Chapter 1: Why Shakespeare and the Buddha?

Shakespeare has been my frequent companion for almost fifty years, during which time I have studied his works in school, read them for pleasure, attended hundreds of performances, watched dozens of film versions of the plays, and spent many hours listening to audio productions during morning and afternoon commutes. And for the past twenty years I have studied and tried to practice Buddhism and wondered what connections might be made between the teachings of the Buddha and Shakespeare’s work

At first I did not come up with much. Buddhism and Shakespeare seemed to exist on different planets. Buddhism is concerned with transcending the samsaric cycle of birth and death by doing no harm, benefiting others, and taming the mind. Shakespeare’s plays and poems, on the other hand, tend to be largely concerned with worldly preoccupations such as romantic love, sex, royal power, betrayal, jealousy, murder and revenge.

But eventually I began to see that the Buddha and Shakespeare have much in common. They both appreciate the power of thoughts and the need to control them. They are both concerned with suffering and the causes of suffering. They both focus on the reality of impermanence and death, and they both testify to the illusory nature of existence. It is possible to find in Shakespeare passages and stories that celebrate qualities that Buddhists especialy value, including compassion, joy at others’ good fortune, contentment, forgiveness, and remorse. Buddhists are, of course, not alone in valuing these qualities. They have been encouraged in other spiritual traditions, including the Christianity of Shakespeare’s England.

The teaching of the Buddha is vast and for the purposes of this short publication I will be working on a basic level with points common to most schools of Buddhism. I have included those aspects of Buddhism most easily related to Shakespeare’s works and those passages from Shakespeare most easily related to Buddhism. There is much in Shakespeare and much in Buddhism that falls outside the scope of our discussion. For example, Buddhism is not preoccupied with the joys and tribulations of romantic attachment (other than as something to be avoided), and Shakespeare does not offer a path to non-dual realization.

But the Buddha and Shakespeare, separated as they are by time and culture, are not such strangers as we might think. Through their teachings and writings we can bring them into conversation and find that they have a great deal to say to each other.

Chapter 2: Shakespeare’s Vast Perspective

Shakespeare 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 might be we do not have to believe that Shakespeare was the reincarnation of a bodhisattva in order to believe that his works resonate with the teachings of the Buddha. We have only to appreciate the widespread appeal of a playwright whose works have been translated into 80 languages and remained in continuous production for over 400 years.

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 goes farther, writing 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 brought forth human experience in all its breadth and depth. 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 exhaustion of old age. The playwright with the most extensive audience is also the playwright with the most extensive imagination.

As Jonson and Coleridge have observed, his imagination and his appeal transcend 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 the 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 perspective 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, but vaster still is that of the Buddha and his followers. Their vision encompasses all beings throughout the whole of space and time. Two such universal visions cannot be mutually exclusive, and any correspondences between them should be well worth exploring.


[i]Jonson, Ben. To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, Poetry Foundation, 2016 (07/19/2016)

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

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

Chapter 3: Mind

Mindfulness can be defined as the practice of open, unbiased attention to outer and inner experiences as they occur in the moment. It is often cultivated through meditation but can be practiced in any situation. The Buddha taught mindfulness and praised the mindful observer:

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

Though he never cultivated mindfulness within the context of a Buddhist practice, Shakespeare was extraordinary mindful of his natural surroundings, his fellow creatures, and interior mental states.

Were he not mindful of his surroundings Shakespeare could not have written as he did. We see this in Hamlet when Queen Gertrude begins her report of the drowning of Ophelia.

