Buddhism’s Dukkha and Hamlet’s Dust: On Shakespeare’s Spiritual Wisdom
Lauren Shufran on How Reading Shakespeare Helped Her Better Read Herself
I haven’t taken a complete survey of world religions, but I suspect that some form of the question “Who’s there?” is the ultimate inquiry every spiritual tradition seeks to answer. It’s certainly the fundamental question Buddhist and Hindu philosophies pose. The great Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi taught the question Nan Yar? (“Who am I?”) as the gateway to the true understanding of the Self. “Who’s there?” is also the opening line of Hamlet. And while the question receives much more attention in spiritual life than it does in critical investigations of one of Shakespeare’s greatest masterpieces, it’s a fertile meeting place for the most celebrated writer of all time and a 2500-year-old Buddhist practice of mindful attention.
Nearly ten years ago I discovered meditation while working on a doctoral dissertation on early modern British literature. To say one “works on early modern British literature” is a kind of code, in the humanities, for saying one is a Shakespearean: the Bard tends to overshadow and outshine his contemporaries in the canon. Meanwhile I was teaching undergraduate courses on Shakespeare; and the resonances between Shakespeare and spiritual practice—what I’ve come to think of as “the Dharma of Shakespeare”—began to sharpen into focus.
I could point you to plenty of reasons why I think this is so. I could propose that Shakespeare’s having been an actor (a “player”) before he was a dramatist endowed him with a mind vast as space, one that made room for all forms of experience. That in the practice of emptying-himself-of-himself, night after night, surely Shakespeare began to perceive what Buddhism understands as the root of our suffering (dukkha): that we are persons and personas (temporary individuals and transient players) who earnestly believe we’re permanent selves.
I could point to the long history of the theater being used as a metaphor for human incarnation and spiritual practice—as when 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.” (“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare has Jacques claim in As You Like It; “And all the men and women merely players.”) I could place Shakespeare and the Buddha side-by-side and say: this one had the capacity to represent inwardness and suffering better than any writer of his time; this one discerned how to liberate us from that suffering.
But in the years I occupied the role of “teacher,” something more fundamental arose in the resonance between Shakespeare and spiritual work. More and more, I realized that the acute attention I asked my students to cultivate for Shakespeare’s language transferred to a deep attention to other aspects of their lives: the ways they listened to their classmates; the ways they began choosing their own words more carefully when they spoke; the ways they paused between phrases, as though authenticating with themselves that the words they were about to speak were most true. Attention is radically transformative; it’s a form of love. And over time, I observed a shift in the question our classroom conversations hinged on: from “What is Shakespeare doing with language here?” to “What might Shakespeare be proposing about the ways we are, as human ‘players,’ here?”
It’s a question I found compelling enough to write a book about; it’s called The Buddha and the Bard. Among its reflections is how Hamlet echoes one of the Buddha’s Three Marks of phenomenal existence, dukkha, or suffering:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god—the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?
–Hamlet, act 2, scene 2
Hamlet portrays the passage into madness—whether real or feigned is a matter of endless conjecture—of a prince who’s visited by his father’s ghost and told his uncle was his father’s murderer. Hamlet vows to avenge his father’s life and puts “an antic [bizarre] disposition on” while he determines his best course of action. Ultimately, inaction is Hamlet’s tragic flaw. But as he tarries, the play’s other characters have time to concoct their own theories for the prince’s “distemper”: King Hamlet’s death, his widowed queen’s “o’erhasty marriage,” Hamlet’s love of Ophelia and her rejection of his advances. To discover the true source of Hamlet’s erratic behavior, his mother and uncle summon his university companions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to Elsinore. The royal couple’s hope is that the scholars can cheer Hamlet out of his melancholy… or at the very least, discover its cause.
But while Hamlet is initially delighted to see his “ex’llent good friends” at court, it doesn’t take him long to perceive what’s going on. The scholars dodge the question of what brought them to this “prison,” so Hamlet promises to save them the effort of spying on him by explicitly revealing why they were summoned. Wanting only to toy with his deceitful friends now, Hamlet enters into a grandiloquent speech that ultimately tells them nothing more than what they already knew: he’s sad. The “most excellent canopy” of the sky, Hamlet declares, “this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” It seems the prince can’t see the stars for the immoral fog of humankind. And understandably so. Elsinore is a world of social advancement, of duplicity, of persons as pawns. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of them.
Hamlet’s friends and Hamlet’s audience are offered a glimpse of inexhaustible beauty and potential in these lines before Hamlet demolishes that grandeur before our very eyes. Humankind is a work of art, boundless in powers of thought and understanding, remarkable in form. But it’s also only a “quintessence of dust.” Quintessence means “fifth essence” (after earth, air, fire, and water). In ancient philosophy and medieval alchemy, it referred to ether: the substance of which the stars and planets were composed, and the most perfect or precious part latent in all things.
Unlike the four earthly elements that composed matter, quintessence was believed to be incorruptible, incapable of change or decay. As such, Hamlet’s “quintessence of dust” is a contradiction in terms—the incorruptible corrupted, the eternal temporary (“dust” is what matter decays to). There’s also some sense in this speech that “quintessence” is, paradoxically, the very “foul and pestilent” star matter that’s clouding Hamlet’s sky. He can’t perceive the heavens for all the heavenly dust in his way.
