6: Illusion

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world: 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. The Buddha, The Diamond Sutra[i]

The Buddha teaches that our world is fleeting and illusory. In addition to the words from the Diamond Sutra quoted above, the Buddha says in the Lotus Sutra that, “Nothing in this world is lasting or firm, but all is like bubbles, foam, heat shimmer.”[ii]

When they say that worldly phenomena are like a bubble, a phantom, or a dream, the Buddha and his followers are not saying that phenomena don’t exist at all. They are saying that the phenomena we experience are not ultimately real. This is the case because all phenomena 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.

The Buddhist understanding that all phenomena lack permanence, singularity, and independence is expressed, point for point, in Measure for Measure. 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.  (III.i.11-13)

It is multiple:

Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist’st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. (III.1.20-22)

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. (III.i.8-11)

Our bodies and the objects and beings that make up our world do manifest, however, making it is easy to forget that they are impermanent, multiple, and interdependent. Such ignorance gives rise to attachment and aversion and the suffering that follows. To overcome ignorance and prevent suffering the Buddha and his followers have over the centuries given many teachings on the absence of inherent existence in all phenomena. 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.[iii]

Though not a Buddhist teacher, Shakespeare was a master of illusion. We might say that illusion was his stock in trade. These lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be read as a declaration 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)

With his pen Shakespeare gives shape to all manner of illusions, only to dissolve them and show that the phenomena onto which we grasp are not what we take them to be.

In The Tempest 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 experience:

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 tells us that everything we consider to be real: the towers, palaces, temples, the earth, and all the future generations who will inherit the earth, have no more enduring reality than a magical display.

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 Errors and 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 and The Merry Wives of Windsor). Rulers disguise themselves as subjects (Henry V and Measure for Measure). Characters thought to be dead frequently turn out to be alive (Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, The Winter’s Tale, The 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). However things appear, they usually turns out to be something else. Shakespeare rarely lets us forget that we lose ourselves in one illusion after another and that most of us live our lives under a multitude of false impressions.

The Buddha and Shakespeare have different ways of teaching about the illusory nature of phenomena. The Buddha points to actual phenomena and teaches that they are illusory in that they have no ultimate reality. With his pen Shakespeare creates illusions out of “airy nothing,” and then uses them to demonstrate that the phenomena we encounter are fleeting and are rarely what we take them to be.

The lessons we learn from Shakespeare about the illusory nature of our world are usually forgotten after the play is finished. Back in the “real world” we would do well to remember that that the phenomena we find outside the theatre are ultimately as illusory as the phenomena that appear on the stage. If we can manage to do that, then we might say that Shakespeare has played a part in teaching the dharma.


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

[ii] Buddha Shakyamuni. The Lotus Sutra, Translated by Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 249.

[iii] Longchenpa. Eight Similes of Illusion. Rigpa Wiki. 16 Mar 2011. (26 May 2016) http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Eight_similes_of_illusion


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