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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Epicurus and Buddhism.

"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"-Epicurus.

James: This is the quote that introduced me to the ancient philosopher Epicurus who has since become one of my favorites. So I began to study Epicurus and found that he had much in common with Buddhism and its non-theistic nature.

What I was most interested in was that he believed and taught "that events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space." This sounds very similar to the pivotal Buddhist belief of interdependence or dependent co-arising, which says that nothing exists separate from anything else. All is interconnected in a web of cause and effect.

This includes sharing the belief that something can not come from nothing and therefore the Universe must be endless yet because of his belief in a shifting, interconnected web of atoms that same Universe can not be unchanging. It was his belief that the Universe is eternal but only in the sense that it goes through cycles of birth and death along the way. Yet another shade of thinking, which can be found in Buddhist philosophy. As well as a theory that can be found is still found in modern day science via the cyclic theory of the Universe.

He was also dedicated to over-coming pain and fear, which is not unlike the dedication that we Buddhists seek to over-come what we would call suffering in general. He taught that curbing desires are important if one wants to avoid that pain and fear, which is another teaching shared in Buddhism. This included going into the detail as to how desires cause suffering such as mentioning indulging too much on foods because it leads to pain that one might not be able to afford such delicacies in the future. The idea of short term happiness doesn't bring long term happiness.

He did believe that some pleasure is important, which has led some to believe he was a hedonist but he was more of a believer in the middle path of moderation. True he was no Buddhist monk following every precept. However, most argue that his ultimate definition of pleasure was actually tranquility, which is more akin to the Buddhist definition of enlightenment. This is because tranquility is defined as a state, which is free from stress and emotion; an untroubled state free from disturbances; a peaceful state. Enlightenment being (using a very basic definition) a nirvanic state of being freed from desire (emotions) and suffering (stress).

Epicureanism was often seen in ancient Greece as being a godless philosophy but while Epicurus denied being godless he also believed that if there were any gods that they most likely were ambivilant at best toward human beings. Thus they would not pursue punishing or rewarding us in this or any other life. In other words the idea being that a belief in a god or gods isn't important to man's day to day actions. In comparison Buddhists also usually do not concern themselves with a god as it is seen as irrelevant to realizing that the human condition is repleat with suffering and that praying to a god does not end our suffering. When we are honest with ourselves we realize that we are the only ones who can end our suffering.

Some Buddhists believe that there are gods living in a god realm but that they are like the gods of Epicureanism where they do not have power over human beings. These gods in Buddhism are subject to the same suffering as we human beings. According to these Buddhists being a god is a distraction where one is more concerned with pleasure and self adoration than certainly concerning oneself with human beings, meditation and over-coming the cycle of suffering. The problem is that even for these gods their pleasures and good karma run out eventually.

Epicureanism certainly does not mesh with Buddhism completely but Epicurus did teach many similar ideas. I wanted to do this post because I enjoy discovering how western and eastern philosophy and thought can be connected. We focus too often on how different we are and sometimes I wonder if that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The connections and shared ideals are there if we really want to see them and embrace each others cultures.

~Peace to all beings~

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Uku said...

The connections and shared ideals are there if we really want to see them and embrace each others cultures.


EZG said...

You're always a good read, James.

Shunyavadin said...

The connection between ancient Greek and Indian thought is real. There were ancient Greek kingdoms in parts of Afganistan, Pakistan and India.
For example: the King Milinda in the famous Buddhist sutra Milindapañhā is thought to be the Indo-Greek king Menander who ruled Bactria (in northern India and Pakistan) from approx. 155 BC to 130 BC.

It could also be a coincidence, but Pythagoras of Samos the mathematician and philosopher shared similar ideas to Hindu Brahmanism. He beleived in reincarnation, apeiron -'the boundless' a kind of impersonal 'super-soul' like the Hindu Brahma, and he also promoted a violence-free lifestyle which included vegetarianism.

I do have to say that out of all the Greek philosophers I've read about Epicurus would have to be my favourite. It's unfortunate that he has been much maligned over the years to the extent that "Epicureanism" is now cognate with "indulgence" when "prudence" would best describe it.

Great post once again James!

They call him James Ure said...


There is so much wisdom, compassion and peace when we realize that we are all one.


Thanks my man. I'm glad that people find my ramblings interesting. :)


Great comment and excellent points. I was just watching a program on the History Channel here in America about the Bactrian civilization.

It was fascinating to see the artifacts found in the area from the Greek influence. It was mostly about the famous Bactrian gold, which somehow has survived all these years as a national treasure of Afghanistan. I would say that Epicurus is my favorite too.

forest wisdom said...

Excellent and informative post. I love that you attempt to find these connections. I commend you.

Modern Girl said...

I love the quote at the beginning. I think it really sums up a lot of the questions currently being asked around the globe.

However, I am unsure if a God who is able but not willing would be malevolent. If that God is not causing the problems, and is instead standing back, perhaps that God is just indifferent?

Why must a God be either benevolent or malevolent? Why couldn't a God being a neutral force?

