Epicurus and Buddha: A Comparison

Glenn Russell

It is a great tragedy all the many books written by Epicurus have been lost to us. We know Epicurus wrote many books and we know the titles of these books since they are listed by Diogenes Laertius, the great 3rd century biographer of the Greek philosophers. Of the books of Epicurus that Diogenes Laertius lists, the three books I really wish survived are: 1) Of Love 2) Of Music and 3) Symposium.

I am struck with the many similarities in the life, approach and philosophy between Epicurus and the historical Buddha. For example:

• Both studied with teachers and the teachings within their respective traditions before rejecting those teachings and striking out on their own, developing their own unique philosophy;
• Both examined their own direct experience in the world to understand the nature of human life;
• Both insisted on facing the inevitability of one’s own death directly and with courage;
• Both developed a series of principles to be memorized, internalized and lived by;
• Both encouraged their followers to practice in separate communities of like-minded seekers and at a remove from frenetic public life;
• Both highly valued a clear-headed understanding of the nature of desire and how desire is the root of suffering;
• Both outlined rules regarding the intake of food and drink as well as one’s attitude toward food and drink;
• Both encouraged their followers to adhere to specific principles to transcend suffering and reach a state of tranquil abiding;
• Both took on a God-like status with their followers.

Sidebar: I have not read of any philosopher or scholar who has noted the similarities between Epicurus and Gautama Buddha. If anybody has come across any writing on the subject, please let me know.

As a way of encouraging a study of Epicurus, the following is my commentary on the first five of his Principal Doctrines (Diogenes Laertius lists the 40 Principal Doctrines in his narrative biography of Epicurus):

1. A blessed and indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for all such things imply weakness.

A perfect being is too pure, too blissful to feel in a limited human or earthly way. If you had the misfortune of being raised in a religion where children are told to fear an angry, jealous God, than this is something you must outgrow if you want to live at ease as an Epicurean. Perhaps a good first step is to simply realize such a religion is one of thousands of religions throughout human prehistory and history, and many religions view God in ways other than fear. Another suggestion would be to seek out like-minded friends where you can talk through emotional issues caused by religious teachings. Since emotions and memory are so much part of our physical body, start to exercise in ways that you enjoy and find relaxing – yoga, dance, jogging or walking. Appreciate the fact that you are a sensitive, aesthetic embodied being. Live in joy, joy as an ongoing experience. There is nothing more pleasurable than a life lived in joy.

2. Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us.

Do you get the willies when something reminds you of death? When somebody talks about death, do you feel like jumping up and running out of the room in a panic? If so, then you don’t need a doctor, you need an Epicurean philosopher. The first thing is to realize death is a complete dissolution where you experience no sensation, not even the tiniest pressure on your skin. According to Epicurus, death is a complete blank – no forms, no awareness, no sensation. In a very real sense, in a way we have this experience every night when we enter the deep sleep state. Of course, we wake up from our night’s sleep but, even still, there is that ‘blank’ aspect of sleep. So, please see death as a close cousin to sleep. You don’t have anxiety or misgivings about entering a deep, dreamless sleep, so you shouldn’t be bothered by the idea of death. To put not only your mind, but also your body in harmony with this view of death, it would be wise to practice meditation or the practice of sleep done by the yogis of India, which is called yoga nidra — very restful, very calming, giving you a deep acceptance of who you are and your own mortality. With even a small amount of practice, you will develop a deeper experience of tranquility and live with less agitation and nervousness.

