Preface

What if we could use the power of Shakespeare’s poetry to illustrate certain aspects of the dharma? By the dharma I mean the universal truth about the nature of everything as taught by the Buddha. The prospect is both intriguing and daunting: intriguing to think that some of the greatest poetry in the English language might be used to illustrate the transcendent truths taught by the Buddha, and daunting because the dharma is so vast and profound. With my limited understanding of  points common to most Buddhist traditions, I have tried to identify Buddhist teachings that might be easily related to Shakespeare’s works and passages from Shakespeare’s works that might be easily related to Buddhism. This amounts to a fraction of Shakespeare and a fraction of Buddhism, so perhaps my title, The Dharma According to Shakespeare,is too ambitious. A Few Aspects of The Dharma According to Certain Passages from Shakespeare would be a more realistic if rather cumbersome title.

But setting reality aside for the moment, let us imagine that we could bring the Buddha and Shakespeare together at a table in our favorite cafe. In preparation for the meeting the Buddha would have read most of the plays and several of the sonnets, and Shakespeare would have read The Dhammapada, three or four of the sutras, and a life of the Buddha. Wouldn’t it be nice to think of them, after the initial introduction and awkward silence, engaged in a lively conversation, with searching questions, well-considered answers, moments of puzzlement, and thoughtful pauses, punctuated by the occasional nod of agreement? I won’t try to imagine the details of such a conversation but like to think it would touch on some of the points covered in the following chapters.

Introduction

Why the Dharma According to Shakespeare?

In September of 2005 I returned to Washington D.C. from a two-week Buddhist meditation retreat in a mountainous part of the Occitan region of France. Our meditation sessions were held in a huge canvas tent, with sides drawn up to let in the summer breeze. There several hundred of us practiced taming the mind by sitting in meditation posture while focusing our awareness first on the breath, then on a mantra, then on an image of the Buddha, and finally on awareness of awareness itself. Each session began and ended with a prayer for the benefit of all beings. The two weeks of practice had given me a taste of a more settled and expansive state of mind that might be developed through regular practice. But as much as I valued the experience and hoped to build on it, I felt the pull of worldly distractions and was glad to be home.

Looking at my calendar I saw that one of the first distractions on my schedule was Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre. On the evening of the day after my return I still needed to sleep off jet lag, but tickets were not to be wasted, so I made my way to the theatre. Soon all traces of jet lag vanished as I was transfixed by the thoroughly absorbing performances of Avery Brooks as Othello and Patrick Page as Iago. Three hours later, after all of the scheming, deception and manipulation, after all of the mental anguish, madness and killing, and after all of the building tension and catastrophe, I gazed at the bodies of Desdemona, Emilia, and Othello lying on the stage. The emotions of pity and terror that were aroused in me had been purged, and as I left the theatre and walked in the soft September rain to the Metro station, I experienced a calm and settled state of mind that reminded me a little of the state of mind experienced in meditation.

In the days that followed I thought of the Elizabethan writer working amid the noise and commotion of a large and dirty city on a rainy northern island and of the Buddha living six centuries before the birth of Christ in a tropical land of lush forests redolent of sandalwood and inhabited by elephants, tigers, and monkeys. I had found each in their different way to be a source of wisdom and transformation and wondered if any parallels or instructive connections might be drawn between the works of England’s greatest playwright and the teachings of the Buddha.

Try as I might I could not come up with much. It was as if the Buddha and Shakespeare lived on different planets. Buddhism, on the one hand, is concerned with overcoming the ego and transcending the cycle of birth and death by doing no harm, taming the mind, and benefiting others. Shakespeare’s plays and poems, on the other hand, are largely concerned with worldly preoccupations, including romantic love, sex, war, royal power, betrayal, jealousy, murder, and revenge. The lack of common ground should not have come as a surprise. Drama is after all based on tension within and between ego-centered individuals with negative emotions and conflicting desires. These essential ingredients of drama are the very things that the Buddha taught his followers to overcome.

My search for connections between the works of Shakespeare and the teachings of the Buddha was at a standstill, and a great chasm loomed before me: the chasm of historical, cultural, and religious differences between Elizabethan England and India at the time of the Buddha, a chasm that I could scarcely fathom and could not hope to bridge. Sensing that the task was hopeless, I gave up. If there were parallels or instructive connections between such disparate realms, I was not the one to find them. But no sooner did I let go of my search for connections between the Buddha and Shakespeare than connections began to appear. Now that I was no longer trying, it occurred to me that:

  • They both appreciated the power of thoughts and the need to control them;
  • They were both concerned with suffering and the causes of suffering;
  • They both celebrated qualities that counter suffering, including love, compassion, joy at others’ good fortune, equanimity, forgiveness, renunciation, and contentment;
  • They were both concerned with impermanence and death;
  • They both testified to the illusory nature of existence; and
  • They both realized that the aspects of personal identity to which we cling have no enduring reality.

As the fog lifted I began to find in Shakespeare’s works passages and dramatic situations that richly illustrate some of the Buddha’s central teachings. But how could this be? Shakespeare, on his rainy northern island, could have known nothing about the teachings of the Buddha. Knowledge of Buddhism disappeared from Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire and would not begin to return until after Shakespeare’s lifetime. Believers in rebirth might try to get around this by speculating that Shakespeare was a bodhisattva, a realized being who chose to be reborn in Elizabethan England to spread the Buddhist Dharma in a new form to new audiences. Intriguing as such speculation about Shakespeare’s former lives might be, we do not have to believe that he was a reborn bodhisattva in order to understand how his works might sometimes resonate with the teachings of the Buddha. We have only to appreciate the universality of a playwright whose works have been translated into 80 languages and remained in continuous production for over 400 years.

 

Shakespeare’s Vast Perspective

As Shakespeare’s friend and fellow playwright, Ben Jonson, wrote in the preface to the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, “He was not of an age, but for all time.”[i] The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that he “shakes off the iron bondage of space and time”[ii] to produce plays and poems “out of the unfathomable depths of his own oceanic mind.”[iii]

Out of his oceanic mind Shakespeare brings forth human experience in all its depth and complexity. His characters represent all walks of life, from exalted rulers to thieves and drunkards. He shows us every feeling known to humankind, including love, compassion, joy, sadness, grief, hatred, pride, jealousy, remorse and fear. He takes us inside the minds of lovers, deposed monarchs, jealous husbands, mistreated fathers, grieving parents, and serial killers. He places his characters in extreme situations that test the limits of the human spirit and take some to the brink of madness and beyond. His settings include royal courts, taverns, battlefields, bone-strewn gravesites, blasted heaths, enchanted islands, and fairy haunted forests. His works embrace the natural and the supernatural, the benevolent and the malign, the innocence of childhood and the experience of old age. As Goethe wrote, “whatever can be known of the heart of man may be found in his plays.”

As Jonson and Coleridge observed, Shakespeare’s works transcend his time. In several of his sonnets, including Sonnet 55, Shakespeare announces his intention to do no less:

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme . . .
Your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.

He intends for his poems to last not just for a long time, but “to the ending doom.” He has similar aspirations for his plays. After Julius Caesar is killed, Cassius asks:

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown! (III.i.124-126)

Shakespeare’s own vision is at least as farseeing as that which he attributes to Cassius. He transcends the limits of his own time and place to write for audiences that will encounter his works in the distant future, “in states unborn and accents yet unknown.” He writes for us and for the millions of others who have experienced his works over the last 400 years and for those who will experience them from now until “the ending doom.”

Shakespeare’s boundless vision brings everyone into his audience. His vision is vast, as is that of the Buddha and his followers. They envision the end of suffering and the ultimate enlightenment of all beings. Two such universal visions cannot be mutually exclusive, and any correspondences between them should be well worth exploring.

NOTES

[i]Jonson, Ben. To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, Poetry Foundation, 2016 (07/19/2016) http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and- poets/poems/detail/44466

[ii]Foakes, R.A., Coleridge on Shakespeare: The Text of the Lectures of 1811-12. (London & New York: Routledge, 2013), 166.

[iii]Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, The Table Talk and Omniana of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (London: George Bell and Sons, 1884), 278.

1: Mind

 

Mindfulness

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, “mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.”[1] It is often cultivated through meditation but can be practiced in any situation. The Buddha taught mindfulness and praised the mindful observer in the following verse:

Mindful among the mindless, awake while others dream, swift as the racehorse he outstrips the field,  by watching.[2]

The alternative to mindfulness is to be so preoccupied with thoughts and emotions, (including, memories, plans, hopes, fears, resentments, and worries) that we barely notice what is going on around us or within us. The problem is not with the thoughts and emotions themselves, which are unavoidable. The problem is with our tendency to let them take over our minds, with each thought leading to the next, in a continual cascade of distraction. When we are distracted in this way, we are said to under the control of a “monkey mind” that keeps jumping from one thought or emotion to another.

Shakespeare must have had his own thoughts and emotions to contend with, but they didn’t prevent him from creating a body of work grounded in mindful observation of his natural surroundings, outward human behavior, and interior mental states. Attention to natural surroundings would have come early, as young Shakespeare walked the fields and forests around Stratford, closely observing the shapes, colors, movements, sounds, and smells of the rural countryside. The impressions made on his mind remained with him years later when he sat down to write poems and plays that contain 57 species of birds and 180 flowers, trees, fruits, and vegetables, along with memorable descriptions of weather and landscape.

To give an example, in Hamlet Queen Gertrude begins her report of the drowning of Ophelia with the following description.

There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream. (IV.vii.190-191)

The essayist, William Hazlitt, has observed that:

The leaves of the willow are, in fact, white underneath, and it is this part of them which would appear “hoary” in the reflection of the brook.

Details such as the white undersides of willow leaves reflected in a brook bring nature convincingly to life. Only a mindful observer of nature would notice such details, remember them, and turn them into poetry.

We can also picture Shakespeare in the marketplace, tavern, or theatre as he attends to the expressions and conversations of  the people around him, soaking up their personal quirks, idiosyncrasies, and manners of speech. His observation of human behavior has given us: the dissolute, but lovable old reprobate, Falstaff; the prattling Nurse of Romeo and Juliet; the vain and puritanical Malvolio of Twelfth Night; and the officious, meddlesome, and garrulous Polonius of Hamlet. In character after character Shakespeare gives us personalities that are as vivid and convincingly real as the people we know.

In the following lines from Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare has Ulysses praise the very quality of mindfulness, the “watchful state,” that the Buddha praises and that the playwright exemplifies:

The providence that’s in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Plotus’ gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deep… (III.iii.205-207)

The watchful state misses very little. Nothing is too minute or too vast for it. It discerns each particle of the gold of Plotus, the Greek god of wealth. It penetrates to the depths of the ocean and to the depths of the mind.

