Post 22: Conclusion

We have seen that Shakespeare was a mindful observer of nature, of human behavior, and of the inner operations of the mind. In his great tragedies he shows the terrible consequences that ensue when in our ignorance we allow our thoughts to be taken over by attachment, aversion, and related negative e emotions. This can only lead to suffering and the causes of suffering, and Shakespeare gives us memorable examples of every variety of suffering. He also gives us examples of qualities of mind that counter suffering, including loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity, contentment, respect for cause and effect, forgiveness, and remorse.

Shakespeare’s plays and poems can be used to illustrate other essential truths taught by the Buddha and his followers, including:

  • the certainty of impermanence and death,
  • the illusory nature of all phenomena,
  • interdependence,
  • the fact that all actions have consequences determined by good or bad intent, and
  • egolessness, which is the understanding that neither the self nor phenomena are ultimately real.

We have noted the absence of Shakespeare’s own ego in his works, an absence that lead Hazlitt to observe that, “He was the least of an egoist that it was possible to be…” While we cannot say that Shakespeare was a Buddhist, we might, if we agree with Hazlitt, Keats, and Emerson, say that he was Buddha-like, at least in this one respect.

We have found many points of correspondence between Shakespeare and the dharma, and a more knowledgeable and imaginative reader could doubtless find more, but some qualifications are in order. Not every aspect of Buddhist teaching can be fully illustrated by examples from Shakespeare. We find loving-kindness in Shakespeare, but not loving-kindness extended to beings throughout the universe in all directions. We find compassion, but not the compassion of a bodhisattva ready to take on the suffering of all sentient beings. The examples of equanimity that we find are of the Stoic rather than the Buddhist variety. That is, some characters are free from personal attachments and aversions but don’t necessarily regard all beings with an equal mind.

Shakespeare’s plays illustrate interdependence as it is commonly understood, but not the subtler Buddhist teaching on interdependent co-arising. We find characters that have glimpses of the truth of egolessness, but none who completely realize it. While the murder of human beings is condemned and arguments are made against war, we do not find reverence for the lives of all sentient beings.

We must also acknowledge fundamental differences between Buddhist beliefs and those of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who would not have been familiar with rebirth, the samsaric cycle of birth and death, or the buddha nature of all sentient beings. Buddhists, for their part, would not subscribe to the notion of an all-powerful creator God or the existence of an eternal and individual soul.

Much of what we find in the plays and poems, including the lovers’ tribulations, the struggles for power, the clever wordplay, and the bawdy jokes, has little obvious application to the dharma, other than to illustrate the nature of samsara. Yet throughout Shakespeare’s works we find dramatic situations and passages of poetry that wonderfully reflect the truth of the dharma, which is the truth of how things really are, as taught by the Buddha.  Because he is largely egoless as an artist Shakespeare is  able:

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. (Hamlet III.ii.23-26)

When Shakespeare holds the mirror up to nature, nature is often reflected back in forms that illustrate or partly illustrate the Buddhist dharma. Viewed within the right context, some of his works can even serve as powerful dharma teachings.


Post 21. Exhausting the Three Poisons

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us. Pema Chödrön.[i]

Shakespeare’s great tragedies bring about a “calm of mind, all passion spent,” to borrow Milton’s phrase. This state is achieved through catharsis, defined as the purging or removal of the emotions through the evocation and exhaustion of pity and fear. The notion of catharsis was introduced by Aristotle in his Poetics and is applicable to Shakespearean as well as Greek tragedy. We will consider how catharsis might apply to a Buddhist reading of Shakespeare.

In experiencing a well-written tragedy we identify with certain characters and become attached to their happiness and well being. For example, we easily identify and sympathize with the newlywed Othello and Desdemona. In the early scenes Othello’s greatness of spirit is apparent as he faces down accusations of witchcraft, and Desdemona displays a nobility of her own when she tells her angry father of her marriage and duty to the Moor. We are won over by the story of their first meeting and courtship, with Desdemona listening in rapt attention as Othello describes his many adventures:

She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them. (I.iii.193-194)

For the remainder of the play we suffer with them, as the scheming Iago pours fuel on the sparks of jealousy that he plants in Othello’s credulous mind. The more attached we are to Othello and Desdemona’s fading hopes of happiness the more aversion we feel for Iago and his wicked machinations. Seeing their needless and horrific suffering our feelings grow until the terrible closing scene in which Othello smother’s Desdemona and then stabs himself on learning of her innocence.

