Thursday, January 19, 2017

Zen Stoicism: The Cessation of Suffering


Zen Buddhism and Stoic Philosophy are two excellent life practices that have a lot in common. It's interesting that they should have so much in common, coming from different cultures as they do. Stoicism is foundational for much of western culture and ideology, from Greek times though the Christian middle ages, into the Renaissance and even now. On the other hand, Zen Buddhism is an east-Asian practice, informed by millennia of eastern spiritual tradition and not operating according to the discursive, dualistic mode of western philosophy.

Despite originating in different parts of the world and evolving separately over millennia, these two schools of thought and practice have an incredible amount in common. Maybe most relevant is that both are concerned with the nature and cessation of human suffering. The methodology for understanding and ceasing that suffering involves "end-user" psychological terms - vocabularies for the mind that involve the mechanics of thought, which include anxiety, desire, virtue, and one's identity and values. These terms and ideas are intimate, experiential, and essentially practical, as opposed to modern medicine's descriptive, clinical terminology, meant to shuttle you to whatever prescription drug.

Among the more particular similarities between Zen and Stoicism are understandings that:
  • Thoughts are insubstantial and not representative of reality itself
  • Suffering arises from passions resulting from attachment or "false judgement"
  • The ideal mental state is one of equanimity, free from strong likes and dislikes
  • One's life is best lived in accordance with nature (though what each school means by "nature" is dramatically different).
There are more than that, but that's the list I have going right now. This is an area of interest to me, as there haven't been many lengthy comparisons between the two schools of thought as far as I know. Personally, I've been a Zen practitioner since about 2010, and I've been interested in Stoicism for the last couple years or so. While I love Zen for its simplicity and all of the positive changes it has made in my life, I do find that it doesn't leave me much in terms of having a workable identity for dealing with the real world.

While Zen is NOT AT ALL a "spiritual practice" that encourages asceticism and a rejection of the material world, with consistent practice one does tend to see through a lot of bullshit that's present in the mind and in the world. I've heard a couple Zen teachers describe this phenomenon as unintentionally "dissolving one's personality." It's a scary thought, right? Again, Zen isn't concerned with "destroying the ego" like so many new-age spiritual practices are, but merely by sitting and watching how one's mind works, the "ego" tends to deflate on its own.

Zen is not where you go when you're looking for the meaning of life. If you sit Zazen, Zen might tap you on the shoulder and say "hey, who told you there was a meaning?" That's not nihilism - it's just clarity. And clarity is fine, but Zen doesn't offer much of an answer to "how should I be spending my time on this Earth?"

Stoicism, on the other hand, is quite concerned with living in the world and the right way to do it. The Stoics were obsessed with living virtuously, in service to others and "in accordance with nature" (the Stoic conception of nature being a Whole Thing To Go Into). Stoicism was not just a philosophy meant to answer interesting questions, it was a way of life, practiced by slaves and emperors alike (Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius respectively).

I've found a lot of useful ideas within Stoicism. I'm not the only one, as this school of philosophy has been enjoying a minor resurgence as of late. Google "Stoicism" and you'll find headlines like "why stoicism is one of the best life-hacks ever devised" and "what is stoicism and how can it turn your life to solid gold?" In fact, Stoicism has informed a modern, effective therapeutic practice called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Coincidentally, there exists an offshoot of CBT called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which is influenced by Zen.

As much as Stoicism has to offer, it's unlike Buddhism in that there has been no consistent school of Stoicism in the last couple millennia. It has had numerous revivals and has left a long cultural shadow on the West, but there's no contemporary, cohesive school of thought that one can point to and say "that's Stoicism." The current revival is digging through the remains of the past and trying to fill in the gaps where possible. There are definitely gaps, as well as philosophical anachronisms - their conception of metaphysics is not especially useful today, even to the philosopher.

All of this to say: there is some interesting overlap between Zen Buddhism and Stoic Philosophy, both of which are useful, and both of which have their shortcomings. As they both play a role in my life, I'll continue to compare and contrast them. It's now an intellectual curiosity for me, and I need those in my life or I begin to feel like a mental potato putting out just the barest wattage. 

THAT BEING SAID, let's dive into it. I want to start with SUFFERING.


Both Zen Buddhism (and Buddhism in general) and Stoicism are concerned with the cessation of suffering. In fact, the cessation of suffering is Buddhism's #1 chief concern. Without going too much into it, the basic premise of Buddhism, known as the Four Noble Truths, goes roughly like this:

1. There is suffering
2. Attachment is the cause of suffering
3. There is an end to suffering
4. The Buddha's path (The Noble Eightfold Path) leads to the end of suffering.

"Suffering" in this context needs to be explained a bit. Some people like to interpret Buddhism as saying "all life is suffering," which is a pretty bummer attitude. But the word being translated as "suffering" is Dukkha. Dukkha is a kind of existential suffering, that goes beyond mere transitory unease. It goes beyond even the lowest, life-is-absurd-and-everything-is-pain "existential" suffering. One Zen teacher at the Austin Zen Center taught that it was "our alienation from ourselves" (which can be a bit confusing given the whole no-self doctrine, but let's not make this more complicated than it already is). Think of this as the BIG suffering for which mundane suffering is merely a symptom. Buddhism claims to be, first and foremost, the cure for that.

As the end of suffering is the object of Buddhism, the object of Stoicism is an ideal called Eudaimonia, meaning "human flourishing," often over-simply translated as "happiness." The Stoic view on the cessation of suffering is grounded in their system of ethics, which states that all that is necessary for eudaimonia is for one to maintain one's virtue. In their view, the best way to maintain one's virtue is to strive for a state of mind called Apatheia. Apatheia does not mean "apathy," but rather "equanimity." The sage, the ideal stoic, does not not experience emotions, but instead merely experiences them, not seeing them as bad or good, as the only true good is virtue, and the only true bad is straying from virtue.

The therapeutic aspect of Stoicism - the part concerned with the relief of suffering - can be found in their understanding of what is in our control and what isn't. To quote Epictetus:
There is only one path to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond our power of will. - Discourses, 4.4.39
This idea is a very powerful one, and is among the greatest contributions Stoicism has made to Western society. It has survived through the ages in different forms and contexts, and today is most commonly known in the form of the "Serenity Prayer":
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
The Stoics, while having a sophisticated conception of God (knowing it as the Logos, the animating force in nature), did not conceive of it as a supreme deity that one could appeal to for worldly assistance. Instead, they created a life philosophy by which one can learn for themselves how to accept things one cannot change. The Stoic way to cease suffering involves constant exercise of one's rationality in order to make correct moral judgements, which allows one to be virtuous, which is, they say, all one needs to be happy.

On the other hand, the Buddhist way to cease suffering involves following the Noble Eightfold Path, which is a list of eight precepts that include Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration (which basically means meditation). Each school of Buddhism has its own take on each of these precepts, but the overall goal is to avoid and free one's self from attachment, which is the root cause of suffering.

I want to explore what both of these methods have in common. When reading into this stuff, it's hard not to think that these very different schools of thought were, and maybe still are, approaching some of the same ideas with different language. For example, I think the Stoic idea of the passions is very, very similar to the Buddhist idea of attachment. However, at this point I've already written too much, and I haven't even bothered to talk about Zen and why its take on Buddhism is different. So I'll publish this, then start working on that.

Discourses, by Epictetus

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