When we perceive ourselves in dukkha, we feel ourselves grating against ourselves—“out of joint,” to use a phrase of Hamlet’s. The Buddhist sutras identify three categories of dukkha: 1) the dukkha of painful experiences, or experiencing that which is not desirable; 2) the dukkha of pleasurable experiences, which cause us distress because the pleasure is fleeting; and 3) the dukkha of conditioned experience: a basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all existence. This third category is called saṅkhāra dukkha. You might think of it as “background suffering”: that nagging sensation that something isn’t-quite-right in the undercurrents of our day-to-day existence.
For some, saṅkhāra dukkha has its roots in impermanence—our underlying awareness that all of “this” is temporary, a substanceless puppet show that is becoming dust. For others, it’s precipitated by the ongoing maintenance of staying alive—whether literally surviving or metaphorically upholding the illusion that there’s a substantial self at all. For others still, saṅkhāra dukkha arises from a profound sense of separation from the phenomena of this world, that it’s in our nature to experience attraction and aversion to those phenomena as they arise, or from our fruitless search for ultimate meanings and final truths. For some, it’s the “prison” of the body in our own personal Denmarks—or, as Rosencrantz suggests to Hamlet, that this phenomenal world is simply “too narrow for our minds.”
The irony of saṅkhāra dukkha is that it’s a profound sense of the unsatisfactoriness of existence whose root cause is unawakened existence. This is the gorgeous tension Hamlet points to in these lines. Man’s “reason” and “faculty,” “form” and “apprehension” are nothing short of miraculous. But—like stars that obstruct the stars—it’s precisely these elements of humanness that can obscure us from ourselves, that can lead us to believe we’re nothing but faculty or form if we let them. Reason and faculty, form and apprehension will ultimately dissatisfy us if we think they’re all there is.
Buddhists don’t believe in an incorruptible “quintessence.” But Buddhism does contain a core teaching that resembles a definition of quintessence given above: the most perfect part latent in all things. Mahāyāna traditions call this principle Buddha Nature (tathāgatagharba: “Buddha womb,” the indwelling of the Buddha). Theravādin traditions call it Luminous Mind (pabhassara citta): the perfected nature and potentiality for enlightenment that’s innate in all sentient beings.
Its central idea is that the fundamental nature of our mind is wisdom and compassion, and its origin can be traced back to the Buddha’s words as recorded in the Pabhassara Sutta: “Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements. The uninstructed… person doesn’t discern that… [it] is present.” In other words, Luminous Mind is right here, whether or not we’re aware of it. And just as Hamlet can’t see the stars for the “vapours” of dishonest humanity and conditioned existence, the metaphor in Buddhism is one of light interrupted. Buddha Nature and Luminous Mind are the sun obscured by clouds of attachment, delusion, defilements—though they’re always shining brilliantly just behind them.
To uncover the sky—to glimpse the heavens beyond our dust—we simply stay still and awake to whatever is here, whether that’s in seated meditation practice or the “moving meditations” of our day-to-day lives. We watch the defilements (greed, anger, arrogance, complacency) arise and take shape as temporary phenomena (thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, opinions). And then we watch them go, as they will, without interfering or identifying with them. In time, what’s at first only glimpsed as flashes of space between dust-and-vapor thoughts is perceived as exceeding spaciousness. The gaps between mental phenomena become more expansive as we stop believing or relying on them when they arise—because experience tells us their essential nature is to release. That gap, that spaciousness, is the awareness of our Buddha Nature.
Hamlet’s world is indeed clouded over with the fog of saṅkhāra dukkha—the feeling that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” though no one can quite put their finger on it. Buddhism might suggest it’s a “vapour” that prevents the prince from seeing that humankind is even more boundless and wondrous than he expresses here, and that the suffering of conditioned existence can be worked with. (Rot, after all, is part of a natural cycle of decay and regeneration, life created from death. And Buddhism, after all—far from being a pessimistic doctrine—claims that suffering can be eradicated, wholly and happily, from our lives.) As the great thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Tibetan master Rangjung Dorjé, the Third Karmapa, wrote in his “Treatise on Buddha Nature”: “All beings are Buddhas, but obscured by incidental stains. When those have been removed, there is Buddhahood.”
I wrote The Buddha and the Bard because I was enchanted by the possibilities awakened at the threshold between the dramatic representation of a predicament and liberation from it. I found the tenets of Buddhism’s Eightfold Path in speeches by Juliet, Polonius, and Nick Bottom. I overheard resonances between Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and the wisdoms of Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, and The Taming of the Shrew. Mostly, though, I heard echoes of the literary critic Harold Bloom, who once claimed that Shakespeare remains so steadfastly at the center of the canon because he read us better than we’ll ever read him. And while this might be true, I’m also quite certain that reading Shakespeare has helped me better read myself.
 Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart (Boulder: Sounds True, 2014), 7.
 “Pabhassara Sutta: Luminous,” AN 1.49–52. Access to Insight, last modified November 30, 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an01/an01.049.than.html.
 Quoted by the Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, in Instructions on Treatise entitled: ‘A Teaching on the Essence of the Tathagatas (The Tathagatagarbha)’ by the Third Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, according to An Illumination of the Thoughts of Rangjung Dorje: A Commentary to ‘The Treatise that Teaches the Buddha Nature’ by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye the Great. Translated by Peter Roberts. Accessed on August 13, 2021, http://www.dharmadownload.net/pages/english/Natsok/0010_Teaching_English/Teaching_English_0035.htm.
Lauren Shufran’s The Buddha and the Bard is available now via Mandala Publishing.