The Life Of Buddha And Macbeth

At their core, Macbeth and The Life of Buddha appeal to readers and viewers because they express many layers of consciousness and self-reflection. When comparing both texts several Buddhist concepts that emerge have the potential to change the course of Macbeth’s journey. Macbeth’s inner turmoil prevented him from reaping the benefits he expected murdering Duncan would incite. In one sense, Macbeth ends up a murdered murderer who gets what he deserves. However, Shakespeare prevents us from experiencing him as an antagonistic character. This is because Macbeth is so forthcoming in his descriptions of the emotional pain he endures in the same manner that Siddhartha is. The main point of difference between the two is that Macbeth is fully aware of his alternatives, and yet chooses to endure constant suffering because of what he has done. His downfall could have been prevented up until a certain point in the story by utilizing Buddhist practices to combat his greed, hate, and delusion.

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In The Life of Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama was born a wealthy prince (Herold, 1922. p. 7-10). During his journey to enlightenment he was unable to find answers to the meaning of life when he lived in luxury (p. 29-32). At the same time, he felt himself unable to achieve the self-reflection he desired when he lived in a state of extreme discipline as a beggar (p. 39-41). Through meditation Siddhartha became enlightened and from then on was known as Buddha. Macbeth was also born into a life of nobility and his story begins while he serves as the Thane of Glamis, a title he inherited from his father. In the beginning, Macbeth is identified as a decent although imperfect leader (Derynck, 2019b). He, like many other satanic anti-heroes, does have a fatal flaw: he desires nothing more than immortality (Shakespeare, trans. 1992, 1.4. 55-60). The closest thing to immortality that Macbeth can envision is a traceable lineage of heirs to a throne higher than the one he currently holds. At first, he resists pursuing this temptation based on the knowledge that because he has no children, attaining this desire would require murder (1.7.1-30). His wife, Lady Macbeth, advises him to kill Duncan to obtain his throne (1.7.70-80). Following that, Macbeth quickly loses his composure and peace of mind; one murder leads to another. As a consequence of his initial desire he becomes a murderous tyrant who risks immortality in the form of infamy.

Buddhist pillars of navigating craving and suffering, known as the Four Noble Truths, could have dictated a more positive outcome for Macbeth had they been presented to him prior to Duncan’s death. Each of the Four Noble Truths offers advice on navigating suffering (Derynck, 2019c). If it were possible to apply these Buddhist principles to Macbeth, the play’s message would hardly be necessary. For Buddhist insights to have been an effective end to Macbeth’s suffering there would have had to have been an intervention before he makes up his mind to kill Duncan. Following his conversation with Lady Macbeth at the end of act one his character has foregone redemption by any religious doctrine. Once he agrees to his wife’s plan, the ramifications of his actions affect Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Macduff, Malcolm, and ultimately the entire country of Scotland. Macbeth is too far past the point where craving could have been abandoned as Buddha’s insights suggests it can be.

Macbeth is prompted by the witches and Lady Macbeth to pursue killing Duncan, however, ultimately it is hearing the prediction that he will become king that motivates him to act (Shakespeare, trans. 1992.1.3.90-92).

He knows that this is a bad idea but spends time preoccupied with why the thought of murdering a man has become so tempting to him. His thoughts connect back to the Buddhist notion of dissatisfaction. Specifically, Macbeth desires power and expresses continuous discontent with his current title. At this point, Macbeth is still a redeemable character and Buddhism could have offered him the insight necessary not to take any further action on this desire. According to Derynck (2019c), The First Noble Truth involves understanding that, “life is dissatisfactory”. Buddhist interpretation of this states that this First Noble Truth relates to an individual’s understanding of suffering (Sumedho, 1970. p.14). Macbeth’s suffering and dissatisfaction is difficult to understand at times because he so obviously brings it upon himself. He does so by fixating on murder as a viable solution to his craving. Herold (1922) quotes Buddha describing how letting go of desires can eliminate the root of suffering: “Desire leads from birth to rebirth, from suffering to further suffering. By stifling desire, we prevent birth, we prevent suffering,” (p. 51). By accepting his dissatisfaction and remaining the Thane of Glamis, The First Noble Truth would suggest that Macbeth could have prevented personal suffering that occurs throughout the rest of the play.

