2022 Epicurus vs Buddhism Compare and Contrast Thread

  • Quote

    You have every right to call things what you choose, Joshua. But Secular Buddhists will probably continue to identify themselves as Buddhist. In fact those who follow Stephen Batchelor's line will say the Theravada tradition is NOT true Buddhism, that it suffers from translation errors that fundamentally distorted the Buddha's message, and also that the elements you describe such as karma and rebirth and so forth were NOT part of the Buddha's message at all but rather muddied their way into the Buddha's recorded teachings over time. Batchelor suggests this happened as part of an attempt to better conform the new "religion" to the widely accepted and deeply engrained soteriology in India thought.

    That is all fair enough, and I have no dog in this fight. I read Buddhism Without Beliefs sometime--oh--ten years ago perhaps. I seem to recall that his views on the prevalence of rebirth in Indian thought at the time of the Buddha were somewhat controversial. But I may be mistaken in that.

    What will be really helpful is to have not one outline, but three; Theravadin, Mahayana and Secular. And I will happily yield to whomever shall take the lists (pun intended!)

  • I know we are beating this dead horse into the dust, but the issues can’t be obfuscated about what the core tenets are within Buddhism.

    I would say yes to three outlines…

    So that we can see clearly what the core common articles that all Buddhists share are without any controversy about interpretations.

    I’ve read the Dhammapada and In the Buddha’s words:


    I personally cannot see how the ideas of karma, nirvana, and re-birth are somehow not a part of the original Buddhist doctrine when the main historical branches such as Theravada, Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism all seem to share them and the neighboring Indian philosophies within Hinduism and Jainism also use the same terminology, albeit slightly different from tradition to tradition, but still they have them. Any sort of dissenting opinion would appear to to be an extreme minority.

  • Here’s a good test…if a historical critic of Buddhism (Adi Shankara) spent enough time to attempt to refute Buddhist doctrine (and there were many other Vedantists who did) it must’ve meant that the interpretation of concepts even back in medieval times in India were close enough to the Hindu interpretations that they needed to attack them.

    Adi Shankara’s critique of Buddhism - Home
    While maintaining the existence of only Brahman in the absolute sense, Sankara posits that the experience of the world is not invalid at the time of that…

    This tells me that at the very least, what we know as “historical” Buddhism shared deep commonalities with other Indian philosophies. This is why especially in Southern India there was syncretism between Buddhism and Hindu Shaivism. In fact there are temples that simultaneously invoke images of Shiva, while also depicting Buddhist stories. If this is the case, it meant that the historical Buddhists must’ve shared commonalities with certain Hindu doctrines for them to be compatible enough for devotees to mix and match the traditions.

  • I would say yes to three outlines…

    Matt I am not quite sure what this refers to?

    Are you pointing to a chart or outline that shows a comparison of types of Buddhism and the ideas that all share? If so or you know of such a thing that would be useful.

    It wouldn't be very productive to trace each minor sect into their own detailed twists and turns, but it would be productive to develop references as to what the major groupings share.

  • I want succinct outlines of the core tenets of the main Buddhist schools…the ones that make up the major populations of Asia. Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism…and secular Buddhism. So we can see without any controversy of interpretation what each school’s common precepts are. And I’m certain that there are common concepts among them….

    That way we can lay them out without controversy of interpretation and see what they are. That way we won’t have disagreement about the basics.

  • My concern with this thread is that it seems to want to become ambiguous about the nature of what Buddhism is and why the religion and philosophy came into existence and what specifically it came for. You can’t have a cure for something if there isn’t something to cure.

    I don’t believe it is helpful for an Epicurean comparison if we cannot pin down generic qualities that are universally “Buddhist.” Almost as if there are so many disconnected versions of Buddhism with such radically different doctrines that we can’t pin them down at all under the coinage of “Buddhism.” I very much disagree with this.

