Archive for August, 2018


Wednesday, August 15th, 2018
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.


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


1: Mind

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018


According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine:

Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.[i]

 Mindfulness is often cultivated through meditation, but we can practice it 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. [ii]

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

Shakespeare must have had his own thoughts and emotions, but they did not prevent him from creating a body of work grounded in mindful observation of natural surroundings, the behavior of other people, and interior mental states. Attention to natural surroundings would have come early as young Shakespeare explored the gardens, meadows, and forests around Stratford, carefully observing the shapes, colors, movements, sounds, and smells of the rural countryside. The impressions made on his mind remained with him years later when he sat down to write poems and plays that contain 57 species of birds and 108 flowers, weeds, and trees, along with memorable evocations of weather and landscape.

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

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

The essayist, William Hazlitt, has observed that:

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

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.

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

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare has Ulysses commend the quality of mindfulness, the watchful state that the Buddha praises and the playwright demonstrates:

The providence that’s in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Plutus’ gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deep,
Keeps place with thought and almost, like the gods,
Does thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles. (III.iii.205-209)

The watchful state misses very little. Nothing is too minute or too vast for it. It discerns each particle of the gold of Plutus, the Greek god of wealth. It penetrates to the depths of the ocean and the depths of the mind, to the cradle of thoughts and emotions. From his watchful state Shakespeare plumbed the depths of his mind to observe the range of human qualities latent in all of us. In Sonnet 109 he writes of a mind inhabited by “All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood.” By observing the frailties and strengths within, he was able to imagine the interior lives of the great variety of characters that populate his plays.


Taming the Mind

The “frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,” give rise to thoughts and emotions that will control us if we do not learn to tame them. As the Buddha taught:

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

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

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. Buddhist teachers sometimes liken an untamed mind to a glass of muddy water, and a tamed mind to a glass in which the mud has settled to the bottom and the water is clear. Shakespeare hits upon a strikingly similar analogy in Troilus and Cressida when he has Achilles say that:

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

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

Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much                                                                                           As your own thoughts, unguarded.[v]

Although Shakespeare could not have been familiar with Buddhist meditation practices, his plays amply illustrate the Buddha’s teaching about the perils of an unguarded mind. Consider the case of Othello. At the opening of the play he has just married Desdemona. While Desdemona’s father accuses him of witchcraft, the state sides with Othello and sends him to defend Cyprus from a Turkish invasion. By the time he reaches Cyprus, a storm has destroyed the Turkish fleet, and his bride has arrived to join him. But just as things are going well for the all-sufficient Moor, the malevolent Ensign, Iago, plants in his mind the false notion that Desdemona is cheating on him with Lieutenant Cassio. The state of the Moor’s mind goes rapidly downhill as the scheming Iago spins a web of circumstantial evidence that makes it appear more and more likely that Desdemona has been unfaithful.

Even as Othello writhes in agony under the spell of jealousy, “the green-eyed monster,” 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 emotions 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, 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, he 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 harsh treatment. Under the weight of suffering too great for him to bear, he descends into madness.

Finally, there is Macbeth. Fresh from victory in battle Macbeth meets three witches who tell him that he shall be “king hereafter.” Tantalized by the prospect of royal power, Macbeth conceives a plot to kill King Duncan and seize the crown. Upon returning home he thinks better of it, but Lady Macbeth spurs him on. After murdering the visiting Duncan and claiming the crown, he commits more murders 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 Duncan’s murder while walking in her sleep and trying to wash imagined blood from her hands. Her doctor arrives, 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 look after our own minds. No doctor can do it for us. Lady Macbeth soon commits suicide, and Macbeth is left to brood on the futility of his existence until Macduff arrives with an avenging army to kill him.

Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth each fail to watch their minds and are overcome by destructive emotions that cause enormous suffering. Their stories give us plenty of reason to heed the advice of the Eleventh Century Tibetan Buddhist master, Geshe Langri Tongpa:

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.[vi]


[i]Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining Mindfulness, Mindful: Healthy Living Healthy Life, 11 Jan. 2017 (01 Mar 2019)

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

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

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

[v]Ibid. 13

[vi]Geshe Langri Tangpa, Eight Verses of Training the Mind, Rigpa Shedra, 27 Apr. 2016 (15Jun2016)




2: Suffering

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018
The First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha is the truth of Suffering. He tells us that:

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

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

Suffering is a truth unforgettably depicted in Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. In these 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, the truth of the causes of suffering. The causes are attachment and aversion to worldly phenomena arising from our ignorance of their true nature. We think they have intrinsic reality when they are impermanent, interdependent, and composed of parts. Attachment, aversion, and ignorance are sometimes called the three poisons. Craving, clinging, desire, aggression, anger, pride, and jealousy are also identified by Buddhists as causes of suffering, but all arise out of ignorance and are forms of attachment and aversion.

As the middle-aged husband of a young wife, Othello is attached to her love and wildly 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 power and deference that go with his position. Macbeth is attached to his wife and averse to her disapproval, and both are murderously averse to whatever stands in the way of absolute power. All fail to realize that the things they crave and the things they seek to avoid lack solid reality.

Suffering and the causes of suffering are not confined to the central figures of high tragedy. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with characters undergoing every variety of suffering, and he makes us feel their pain. Consider these lines from King John, spoken by the Lady Constance after her son, Arthur, jumps from a high wall and dies:

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

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

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

Macduff articulates a critical truth. We can do our best to reduce the causes of suffering, but some suffering is unavoidable, and when it comes, we have to face and feel the pain before healing can begin. When we try to suppress suffering by diverting or numbing ourselves, we fall into the trap of aversion and create more suffering.

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

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

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 regret ensues. Both the craving and regret 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 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 finds the earth and the heavens to be unhealthy and suffocating.

The Merchant, Antonio, in The Merchant of Veniceis another character who cannot account for his sadness:

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

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

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 sense of the unsatisfactoriness of life. It may be as pronounced as Hamlet’s melancholy or as mild as a song about “the wind and the rain” at the close of a comedy. All-pervasive suffering can be like the sound of a refrigerator running in the background. We may hardly notice it until the motor shuts off. For many of us the suffering of conditioned existence rarely shuts off.

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

Shakespeare shows us suffering and the causes of suffering, but does he have anything to offer concerning the Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering? Shakespeare was a poet and playwright and not a buddha. He does not prescribe a path to the cessation of suffering, such as the Noble Eightfold 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 by his followers. We cannot say that Shakespeare shows us a path to the complete cessation of suffering, but in his plays, he does show us qualities that, according to the Buddha and other spiritual teachers, help to counter suffering. These qualities include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity and are known as the four immeasurables. We will explore them in our next chapter.


[i]The Buddha, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth from the Samyutta Nikaya, Nanamoli Thera, trans. 13 June 2010 (03 Mar 2019)

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


3. Immeasurables

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

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

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May they never be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering, and                                                                                         May they dwell in the great equanimity that is free from attachment and aversion.

The four immeasurables, sometimes called the brahma-viharas or divine abodes, include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In practicing loving-kindness, Buddhists begin by wishing happiness for themselves, because as the Buddha taught, we must love ourselves before we can love others. They go on to wish happiness and the causes of happiness for someone dear to them, then for someone neutral, then for a difficult person, and eventually for all beings, unconditionally. Buddhists practice the other three immeasurables with the same all-embracing spirit. In this way, they cultivate a good heart, replacing selfish attachments with the wish to benefit others.

Shakespeare’s characters do not practice the four immeasurables with such a vast intention. We do not find them training their minds to expand the scope of their altruistic motivation. And yet, in Shakespeare’s plays, we find characters who exemplify loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.



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

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

Juliet’s love is transformative. She loses herself in the love she feels for Romeo, but because her love involves romantic attachment, it is limited. In its fullest manifestation, loving-kindness transcends attachment and reaches out to all. Juliet’s love is deep, but from the standpoint of the Dharma it is less than fully evolved. But Juliet is only thirteen years old. One would like to think that love as boundless as Juliet’s does not die but matures and grows to embrace all beings, if not in this life then in another.

