An actor named Talaputta once asked the Buddha what would happen to members of his profession after their deaths. According to the Pali Sutta recounting the story, Buddha reluctantly informed Talaputta that because actors make people ‘intoxicated and heedless’ they will be reborn in ‘the hell of laughter’ [Samyutta Nikaya 42.2]. Presumably, the Buddha was speaking of what we would call ‘entertainment’, but what about art? What would have happened if an acting troupe had travelled from Greece to India and the Buddha had seen them perform the mighty tragedies of his contemporary, Sophocles? And what would the Buddha have said had he been able to watch Shakespeare? In lieu of such miracles, I will put Shakespeare’s case by discussing Macbeth as a depiction of the process of karma, and even a karmic tragedy. The Buddhist perspective, I hope, will illuminate Shakespeare’s play; and Macbeth, I believe, can deepen our understanding of karma.

As Macbeth is a tragedy, we know that it will explore the territory of suffering especially that of the protagonist: Macbeth himself. This is the first connection with the Buddha’s teaching, which starts as an exploration of suffering (dukkha) — his first Noble Truth — and its causes. Suffering pervades the play, but its prime source is Macbeth himself, and its essential theme is expressed in the second Noble Truth: ‘craving is the origin of suffering’.

Audiences have always asked why Macbeth chooses to kill Duncan. We know he is prompted by the witches and his wife, but what do their suggestions touch in him? Hearing the prediction that he will become king, Macbeth notes with astonishment the reaction that seizes his mind and body:

Why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? [I.iii.141-144]

There are clues in the description of Macbeth as a blood-drenched warrior and in Lady Macbeth’s awareness of his desire and ambition, but Shakespeare knew that motivation can be complex and is often mysterious. Powerful and, to some degree, inexplicable emotions also break out in Lear, Othello, Leontes and a host of others, impelling them to destructive action.

Macbeth’s urge is primal and irreducible – a function of his being rather simply a matter of motivation. It echoes, what the Buddha had in mind when he said that the origin of suffering is ‘craving’ (tanha/trsna) which literally means ‘thirst’ and is defined as ‘craving, hunger for, excitement, the fever of unsatisfied longing’ (Pali-English Dictionary). He identifies three varieties: craving for sense experience, craving for non-existence and craving for becoming or existence, which is said to be its most fundamental form:
Monks, a first beginning of craving for existence (bhava-tanha) cannot be known before which one could say it did not exist, it has since come to be. (Anguttara Nikaya v.116). From this perspective, inquiries into the origins of motivation have a limited value. There is no clear cause of Macbeth’s craving – his visceral lust for wealth and power; and there is no end to it.

The Buddha also taught that motivation is essential to being because volitions shape our future state. He learned about this through the introspection he practiced as felt his way toward Enlightenment. According to the Dvedhavittaka Sutta [Majjhima Nikaya 19], as he meditated in the forest before his Enlightenment the Buddha-to-be saw that among the various strands of his consciousness were thoughts ‘imbued with sensuality, ill will and harmfulness’. He could follow these impulses and act on them: that would reinforce them and make them a stronger part of his personality until they coloured his entire view of the world. Or he could work against them and cultivate contentment, loving-kindness and compassion. In either case, he was creating the karma that would shape his future.

As Macbeth considers whether to kill Duncan, he wishes away the lingering consequences of his crime:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come. [I.vii.1-7]

Macbeth knows that he is indulging a fantasy of escape and that nothing in this life is ‘done’ (completed) when it is ‘done’ (performed). As the Buddha continually insisted, actions have consequences – always and everywhere – that comprise a form of ‘judgment here’. Macbeth realises that by killing Duncan he will:

Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. [I.vii.10-13]

