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Sunday, April 28th, 2019

What if we could use the power of Shakespeare’s poetry to illustrate the dharma? By the dharma I mean the universal truth about the nature of everything, as taught by the Buddha. The prospect is both intriguing and daunting: intriguing to think that some of the greatest poetry in the English language might be used to illustrate the transcendent truths taught by the Buddha, and daunting because the dharma is so vast and profound. As a casual student I can pretend to no more than a rudimentary comprehension of a few basic points common to most Buddhist traditions. With those points in mind I have tried to identify Buddhist teachings that might be easily related to Shakespeare’s works and passages from Shakespeare’s works that might be easily related to Buddhism. This amounts to a fraction of Shakespeare and a fraction of Buddhism. So perhaps my title, The Dharma According to Shakespeare, is too ambitious. A Few Aspects of The Dharma According to Certain Passages from Shakespeare would be a more realistic, if rather cumbersome, title.

But setting reality aside for the moment, let us imagine that we could bring the Buddha and Shakespeare together, perhaps at a table in our local Starbucks, although coffee would be a novelty for both of them. Since the Buddha is omniscient, we’ll assume he can speak and understand English, so no need for a translator. In preparation for the meeting the Buddha would have read most of the plays and several of the sonnets, and Shakespeare would have read The Dhammapada, three or four of the sutras, and a life of the Buddha. Wouldn’t it be nice to think of them, after the initial introduction and awkward silence, engaged in a lively conversation, with searching questions, well-considered answers, and thoughtful pauses, punctuated by the occasional nod of agreement? I won’t try to imagine the details of such a conversation, but like to think it would touch on some of the points covered in the following chapters.


Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

Why the Dharma According to Shakespeare?

It is September of 2005 and I have just returned to Washington from a Buddhist retreat center  in southern France. The past three weeks have been devoted to taming the mind by sitting in meditation posture while focusing attention first on the breath, then on a mantra, then on an image of the Buddha, and finally on the wish that all sentient beings have happiness. The meditation exercises have given me a more peaceful and settled state of mind along with glimpses of a reality beyond worldly distractions. But as much as I value my calmer state of mind and more expansive view, I have missed my worldly distractions and am glad to be home.

Looking at my calendar I see that one of the first worldly distractions on my agenda is Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre. On the evening of the day after my return I still need to sleep off jet lag, but tickets are not to be wasted, so I make my way to the theatre. Soon all traces of jet lag vanish as I am transfixed by the thoroughly absorbing performances by Avery Brooks as Othello and Patrick Page as Iago. Three hours later, after all of the scheming, deception and manipulation, after all of the mental anguish, madness and killing, and after all of the building tension and catastrophe, I gaze at the bodies of Desdemona, Emilia, and Othello lying on the stage. The emotions of pity and terror that were aroused in me have been purged, and as I leave the theatre and walk in the soft September rain to the Metro station, I experience a calm and settled state of mind that is a little like the state of mind experienced in meditation.

In the days that follow I think of the Elizabethan writer working amid the noise and commotion of a large and dirty city on a rainy northern island, and I think of the Buddha living six centuries before the birth of Christ in a tropical land of lush forests inhabited by elephants, monkeys and tigers. I have found each in their different way to be a source of wisdom and transformation and wonder if any parallels or instructive connections can be drawn between the works of England’s greatest playwright and the teachings of the Buddha?

Try as I might, I don’t come up with much. It is as if Buddhism and Shakespeare exist on different planets. Buddhism, on the one hand, is concerned with overcoming the ego and transcending the cycle of birth and death by doing no harm, taming the mind, and benefiting others. Shakespeare’s plays and poems, on the other hand, are largely concerned with worldly preoccupations, including romantic love, sex, war, royal power, betrayal, jealousy, murder, and revenge. The lack of common ground should not come as a surprise. Drama is after all based on tension within and between ego-centered individuals with negative emotions and conflicting desires. These essential ingredients of drama are the very things that the Buddha taught his followers to overcome.

