7. Illusion

For the Buddha and his followers, the phenomena we encounter are without intrinsic reality. In the Diamond Sutra, he 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]

And in the Dhammapada he says:

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

The Buddha sought through his teachings to make his followers aware of the illusory nature of everyday reality. But when it served his purpose, he could conjure supernatural apparitions. Accounts of the Buddha’s life relate the story of Queen Khema, the proud and beautiful wife of King Bimbisara. One day Khema noticed 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. 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 neither a spiritual teacher nor a magician. He was a highly gifted creator of theatrical 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)

Out of “airy nothing” Shakespeare constructs imaginary worlds inhabited by all sorts of 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. And The Tempestis filled from beginning to end with a variety of magical effects and displays.

Not all of Shakespeare’s illusions involve the supernatural. More often the illusions in his plays result from disguises and other deceptions. He had his bag of tricks and used some 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).

With his bag of tricks, Shakespeare shows 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 often turns out to be man-made illusion.

In The Tempest,Shakespeare gives us more than supernatural or man-made illusions. After conjuring and dissolving a masque of spirits, Prospero delivers these lines:

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 not just talking about the supernatural here. He is telling us that “real” phenomena, such as towers, palaces, temples, the globe itself, and all that will come after are as insubstantial as a dream. This is what the Buddha says when he likens “all this fleeting world” to “a phantom, or a dream.”

In describing the world as “a phantom or a dream,” the Buddha is not saying that phenomena have no existence at all. He is saying that phenomena are not ultimately real because, as we noted in our chapter on suffering, they are changing, interdependent, and multiple. Everything changes, everything depends on causes and conditions, and everything is made up of parts.

In Measure for Measure,Shakespeare repeats the Buddha’s teaching on the illusory nature of phenomena, point for point. In the play, the Duke of Vienna visits a prison to comfort a condemned man. 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 made up of parts:

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. In our ignorance, we remain attached to our sandcastles.

The Buddha is said to have conjured magical illusions for the education of his followers, and Shakespeare created theatrical illusions for the entertainment of his audiences. But illusion was more than magic for the Buddha and more than theatrical invention for Shakespeare. They both grasped an essential point – that everyday phenomena do not exist as we think they do. For the Buddha “all this fleeting world” is a “phantom or a dream,” and for Shakespeare “the great globe itself . . . shall dissolve.”


[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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