6: Illusion

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

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

And in the Dhammapada he says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is impermanent:

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

It is dependent on causes and conditions:

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

And it is multiple:

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

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

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


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

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

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


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