‘This even-handed justice’ is what the Buddha called the law of karma: a subtle process operating on numerous levels. Macbeth is saying that if you break the taboo against killing a king you encourage others to do the same to you. The Buddha adds to these pragmatic considerations a concern, which also is implicit in Macbeth, with the role of the mind. The karmic effects of an action, he said, depend on the intention or volition (cetana) that prompts it, and in that way mental states affect the whole world. In the Madhupindika Sutta he traced back all the world’s contentions – ‘taking up rods and swords arguments, quarrels, disputes, accusations, divisive tale-bearing and false speech’ – to the ‘unskillful’ states of mind that prompted them [Majjhima Nikaya 18]. Furthermore, those states will shape future experience. As the Buddha comments in the Dvedhavittaka Sutta, ‘What [a person] frequently thinks upon and ponders, that becomes the inclination of his awareness’. What we think we ultimately become.

Macbeth is above all concerned with the forces at work in the consciousness of its hero and the effects (for both him and the world) of the choice he makes in the opening Acts. He must decide whether to kill Duncan and seize the throne or to heed the moral intelligence that bursts into the ‘If it were done when ’tis done’ soliloquy:

Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. [I.vii.16-25]

The apocalyptic significance of Duncan’s murder grips Macbeth, and his moral sense acquires the same eloquence and imaginative power as his compulsion to kill. Duncan’s murder is an offence against this subtle and heightened consciousness and will rebound on him with corresponding force.

Equally significant is the nature of Macbeth’s crime. Not only is Duncan meek and virtuous, Macbeth is bound to him as his ‘kinsman’, his subject and a host ‘who should against his murderer shut the door, Not bear the knife myself.’ [I.vii.15-16]. Buddhism might call this ‘weighty karma’, the term for an action that brings intense, long-lasting suffering because it cuts fundamental connections to sources of meaning and sustenance. Buddhism includes killing one’s mother, father or an arahant and wounding a Buddha in the list of such offences; but in the thought-world of Macbeth regicide might be added.

Duncan’s murder is the play’s decisive karmic action, and the rest of the play describes its fruits, or karma-vipaka. What Macbeth calls his ‘his black and deep desires’ are expressions of what the Buddha had in mind when he spoke of craving and what follows is suffering. Having become king, Macbeth cannot enjoy what he has gained because he is tormented by the thought that he will lose it:

better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. [III.ii.19-22]

Those last two lines are as evocative a depiction of how the Buddha understood hell as we can hope to find. The various hell realms he described are objectifications of the mental states that lead to suffering, and he also knew that ‘the torture of the mind’ can make ordinary existence a living hell. Macbeth discovers a further form of ‘judgment here’ in his mental torment, and it prompts him to acts that sow the seeds for yet more suffering. Macbeth’s intense unease drives him to kill Banquo and then a multitude of others, but no amount of killing brings the security he desires. The karmic stream cannot be halted, and Banquo’s ghost personifies the unbidden but inescapable consequences of his murder. There is an ironic pathos in Macbeth’s cry:

times have been,
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end; but now they rise again [III.iv.77-79]

By the play’s conclusion a host of political and military disasters have descended upon on Macbeth, but the play’s main interest is the psychological and spiritual consequences for Macbeth and his wife. Macbeth’s victims eventually merge in a river of blood. He tells us:

I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

By acting on what Buddhists would call his unskillful traits, Macbeth has reinforced them and destroyed his earlier moral sensibility.

Macbeth’s amazingly rich imagery is at least as important as its plot. For example, the play associates sleep with peace, nature and freedom from unresolved emotional conflicts. Macbeth tells his wife that as he killed Duncan:

Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast, [II.ii.46-51]

He is wracked by the ‘terrible dreams that shake us nightly’ [III.ii.18-19] and Lady Macbeth tells him he lacks ‘the season of all natures’ [III.iv.141]. Her own sleepwalking displays the remorse that has caught her, despite her efforts to banish it. No amount of ritualised cleansing can now remove the blood she sees and smells on her hands because her mind will not cease producing it.