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 noted 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.[ii]

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

Shakespeare must also have been mindfully attentive to the people around him, soaking up their personal quirks, idiosyncrasies, and manners of speech. His close observation of human behavior has given us: the dissolute, but loveable old reprobate, Falstaff; the silly, prattling, amoral 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 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 nothing. It discerns every grain of the gold of Plotus, the Greek God of wealth. 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 feelings that will control us if we do not first tame them. As the Buddha taught:

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make our world. The Buddha, The Dhammapada. The Buddha, The Dhammapada [iii]

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)


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. Meditators can learn to tame the mind by watching thoughts and feelings as they arise, noting them without attachment or aversion, and letting them go. In this way mental states are mastered before they can take over and lead to harmful actions. For most of us it can be extremely difficult to master our mental states in this way, but we have to try because, as the Buddha teaches:

Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts. The Buddha, Dhammapada [iv]

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 places him at the head of a force dispatched 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 already cheating on him with his 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, who defends her. 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 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.[v]


[i]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 9.

[ii]Hazlitt, William, Shakespeare and Milton (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1923), 2.

[iii]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 1.

[iv]Ibid. 13.

[v]Geshe Langri Tangpa, Eight Verses of Training the Mind, Rigpa Shedra, 27 Apr. 2016 (15 Jun 2016)


Chapter 4: Suffering


Birth is suffering; decay is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering. The Buddha, Samyutta Nikaya[i]

Suffering (dukkha)[ii] is a basic fact of existence and The First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha. In this life suffering is unavoidable. It can range from a vague feeling of dissatisfaction to the severest physical and mental torment.

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, which are to be abandoned. The causes are attachment and aversion arising from ignorance of the fact that all things are impermanent and illusory. 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 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 loving 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 are ignorant of the fact that the things they crave and the things they seek to avoid are impermanent and illusory.

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 caused by attachment, aversion, and ignorance. 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)

After Macduff 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? Sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee! (IV.iii.260-265)

From a Buddhist point of view, Macduff’s instincts are sound. We cannot alleviate suffering by ignoring it and hoping it will go away. We must confront and feel it before any healing can begin.

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 that kind of outside help. Inability to control our natural cravings is all it takes to cause 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.[iii]

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)

In the opening lines of the next scene Portia strikes a similar note:

By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is
aweary of this great world. (I.ii.1-2)

While they can be ascribed 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.

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. (, 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 spiritual teacher. He does not describe 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, 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 that would come with enlightenment, 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.  One of these qualities is compassion, which will be the subject of our next post.


[i] Kornfield, Jack with Fronsdal, Gil Ed. Teachings of the Buddha. (Boston: Shambhala, 1993). 38-39.

[ii] Italicized words within parentheses are from the Pali language in which the teachings of the Buddha were first recorded.

[iii] Shantideva, Bodhicharyavatara, Rigpa Shedra, 02 Feb 2016 (12 Jun 2016)

Chapter 5: Compassion

Just as with her own life a mother shields from hurt her own son, her only child, let all-embracing thoughts for all beings be yours. The Buddha, Metta Sutta [i]

Four of the qualities that counter suffering are known in Buddhism as the four immeasurables or sublime attitudes. They include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In practicing loving-kindness, Buddhists begin by wishing happiness and the causes of happiness for someone dear to them, and then gradually expand that wish until it embraces all sentient beings throughout the whole of space and time. The other three qualities are practiced with the same all-embracing spirit. In practicing the four immeasurables Buddhists cultivate a good heart, replacing selfish attachments with the wish to benefit others, and in this way they overcome their own suffering and often that of others.

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 devoting themselves to making others happy (loving-kindness) and to freeing them from suffering and its causes (compassion).

Loving-kindness and compassion are so closely related as to sometimes be almost indistinguishable, since happiness often depends on freedom from suffering. Compassion arises from natural empathy with our fellow 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,
Dash’d all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.
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 swallow’d and
The fraughting[ii] 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 a naked beggar also 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, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d 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 mayst 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 his inner pain.

Compassion is not a limited commodity. The more compassion we feel for the suffering of others the more our compassion grows. As compassion grows it displaces craving 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, this quality of compassion is beautifully expressed in The Merchant of Venice when Portia appeals to Shylock to spare the life of the merchant, Antonio[iii]:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
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 a beggar. It is a transcendent virtue, falling from heaven and raining blessings on the giver and receiver alike.