Barry said...

Thanks for the fascinating post, James. I wrote my master's thesis on the "Problem of Evil" (how could an all-compassionate, all-knowing, all-powerful deity co-exist with evil?) so you had me from the first paragraph.

While Epicurus thought that events are based on the motions of atoms, Buddhists generally teach that events arise from intentions/thoughts/desires.

From an intention, we make the whole world.

Epicurus did mirror or reflect Buddhist teaching in uncanny ways. It's not impossible that he had some interaction with Buddhist missionaries to the Eastern Mediterranean, although he died just before the well-documented missions sent by Ashoka. It would be a curious thing, wouldn't it?

Thanks again,

Riverwolf, said...

I, too, always enjoy making connections. Some principles of modern shamanism echo this idea of interconnectedness and . Essentially, the world is what you think it is.

As Barry said, "from an intention, we make the whole world."

Simmie said...

James, your quote from Epicurus is a good overview of the problem of theodicy. And now for a radically different perspective - Friedrich Nietzsche, in Thus Spake Zarathustra (p. 331, tr. Hollingdale), writes:

"Did you ever say Yes to one joy? O my friends, then you said Yes to all woe as well. All things are chained and entwined together, all things are in love; if ever you wanted one moment twice, if ever you said: 'You please me, happiness, instant, moment!' then you wanted everything to return! you wanted everything anew, everything eternal, everything chained, everything together, everything in love, O that is how you loved the world, you everlasting men, loved it eternally and for all time: and you say even to woe: 'Go, but return!'"

I think, examining Nietzsche shows that the really interesting problem of 'theodicy', is not so much God cannot be good, but rather how we cannot -- everything we want, even the good things, is inherently and inescapably dependent on the existence of evil. If there was a God, even an omnipotent God, I think it is wrong to expect it to make the world good, when goodness by its very nature, God or no God, cannot exist without evil. The real error of the Christian, is not in supposing that an all-powerful God cannot be in some sense 'good', but in supposing that even an all-powerful God could escape our own wickedness.

It is interesting to compare Nietzsche's approach to Buddhism. Is not "All things are chained and entwined together, all things are in love", an apt description of Karma? And, is not the idea, that there is no joy without suffering, no happiness without sadness, no pleasure without pain, in essence the First Noble Truth of Dukkha? And can we see the Second Noble Truth of Samudaya, in Nietzsche's insight that in desiring happiness, pleasure, beauty, good, we inevitably desire sadness, pain, ugliness and evil as well. So, the solution seems to be, the Third Noble Truth of Nirodha, that to escape that which we do not want, we must give up wanting that which we want.

Nietzsche's solution is different -- rather than giving up good as the cost of avoiding evil, giving up avoiding evil as the cost of having the good instead. [Which is not to say that we don't try to avoid evil as much as we can -- just accept that our ability to do so is limited by our very desire for the good.] But, is Nietzsche's solution inherently opposed to Buddhism? If we take Theravada as our standard of Buddhism, then to me it certainly seems so; but if we take Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana) as our standard instead, I am not so sure... I feel, Buddhist Tantra, as a path willing to accept desire and pleasure as a part of the path to Enlightenment, rather than a mere fetter, is more in line with Nietzsche's approach..

Peace, Simmie

They call him James Ure said...

Forest Wisdom:

Thank-you. I enjoy seeing the Dharma in everything.

Modern Girl:

You're right. I don't think that a "God" would have to be malevolent. Indifferent is a good middle way of understanding. Thanks for raising that point.


I'm glad that you liked the topic. Yeah I really enjoy looking at how the ancients might have interacted. I think that there was more of an exchange of ideas between east and west then some think.

And I like how you said that from intention we make the whole world. Very cool way of saying it.


Absolutely there are connections with shamanism. The shamans are so in touch with all that exists that they deeply understand how all is so fragile and dependent upon everything else.

I have much respect for shamanism and incorporate some of it in my spiritual journey.


I'm not too up on Nietzsche but I think I'm going to read more of his works. He sounds very much of similar thinking to Buddhist thought from what you said.

And I really liked this part of your comment:

Is not "All things are chained and entwined together, all things are in love", an apt description of Karma?

Andrew Douglas Green said...

Why did you choose Zen Buddhism over other practices like SGI's Nichiren version?

elaine said...


I just stumbled upon your blog today. It has lots of good info, keep writing! :-)

They call him James Ure said...

Thank-you Elaine.

xinuflux said...

It's interesting to hear the quote read aloud:

They call him James Ure said...


Zen just really fits for me. I like the stripped down nature of it.

Don Fox said...

That comment says it all, in a way. The Epicurean approach does not sound the call for compassion as much as Buddhism does. To me it seems like the difference between living and flourishing. It all depends on the interpretation and reality of karma. If we all help one another, perhaps we can raise the happiness bar. And unless the belief that by helping others we help ourselves is put into action, not much will happen. As Marshall McLuhan said, "When all is said and done, more is said than done." so let's get on with the good stuff.

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