My search for connections between the works of Shakespeare and the teachings of the Buddha is bogging down, and a great chasm looms before me: the chasm of historical, cultural and religious differences between Elizabethan England and India at the time of the Buddha, a chasm that I scarcely understand and cannot hope to bridge. Sensing that the task is hopeless, I give up. If there are parallels or instructive connections between such disparate realms, I am not the one to find them. But no sooner do I let go of my search for connections than connections between the Buddha and Shakespeare begin to reveal themselves. Now that I am no longer trying, it occurs to me that:

  • They both appreciate the power of thoughts and the need to control them;
  • They are both concerned with suffering and the causes of suffering;
  • They both celebrate qualities that counter suffering, including compassion, joy at others’ good fortune, equanimity, forgiveness, and remorse;
  • They both focus on the reality of impermanence and death, and
  • They both testify to the illusory nature of existence.

As the fog lifts I begin to find in Shakespeare’s works passages and dramatic situations that richly illustrate some of the Buddha’s central teachings. But how can 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 begin to return until after Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Shakespeare’s Vast Perspective

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 for some, we do not have to believe that Shakespeare was a reborn bodhisattva in order to believe that his works 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.

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]The poet 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 his characters in extreme situations that test the limits of the human spirit 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 the malign, the innocence of childhood and the exhaustion of old age. We might say that the playwright with the most extensive audience is also the playwright that exhibits the most extensive imagination.

As Jonson and Coleridge have observed, his imagination and his appeal transcend 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 Julius Caesar is killed, 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 own 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 of others who have experienced his works over the last 400 years and for those who will experience them from now until “the ending doom.”

Shakespeare’s boundless vision brings everyone into his audience. His vision is vast, as is that of the Buddha and his followers. Their vision encompasses the ultimate enlightenment of all sentient beings throughout the whole of space and time. 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)

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

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

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]It is often cultivated through meditation but can be practiced 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, by watching. The Buddha, The Dhammapada [ii]

Shakespeare’s works contain plenty of evidence that their author was extraordinarily mindful of his natural surroundings, his fellow creatures, and his interior mental states. He must have been mindful of his surroundings, for his writings abound in details drawn from nature. No fewer than fifty-seven species of birds inhabit his works,[iii]together with 180 flowers, trees, fruits and vegetables.[iv]In HamletQueen 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.[v]

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.

Shakespeare must also have been mindfully attentive to the people around him, soaking up their personal quirks, idiosyncrasies, and manners of speech. His close observation of human behavior has given us: the dissolute, but loveable old reprobate, Falstaff; the silly, prattling, Nurse of Romeo and Juliet; the vain and puritanical Malvolio of Twelfth Night; and the officious, 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 the following lines from Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare has Ulysses praise the very quality of mindfulness, the “watchful state,” that the Buddha praises and that the playwright exemplifies:

The providence that’s in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Plotus’ gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deep… 

The watchful state misses nothing. It discerns every grain of the gold of Plotus, the Greek god of wealth.


Taming the Mind

From such a “watchful state” Shakespeare excels not only at depicting nature and outward human behavior, but more importantly, at depicting interior mental states, the thoughts and feelings 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 our world. The Buddha, The Dhammapada [vi]

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

For 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. Meditators can learn to tame the mind by watching thoughts and feelings as they arise, noting them without attachment or aversion, and letting them go. In this way mental states are mastered before they can take over and lead to harmful actions. For most of us it can be extremely difficult to master our mental states in this way, but we have to try because, as the Buddha teaches:

Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts. The Buddha, Dhammapada [vii]

Shakespeare’s plays amply illustrate the truth of this teaching.

Consider the case of Othello. At the opening of the play he has just married Desdemona. While Desdemona’s father levels accusations of witchcraft at him, the state sides with Othello and sends him to defend Cyprus from a Turkish fleet. By the time he reaches Cyprus the Turks have been destroyed in a storm, and his bride has arrived to join him. But just as things seem to be going as well as possible 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 “the green eyed monster,” jealousy, 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 thoughts 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, simply 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. 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, Lear 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 the consequences of his foolish action. Under the weight of suffering too great 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 in order 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 the murder of King Duncan while walking in her sleep and trying to wash imagined blood from her hands. A doctor is summoned 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 take care of our own minds. No doctor can do it for us. Lady Macbeth soon commits suicide, and Macbeth is left to brood on the utter futility of his existence until Macduff arrives with an avenging army to kill him.

Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth each fail to control their thoughts and are soon overcome by destructive emotions that cause enormous suffering for themselves and others. Their stories give us plenty of reason to heed the advice of the Eleventh Century Tibetan Buddhist master, Geshe Langri Tangpa:

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. [viii]


[i]Jon Kabat-Zinn, 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]Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare: General Q & A, Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (26 May, 2016) < http://www.shakespeare->

[iv]de Bray, Lys. Fantastic Garlands: An Anthology of Flowers and Plants from Shakespeare. (Poole, Dorset: Blandford Books, Ltd., 1982), ix.

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

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

[vii]Ibid. 13

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


2: Suffering

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

Suffering (dukkha) is a basic fact of worldly existence. This is the First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha, who tells us that:

Birth is suffering; decay is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering. The Buddha, Samyutta Nikaya[i]

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

Suffering is a truth unforgettably depicted in Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.  In these three 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 taught by the Buddha, the truth of the causes of suffering, which are to be abandoned. The causes are attachment and aversion arising from ignorance of the fact that all things are impermanent and illusory. 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 strongly attached to Desdemona and fiercely 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 gratitude of his daughters and the deference that goes with his position. Macbeth is attached to his wife and averse to her disapproval, and both are murderously averse to anything that stands in the way of royal power that is both absolute and secure. All are ignorant of the fact that the things they crave and the things they seek to avoid are impermanent and illusory.

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 caused by attachment, aversion, and ignorance. His understanding of the inner workings of the mind and his skill as a poet enable him to depict suffering in such a way that we feel it profoundly. 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)

After Macduff 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 his 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? Sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee! (

From a psychological point of view, Macduff’s instincts are sound. We cannot alleviate suffering by ignoring it and hoping it will go away. We must confront and feel it before healing can begin.

Outer circumstances such as the death of a child or of a whole family would cause anyone to suffer. But ignorance, attachment, and aversion can bring us plenty of suffering without that kind of outside help. Inability to control our natural cravings is all it takes to cause 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.[iii]

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 he is overcome with regret. He likens craving to a bait to be swallowed and a trap to be caught in. Both the craving and the regret that follow 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 very well 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 says, he finds the earth and the heavens themselves to be unhealthy and suffocating.

The Merchant, Antonio, in The Merchant of Veniceis another character who cannot account for his sadness. He says in the opening lines of the play:

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 ascribed to various causes, these speeches exemplify an undertone of sadness that we find throughout Shakespeare. Whatever the merriment, sadness is rarely far away. Even at the happy close of Twelfth Night we are given a song about “the wind and the rain” and the rain “that raineth every day” at every stage of our lives.

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 pervasive sense of the unsatisfactoriness of life.

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 with respect to The Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering?

Shakespeare was a poet and playwright and not a buddha. He does not describe a path to the cessation of suffering, such as The Noble Eight-fold 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 over the centuries by his followers. We cannot say that Shakespeare shows us a path to the complete cessation of suffering that would come with enlightenment, but in his plays he does show us qualities that, according to the Buddha and other spiritual teachers, help to counter our suffering and that of others. These qualities include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, collectively known as the four immeasurables, to be explored 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]Italicized words within parentheses are from the Pali language in which the teachings of the Buddha were first recorded.

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


3: Immeasurables

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

We are happier when taking care of others than when focusing on ourselves. Focusing on ourselves, brings unnecessary suffering in the form of anger, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and disappointment. It is true that normal attachments to family, friends, pets, and others can also bring suffering that is natural and for most of us unavoidable. But if some suffering is unavoidable, why make it worse through fruitless grasping after our own desires? We can do much to counter suffering by selflessly focusing on the happiness and well being of others.

Buddhists, like followers of most other spiritual traditions, believe that the altruistic dedication to the happiness of  others brings immeasurable benefits. So fundamental is this belief that many Buddhist communities begin their 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  include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In practicing loving-kindness. Buddhists begin by wishing happiness and the causes of happiness for someone dear to them and then gradually expand that wish until it embraces all sentient beings throughout the whole of space and time. The other three qualities are practiced with the same all-embracing spirit. Through the four immeasurables Buddhists cultivate a good heart, replacing selfish attachments with the wish to benefit others, and in this way they overcome their own suffering and sometimes that of others.