 

Taming the Mind

From such a “watchful state” Shakespeare excels not only at depicting nature and outward human behavior, but more importantly, at depicting interior mental states, the thoughts and emotions that will control us if we do not learn to tame them. As the Buddha taught:

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.[3]

Hamlet testifies to the power of the mind to shape our experience when he tells his visiting fellow students, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

For there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. (II.ii.268-269)

And:

I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. (II.ii.273-275)

Hamlet’s bad dreams arise from a mind that is not yet fully tamed. Buddhist teachers sometimes liken an untamed mind to a glass of muddy water and a tamed mind to a glass in which the mud has settled to the bottom and the water is clear. Shakespeare hits upon a strikingly similar analogy in Troilus and Cressida when he has Achilles say that:

My mind is troubled like a fountain stirred,                                             And I myself and I myself see not the bottom of it. (III.iii.308-309)

Most of us rarely see to the bottom of our minds, so much are they stirred by a continual cascade of distracting thoughts and emotions. But meditators can learn to tame their “monkey minds” by watching thoughts and emotions as they arise, noting them without attachment or aversion, and letting them pass. A variety of meditation techniques can be used, such as returning the attention to the breath each time a thought or emotion arises. In this way mental states are mastered before they can take over and lead to harmful actions. Especially dangerous are negative emotions, such jealousy, anger, and avarice. If we habitually fall under the control of such mental states, we will be sure to regret it. As the Buddha teaches:

Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.[4]

Shakespeare’s plays amply illustrate the truth of this teaching. Consider the case of Othello. At the opening of the play he has just married Desdemona. While Desdemona’s father levels accusations of witchcraft at him, the state sides with Othello and sends him to defend Cyprus from a Turkish fleet. By the time he reaches Cyprus the Turks have been destroyed in a storm, and his bride has arrived to join him. But just as things seem to be going as well as possible for the all-sufficient Moor, the malevolent ensign, Iago, plants in his mind the false notion that Desdemona is cheating on him with Lieutenant Cassio. The state of the Moor’s mind goes rapidly downhill as the scheming Iago spins a web of circumstantial evidence that makes it appear more and more likely that Desdemona has been unfaithful.

Even as Othello writhes in agony under the spell of “the green eyed monster,” jealousy, he knows it is his mind and not outer circumstances that causes his suffering:

What sense had I of her stol’n hours of lust?
I saw’t not, thought it not, it harm’d not me:
I slept the next night well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips:
He that is robb’d, not wanting what is stol’n,
Let him not know’t, and he’s not robb’d at all… (III.iii.389-395)

I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, forever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content! (III.iii.397-400)

Manipulated by Iago and unable to control the thoughts that are tormenting him, Othello suffocates his guiltless wife and then learns of her innocence. Looking on her body he laments:

Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulfur,
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire! (V.ii.330-331)

If ever a living character could be said to suffer the pains of hell it is Othello, who ends by stabbing himself to death.

Then there is King Lear, who plans to enjoy a happy retirement from the stresses of monarchy after dividing his kingdom among three daughters. His plan gets off to a bad start when he asks his daughters, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most.” Two wicked and insincere daughters, Goneril and Regan, make elaborate protestations of love, while his youngest child, Cordelia, simply says that she loves him according to her bond as a daughter. At this the disappointed Lear allows anger to take over. In a rage he banishes Cordelia, along with his loyal servant, Kent. Lear realizes his mistake when the wicked daughters, having gained power, begin to treat him slightingly, take away his retinue, and leave him out in a terrible storm. Like Othello, Lear knows that his suffering is of the mind and that it is worse than any physical suffering:

Thou think’st ’tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin: so ’tis to thee;
But where the greater malady is fix’d,
The lesser is scarce felt. Thou’ldst shun a bear;
But if thy flight lay toward the raging sea,
Thou’ldst meet the bear i’ the mouth. When the mind’s free,
The body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude! (III.iv.6-14)

Lear’s mental suffering continues long after the outward storm abates. When Cordelia returns and takes him into her care, he wakes to say:

Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead. (IV.vii.46-48)

Lear’s mind, deluded by many years of deference and flattery, is unprepared for the consequences of his foolish action. Under the weight of suffering too great for him to bear, he descends into madness.

Finally, there is Macbeth. Fresh from victory in battle Macbeth meets three witches who tell him that he shall be “king hereafter.” Tantalized by the prospect of royal power, Macbeth conceives a plot to kill King Duncan and seize the crown. Upon returning home he thinks better of it, but Lady Macbeth spurs him on. After murdering the visiting Duncan and claiming the crown, he commits more murders in order to consolidate his position and then suffers the mental consequences of his actions:

O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife! (III.ii.41)

Lady Macbeth’s mind is also in turmoil as she relives the murder of King Duncan while walking in her sleep and trying to wash imagined blood from her hands. A doctor is summoned and Macbeth asks:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart? (V.iii.50-55)

The doctor replies:

Therein the patient
Must minister to himself. (V.iii.56-57)

And Macbeth responds:

Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it. (V.iii.58)

He fails to understand that we must take care of our own minds. No doctor can do it for us. Lady Macbeth soon commits suicide, and Macbeth is left to brood on the utter futility of his existence until Macduff arrives with an avenging army to kill him.

Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth each fail to control their thoughts and are soon overcome by destructive emotions that cause enormous suffering for themselves and others. Their stories give us plenty of reason to heed the advice of the Eleventh Century Tibetan Buddhist master, Geshe Langri Tangpa:

In my every action, I will watch my mind,
And the moment destructive emotions arise,
I will confront them strongly and avert them,
Since they will hurt both me and others.[5]


  1. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jon Kabat Zinn: Defining Mindfulness, Mindful: Healthy Living Healthy Life, 11 Jan. 2017 (01 Mar 2019) https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/ 
  2. Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 9. 
  3. Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala,1993), 1. 
  4. Ibid. 13 
  5. Geshe Langri Tangpa, Eight Verses of Training the Mind, Rigpa Shedra, 27 Apr. 2016 (15Jun2016) http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Eight_Verses_of_Training_the_Mind 

2: Suffering

Suffering (dukkha) is a basic fact of worldly existence. This is the First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha, who tells us that:

Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering.[1]

Even those of us fortunate enough to enjoy relative health, prosperity, and security, suffer from negative emotions, stress, or – at the very least – a vague sense of unease, together with the certain knowledge that we will grow old, get sick, and die.

Suffering is a truth unforgettably depicted in Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.  In these three tragedies we find not only the suffering of old age, sickness, and death, but mental suffering of the worst kind. These plays also illustrate The Second Noble Truth taught by the Buddha, the truth of the causes of suffering. The causes are attachment and aversion arising from our ignorance of the true nature of the objects of our attachment or aversion. We think they have solid reality when in fact they are impermanent, interdependent, and composed of parts. Attachment, aversion, and ignorance are sometimes called the three poisons. Craving, clinging, desire, aggression, anger, pride, and jealousy are also identified by Buddhists as causes of suffering, but all arise out of ignorance and are forms of attachment and aversion.

As the middle-aged husband of a young wife, Othello is strongly attached to the love of Desdemona and fiercely averse to the thought that she could be unfaithful. King Lear, long accustomed to the privileges of kingship, has developed an unhealthy attachment to the gratitude of his daughters and the deference that goes with his position. Macbeth is attached to his wife and averse to her disapproval, and both are murderously averse to anything that stands in the way of royal power that is both absolute and secure. All fail to realize that the things they crave and the things they seek to avoid are without solid reality.

Suffering and the causes of suffering are not confined to the central figures of high tragedy. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with characters undergoing every variety of suffering. His understanding of the inner workings of the mind and his skill as a poet enable him to depict suffering in such a way that we feel it profoundly. Consider these lines from King John, spoken by the Lady Constance after her son, Arthur, jumps from a high wall and dies:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief. (III.iv.95-100)

Macbeth’s nemesis, Macduff, suffers even greater losses. After he learns that the agents of Macbeth have murdered his wife and children, he is advised to “Dispute it like a man.” His response is an understated but powerful expression of his suffering:

I shall do so,
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on
And would not take their part? (IV.iii.260-264)

Macduff articulates a critical truth. Try as we might to overcome the causes of suffering, not all suffering can be avoided. Sometimes we have to face the suffering and feel the pain. When we try to escape suffering by diverting or numbing ourselves, we fall into the trap of aversion and only make matters worse.

Outer circumstances such as the death of a child or of a whole family would cause anyone to suffer. But ignorance, attachment, and aversion can bring us plenty of suffering without such catastrophes. Inability to control our natural cravings is all it takes to cause needless suffering for ourselves and others. As the Eighth Century Indian Buddhist master, Shantideva, wrote of sentient beings:

Though longing to be rid of suffering,
They rush headlong towards suffering itself.
Although longing to be happy, in their ignorance
They destroy their own well-being, as if it were their worst enemy.[2]

Sonnet 129 offers an example of the suffering we produce when we allow our cravings to get the better of us.

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The speaker tells us that until he acts upon them, his cravings, in this case sexual, are savage, extreme, rude, cruel, deceptive, and beyond all reason. No sooner does he gratify his lust than he is overcome with regret. He likens craving to a bait to be swallowed and a trap to be caught in. Both the craving and the regret that follow are extreme to the point of madness. There may be bliss in the instant of gratification, but very woe follows. In the closing couplet he says that we very well know what is going to happen, but don’t know how to stop ourselves. As Shantideva says, in our ignorance we “rush headlong toward suffering itself.”

Another form of suffering notable in Shakespeare is sadness or melancholy, which is expressed by Hamlet when he says:

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire—why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. (II.ii.318-327)

For no apparent reason, Hamlet says he finds the earth and the heavens themselves to be unhealthy and suffocating.

The Merchant, Antonio, in The Merchant of Venice is another character who cannot account for his sadness. He says in the opening lines of the play:

In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you.
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn. (I.i.1-4)

While they can be attributed to various causes, these speeches exemplify an undertone of sadness that we find throughout Shakespeare. Whatever the merriment, sadness is rarely far away. Even at the happy close of Twelfth Night we are given a song about “the wind and the rain” and the rain “that raineth every day” at every stage of our lives.

The sadness that underlies Shakespeare’s works corresponds to what Buddhists call the suffering of conditioned existence or all-pervasive suffering. Because we are subject to causes and conditions that we cannot control and often do not understand, we experience a pervasive sense of the unsatisfactoriness of life. All-pervasive suffering is like the sound of a refrigerator running in the background. We may not notice it at all until the motor shuts off. For many of us, the low-level generalized anxiety of all-pervasive suffering rarely shuts off.

