Buddhism and Hellenistic philosophies: secular wisdoms on the Silk Road


Counter to the stereotype that sees East and West as two distant worlds, with entirely different cultures and value systems, the Buddha and the ancient Greeks spoke a very similar language and provided us with wise insights that we can rediscover today for our secular practice.

The search for wisdom and happiness is a quest as old as the world. Human beings have crossed oceans and continents to find the secret and have brought with them their own knowledge and intuition. Globalisation has always existed and the high peaks of the Himalayas were certainly not enough to prevent Alexander the Great from conquering India and creating the first global civilisation of antiquity. The historical Buddha, Gotama himself, born and raised in a small border town on the Silk Road and at the foot of these majestic mountains, was no stranger to Greek wisdom, as the oldest Buddhist texts testify.

People moved, communicated and exchanged culture, as well as goods, then as now. And even then the same rule in our small, interconnected planet applied: access to wisdom was not limited to a geographical area nor the result of miraculous discoveries, which appeared out of nowhere, but the result of human beings meeting other human beings and learning from them. And yet we tend to stop at simple explanations, without digging a little deeper to discover treasures that could make even our lives more serene. ’It pays poorly for a master if you are always a schoolboy,’ Nietzsche said in his Zarathustra: this was a warning never to take for granted what you think you know, never to settle for stereotypes.

Gotama stated severely that those who were too attached to their beliefs would never even get a glimpse of the dharma, let alone understand its meaning. Therefore, it is necessary to broaden one’s gaze and see the many wise people who have devised methods and paths, not very dissimilar to each other, to live a true philosophical life. In the East, in India, as on the shores of our Mediterranean.

Searching for happiness

Whether we are aware of it or not, whenever we ask ourselves what to eat, how to love, or simply how to be happy, we are actually wondering how best to lead our lives. The Greeks were convinced that ’eudaimonia‘, true happiness or human flourishing, arises from the presence of a good demon at our side, a spirit capable of guiding us, as it did with Socrates, in decisions, choices, and behaviors. For the Buddha, the secret to a fulfilling life and true happiness, was in the ability to embrace life and welcome every aspect of it, even the most complex and challenging ones. The Buddha’s approach was similar to that of the Greek Stoic philosophers for whom to be happy means to lead a virtuous life, without giving in to moralism and to train the mind to change what can be changed, to accept what we have no power over and to learn to understand the difference. The element that connected the Buddha and the Stoics was, therefore, the question of how to live in a manner which allows us to flourish as human beings. Or, How can I live a philosophical life?

Free from the chains

On the subject of happiness, the hedonism of the Greek philosopher Epicurus also shares some commonalities with Buddhism. Like Gotama, the bearded Greek pointed to a method of practice and awareness that recalls the Eightfold Buddhist Path, and identified freedom of the soul with pleasure. However, this is a pleasure that is obviously not consumerist or materialistic but synonymous with the enjoyment of life, far from forced and artificial happiness, free from everything that keeps a human being subjugated and far from wisdom. Epicurus was convinced that a happy life was possible, but it must be lived philosophically. His method was medicine to cure the illness of unfounded beliefs that cause anxiety and fear. Pleasure, understood as the virtuous life, was the solution to the problem. As in the case of the Buddha, his was a therapeutic philosophy capable of freeing us from false beliefs and showing what we can really know and how we can know it. Sensations and the body, experience and memory, the use of appropriate words: these were the tools of his investigation and method.

What can we learn from Epicurus about the idea of pleasure and good that can be useful to lead our philosophical life? First of all, his idea of the supreme good is that it is a lasting pleasure that comes from knowing how to be satisfied with one’s life, from enjoying every moment as if it were the last, without worrying about the future. Moderation involves neither ascetic renunciation nor a mortification of the body and human desires. But as with Gotama, it has to do with common sense, with that virtue that lies in the middle: the less one possesses, he says, the less one fears to lose. The wise man does not binge, but knows how to be content with what he has had and is ready to leave the table of life as soon as the time comes, without any remorse.

Following Alexander’s steps

At the height of the crisis of the ancient world, Alexander the Great, driven by the same existential restlessness, had brought with him not only the army but also some philosophers, including Pyrrho. Dialogues and comparisons with wise Indians, including Buddhist monks, were the order of the day and very fruitful. We now know that it was quite likely that the pragmatic Buddhist spirit had an influence on Pyrrho, the ’father‘ of Greek Scepticism, the most oriental of Hellenic thinkers, who tenaciously rejected any ideal world, but instead grounded himself in reality and attempted to live an existence consecrated to the search for serenity. Pyrrho maintained that everything is vain appearance; there is no substantial reality. Over the centuries, Buddhists would formulate the idea of emptiness and not-self in exactly the same way.

The good, virtuous life

Stoicism is perhaps the most global of the ’Western‘ philosophies, practiced by slaves and emperors, Greeks, Romans and people living in parts of Asia. Living an authentic, good life, for these Stoic thinkers, from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius, from Seneca to Epictetus, from Cleantech to Crisis, was about the search for a way of being in the world in which virtue and happiness coincided. Again, the similarities with Buddhist philosophy are profound: the Stoics cultivated the four cardinal virtues of self-control, courage, justice and wisdom and a method of practice where self-mastery and perseverance led to wisdom itself.

It is no coincidence that, like the Buddha, they had a pragmatic vision of their philosophy and this can be understood from the metaphor they used to describe it In their philosophy, there is a fertile field to cultivate thanks to the logic that acts as a protective fence while the the physics or field itself – composed of nature, corporeity, immanence and ethics – is the harvest that all this produces. Ethics, how to lead a philosophical life, is the end point of the path, the reason why to walk it. This end point is protected by the right fence and in contact with reality, like a farmer who ploughs his field. It is quite astounding that in the Dhammapada, the Buddha uses metaphors taken as well from the agricultural world to describe his teaching and the word he has chosen to indicate meditative practice is bhavana, a term used by farmers to indicate cultivation.

Cultivating the practice

As with Gotama, then, even for the Stoics, practice must be cultivated because awareness often eludes us. Our misperception of things takes us far away, distracts us. It is confusion about life, rather than the things of life itself, that is the problem. So in order to lead a good life we have to learn again how to respond to events instead of reacting by training our minds. For it is precisely because of our confusion that we cannot reasonably rely on anything but ’a thoughtful, conscious choice,’ that is, our ability to choose how to categorize events and reorient our way of responding to them. Like the Buddha, Stoic philosophers, too, did not formulate theories but sought concrete, reasonable, and real answers to existential questions. No metaphysics, no magical thinking. In order to learn this art of leading a philosophical life, they chose, always in a pragmatic perspective, to organize their work around a series of practical exercises and meditations.

An Instagram of ancient times!

Finally, as often happens, the symbols tell more than a thousand books and show how the interweaving of these two cultures did not stop at ideas but is reflected in iconography, imagination, language and everyday lifestyles. A proof? It is enough, in this regard, to look at the statues of the Gandhara civilization, in the area of today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan, which depict the Buddha dressed as the Greek god Apollo. Here is the smoking gun, the iconographic proof of this mixture: these Greek Buddhas, with tunic and beard, had for those people the effect of an influencer of an Instagram ante litteram!



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