Shakespeare’s characters may not practice loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity with such a vast intention. We do not find them methodically training their minds to expand the scope of their altruistic motivation. And yet, in Shakespeare’s plays we find characters who long to make others happy (loving-kindness) and to free them from suffering and its causes (compassion).

Loving-kindness and Compassion

Shakespeare’s characters extend loving-kindness to friends, relatives, masters, servants, and complete strangers. The vast and inexhaustible quality of loving-kindness is beautifully expressed in lines spoken by Juliet to Romeo:

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 to the extent that her love is focused on one person and involves attachment, it leads to suffering. In it’s fullest manifestation, loving-kindness goes beyond attachment and reaches out to all.

Loving-kindness and compassion are closely related, since happiness often depends on freedom from suffering. Compassion arises from natural empathy with our fellow beings. 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 see a ship being destroyed in a storm conjured up by the magician, Prospero. 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,
Dash’d all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.
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 swallow’d and
The fraughting[i] 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 sees his shivering fool and thinks of others feeling the fury of the elements, a heart that has been entirely taken up with selfish concerns is opened, and he prays:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d 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 mayst 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 suffering of others for too long. With the opening of his heart he finds momentary relief from pain.

Compassion is not a limited commodity. The more compassion we feel for the suffering of others the more our compassion grows. As compassion grows it displaces craving 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. As Sogyal Rinpoche points out, the inexhaustible nature of compassion is beautifully expressed in The Merchant of Venice when Portia appeals to Shylock to spare the life of the merchant, Antonio[ii]

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
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

Altruistic or sympathetic joy is unselfish joy in the good fortune of others. We rejoice in the happiness, accomplishments, wealth, success, and virtues of others wherever they appear, and we wish them even greater happiness. As we rejoice in the happiness of others, our own happiness grows. The opposite of sympathetic joy is envy, the resentment of another’s good fortune.

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 a wedding is planned. Meanwhile Signor 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 at first appears to be dead, the Friar who was to have married the couple perceives her blamelessness and arranges for her to be secreted away until her innocence is proven. Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel for having killed an innocent lady, but violence is forestalled when the bumbling constabulary exposes Don John’s plot. 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:

. . . 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 a wedding about to be performed, 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 rejoice that the lovers are united. We rejoice that those thought to be dead turn up alive and are restored to their families. We rejoice that so many problems have been solved to the benefit of so many people. And after a good performance we rejoice in the accomplishment of the actors. We can even rejoice 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 begin to fade as we leave the theatre, but we would do well to retain, nurture, and extend them to as many beings as possible.


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, 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. Mangala Sutta[iii]

Freedom from the eight worldly conditions 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 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 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 freedom from the eight worldly conditions, it lacks the second aspect of Buddhist equanimity. The second aspect of Buddhist equanimity is to regard all beings with an equal mind.

As one of the four immeasurables, equanimity is practiced with an all-embracing spirit. We wish for all beings to be free from the eight worldly conditions, and we wish for all beings to regard others with an equal mind. Buddhist equanimity is far from indifferent; it is “abundant, exalted, immeasurable.” Buddhist equanimity 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 concerns. What we do not so easily find are characters who exemplify the second aspect of equanimity. They do not, as far as I can find, make it a point to regard 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.

But 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 as well as their speech and actions. In them we are able to 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 and identify with him even as we are appalled by what he does. We see most of these characters 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. To the extent we can see that other beings are the same as us, we see them with a more equal mind.

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, the necessity of forgiveness and remorse, and egolessness. As we will see in the following sections, Shakespeare has something to tell us about each of these subjects.


[i]Fraughting means making up the freight.

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

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

4: Impermanence

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

The Buddha taught that:

Everything arises and passes away. When you see this you are above sorrow. This is the shining way. The Buddha, Dhammapada[i]

For Buddhists impermanence (anicca) is another of the basic facts of existence. Everything in our universe, at every level, is in a continual state of change. Some things change in gross or readily observable ways, like clouds in the sky or living beings that age and die. 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 they are not destroyed first. Shakespeare takes the universal human experience of impermanence and transforms it into poetry.