Whether it takes the form of a vague sense of unease or the severest mental anguish, suffering is the truth of existence for all of us. Birth is suffering, teaches the Buddha. “When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools,” says King Lear. (IV.vi, 200-201)

Shakespeare shows us suffering and the causes of suffering, but does he have anything to offer with respect to The Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering? Shakespeare was a poet and playwright and not a buddha. He does not prescribe a path to the cessation of suffering, such as The Noble Eight-fold Path, which is The Fourth Noble Truth. Nor does he give us practices for training the mind through meditation and contemplation, such as those taught by the Buddha and developed over the centuries by his followers. We cannot say that Shakespeare shows us a path to the complete cessation of suffering, but in his plays he does show us qualities that, according to the Buddha and other spiritual teachers, help to counter our suffering and that of others. These qualities include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Known as the four immeasurables, they will be be explored in our next chapter.


  1. The Buddha, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth from the Samyutta Nikaya, Nanamoli Thera, trans. 13 June 2010 (03 Mar 2019) https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.nymo.html 
  2. Shantideva, Bodhicharyavatara, Rigpa Shedra, 02 Feb 2016 (12 Jun 2016) http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Bodhicharyavatara 

3: Immeasurables

Have you noticed that we are usually happier when taking care of others than when focusing on ourselves? Focusing on ourselves often brings anxiety, dissatisfaction, and disappointment. It is true that normal attachments to family, friends, pets, and others can also bring suffering, and we are all subject to the suffering of conditioned existence. But if some suffering is unavoidable, why make it worse through fruitless grasping after selfish desires? We can do much to counter suffering, our own included, by focusing on the happiness and well being of others.

Buddhists believe that altruistic dedication to the happiness and well being of others brings immeasurable benefits. So fundamental is this motivation that many communities begin and end their Dharma practices with The Prayer of the Four Immeasurables:

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May they never be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering,

The four immeasurables, sometimes called the brahma-viharas or divine abodes, include loving-kindness or love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In practicing loving-kindness, Buddhists begin by wishing happiness and well being for themselves, for as the Buddha taught, no-one is “more worthy of your love than yourself,” and “whoever loves himself will never harm another.” They go on to wish happiness and  the causes of happiness for someone dear to them, then for someone who is neutral, then for a difficult person, and eventually for all sentient beings. The other three qualities are practiced with the same all-embracing spirit. Through the four immeasurables Buddhists cultivate a good heart, replacing selfish attachments with the wish to benefit others. In this way they reduce the power of the self-centered. ego.

Shakespeare’s characters may not practice loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity with such a vast intention. We do not find them methodically training their minds to expand the scope of their altruistic motivation. And yet, in Shakespeare’s plays we find characters who long to make others happy (loving-kindness) and to free them from suffering and its causes (compassion).

Loving-kindness and Compassion

Some of Shakespeare’s characters demonstrate a degree of loving-kindness and compassion that we would do well to cultivate in ourselves. None exemplify loving-kindness better than “the noble and true-hearted Kent,” who occupies himself entirely in extending kindnesses to his old master, King Lear. He risks Lear’s wrath by trying to dissuade him from foolishly disinheriting Cordelia and as a result is exiled on pain of death.. Undaunted, he returns in disguise to continue serving him. When Lear goes mad on the heath, Kent leads him to shelter from the elements, and then to shelter from those who would kill him, and finally to the care of  Cordelia. Near the end of the play, seeing the dying Lear anguishing over the dead body of Cordelia, his kindness becomes compassion as he wishes him release from pain:

Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass! He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer. (V.iii.380-382)
In his last speech, Kent expresses his intention to follow Lear in death.
I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
My master calls me. I must not say no. (V.ii.390-391)
Kent’s loving-kindness for his master would seem to transcend the very bounds of life.

In expressing her love for Romeo, Juliet delivers lines that could serve to describe the vast and inexhaustible quality of loving-kindness.

My bounty is as boundless as the sea.
My love as deep. The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite. (II.ii.140-143)

Juliet’s love is transformative. She loses herself completely in the love she feels for Romeo, but because her love involves attachment, it leads to suffering. True loving-kindness transcends attachment and, in its fullest manifestation, reaches out to all. Juliet’s love is deep, but from the standpoint of the Dharma it is less than fully evolved. But then Juliet is only thirteen years old. One would like to think that a love as boundless as Juliet’s does not die but matures and expands to embrace all beings, if not in this life then in another. Or perhaps it lives on in the new-found amity between the Capulet and Montague families.

Loving-kindness and compassion are closely related. It has been said that compassion is the natural response of love to the suffering of other beings. For Shakespeare, as for Buddhists, it is the heart that feels another’s pain and longs to relieve it. At the beginning of The Tempest we see a ship being destroyed in a storm conjured up by the magician, Prospero. This sight brings a spontaneous declaration of compassion from Prospero’s young daughter, Miranda:

O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dashed all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart! Poor souls, they perished.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallowed, and
The fraughting souls within her. (I.ii.5-13)

In these lines Shakespeare gives us the compassion of an innocent girl with little experience of the world. Miranda’s compassion is a beautiful expression of innate human goodness.

Another tempest takes place in King Lear. Lear on the heath suffers from the storm without while he endures an even greater storm of mental suffering within. When he notices his shivering fool and thinks of others feeling the fury of the elements, a heart that has been entirely taken up with selfish concerns is opened, and he prays:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just. (III.iv.28-36)

While Miranda’s compassion is the compassion of innocence, Lear’s is the compassion of experience. By enduring great suffering he comes to realize that he has been blind to the suffering of others for too long. With the opening of his heart he finds momentary relief from pain.

Like loving-kindness, compassion is measureless. The more compassion we feel for the suffering of others the more our compassion grows. As compassion grows it displaces attachment, aversion, and ignorance, thereby relieving our own suffering. Buddhists sometimes describe compassion as a wish-fulfilling jewel that cannot be exhausted, bringing benefits to giver and receiver alike. As Sogyal Rinpoche points out, the inexhaustible nature of compassion is beautifully expressed in The Merchant of Venice when Portia appeals to Shylock to spare the life of the merchant, Antonio.[1]

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. (IV.i.168-171)

For Shakespeare compassion is the spontaneous expression of an innocent child on seeing a shipwreck and the prayer of an old man whose selfish heart has been opened by the suffering of another. It is a transcendent virtue, falling from heaven and raining blessings on the giver and receiver alike.

 

Sympathetic Joy

Altruistic or sympathetic joy is unselfish joy in the good fortune of others. We rejoice in the happiness, accomplishments, wealth, success, and virtues of others wherever they appear, and we wish them even greater happiness. As we rejoice in the happiness of others, our own happiness grows. The opposite of sympathetic joy is envy, the resentment of another’s good fortune. Envy reflects the false notion that happiness is a limited commodity.

Much Ado About Nothing opens on a note of sympathetic joy at the achievements of young Count Claudio as he returns with Don Pedro and Signor Benedick from a military expedition. They gather at the home of Leonato, Governor of Messina. Hearing that Claudio’s accomplishments have brought tears of happiness to his uncle, Leonato says:

There are no
faces truer than those that are so washed. How
much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at
weeping!  (I.i.26-29)

The joy increases as Claudio seeks and wins the hand of Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and a wedding is planned. Meanwhile Signor Benedick and Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, both self-professed bachelors, engage in a skirmish of wit at one another’s expense. Hero, Claudio and others of the party decide to pass the time until the wedding by bringing Beatrice and Benedick “into a mountain of affection the one with the other.” Male characters maneuver Benedick into overhearing a conversation about how much Beatrice loves him, and female characters maneuver Beatrice into eavesdropping on a conversation about Benedick’s love for her. Their scheme succeeds, and Beatrice and Benedick become engaged.

The atmosphere darkens when the envious Don John arrives. Hearing of Claudio’s good fortune he says:

Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be med’cinable to me. I am sick in displeasure to him, and whatsoever comes athwart his affection ranges evenly with mine. (II.ii.4-7)

Don John’s envy is the opposite of sympathetic joy. He is one “to joy at weeping.”

Don John devises a plot to convince Claudio that Hero entertains another lover on the night before their wedding, and Claudio is taken in by the deception. Infected by jealousy, he rejects and shames Hero before the assembled wedding guests. When Hero faints and at first appears to be dead, the Friar who was to have married the couple perceives her blamelessness and arranges for her to be secreted away until her innocence is proven. Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel for having killed an innocent lady, but violence is forestalled when the bumbling constabulary exposes Don John’s plot. The now repentant Claudio, still thinking Hero is dead, agrees to marry Hero’s cousin sight unseen. Then, posing as the cousin, Hero appears in a veil and says:

And when I lived, I was your other wife,
And when you loved, you were my other husband.  (V.iv.61-62)

Beatrice and Benedick join them to make it a double wedding, and the play ends with a dance before the celebration of two marriages. Six of Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding or with an imminent wedding, and what is a wedding but a celebration of sympathetic joy at others’ happiness and good fortune? What Shakespeare gives us at the end of his comedies is joy piled upon joy. Much Ado About Nothing and The Two Gentlemen of Verona each end with a double wedding. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night end with a triple wedding, and Loves Labour’s Lost and As You Like It each end with the impending marriage of four couples. Shakespeare wrote six other comedies that do not end with weddings but joyfully celebrate the achievement of marital happiness.

As audience members we fully participate in the sympathetic joy depicted onstage. We rejoice that the lovers are united. We rejoice that those thought to be dead turn up alive and are restored to their families. We rejoice that so many problems have been solved to the benefit of so many people. And after a good performance we rejoice in the accomplishment of the actors. We can even rejoice in the achievement of Shakespeare, who has been eliciting sympathetic joy from audiences on a vast scale for more than 400 years. For most of us the feelings of sympathetic joy begin to fade as we leave the theatre, but we would do well to retain, nurture, and extend them to as many beings as possible.

 

Equanimity

Buddhist equanimity has two aspects. The first involves freedom from attachment to gain, praise, fame, and pleasure, and freedom from aversion to loss, blame, disrepute, and pain. Taken together these are known as the eight worldly concerns, and they are a major source of suffering.

The Buddha praises:

A mind that does not waver when touched by [the eight] worldly conditions. . . . free from disturbances, purified of passion and finished with sensuality, it is calm and serene, without the storms of desires and the waves of worries.[2]

Freedom from the eight worldly concerns is what Hamlet commends when he addresses these words to his friend, Horatio:

.

