2: Suffering

The First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha is the truth of Suffering. He tells us that:

Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering.[i]

Even those of us fortunate enough to enjoy relative health, prosperity, and security suffer from stress, negative emotions, or – at the very least – a vague sense of unease, together with the sure knowledge that we will grow old, get sick, and die.

Suffering is a truth unforgettably depicted in Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. In these tragedies, we find not only the suffering of old age, sickness, and death but mental suffering of the worst kind. These plays also illustrate The Second Noble Truth, the truth of the causes of suffering. The causes are attachment and aversion to worldly phenomena arising from our ignorance of their true nature. We think they have intrinsic reality when they are impermanent, interdependent, and composed of parts. Attachment, aversion, and ignorance are sometimes called the three poisons. Craving, clinging, desire, aggression, anger, pride, and jealousy are also identified by Buddhists as causes of suffering, but all arise out of ignorance and are forms of attachment and aversion.

As the middle-aged husband of a young wife, Othello is attached to her love and wildly averse to the thought that she could be unfaithful. King Lear, long accustomed to the privileges of kingship, has developed an unhealthy attachment to the power and deference that go with his position. Macbeth is attached to his wife and averse to her disapproval, and both are murderously averse to whatever stands in the way of absolute power. All fail to realize that the things they crave and the things they seek to avoid lack solid reality.

Suffering and the causes of suffering are not confined to the central figures of high tragedy. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with characters undergoing every variety of suffering, and he makes us feel their pain. Consider these lines from King John, spoken by the Lady Constance after her son, Arthur, jumps from a high wall and dies:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief. (III.iv.95-100)

Macbeth’s nemesis, Macduff, suffers an even greater loss. After he learns that the agents of Macbeth have murdered his wife and children, he is advised to “Dispute it like a man.” His response is an understated but powerful expression of suffering:

I shall do so,
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on
And would not take their part? (IV.iii.260-264)

Macduff articulates a critical truth. We can do our best to reduce the causes of suffering, but some suffering is unavoidable, and when it comes, we have to face and feel the pain before healing can begin. When we try to suppress suffering by diverting or numbing ourselves, we fall into the trap of aversion and create more suffering.

Outer circumstances such as the death of a child or a whole family would cause anyone to suffer. But attachment, aversion, and ignorance can bring plenty of suffering without such catastrophes. Inability to control our cravings is all it takes to cause needless suffering for ourselves and others. As the Eighth Century Indian Buddhist master, Shantideva, wrote of sentient beings:

Though longing to be rid of suffering,
They rush headlong towards suffering itself.
Although longing to be happy, in their ignorance
They destroy their own well-being, as if it were their worst enemy.[ii]

Sonnet 129 offers an example of the suffering we produce when we allow our cravings to get the better of us.

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The speaker tells us that until he acts upon them, his cravings, in this case sexual, are savage, extreme, rude, cruel, deceptive, and beyond all reason. No sooner does he gratify his lust than regret ensues. Both the craving and regret are extreme to the point of madness. There may be bliss in the instant of gratification, but very woe follows. In the closing couplet he says that we know what is going to happen, but don’t know how to stop ourselves. As Shantideva says, in our ignorance we “rush headlong toward suffering itself.”

Another form of suffering notable in Shakespeare is sadness or melancholy, which is expressed by Hamlet when he says:

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire—why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. (II.ii.318-327)

For no apparent reason, Hamlet finds the earth and the heavens to be unhealthy and suffocating.

The Merchant, Antonio, in The Merchant of Veniceis another character who cannot account for his sadness:

In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you.
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn. (I.i.1-4)

While they can be attributed to various causes, these speeches exemplify an undertone of sadness that we find throughout Shakespeare. Whatever the merriment, melancholy is rarely far away. Even at the happy close of Twelfth Night,we have a song about “the wind and the rain” and the rain “that raineth every day.”

The sadness that underlies Shakespeare’s works corresponds to what Buddhists call the suffering of conditioned existence or all-pervasive suffering. Because we are subject to causes and conditions that we cannot control and often do not understand, we experience a sense of the unsatisfactoriness of life. It may be as pronounced as Hamlet’s melancholy or as mild as a song about “the wind and the rain” at the close of a comedy. All-pervasive suffering can be like the sound of a refrigerator running in the background. We may hardly notice it until the motor shuts off. For many of us the suffering of conditioned existence rarely shuts off.

Whether it takes the form of a vague sense of unease or the severest mental anguish, suffering is the truth of existence for all of us. Birth is suffering, teaches the Buddha. “When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools,” says King Lear. (IV.vi, 200-201)

Shakespeare shows us suffering and the causes of suffering, but does he have anything to offer concerning the Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering? Shakespeare was a poet and playwright and not a buddha. He does not prescribe a path to the cessation of suffering, such as the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the Fourth Noble Truth. Nor does he give us practices for training the mind, such as those taught by the Buddha and developed by his followers. We cannot say that Shakespeare shows us a path to the complete cessation of suffering, but in his plays, he does show us qualities that, according to the Buddha and other spiritual teachers, help to counter suffering. These qualities include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity and are known as the four immeasurables. We will explore them in our next chapter.


[i]The Buddha, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth from the Samyutta Nikaya, Nanamoli Thera, trans. 13 June 2010 (03 Mar 2019) https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.nymo.html

[ii]Shantideva, Bodhicharyavatara, Rigpa Shedra, 02 Feb 2016 (12 Jun 2016) http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Bodhicharyavatara


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