There’s a long history in spiritual traditions of the theater serving as a metaphor for human incarnation and spiritual practice. Buddhist psychotherapist Mark Epstein describes mindfulness (a central Buddhist practice) as “watching or feeling everything that unfolds in the theater of the mind and body.” American spiritual teacher Ram Dass describes spiritual work as coming to “understand that you are a soul passing through a life in which the entire drama is a script for your awakening and that you are more than just the drama. You are a spiritual being having a human experience.” Elsewhere, he quotes the third-century philosopher Plotinus in underscoring how, through spiritual awakening, life becomes “a pageant, a play”:
All must be considered as so much stage-show, so many shiftings of scenes, the horror and outcry of a play. For here, too, in all the changing doom of life, it is not the true man, the inner soul, that grieves or laments, but merely the phantasm of the man, the outer man, playing his part on the boards [stage] of the world.
Shakespeare recognized the inherent “theatricality” of existence, our ephemeral fictionality, long before the West caught up to him. “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players,” he has Jacques claim in As You Like It. Unlike his contemporary playwrights, Shakespeare was an actor before he was a dramatist: in the practice of emptying himself-of-himself, night after night, to become another persona (a word which referred to both the mask worn by an actor and the part one played in a drama). Acting demands an attitude that’s vast-as-space, that can enter into another’s subjectivity and share their interiority, that makes room for all forms of experience. In all his emptying-and-filling—the gaps between personas, the vast spaciousness in which he unbecame-himself to become-someone-other—surely Shakespeare began to perceive what Buddhism understands as the root of our suffering: that we are persons and personas (temporary individuals and transient players) who earnestly believe we’re permanent selves. What Shakespeare seems to have understood—or at least, what he has Jacques say—is that there is no unchanging essence called “I.” “I am not what I am,” Shakespeare has Iago acknowledge in Othello. “Thus play I in one person many people,” he has Richard II observe. Buddhism calls this, one of its fundamental doctrines, anatta.
We could strike the gong again and again—as this book will do—percussing Buddhist wisdoms with Shakespearean ones:
“Thinking makes good and bad” (Wonhyo)
“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet)
“In emptiness there is no form, feeling, cognition, formation, or consciousness… no suffering, no accumulating, no extinction, and no Way” (The Heart Sutra)
“All form is formless, order orderless” (King John)
“Gazing at this place of nothingness,” see that there are “neither eyes, ears, tongue, or body, but only dust” (The Dust Contemplation)
“Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust… The sceptre, learning, physic, must / All follow this, and come to dust” (Cymbeline)
Touch Shakespeare to Siddhartha over and over again, and a series of insights emerge that feel increasingly poignant for the gap between them. “We” are radical contractions of our much vaster being. The embodied drama we’re living is only part of the truth. We are infinitely more spacious than the phenomena we experience in these bodies, with their small stories and their changing emotions.
Yet I suspect that one of the more astonishing things Shakespeare has to teach us is that we have to touch the drama of this particular life more deeply if we hope to discover that, as Buddhism tells it, we are more than it. This book also rests on the evident premise—as does Buddhism—that we’ve taken form. We have bodies, personalities, tendencies, and behaviors (saṅkhāras, mental and emotional patterns or conditioning) that we’re capable of waking up to, observing and understanding, then seeing beyond. We have qualities, such as the capacity for infinite love and compassion, that we have yet to even understand. The reverberations that follow aren’t about transcending the world, however “unreal,” in which we live. They’re about recognizing that the very bodies we’re in, with all their aches, attachments, resistances, and pleasures, are exactly what we ought to attend to if we want to inhabit our roles as though they really matter; if we want to feel most alive during our short act on this miraculous stage that holds it all, from bliss to despair. We’re a divine nobodyness that’s rather wonderfully become a “somebody” with a distinct life to live. And we are our own gateways back to the sacred if we can fully connect with that life, using our circumstances to answer the question—which is Hamlet’s opening line—“Who’s there?” Shakespeare opens us to the possibility that “I” is infinitely more capacious than this body. And yet Buddhism teaches us that embodiment is a curriculum for learning to live in freedom.