For thou hast been
As one in suffering all that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks; and blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.  (III.ii.64-74)

Horatio would seem to be a model of equanimity. His is “a mind that does not waver when touched by the worldly conditions.” We find similar freedom from attachment in Shakespeare’s Roman plays, including Julius Caesar. When Brutus learns of the death of his wife, Portia, he takes the news calmly, saying:

With meditating that she must die once,
I have the patience to endure it now. (IV.iii.217-218)

The freedom from attachment that we find in Hamlet and Julius Caesar is a Roman virtue and reflects the Stoic philosophy that was well known to Shakespeare from his reading of Plutarch and Seneca. But while Roman equanimity involves freedom from the eight worldly concerns, it lacks the second aspect of Buddhist equanimity, which is to regard all beings with an equal mind.

As one of the four immeasurables, equanimity is practiced with an all-embracing spirit. We wish for all beings to be free from the eight worldly concerns, and we wish for all beings to regard others with an equal mind. Buddhist equanimity is far from indifferent; it is, in the words of the Buddha, “abundant, exalted, immeasurable.” Buddhist equanimity has an open heart as well as an untroubled mind.

In Shakespeare’s plays we find characters, like Horatio, who exemplify freedom from the eight worldly concerns. What we do not so easily find are characters who exemplify the second aspect of equanimity. As benevolent as Shakespeare’s characters often are, they do not, as far as I can find, make it a point to regard all beings – friends, enemies, and everyone in between – with an equal mind. Nor do we as audience members look upon all of Shakespeare’s characters with an equal mind. It is in the nature of drama to elicit attachment for some and aversion for others.

But with Shakespeare’s characters our aversion is usually qualified because we come to know them so well. We are often privy to their innermost thoughts as well as their speech and actions. In them we are able to see ourselves, or who we would like to be, or who we fear we might become, or who we could have become under different circumstances. When we experience Hamlet we know what it is like to be Hamlet, we know what it is like to be Ophelia, we know what it is like to be Gertrude, and we may even know what it is like to be Claudius. In Macbeth the title character is both protagonist and villain. We can understand and identify with him even as we are appalled by what he does. We see most of these characters as human beings like us, trying however misguidedly to be happy and to avoid suffering, and in this respect they are the same as us. To the extent we can see that other beings are the same as us, we see them with a more equal mind.

Equanimity, in the face of the eight worldly concerns and in our attitude toward other beings, must be based on genuine insight. Insight comes about as we deepen our appreciation of impermanence and death, the illusory nature of phenomena, the inescapable connection of actions and consequences, the necessity of forgiveness and remorse, and egolessness. As we will see in the following sections, Shakespeare has something to tell us about each of these subjects.


  1. Sogyal Rinpoche. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Harper San Francisco, 2001), 202. 
  2. Life’s Highest Blessings: The Maha Mangala Sutra. Dr. R.L. Soni, trans. (Kandy Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1956), 86. 

4: Impermanence

The Buddha taught that:

Everything arises and passes away. When you see this you are above sorrow. This is the shining way. The Buddha, Dhammapada[1]

For Buddhists impermanence (anicca) is another of the basic facts of existence. Everything in our universe, at every level, is in a continual state of change. Some things change in gross or readily observable ways, like clouds in the sky or living beings that age and die. Others, like rocks and buildings, appear permanent to us but are in continual change at the atomic level and will gradually disintegrate over time if they are not destroyed first. Shakespeare takes the universal human experience of impermanence and transforms it into poetry.

In Jaques’ seven ages of man soliloquy from As You Like It, we have impermanence as it manifests in the aging body, which progresses all too quickly from the

Infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms, (II.vii.151)

to:

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (II.vii.172-173)
Jaques makes the same point more succinctly when he says:
And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour we rot and rot, (II.vii.27-28)

In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony meditates on the impermanence of shape-shifting clouds as he prepares for death:

Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish,
A vapor sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendent rock, (IV.xiv.4-6)
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns and makes it indistinct
As water is in water. (IV.xiv.12-14)
Even such a body. Here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, (IV.xiv.18-19)

In the above examples the speakers tell us about impermanence as they envision it. In Troilus and Cressida, Cressida tells us more about impermanence than she intends when she vows to be true to Troilus:

If I be false or swerve a hair from truth,
When time is old and hath forgot itself,
When water drops have worn the stones of Troy
And blind oblivion swallowed cities up,
And mighty states characterless are grated
To dusty nothing, yet let memory,
From false to false, among false maids in love,
Upbraid my falsehood! (III.iii.187-193)

In vowing constancy Cressida envisions a Troy that will last for eons into the future, until water drops have worn away its stones. Her vow notwithstanding, Cressida soon transfers her affections to the Greek, Diomedes, after she is forced to join her father in the Greek camp. Audiences hearing Cressida’s speech would perceive three kinds of impermanence. In her words they would find the slow-acting impermanence in which water drops wear away stones. Knowing that Cressida will prove false, they would think of the impermanence of human affections. And knowing the story of the Trojan War, they would think of the destruction that will come to Troy far sooner than Cressida expects. Cressida unwittingly reminds the audience that even as we acknowledge impermanence, things are far more impermanent than we imagine.

Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are in one way or another about impermanence. In Sonnet 64 he describes the ways in which our seemingly solid world is subject to change:

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay,
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

Towers are disassembled and objects of brass are melted down. Such examples of impermanence would have been widely evident in Shakespeare’s day, when the recently dissolved monastic establishments were torn down or quarried for their stone, and brass images and other objects associated with the Roman Catholic faith were destroyed. Even the earth proves to be impermanent as the ocean washes it away and rearranges it. Seeing change and decay all around him, the speaker sadly reflects that if time can take away such solid-seeming phenomena, then it will surely take away his love as well. He can only “weep to have that which [he] fears to lose.”

In Sonnet 73 the speaker turns his attention to the impermanence of his own body. He makes us simultaneously feel the sweetness of life and the certainty of its passing:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In the opening line the speaker identifies himself with life at its lowest ebb, and at its most precious. The tone is elegiac, and the images of decline are also images of beauty: yellow leaves, bare ruined choirs, twilight fading into night, and the glow of a dying fire. The final couplet drives home the point that imminent loss makes love more strong and that our response should be to love well. This is in contrast to the final couplet of Sonnet 64, where the only response is to weep. In Sonnet 64 impermanence leads only to suffering, but in Sonnet 73 impermanence leads to love. We can love well by embracing love and impermanence in the same instant, recognizing that they are inseparable and that impermanence is a source of joy as well as sorrow. It will take our love away, but it brought our love to us in the first place. Without impermanence nothing could change, grow, or live. As Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki, explains, “When we realize the everlasting truth of ‘everything changes’ and find our composure in it, we find ourselves in Nirvana.”[2] It is easy to fall into the habit of grasping onto people and things as though they were permanent, even when we know better, but as the Buddha teaches, “All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.” We can reconcile ourselves to the truth of ‘everything changes’ or we can suffer. Shakespeare continually reminds us of impermanence in all its manifestations and gives us a glimpse of the reconciliation to be found in acceptance of change.

 


  1. Byrom, Thomas. The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 74. 
  2. Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1970), 102-103 

5: Mortality

In considering impermanence we have already been considering death. Death is impermanence as it affects the temporal existence of living beings. According to the Buddha:

This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds.
To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movement of a dance.,
A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky..
Rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.   [1]

And in the words of Hamlet:

. . . man’s life’s no more than to say ‘one.’ (V.ii.74)

The reality of death was more immediate for the contemporaries of the Buddha and of Shakespeare than it is for most of us in the modern world. In Shakespeare’s London the average life expectancy was 35. Outbreaks of the bubonic plague swept London four times during Shakespeare’s lifetime. For those who escaped the plague there were epidemics of smallpox, typhus, and malaria.[2] And then there were the gruesome public executions and the decomposing heads of “traitors” displayed on London Bridge. Londoners confronted death and the horror of death on a daily basis.

It wasn’t any better for Shakespeare’s characters. In the course of the plays no fewer than 74 characters die onstage. Thirty are stabbed, five are beheaded, seven are poisoned, and 32 die by other means. Another 81 die offstage.[3]

Remembrance of death can be a great factor in turning the mind away from worldly pursuits and toward spiritual practice. This was true for Shakespeare’s contemporaries as it was for the contemporaries of the Buddha. At the time of his own death the Buddha said:

Of all footprints
That of the elephant is supreme;
Of all mindfulness meditations
That on death is supreme. [4]

Death is the most powerful motivation for spiritual practice, and meditation on death is the supreme meditation. Perhaps no one exemplifies these teachings better than Tibet’s great yogi and poet, Milarepa, who writes:

In horror of death, I took to the mountains—
Again and again I meditated on the uncertainty of the hour of death,
Capturing the fortress of the deathless unending nature of mind.
Now all fear of death is over and done.[5]

There are no Milarepas in Shakespeare. Although many of Shakespeare’s characters confront death, they do not do so as hermits and probably not in ways that lead to full spiritual realization. But some of his characters do progress spiritually as they come to terms with death. Such a character is Hamlet.

Hamlet returns from school for his father’s funeral only to find that his uncle Claudius has already seized the throne and married his mother, Gertrude. Refused permission to return to school, he is then visited by the ghost of his dead father, who comes to tell of his murder at the hands of Claudius and to urge Hamlet to exact revenge. As he considers what to do next, he finds that Claudius and Polonius are using his girlfriend, Ophelia, in their plot to spy on him. Little wonder that Hamlet considers suicide in the opening lines of his most famous soliloquy:

To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. (III.i.56-60)

These lines occasioned the following teaching from the Vietnamese monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh:

The Buddha has taught that when conditions are sufficient things manifest, but to label that manifestation as being is wrong. Also when conditions are not sufficient, things do not manifest, but to label that as non-being is also wrong. Reality is beyond being and non-being; we need to overcome those notions. Hamlet said: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” We can see that he was caught by these notions. But according to this teaching, “to be or not to be,” is not the question. Because reality is beyond the notion of being or non-being, birth or death, coming or going … But if we understand suchness then we know that we don’t come from anywhere and we don’t go anywhere.[6]

Thich Nhat Hanh is considering Hamlet’s speech from the standpoint of a reality unmediated by concepts or labels of any kind. Such “ultimate” reality transcends dualities such as being and non-being, birth and death, here and there. Of course these dualities do manifest, but they have no intrinsic, permanent, or independent. existence. Thich Nhat Hanh sees that Hamlet is expressing a dualistic mindset that does not comprehend ultimate reality. We approach that reality when we are fully alive to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls, suchness. Like the metaphor of the sky and the clouds or the movie screen and movie, the term, “suchness,” is like a finger pointing at the moon. Suchness itself is beyond concept. It is pure experience, beyond concepts that give rise to dualities.

