Chapter 7. Equanimity

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

Buddhist equanimity has two aspects. The first involves freedom from attachment to gain, praise, fame, and pleasure, and freedom from aversion to loss, blame, disrepute, and pain. Taken together these are known as the eight worldly concerns.

The Buddha praises:

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

 

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

                         . . . thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,

That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. (III.ii.64-74)

Horatio would seem to be a model of equanimity. His is “a mind unshaken when touched by the worldly states.”

We find similar freedom from attachment in Shakespeare’s Roman plays, including Julius Caesar. When Brutus learns of the death of his wife, Portia, he takes the news calmly, saying:

With meditating that she must die once,
I have the patience to endure it now. (IV.iii.217-218)

The freedom from attachment that we find in Hamlet and Julius Caesar is a Roman virtue and reflects the Stoic philosophy that was well known to Shakespeare from his reading of Plutarch and Seneca. But while Roman equanimity involves calm acceptance of one’s own fate, it is less concerned about others. It lacks the second aspect of Buddhist equanimity, which regards all beings with an equal mind.

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

In Shakespeare’s plays we find characters, like Horatio, who exemplify freedom from the eight worldly concerns. What we do not find are characters who exemplify the second aspect of equanimity. They do not, as far as I can tell, make a practice of regarding all beings – friends, enemies, and everyone in between – with an equal mind.

Nor do we as audience members look upon all of Shakespeare’s characters with an equal mind. It is in the nature of drama to elicit attachment for some and aversion for others, which would seem to be the opposite of what the Buddha teaches.

But if we do not respond to Shakespeare’s characters with an equal mind, we do respond with empathy. This is the case because his characters embody human nature so convincingly that we easily identify with them. In Shakespeare’s characters we see ourselves, or who we would like to be, or who we fear we might become, or who we could have become under different circumstances.

When we experience Hamlet we know what it is like to be Hamlet, we know what it is like to be Ophelia, we know what it is like to be Gertrude, and we may even know what it is like to be Claudius. Shakespeare’s characters, with a few notable exceptions,[iv] appear to possess sparks of the same inner goodness that we perceive in ourselves. From a Buddhist perspective we would say that they have buddha nature, however obscured. That doesn’t mean we have to like their behavior, but we see them as human beings, like us, trying however misguidedly to be happy and to avoid suffering, and in this respect they are the same as us, or seem to be. So while some characters may provoke feelings of aversion, those feelings are usually tempered by empathy.

Genuine equanimity, in the face of the eight worldly concerns and in our attitude toward other beings, must be based on genuine insight. Insight comes about as we deepen our appreciation of impermanence and death, the illusory nature of phenomena, the inescapable connection of actions and consequences, and the egolessness of self. As we will see in future posts, Shakespeare has something to tell us about all of these subjects.

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

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

[iii] Fronsdal, Gil. Equanimity. Insight Meditation Center. 29 Apr 2004 (26 May 2016). http://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/articles/equanimity/

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

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