3: Immeasurables

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness; may they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, may they never be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering, and may they dwell in the great equanimity that is free from attachment and aversion. From the Tibetan Buddhist Prayer of the Four Immeasurables

Four of the qualities that counter suffering are known in Buddhism as the four immeasurables or sublime attitudes. They include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In practicing loving-kindness Buddhists begin by wishing happiness and the causes of happiness for someone dear to them, and then gradually expand that wish until it embraces all sentient beings throughout the whole of space and time. The other three qualities are practiced with the same all-embracing spirit. Through the four immeasurables Buddhists cultivate a good heart, replacing selfish attachments with the wish to benefit others, and in this way they overcome their own suffering and sometimes that of others.

Shakespeare’s characters may not practice loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity with such a vast intention. We do not find them methodically training their minds to expand the scope of their altruistic motivation. And yet, in Shakespeare’s plays we find characters who long to make others happy (loving-kindness) and to free them from suffering and its causes (compassion).

Loving-kindness and Compassion

Shakespeare’s characters extend loving-kindness to friends, relatives, masters, servants, and complete strangers. The vast and inexhaustible quality of loving-kindness is beautifully expressed in lines spoken by Juliet to Romeo:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep. The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite. (II.ii.140-143)

Juliet’s love is transformative. She loses herself in the vastness of the love that she gives to Romeo. But to the extent that her love is focused on one person and involves attachment, it leads to suffering. In it’s fullest manifestation, loving-kindness goes beyond attachment and reaches out to all.

Loving-kindness and compassion are closely related, since happiness often depends on freedom from suffering. Compassion arises from natural empathy with our fellow beings. For Shakespeare, as for Buddhists, it is the heart that feels another’s pain and longs to relieve it.

At the beginning of The Tempest we see a ship being destroyed in a storm conjured up by the magician, Prospero. This sight brings a spontaneous declaration of compassion from Prospero’s young daughter, Miranda:

O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash’d all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallow’d and
The fraughting[i] souls within her. (I.ii.5-13)

In these lines Shakespeare gives us the compassion of an innocent girl with little experience of the world. Miranda’s compassion is a beautiful expression of innate human goodness.

Another tempest takes place in King Lear. Lear on the heath suffers from the storm without while he endures an even greater storm of mental suffering within. When he notices a naked beggar also feeling the fury of the elements, a heart that has been entirely taken up with selfish concerns is opened, and he prays:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just. (III.iv.28-36)

While Miranda’s compassion is the compassion of innocence, Lear’s is the compassion of experience. By enduring great suffering he comes to realize that he has been blind to the suffering of others for too long. With the opening of his heart he finds momentary relief from pain.

Compassion is not a limited commodity. The more compassion we feel for the suffering of others the more our compassion grows. As compassion grows it displaces craving and ignorance, thereby relieving our own suffering. Buddhists sometimes describe compassion as a wish-fulfilling jewel that cannot be exhausted, bringing benefits to giver and receiver alike. As Sogyal Rinpoche points out, the inexhaustible nature of compassion is beautifully expressed in The Merchant of Venice when Portia appeals to Shylock to spare the life of the merchant, Antonio[ii]

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: (IV.i.168-171)

For Shakespeare compassion is the spontaneous expression of an innocent child on seeing a shipwreck and the prayer of an old man whose selfish heart has been opened by the suffering of a beggar. It is a transcendent virtue, falling from heaven and raining blessings on the giver and receiver alike.

Sympathetic Joy

Altruistic or sympathetic joy is unselfish joy in the good fortune of others. We rejoice in the happiness, accomplishments, wealth, success, and virtues of others wherever they appear, and we wish them even greater happiness. As we rejoice in the happiness of others, our own happiness grows. The opposite of sympathetic joy is envy, the resentment of another’s good fortune.

Much Ado About Nothing opens on a note of sympathetic joy at the achievements of young Count Claudio as he returns with Don Pedro and Signor Benedick from a military expedition. They gather at the home of Leonato, Governor of Messina. Hearing that Claudio’s accomplishments have brought tears of happiness to his uncle, Leonato says:

                                    There are no
faces truer than those that are so washed. How
much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at
weeping! (I.i.26-29)

The joy increases as Claudio seeks and wins the hand of Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and a wedding is planned. Meanwhile Signor Benedick and Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, both self-professed bachelors, engage in a skirmish of wit at one another’s expense. Hero, Claudio and others of the party decide to pass the time until the wedding by bringing Beatrice and Benedick “into a mountain of affection the one with the other.” Male characters maneuver Benedick into overhearing a conversation about how much Beatrice loves him, and female characters maneuver Beatrice into eavesdropping on a conversation about Benedick’s love for her. Their scheme succeeds, and Beatrice and Benedick become engaged.

The atmosphere darkens when the envious Don John arrives. Hearing of Claudio’s good fortune he says:

Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be med’cinable to me. I am sick in displeasure to him, and whatsoever comes athwart his affection ranges evenly with mine. (II.ii.4-7)

Don John’s envy is the opposite of sympathetic joy. He is one “to joy at weeping.”