3. The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.

The key is appreciating who we are and where we are. Easy to say and not so easy to do, since as humans we tend to be uncontrollable in our desires. Even when we are healthy and free of both physical and mental pain, we tend to always want more. The sickness of desire – more, more, more. Enough is never enough for the unwise man or woman. If we are not experiencing physical pain or mental pain, which is the vast majority of the time, we should enjoy and value the pleasures life affords. If you cannot enjoy the simple pleasure of taking a deep breath or the taste of your morning coffee or listening to the birds sing or the sight of trees turning in fall, you are missing the natural rhythms of being alive. In a very real sense, all we have is the present moment – relax and enjoy; be thankful you don’t have a tooth ache or a pounding head ache or a sprained ankle or the memory of being held captive in a prison camp. To bring yourself to a richer appreciation of the moment, take up an enjoyable exercise, which can be as simple as a morning walk. Clear your head of chatter, focus on your kinesthetic sixth sense, that is, being mindful of your body moving in space. If you need help with developing this awareness, try the Alexander Technique or a comparable method. If you want a good practice for the mind – start by committing to memory these forty Principal Doctrines of Epicurus. There is so much pleasure available having our five senses and our body. It is simply a matter of developing the habit of wakefulness.

4. Continuous bodily pain does not last long; instead, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which slightly exceeds bodily pleasure does not last for many days at once. Diseases of long duration allow an excess of bodily pleasure over pain.

Unlike ancient times, our modern world has a sophisticated medical industry with its thousand and one ways to perform operations and provide treatments to keep people alive who otherwise would be pushing up daisies. Thus, in a very real sense, we have more possibilities for pain. However, our modern world has a sophisticated pharmacological industry with its thousand and one ways to kill pain. It is something of a trade-off, but on the whole, we deal with less pain than people in ancient times. However, one thing remains the same: the ancients feared pain, and we in the modern world fear pain. Pain has been and will continue to be a very real part of life. But, does that mean we have to live in fear of future physical pain? Epicurus says `no’, and for good reason. Our fear of what could happen takes us out of the pleasures we can have right here and now. Nothing spoils our tranquility more than being anxious, continually worrying, fretting and fidgeting over the future. Do you have nervous habits – wringing of hands, fidgeting with a pen, tapping your foot, pacing back and forth? If so, time to take a deep breath and think things through with Epicurus. You have dealt with pain up to this point in your life and you can deal with any future pain even more effectively now that you are committed and dedicated to philosophy. Ups and downs, pleasure and pain are part of nature; fortunately for us, there is a lot more pleasure than pain. Are you experiencing physical pain right now? Probably not. Relax and sink deeper into the pleasure of what is happening in and around you. The richness of physical pleasure through our senses and mental pleasure by using our mind philosophically are very rich indeed, an endless ocean of rich experience. All we need do is become more attentive to the present and not allow ourselves to be pulled out of our on-going pleasure by fear of future pain.

5. It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.

Living pleasantly for Epicurus is living without agitation, anxiety, and fear, being comfortable and confident with who we are, far removed from even a trace of being sexually twisted or repressed or violent or greedy for such things as wealth, fame, status, and political advantage . Without being burdened by these negativites and hankerings, we are free to think in a calm and clear way. Rather than reacting in knee-jerk fashion, we interact and respond sensitively to others and the world around us. What is the natural result of living such a life of Epicurean philosophy? A life lived wisely and honorably and justly, where we are seen by others as we are in fact – kind, courteous, honest, considerate and full of good will. A life lived wisely, honorably, justly, and pleasantly are of one piece. Remove any one of these four qualities in us and our lives can quickly spin into a nail-biting, tension-riddled mess. Much better to stay with Epicurus in his garden and relax into the life we were meant by nature to lead. And remember, always mean what you say and say what you mean. A kind and gentle man or woman has no place for being snide or sarcastic or lashing out with a sharp tongue. We degrade ourselves when we are condescending, coarse, crude or mean-spirited.


  1. Most people are plebs and plebs are not philosophical. If you want to maintain morality, use the Koran which has helpful rules that the plebs will understand and the patricians can enforce.

    • If Islam is so wonderful, have you ever considered taking this text re women as a guide for your own behaviour?

