First Five Sonnets by William Shakespeare – the Buddha of the Heart. With a brief explanation of the meaning of these Sonnets on beauty and love

At the age of 14, I played in the class at school the part of Brutus in Caesar, one of the 37 plays of William Shakespeare. It was my first introduction to the playwright making a long-lasting impression. Brutus, a politician and orator, engaged in the plot to assassinate Caesar. The following year, I quit the John Fisher Roman Catholic School in Purley, Surrey, England to get a job and taste a new kind of independence. I never missed school except for the English literature class studying the bard of Britain.

I love Shakespeare. In recent months, I have spent many hours at home and in the coffee shop reading the Sonnets of Shakespeare, rich in insights and wisdom.

Hollywood movies show twists and turns in a drama but we know such movies invariably end up with a happy ending. Shakespeare does not offer such a form of entertainment preferring the reality that life can come to suffering, suicide and death at the end of any story, any plot. I prefer such drama, such uncertainty, to the unreal version of reality that Hollywood offers.

The 154 Sonnets of William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) offer insights into beauty, giving, love, conceit, impermanence, desire, letting go, jealousy, death and much more. He addressed many of his Sonnets to a handsome man and then the last section to a beautiful woman. Poet, playwright and actor, Shakespeare continues to inspire millions worldwide to recognise the dynamics of human relationships from the shallow to the deep.

Shakespeare adopted the Sonnet form for these poems. Each poem consists of 14 lines – three quartets and two lines in iambic pentameter.

A iambic pentameter consists of 10 syllables per line, alternating between unstressed and stressed (soft-hard) syllables. As with playwrights, poets wrote sonnets and poems for actors to read in public venues, as many listeners at the time could not read nor write.  The ten syllables per line were said to match in-breathing and out-breathing – five iambs, like five heartbeats. The writings of Shakespeare employed a rhythmic pattern used with immense effect for listener and reader.

A primary text of the Buddha, Middle Length Discourses (MLD) has 152 discourses exploring the depth and breadth of the human experience. I lead a monthly Buddha Study Group on Zoom in Indian time zone. Last Saturday, 14 May 2022, we explored the Discourse on the Simile of the Cloth in MLD. Using the cloth as a metaphor, the Buddha said the cloth stains when not treated properly with dye. When we do not treat the mind properly, it also gets stained and needs treatment. He then lists areas needing our attention.

The list includes ill will, anger, revenge, contempt, a domineering attitude, envy, deceit, fraud.  avarice (greed for wealth and luxury goods), conceit, arrogance, vanity and negligence. The Buddha showed the way to their resolution. Plays of Shakespeare focus on the suffering involved due to such problems in the mind and the impact on others.  Some of those, who listened to a play, would walk out of the theatre reflecting on their behaviour in daily life and the consequences.

Lovers of Shakespeare often regard him as the world’s greatest dramatist.  He addressed the full intensity of human emotions, including the power of love and hate, happiness and suffering. His plays also explored the wisdom and the tyranny of the mind. In his plays, he pointed out the emotional conditions for domestic violence, political-social conflicts and conditions for peace and war. I regard William Shakespeare as the Buddha of the Heart.

In his first four Sonnets, Shakespeare wrote on the value of people endowed with beauty and the vulnerability that goes with it. In the fifth sonnet, he reminds us of beauty emerging in the ‘gentle work’ of time while pointing out summer of beauty leads to winter.  He directs these sonnets to a handsome young man.

Sonnet One.

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And tender churl mak’st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Shakespeare explores the experience of beauty encouraging us to recognise the difference between beauty and lust/blind sexual desire. He encourages creating and sharing what is beautiful rather than contracted to thine own bright eyes – preoccupied with self-interest. We become inwardly poor (famine) rather than inwardly rich (abundant) through giving. Like the Buddha, he reminds us we can be our own worst enemy (thyself thy foe) bringing problems and suffering to ourselves due to attachment and obsessing about ourselves, including how we appear to others.

The playwright uses beauty as a metaphor for parents and children. As the parents get older, the beauty of their youth begins to fade but their children can bring beauty for all of us to appreciate. We can create beauty in creative and imaginative ways to benefit others –  like a parent of a child.

What beauty do we create? What beautiful acts do we initiate to contribute to making the world a more beautiful place? What beautiful gifts can we offer? Are we dedicated to the happiness of others through what we give and share?

If we contract around our beauty, via self-interest/narcissism, and use our beauty to get own way, we offer others little in the way of beauty. We might get the attention of others, but it is cruel to be so selfish.

Spring reminds us of our beauty, but Spring only lasts for a time.

We waste our beauty by keeping it to ourselves or hiding it.

People will see our self-interested relationship to beauty, and we can end up going to the grave with our faded beauty leaving nothing of beauty behind.

Sonnet Two

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

By the time we get to 40 years (perhaps 60 years in the 21st century), the wrinkles on our forehead and rest of our face have dug deep into our youthful beauty.

Our pride today would be of little worth in years ahead when we become worn and of little worth. Others will remind us of the departure of our beauty. Our beauty used to trigger interest and sexual attraction from others – a reward for our beauty. Why tell a person our beauty is now deep within.  It would be pointless praise and shameful. How much did we use our beauty to get praise?

We can create beautiful acts, an offspring of our initiative, even though our natural, youthful beauty fades. We would appear new and feel happy (warm blood), even when we come to die. We know what is beautiful continues after we die.

Sonnet Three

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose unear’d womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb,
Of his self-love to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

In this Sonnet, Shakespear encourages becoming a parent. Look in the mirror and tell yourself what you see, says the Sonnet. Is it the right time to start a family and continue the hereditary beauty? You look fresh. You can bless a woman to become a mother. You can plant your seed as her husband. If you indulge in self-love, posterity will pay the cost. Your face confirms the mirror your mother looked at. She remembers her beauty in April. You too will see your child’s beauty despite your wrinkles. If you have no children, you will die alone, and your image dies with you.

Sonnet Four

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how, when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tomb’d with thee,
Which, used, lives th’ executor to be.

Shakespeare asks the young man why he spends so much time on his appearance. Nature does not give beauty to you to but lends it to you. Nature lends it to those who are free to receive. It is ungenerous to only think of yourself, and an abuse of this gift. There is no benefit behaving like this and you can’t live like this. If you only think about yourself, you deceive yourself. When you come to die, what have you left behind? Your unexpressed beauty goes to the grave with you, but if expressed, your beauty carries on.

Sonnet Five

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel;
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter, and confounds him there;
Sap checked with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness everywhere:
Then were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distill’d, though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

Shakespear refers to the gentle process of time to create beauty. A beautiful face holds people’s gaze. Nature does not stop and in time the face loses its earlier beauty. The summer leads to winter, warmth turns to cold and sensuality disappears. Snow covers up the bareness, but we have remembrance of the beauty of what was remains. Flowers are made into perfume even in winter. Beautiful flowers lose their appearance, but the substance of their perfume offers a sweet appreciation.

May all beings reflect on matters of the heart

May all beings know the beauty of giving

May all beings bring wisdom to beauty.

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