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

Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass! He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer. (V.iii.380-382)



Compassion is the natural response of love to the suffering of others. 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 are in the midst of a storm conjured up by the magician, Prosperoand see a ship sinking in the raging sea. This sight brings a spontaneous declaration of compassion from Prospero’s young daughter, Miranda:

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

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

Another tempest takes place in King Lear. Lear on the heath suffers from the storm without while he endures an even greater storm of mental suffering within. When he notices his shivering Fool and thinks of others feeling the fury of the elements, his selfish heart opens, and he prays:

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

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

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

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

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


Sympathetic Joy

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

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

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

The joy increases as Claudio seeks and wins the hand of Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and they prepare for a wedding. Meanwhile, 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 appears to be dead, the officiating Friar perceives her blamelessness and arranges to hide her away until her innocence is proven. Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel for having killed an innocent lady, but after the bumbling constabulary exposes Don John’s plot, they become friends again. The now repentant Claudio, still thinking Hero is dead, agrees to marry Hero’s cousin sight unseen. Then, posing as the cousin, Hero appears in a veil and says:

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

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

As audience members, we fully participate in the sympathetic joy depicted onstage. We celebrate the marriage of the lovers. We rejoice that those thought to be dead are alive and restored to their families. We delight in the virtues exemplified by the characters. And after the performance, we applaud the accomplishment of the actors. We can even exult 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 fade as we leave the theatre, but we would do well to retain, nurture, and extend them to as many beings as possible.



Buddhist has at least two aspects. One 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 conditions, and they are a major source of suffering.

The Buddha praises:

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

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

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

Horatio is a model of equanimity. His is “a mind that does not waver when touched by the worldly conditions.” We find similar freedom from attachment in Shakespeare’s Roman plays, including Julius Caesar. When Brutus learns of the death of his wife, Portia, he takes the loss 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 HamletandJulius Caesaris a Roman virtue and reflects the Stoic philosophy well known to Shakespeare from his reading of Plutarch. But while Roman equanimity may involve freedom from the eight worldly conditions, it lacks a second aspect of Buddhist equanimity, which is to regard all beings with an equal mind.

An equal mind is not an indifferent mind. We practice equanimity when we set aside our attachment for some and aversion for others and remember that all have buddha nature and want to be happy. With an all-embracing spirit we wish them freedom from delusions that impede their happiness and obscure their inner goodness. We wish freedom and happiness for everyone we know, whatever we may think of their past actions. In the words of the Buddha, equanimity is “abundant, exalted, immeasurable.”[iii]It has an open heart as well as an untroubled mind.

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

And yet, with Shakespeare’s characters, our aversion is usually qualified because we come to know them so well. We are often privy to their innermost thoughts. In them, we can see ourselves, or who we would like to be, or who we fear we might become, or who we could have become under different circumstances. When we experience Hamlet we know what it is like to be Hamlet, we know what it is like to be Ophelia, we know what it is like to be Gertrude, and we may even know what it is like to be Claudius. In Macbeth, the title character is both protagonist and villain. We can understand him even as we are appalled by what he does. We can see most of these characters as human beings like us, trying however misguidedly to be happy and avoid suffering, and in this respect, they are the same as us. To the extent we can see that other beings are the same as us, in spite of their faults, we can see them with a more equal mind. Even Macbeth, or a real life equivalent, has buddha nature and deserves to be included in our practice. When we practice for those who behave wickedly, we are not excusing their wickedness; we are wishing them freedom from the delusions that cause it.

Equanimity in the face of the eight worldly conditions and in our attitude toward other beings requires genuine insight. Insight comes as we deepen our appreciation of impermanence and death, the interdependent and illusory nature of phenomena, the inescapable connection of actions and consequences, and the importance of renunciation, contentment, forgiveness, remorse, and egolessness. As we will see in the following chapters, Shakespeare has something to tell us about each of these subjects.