To try to make the same point in another way, the problem with “to be or not to be” is that that nothing ever just “is.” Everything that we see or experience, including ourselves, is a dynamic, ever-changing collection of causes and conditions. We are not quite who we were when we woke up this morning or who we will be when we go to bed tonight, let alone who we will be, or not be, ten years from now. Phenomena have a passing, relative existence, but no intrinsic, permanent, or independent existence, regardless of how many concepts and names we attach to them. 

Having established that ultimate reality transcends “To be or not to be,” we might go on to look at other passages from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy:

To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. (III.i.72-76)
Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?  (III.i.84-90)

In these passages Hamlet reconsiders what he has just said about “To be or not to be.” He thinks better of the proposition that he can, by the act of suicide, flip the switch from being to non-being. Hamlet abandons thoughts of suicide, but only because he fears that death would only bring another and scarier form of being. He has yet to transcend notions of being and non-being altogether.

The “To be or not to be” soliloquy does not contain Hamlet’s last words on the subject of death, however. As the play nears its end, Hamlet and Horatio visit a graveyard and enter into a contest of wit with a joking gravedigger. Hamlet seems at home among the bones as he holds up the skull of Yorick, a jester well known to him from childhood, and addresses it thus:

Now get you to my
lady’s chamberand tell her, let her paint an inch
thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh
at that.  (V.i.199-202)

From contemplating the transience of physical beauty he turns to the transience of worldly power:

Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O, that that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw! (V.1.220-223)

Hamlet’s contemplations at the bone-strewn graveside bring to mind those Buddhist practitioners who seek out charnel grounds as places for meditation on death. Involved as he has been in a web of court intrigue, Hamlet can’t be devoting much time to spiritual practice, but his mind has somehow grown spacious enough to look upon death and life with equanimity.

In the next scene Hamlet prepares for a fencing match with Laertes before the court. Suspecting, rightly, that there is a plot against Hamlet’s life, Horatio says, “If your mind dislike anything obey it,” and offers to cancel the match on Hamlet’s behalf. Hamlet replies:

Not a whit. We defy augury. There is a
special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be
now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The
readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves
knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be. (V.ii.233-238)

In this passage Hamlet comes closer to Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding that phenomena lack intrinsic being or non-being and will manifest or not manifest as conditions determine. Hamlet’s sparrow has no enduring existence and will live or die as conditions determine. Has Hamlet acquired a non-dual understanding and glimpsed a reality beyond being and non-being, birth and death? Such an insight would explain the extraordinary perspective that he expresses. “The readiness is all” means readiness for death. The timing of his death matters no more to him than the fall of a sparrow. “Let be” expresses a complete surrender of attachment and aversion. Hamlet seems at peace with death and prepared to let things manifest as they will.

Of Shakespeare’s characters, Hamlet exhibits the most spacious mind. He may not completely realize its infinite potential, but over the course of the play he travels the long distance from “To be or not to be” to “let be.” From thoughts of suicide followed by fears “of something after death,” he grows in readiness for death. When he says, “let be,” he expresses an acceptance that Buddhists and followers of other spiritual traditions practice for lifetimes to attain. Still, Hamlet is no Buddha, at least not a fully realized one. Moments of insight can be supplanted by personal passion, as we see in the final scene when he kills Laertes and Claudius.


  1. Buddha Shakyamuni. Lalitavistara Sutra. Rigpa Shedra, 19 Nov. 2011 (22 Aug. 2016) http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Four_thoughts#cite_note-1 
  2. Mabillard, Amanda. Worst Diseases in Shakespeare’s London. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (05 May 2016) <http://www.shakespeareonline.com/biography/londondisease.html >. 
  3. Jones, Josh, 74 Ways Characters Die in Shakespeare’s Plays. Open Culture 01 Jan 2016 (26 May 2016) http://www.openculture.com/2016/01/74-ways-characters-die-in-shakespeares-plays-shown-in-a-handy-infographic.html 
  4. In the Mahahaparinirvana Sutra 
  5. Milarepa, In horror of death. Rigpa Wiki. 27 December, 2015. (09 August, 2016) http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Quotations:_Milarepa,_In_horror_of_death… 
  6. Thich Nhat Hanh, Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on December 4, 1997 in Plum Village. (26 May 2016) http://www.buddhist-canon.com/PLAIN/TNHSUTTA/1997%20Dec%204%20%20Diamond%20Sutra%20(part%201).htm 

6: Illusion

For the Buddha and his followers, the phenomena we encounter are without inherent reality. In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha describes “all this fleeting world” as “a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.” [1] And in the Dhammapada he is quoted as saying that: “Existence is illusion. Understand, go beyond. This is the way of clarity.”[2]

The Buddha was more interested in pointing out the illusory nature of everyday reality than in creating magical displays, but was said to have summoned up illusions when they served his purposes as a teacher. Accounts of the Buddha’s life relate the story of  Queen Khema, the proud and beautiful wife of King Bimbisara, One day Khema saw a crowd gathered around the Buddha and went to hear his teaching. Upon seeing the queen, the Buddha caused an image of a young and stunningly attractive girl to appear behind him. She was slowly waving a large fan to cool the Buddha, and as he taught she gradually became a mature woman, then middle aged, then older with gray hair and wrinkles, and then an unsightly crone. Finally the image fell dead to the ground. Queen Khema was so affected by this demonstration of impermanence, old age, and death that she gave up her position, took ordination, and followed the Buddha as a nun.[3]

Shakespeare was not a spiritual teacher like the Buddha, but we can learn from him about the illusory nature of existence.  As a playwright he was continually generating and dissolving illusions. These lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream might be read as a profession of his craft.

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (V.i.15-18)

Illusion is what we expect to encounter when we enter a theatre, but with Shakespeare we often encounter further illusions within the context of the play, illusions within an illusion. Ghosts appear and disappear in Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Richard III, and Cymbeline. In Macbeth the three weird sisters appear, summon apparitions and disappear like bubbles in water. In The Tempest the magician, Prospero, conjures a masque of spirits to celebrate the marriage of his daughter, dissolves it, and then delivers these lines:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.  (IV.i.165-175)

Prospero is saying that towers, palaces, temples, the globe itself, and all that will come after are as insubstantial as a conjured masque of spirits. One wonders if Shakespeare could have somehow intuited what the Buddha taught and what physicists discovered in the last century: that matter is not as solid as it seems but actually consists of empty space and energy.

Beyond ghostly visitations and speeches on the dreamlike nature of phenomena, we find illusion in the very fabric of Shakespeare’s plays. Little is what it appears to be. Twins are mistaken for each other (The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night). Women disguise themselves as men (Two Gentlemen of VeronaAs You Like It, Twelfth, The Merchant of Venice, and Cymbeline). Men disguise themselves as women (The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor). Rulers disguise themselves as subjects (Henry V and Measure for Measure). Characters thought to be dead turn out to be alive (All’s Well that Ends Well, Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale). Men who think that they are sleeping with an object of their illicit lust are instead consummating marriage with a rightful spouse (All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure). Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate how we lose ourselves in one illusion after another and live under a multitude of false impressions. What we see or think we see in Shakespeare’s plays turns out to be man-made illusion.

For the Buddha and his followers illusion is not man-made but inherent in the nature of existence. But when they say that worldly phenomena are like a bubble, a phantom, or a dream, they are not saying that phenomena have no existence at all. They are saying that the phenomena we experience are not ultimately real because, as we noted in our chapter on suffering, they lack three qualities that we mistakenly associate with reality: they lack permanence; they lack singularity; and they lack independence. Everything is impermanent, everything is made up of parts, and everything is dependent on causes and conditions.

In Measure for Measure Shakespeare echoes, point for point, the Buddhist understanding that all phenomena are impermanent, multiple, and interdependent. The Duke of Vienna, disguised as a friar, visits a prison to comfort the condemned man, Claudio, who is unprepared to die. The Duke advises Claudio to give up hope of a reprieve and reminds him that the bodily existence he fears to lose is illusory because:

It is impermanent:

Merely, thou art death’s fool,
For him thou labor’st by thy flight to shun,
And yet runn’st toward him still. (III.i.11-13)

It is multiple:

Thou art not thyself,
For thou exists on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. (III.1.20-22)

And it is dependent on causes and conditions:

A breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences
That doth this habitation where thou keep’st
Hourly afflict. (III.i.8-11)

Our bodies and the objects and beings that make up our world do manifest, however, which makes it easy for us to overlook their impermanence, multiplicity, and interdependence and attribute to them a solid and lasting reality that they lack. In our ignorance we develop attachment and aversion to what we imagine to have intrinsic existence.

While the Buddha could occasionally create magical illusions for the edification of his followers, he was more concerned with showing, through his teachings, that ordinary phenomena are illusory in that they have no inherent existence. And while Shakespeare was in the business of creating theatrical illusions for the entertainment of his audiences, he also understood and could demonstrate the illusory nature of ordinary phenomena. We see this most clearly in the lines from Measure for Measure, quoted above, which echo teachings of the Buddha.

Reality

One might well ask, if our selves and all the outside phenomena we encounter  have no more than relative reality, then what is ultimately real.  Spiritual teachers tell us that ultimate reality is beyond concept and cannot be directly described. Most of us can hope to approach it only gradually through listening and hearing the Dharma, contemplation, and meditation. But teachers sometimes use metaphors to give a rough indication if the relationship between ultimate and relative reality. A popular metaphor is the sky and the clouds. The clear blue sky represents ultimate reality, and the clouds that constantly change as they drift across the sky represent our world of relative phenomena. The clouds may even hide the sky completely, but the clear blue sky is always there and is unaffected by the clouds. Often clouds seem to be our only reality, but the clouds are contained by the sky and could not exist without it. Another metaphor is the movie screen and the movie. When we are absorbed in a movie, the figures on the screen seem completely real to us and we forget that the screen is there at all. But the screen is there all the time and will remain long after the images flickering upon it have gone. The screen contains the movie images, which could not exist without it, but the screen itself is unaffected by the movie. Of course, ultimate reality is not a clear blue sky and it is not a movie screen. These metaphors are likened to fingers pointing at the moon.

Shakespeare lived three and a half centuries before movies and movie screens came into being. For him and for his contemporaries the closest equivalents were the stage and the actors playing upon it. Could Shakespeare  be using the stage to represent ultimate reality in these lines from As You Like It?

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts. (II.vii.146-149)

Like the movie screen, the stage is unaffected by any scene that takes place upon it, regardless of whether it is the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet or the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear. But the stage contains the play, and without it there would be no play. The stage is not ultimate reality, any more than the movie screen or the clear blue sky, but it might just be Shakespeare’s finger pointing at the moon.