In the seven ages of man soliloquy from As You Like It, we have impermanence as it manifests in the aging body, which progresses all too quickly from the “Infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms,” to:

. . . 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 shape-shifting clouds as he prepares for death:

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock, (IV.xiv.4-6)

That which was 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 envision 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 the ways in which 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 watery 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.

Towers are disassembled and objects of brass are melted down. 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 were destroyed. 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 simultaneously feel 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 more strong and that our response should be to love well.

This is in contrast to the final couplet of Sonnet 64, where the only response is to weep. In Sonnet 64 impermanence leads only to pain, 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 the Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki, explains, “When you realize the fact that everything changes and find your composure in it, there you find yourself in nirvana.”[iii]

It is easy to fall into the habit of grasping onto things as though they were permanent, even when we know better. 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] Byrom, Thomas. The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 74.

[ii] To efface.

[iii] Kornfield, Jack. The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology. (New York: Bantam Dell, 2008), 327.

5: Mortality

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

In considering impermanence we have already been considering death. Death is impermanence as it affects the temporal 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. (Lalitavistara Sutra) [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 in the modern world. In Shakespeare’s England 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 on a daily basis.

It wasn’t any better for Shakespeare’s characters. In the course of the plays no fewer than 74 characters die onstage. Thirty are stabbed, five are beheaded, seven are poisoned, and 32 die by other means.[iii] Another 81 die offstage.[iv].

Remembrance of death can be a great factor in turning the mind away from worldly pursuits and toward spiritual practice. This was true for Shakespeare’s contemporaries as it was for the contemporaries of the Buddha. At the time of his own death the Buddha said:

Of all footprints
That of the elephant is supreme;
Of all mindfulness meditations
That on death is supreme, (Mahaparinirvana Sutra)

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 writes:

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 as hermits and probably not 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 only to find that his uncle Claudius has already seized the throne and married his mother, Gertrude. Refused permission to return to school, he is then visited by the ghost of his dead father, who comes to tell of his murder at the hands of Claudius and to urge Hamlet to exact revenge. As he considers what to do next, he finds that Claudius and Polonius are using his girlfriend, Ophelia, to spy on him. Little wonder that Hamlet considers suicide in the opening lines of his most 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 the following teaching from the Vietnamese monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh:

The Buddha has taught that when conditions are sufficient things manifest, but to label that manifestation as being is wrong. Also when conditions are not sufficient, things do not manifest, but to label that as non-being is also wrong. Reality is beyond being and non-being; we need to overcome those notions. Hamlet said: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” We can see that he was caught by these notions. But according to this teaching, “to be or not to be,” is not the question. Because reality is beyond the notion of being or non-being, birth or death, coming or going … But if we understand suchness then we know that we don’t come from anywhere and we don’t go anywhere.[vi]

Thich Nhat Hanh is considering Hamlet’s speech from the standpoint of a reality unmediated by concepts or labels of any kind. Such “ultimate” reality transcends phenomena such as being and non-being, birth and death, here and there. Of course these phenomena do manifest, but they have no intrinsic or permanent existence. Thich Nhat Hanh sees that Hamlet is trapped in a dualistic mindset that does not comprehend ultimate reality. We approach that reality when we are fully alive to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls, suchness. Suchness, from a Buddhist perspective, is the miracle of the way things are, just as they are. It is pure experience, free from concepts that give rise to dualities.

Having established that ultimate reality transcends “To be or not to be,” we might go on to look at other passages from the 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 only 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. Involved as he has been in a web of court intrigue, Hamlet can’t be devoting much time to spiritual practice, but 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
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 knows aught of what he leaves
what is it to leave betimes? Let be. (V.ii.233-238)

In this passage Hamlet comes closer to Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding that phenomena lack intrinsic being or non-being and will manifest or not as conditions determine. Hamlet’s sparrow has no enduring existence and will live or die as conditions determine. Has Hamlet glimpsed a reality beyond being and non-being, birth and death? Such an insight would explain the extraordinary perspective that he expresses. The timing of the fall of a sparrow and the timing of his own death have no importance for him. “The readiness is all” means readiness for death, his own death. “Let be” expresses a complete surrender of attachment and aversion. Hamlet seems at peace with death and prepared to let things manifest as they will.