[i] Candy, Dennis. Peace in the Buddha’s Discourses : A Compilation and Discussion (Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy Sri Lanka, 2008), 87.

[ii] Fraughting means making up the freight.

[iii] Sogyal Rinpoche. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Harper San Francisco, 2001), 202.


Chapter 6: Sympathetic Joy

Learn to rejoice in the good fortune of others and your own happiness multiplies – it’s the best cure for envy. Sharon Salzberg[i]

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.


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:

. . . 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 a wedding about to be performed, 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 might do well to retain, nurture, and extend them to as many beings as possible.


[i] Salzberg, Sharon. Wishing Well. May 1, 2001 (Jult 26, 2017).


Chapter 7. Equanimity

To cultivate equanimity we practice catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion, before it hardens into grasping or negativity.[i] Pema Chödrön

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.

The Buddha praises:

A mind unshaken when touched by the worldly states, sorrowless, stainless, and secure, this is the blessing supreme. Mangala Sutta[ii]


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

                         . . . 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 blest 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 unshaken when touched by the worldly states.”

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 calm acceptance of one’s own fate, it is less concerned about others. It lacks the second aspect of Buddhist equanimity, which regards all beings with an equal mind.

As one of the four immeasurables equanimity is related to loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy and is practiced with an all-embracing spirit. We wish for all beings to be free from the eight worldly concerns and we wish for them to regard others with an equal mind. According to the Buddha a mind that regards all beings with equanimity is far from cold or indifferent; it is “abundant, exalted, immeasurable.” Buddhist equanimity has an open heart as well as an untroubled mind.[iii]

In Shakespeare’s plays we find characters, like Horatio, who exemplify freedom from the eight worldly concerns. What we do not find are characters who exemplify the second aspect of equanimity. They do not, as far as I can tell, make a practice of regarding 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, which would seem to be the opposite of what the Buddha teaches.

But if we do not respond to Shakespeare’s characters with an equal mind, we do respond with empathy. This is the case because his characters embody human nature so convincingly that we easily identify with them. In Shakespeare’s characters we 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. Shakespeare’s characters, with a few notable exceptions,[iv] appear to possess sparks of the same inner goodness that we perceive in ourselves. From a Buddhist perspective we would say that they have buddha nature, however obscured. That doesn’t mean we have to like their behavior, but we see them 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, or seem to be. So while some characters may provoke feelings of aversion, those feelings are usually tempered by empathy.

Genuine 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, and the egolessness of self. As we will see in future posts, Shakespeare has something to tell us about all of these subjects.


[i] Chödrön, Pema. The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (Boston & London: Shambhala Classics, 2002), 70.

[ii] Kornfield, Jack with Fronsdal, Gil Ed. Teachings of the Buddha. (Boston: Shambhala, 1993). 14-15.

[iii] Fronsdal, Gil. Equanimity. Insight Meditation Center. 29 Apr 2004 (26 May 2016).

[iv] Richard III, Iago in Othello, and Edmund, Goneril, and Regan in King Lear are among the characters in whom sparks of goodness are either lacking or almost completely obscured.

Chapter 8: Impermanence

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

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 the 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,” to:

. . . second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (II.vii.172-173)

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

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock, (IV.xiv.4-6)

That which was 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 watery 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 pain, 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 the Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki, explains, “When you realize the fact that everything changes and find your composure in it, there you find yourself in nirvana.”[iii]

It is easy to fall into the habit of grasping onto things as though they were permanent, even when we know better. 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.


[i] Byrom, Thomas. The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 74.

[ii] To efface.

[iii] Kornfield, Jack. The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology. (New York: Bantam Dell, 2008), 327.

