Archive for November, 2017

Post 19: How Not to Meditate

Saturday, November 25th, 2017

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

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

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

Monday, November 6th, 2017

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)