Angry Robot

Stoicism vs Zen

He contrasts stoicism with Zen, which causes some problems. I do think there are similarities between the two philosophies. However, he mischaracterizes Zen:

Practicing Zen would require me to suppress my analytical abilities, something I found it quite difficult to do. Another off-putting aspect of Zen was that the moment of enlightenment it dangled before its practitioners was by no means guaranteed. Practice Zen for decades and you might achieve enlightenment — or you might not. It would be tragic, I thought, to spend the remaining decades of my life pursuing a moment of enlightenment that never came.

Enlightenment is not specifically Zen, but Buddhist in general and even pre-Buddhist. Enlightenment presents the possibility of happiness / tranquility / nirvana / whatevs within this lifetime, so I’d say it compares favourably to the competing brands who are selling glorious afterlives and such. But for Irvine, enlightenment is too far off, and may never come. Whereas the stoics are promising results immediately – the spiritual equivalent of the microwave oven.

Except that’s not really the case. Stoics have no miracle cures. They say that reason can cure unhappiness. But blindly following whatever stoics say isn’t reason: you still have ages of reasoning ahead of you, thinking through every aspect of life, undoing all your bad unreasonable habits, getting to work on that shit. You’re not going to get that done in a weekend. Besides, it’s not like your time following the Zen path would be wasted and unfulfilling even if you never attained enlightenment (I have my suspicions about the concept of enlightenment, but that’s too much to get into here).

A Zen Buddhist might advise those wishing to attain tranquillity to spend hours each day trying to empty their mind of all thought. And when they are not doing this, they should spend time trying to solve koans, those paradoxical questions, the most famous of which is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” … The Stoics, by way of contrast, would recommend neither of these activities. Your time would be much better spent, they would suggest, analyzing what it is in your daily life that disrupts your tranquillity and thinking about what you can do to prevent such disruptions.

It’s true that Zen meditation, zazen, is a big part of Zen-World. The way Irvine describes it, it sounds like a waste of time. Well, the idea is to train your mind. You are practicing concentration, getting rid of mental distractions, getting familiar with your own mind-state and the processes that often run amok therein. Buddhism recognizes that your own mind, not those of others, is often your biggest obstacle.

The koans are meant to show the limits of rational thought. That is indeed a big difference between stoicism and Zen: Zen argues2 enlightenment isn’t something you can book-learn yourself to. It’s beyond reason, since reason is dependent on language but spiritual fulfillment is not.

Zen (and Buddhism in general) do not imagine zazen and koans are enough in the way of spiritual practice. Both say you should follow the eightfold path, which involves a lot more than sitting around doing jack and/or clapping with one hand. Zen does sometimes have an impractical air, since a lot of the literature comes from a monastic tradition and is specifically about the training of monks. But there are indeed Zen temples out there in the wild. Anyway, it’s not all about impractical, time-wasting mind exercises, nor does Zen or Buddhism dismiss rational thought altogether – go ask the Dalai Lama. It has its purposes, but it also has its limits.

One of its limits is a reliance on binary opposition in order to create meaning. We need hot to understand cold, etc. Here, Irvine needs Zen as a foil to first present how Stoicism is similar, then to contrast the differences. But his image of Zen is partial and dependent on the points he wants to make about Stoicism.

I really don’t mean to denigrate Irvine’s choices or the philosophy of the stoics here; I love me some stoicism as much as the next Greco-Roman enthusiast. But I just got to step up when someone smacks my boy Zen is all.

1 I’m super not qualified to judge the merits of Stoicism, but negative visualization as presented by Irvine seems problematic at best. The goal is to better appreciate what you have, which is noble. But surely there are better ways to do so than imagining personal disasters? Can’t you just think about what you have and directly appreciate it without the mental shock treatment? Perhaps some people need to do that sort of thing more, but others most certainly need to do it less.

2 I’d have trouble speaking for any large entity in this manner – “Canada argues, The Sankeys argue” – but especially for Zen. I suppose it’s obvious, but I’m only speaking here of what Zen means to me; I have no authority to declare it always true everywhere. Hey, doesn’t this conveniently tie in to what I was saying about the limits of reason / language etc. etc.