    Buddhism is no different than Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Neoplatonism and Stoicism in that we can apprehend and certainly comprehend “what” it’s about in generic terms. There is nothing “special” about Buddhist doctrine, Its “various” doctrines can 100% be understood by non-Buddhists who can easily analyze it…if a person believes this isn’t the case then most likely they are far more Buddhist than Epicurean.

    I totally understand that there may be some subconscious sympathies and deference for the Buddha by some who have experience in it…I get that, but the reality is that Buddhism is not Epicurean Philosophy…it’s in fact quite different and often hostile to it. My position is that we as Epicureans need to be able pin down what Buddhism is in generic terms to be able to criticize it and analyze it. Just as someone who may have come from an Islamic background would need to be objective about criticism and analysis of Mohammed and Islam. We are not here to bolster the often fanciful claims of the Buddha or further his philosophy, we are here for Epicurus.

    I believe Buddhism to be, among other Indian schools of thought, to address the common “metaphysical” beliefs of karma, reincarnation and the various soteriological ways to be released from this cycle that are native to Indian thought as would be accessible to the “common” uneducated person living in the 5th and 6th century BCE.

  • Without going to deep into doctrines, here's a brief historical sketch:

    In general, Theravada Buddhist are a doctrinally-conservative group who follow a trend of Buddhism that recommends a withdrawn life of monasticism. Monks and nuns are typically separated like the Catholic Church. It's sort of like ... if the only expression of the Catholic tradition were the Desert Fathers who withdrew into contemplation. This form is found predominately in Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia, where Buddhism first spread under Emperor Ashoka.

    Mahayana Buddhism is sort of our "Protestant" catch-phrase for everything from deity-worshipping Chinese Buddhists (Buddhism processed through Confucianism, among other philosophies, and Taoism) to Zen Buddhism (Buddhism processed through Taoism and Shinto) in Japan. Depending on your preferred scholar, we may also group Tibetan Buddhism into the group of Mahayana, though, it often gets its own designation.

    Vajrayana, Tibetan, or Tantric Buddhism is what American teenagers were admiring in the 1960s, when they weren't stuck on the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (see: "Tomorrow Never Knows" by the Beatles for an example of Tibetan Buddhism). This form is highly related to early Indian Buddhism, and was the first form of Buddhism to migrate Northward. This form later influenced Mongolian Buddhism (Tantra processed through Tengriism).

    Then we have, what I'll personally call, our "Western Buddhism". While "Western" is a poor adjective to describe anything in comparative cultural studies, I think we'll find a markedly different version of Buddhism that was evangelized through modern market economies to consumer societies that offer a highly eclectic form of Buddhism. I almost want to call it Eclecticism instead of Buddhism, and Siddhartha's teachings aren't as important as later Buddhist scholars.

  • It's almost like we need a chart with the major different branches on the X axis and the major beliefs on the Y and then check boxes or short yes or no entries in the grid at each intersection?

    Again this is never likely to satisfy a committed Buddhist, but that's not our audience or intent here. Rather we are aiming only at a fair overview helpful for our own needs in categorizing the issues.

    We've never satisfied the Stoics in our comparisons there, and we won't satisfy the Buddhists, but since we are neither that's a secondary consideration.

  • There is nothing “special” about Buddhist doctrine, Its “various” doctrines can 100% be understood by non-Buddhists who can easily analyze it…if a person believes this isn’t the case then most likely they are far more Buddhist than Epicurean.

    I don't agree...Buddhism isn't just "doctrine" because it is also a daily practice and how you live your life..You can't just "think" your way to "enlightenment". Enlightenment is for this present life. What all Buddhist schools have in common is dealing with the problem of suffering and dissatisfaction that seem to be part of the human inner experience.

    A friend texted these words to me recently:

    "I think it’s safe to assume that most of us (meaning all humans) are not overly happy people in general. Life allows for some pleasures here and there…the basics, but real joys are sometimes few and far between. I personally often feel a level of somberness that comes with a litany of experiences."

    For myself I at times feel not only somber, but mildly depressed at times. So then Buddhism seeks to deal with this problem. It is a combination of doctrine and practice.