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

[ii]Life’s Highest Blessings: The Maha Mangala Sutra. Dr. R.L. Soni, trans. (Kandy Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1956), 86.

[iii]The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Bikkhu Nanamoli trans. (Wisdom Publications,1995). 394.

4: Impermanence

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

The Buddha tells a story about children intently making castles of sand by the side of a river, each proudly possessive of his or her creation. When one child kicked over another’s sandcastle, there was a loud protest of “That was mine!” The perpetrator was set upon and beaten by the others. Then the children resumed their play, each attached to their sandcastle and careful to defend it from any incursions. When evening came, and it was time to go home, the children demolished the castles that they had treasured and protected only moments before. Then they all departed.[i]

In just this way we forget impermanence and cling to things that we know won’t last. The only difference between the children and the rest of us is that our attachments to impermanent phenomena do not usually go away with the onset of evening. We need to remember and take to heart the words of the Buddha:

Everything arises and passes away.                                                                                                                               When you see this you are above sorrow.                                                                                                                              This is the shining way.[ii]

Impermanence is a fact of existence. Everything in our universe, at every level, is in a state of change. Some things change in readily observable ways, like sandcastles or clouds in the sky. 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 not destroyed first. Shakespeare takes the universal experience of impermanence and gives it poetic expression, as in the funeral song from Cymbeline:

Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust. (IV.ii.331-336)

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

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


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 clouds as he prepares for death:

Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish,
A vapor sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendent rock, (IV.xiv.4-6)

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns and makes it indistinct
As water is in water. (IV.xiv.12-14)

Even such a body, Here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, (IV.xiv.18-19)

In the above examples, the speakers tell us about impermanence as they see 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 how our seemingly solid world is subject to change:

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

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 went into the fire. 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 feel both 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 stronger and that our response should be to love well. This is in contrast to the final couplet of Sonnet 64, where the response is to weep. In Sonnet 64, impermanence leads only to suffering, but in Sonnet 73 impermanence leads to love.

We can love well by embracing love and impermanence in the same instant, recognizing that they are inseparable and that impermanence is a source of joy as well as sorrow. It will take our love away, but it brought our love to us in the first place. Without impermanence, nothing could change, grow, or live. As Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki explains:

When we realize the everlasting truth of ‘everything changes’ and find our composure in it, we find ourselves in Nirvana.[iii]

Like the children with their sandcastles, it is easy to fall into the habit of grasping onto people and things as though they were permanent, but as the Buddha teaches, “All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.”[iv]We can reconcile ourselves to the truth of “everything changes” or we can suffer. Shakespeare continually reminds us of impermanence in all its manifestations and gives us a glimpse of the reconciliation to be found in acceptance of change.


[i]Kornfield, Jack; Gil Fronsdal (eds); Teachings of the Buddha (Shambhala Publications, 1996), 16.

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

[iii]Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1970), 102-103.

[iv]The Buddha, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth from the Samyutta Nikaya, Nanamoli Thera, trans. 13 June 2010 (03 Mar 2019)

5: Mortality

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018
Death is impermanence as it affects the worldly 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.[i]

And in the words of Hamlet:

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

The reality of death was more immediate for the contemporaries of the Buddha and of Shakespeare than it is for most of us today. In Shakespeare’s London, the average life expectancy was 35. Outbreaks of the bubonic plague swept London four times during Shakespeare’s lifetime. For those who escaped the plague, there were epidemics of smallpox, typhus, and malaria.[ii]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 every day.

