Introduction

A Search for Common Ground

Several years ago, I spent two weeks at a Buddhist retreat center in France, where teachings and practices were held in a large canvas tent, with sides drawn up to let in the summer breeze. Sitting in meditation posture we were taught to focus our attention on a series of meditation objects, including:

  • The breath,
  • A mantra,
  • An image of the Buddha
  • Sights, sounds, and smells,
  • Bodily sensations, and
  • Thoughts and emotions.

From the tent, we saw colorful Tibetan prayer flags moving with the wind, heard delivery trucks bringing food, and smelled the vegetarian curry prepared for lunch. Inwardly, we struggled, some with daydreams, some with strong emotions, some with strained knee ligaments, some with back pain, some with an itching nose, and some with sleepiness.

Our method of meditation was threefold: (1) focus on an object of meditation; (2) stay aware, and when attention wanders return it the object; and (3) otherwise, let the mind rest in stillness.

When attention wanders return it to the object; how hard could that be? But I was at first unequal to the task. I sat for hours lost in distraction, but by the end of the retreat, I had made progress and was beginning to feel truly calm and settled. As I boarded the bus that would take me to the airport, I was sorry to leave but determined to build on the experience by practicing regularly.

Within twenty-four hours of my return to Washington, D.C., I went to a performance of Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre. I entered the theatre feeling tired from jet lag but soon found myself transfixed by the thoroughly absorbing production. Three hours later, after the scheming, deception and manipulation, after the mental anguish, madness, and killing, and after the building tension and catastrophe, I gazed at the bodies of Desdemona, Emilia, and Othello lying on the stage. The emotions aroused in me had been exhausted. I walked to the Metro station in the soft September rain with a settled state of mind, not unlike the state of mind experienced in meditation.

In the days that followed, I thought of the Elizabethan writer working in a large and dirty city on a rainy northern island and of the Buddha living five centuries before the birth of Christ in a tropical land of lush forests inhabited by elephants, tigers, and monkeys. I had found each to be a source of transformation and wondered if there were parallels or instructive connections between Shakespeare’s works and the Buddha’s teachings.

Try as I might, I could not come up with much. It was as if the Buddha and Shakespeare lived on different planets. While the Buddha taught his followers to overcome the ego and transcend the cycle of birth and death by doing no harm, training the mind, and benefiting others, Shakespeare wrote plays about romantic love, sex, war, royal power, betrayal, jealousy, murder, and revenge. The apparent lack of common ground should not have come as a surprise. Drama is built on tension within and between ego-centered individuals with negative emotions and conflicting desires. These essential ingredients of drama are the very things the Buddha taught his followers to overcome.

My search for connections between the works of Shakespeare and the teachings of the Buddha was at a standstill, and a chasm loomed before me, the chasm of historical, cultural, and religious differences between Shakespeare’s England and the Buddha’s India, a chasm that I could scarcely fathom and could not hope to bridge. Sensing that the task was hopeless, I gave up. If there were any relationships between such disparate realms, I was not the one to find them. But as soon as I stopped searching, connections began to appear. Now that I was no longer trying, it occurred to me that the Buddha and Shakespeare:

  • Both appreciated the power of thoughts and the need to control them;
  • Were both concerned with suffering and the causes of suffering;
  • Both celebrated qualities that counter suffering, including love, compassion, joy at others’ good fortune, equanimity, forgiveness, renunciation, contentment, forgiveness, and remorse;
  • Were both concerned with impermanence and death;
  • Both appreciated that the intention behind an action brings good or bad consequences for the actor;
  • Both demonstrated the illusory nature of existence; and
  • Both realized that the aspects of personal identity to which we cling have no enduring reality.

As the fog lifted, I began to find passages and dramatic situations in Shakespeare’s works that richly illustrate some of the Buddha’s central teachings. But how could this be? Shakespeare, on his rainy northern island, could have known nothing about the teachings of the Buddha. Knowledge of Buddhism disappeared from Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire and would not 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 he was a bodhisattva to understand how his works might sometimes resonate with the teachings of the Buddha. We have only to appreciate the universality of a playwright whose works have been translated into 80 languages and remained in continuous production for over 400 years.

 

Shakespeare’s Vast Perspective

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

Out of his oceanic mind, Shakespeare brought forth human experience in all its depth and complexity. His characters represent all walks of life, from exalted rulers to thieves and drunkards. He shows us every feeling known to humankind, including love, compassion, joy, sadness, grief, hatred, pride, jealousy, remorse, and fear. He takes us inside the minds of lovers, deposed monarchs, jealous husbands, mistreated fathers, grieving parents, and serial killers. He places characters in extreme situations that test their limits 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 malign, the innocence of childhood and the experience of old age. As Goethe wrote, “whatever can be known of the heart of man may be found in his plays.”[iv]

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

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

He intends for his poems to last not just for a long time, but “to the ending doom.” He has similar aspirations for his plays. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, 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 vision is at least as farseeing as that which he attributes to Cassius. He transcends the limits of his own time and place to write for audiences that will encounter his works in the distant future, “in states unborn and accents yet unknown.” He writes for us and for the millions who have experienced his works over the last 400 years and those who will experience them until “the ending doom.”

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

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

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

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

[iv]Bent, Samual Arthur. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1887). 258.

 

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