Out of curiosity about the affinities between Stoicism and Buddhism, I decided to read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations over the summer. There are clear and significant differences -- Buddhism, at least the Buddhism of the early scriptures, is a path of reclusive detachment, while Stoicism counsels something more like inner renunciation coupled with wise engagement with society and commitment to the public good. Still, the points of overlap are hard to overlook.
Both are preoccupied with impermanence: “all is ephemeral,” Marcus writes, advising us to “constantly observe all that comes about through change.” Surveying the ordinary human lot, he regards it as a repetitive cycle of transient preoccupations: “people marrying, having children, falling ill, dying, fighting, feasting, trading, farming, flattering, pushing, suspecting, plotting, praying for the death of others, grumbling at their lot, falling in love, storing up wealth, longing for consulships and kingships” -- with none of this leading to true happiness.
Likewise, the Diamond Sutra, a Mahayana text, compares our experience of this world to “a tiny drop of dew, a bubble in a stream, a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom or a dream.” A much earlier scripture, possibly recording actual words of the historical Siddhartha Gautama, puts the matter more bluntly: “Insofar as it disintegrates, it is called the 'world.'"
Having just turned fifty, I’m tempted to say “insofar as I’m disintegrating, I’m called ‘me’.”. Call me disintegration-in-progress: astigmatic eyes, muscle pains, bags and sags in new places. I’m getting to be an old hand at this, except that I’m not: we age slowly in comparison to people in past eras. With increasing life expectancy, the threshold of “old age” shifts upward: a fiftysomething in Marcus Aurelius’s time, when adult life expectancy was around 47.5, could be considered an old man.
Nor can I say that my life has been particularly imbued with flux. The lives of twenty-first century Americans are almost fantastically stable and serene compared to the historical norm. Through our neglect and shortsightedness, we may be sowing conditions of instability for our descendants, but as of now things are as copacetic as they’ve ever been. Two centuries ago it was unusual not to have lost family members at an early age due to any number of now-tamed diseases. It was unusual for a male not to have had some direct personal contact with warfare. Middle-class Americans today may face unexpected and grave disruptions: cancer and car accidents are among the most likely. But here’s the rub: people in other times and circumstances also faced the likelihood of illness or accident, along with a whole slew of other upheavals which most of us don’t even think about. Given all this, it seems presumptuous, even churlish to complain about the degree of impermanence in my life.
On the other hand, it may be that we’re most obsessed with that which, like the sword of Damocles, can drop onto our heads at any moment. I find it interesting that the sages most closely identified with the study of impermanence were generally born into conditions of relative ease. Siddhartha Gautama was a prince of the Sakya clan, a member of the 1% of his time. When he became a wandering hermit, he left behind a milieu of affluence, comfort and power. Likewise, the early Buddhist scriptures repeatedly refer to “sons of noble family” as potential disciples. Many of the Stoic philosophers were either in the top social strata or on their way there; Marcus Aurelius, whose family owned brick and tile factories, became emperor.
It’s as though these individuals recognized that they enjoyed what most people take as benchmarks for happiness -- wealth, prestige, power -- and had the insight to see that the fundamental problem remained unsolved. They understood that the stability they enjoyed was precarious and that catastrophic upheaval was being deferred, not cancelled. Modern consumer society presents a similar problem: it promises the optimization of happiness, but a perfect happiness would, be definition, not be ephemeral and therefore can’t be realized without somehow transcending the problem of impermanence. Failing that, the effort will at some point yield diminishing returns. And meanwhile we’re killing the planet.
I haven’t come across many -- or any, really -- practicing Stoics. Buddhism is another matter. Not only can we find Americans who have aligned themselves with the established Buddhist traditions, but Buddhist influence has extended into psychology and provides a template for many secular self-help movements. Affluence and education surely play a role here: people with means and relative leisure are better able to undertake a meditation practice, go on extended retreat, or attend expensive classes at Kripalu. Another contributing factor is the modern-day shakiness of Christianity, which used to be the go-to answer for anyone grappling with the fleetingness of our lives. The more we understand about science, the more difficulty we have in believing that prayer is effective, or that we can faith our way into an eternal realm where everything and everyone departed will return to greet us. Also, we’re consumers in a market society, and we like choice -- including in the spiritual marketplace.
Should we welcome such multiplicity? It often arouses disdain in those who have gone “all in” with one of the available paths. The really hardcore yogis, for instance, look down on the dabblers and their "dharma lite," just as devout Catholics look down on “cafeteria Catholics” and evangelicals look down on everyone else. Whether multiplicity is desirable or not, though, it’s probably inevitable: we’re too various and restless a society for any approach to convince everyone, and we’re increasingly too complex -- a product of too many competing influences -- to be purists. We have a proliferation of answers, all aimed at addressing more or less the same unresolved questions.
All this probably for the best. Breakthroughs in most human fields of endeavor -- science, engineering, art -- typically happen when a lot of different people are experimenting with approaches to a problem, and I don’t see why the spiritual/philosophical arena should be any different.
We might conceivably find ways for our species to be at more at ease with the world and less inclined to destroy it. I sure hope so.
Quotations from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are from Martin Hammond's translation, published by Penguin in 2006.