It wasn’t any better for Shakespeare’s characters. In the course of his plays no fewer than 74 die onstage, thirty by stabbing, five by beheading, seven by poisoning, and 32 by other means. Another 81 die offstage.[iii]

Remembrance of death can be a major factor in turning the mind away from worldly pursuits and toward spiritual practice. Shortly before he died, the Buddha said:

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

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

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.[v]

There are no Milarepas in Shakespeare. Although many of Shakespeare’s characters confront death, they do not do so 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 to find that his uncle, Claudius, has seized the throne and married his mother, Gertrude. After Hamlet is refused permission to return to school, the ghost of his dead father visits him, tells of his death at the hands of Claudius, and urges his son to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” As Hamlet considers what to do, he finds that Claudius and Polonius are using his girlfriend, Ophelia, in their plot to spy on him. Little wonder that Hamlet considers suicide in the opening lines of his 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 a teaching from the Vietnamese monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, in which he differs with Hamlet. He explains that “To be or not to be” is not the question, because reality is beyond dualities such as “being or non-being, birth or death, coming or going.” Hamlet’s words suggest that he was attached to conceptual notions of being and non-being, but such notions are not reality. As Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “when conditions are sufficient things manifest,” but we should not call that being, and “when conditions are not sufficient things do not manifest,” but we should not call that non-being; because phenomena have no intrinsic existence; no intrinsic being or non-being. They come and go within an ever-changing dynamic of causes and conditions.[vi]This may seem confusing because non-dual reality is beyond our conceptual understanding. We can try to explain it up to a point, but we cannot capture it in words. We can only experience it.

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

To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. (III.i.72-76)

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?  (III.i.84-90)

In these passages, Hamlet reconsiders what he has just said about “To be or not to be.” He thinks better of the proposition that he can, by the act of suicide, flip the switch from being to non-being. Hamlet abandons thoughts of suicide, but only because he fears that death would 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. His mind has somehow grown spacious enough to look upon death and life with equanimity.

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

In this passage, Hamlet comes closer to Thich Nhat Hanh’s view. The fall of Hamlet’s sparrow will manifest when conditions are sufficient. When conditions are not sufficient, it will not manifest. Has Hamlet acquired a non-dual perspective and glimpsed a reality beyond being and non-being? Such an insight would explain the extraordinary view that he expresses in this speech. “The readiness is all” means readiness for death. The timing of his death matters no more to him than the fall of a sparrow. “Let be” expresses a complete surrender of attachment and aversion. Hamlet seems at peace with death and prepared to let causes and conditions play out as they will.

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


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

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

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

[iv]From the Mahahaparinirvana Sutra

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

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


6: Illusion

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018
As we have seen, the phenomena we encounter are without inherent reality for the Buddha and his followers. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha described “all this fleeting world” as:

a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.[i]

And in the Dhammapada he says:

Existence is illusion.                                                                                                                                                   Understand, go beyond.                                                                                                                                                        This is the way of clarity.[ii]

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a playwright, Shakespeare had a bag of tricks, and illusions were among his favorite devices. As we read his plays, we can see that he used some of the same tricks repeatedly:

  • Twins are mistaken for each other (The Comedy of Errorsand Twelfth Night).
  • Women disguise themselves as men (Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and Cymbeline).
  • Men disguise themselves as women (The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor).
  • Rulers disguise themselves as subjects (Henry V and Measure for Measure).
  • Characters thought to be dead turn out to be alive (All’s Well that Ends Well, Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale).
  • Men who think they are sleeping with an object of their illicit lust are instead consummating marriage with a rightful spouse (All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure).

Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate how we lose ourselves in one illusion after another and live under a multitude of false impressions. What we see or think we see in Shakespeare’s plays turns out to be man-made illusion.

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

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

It is impermanent:

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

It is dependent on causes and conditions:

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

And it is multiple:

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

Our bodies and the objects and beings that make up our world do manifest, however, and we easily forget that they lack lasting, independent, and singular reality. Like the children in the story, we become attached to our sandcastles.

While the Buddha could occasionally create magical illusions for the edification of his followers, he was more concerned with showing, through his teachings, that ordinary phenomena are illusory. And while Shakespeare was in the business of creating theatrical illusions for the entertainment of his audiences, he also understood and could demonstrate the illusory nature of ordinary phenomena.


[i]Diamond Sutra: A.F. Price and Wong Mou-lam (trans.), The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-neng (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1990) 146.

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

[iii]Sherab Chodzin Kohn, The Awakened One: A Life of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000) 86.