As we see the bodies lying upon the bed, the passions aroused in most of us have run their course and will soon fade. The worst that could happen has happened, and nothing is left; we may feel sad, spent and strangely calm.  Aristotle would say that our pity and fear have been evoked and exhausted, but from a Buddhist perspective we might revise this to say that attachment and aversion have been evoked and exhausted. This is not much of a departure from Aristotle, since pity and fear are themselves forms of aversion.

Attachment and aversion are eliminated in two ways. The feelings that accompany attachment and aversion are raised to such a pitch that we can no longer sustain them and we are emotionally drained. And at the end of the play, with Othello and Desdemona dead and Iago about to be executed, the objects of our attachment and aversion are gone from the world.

By evoking powerful emotions and then removing the objects of those emotions, Shakespeare shows us the impermanent and illusory nature of the phenomena in which we had been so heavily invested. The veil of ignorance is lifted and we see that the objects to which we were attached and objects to which we were averse had no real existence.

After experiencing a tragedy such as Othello, we might say that the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion have been eliminated, at least as far as our experience of the play is concerned.  After we leave the theatre we will still have our own personal ignorance, attachments, and aversions to contend with, but perhaps we will be better able to see them for what they are. Taken in the right spirit Shakespeare’s tragedies can serve as powerful dharma teachings.


[i] Chödrön, Pema. When Things Fall Apart (Boston: Shambhala, 1997), 7.


Post 20: Negative Capability

It struck me what quality… Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. John Keats[i]

One of Shakespeare’s strengths is that as an artist he is largely egoless. We cannot draw from the plays and poems any firm conclusions about Shakespeare’s politics, personal preferences, points of view, or religious beliefs. While John Milton employs poetry as a vehicle to “justify the ways of God to Man,” Shakespeare has no such agenda. In Shakespeare’s plays many points of view are expressed and many qualities are embodied, but they are the points of view and qualities of his 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.”[ii]

The essayist, William Hazlitt, said of Shakespeare that, “He 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.”[iii] Hazlitt was not alone in his observation. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that, “Shakespeare has no discoverable egotism.”[iv] Considering Hazlitt’s statement about Shakespeare, the Buddhist teacher and author, Stephen Batchelor, writes that:

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

The poet, John Keats, was familiar with Hazlitt’s opinion and shared it. He called Shakespeare’s non-egoistic quality “negative capability” or the ability to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This ability to be present with life, just as it is, in all its mystery is an ability that the Buddha embodied. If Keats is right and Shakespeare had it, then he was a being of profound understanding. Though not a Buddhist, Shakespeare resembled the Buddha in at least this one respect.


[i] Keats, John, Selections from Keats’ Letters (1817) The Poetry Foundation 2016

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

[iii] Motion, Andrew, Keats (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1999), 227.

[iv] Greenham, David, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, Melville, James, Berryman: Great Shakespeareans, Vol. XIII (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), 16.

[v] Batchelor, Stephen. The Practice of Negative Capability: Buddhist Reflections on Creative Uncertainty. Sea of Faith. 2002 (27 May 2016)


Post 19: How Not to Meditate

If it weren’t for my mind my meditation would be excellent. Pema Chödrön[i]

Shamatha meditation is the basic introductory practice for many students of Buddhism. Very simply, it involves resting in a comfortable sitting posture with the back straight, hands placed on the knees or in the lap, shoulders relaxed, mouth slightly open, and the gaze looking downwards at about a 45 degree angle. Attention is focused lightly on the breath, an object, or a mantra. As thoughts come, we gently let them go, return our attention to the breath, object, or mantra, and rest spaciously in the present moment.

The practice of meditation as taught by the Buddha and his followers was unknown to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but even where Shakespeare and Buddhism appear to be unrelated, the Bard has something to teach us about the dharma. In this case, he can teach us how not to meditate.

Shakespeare’s lesson on how not to meditate can be found in Sonnet 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

As poetry these lines are compelling. As a description of a meditation session they tell us what not to do. The speaker’s meditation begins promisingly in the first line. He has set aside time for a session and has found a quiet place, but the undertaking quickly goes downhill. Rather than focus on the breath, remain in the present moment, and let thoughts come and go without following them, the speaker deliberately leaves the present moment to “summon up remembrance of things past.” This only exacerbates the pain of grasping after “many a thing I sought” and leads to fruitless self-castigation over his “dear time’s waste.” As he dredges up old stories he is increasingly trapped in the past and becomes more and more miserable, weeping again over past deaths, woes, and losses. What begins as a “session of sweet silent thought” deteriorates into a pity party. The speaker doesn’t understand that our sessions will not remain sweet and silent for long if we allow our thoughts to run riot.

