Thus, monks, any body whatsoever. . . is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am. Any feeling whatsoever . . . Any perception whatsoever . . . Any mental processes whatsoever . . . Any consciousness whatsoever . . .This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am. The Buddha, Samyutta Nikaya[i]

For Buddhists egolessness or no-self (anatta) is one of the three basic facts of existence, the others being suffering (dukkha) and impermanence (anicca). Egolessness is the understanding that neither phenomena nor the self are ultimately real. Buddhist teachings on egolessness can be challenging and beyond my abilities to explain.

But as a first step toward some appreciation of the egolessness of the self, we might ask who we would be without our name, our thoughts, our feelings, our memory, our family, our position, our physical appearance, our physical strength, etc? These aspects of our identity, and any other aspects that we can imagine, including our body and mind, are subject to change and have no enduring existence. The more we come to realize this the more we come to appreciate that there is no such thing as a solid self. The self that we identify with and grasp onto is a concept based on transient, ever-changing phenomena.

Egolessness of self doesn’t mean no sense of self at all. It means not having an unhealthy sense of self based on clinging to what is subject to change. We are taught that if we could only stop clinging to the impermanent and illusory aspects of our identity, we would find openness and clarity. This is not where most of us are. For most of us, suddenly losing even one or two cherished aspects of our identity would be a shattering experience. Some of Shakespeare’s characters find themselves in this very position.

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

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord: (III.ii.55-62)

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

I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My scepter for a palmer’s walking-staff,
My subjects for a pair of carvèd saints,
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little, little grave, an obscure grave; (III.iii.148-159)

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

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

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

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

Although his suffering continues, he begins to understand that only “with being nothing,” only by letting go of attachment to identity, will he be “be eased.”

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

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

The Fool responds, “Lear’s shadow.” The descent continues as Lear’s retinue is reduced by half and then taken away entirely. Left out in a storm with his sanity slipping away, Lear struggles with the growing evidence that he is no longer who he thought he was, no longer a king and beloved father. He now wants to know who he and others essentially are, and when he encounters a naked beggar in the storm he thinks he sees an answer to his question.

—Is man no more than this? Consider him well.—Thou
ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep
no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha, here’s three on ’s
are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. (III.iv.110-115)

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

In his suffering Lear begins to understand that he was deceived by the deference paid to him as King. His identity as an invincible monarch is a lie:

When the rain came to wet me
once and the wind to make me chatter, when the
thunder would not peace at my bidding, there I
found ’em, there I smelt ’em out. Go to. They are
not men o’ their words; they told me I was everything.
’Tis a lie. I am not ague-proof. (

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

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

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

None of Shakespeare’s characters achieve egolessness, but some suffer the painful unraveling of identity. In the course of their suffering, Richard II and Lear have insights that approach the truth. Richard II knows at the end that contentment will come only when we are pleased with being nothing, with having no attachment to identity. And Lear knows that contentment can be found without his old identity, living in prison as a hermit and considering the mystery of things.


[i] The Buddha.The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic.(July 26, 2017)