Of Shakespeare’s characters, Hamlet exhibits the most spacious mind. He may not completely realize its infinite potential, but over the course of the play he travels the long distance 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. 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 LondonShakespeare 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]Minton, Eric, The Dead and Dying Make for Live! Theatre. 22 Jan 2016 (26 May 2015)

[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 41997 in Plum Village. (26 May 2016)


6: Illusion

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

For the Buddha and his followers, the phenomena we encounter are without inherent reality. In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha describes “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]

The Thirteenth Century Tibetan master, Longchenpa, lists eight similes of illusion. Phenomena are: like a dream; like a magic illusion; like a hallucination; like a mirage; like an echo; like a city of gandharvas (ephemeral beings); like a reflection; and like an apparition. [ii]

So far as we know, Shakespeare never professed to be a spiritual teacher of any kind. His business was the creation of illusions for the entertainment of his audiences. These lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream might be read as a profession of his true 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 Shakespeare doesn’t stop there. In his plays we often encounter further illusions within the context of the play, illusions within an illusion. In The Tempest, for example, the magician,Prospero, conjures a masque of spirits to celebrate the marriage of his daughter, dissolves it, and then delivers these lines on the illusory nature of existence:

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 towers, palaces, temples, the globe itself, and all that will come after are as insubstantial as the 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. What seems so solid to us actually consists of empty space and energy.

Beyond speeches on the dreamlike nature of phenomena, we find illusion in the very fabric of Shakespeare’s plays. Little is what it appears to be. 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, The Merchant of Venice, and Cymbeline). Men disguise themselves as women (The Taming of the Shrew andThe 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 (Much Ado About NothingTwelfthNight, Measure for Measure, The Winter’s TaleThe Tempest, All’s Well that Ends Well, and Pericles). Men who think that 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, 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 they lack three qualities that we associate with reality: they lack permanence; they lack singularity; and they lack independence. Everything is impermanent and changes, everything is multiple and made up of parts, and everything is dependent on causes and conditions.

In Measure for Measure Shakespeare echoes, point for point, the Buddhist understanding that all phenomena are impermanent, multiple, and interdependent.. The Duke of Vienna, disguised as a friar, visits a prison to comfort the condemned man, Claudio, who is unprepared to die. The Duke advises Claudio 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 labour’st by thy flight to shun
And yet runn’st toward him still.  

It is multiple:

Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist’st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. 

And it is dependent on causes and conditions:

A breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences,
That dost this habitation, where thou keep’st,
Hourly afflict. 

Our bodies and the objects and beings that make up our world do manifest, however, which makes it is easy for us to overlook their impermanence, multiplicity, and interdependence and attribute to them a solid and lasting reality that they lack. In our ignorance we develop attachment and aversion to phenomena, and as a result we suffer.

In general, Shakespeare and the Buddha have different ways of showing us the illusory nature of phenomena. With his pen Shakespeare creates illusions out of “airy nothing,” and then uses them to demonstrate that the phenomena we encounter are rarely what we take them to be. The Buddha points to actual phenomena and teaches that they are illusory in that they have no inherent existence. But in the lines from Measure for Measure, quoted above, Shakespeare is very much on the same page as the Buddha in explaining that phenomena lack inherent existence because they are impermanent, multiple, and interdependent.


[i]Kornfield, Jack with Fronsdal, Gil Ed. Teachings of the Buddha(Boston: Shambhala, 1993),143.

[ii]Longchenpa. Eight Similes of Illusion. Rigpa Wiki. 16 Mar 2011. (26 May 2016)



7. Renunciation & Contentment

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

Renunciation and Contentment

If phenomena are impermanent and illusory and death inevitable, then we would do well to renounce worldly phenomena? This is the response of Buddhism and of other major spiritual traditions. The Buddha’s path to enlightenment begins with an act of complete renunciation, as he leaves wife, child, palace, and princely prerogatives in search of a true refuge from the suffering of old age sickness and death. During his search he practices extreme asceticism for six years and is reduced to skin and bones, as he subsists on a few grains of rice a day. Only after he moderates the extent of his self-denial and begins to accept adequate nourishment does he attain enlightenment. He teaches us that, while renunciation is necessary, too much attachment to anything, even to renunciation, can be counterproductive. As the Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi taught, ”Renunciation is not giving up things of this world but accepting that they go away.”