In the closing lines he seeks to save the situation by thinking on his dear friend. Friends are wonderful, but they are no substitute for knowing how to control our thoughts, and attachment to friends, or to anything else, is likely to bring more suffering over the long run.


[i] Chödrön, Pema. The Pocket Pema Chodron. (Boston & London: Shambhala, 20008), 14.


Post 18: Egolessness

The entire Buddhist path is based on the discovery of egolessness and the maturing of insight or knowledge that comes from egolessness. Chogyam Trungpa[i]

For Buddhists egolessness or no-self (anatta) is one of the three basic facts of existence, the others being suffering (dukkha) and impermanence (anicca). Egolessness is the understanding that neither phenomena nor the self are ultimately real. Buddhist teachings on egolessness can be challenging, but as a first step toward some appreciation of the egolessness of the self, we might ask who we would be without our name, our thoughts, our emotions, our beliefs, our memory, our family relationships, our skills, our job, our possessions, our physical appearance, our physical strength, etc? These aspects of our identity, and any other aspects that we can imagine, are subject to change and have no enduring existence. 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 try to grasp onto is a concept based on transient, ever-changing phenomena.

Understanding that there is no solid self doesn’t mean having no sense of self at all. It means not having an unhealthy sense of self based on clinging to what is subject to change. We are 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 the case of Shakespeare’s 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 comes back 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;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord: (III.ii.55-62)

When it becomes clear that he must submit to his cousin, he pictures himself exchanging the trappings of royalty 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,
A little, little grave, an obscure grave; (III.iii.148-159)

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 nonexistence:

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)

Although his suffering continues, he begins to understand that only “with being nothing,” only by letting go of attachment to identity, will he be “be eased.”

Shakespeare returns to the subject of 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” and keep a following of a hundred knights. 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 Fool responds, “Lear’s shadow.” 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 struggles with the growing evidence that he is no longer who he thought he was, no longer a king and beloved father. He now wants to know who he and others essentially are, and when he encounters a naked beggar in the storm he thinks he sees an answer to his question.

—Is man no more than this? Consider him well.—Thou
ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep
no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha, here’s three on ’s
are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated
man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. (III.iv.110-115)

Then, with the storm raging around him, Lear begins tearing off his clothes, crying, “off, off you lendings!” It is as if Lear is trying to tear away those aspects of identity that are causing him so much pain.

In his suffering Lear begins to understand that he was deceived by the deference paid to him as King. His identity as an invincible monarch is a lie:

When the rain came to wet me
once and the wind to make me chatter, when the
thunder would not peace at my bidding, there I
found ’em, there I smelt ’em out. Go to. They are
not men o’ their words; they told me I was everything.
’Tis a lie. I am not ague-proof. (

As Lear descends further into madness he obsesses 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 appear to let go of his 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.

None of Shakespeare’s characters achieve egolessness, but some suffer the painful unraveling of identity. In the course of their suffering, Richard II and Lear have insights that approach the truth. Richard II knows at the end that contentment will come only when we are pleased with being nothing, with having no attachment to identity. And Lear knows that contentment can be found without his old identity, living in prison as a hermit and considering the mystery of things.


[i] Chogyam Trungpa, The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Volume Four: Journey without Goal (Boston: Shambhala, 2004), 9.


Post 17. Peace

Better than a thousand hollow verses is one verse that brings peace. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

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

Thomas Hardy wrote that, “war makes rattling good history, but peace is poor
reading.”[iii] 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 afeardthere 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 from 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.

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.

Shakespeare’s plays celebrate military valor, but military valor isn’t everything. Some of the characters most noted for military valor, Macbeth, Othello, and Coriolanus, turn out to be flawed human beings who come to bad ends.

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 of how things are. The qualities that contribute to inner peace are those we have been considering, including loving-kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, renunciation, contentment, forgiveness, and remorse.


[i] Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 30.

[ii] Ibid. 105.

[iii] Hardy, Thomas, The Dynasts, (Part II, Scene V) 01 Sep 2013 (26 May 2016)

Post 16. Remorse & Purification

There is nothing good about negative actions except that they can be purified through confession. Milarepa[i]

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 rather than guilt. Remorse means full acknowledgement of a wrong action, resolution never to do such a thing again, and a determination to do what one can to correct it. 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 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 has his wife imprisoned and deprived of 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. Even when the oracle of Apollo says that Hermione is innocent, Leontes does not relent. 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 of original sin. This is a crucial point. Shakespeare begins a play about remorse and purification with an assertion of original purity, which Buddhists would call buddha nature.

