Aversion
Both Stoicism and Buddhism believe that people are best served by avoiding being enslaved by desire. In Buddhism, desire is the root cause of all suffering. The ancient Stoics taught that passion leads to vice (which is the only evil, while virtue is the only good.)
Stoicism Vs. Buddhism: The Differences
Many of the primary differences between Stoicism and Buddhism have to do with their explanations of how the world work. It’s also worth noting that Buddhism is considered a religion, while Stoicism is typically referred to as a philosophy.
Their Origins and Founders
Perhaps the most obvious difference between Stoicism and Buddhism is their origins. Buddhism is said to have originated when a man born into a wealthy family abandoned his family in order to live the life of a wandering ascetic. He went on to wander the North Indian River plain, teaching others about the middle way between severe asceticism and sensual indulgence, along with techniques to train the mind.
It is believed that this man, known as Gautama Buddha or simply The Buddha, lived during the 6th or 5th century BC.
Stoicism, on the other hand, was founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC by a man named Zeno of Citium, as discussed earlier in the article. While Zeno is regarded as the founder of Stoicism, he is not given the veneration that the Buddha is in many schools of Buddhism. In Buddhism, though the Buddha isn’t considered a god, he is considered an extraordinary being that certainly receives a different type of attention from his followers than could be said of Zeno by the Stoics.
Though we discussed happiness as a similarity, it’s also worth noting the differences in how Stoics and Buddhists relate to this term.
In short, the goal of happiness for the Stoics comes from the joy that arises from the development of the path itself. For classical Buddhists, on the other hand, the path leads to Buddhahood or nirvana, which is, to put it very simply, transcendent happiness.
Relationship With Animals
One of the five precepts that act as the moral guidelines of Buddhists is that people shouldn’t kill any sentient being. Buddhism proposes that an individual will have a better rebirth if they save an animal from being killed. Stoicism, on the other hand, does not argue against the killing of animals in this manner.
While both Buddhism and Stoicism advocate that followers shouldn’t engage in sexual misconduct, there are some differences worth noting in this regard.
Avoiding sexual misconduct is one of the five moral guidelines discussed above. Buddhist monks, for example, can face expulsion from their monastery if they break the strict rules put in place, including that of sexual misconduct.
The Stoics, on the other hand, followed the four cardinal virtues of which temperance is one. The idea behind temperance (also known as moderation) is that an individual shouldn’t overindulge.
What Happens After Death
One major difference between these two schools of thought is the notion of what happens to us after we die.
A central belief in Buddhism revolves around the idea of karma. This essentially means that our actions in this life inform the type of life we are born into after we die. If you are good in this life, your next life will be better– and vice versa.
The idea of reincarnation isn’t shared by the Stoics. Different ancient Stoic philosophers have their own ideas about what happens to us after death. What appears to be more important to the Stoics, however, is the importance of accepting death as a natural process of life and existence.
Reason Vs. the Renunciation of Desire
While both Buddhism and Stoicism argue that individuals should avoid desire and passions because they will lead to suffering, their concepts of how to achieve this differ.
In Buddhism, an individual must renounce desire in order to achieve enlightenment. For the Stoics, people must use their rationality in order to live a virtuous life, which keeps them from falling prey to the suffering caused by vice.
The Notion of a Creator God
There is no creator God in Buddhism, but instead an endless chain of causality. It’s worth noting, though, that there are divine beings and other Buddhist deities. However, the religion teaches that none of these gods are eternal beings (though they can live very long lives) nor are any of them a creator.
The Stoics, on the other hand, believed that the entire universe is interconnected and filled with the essence of the divine. The Stoics believed that the entirety of nature (meaning human nature, the natural world, and the entire cosmos) was rational and, essentially, God.
Final Thoughts on the Difference Between Stoicism and Buddhism
There are obviously many differences between Stoicism and Buddhism, but they are both philosophies that people can apply to their lives with the aim of living a better life. Whether you’re a practicing Stoic or just learning about the school of thought, there is a lot of knowledge and truth to be contemplated that can be found in Buddhist thought.
It’s truly remarkable to imagine that these two different philosophies emerged far away from one another within just a few centuries, considering the notable overlaps between them. It certainly leads one to think that the wise men behind these schools of thought were tapping into the same streams of truth and communicating them to others in their own way.
If you’re interested in learning more about Stoicism and looking for more inspirational quotes from some of the greatest Stoic minds in history, be sure to check out StoicQuotes.com.
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