The entire first act of Macbeth (Shakespeare, trans. 1992) is filled with lines that show an immense amount of self-reflection: “Let light not see my black and deep desires,” (1.4.58), “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent,” (1.7.25-26), “False face must hide what the false heart doth know,” (1.7.95). Macbeth’s thinking after Duncan’s murder at the beginning of act two is substantially less self-reflective and marginally more self-destructive. As early as the second scene of act two memories of the murder begin to haunt him: “I could not say Amen,” (2.2.39), “I had most need of blessing,” (2.2.43), “Sleep no more,” (2.2.47), “I am afraid to think what I have done,” (2.2.66), “Had I but died an hour before this chance,” (2.3.107). The Buddhist value that most directly correlates to Macbeth’s predicament at this point is The Fourth Noble truth which contains the Noble Eightfold Path (Derynck, 2019d). Specifically, the moral aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path which consists of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood (Sumedho, 1970. p. 57). Sumhedo (1970) says, “If you do or say things that are unkind or cruel there is always an immediate result,” (p.58). In Macbeth’s case he expressed distaste for Duncan on no grounds and then murdered him, both of which definitely qualify as cruel actions. The burden of Macbeth’s personal tragedy could have been lessened by Buddhist intervention, but ultimately his state following Duncan’s murder was too far gone for the Four Noble Truths to have been an effective solution.

After murdering Duncan, the emphasis in Macbeth’s story remains in accordance with personal suffering instead of with justice being served for his crime. Macbeth’s punishment becomes his own fragmented mind. In a similar fashion, Siddhartha experienced five abnormally tactile dreams prior to his enlightenment. In these dreams he sees himself becoming one with the earth (Herold, 1922. p. 44). Although Siddhartha could have interpreted these dreams as a punishment for seeking indulgence over knowledge, he is steadfast in the belief that they were a sign prompting him to seek enlightenment (p.41-46). Macbeth’s hallucinations, lack of sleep, and paranoia are all evidence that suggest he too could have avoided his own suffering had he either not given into his craving and dissatisfaction, or owned up to his crime instead of burying his actions in his subconscious. He famously expresses this bleak outlook after learning of Lady Macbeth’s passing (Shakespeare, trans. 1992)

In this passage Macbeth’s self-inflicted suffering is no longer just a part of him; it has consumed him. He has become a testament that living with the guilt of one’s own actions is more powerful than being convicted of the crime. Towards the end of the story, Macbeth has reached the same conclusion as Buddha, which is that “To exist is to suffer,” (Herold, 1922. p.51). Just as Macbeth lost his wife and his sanity, Siddhartha experienced hardships too. Siddhartha’s existence as a hermit his family, knowledge, or disciples very well could have been the combination necessary for a life full of suffering (p. 33-35). Instead of being enlightened by this notion as Siddhartha is, Macbeth is destroyed by it (Shakespeare, trans. 1992. 5.3.26). He finally comprehends that the only way to be at peace with his predicament is to stop chasing his desire (5.3.50). At this point, Macbeth no longer possess an ability to cease craving as the Buddha suggests.

Macbeth’s flaws as a satanic anti-hero are accentuated when compared with insights that Siddhartha developed after becoming the Buddha (Derynck, 2019a). Macbeth spends so much time imagining what his life will be like after the first murder that he reaches an odd sense of stability by attaining this desire in his daydreams. If Buddha where to have miraculously crossed paths with Macbeth, in order to successfully reroute the course of his narrative, that is the point at which it would have been beneficial. After he first contemplates the idea of murder, but before Lady Macbeth convinces him to pursue his inordinate desire and go through with it.

Where Buddha suggests accepting dissatisfaction in life, Macbeth accepts murder as a means to avoid dissatisfaction. The Noble Eightfold Path advises keeping pure thoughts, actions, and speech; Macbeth embraces destructive thoughts and speaks disparagingly of his own life. Siddhartha overcame his personal suffering to reach a state of enlightenment; Macbeth piled suffering on top of his dissatisfaction and failed to cope with the repercussions of his own actions. Buddhist teachings could have given Macbeth the foresight to recognize that in order to prevent personal tragedy, one must stop being selfish and contemplate some type of willingness to accept their own limitations and flaws.

31 August 2020

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