The Full Flummox: #5 Was Epictetus A Buddhist?


Am I a Buddhist? 

I try hard to be, but unlike my Buddhist wife I was raised in a Methodist family in working class Northern England. She was born and raised in Kathmandu so the “path” of being a Buddhist is ingrained in her psyche. But we have been married for almost 50 years so a fair bit of each other’s values and beliefs are bound to have travelled between us. If there’s a difference between us, I am more widely read about Buddhism whereas she is more knowledgeable about what I have read!

Recently I have been reading and writing lots about the philosophers of Ancient Greece, and the more I read about the Stoics such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius for example, the more I saw undisputed similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. I realise that I am not the first person to see this, there are many esteemed modern day philosophers and academics who have written about the same thing, but I thought it would be interesting to give my own insights and experiences.

A Personal Tragedy

Twenty years ago a personal tragedy within our family affected all of our lives for ever. At times some of us even questioned our personal sanity, whether life was worth continuing, as well as the purpose and meaning of life in general. Heavy stuff, but we were “bleeding”! We each bled in different ways, in my own case the mental turmoil and black hole I kept falling into threatened to destroy me. Prayer was useless, there is no god, but if there is ….. he is an evil bastard!

The Dhammapada and The Enchiridion 

Then one day I came across a quote used by a famous British mountaineer and Everest summiteer about “states of being” …… 

“All states of being are determined by mind, it is mind that leads the way ……..” 

It was as if I had been jolted by an electric shock from a cattle prod, it resonated as it should have done anyway to a professional psychologist like myself! So, I Googled it and found a bit more; 

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him.”

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This is the opening line from the Dhammapada, the sayings and verses of Buddha, not written by him but written and published by others after his death. And there’s your first connection with many Ancient Greek Philosophers….. nothing written down! But we can also draw a more meaningful comparison with The Enchiridion of Epictetus, his manual of advice compiled by Arrian his disciple with this quote from chapter 5; 

“What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things”. 

So, to paraphrase these two concepts from Buddhism and Stoicism, it’s not the event itself or what someone says that upsets you or causes you suffering, but what you make of it inside your own mind. So all you Snowflakes on Twitter take heed!

Mindfulness is Buddhist and Stoic

There’s an even bigger similarity too; the whole focus of Buddhism is about compassion and the avoidance of suffering, and about how our own suffering in many cases comes from within ourselves generally. Stoicism is a philosophy that stresses the importance of “being” in accordance with nature and accepting all of the things that happen in life. In BOTH Buddhism and Stoicism the primary step is to focus on the moment, the present, the here and now. Often referred to as mindfulness. The quote from Marcus Aurelius confirms this:

“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…” 

That’s pretty Buddhist if you ask me!

The practice of mindfulness with Buddhists however begins with meditation. This is something my wife is very good at, she begins her meditation every day shortly after waking. I decided to give it a try, could I remove this black hole I was falling into, could I quieten my mind for ANY length of time and have SOME relief from the suffering I was evidently bringing upon myself? My wife told me about Vipassana meditation, the simple technique of focusing only on your breathing, in-out, in-out, counting each breath to 5, and starting again in the count if your mind focuses on something else. This something else could be ….. what’s for breakfast, traffic jams en route to work, first meeting of the day, the weekend, fixing the leaking tap …… hells teeth I couldn’t get past a count of 2 before I was overwhelmed in my mind again with things I didn’t want to see! It took me several days before I could reach my first 5, that was progress, inside my own head I had achieved something very big. Mostly I had realised how my own “state of being” was controlled by my own mind or thoughts. Obvious, but, as the saying goes ….. when you’re up to your arse in alligators it’s hard to remember the objective was to drain the swamp! 

Parallel Truths and Paths

The intellectual side of me needed more than a daily meditation of, 10, then 15, then 30 mins, so I decided to read as much as I could about Buddhism. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going off into the realms of theory or academia, but if we are to compare Buddhism and Stoicism we need a little more than “being happy and living in the moment”. My reading led me into The Four Noble Truths, and The Noble Eightfold Path, both Buddhist processes and concepts. The overlap with Stoicism is remarkable such that in the modern world Epictetus would be accused of plagiarism!

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Next Post?

The Four noble truths 

How to live a good life both Buddhism and Stoicism 

Noble 8 fold path

Timeline

Buddha 483-400BC

Early Stoics 300BC

Epictetus 55-135AD

 

 

5 thoughts on “The Full Flummox: #5 Was Epictetus A Buddhist?

  1. This is so true! I totally believe that your mindset determines your happiness. It’s so exhausting to always be negative and cynical — I’m an optimist and can truly say there’s always been a silver lining, even in the worst clouds of my life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I appreciate reading this post. I can’t relate to the pain you felt/feel for the loss of your son at the age my youngest is at right now. I’m feeling loss by her leaving the nest, but only in miles, not forever. My heart aches for you and Dr. C in an empathetic way. Your ability to share how you’ve worked through it, yet still feel how real it is still is touching. Thank you for sharing your words of wisdom. I agree with your comments, it is in how our mind interprets the situation at hand.

    Liked by 1 person

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