7. Renunciation & Contentment

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018


If phenomena are impermanent and illusory and death inevitable, then we might do well to renounce the things of this world. The Buddha’s path to enlightenment began with an act of renunciation, as he left wife, child, palace, and princely prerogatives in search of a refuge from old age, sickness, and death. During his search, he practiced extreme asceticism for six years and was reduced to skin and bones as he subsisted on a few grains of rice a day. Only after he gave up self-mortification and began to accept adequate nourishment did he attain enlightenment. In the Dhammapada he warns against the dangers of indiscriminate renunciation.

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

He finds that too much of anything, even renunciation, can be counterproductive. The Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, reflected the Buddha’s “middle way” approach when he taught that:

Renunciation is not giving up things of this world but accepting that they go away.[ii]

Renunciation is not a matter of self-deprivation. The essential point is to let go of attachments. 

While Shakespeare’s renunciates do not usually accept that everything goes away, they do let go of some harmful attachments. Among many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, extravagant and expensive clothes were the order of the day. In Sonnet 146, the speaker, remembering his mortality, renounces costly apparel saying:

Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss. . .

The resources and attention that have gone into acquiring the latest fashions will now be devoted to the well being of his soul.

When he becomes King, in Henry IV Part 2, Prince Hal renounces his association with Falstaff and other dissolute companions:

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester.
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awaked, I do despise my dream. (V.v.47-51)

Presume not that I am the thing I was. . .
For God doth know—so shall the world perceive—
That I have turned away my former self.
So will I those that kept me company. (V.v.57-59)

In The Tempest,Prospero renounces the practice of magic and the control that comes with it:

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

King Lear lets go of attachment to royal power, privilege, and personal liberty when he goes to prison, saying:

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

Hamlet is the one character who may accept that everything goes away. He renounces attachment to a continued earthly existence when he says:

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Bottom, the Weaver, in A Midsummer Night’s Dreamis Shakespeare’s most enchanting model of contentment. He is one of a group of rustics who go into a forest to rehearse the play of Pyramus and Thisbe. Unknowingly, they have entered the realm of Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, who are fighting over a changeling boy that Titania has stolen. Oberon seeks to get even with the help of the impish Puck.

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

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

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

Deciding that things have gone far enough, Oberon has Puck apply an antidote to Titania’s eyes and give Bottom’s back his own head. When he awakens from sleep, Bottom says:

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

Bottom exemplifies contentment under extraordinary conditions. When his friends run away, he sits down to sing a song. When Titania professes her love, he plays along happily. When he wakes, he is not at all unhappy to have lost the services of a fairy queen and her attendants but feels he has had the most remarkable dream. When he finds himself unable to recall or express any details of the dream, he is fine with that too. If his dream has no bottom, Bottom is content to live with the mystery. Bottom is a comic character. He may sometimes seem obtuse, his words may be disconnected and confused, but whatever occurs, he is happy in the moment, with where he is, with what he has, and with what he can or cannot remember. Bottom is that rare character who appears to have no real attachments or aversions and nothing to renounce.

A proverb tells us, “A harvest of peace comes from a seed of contentment.” Peace will be the subject of our next chapter.


[i]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1993), 83.

[ii]Quoted in Loy, David R. A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 209.

[iii]Thera, Piyadassi and Van Glasenapp, Helmuth, Collected Wheel Publications, (Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka, 2009), 335.




8. Peace

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

During the Buddha’s lifetime, northern India was divided into several states with well-established warrior castes. Accounts of the Buddha’s life include an episode in which he intervened to stop a war between the Shakyan and Kolyan states. When the Buddha arrived at the river separating the states, the opposing forces were drawn up and ready to fight. When asked why, none could say, but the two sides had exchanged insults, and all agreed that honor demanded a battle. The Buddha then learned from local farmers that the cause of the conflict was a shortage of water for irrigation. He then convinced the warriors that blood was more precious than water. The opposing armies listened as the Buddha told stories and gave teachings. At last, they made peace. Not only was a bloody battle averted, but 250 men from each side joined the Buddha’s community of monks.[i]

