Buddhism and Stoicism Are Closer Linked Than You'd Think

Stoicism and Buddhism are two of the oldest, and well known, schools of thought in the world. Would Marcus Aurelius, a famous Roman stoic, be a Buddhist today?

Two of the world's oldest systems of thought, Buddhism and Stoicism, are at first sight as different as can be. Developed within a century or two of each other on separate continents, one was developed single handedly by an former royal family member while the other was devised by various Greek and Roman intellectuals from a wide range of social classes. Buddhism is commonly considered a religion, while stoicism is not. While there are three hundred million self proclaimed Buddhists in the world, it is harder to find a person who declares themselves to be a stoic in a philosophic sense.


However, despite these differences, both philosophies share a great deal, to the point where their key ideas are fundamentally in agreement.

Those details begin with how both systems seek to reduce suffering by helping us to better understand the world and how we interact with it.

For the stoic, all happiness is internal. The ideal stoic is just as happy with great wealth as they are in poverty. As the extremely wealthy Marcus Aurelius put it, “Almost nothing material is needed for a happy life, for he who understands existence”. The “goal” of stoic teachings is to help the individual move past reaction to external events and find true peace of mind. Stoic philosopher Epictetus even laid out a guide for practicing a stoic response to tragedy, saying we should imagine tragedies, such as the death of our loved ones, long before they occur. So we are prepared for it when it happens.

Likewise, Buddhism seeks to liberate the individual from suffering. This is done in many ways, as Buddhism has so many branches, but the basic principles are the same. Understanding that all beings move towards desire and away from pain- and that this method will fail in the long run. One must, instead, overcome desire and attachment, the causes of reaction when the world doesn't go our way, and then you will find enlightenment.

In addition, both schools of thought are widely praised and practiced for their pragmatic aspects. Many athletes, including Apolo Ohno, turn to stoic ideas to help them focus on their performance rather than the outcomes. Likewise, Buddhism is often viewed as an extremely practical religion with a focus on how to live now rather than in the next world. Buddhism moreover preaches the value of meditation of various kinds. At heart one doesn't need to be a Buddhist to practice meditation, which can bring benefits that are well known.

There are a few major differences between the two schools that are worth mentioning. Many Buddhists believe in karma and reincarnation, the stoics did not; and saw acceptance of death as a key part of life. In Stoicism the solution to suffering is following reason to the end; Buddhism offers the solution of overcoming desire

Would the renowned Roman stoic Marcus Aurelius be a Buddhist today? Perhaps not, as his worldview, while similar to the Buddhist outlook, was extremely grounded in Greco-Roman thought and experience. However, the similarities between the two schools brings to mind a familiar quote, “great minds think alike”. The two royal philosophers, Siddhartha Gautama and Marcus Aurelius, would find much room for agreement and would find the other quite virtuous.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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