We don’t have to become dour puritans like Malvolio in Twelfth Night and think that because we are “virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale.” We can enjoy life as it comes to us and let others do the same, as long as we avoid attachment. But avoiding attachment while living in the world can be extremely difficult for most of us. This is one reason why Buddhism and Christianity have strong monastic traditions and why some of the greatest spiritual teachers have spent many years alone in isolated retreats. In ancient Tibet Buddhist renunciates confined their lives to four goals:

Base your mind on the Dharma,
Base your Dharma on a humble life,
Base your humble life on the thought of death,
Base your death on an empty, barren hollow.[1]

Shakespeare was probably not much of a renunciate, but he understood their way of thinking. In Sonnet 146 he gives us a poem on the subject of renunciation:

Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth,
Pressed with these rebel powers that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
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,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store.
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more.
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

While Buddhists would not use the word “soul” in the sense of an eternal entity, we all have a spiritual nature, which Buddhists call buddha nature. The speaker sees his spiritual nature oppressed by desires for costly apparel. But while such material wants are richly indulged, his spirit pines within and suffers dearth. Realizing that the body will die and worms will eat up the excess lavished on it, the speaker reverses course and embraces renunciation. He will now enrich his spiritual nature at the expense of the servant body. His outer appearance will no longer be rich, but his spirit will be fed, and as the spirit is fed it overcomes death.

In its asceticism and piety Sonnet 146 is not typical of Shakespeare, but we find many voices in Shakespeare’s poems and plays. Considering all he has written about impermanence, death, and illusion, it is not surprising to encounter a voice for renunciation.

Renunciation takes many forms in Shakespeare’s plays. On becoming King in Henry V, Prince Hal renounces his association with Falstaff and other dissolute companions. In The Tempest, Prospero breaks his staff and drowns his book as he renounces the practice of magic. King Lear renounces the world when he lets go of attachment to royal power and accepts imprisonment, saying:

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

Hamlet even 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 achieves contentment or fulfills a higher purpose by letting go of old attachments.


Renunciation is the key to contentment, and to be content is to be happy in the present moment, in the place where we are, and with whatever we happen to have. The Buddha taught that there is no treasure like contentment, and we gain this treasure by learning to live simply with few 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. Unfortunately he is later re-arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he is  murdered by the future Richard III, but he leaves us some of Shakespeare’s greatest 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 primitive 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 is echoing, almost exactly, the following 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.[2]

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)

It is easy to be content when things are going well for us, but the exiled Duke finds contentment in adversity. Duke Senior is happy to be away from populated places and to forego human speech, books and sermons for the expressions of nature. Content in any circumstance, he sees the good in everything.

Of all Shakespeare’s characters, Nick Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is my favorite example of contentment. He is one of a group of simple workingmen who gather to prepare the play of Pyramus and Thisbe, which they hope to perform for the local ruler, Duke Theseus, and his bride, Hippolyta. To rehearse, the group goes into a forest ruled by Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, who are engaged in a fight over possession of a changeling boy taken by Titania. Oberon seeks to get even with the help of the impish Puck.

As the amateur players begin their rehearsal, Puck mischievously changes Bottom’s head into that of an ass. On seeing him the others flee, but Bottom, thinking nothing is 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. 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 also change Bottom’s head back to that of a man. 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 from him, he sits down to sing a song. When Titania professes her love, he plays along agreeably. When he wakes up he is not at all unhappy to have lost the services of a fairy queen and her attendants, but does feel that 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 himself 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 befalls, he is happy in the moment, with where he is, with what he has, and with what he can or can’t remember. Bottom is that rare character who appears to have no real attachments or aversions and nothing to renounce. A proverb tells us that “a harvest of peace is produced from a seed of contentment.” Peace will be the subject of our next chapter.

  1. Enter your Patrul Rinpoché. The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998), 50. content here. 
  2. Thera, Piyadassi and Van Glasenapp, Helmuth, Collected Wheel Publications, (Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka, 2009), 335. 