  1. Diamond Sutra: A.F. Price and Wong Mou-lam (trans.), The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-neng (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1990) 146. 
  2. Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1993), 74. 
  3. Sherab Chodzin Kohn, The Awakened One: A Life of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000) 86. 

 

7. Renunciation & Contentment

Renunciation

If phenomena are impermanent and illusory and death inevitable, then we might do well to renounce the things of this world? The Buddha’s path to enlightenment begins with an act of renunciation, as he leaves wife, child, palace, and princely prerogatives in search of a true refuge from the suffering of old age sickness and death. During his search he practices extreme asceticism for six years and is reduced to skin and bones as he subsists on a few grains of rice a day. Only after he moderates the extent of his self-denial and begins to accept adequate nourishment does he attain enlightenment. In the Dhammapada he warns against the dangers of indiscriminate renunciation.

But as a blade of grass held awkwardly
May cut your hand,
So renunciation may lead you into the dark.[1]

He finds that too much of anything, even renunciation, can be counterproductive. The Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, reflected the Buddha’s “middle way” philosophy when he taught that, ”Renunciation is not giving up things of this world but accepting that they go away.”  So renunciation can be a matter of acceptance that things go away rather than a matter of self-deprivation. The essential point is to let go of attachments. 

While Shakespeare’s renunciates do not usually give up all the things of this world, they do let go of some serious attachments. In Sonnet 146 the speaker renounces attachment to costly apparel for his mortal body saying:

Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more.

In Henry IV Part 2, Prince Hal, having become king, renounces his association with Falstaff and other dissolute companions:

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester.
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awaked, I do despise my dream. (V.v.47-51)
Presume not that I am the thing I was, . . .
For God doth know—so shall the world perceive—
That I have turned away my former self.
So will I those that kept me company. (V.v.57-59)

In The Tempest, Prospero renounces the practice of magic:

But this rough magic
I here abjure . . . 
. . . I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book. (V.i.59-66)

King Lear renounces the world when he lets go of attachment to royal power and accepts imprisonment, saying:

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense. (V.iii.22-23)

Hamlet even renounces attachment to a continued earthly existence when he says:

Since no man of aught he leaves knows,
what is’t to leaves betimes? Let be.  (V.ii.237-238)

We find renunciation in Shakespeare whenever a character willingly lets go of major attachments. The ultimate renunciation is letting go of ego, a subject we will explore in our final chapter.

Contentment

Renunciation and contentment are closely related, as they both depend on acceptance. To be content is to be happy in the present moment, in the place where we are, and with whatever we happen to have, or not have. The Buddha taught that there is no treasure like contentment, and we gain this treasure by learning to live simply without desires.

Shakespeare’s pious Henry VI is an ineffectual king but a good example of contentment. At the opening of Henry VI Part 3, the Lancastrian Henry flees after losing a battle to his Yorkist rivals. He is apprehended, and when he claims to be the king, his captors ask to see his crown. He responds:

My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen. My crown is called content;
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy. (III.i.62-65)

He is even content in prison, and when released he thanks his jailor for making his imprisonment a pleasure. Unfortunately he is later re-arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he is  murdered by the future Richard III, but he leaves us some of Shakespeare’s greatest lines on the subject of contentment.

A happier example of contentment is Duke Senior in As You Like It. Deposed by his brother, he is content to live a primitive life with his friends in the Forest of Arden:

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
“This is no flattery. These are counselors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.” (II.i.1-11)

Duke Senior favors exposure to cold weather, the penalty of Adam, over exposure to flattery.   At least the cold is an honest counselor that reminds him of his mortality. The dispossessed Duke is echoing, almost exactly, the following advice given by the Buddha to the householder, Sigala, in the Sigalovada Sutta:

But he who does not regard cold or heat any more than a blade of grass and does his duties manfully, does not fall away from happiness.

These four…should be understood as foes in the guise of friends:

he who appropriates a friend’s possessions,
he who renders lip service,
he who flatters,
he who brings ruin.[2]

Duke Senior is happy to follow this pattern in making the best of a simple existence, exposed to the elements and away from false friends. He goes on to say:

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything. (II.i.12-17)

From the toad of adversity the Duke plucks a jewel of contentment and finds that nature more than compensates for the lost pastimes of the court.

Of all Shakespeare’s characters, Nick Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is my favorite example of contentment. He is one of a group of simple workingmen who gather to prepare the play of Pyramus and Thisbe, which they hope to perform for the local ruler, Duke Theseus, and his bride, Hippolyta. To rehearse, the group goes into a forest ruled by Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, who are engaged in a fight over possession of a changeling boy taken by Titania. Oberon seeks to get even with the help of the impish Puck.

As the amateur players begin their rehearsal, Puck mischievously changes Bottom’s head into that of an ass. On seeing him the others flee, but Bottom, thinking nothing is amiss, supposes they are playing a trick. He sits down and happily sings a song that awakens Titania, whose eyes Puck has anointed with the juice of a flower that causes her to love the next thing she sees. Seeing Bottom, she dotes on him, even with his ass’s head. When she professes her love, Bottom replies:

Methinks, mistress, you should have little
reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason
and love keep little company together nowadays. (III.i.144-146)

As he meets the fairies that are to serve him, Bottom responds to each with affable good humor. Although Titania makes it clear that her services are at his command, he would be just as content with some hay and a nap.

Deciding that things have gone far enough, Oberon has Puck apply an antidote to Titania’s eyes and also change Bottom’s head back to that of a man. When he awakens from sleep Bottom says:

I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say
what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about
to expound this dream. Methought I was—there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was and
methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of
man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen,
man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to
conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this
dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because
it hath no bottom. (IV.i.214-225)

Bottom exemplifies contentment under extraordinary conditions. When his friends run away from him, he sits down to sing a song. When Titania professes her love, he plays along agreeably. When he wakes up he is not at all unhappy to have lost the services of a fairy queen and her attendants, but does feel that he has had the most remarkable dream. When he finds himself unable to recall or express any details of the dream, he is fine with that too. If his dream has no bottom, Bottom himself is content to live with the mystery. Bottom is a comic character. He may sometimes seem obtuse, his words may be disconnected and confused, but whatever befalls, he is happy in the moment, with where he is, with what he has, and with what he can or can’t remember. Bottom is that rare character who appears to have no real attachments or aversions and nothing to renounce. A proverb tells us that “a harvest of peace is produced from a seed of contentment.” Peace will be the subject of our next chapter.

 

 

 


  1. Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1993), 83. 
  2. Thera, Piyadassi and Van Glasenapp, Helmuth, Collected Wheel Publications, (Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka, 2009), 335. 
  1.  

EDIT Previous: Illusion

8. Peace

During the Buddha’s lifetime northern India was divided into a number of states with well-established warrior castes. Accounts of the Buddha’s life include an episode in which he intervened to stop a terrible war between the Shakyan and Kolyan states. When the Buddha arrived at the river that separated the two states, the opposing forces were drawn up and ready to begin combat. Asked to explain their reasons for going into battle, neither the leaders nor their followers could say, but many insults had been exchanged, and they all agreed that honor demanded a fight. The Buddha then learned from local farmers that the cause of the conflict was a shortage of water for irrigation. With this information he sought to convince the leaders that blood was more precious than water. The opposing armies listened as the Buddha told stories and gave teachings. At last they made peace. Not only was a bloody battle averted, but 250 men from each side joined the Buddha’s sangha of monks. [1]

The Buddha would have seen war and other forms of violence as examples of the suffering brought on by attachment, aversion, and ignorance. The Buddha’s sayings, collected in the Dhammapada, include the following:

Better than a thousand hollow verses is one verse that brings peace.[2]

And.

Alas for the man who raises his hand against another, and even more for him who returns the blow.[3]

Without violent conflicts brought on by attachment, aversion, and ignorance, Shakespeare would have had much less to write about. At least sixteen of his plays feature battles, and most include fighting or violence of some kind. Thomas Hardy wrote that, “war makes rattling good history, but peace is poor reading.”Enter Hardy, Thomas, The Dynasts, (Part II, Scene V) 01 Sep 2013 (26 May 2016) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4043/4043-h/4043-h.html  Shakespeare was in the business of telling rattling good histories that celebrate war and the military virtues, but in his plays we often find that the cause of peace gets the more convincing arguments.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Henry V is the one best known for patriotic glorification of war, especially in Henry’s rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech. But a common soldier named Williams delivers the play’s truest insights about war and its effects:

But if the cause be not good, the King
himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all
those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a
battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry
all “We died at such a place,” some swearing, some
crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left
poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe,
some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard
there are few die well that die in a battle, for how
can they charitably dispose of anything when blood
is their argument? Now, if these men do not die
well, it will be a black matter for the king that led
them to it, who to disobey were against all proportion
of subjection. (IV.i.138-151)

King Henry, who is visiting his men in disguise on the night before the battle of Agincourt, dismisses this by saying that the king is no more responsible for a soldier who miscarries in battle than a father would be for a son who miscarries on an errand, but this is a weak argument. Sending someone on an errand and sending them into battle, especially in a bad cause, are entirely different matters. Shakespeare allows Henry to appear to win the argument because he can’t very well do otherwise, but he gives Williams the better case.

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s play about the Trojan War, the Trojan leaders consider whether to end many years of costly fighting by returning Helen to the Greeks and to her rightful husband, Menelaus. Hector makes a compelling case for peace, ending with the lines:

If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back return’d: thus to persist
In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
But makes it much more heavy. (II.ii.192-197)

The case for peace fails to carry the day. Even Hector reverses himself and joins the side of war. Shakespeare had no choice in this, since he was retelling a well-known story, but once more he has given peace the stronger argument. Hector pays the ultimate price for the continuation of war, and the full horror for Troy is brought home in the lamenting cries of Cassandra and in these lines spoken by Troilus:

Hector is gone:
Who shall tell Priam so, or Hecuba?
Let him that will a screech-owl aye be call’d,
Go in to Troy, and say there, Hector’s dead:
There is a word will Priam turn to stone;
Make wells and Niobes of the maids and wives,
Cold statues of the youth, and, in a word,
Scare Troy out of itself. (V.xi.15-22)

Shakespeare’s plays contain many such descriptions of the terrible harm that war inflicts on individuals and on society. The following passage from Henry V is among the most graphic:

. . . in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Desire the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters,
Your fathers taken by the silver beards
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen. (III.iii.33-40)

The case for peace takes a more humorous turn in Henry IV Part 1.  Sir John Falstaff enlists to aid the King in putting down a rebellion, though he is more interested in profiting from the war and has no stomach for fighting. When reminded by Prince Hal that he “owe’s God a death,” he responds with this soliloquy:

‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism. (V.ii.128-142)

Depending on your point of view, Falstaff is either a shameless coward or the only sane person on the battlefield, or a mixture of the two. In any case, Falstaff memorably derides the hollowness of popular notions of honor and offers a human counterpoint to the scenes of deadly combat.