    I would really like to see a side-by-side comparison of Buddhism and Epicureanism which shows the differences of how each one deals with feelings of "somberness" and "mild depression" (the kind of sadness which arises due to loss, grief, disappointment, loneliness, lack of freedom, lack of control)...as well as stressful feelings of anxiety, agitation, fear, and anger.

    Buddhist meditation helped me with anxiety...but I left Buddhism because it wasn't helping me deal with my feelings of sadness. In fact I think that it made my feelings of sadness worse.

    Anybody who had done Buddhist meditation at an organized Buddhist group...I would ask for help on creating this comparison.

    And anyone who feels they have good Epicurean practices for dealing with sadness...please help, thank you :)

  • Again, whatever form this “enlightenment” is, is specific to Buddhism. So if you can’t think your way to enlightenment and you practice it…that begs the question what are we being enlightened to? It means that the Buddha is making a very specific claim about the world that is only accessible through certain practices.

    Meditation in its own right could be a pleasurable experience, but meditation to achieve “enlightenment” in the Buddhist context is very different.

    These are two very separate things.

  • As far as the somberness comment goes it’s important to place it context.

    Happiness and pleasure are not the same thing. And frankly this is a huge topic for another thread. Happiness is a very nebulous word that can mean many things for many different situations. The “happy” person who claims to be happy 100% of the time is either heavily medicated or is not being truthful about their experiences.

    The reason why people seek out philosophy and religion is that they are seeking a pathway to “happiness”…but the reality is they go after an idealistic philosophy like Buddhism and they don’t find “pleasure” in it, only more unanswerable questions and dissatisfaction with its metaphysical claims.

    Life is full of dissatisfaction and miserable circumstances. Life is NOT easy. Unhappiness is certainly rampant among many people who experience the sorrows and hardness of life. This is why many people adopt Stoicism as their main philosophy because they seek detachment. But in truth happiness is NOT the goal, the seeking of a pleasurable life is. Net positive pleasure, not painlessness. The person living in a country engulfed in civil war is probably pretty “unhappy” in general but can still find pleasure in basic things such as food and friends. That’s a pleasurable thing.

    So we certainly may have droves of unhappy, dissatisfied, melancholy people walking around, which has more to do with nature, brain chemistry and biology than anything else.

    Which again, as I mentioned in the depression thread is a clinical thing. True clinical depression is something that is in brain chemistry and is something that only a medical professional can diagnose or treat.

    ***If anyone believes they are depressed or experiencing some mental issues, detach from the internet and immediately consult a medical professional.***

  • Quote

    "I think it’s safe to assume that most of us (meaning all humans) are not overly happy people in general. Life allows for some pleasures here and there…the basics, but real joys are sometimes few and far between. I personally often feel a level of somberness that comes with a litany of experiences."

    This observation is a key one. There's something about the way different people categorize their view of life that we're really dealing with here, and I don't think it's a purely "logical" difference in conclusion. I don't know if it's cultural, clinical, genetic, chemical, educational, or some combination of these or even other factors, but to reach the conclusion that "life allows for some pleasures here and there...." is indeed a somber attitude that everyone does not share.

    I would have to think about better ways to illustrate it than this quote, but this is what comes immediately to mind from the "head and heart" letter:

    Maybe these sentiments are hard to reduce to a logical formula, but I see in the difference between these two perspectives something that goes to the heart of Epicurus vs the Buddhist perspective.

  • Not to make this chart idea even more complicated, but it seems as if it would need a time element as well. What major form(s) of Indian Buddhism was active at the time of the ancient Greeks v what major forms are currently available to Westerners.

  • Not to make this chart idea even more complicated, but it seems as if it would need a time element as well. What major form(s) of Indian Buddhism was active at the time of the ancient Greeks v what major forms are currently available to Westerners.