Buddhism tells us that we are “many and no one,” everything and nothing, emptiness and and the totality of what-is. Our Buddha Nature (tathāgatagharba), that which realizes this, is already right here, within us. We need only awaken to it. Both Shakespeare and the Buddha begin with the body, with “character,” with form, with ordinary life. They offer models for how to inquire within, how to become acute readers of ourselves: our love, greed, anger, loneliness, jealousy, passion. Even as Shakespeare’s most spiteful villains wreak havoc through his plays (think Iago, or Richard III, or King Lear’s Edmund), each time they break the fourth wall to speak to us, we’re startled by both the depth of their self-awareness and their honesty with us. They know something about themselves that we, in our very full, loud, and restless lives, often don’t. And so we learn to read ourselves better by reading them.
In the yogic tradition ubiquitous in Siddhartha’s India, this line of inquiry is called svādhyāya, self-study. Svādhyāya ultimately encourages these questions: What are our patterns of attraction and repulsion, like and dislike, rāga and dosa? What phenomena trigger our anger, our agitation, our jealousy, our joy, our fear? What is the source and the nature of our suffering? Where are we ignorant and of what; and what’s that ignorance causing us to miss—or convincing us exists when it doesn’t? Where is our behavior out of integrity with our values? How do we be our most compassionate, open-hearted, equanimous selves in the roles—kings, jesters, dukes, magicians, servants, abbesses, fools—we’ve been handed? How, on the other hand, do we remember that we’re not ultimately those roles after all? And what kind of “play” remains after that Great Remembering?
Neither Buddhist practices nor reading Shakespeare are passive undertakings. But they’re both tender and potent arts that help us live better. This book is an experiment in practicing both together, and while its formal structure is guided by Buddhist principles, each chapter (or, if you will, each meditation) leads with a Shakespearean epigraph as a lens through which to illuminate that principle. Finally, there are many close readings of the Bard’s language here, because the rigor-and-ritual of coming in close to inquire into the nuances of a text is a way of cultivating broader forms of aliveness and attention. Attention is transformative. It, too, is a practice, but it’s also a form of love. It’s ultimately what spiritualizes any experience.
Praise for The Buddha and the Bard
“Shufran’s compelling juxtapositions will encourage the reader to ask the deepest questions of themselves while delighting in the play of resonances across a cultural and historical divide.”
“I am marveling at Lauren Shufran’s ability to weave classical literature with spiritual frameworks. On the surface, Shakespeare and the Buddha, don’t seem to have a lot in common, but the genius of both may be in showing us how many more connections rather than disconnections, we actually share in life. Lauren Shufran writes from this same place of compassionate, inter-sectional wisdom.”
“Whether you are a Shakespeare fan, delving into the world of Buddhism, mindfulness or spirituality, or none of the above, there is something in this book for you.”
“This gorgeous book explores how the poetic language of Shakespeare and the spiritual practices of Buddha intersect to reveal that humanity shares the same virtues and struggles with the same vices regardless of cultural setting. Lauren Shufran examines how these two voices separated by time and place actually echo each other in their astute observations of human behavior. Through select brief lines from Shakespeare’s plays, she guides readers through paraphrase, context, and meaning; and before you know it, she leads us out of the play and into the sanctuary merging literary meaning and spiritual practice.”
About the Author
Lauren Shufran holds an MA (English) and an MFA (Creative Writing: Poetry) from San Francisco State University, and a PhD (Early Modern British Literature) from UC Santa Cruz. In her eight years of PhD candidacy at UCSC she taught a wide range of courses, from creative writing to Biblical Poetics in Renaissance England to The English Sonnet Sequence; but Shakespeare was the course she taught most consistently. She discovered yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices while writing her dissertation. Lauren’s first major publication was a book of poetry called Inter Arma (Fence Books, 2013), which won the Motherwell Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University Press), as well as in Postmodern Culture, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Emerge: An Anthology of Writing by Lambda Fellows, and elsewhere over the years. She’s also had scholarly essays published in a handful of peer-reviewed journals. Lauren presently works as a ghostwriter and content strategist for a startup in San Francisco. To book Lauren to speak on the intersection of poetry and spirituality, reach out here.