None of this would qualify Shakespeare as a Buddhist where views of war and peace are concerned, but for all the battles and exhortations to valor, more is said on behalf of peace than on behalf of war. Shakespeare comes closest to expressing the Buddhist principle of ahimsa or non-harming in these lines from Sonnet 94:

They that have power to hurt and will do none . . .
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces.

In these examples we have been considering the outward peace of non-harming and the absence of war. Such outward peace is dependent on inner peace, which comes from the absence of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. The qualities that contribute to inner peace are those we have considered, including loving-kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, renunciation, and contentment. These qualities are the basis for positive actions that bring good consequences. The inescapable connection between actions and consequences will be our next subject.

 


  1. Sherab Chodzon Kohn, A Life of the Buddha (Boston, Shambhala Publications, inc.) 78. 
  2. Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 30. 
  3. Ibid. 105. 

9. Actions & Consequences

The Buddha teaches that the intention behind every action we take, large or small, contributes to our future happiness or unhappiness.

But as dust thrown against the wind, mischief is blown back in the face of the fool who wrongs the pure and harmless. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

These teachings are associated with the term karma, a Sanskrit word that denotes the sum of a person’s actions. The Buddhist concept of karma is bound up with belief in rebirth, which Shakespeare did not share, so I won’t try to claim that Shakespeare believed in karma. However, his plays do illustrate three central tenets of karma:

    • Actions bring consequences;
    • The intentions behind the actions determine the nature of the consequences
    • Good intentions bring good consequences, and bad intentions bring bad consequences

As the Buddha says in The Dhammapada, “It is better to do nothing than to do what is wrong, for whatever you do you do to yourself.”[ii]  Such advice is not unique to Buddhism. According to St. Paul, “As ye sow so shall ye reap,” or in modern parlance, “what goes around comes around.” Shakespeare vividly illustrates the principle that ill-intended actions bring bad consequences for the actor.

Let’s begin with Richard III. In the course of seizing and securing the English crown, Richard commits eleven murders. In the end, despite all his machinations, Richard is killed in battle on Bosworth Field. To leave no doubt that ignominious death is the direct consequence of his actions, Shakespeare has the ghost of each victim appear to him on the eve of battle to recount the circumstances of their murder and bid him “despair and die.”

We have seen the consequences that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth bring on themselves by their murderous actions. Before killing Duncan Macbeth foresees them:

          . . . if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. (I.vii.2-12)

Shakespeare not only shows us the consequences of bad behavior in the course of the play; he has the malefactor point them out to us in advance of the crime.

After committing the murder Macbeth looks at his hands and sees that it will be impossible to escape the consequences of what he has done:

What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red. (II.ii.77-81)

Something similar happens in Hamlet. After murdering his brother, seizing his kingdom, and marrying his queen, Claudius tries to pray for forgiveness but realizes that his prayers ring hollow and will never bring absolution:

May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but ’tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell’d,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.  (III.iii.60-68)

We can easily accept that Richard III, Macbeth, and Claudius must suffer the consequences of their murderous behavior, but in other instances the unfolding of actions and consequences can seem harsh. Consider the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear. Though he has been a philanderer, he has a good heart. When he tries to relieve the suffering of King Lear, his illegitimate son, Edmund (a consequence of his father’s philandering), betrays him to Lear’s enemies. In one of Shakespeare’s most painful scenes, Gloucester is tied to a chair and has his eyes gouged out as punishment for his kindness. When Gloucester’s good son, Edgar, comes to confront the wicked Edmund at the end of the play, he says:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes. (V.iii.204-207)

In the pre-Christian Britain of King Lear, the consequences of misbehavior can seem extreme. Gloucester sees nothing in the cosmic order but arbitrariness and cruelty when he says:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport. (IV.i.41-42 )

There is little consolation to be found in the pagan world that Gloucester inhabits. Some believers in rebirth might say that what seems to be excessive punishment in one life serves to exhaust the consequences of negative actions from another. Some Buddhists would avoid blaming the victim for his cruel fate, noting that environmental factors can also play a part. They would prefer to emphasize that the good actions of a Gloucester, a Desdemona, or a Cordelia will bring good consequences, if not in this life then in another.

Rebirth was not an accepted belief in Shakespeare’s England, but people did believe in a hereafter in which they would be held accountable for their actions. The ghost of Hamlet’s father tells Hamlet that he is:

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. (I.v.15-18)

Actions and consequences in Shakespeare’s plays are not always balanced, nor are they balanced in the course of a single life. So Buddhists believe in rebirth and Shakespeare’s contemporaries believed in a hereafter, both trusting that bad actions will be “burnt and purged away” and that goodness will eventually find its reward. Indeed, without such a conviction we could never be reconciled to the fates of Lady MacDuff and her children, Gloucester, Desdemona, and Cordelia, among others.

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[i] Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 35.

[ii] Ibid. 84.

 

10: Forgiveness, Remorse & Purification

Forgiveness

While actions and consequences unfold as they will, the proper human response to wrongdoing is forgiveness. Without forgiveness we are trapped in painful thoughts of the past and suffer from negative emotions in the form of resentment and anger. We break free of this trap when we let go of the past and dwell mindfully in the present. Belief in the healing power of forgiveness is common to most if not all spiritual traditions. As a wise person has said, forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.

Measure for Measure presents a stark contrast between strict justice and forgiveness. As the play opens Duke Vincentio deputizes a nobleman, Angelo, to rule Vienna in his absence and then disguises himself as a friar to observe what follows. Once in power Angelo takes it on himself to enforce a neglected law against fornication, condemning to death one Claudio, who his gotten his contracted but not yet married spouse with child. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, a novice nun, goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. Angelo is smitten and, indulging the very lust that he condemns in others, says that he will spare Claudio if Isabella sleeps with him. Still disguised as a friar, Duke Vincentio has Isabella pretend to agree to Angelo’s dishonorable proposition and then sends Angelo’s neglected fiancé, Mariana, to keep the assignation in Isabella’s place. Thinking he has slept with Isabella, Angelo still seeks to have Claudio killed. It appears that Claudio has been executed, but thanks to Duke Vincentio, Claudio is secretly spared.

When Duke Vincentio throws off his disguise and returns to court, Isabella comes before him to seek justice for her brother’s death, and Duke Vincentio hands down Angelo’s sentence:

‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!’
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure. (V.i.465-467)

At this Mariana, now Angelo’s wife, pleads for his life, and when the Duke proves resolute, asks Isabella to join her. Isabella, still thinking her brother, Claudio, is dead, kneels beside her, saying:

Look, if it please you, on this man condemn’d,
As if my brother lived: I partly think
A due sincerity govern’d his deeds,
Till he did look on me: since it is so,
Let him not die. (V.i.509-513)

The Duke still does not relent, and the now repentant Angelo craves death. But when the living Claudio is produced Angelo is pardoned, and the play comes to a happy resolution.

Isabella’s act of forgiveness in pleading for the life of Angelo is more than remarkable. She is forgiving the man who sought to violate her chastity as a novice nun and, thinking he had done so, still tries to kill the brother he had promised to spare in return. It would be difficult to imagine a greater triumph of forgiveness over the natural human desire for justice.

The spiritual lesson is central. Measure for Measure is Shakespeare’s only play with a title based on a verse from the Bible:

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again. Matthew 7:2.

And the Buddha teaches:

Do not be the judge of people; do not make assumptions about others. A person is destroyed by holding judgments about others. The Buddha, from the Anguttara Nikaya.[i]

While judgment is to be expected, it belongs to the Lord for Christians and Jews and to karma, or to the unfolding of actions and consequences, for Buddhists.  It belongs to us to forgive.

In The Tempest, his last complete play, Shakespeare leaves us with another demonstration of the power of forgiveness. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, has much to forgive. His brother, Antonio, with the help of Alonso, Duke of Naples, has deposed him and cast him away in a leaky boat with his infant daughter, Miranda. They land on an enchanted island inhabited by Caliban, the half-human son of a witch. Using magic powers attained through long study, Prospero subdues Caliban and rules over the island.

During the course of the play Prospero – assisted by the spirit, Ariel – uses his magic to:

  • Raise a tempest that brings his former enemies to the island unharmed;
  • Foil a series of plots hatched by Antonio, Caliban and others; and
  • Cause Miranda and Ferdinand, son of Alonso, to fall in love;

Prospero then begins the work of reconciliation and forgiveness with the following speech:

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ’gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel. (V.i.34-39)

Prospero openheartedly embraces the company of his former enemies in a general welcome, with special warmth for Alonso.

Alonso and his son, Ferdinand, who have thought one another lost in the tempest, are reunited, and Prospero and Alonso join in mutual joy at the coming marriage of their children. When Alonso asks forgiveness of his future daughter-in-law, Prospero responds:

There, sir, stop.
Let us not burden our remembrances with
A heaviness that’s gone. (V.i.236-238)

Prospero gives up his magical powers, frees Ariel, forgives the plotters, and even pardons Caliban as he prepares to return as Duke to Milan. In the closing lines Prospero invites members of the audience to remember their own culpability and join in the spirit of forgiveness:

As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free. (Epi.19-20)

Not all of Shakespeare’s malefactors are forgiven. There is no forgiveness for the unrepentant Richard III, Macbeth, Iago, or Claudius. But with The Tempest Shakespeare ends his career with a reminder that if we wish to be forgiven we must be ready to forgive.

 

Remorse & Purification

It is the part of one who has suffered wrong to forgive. It is the part of one who has done wrong to purify the action by confessing it with genuine remorse.

What we find in Buddhism is remorse or regret rather than guilt. Remorse means acknowledgement of a wrong action, recognition of its negative consequences, a determination to do what one can to correct it, and a resolution never to do such a thing again. Remorse differs from guilt in that it condemns the action and not the doer of the action. Buddhists believe that even the worst actions can be purified because our fundamental nature is unstained. All beings have buddha nature, however badly they may have acted.