      “/And abide quietly in your homes, and do not flaunt your charms as they used to flaunt them in the old days of pagan ignorance; and be constant in prayer, and render the purifying dues, and pay heed unto Allah and His Messenger: for Allah only wants to remove from you all that might be loathsome, O you members of the [Prophet’s] household, and to purify you to utmost purity/.” [33:33]

  2. Epicurus was influenced by Democritus and Democritus might be influenced by Jainism. It is believed that he traveled to India via Egypt and returned through Persia. India had trade and commerce relationship with Egypt and Sumer/Assyria/Babylonia since time immemorial. No wonder, Pythagoras/Herodotus/ Democritus might had traveled to India along with the sea merchants. Any way, Atomism has Indian origin. http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_atomism.html. The famous Epicurean paradox resembles that of Buddhst Jataka story. In Bhuridatta Jatak, Boddhisattava raises similar type of questions against the Creator Brahma, Brahmanism (caste system and Sacrifice) and the Vedas: I am going to paste over here.

    “These Veda studies are the wise man’s toils,
    The lure which tempts the victims whom he spoils;
    A mirage formed to catch the careless eye,
    But which the prudent passes safely by.
    The Vedas have no hidden power to save
    The traitor or the coward or the knave;
    The fire, though tended well for long years past,
    Leaves his base master without hope at last.
    Though all earth’s trees in one vast heap were piled
    To satisfy the fire’s insatiate child,
    Still would it crave for more, insatiate still,—
    How could a Nāga hope that maw to fill?
    Milk ever changes,—thus where milk has been
    Butter and curds in natural course are seen;
    And the same thirst for change pervades the fire,
    Once stirred to life it mounts still higher and higher.
    Fire bursts not forth in wood that ‘s dry or new,
    Fire needs an effort ere it leaps to view;
    If dry fresh timber of itself could burn,
    Spontaneous would each forest blaze in turn.
    If he wins merit who to feed the flame
    Piles wood and straw, the merit is the same
    When cooks light fires or blacksmiths at their trade
    Or those who burn the corpses of the dead.
    But none, however zealously he prays
    Or heaps the fuel round to feed the blaze,
    Gains any merit by his mummeries,—
    The fire for all its crest of smoke soon dies.
    Were Fire the honoured being that you think,
    Would it thus dwell with refuse and with stink,
    Feeding on carrion with a foul delight,
    Where men in horror hasten from the sight?
    Some worship as a god the crested flame,
    Barbarians give to water that high name;
    But both alike have wandered from their road:
    Neither is worthy to be called a god.
    To worship fire, the common drudge of all,
    Senseless and blind and deaf to every call,
    And then one’s self to live a life of sin,—
    How could one dream that this a heaven could win?
    These Brahmins all a livelihood require,
    And so they tell us Brahma worships fire;
    Why should the increate who all things planned
    Worship himself the creature of his hand?
    Doctrines and rules of their own, absurd and vain,
    Our sires imagined wealth and power to gain;
    “Brahmins he made for study, for command
    He made the Khattiyas; Vessas plough the land;
    Suddas he servants made to obey the rest;
    Thus from the first went forth his high behest 1.”
    [208] We see these rules enforced before our eyes,
    None but the Brahmins offer sacrifice,
    None but the Khattiya exercises sway,
    The Vessas plough, the Suddas must obey.
    These greedy liars propagate deceit,
    And fools believe the fictions they repeat;
    He who has eyes can see the sickening sight;
    Why does not Brahma set his creatures right?
    If his wide power no limits can restrain,
    Why is his hand so rarely spread to bless?
    Why are his creatures all condemned to pain?
    Why does he not to all give happiness?
    Why do fraud, lies, and ignorance prevail?
    Why triumphs falsehood,—truth and justice fail?
    I count your Brahma one th’ injust among,
    Who made a world in which to shelter wrong.
    Those men are counted pure who only kill
    Frogs, worms, bees, snakes or insects as they will,—
    These are your savage customs which I hate,—
    Such as Kamboja 2 hordes might emulate.
    If he who kills is counted innocent
    And if the victim safe to heaven is sent,
    Let Brahmins Brahmins kill—so all were well—
    And those who listen to the words they tell.
    We see no cattle asking to be slain
