Chapter 11: Contentment

Health, contentment, and trust are your greatest possessions, and freedom your greatest joy. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

Impermanence, the inevitability of death, and the illusory nature of phenomena combine to make a strong case for renunciation. But Buddhist renunciation is not about self-imposed deprivation or harsh ascetic discipline. The Buddha actually tried that path and found it unsatisfactory. According to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi:

Renunciation does not mean giving up things of this world but accepting that they go away.[ii]

Renunciation is non-attachment with respect to objects, with respect to control over others, and with respect to views. It is the key to contentment, and to be content is to be happy in the place where we are, with whatever we have or do not have. The Buddha taught that there is no wealth greater than contentment.

Shakespeare’s pious Henry VI is an ineffectual king but a good example of contentment. At the opening of Henry IV Part 3, the Lancastrian Henry flees after losing a battle to his Yorkist rivals. He is apprehended, and when he says he is 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 imprisoned in the Tower of London and 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 simple 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 but 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 prefers the Forest of Arden to the painted pomp of the court because it is free from the perils of envy and duplicitousness. He 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 setting an example that accords closely with the following lessons taught by the Buddha to the householder, Sigala:

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 friends possessions,
he who renders lip service,
he who flatters,
he who brings ruin. [iii]

Happy to make the best of a simple existence exposed to the elements, Duke Senior 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 has renounced old attachments and finds contentment in adversity, seeing 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. When she professes her love, Bottom replies:

Methinks, mistress, you should have little
reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason
and love keep little company together nowadays. (III.i.144-146)

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 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 and nothing to renounce.

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[i] Byrom, Thomas. The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 55.

[ii] Loy, David R. Buddhist History of the West, A: Studies in Lack (Albany: State University of New York Press 2002), 209.

[iii] “Sigalovada Sutta: The Discourse to Sigala” (DN 31), translated from the Pali by Narada Thera. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,  (1 July 2017)

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.31.0.nara.html

 

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