In The Winter’s Tale Leontes, King of Sicilia, behaves very badly indeed when he wrongly thinks that his wife, Hermione, has been unfaithful to him with the visiting King Polixenes of Bohemia. In a jealous rage he imprisons Hermione, takes away her son, and tries to have the fleeing Polixenes poisoned. When Hermione gives birth to a girl, Perdita, Leontes assumes it is the child of Polixenes, threatens to have it burned, and then has it taken away to be abandoned to the elements. Leontes refuses to relent, even when the oracle of Apollo says that Hermione is innocent. Only when his son dies as a consequence of his actions does Leontes recognize his terrible mistake. Hermione swoons on learning of the boy’s death, and soon after Leontes is told that she has also died, but Hermione is alive and secreted away under the care of her friend, Paulina.

At the beginning of the play, before their lives are shattered by the King’s attack of jealousy, Polixenes tells Hermione about his happy childhood days with Leontes:

We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun
And bleat the one at th’ other. What we changed
Was innocence for innocence. We knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed
That any did. (I.ii.85-90)

Polixenes goes on to say that had they not taken on the desires and responsibilities of adulthood they would have remained guiltless before heaven of any inherited stain. What we have here is a doctrine of original innocence as opposed to original sin. Original innocence is consistent with the Buddhist belief that our fundamental nature remains unblemished, however it might be obscured by our faults. Even our worst faults can be purified through remorse.

Original innocence is personified by the infant, Perdita, abandoned to the elements on the order of Leontes. Happily, she is found by a shepherd and grows up in Bohemia in idyllic pastoral simplicity. At the age of sixteen she falls in love with Florizel, son of King Polixenes, and they flee to Sicilia to escape Polixenes’ wrath at his son’s betrothal to a mere shepherd’s daughter.

For these sixteen years, back in Sicilia, Leontes has been suffering terrible remorse and making daily visits to the tomb of Hermione and his son, where tears are his “daily recreation.” He also patiently bears the admonishments of Paulina, who tells him of Hermione’s incomparable qualities and makes him promise not to remarry.

After Leontes’ sixteen years of remorse a courtier, Cleomenes, says:

Sir, you have done enough, and have performed
A saintlike sorrow. No fault could you make
Which you have not redeemed—indeed, paid down
More penitence than done trespass. (V.1.1-4)

Perdita and Florizel arrive at the court of the grieving Leontes, pursued by the angry Polixenes. Perdita’s true identity is soon uncovered, and Perdita, Leontes, Polixenes, and Florizel are happily reunited.

At last Hermione’s friend, Paulina, leads them all to a chapel containing what appears to be a statue of Hermione. The statue comes to life, warmly embraces Leontes, and addresses Perdita:

You gods, look down,
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter’s head! (V.iii.153-155)

With his bad behavior purified through remorse, Leontes finds grace in the restoration of his innocent wife and daughter.

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[i]Anguttara Nikaya: The Book of Gradual Sayings, Volume V, F.L. Woodward and E.M. Hare, trans. (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1994), p. 140.

11: Egolessness

Egolessness is the realization that our selves and the phenomena we encounter are impermanent, interdependent, and composed of parts and therefore have only a relative and fleeting existence.  If we want to appreciate egolessness as it applies to our selves we can start by asking who we would be without our name, our family, our friends, our possessions, our work, our position, our beliefs, our physical appearance, our physical strength, etc.  These aspects of our identity, and any others that we can imagine, are subject to change and have no enduring reality.  The more we come to realize this the more we come to appreciate that there is no such thing as a solid self.  The self that we identify with and cling to is a concept based on transient, ever-changing phenomena.

Having no solid self doesn’t mean having no sense of self at all.  It means having a healthy sense of self, free from clinging to what will change.  The Buddha taught that if we could stop clinging to the impermanent and illusory aspects of our identity we would find openness and clarity.  This is not where most of us are.  For most of us suddenly losing even one or two cherished aspects of our identity would be a shattering experience. Some of Shakespeare’s characters find themselves in this very position.

Consider Richard II.  Indulgent with his friends and profligate with money, Richard II goes too far when he exiles his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, and then seizes his assets to pay for wars in Ireland.  Henry returns from exile at the head of an invading army, and Richard returns from Ireland to find that his friends have fled, been killed, or gone over to Bolingbroke.  In denial, Richard at first clings to his identity as a divinely elected monarch:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king; (III.ii.55-56)

When it becomes clear that he must submit to his cousin, he pictures himself exchanging the trappings of kingship for the identity of a humble monk:

I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My scepter for a palmer’s walking-staff,
My subjects for a pair of carvèd saints,
And my large kingdom for a little grave, (III.iii.148-158)

He finds that the descent from power is not going to be that easy.  Once he has given up the crown he no longer knows who he is and wishes that he could melt away into oblivion:

I have no name, no title,
No, not that name was given me at the font,
But ’tis usurped. Alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out
And know not now what name to call myself.
O, that I were a mockery king of snow
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
To melt myself away in water drops. (IV.i.266-273)

Sent away to prison, Richard has these final thoughts before he is murdered:

Sometimes am I king.
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am; then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king.
Then am I kinged again, and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing. But whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased
With being nothing. (V.v.32-41)

At the end he begins to understand that only “with being nothing,” only by letting go of attachment to identity, will he “be eased.”

Shakespeare returns to the subject of royal identity in King Lear.  Lear is not deposed but voluntarily gives up power to his daughters with the expectation that he will retain “the name and all addition to a king.”  He foolishly thinks that he can give up power and keep the identity that goes with it, but soon finds out otherwise when he goes to live with his daughter, Goneril. Instead of treating him like a king and a beloved father, she bitterly scolds him for the behavior of his followers.  His sense of identity shaken, Lear asks:

Does any here know me? This is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied—Ha! Waking? ’Tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am? (I.iv.231-235)

The descent continues as Lear’s retinue is reduced by half and then taken away entirely. Left out in a storm with his sanity slipping away, Lear faces the loss of all that has defined his existence.  Adrift and desperate to know who he is, he sees a naked beggar in the storm and exclaims, “Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.”(III.iv.114-115)Then, with the storm raging around him, Lear begins tearing off his clothes, crying, “off, off you lendings!”  It is as if he is trying to tear away those aspects of his old identity that are causing him so much pain.

Lear declines further into madness, obsessing about kingship, authority, and the ingratitude of children.  Only after a battle is lost and Lear and Cordelia are led away to prison does he finally let go of attachment to power, position, and the deference that goes with them.  As he consoles Cordelia Lear sounds like a man who has emerged from darkness into light:

Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon. . . (V.iii.9-20)

Having let go of the attachments that have defined his self-identity, Lear gains new understanding.  He now knows that the power and position he has lost were impermanent and illusory, like the “packs and sects of great ones, that ebb and flow by the moon.” Unencumbered by his old burdens he is ready to look into “the mystery of things.” Unhappily, with the death of Cordelia Lear is again plunged into mental anguish.  At the end he dies in the apparent belief that Cordelia has come back to life.

After much suffering Richard II and King Lear glimpse the truth.  Richard knows at the end that our suffering is eased only when we are pleased with being nothing.  And Lear knows, if only for a moment, the contentment that is to be found in freedom from identity, living in prison as a hermit and considering the mystery of things.

 

Shakespeare’s Lack of Ego

We will conclude our exploration of Shakespeare and Buddhism by considering Shakespeare’s own ego or lack of ego.  If Shakespeare had normal egoistic attachments they left few traces in his work.  We cannot draw from the plays any firm conclusions about Shakespeare’s preoccupations, personal preferences, points of view, or beliefs.  While John Milton employs poetry as a vehicle to “justify the ways of God to Man,” Shakespeare has no such agendas.  In his plays many points of view are expressed and many qualities are embodied, but they are the points of view and qualities of the characters and not necessarily those of the playwright.  Shakespeare is like the artist described by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who “remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence.”[1] 

William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Keats all remarked on Shakespeare’s lack of ego.  Hazlitt wrote that, “He (Shakespeare) was the least of an egoist that it was possible to be; he was nothing in himself, but he was all that others were or could become.”[2] Emerson expressed the strikingly similar view that, “Shakespeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic, but all is duly given.  He has no discoverable egotism.”[3] John Keats coined the term, negative capabilityto describe the singular quality that he found in Shakespeare.  He explains in a letter to his brothers:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a man of achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason– [4]

Negative capability is openness to experience without the egoistic wish to question, understand or control.  This is a quality that a man with “no discoverable egotism” would possess.

The Buddhist teacher and author, Stephen Batchelor, finds that negative capability “bears a striking affinity with the practice of Zen Buddhism.”[5]  Considering Hazlitt’s statement that Shakespeare “was nothing in himself, but he was all that others were or could become,” Bachelor writes that:

One might equally use this phrase to describe the Buddha dwelling in selfless freedom (nirvana) beneath the bodhi tree after his awakening.[6]

The ability to be present with life in all its mystery, unburdened by attachment to a solid self, is an ability that the Buddha exemplifies.  If Keats, Hazlitt, Emerson and Batchelor are right and Shakespeare possessed it, then he was a being of great insight.  Though not a Buddhist, Shakespeare, the artist, resembled the Buddha in this important respect.

Not that we have to think of Shakespeare as some kind of holy man in order to appreciate his genius.  Perhaps Shakespeare had egoistic attachments like most of us but was able to set them aside, at least temporarily, and enter a creative space of negative capability, of openness and clarity.  Thus unencumbered, his mind would have become a polished mirror, reflecting human nature in all its variety.  We find the mirror metaphor in Hamlet’s speech to the players:

… the purpose of playing. . . is,to hold as t’were the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (III.ii.23-26)

From Shakespeare’s mirror-like mind comes poetry and dramatic situations that illustrate truths taught by the Buddha, including the truth of suffering, the causes of suffering, and the relief to be attained through the cultivation of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, forgiveness, and remorse.  It is easy to find passages that exemplify Buddhist teachings on the dangers of an unguarded mind, the reality of impermanence and death, the illusory nature of existence, the link between actions and consequences, and egolessness.  When we experience Shakespeare’s plays we are often in the presence of universal wisdom, reflected as from a flawless mirror and resonating with truths taught in Buddhism and other spiritual traditions.

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[1]Joyce, James, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: The Viking Press, Inc.1964), 215.

[2]Hazlitt, William, William Hazlitt, Essayist and Critic: Selections from His Writings. (London: Frederick Warne and Co,1889), 113.

[3]Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Prose Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. (Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1876) 115.

[4]Keats, John, Selections from Keats’ Letters (1817) The Poetry Foundation 2016 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/essays/detail/69384(27 Apr 2017)

[5]Batchelor, Stephen. The Practice of Negative Capability: Buddhist Reflections on Creative Uncertainty. Sea of Faith. 2002 (27 May 2016) http://sof.org.nz/batch2002.htm

[6]Ibid.

 

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