    That they a new and better life may gain,—
    Rather they go unwilling to their death
    And in vain struggles yield their latest breath.
    To veil the post, the victim and the blow
    The Brahmins let their choicest rhetoric flow;
    “The post shall as a cow of plenty be
    Securing all thy heart’s desires to thee”;
    But if the wood thus round the victim spread
    Had been as full of treasure as they said,
    As full of silver, gold and gems for us,
    With heaven’s unknown delights as overplus,
    They would have offered for themselves alone
    And kept the rich reversion as their own.
    These cruel cheats, as ignorant as vile,
    Weave their long frauds the simple to beguile,
    “Offer thy wealth, cut nails and beard and hair,
    And thou shalt have thy bosom’s fondest prayer.”
    The offerer, simple to their hearts’ content,
    Comes with his purse, they gather round him fast,
    Like crows around an owl, on mischief bent,
    And leave him bankrupt and stripped bare at last,
    The solid coin which he erewhile possessed,
    Exchanged for promises which none can test.
    Like grasping strangers 1sent by those who reign
    The cultivators’ earnings to distrain,
    These rob where’er they prowl with evil eye,—
    No law condemns them, yet they ought to die.
    The priests a shoot of Butea must hold
    As part o’ the rite sacred from days of old;
    Indra’s right arm ’tis called; but were it so,
    Would Indra triumph o’er his demon foe?
    Indra’s own arm can give him better aid,
    ’Twas no vain sham which made hell’s hosts afraid.
    “Each mountain-range which now some kingdom guards
    Was once a heap in ancient altar-yards,
    And pious worshippers with patient hands
    Piled up the mound at some great lord’s commands.”
    So Brahmins say,—fie on the idle boast,
    Mountains are heaved aloft at other cost;
    And the brick mound, search as you may, contains
    No veins of iron for tile miner’s pains.
    A holy seer well known in ancient days,
    On the seashore was praying, legend says;
    There was he drowned and since this fate befell
    The ocean’s waves have been undrinkable.
    Rivers have drowned their learned men at will
    By hundreds and have kept their waters still;
    Their streams flow on and never taste the worse,
    Why should the sea alone incur the curse?
    And the salt-streams which run upon the land
    Spring from no curse but own the digger’s hand.
    At first there were no women and no men;
    ’Twas mind first brought mankind to light,—and then,
    Though they all started equal in the race,
    Their various failures made them soon change place;
    It was no lack of merit in the past,
    But present faults which made them first or last.
    A clever low-caste lad would use his wit,
    And read the hymns nor find his head-piece split;
    The Brahmins made the Vedas to their cost
    When others gained the knowledge which they lost.
    Thus sentences are made and learned by rote
    In metric forms not easily forgot,—
    The obscurity but tempts the foolish mind,
    They swallow all they’re told with impulse blind.
    Brahmins are not like violent beasts of prey,
    No tigers, lions of the woods are they;
    They are to cows and oxen near akin,
    Differing outside they are as dull within.
    If the victorious king would cease to fight
    And live in peace with his friends and follow right,
    Conquering those passions which his bosom rend,
    What happy lives would all his subjects spend!
    The Brahmin’s Veda, Khattiya’s policy,
    Both arbitrary and delusive be,
    They blindly grope their way along a road
    By some huge inundation overflowed.
    In Brahmin’s Veda, Khattiya’s policy,
    One secret meaning we alike can see;
    For after all, loss, gain and glory, and shame
    Touch the four castes alike, to all the same.
    As householders to gain a livelihood
    Count all pursuits legitimate and good,
    So Brahmins now in our degenerate day
    Will gain a livelihood in any way.
    The householder is led by love of gain,
    Blindly he follows, dragged in pleasure’s train,
    Trying all trades, deceitful and a fool,
    Fallen alas! how far from wisdom’s rule.”


  3. One of the major differences between Buddhism and Epicureanism is that the latter one accepts only a material interpretation of the life, world, etc (see the connection between the physics of Epicurus and Democritus) while Buddha rejected materialism (see the Sāmaññaphala Sutta and the rejection of Ajita Kesakambali views by Buddha). Anyway, there is no doubt that there is a stretch connection between Buddha´s and Epicurus´ ethics.

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