Sunday, February 5, 2017

Zen Stoicism: The Buddha and the Sage

In my first post comparing Zen to Stoicism, I outlined a few specific things that they had in common. I want to take a closer look at those things now, focusing on these three:
  • 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
My aim is not syncretization, but rather to point out where these two schools of thought are basically saying the same thing, and for what reasons, with respect to their differences.


So many of our thoughts take us away from the reality in front of us. We're endlessly thinking about the future and the past, preoccupied by some anxiety or grievance, unable to engage the present moment. The pressures of civilization, like work, money, and health, pull us in different directions, to say nothing of our families or dreams. In addition, the technology of the twenty-first century (or sixty-first) provides a constant distraction from even these crucial thoughts, adding a layer of anxious entertainment over our already-distracted lives. This environment crowds our inner worlds, leaving little room for reflection on our thoughts and emotions, which results in a kind of short-mindedness. We react to things that aren't there in front of us as if they are. Having lost a greater perspective, we identify with our feelings immediately, and are compelled to react before something else sways us a different way.

Zen and Stoicism aim to alleviate the cacophony of these thoughts in order to experience reality more objectively, and to live a calmer, more sane life. To do this, each school has a different, though similar, way of thinking about thought itself. For example, the Stoics saw the mind as constantly beset by phantasiai, meaning "impressions," or "presentations." These impressions were broken down into different types, including those brought up by the outside world, those brought up by rational thought, those brought up by imagination, and others brought up by memory. What all of these impressions have in common is that they exist only in the mind.

The Stoics sought to inject reason into the space between impressions and reactions. Disturbing impressions, such as those that can bring about anxiety, depression, and shame, could be dealt with by understanding first that they are in fact impressions, then by subjecting them to the test of the Stoic, as we can see in the following Epictetus quote.
Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, 'You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.' And then examine it by the rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you. - Epictetus, The Enchiridion
Approaching it from a wider angle, Zen's Buddhism's understanding of thought is the same as Buddhism's take on everything: it's transient. Everything lives and dies, including thoughts. However, Buddha's basic lesson is that our lives are shaped by our minds; good thoughts lead to goodness, bad thoughts to badness, etc. Buddha urges the practitioner to refine one's willpower and self-awareness by studying precepts and meditating. Zazen, specifically, is a method that involves simply sitting and watching how one's mind works, which reveals the transitory nature of our drives and fears.
Many sensations come, many thoughts or images arise, but they are just waves of your own mind. Nothing comes from outside your mind. Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and experiences from outside, but that is not a true understanding of our mind. The true understanding is that the mind includes everything; when you think something comes from outside it means only that something appears in your mind. Nothing outside yourself can cause any trouble. You yourself make the waves in your mind. If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm. - Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
Zen practitioners learn to separate thoughts from their selves, understanding that thoughts inevitably arise on their own, and when not grasped also recede on their own. To practice zazen is to practice simply being present, without letting the mind wander into the past, the future, or elsewhere. This objective viewpoint presents itself more readily while sitting zazen than while engaging with the world, where the practitioner necessarily has to react to events that concern them. However, regular practice allows the Zen practitioner to bring this objectivity into real-world situations, and over time they become more "present" in any given moment.


Zen and Stoicism each have unique practices for understanding how we add to our own suffering. Stoicism favors rational self-examination, asking one's self whether one's desires and fears are based on things in one's control, and if they are virtuous or not. On the other hand, Zen is obviously very heavy on seated meditation, preferring to simply sit and watch the mind and how it forms attachments and builds delusion.

The language Zen teachers use to talk about this process is interesting. There's some difficulty in talking about Zen, as it is a practice that is not supposed to be goal-oriented at all. Zen teachers don't want to say that Zen is about anything other than Zen itself. However, they can give vague guidelines on what we can expect to happen during the process. A common way to talk about zazen is that it's a kind of brutal self-examination. While one sits on the cushion, back straight and mind focused on the breath, thoughts from the sub-conscious come up. The method of zazen is to "watch" these thoughts without attaching any extra emotions or anxieties to them, and the way to do that is to return to focusing on the breath when one realizes they're focusing on a thought that's come up. This process is called "opening the hand of thought," and if done correctly and with consistent practice, it helps the practitioner understand their relationship with themselves and the world on a much deeper level.
Half the time we feel we can’t help what emotions we’re experiencing. But if you sit on the cushion long enough and watch them, you realize, “Oh, this is a choice I’m making.” And after a while eventually you can calm down enough to see that moment where you have the choice to act like an asshole or to choose differently. 
Transcending emotions doesn’t mean you have no feelings. You have them. But you recognize them for what they are and respond appropriately without letting them develop into what we call emotions, which are really just feelings that have been blown way out of proportion. - Brad Warner, Sex, Sin, and Zen
To use broader Buddhist language, zazen is the process of examining one's attachments. Its goal is not to cease all attachment, but to make one conscious of it and how it arises. When one is aware of an attachment, it becomes easier to stop contributing to it, if it leads to suffering.