Chapter 9. Mortality

Did you never see in the world the corpse of a man, or a woman, one or two or three days after death. . . And did the thought never come to you that you also are subject to death, that you cannot escape it. Buddha, from the Majjhima Nikaya[i]

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[ii]

And in the words of Hamlet:

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

The reality of death was more immediate to the contemporaries of the Buddha and of Shakespeare than it is to most of us in the modern world. In Shakespeare’s England 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.[iii] 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.[iv] Another 81 die offstage.[v]

Shakespeare vividly describes the reality of death and the fears that attend it. In Measure for Measure, Claudio, who has gotten a young woman with child, is sentenced to die for adultery. He is not ready for death and expresses his terror:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death. (III.i.116-131)

Claudio’s speech brings to mind the hell realms encountered in both Christian and Buddhist traditions.

Horrors of the kind described by Claudio can be converted to spiritual use. By remembering that we must die (memento mori) the mind is turned away from worldly thoughts.  Memento Mori was a basic tenet of the Stoic philosophy in Roman times. Adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in the middle ages, it was still practiced in Shakespeare’s day, when skeletons adorned the margins of the Elizabethan Book of Common prayer.

Such reminders turned the minds of some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries toward Christian spiritual practice. Buddhist teachings perform a similar function, reminding us that death is certain, that the time of death is uncertain, and that there is no time to lose in preparing the mind through spiritual practice. 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, (Mahaparinirvana Sutra)[vi]

Death is the most powerful motivation for spiritual practice, and meditation on death is the supreme meditation. Perhaps no one exemplifies these truths 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.[vii]

There are no Milarepas in Shakespeare. Although many of Shakespeare’s major 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. His father’s ghost then appears to tell Hamlet that Claudius murdered him and that Hamlet must exact revenge. Claudius refuses to allow Hamlet to leave the court to return to school, and then Claudius and Polonius use Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia, in a plot to spy on him. Little wonder that Hamlet considers suicide in the opening lines of his 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.[viii]

Thich Nhat Hanh is considering Hamlet’s speech from the standpoint of ultimate truth, which transcends dualities such as being and non-being, birth and death, here and there. Of course these dualities do manifest, but only on the relative level. Ultimate reality is beyond being and non-being. Thich Nhat Hanh sees that Hamlet is trapped in a dualistic mindset that does not accord with ultimate reality. We approach that reality when we are fully alive to “suchness.” We might say that “suchness” is the miracle of the way things are in this instant, out of time and beyond dualities.

Having established that ultimate reality transcends “to be or not to be,” we might go on to look at other passages from the 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 chamber, and 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 is probably not devoting much time to spiritual practice, but his mind has somehow grown spacious enough to look upon death and life with an even mind.

In the next scene Hamlet prepares for a “friendly” 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
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 knows aught of what he leaves
what is it to leave betimes? Let be. (V.ii.233-238)

In this passage Hamlet appears to come closer to Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding that phenomena lack intrinsic being or non-being and will manifest or not as conditions determine. In a similar way Hamlet’s sparrow has no enduring existence and will live or die as conditions determine. Has Hamlet glimpsed a reality beyond being and non-being, birth and death? Such an insight would explain the extraordinary perspective that Hamlet expresses. The timing of the fall of a sparrow and the timing of his own death have no importance for him. “The readiness is all” is the readiness for death, his own death. “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 into readiness for death. When he says, “let be,” he expresses an acceptance that Buddhists and followers of other spiritual traditions practice for years to attain.


[i] Kornfield, Jack with Fronsdal, Gil Ed. Teachings of the Buddha. (Boston: Shambhala, 1993). 32

[ii]Buddha Shakyamuni. Lalitavistara Sutra. Rigpa Shedra, 19 Nov. 2011 (22 Aug. 2016)

[iii] Mabillard, Amanda. Worst Diseases in Shakespeare’s LondonShakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (05 May 2016) < >.