    I think Godfrey knows me well enough that I am not saying this to be disagreeable, but that kind of historical exposition is probably beyond what people here would need, unless they are truly historians. Several of the comments above have made points about "Secular Buddhism"" or something similar, and in truth that's probably where our focus ought to be: we're here to help people, so our efforts probably ought to focus on the major forms into which people we come into contact with regularly would have themselves come into contact with it. Almost like, again using the analogy of the Hermotimus dialogue, there were sort of like callers from the varying schools on every corner, calling people into their particular school. It would be those high-sounding and attractive points that they would focus on to get people attracted in the first place, and I would think a lot of the distinctions we are most needing to know are probably visible even on that superficial level.

    Does it really surprise people who are first being attracted to Buddhism that "nothingness" is a central idea? I suspect most people get that message pretty quickly, and it's already at that level that the warning flags and buzzers need to be waving and going off in our minds.

  • If nothing else, this thread is a good example of why it's important to fully understand a philosophy (say, EP) on its own terms before dipping one's toe into comparisons =O

  • Keep in mind, we're talking about different denominations caused by political schisms throughout the centuries, no different than Christianity. Just like all Christians adopt the Nicaean Creed, agree on Biblical literary canon, and accept the early intellectual tradition of the Church Fathers, all Buddhists accept a common liturgy (the Pali Canon, with some cultural-specific additions) and a common intellectual tradition originating from Siddhartha Gautama.

    None of the Buddhist denominations are more or less similar to Epicurean philosophy (especially compared with other heterodox ancient Indian philosophical traditions). "Mind over matter" is a fairly universal Buddhist attitude. The current Dalai Lama's rejection of mysticism and embracing of particle physics is the closest similarity we'll find.

  • Here's another way to approach this discussion that I think can be fruitful. Let's ask:

    "Why are peoples in the modern world so drawn to ancient Idealism?"

    My short answer is that they feel like the modern world (which they relate to particle physics) is missing a heart, an substantive, meaningful context for a person within a rapidly changing world of symbols and technology. Epicurus' moral take on atomism, I think, provides a bridge between particle physics over what many perceive (ironically) as nihilism.

    We predominantly find Therevada and Mahayana forms of Buddhism within the cultures in which they developed. Removed from this context (for me in America), "Buddhism" becomes a sort of "Eclectic, Pseudo-Religious, Psycho-therapeutic, mental compliment to the de-contextualized physical analogue of Hindu Yoga".

    What I think we'll find is that the measurably beneficial practices that have developed within the Buddhist tradition are compatible with Epicurean ethics, in general. Any scientific findings from competing traditions that have a physiological basis and a measurably-positive impact are coherent with atomism, materialism, and the pleasure principle.

    Therein, the parts of "Buddhism" that a lot of Americans like are really just secular practices, in the same way that Yoga has become a secular practice for non-Yogis. And a lot of American "Buddhists" are just non-religious.

  • BuddhismEpicureanism
    practicing meditation as a way to "deal" with negative emotions
    focusing on what is pleasureable and enjoyable in friendship as a way to "deal" with negative emotions
    impartiality to all experiences
    gratitude and savoring of all pleasant and pleasureable experiences
    nothing is inherently good or badpleasure is inherently good and pain is inherently bad
    solitude and quietude is a good way to live, and not seeking to add anything to a simple life
    pleasure in all forms is to be sought (as long as pains are not greater) and actively seeking out pleasure
    continued "rebirth" until you become enlightened
    there is only this one life and no experience will occur after death
    life is by nature difficult and filled with suffering
    life has basic necessities and once fulfilled then pleasure is easy
    a happy life is not the goal because pleasure is short-lived and only temporary - the best that can be hoped for is a state of calm tranquility which is neither happy nor sad - which can be achieved by meditation, religious study, and "taking refuge" in the religious community
    a happy life comes from a life filled with enjoyment and pleasure, and can be achieved by pursuing that which is necessary for happiness - friendship, wisdom, personal freedom, and enjoyment of the pleasing things in life, as well as active engagement with the Epicurean community

    This is just off the top of my head...Is anything incorrect, or is anything missing?