The Buddha would have seen war and other forms of violence as examples of the suffering brought on by attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Among his sayings, we find the following:

Better than a thousand hollow verses                                                                                                                                            Is one verse that brings peace.[ii]


Alas for the man                                                                                                                                                                                         Who raises his hand against another,                                                                                                                                              And even more for him who returns the blow.[iii]

Without violent conflicts brought on by attachment, aversion, and ignorance, Shakespeare would have had less to write about. At least sixteen of his plays feature battles, and most include fighting or violence. Thomas Hardy wrote, “War makes rattling good history, but peace is poor reading.”[iv]Shakespeare was in the business of writing 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 Vis best known for patriotic glorification of war, especially in Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech. But a common soldier named Williams delivers the play’s truest insights about war and its effects:

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

King Henry, who is visiting his men in disguise on the eve of battle, 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 her rightful husband. 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 since he was retelling a well known story. Hector pays the ultimate price for the continuation of war, and the full horror for Troy is expressed in the lamenting cries of Cassandra,

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

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

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

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

Depending on your point of view, Falstaff is a shameless coward or the only sane person on the battlefield, or a mixture. 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 celebrates the military virtues, but for all the battles and exhortations to valor, more is said on behalf of peace. He comes closest to expressing the Buddhist principle of ahimsaor 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 considered the outward peace of non-harming. Such outward peace depends on inner peace. The qualities that contribute to inner peace are those we have considered in earlier chapters, including loving-kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, renunciation, and contentment. These qualities provide a basis for positive actions that bring good consequences. The inescapable connection between actions and consequences will be our next subject.


[i]Sherab Chodzon Kohn, A Life of the Buddha (Boston, Shambhala Publications, inc.) 78.

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

[iii]Ibid. 105.

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


9. Actions & Consequences

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[ii] Ibid. 84.


10: Forgiveness, Remorse & Purification

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

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. As the Buddha teaches in The Dhammapada:

“Look how he abused me and beat me,                                                                                                                               How he threw me down and robbed me.”                                                                                                                           Live with such thoughts and you live in hate.                                                                                                                             “Look how he abused me and beat me,                                                                                                                               How he threw me down and robbed me.”                                                                                                                        Abandon such thoughts, and live in love.”[i]

Measure for Measure presents a stark contrast between harsh judgment and forgiveness. As the play opens Duke Vincentio deputizes 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 has 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 offers to spare Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him. The disguised Duke Vincentio has Isabella pretend to agree to Angelo’s 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 intends to have Claudio killed. It appears that Claudio has been executed, but thanks to Duke Vincentio, Claudio is secretly spared.

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

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

At this Mariana, now Angelo’s wife, pleads for his life and 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 forgives the man who sought to violate her chastity and, thinking he had done so, still tries to kill the brother he had promised to spare. It would be hard to imagine a greater triumph of forgiveness over the natural human desire for judgement.

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.[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.  It belongs to us to forgive.

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

During the course of the play Prospero – assisted by the spirit, Ariel, uses his magic to: (1) raise a tempest that brings his former enemies to the island unharmed; (2) foil a series of wicked plots hatched by Antonio, Caliban and others; (3) cause Miranda and Ferdinand, son of Alonso, to fall in love; and (4) place his former enemies under a spell.

Then Prospero’s thoughts turn away from revenge, and he begins the work of reconciliation and forgiveness with the following speech:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Remorse & Redemption

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 acknowledgement of a wrong action, recognition of its negative consequences, a determination to do what one can to correct it, and a resolution never to do such a thing again. Remorse differs from guilt in that it condemns the action and not the doer of the action. Buddhists believe that even the worst actions can be purified because our fundamental nature is unstained. Bad actions may be what we do, but they are never who we are.