[iv] Jones, Josh, 74 Ways Characters Die in Shakespeare’s Plays. Open Culture 01 Jan 2016 (26 May 2016)

[v] Minton, Eric, The Dead and Dying Make for Live! Theatre. 22 Jan 2016 (26 May 2015)

[vi] Blackman, Sushila, Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die (Boston: Shambhala, 2005), 21.

[vii] Milarepa, In horror of death. Rigpa Wiki. 27 December, 2015. (09 August, 2016),_In_horror_of_death..

[viii] Thich Nhat Hanh, Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on December 4, 1997 in Plum Village. (26 May 2016)


Chapter 10: Illusion

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world: 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. The Buddha, The Diamond Sutra[i]

The Buddha teaches that our world is fleeting and illusory. In addition to the words from the Diamond Sutra quoted above, the Buddha says in the Lotus Sutra that, “Nothing in this world is lasting or firm, but all is like bubbles, foam, heat shimmer.”[ii]

When they say that worldly phenomena are like a bubble, a phantom, or a dream, the Buddha and his followers are not saying that phenomena don’t exist at all. They are saying that the phenomena we experience are not ultimately real. This is the case because all phenomena lack three qualities that we associate with reality: they lack permanence; they lack singularity; and they lack independence. Everything is impermanent and changes, everything is multiple and made up of parts, and everything is dependent on causes and conditions.

The Buddhist understanding that all phenomena lack permanence, singularity, and independence is expressed, point for point, in Measure for Measure. 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 labour’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 exist’st 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 dost 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, making it is easy to forget that they are impermanent, multiple, and interdependent. Such ignorance gives rise to attachment and aversion and the suffering that follows. To overcome ignorance and prevent suffering the Buddha and his followers have over the centuries given many teachings on the absence of inherent existence in all phenomena. The Thirteenth Century Tibetan master, Longchenpa, lists eight similes of illusion. Phenomena are: like a dream; like a magic illusion; like a hallucination; like a mirage; like an echo; like a city of gandharvas (ephemeral beings); like a reflection; and like an apparition.[iii]

Though not a Buddhist teacher, Shakespeare was a master of illusion. We might say that illusion was his stock in trade. These lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be read as a declaration 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)

With his pen Shakespeare gives shape to all manner of illusions, only to dissolve them and show that the phenomena onto which we grasp are not what we take them to be.

In The Tempest Prospero conjures a masque of spirits to celebrate the marriage of his daughter, dissolves it, and then delivers these lines on the illusory nature of experience:

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 tells us that everything we consider to be real: the towers, palaces, temples, the earth, and all the future generations who will inherit the earth, have no more enduring reality than a magical display.

Beyond 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 Verona, As 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 frequently turn out to be alive (Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, All’s Well that Ends Well, and Pericles). 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). However things appear, they usually turns out to be something else. Shakespeare rarely lets us forget that we lose ourselves in one illusion after another and that most of us live our lives under a multitude of false impressions.

The Buddha and Shakespeare have different ways of teaching about the illusory nature of phenomena. The Buddha points to actual phenomena and teaches that they are illusory in that they have no ultimate reality. With his pen Shakespeare creates illusions out of “airy nothing,” and then uses them to demonstrate that the phenomena we encounter are fleeting and are rarely what we take them to be.

The lessons we learn from Shakespeare about the illusory nature of our world are usually forgotten after the play is finished. Back in the “real world” we would do well to remember that that the phenomena we find outside the theatre are ultimately as illusory as the phenomena that appear on the stage. If we can manage to do that, then we might say that Shakespeare has played a part in teaching the dharma.




[i] Kornfield, Jack with Fronsdal, Gil Ed. Teachings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993),143.

[ii] Buddha Shakyamuni. The Lotus Sutra, Translated by Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 249.

[iii] Longchenpa. Eight Similes of Illusion. Rigpa Wiki. 16 Mar 2011. (26 May 2016)