3. Suffering and its Causes

A. Suffering

Some people avoid Buddhism because they think it is only about suffering, but this is not the case. The Buddha’s teachings show us a path out of suffering to happiness and ultimate freedom. But to take that path, we must first acknowledge the reality of suffering and understand its causes. So the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is the truth of suffering:

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 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 and our loved ones will grow old, get sick, and die.

Suffering is a truth unforgettably depicted in Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. In these tragedies, we find mental anguish that is worse than any physical pain. But suffering is not confined to the central figures of high tragedy. Shakespeare’s characters undergo 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 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)

We don’t just observe grief in these lines. We experience what it feels like from inside the character’s mind.

Macbeth’s nemesis, Macduff, endures 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 his grief:

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. When suffering comes, we have to face and feel the pain before healing can begin. If we try to suppress our pain by diverting or numbing ourselves, we only create more pain.

Outer circumstances such as the death of a child or a whole family would cause anyone to suffer. But we can create plenty of misery without such catastrophes. Failure to control our cravings is all it takes to cause pain for ourselves and others. Sonnet 129 shows what happens when we allow our desires 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 on them, his cravings, in this case sexual, are savage, extreme, rude, cruel, deceptive, and beyond all reason. Both the craving and regret are severe 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 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]

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)

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 “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 wind and 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 all-pervasive suffering of conditioned existence rarely shuts off.


B. The Causes of Suffering

The Second Noble Truth taught by the Buddha is the truth of the causes of suffering. The causes are attachment and aversion arising from ignorance. We are in a state of ignorance when we fail to appreciate that:

  • We are not lasting, independent, or single;
  • Others are not lasting, independent or single; and
  • We are not separate from others.

In our ignorance, we see permanence where there is change, independence where there is interconnection, and solidity where there is division. Thus deluded, we develop attachments and aversions to things that don’t exist as we think they do, and we suffer.

Attachment, aversion, and ignorance are sometimes called the three poisons. Craving, clinging, avarice, pride, aggression, anger, hatred, jealousy, and lust for power are also causes of suffering, but all arise out of ignorance and are forms of attachment and aversion. They are the negative emotions that will destroy us if we fail to watch our minds.

We have seen the three poisons at work in Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth:

  • Othello is in love with Desdemona, but love turns to anguish when he mistakes Iago’s falsehoods for proof of infidelity. Deranged by jealousy, he kills Desdemona and himself.
  • King Lear is attached to the love of his youngest daughter, Cordelia, and plans to set his “rest on her kind nursery.” But when he mistakes her honesty for unkindness, attachment gives way to wrath, and he angrily disinherits her. With this action, he opens the door to the misery that follows.
  • Macbeth’s lust for royal power leads him to murder King Duncan and then commit more murders to protect his position. He turns his kingdom into a place where “sighs and shrieks and groans” rent the air, and all for a “fruitless crown.” He ends with his head on a pike.

Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth fail to master their minds, fall prey to the three poisons, and – as Shantideva says, “destroy their own well being as if it were their worst enemy.”

Shakespeare wrote ten history plays about kings of England, and a “fruitless crown” is at the center of each of them. The crown is the chief object of attachment, the prize for which Shakespeare’s characters are ready to kill and be killed. And those that attain royal power will go to any lengths to keep it. But this crown, for which men wage battles, commit murders, and heap misery upon misery, is neither lasting, nor independent, nor single.

  • No kingship lasts for long. Shakespeare wrote seven plays about the six kings who ruled between 1399 and 1485. During this period the crown changed hands eight times, and three kings were deposed and killed.
  • The crown is never independent. To maintain a tenuous hold on power, Shakespeare’s kings cobble together networks of supporters large enough to counter their adversaries. But despite their best efforts, they often fall victim to shifting alliances and the vagaries of battle.
  • The crown is not indivisible. It is divisible, as we see when King Lear plans to divide his kingdom among three daughters. And Shakespeare’s kings watch their realms split apart as territory is lost and won and lost again.

One by one, Shakespeare’s kings come to the painful realization that their crown lacks inherent reality. Shortly before losing his throne Richard II laments.

    within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a breath, a little scene,

To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,

Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life,

Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus

Comes at the last and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king! (III.ii. 165-175)


Shakespeare’s hollow crown is a symbol of the false promise that lies at the heart of the three poisons.

The crown brings little happiness, even to kings that keep their thrones.  In Henry IV, Part 2, the King has insomnia. Lying awake, perhaps with a troubled conscience, he thinks of a sea-boy slumbering on a mast during a storm.

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And, in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.(III.i.26-31)

Henry IV might well have trouble sleeping at night. By deposing Richard II and seizing his throne, he has set off a train of events that will lead to the wars of the roses, with all of their attendant slaughter. The hollow crown lures the ignorant into power plays that bring destruction for generations to come.

In exploring the causes of suffering, we have focused on characters that bring misery to themselves and others by acting out of jealousy, anger, and lust for power. Without the pain we bring on ourselves, we would suffer less, but we would still suffer. 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.

It may seem unfair that people who do nothing to bring suffering on themselves endure misfortune. But suffering does not have to be seen as punishment. It may sometimes be a blessing, bringing us what we need to grow. In our chapter on Actions and Consequences, we will touch on the possible benefits of suffering.

Shakespeare shows us suffering and its causes, but does he have anything to offer concerning the Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering? Shakespeare was a 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. But in his plays, he shows us qualities that, according to the Buddha and other spiritual teachers, can do much to counter suffering. They include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. 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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