The infant, Perdita, abandoned to the elements at the order of Leontes, 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 his wife and son, where tears are his “daily recreation.”

After the 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 Polixenes. Perdita’s true identity is soon discovered, 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.


[i] Patrul Rinpoché, The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Boston: Shambhala, 1998), 264.


Post 15. Forgiveness

“Look how he abused me and beat me, how he threw me down and robbed me.” Abandon such thoughts and live in love. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

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.

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s great revenge tragedy, but it closes on a note of forgiveness. After fatally wounding one another with the same unbated and envenomed sword, Laertes and Hamlet exonerate one another.

Laertes: Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:
Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.


Hamlet: Heaven make thee free of it!  (V.ii.361-364)

This forgiveness comes too late to have any effect on the outcome of the play, but in Buddhism as well as in Christianity we are taught the importance of exchanging forgiveness before death.

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 a series of substitutions arranged by Duke Vincentio, Claudio is secretly spared.

When Duke Vincentio throws off his disguise and returns, Isabella comes before him to seek justice. After giving Angelo further opportunity to demonstrate his guilt, 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. from the Anguttara Nikaya.[ii]

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.

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 the 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. With the help of his attendant spirit, Ariel, he raises a Tempest that brings Antonio, Alonzo, his brother Sebastian, his son Ferdinand, and servants Stephano and Trinculo to the island. Once on the island, Antonio and Sebastian conspire to kill Alonso for his crown, and Caliban colludes with Stephano and Trinculo in a drunken plot to kill Prospero and rule the island, but Prospero foils the plots with the help of Ariel. Meanwhile, Miranda and Ferdinand fall innocently in love. As the play nears its end Prospero the magician has everyone on the island in his power, and the work of reconciliation and forgiveness begins.

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)

All past wrongs are reconciled, and with the innocent love of Miranda and Ferdinand, a new day of concord begins.

Prospero gives up his magical powers, frees the spirit, Ariel, forgives Stephano and Trinculo, 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.


[i] Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 2.

[ii] Kornfield, Jack with Fronsdal, Gil Ed. Teachings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 123.


Post 14. Actions & Consequences

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]

In Buddhism belief in 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, Shakespeare’s Richard III 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 cruel. 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.


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

[ii] Ibid. 84.


Post 13. Interdependence

This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This comes to be, because that comes to be. This ceases to be, because that ceases to be. The Buddha, Majjhima Nikaya[i]

As noted in our discussion of illusion, nothing is independent. All phenomena depend for their existence on causes and conditions. When causes and conditions come together in a certain way, a phenomenon arises. When causes and conditions are no longer conducive, it dissolves.

To illustrate interdependence Thich Nhat Hanh uses the example of a piece of paper. He says that in the paper we should see the rain clouds and the sunshine that provided the right conditions for the forest that supplied the wood that was used to make the paper. We should see the logger who cut the tree and the food that nourished the logger and the logger’s parents.[ii] We could also see the factory where the paper was made and all of the people who worked in the factory and the chemicals that were used. We could go on forever describing the causes and conditions that come together in just one sheet of paper.

Interdependence can easily be seen in the activities of human beings. Our very existence and everything that happens to us depend upon a multitude of causes and conditions, and everything that we do or do not do, down to the smallest action or inaction, will affect others and ourselves, often in unpredictable ways.

This is evident in the action of any of Shakespeare’s plays. Romeo and Juliet offers a particularly good example. The prologue to the play describes the lovers as “star-crossed,” but the causes and conditions that lead to their tragedy unfold right here on earth. In the following brief summary of the play I have placed a number in parentheses after every cause and condition that is critical to the outcome.