Buddhist lore is filled with stories of fearsome beings who encounter the Dharma, come to regret their wicked ways, and lead blessed lives. One of the worst is Angulimara, a terrible bandit and murderer who wears a necklace of fingers taken from his 999 victims. His name literally means, finger necklace. To stop the carnage and prevent Angulimara from piling up even more bad karma, the Buddha sets off to find him. When he does, Angulimara tries to make the Buddha his one thousandth victim but is kept at a distance by magic. Unable to catch up to the Buddha, Angulimara yells, “stop,” but the Buddha tells the bandit that it is he who must stop his murderous ways. One look from the Buddha is all it takes to change Angulimara’s heart. Overcome by remorse, he learns the Dharma, follows the Buddha as a monk, serves others, and upon his death attains nirvana. His story demonstrates that all beings have buddha nature, however badly they may have acted.[iii]

There may be no characters in Shakespeare quite so gruesomely awful as Angulimara, but some behave badly enough.  In The Winter’s TaleKing Leontes of Sicilia behaves abominably when he wrongly thinks that his wife, Hermione, has been unfaithful to him with the visiting King Polixenes of Bohemia. He imprisons Hermione, takes away her son, and tries to have the fleeing Polixenes poisoned. When Hermione gives birth to a girl, Perdita, Leontes assumes it is the child of Polixenes, threatens to have it burned, and then has it abandoned to the elements. Leontes refuses to relent, even when the oracle of Apollo says that Hermione is innocent. Only when his son dies as a consequence of his actions does Leontes recognize his mistake. Hermione swoons on learning of the boy’s death. Leontes is told that she is dead, but she is alive and under the care of her friend, Paulina.

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

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

Polixenes goes on to say that had they not taken on the desires and responsibilities of adulthood they would have remained guiltless before heaven of any inherited stain. What we have here is a doctrine of original innocence as opposed to original sin. Original innocence is consistent with the Buddhist belief that our fundamental nature remains unblemished, however it might be obscured. The unblemished nature that everyone shares is sometimes called buddha nature.

Original innocence is personified by the infant, Perdita, abandoned to the elements but happily rescued by a kind shepherd and raised 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 tombs of Hermione and his son, where tears are his “daily recreation.” He also patiently bears the admonishments of Paulina, who praises Hermione’s incomparable qualities. After Leontes’ sixteen years of remorse a courtier says:

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

Perdita and Florizel arrive at the court of the grieving Leontes pursued by the angry Polixenes. Perdita’s true identity is soon uncovered, and Perdita, Leontes, and Polixenes, are happily reunited. At last Paulina, leads them 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]Ibid. 9.

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

[iii]Sherab Chodzin Kohn, The Awakened One: A Life of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000), 98.


11: Egolessness

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

13. Egolessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The descent continues as Lear’s retinue is reduced by half and then taken away altogether. Left out in a storm with his sanity slipping away, Lear faces the loss of all that has defined his existence. Adrift and desperate to know who he is, he sees a naked beggar in the storm and exclaims:

Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.”(III.iv.114-115)

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

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

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

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

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


Shakespeare’s Lack of Ego

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

. . . remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence.”[i]

He is like the presence that Virginia Woolf sensed when she visitedShakespeare’s grave in Stratford and wrote in her diary that, “he is serenely absent-present,” and “he seemed to be all air & sun, smiling serenely.”[ii] We might say that “air and sun, smiling serenely,” is the essence of Shakespeare. It is the ground out of which he “bodies forth the forms of things unknown.”

William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Keats all remarked on Shakespeare’s lack of ego. Hazlitt wrote that:

He (Shakespeare) was the least of an egoist that it was possible to be; he was nothing in himself, but he was all that others were or could become.”[iii]

Emerson, who had read Hazlitt’s essays, expressed the strikingly similar view that:

Shakespeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic, but all is duly given. He has no discoverable egotism.”[iv]

John Keats was also familiar with Hazlitt’s opinion and shared it, coining the term, negative capability, to describe the singular quality that he found in Shakespeare.  He explains in a letter to his brothers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[ii]Woolf, Virginia Stephen. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Four 1931-1935. (New York:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982). 219.

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

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

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

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