12. Egolessness

A. Freedom from Attachment to Self

Egolessness or non-self is the realization that our selves and the phenomena we encounter have no lasting, independent, or solid existence. As the Buddha says:

The thought of self is an error and all existences are as hollow as the plantain tree and as empty as twirling water bubbles.[i]

If we want to appreciate egolessness as it applies to us, we can start by asking who we would be without our name, our family, our friends, our possessions, our work, our reputation, our physical appearance, our physical strength, our feelings, our thoughts, etc. These aspects of our identity and any others that we can imagine are subject to change and have no enduring reality. The more we come to realize this the more we come to appreciate that there is no solid self. The self that we identify with and cling to is a set of concepts based on transient, ever-changing phenomena.

Our challenge is to stop clinging to the aspects of identity that create the impression of a solid self. If we could only do that, we would begin to uncover our unstained buddha-nature, long buried beneath attachments, aversions, and related negative emotions.  Once again in touch with our true nature, we would realize and remember our impermanence, interdependence, and lack of solidity. We would act with care and compassion, knowing that others are also impermanent, interdependent, and without solidity. And we would be free of the burden of protecting and promoting all the aspects of ego-identity that lack inherent reality. With such freedom, we would find openness and clarity. But, sadly, this is not where most of us are. For most of us, losing one or two cherished aspects of our ego-identity would be a shattering experience. Some of Shakespeare’s characters find themselves in this very position.

Consider Richard II. Indulgent with his friends and profligate with money, Richard goes too far when he exiles his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke and seizes his assets to pay for wars in Ireland. Henry returns 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; (III.ii.55-56)

When it becomes clear that he must submit to his cousin, he imagines himself exchanging trappings of kingship 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, (III.iii.148-158)

He finds 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 oblivion:

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 thoughts before he dies at the hands of his enemies:

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)

At the end, he begins to understand that only “with being nothing,” only by letting go of attachment to identity, will he “be eased.”

Shakespeare returns to the subject of royal identity in King Lear. Lear voluntarily gives up power to his daughters with the expectation that he will retain “the name and all addition to a king.”  He foolishly thinks he can give up power and keep the identity that goes with it, but finds out otherwise when he goes to live with his daughter, Goneril. Instead of treating him like a king and 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 descent continues as Lear’s retinue is reduced by half and then taken away altogether. Left out in a storm with his sanity slipping away, Lear faces the loss of all that has defined his existence. Adrift and desperate to know who he is, he sees a naked beggar in the storm and exclaims:

Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.”(III.iv.114-115)

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

Lear declines further into madness, obsessing 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 finally let go of 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 attachments that have defined his self-identity, Lear gains new understanding. He now knows that his lost power and position were 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 end he dies in the apparent belief that Cordelia has come back to life.

After much suffering, Richard II and King Lear glimpse the truth. Richard knows at the end that our suffering is eased only when we are pleased with being nothing. And Lear anticipates, for a moment, the contentment to be found in freedom from identity, living in prison as a hermit and considering the mystery of things.


B. Shakespeare’s Lack of Ego

If Shakespeare had normal egoistic attachments, they left few traces in his work. We cannot draw from the plays any firm conclusions about his preoccupations, personal preferences, points of view, or beliefs. While John Milton employs poetry as a vehicle to “justify the ways of God to Man,” Shakespeare has no such agendas. In his plays, we find many points of view and many qualities, but they are the points of view and qualities of the characters and not the playwright. Shakespeare is like the artist described by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who:

remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence.”[ii]

He is like the presence Virginia Woolf sensed when she visitedShakespeare’s grave in Stratford. She wrote in her diary:

He is serenely absent-present; both at once; radiating around one;   . . . but never to be pinned down.[iii]

William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Keats all remarked on Shakespeare’s lack of ego. Hazlitt wrote that:

He (Shakespeare) was the least of an egoist that it was possible to be; he was nothing in himself, but he was all that others were or could become.”[iv]

 Emerson, who had read Hazlitt’s essays, expressed a similar view:

Shakespeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic, but all is duly given. He has no discoverable egotism.[v]

John Keats was also familiar with Hazlitt’s opinion and shared it. He even coined the term, negative capability, to describe the singular quality that he found in Shakespeare.  He explains in a letter to his brothers:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a man of achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.[vi]

Negative capability is openness to experience without the egoistic wish to question, understand, or control.  It is a quality that a man with “no discoverable egotism” would possess.

The Buddhist teacher and author, Stephen Batchelor, finds that negative capability “bears a striking affinity with the practice of Zen Buddhism.”[vii] Considering the statement that Shakespeare “was nothing in himself, but he was all that others were or could become,” Bachelor writes:

One might equally use this phrase to describe the Buddha dwelling in selfless freedom (nirvana) beneath the bodhi tree after his awakening.[viii]

The ability to be present with life in all its mystery, unburdened by attachments, is an ability that the Buddha exemplifies. If Keats, Hazlitt, Emerson, and Batchelor are right and Shakespeare possessed it, then he resembled the Buddha in this important respect.

Not that we have to think of Shakespeare as a holy man to appreciate his genius. Perhaps Shakespeare had egoistic attachments like most of us but was able to set them aside and enter a creative space of openness and clarity. Thus unencumbered, his mind would have become a polished mirror, reflecting human nature in all its variety. We find the mirror metaphor in Hamlet’s speech to the players:

the purpose of playing . . . is, to hold as t’were the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (III.ii.23-26)

From Shakespeare’s mirror-like mind came poetry and dramatic situations that illustrate truths taught by the Buddha. In some passages, we may almost glimpse the openness and clarity that lie beyond the self. When we experience Shakespeare’s plays, we are in the presence of universal wisdom, reflected as from a flawless mirror and resonating with the Dharma.



[i]Warren, Henry Clarke (trans). The Gospel of Buddha(Chicago: Open Court, 1915).18.

[ii]Joyce, James, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man(New York: The Viking Press, Inc.1964), 215.

[iii]Woolf, Virginia Stephen. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Four 1931-1935. (New York:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982). 219.

[iv]Hazlitt, William, William Hazlitt, Essayist and Critic: Selections from His Writings.(London: Frederick Warne and Co,1889), 113.

[v]Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Prose Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2.(Boston: James R. Osgood and Co.,1876). 115.

[vi]Keats, John, Selections from Keats’ Letters (1817)The Poetry Foundation 2016 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/essays/detail

[vii]Batchelor, Stephen. The Practice of Negative Capability: Buddhist Reflections on Creative Uncertainty.Sea of Faith. 2002 (27 May 2016) http://sof.org.nz/batch2002.htm
















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