Don John devises a plot to convince Claudio that Hero entertains another lover on the night before their wedding, and Claudio is taken in by the deception. Infected by jealousy, he rejects and shames Hero before the assembled wedding guests. When Hero faints and at first appears to be dead, the Friar who was to have married the couple perceives her blamelessness and arranges for her to be secreted away until her innocence is proven. Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel for having killed an innocent lady, but violence is forestalled when the bumbling constabulary exposes Don John’s plot. The now repentant Claudio, still thinking Hero is dead, agrees to marry Hero’s cousin sight unseen. Then, posing as the cousin, Hero appears in a veil and says:

. . . when I lived, I was your other wife,
And when you loved, you were my other husband. (V.iv.61-62)

Beatrice and Benedick join them to make it a double wedding, and the play ends with a dance before the celebration of two marriages.

Six of Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding or with a wedding about to be performed, and what is a wedding but a celebration of sympathetic joy at others’ happiness and good fortune? What Shakespeare gives us at the end of his comedies is joy piled upon joy. Much Ado About Nothing and The Two Gentlemen of Verona each end with a double wedding. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night end with a triple wedding, and Loves Labour’s Lost and As You Like It each end with the impending marriage of four couples. Shakespeare wrote six other comedies that do not end with weddings but joyfully celebrate the achievement of marital happiness.

As audience members we fully participate in the sympathetic joy depicted onstage. We rejoice that the lovers are united. We rejoice that those thought to be dead turn up alive and are restored to their families. We rejoice that so many problems have been solved to the benefit of so many people. And after a good performance we rejoice in the accomplishment of the actors. We can even rejoice in the achievement of Shakespeare, who has been eliciting sympathetic joy from audiences on a vast scale for more than 400 years. For most of us the feelings of sympathetic joy begin to fade as we leave the theatre, but we would do well to retain, nurture, and extend them to as many beings as possible.

Equanimity

Buddhist equanimity has two aspects. The first involves freedom from attachment to gain, praise, fame, and pleasure, and freedom from aversion to loss, blame, disrepute, and pain. Taken together these are known as the eight worldly concerns, and they are a major source of suffering.

The Buddha praises

A mind that does not waver when touched by [the eight] worldly conditions. . . . free from disturbances, purified of passion and finished with sensuality, it is calm and serene, without the storms of desires and the waves of worries. Mangala Sutta[iii]

Freedom from the eight worldly concerns is what Hamlet commends when he addresses these words to his friend, Horatio:

                       . . . thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. (III.ii.64-74)

Horatio would seem to be a model of equanimity. His is “a mind unshaken when touched by the worldly states.”

We find similar freedom from attachment in Shakespeare’s Roman plays, including Julius Caesar. When Brutus learns of the death of his wife, Portia, he takes the news calmly, saying:

With meditating that she must die once,
I have the patience to endure it now. (IV.iii.217-218)

The freedom from attachment that we find in Hamlet and Julius Caesar is a Roman virtue and reflects the Stoic philosophy that was well known to Shakespeare from his reading of Plutarch and Seneca. But while Roman equanimity involves freedom from the eight worldly concerns, it lacks the second aspect of Buddhist equanimity, which regards all beings with an equal mind.

As one of the four immeasurables equanimity is practiced with an all-embracing spirit. We wish for all beings to be free from the eight worldly concerns and we wish for them to regard others with an equal mind. According to the Buddha a mind that regards all beings with equanimity is far from cold or indifferent; it is “abundant, exalted, immeasurable.” Buddhist equanimity has an open heart as well as an untroubled mind.

In Shakespeare’s plays we find characters, like Horatio, who exemplify freedom from the eight worldly concerns. What we do not so easily find are characters who exemplify the second aspect of equanimity. They do not, as far as I can see, make it a point to regard all beings – friends, enemies, and everyone in between – with an equal mind. Nor do we as audience members look upon all of Shakespeare’s characters with an equal mind. It is in the nature of drama to elicit attachment for some and aversion for others.

But with Shakespeare’s characters our aversion is usually qualified because we come to know them so well. We are often privy to their innermost thoughts as well as their speech and actions. In them we are able to see ourselves, or who we would like to be, or who we fear we might become, or who we could have become under different circumstances. When we experience Hamlet we know what it is like to be Hamlet, we know what it is like to be Ophelia, we know what it is like to be Gertrude, and we may even know what it is like to be Claudius. In Macbeth, the title character is both protagonist and villain. We can understand and identify with him even as we are appalled by what he does. We see most of these characters as human beings like us, trying however misguidedly to be happy and to avoid suffering, and in this respect they are the same as us. To the extent we can see that other beings are the same as us, we can see them with a more equal mind.

Genuine equanimity, in the face of the eight worldly concerns and in our attitude toward other beings, must be based on genuine insight. Insight comes about as we deepen our appreciation of impermanence and death, the illusory nature of phenomena, the inescapable connection of actions and consequences, and egolessness. As we will see in the following sections, Shakespeare has something to tell us about each of these subjects.

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[i]Fraughting means making up the freight.

[ii]Sogyal Rinpoche. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Harper San Francisco, 2001), 202.

[iii]Life’s Highest Blessings: The Maha Mangala Sutra. Dr. R.L. Soni, trans. (Kandy Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1956), 86.

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