A Biography of the Book
"Who's there?" is the inquiry every spiritual tradition seeks to answer.
It also happens to be Hamlet’s remarkable, yet overlooked, opening line. And while it hasn't become one of Shakespeare’s “quotables,” the question seemed a fertile site at which to begin listening for echoes between the Bard and spiritual practice. So—as an embodied being living in the twenty-first century—I began to post reflections on the internet.
See, if one works on a multi-year research and writing endeavor (in my case, it was a dissertation), it’s difficult to say when that endeavor is “over.” In 2018, I had just earned a PhD in Early Modern British Literature from UC Santa Cruz, where I’d also been teaching courses on the Bard. I was clear at that point that I was done with academia. But Shakespeare? There’s no being done with him. He’s infinitely magnetic. I was also immersing myself in a seated, Buddhist-based meditation practice. And the resonances—“the Dharma of Shakespeare”—began to sing.
I could point you to plenty of reasons why. I could suggest that Shakespeare’s having been an actor before he was a dramatist endowed him with a mind that made room for all forms of experience. That in the practice of emptying-himself-of-himself, night after night, surely he 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. I could place all of Shakespeare’s metatheatrical play—the moments his characters recognize themselves as characters on a stage—alongside the spiritual uses of the theater as a metaphor for human incarnation. (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.”)
What was clear to me is that Shakespeare understood and represented human nature—and its suffering—better than any writer of his time. The Buddha, on the other hand, understood how to liberate us from it. That was the premise from which The Buddha and the Bard emerged.
I've only just begun to uncover what I seek to uncover.
The thing about spiritual practice (and, for me, about reading Shakespeare) is that if one is paying attention, one is necessarily in awe. And as an eternal student of this conversation, I am indeed in awe.