The Stoics had a similar idea about the role we play in how we feel. Like Zen teacher Brad Warner does in the quote above, they separated feeling from emotion, and knew the latter as the passions. In Stoic philosophy, the four primary passions were Lust, Fear, Delight, and Distress, with all of their attendant emotions such as anxiety, shame, rage, and greed. The Stoics saw all of the passions as excessive, irrational emotions created primarily by improper judgement.
According to Stoic ethics, only virtues are truly good, whereas externals such as wealth, honor, power, and pleasure are indifferent to our happiness [eudaimonia] since each can also harm us and each ultimately lies beyond our control. These externals then are said to be morally "indifferent". When we mistakenly value something indifferent as though it were a genuine good, we form a false judgement and experience passion. - The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
For example, a Stoic can feel pleasure, but would never believe that pleasure itself is worth striving for, as it's an external. Likewise, the philosopher may occasionally slip into passion as they confuse a good feeling for the perception of goodness itself, or a bad feeling for evil, but this is seen as a "miscalculation" on the part of the rational faculty. The Stoics advocate examining one's judgements and assumptions in order to examine their reasoning, and if that reasoning is not motivated by virtue, or if it's mistaken about what's in our control, then to use reason to examine what is virtuous and in our control, and strive for that. A well-ordered, well-functioning mind is the only thing truly worthy to the Stoic.

The core similarity between the Zen Buddhist idea of attachment and the Stoic idea of the passions is the understanding that strong emotions (and therefore suffering) arise from identifying with some impression, whether good or bad. Neither school advocates this course of action, but instead outlines an ideal for behavior arising from a solid understanding of the truth.

The first images of the Buddha were actually created by Greeks


In Stoicism, the ideal is the sage, or sapiens, meaning "wise man." The sage embodies apatheia, which Seneca describes as: "the man who refuses to allow anything that goes badly for him to affect him... a mind that is ‘invulnerable’ or ‘above all suffering.'" The wise man is always content because he knows that he has everything he needs - he understands that nothing that's truly valuable can be taken away. He places no value on things that are impermanent, and this very understanding of his relationship to the world is the source of his flourishing. The good things in his life - luxury, pleasure, good company - are "preferred indifferents," not sufficient for happiness but can be used towards virtuous ends (as can be "dispreferred indifferents"). This is not to say that the Stoic is free from the entire spectrum of feelings common to the human experience, but that the way they respond to those feelings is ultimately rational.

Remember that the only thing that is truly good in the Stoic worldview is the perfection of reason, identified with virtue. The opposite of virtue, of course, is vice, which causes one to stray from virtue by corrupting one's reason. To value things external to the maintaining of one's virtue is to make one's happiness dependent on something outside of one's control - the ultimate irrational act.

The Sage is extremely rare. There are no known instances of "confirmed" sages throughout history. Some older philosophers have been suggested as candidates, but titling them as sages posthumously is a kind of sainthood, motivated by reverence more than anything. The Stoics regarded sagehood so highly that it was considered an impossible ideal for which it was nevertheless worth striving. To the ancient Stoics, only the sage was truly happy and sane.

The sage is certainly a high ideal, though Buddhism probably has them beat. The ideal state in Buddhism is the awakened one, and the awakened individual is known as a Buddha. A Buddha has directly experienced the truth of reality - that everything is impermanent, and the self is insubstantial. A Buddha desires nothing and fears nothing, having entered nirvana upon the realization of emptiness. This state is also known as the end of the noble eight-fold path (or the fourth noble truth), and is commonly referred to as as "being enlightened."

Because there are many schools of Buddhism, there are many views on what a Buddha is and does, how a Buddha comes about, and just how many Buddhas there have been. Some of these schools see Buddhas as supernatural beings with powers of omniscience, who escape the cycle of death and rebirth. Others see the original Buddha as merely a human who discovered a truth about the world. What's consistent about these interpretations is that a Buddha is seen as somebody who has "gone beyond," and transcended the banal desires, fears, and ignorance that mark human life. In any given school, the specifics about the nature of Buddhahood are tied to their views on enlightenment, which also has a variety of interpretations.

However, Zen does not place much emphasis on enlightenment. In fact, Soto Zen, the school of Zen I practice (also the largest), is distinguished in part by its understanding that human beings are originally enlightened, and the practice of zazen is the "resuming of Buddha-nature."
In buddha-dharma [i.e. Buddhism], practice and enlightenment are one and the same. Because it is the practice of enlightenment, a beginner's wholehearted practice of the Way is exactly the totality of original enlightenment. For this reason, in conveying the essential attitude for practice, it is taught not to wait for enlightenment outside practice. - Dogen, Bendōwa
In other words, to practice Zen is to embody enlightenment. This understanding places the ideal not in a state of being, but in a constant process of realization and acceptance. Zazen, seated meditation, is therefore the most important part of Zen practice, if not comprising the whole of it. However, any Zen teacher will tell you that a good practice is defined by consistency, and that after a while it becomes easier in normal life to realize the state achieved in zazen. To quote Dogen again, "There is no gap between practice and enlightenment or zazen and daily life."

It's very difficult to become a Buddha or a Sage, the requirement being the perfection of wisdom in a person. Such wisdom requires self-awareness and constant discipline, and may in fact be impossible. However, these models are set before us so that we might have signposts in this life. Both the Buddha and the Sage represent the ideals of a well-trained mind. Embodying wisdom, unswayed by fortune or feeling, they have wills of iron and are morally beyond reproach. Death is nothing to them, while life is a careful art.