Zen and Stoicism…Two Sides of the Same Coin


For 15 years, I have been studying and practicing, as best I can, some of the teachings of Buddhism (mixed with a little Eastern thought in general).  The school of Buddhism called Zen concentrates on direct insight into “how things are” through meditation and by calming, then tripping up the mind (unlike some schools which emphasize knowledge of doctrine and the writings of Buddhist teachers).  One of the ways Zen masters trip up the minds of their students is through the use of koans (a kind of unsolvable riddle)  One of the most well-known of these koans is as follows:

Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?

A koan is designed to break your mind free of previous paradigms.  It rattles your perception free of its previous conclusions.  This continues as you meditate upon the question or puzzle of the koan.  The very pursuit of an answer is intended to break your mind free of previous illusion/delusion.  In everyday life, we make conclusions based on a few inputs, then we move on.  We accept our conclusion as true, and often we never return to reexamine.  Thus, we build our own truth based on previous assumptions.  A koan helps your mind enter a state where previous assumptions are questioned. For you Zen gurus out there, I know, koans are supposed to lead you to enlightenment…but I left that pursuit, and tend to be a bit more practical with my koans.  I guess it’s a result of my Stoic side.

Breaking through illusion

Here is an example of a possible truth you may have built.  What if your parents wanted you to go to college?  When you were young, they told you that college is good and will ensure you get a good job, which implies you can earn more money, which will allow you to buy things you like.  Presumably, this would lead to greater happiness.  They didn’t specifically say the thing about happiness, but some of what they said, as well as societal influence certainly led you to believe that this was true.  So, college = good…you built a truth, and then moved on.  But what if that conclusion was wrong?  What about other jobs that might have made you happy without a college degree?  Do you really need a lot of money to be happy?  Do you need  any money to be happy?  If you are that smart (smart enough to get into college), couldn’t you have spent those 4 years building your own business, teaching yourself how to run it?   What if the $60,000+ spent on a college degree, and the $100,000+ loss of four years of wages weren’t worth it?  These are questions that we may all answer a little differently, but my point is that if we’ve moved on without questioning, then we’ve assumed “college = good” is true.  I lived for over 30 years with this “truth,” without ever reexamining.  I am questioning it now.  In a way, I’ve presented a koan to myself to break my paradigm.  A practical one:  “What is the worth of not going to college?”  I have teenagers of college age, and this question is an important one for me to answer.  Practicing with koans gets me in the habit of viewing something from a different perspective.

So, viewing things from a different perspective is an important tool we can take from Zen.  The Stoic does this as well, by examining whether his actions and reactions to the events of his day are correct.

Another of the most important facets of Zen is to be aware.  Awareness of the present moment allows us to observe our situation clearly.  The mere effort of being aware allows me to examine my motives clearly.  It is in this pursuit of awareness that I think a second very strong connection between Zen and Stoicism occurs.

So Zen and Stoicism are similar in these two ways:

  1. We try to gain a new perspective.
  2. We try to become more aware of the present moment and how we fit in it.

The Stoic makes every effort to be aware of his place in life.  What is in his control, what is not.  If my goal is to be aware at all times of what is in my control and what is not, then I must practice and cultivate this awareness.  The beginnings of this type of awareness are found in meditation.  Zen meditation focuses on making the mind still, focusing on the present moment, maybe even working through a koan.  Stoic meditation is similar, but it is more reflective, more examining.  “What things did I react badly to today?  How could I have utilized the things I can control, my thoughts, reactions, emotions, to be a better man?”  Either way (Stoic or Zen), meditation gets us into the habit of awareness, increases our perspective, and into the habit of asking these questions.

(Feature photo by Kriss Szkurlatowski)



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