EDIT Previous: Illusion

8. Peace

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

During the Buddha’s lifetime northern India was divided into a number of states with well-established warrior castes. Accounts of the Buddha’s life include an episode in which he intervened to stop an impending war between the Shakyan and Kolyan states. When the he arrived at the river that separated the two states, the opposing forces were drawn up and ready to begin combat. Asked to explain their reasons for going into battle, neither the leaders nor their followers could say, but many insults had been exchanged, and they all agreed that honor demanded a fight. The Buddha then learned from local farmers that the cause of the conflict was a shortage of water for irrigation. With this information he sought to convince the leaders 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 sangha of monks.

The Buddha would have seen war and other forms of violence as examples of the suffering brought on by attachment, aversion, and ignorance. The Buddha’s sayings, collected in the Dhammapada, include the following:

Better than a thousand hollow verses is one verse that brings peace.[footnote]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 30.[/footnote]


Alas for the man who raises his hand against another, and even more for him who returns the blow.[footnote]Ibid. 105.[/footnote]

Without violent conflicts brought on by attachment, ignorance, and aversion, Shakespeare would have had much less to write about. At least sixteen of his plays feature battles, and most include fighting or violence of some kind. Thomas Hardy wrote that, “war makes rattling good history, but peace is poor reading. Shakespeare was in the business of telling rattling good histories that celebrate war and the military virtues, but in his plays we often find that the cause of peace gets the more convincing arguments.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Henry V is the one best known for patriotic glorification of war, especially in Henry’s rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech. But a common soldier named Williams delivers the play’s truest insights about war and its effects:

But if the cause be not good, the King
himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all
those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a
battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry
all “We died at such a place,” some swearing, some
crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left
poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe,
some upon their children rawly left. I am 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 night before the battle of Agincourt, dismisses this by saying that the king is no more responsible for a soldier who miscarries in battle than a father would be for a son who miscarries on an errand, but this is a weak argument. Sending someone on an errand and sending them into battle, especially in a bad cause, are entirely different matters. Shakespeare allows Henry to appear to win the argument because he can’t very well do otherwise, but he gives Williams the better case.

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s play about the Trojan War, the Trojan leaders consider whether to end many years of costly fighting by returning Helen to the Greeks and to her rightful husband, Menelaus. Hector makes a compelling case for peace, ending with the lines:

If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back return’d: thus to persist
In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
But makes it much more heavy. (II.ii.192-197)

The case for peace fails to carry the day. Even Hector reverses himself and joins the side of war. Shakespeare had no choice in this, since he was retelling a well-known story, but once more he has given peace the stronger argument. Hector pays the ultimate price for the continuation of war, and the full horror for Troy is brought home in the lamenting cries of Cassandra and in these lines:

Hector is gone:
Who shall tell Priam so, or Hecuba?
Let him that will a screech-owl aye be call’d,
Go in to Troy, and say there, Hector’s dead:
There is a word will Priam turn to stone;
Make wells and Niobes of the maids and wives,
Cold statues of the youth, and, in a word,
Scare Troy out of itself. (V.xi.15-22)

Shakespeare’s plays contain many such descriptions of the terrible harm that war inflicts on individuals and on society. 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 more humorous turn in In Henry IV Part 1. Sir John Falstaff enlists to aid the King in putting down a rebellion, though he is more interested in profiting from the war and has no stomach for fighting. When reminded by Prince Hal that he “owe’s God a death,” he responds with this soliloquy:

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

Depending on your point of view, Falstaff is either a shameless coward or the only sane person on the battlefield, or a mixture of the two. In any case, Falstaff memorably derides the hollowness of popular notions of honor and offers a human counterpoint to the scenes of deadly combat.

None of this would qualify Shakespeare as a Buddhist where views of war and peace are concerned, but for all the battles and exhortations to valor, more is said on behalf of peace than on behalf of war. Shakespeare comes closest to expressing the Buddhist principle of 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 been considering the outward peace of non-harming and the absence of war. Such outward peace is dependent on inner peace, which comes from the absence of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. The qualities that contribute to inner peace are those we have considered, including loving-kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, renunciation, and contentment. These qualities are the basis for positive actions that bring good consequences. The inescapable connection between actions and consequences will be our next subject.