The play begins in the streets of Verona with a brawl between partisans of the feuding Capulet and Montague families. (1) This causes Verona’s prince to pronounce an edict threatening death to anyone involved in further disturbances. (2)

Soon after, an illiterate (3) serving man to the Capulet family encounters Romeo Montague in the street and asks for his help in reading a list of the guests to be invited to a festive supper at the Capulet household. (4) The serving man invites Romeo to “come and crush a cup of wine” if he “be not of the house of the Montagues.” Seeing that Rosaline, with whom he is infatuated, will be there (5) Romeo decides to attend the gathering in disguise. (6)

At the Capulet’s party Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, recognizes Romeo’s voice and wants to strike him dead, (7) but Capulet forbids it. Tybalt reluctantly agrees to be patient but determines to make Romeo pay for his intrusion. (8)

Romeo and Juliet meet and fall deeply in love despite the ancient quarrel between their families. (9) Later that night Romeo climbs over an orchard wall to speak with Juliet at her balcony window, and they exchange vows. (10)

Wanting to marry as soon as possible, Romeo visits Friar Lawrence the next morning to arrange a secret wedding. (11) The Friar overcomes his misgivings and agrees to marry them in hopes that, “this alliance may so happy prove to turn your households’ rancor to pure love.” (12) Juliet meets Romeo at Friar Lawrence’s cell, and they are married. (13)

In the next scene Tybalt finds Romeo and tries to provoke a fight. (14) Romeo, knowing that Tybalt is Juliet’s cousin, responds with conciliatory words, but his friend, Mercutio, who happens to be present, (15) takes up the fight with Tybalt. (16) Romeo comes between them to stop the fight, (17) but Tybalt takes advantage of his interference to kill Mercutio. (18) Tybalt leaves but returns looking for Romeo, (19) and this time Romeo fights him to avenge Mercutio. (20) Tybalt is killed. (21) The Prince arrives and sentences Romeo to banishment for having violated his edict against fighting. (22)

After one night of love, Romeo goes into exile in Mantua, and Juliet’s parents, not knowing of her secret marriage, (23) insist that she agree to an arranged marriage with Count Paris or else be disinherited. (24) Neither Juliet’s mother nor the Nurse have the compassion or strength of character to come to her defense, (25) so she turns to Friar Lawrence. (26) Rather than desert Romeo for a bigamous marriage with Paris, she says that she is willing to face death. (27)

The Friar is an herbalist, (28) and happens to have a potion that will make Juliet appear to be dead on the morning of her wedding. (29) The potion will wear off after 42 hours, by which time Juliet will have been interred in the family mausoleum. (30) Friar Lawrence dispatches Friar John to Mantua to inform Romeo of this plan so that Romeo can be at the mausoleum by the time Juliet awakens. (31) However, Friar John is quarantined by the authorities, who suspect that he has visited a house infected with pestilence. (32) The message is not delivered. (33)

Romeo, receiving word that Juliet has died (34), determines to go to the mausoleum and join her in death. (35) For this purpose he buys a fatal poison from a poor apothecary. (36) Romeo arrives at the cemetery and enters the tomb, sees Juliet’s apparently dead body, and takes the poison. (37)

As Juliet awakens and sees Romeo’s body, (38) Friar Lawrence arrives and tries to get her to leave with him. After the Friar is frightened away by approaching watchmen, (39) Juliet kisses Romeo, takes his dagger, and stabs herself. (40) The Capulets and Montagues meet with the Prince at the cemetery to learn from Friar Lawrence what has happened and to bury their old antagonisms together with their children.

In this brief summary we find forty clearly identifiable causes that had to come together in just the way that they did for the tragedy to reach its sad conclusion. If the Capulet’s serving man had not been illiterate, if he had not met Romeo in the street at that particular moment, if Romeo had not been infatuated with Rosaline, if Tybalt had not recognized Romeo’s voice, etc. We could go on listing the causes leading up to Juliet’s death, and behind each of the causes that we can easily identify are many others that we cannot see, and behind each of those are still others, ad infinitem. Whatever Shakespeare may have thought about the power of the stars to determine destiny, his plays illustrate the principle of interdependence, which is fundamental to Buddhism.

This is not to say that Shakespeare’s works fully illustrate the Buddhist understanding of interdependence. The Buddha goes beyond our ordinary ideas of interdependence with his teaching on interdependent co-arising or origination, which holds that cause and effect are not separate, but arise together. Each cause has an infinite number of effects and each effect has an infinite number of causes, and all causes and effects are related in a single whole, transcending concepts of space and time. The Buddha also taught on the twelve links of interdependent co-arising or origination, which determine the samsaric cycle of birth and death and the suffering that accompanies it.

Shakespeare did not have the benefit of teachings on interdependent co-arising or the twelve links of interdependent origination. While this is another instance in which Buddhism goes farther than Shakespeare can follow, Shakespeare’s plays do illustrate interdependence, as we commonly understand it.


[i] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1998), 221.

[ii] Ibid, 3-5.