The range of karma-vipaka extends beyond psychological effects. The Buddha was no determinist, but he did believe that an action rebounds on a person in this life and that it determines rebirth in the next. More subtly, he suggested that, as every volitional action helps shape a person’s character, we end up inhabiting a world that reflects our mental states. Whatever we make of that as philosophy, it resonates with the correspondence of mental states and outward events in Macbeth.

At the play’s opening we are in ‘a desert place’ beyond England’s northern border in a pre-medieval time when history blurs with myth. We have left behind Christian certainties and the comforts of civilisation and find ourselves in world that is violent and uncanny: a realm of uncertainty (or ‘equivocation’ as the play calls it) where ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ and ‘nothing is but what is not’. A phantasmagoria of visions, ghosts and hallucinations inhabit Macbeth, and we cannot trust appearances. Has he ‘eaten on the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?’ [I.iv.86-7], asks Banquo when the witches vanish like bubbles; and what if the hallucinatory dagger that appears before Macbeth is ;a false creation, / Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain [II.i.38-9]?

Inner and outer reality are not only hard to tell apart in Macbeth: they merge. Diabolic forces were factual enough for Shakespeare’s audience, but in the play we can never separate them from the characters’ perceptions and responses. What we would normally call the outer world is peopled with portents, omens and an atmosphere that mirrors the action. Macbeth’s words as he walks towards Duncan’s chamber illustrate the effect of this mingling of inner and outer:

Now o’er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. [II.i.49-56]

We cannot say if diabolic forces guide his steps, if he merely imagines them, if this is a shamanistic world in which demons are summoned into being by evil actions, or if reality in the play is ultimately shaped by its imagery. Macbeth’s world, as the Buddha might say, has been coloured by his mind.

At last, when we come to Macbeth’s famous last soliloquy, he is utterly alone in a universe that has been emptied of meaning.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Reality, for the Buddha, means the pattern of existence which he expressed in the chain of conditioned existence. For Macbeth, the train of actions and consequences has become a dreary procession towards death. His lust for power — a kind of craving for sense experience that is perhaps a version of a more primal craving for existence – has become nihilism: craving for non-existence. Nothing has meaning for Macbeth because he has cut the emotional roots from which meaning grows. Like Macbeth, the Buddha used the image of a flame to signify the hopes and desires that lead us with promises of fulfillment. For Macbeth, who identified with it, nothing remains when it is extinguished; for the Buddha, who separated himself from craving, it meant liberation – nirvana literally means the blowing out of a flame. The walking shadow Macbeth evokes is an image of life’s insubstantiality, and the Buddha offered many more. He called the elements of perception which seem so solid, ‘a ball of foam … a bubble… a mirage’, while form, strikingly, is ‘a magic trick, an idiot’s babbling, a murderer’ [Phena Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 22.95]. Macbeth, it seems, has arrived at the Buddha’s insight, but where the Buddha is liberated, he is crushed. Macbeth is far past the point where craving might be abandoned, as the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth suggests it can be.

Macbeth’s nihilism opposes the Buddha’s wisdom; but Macbeth is not Shakespeare and showing how Macbeth is brought to nihilism is very different from endorsing it. For all it’s complexity and ambiguity, Macbeth is what Buddhists would call ‘a teaching’. It is neither moralistic nor didactic, and Macbeth’s fate does not illustrate a pre-existing idea or ideology; it creates a world, especially through its imagery, and Macbeth learns, through bitter experience, the laws by which it operates. These accord to a striking degree, with the laws the Buddha discovered by exploring the deepest strata of his consciousness and formulated in his teachings.

Macbeth’s teaching, I have suggested, is that ‘in dependence upon craving arises suffering’; but if it were possible to reduce Macbeth to a formula – a Buddhist formula at that – we would hardly need the play. Its power as a karmic tragedy is not simply that it shows a person reaping the results of their actions; it also involves us, as readers or audience members, in Macbeth’s journey. The real terror, as Macbeth walks towards the murder, is that the nightmare is really happening and he is powerless to control his actions. Because we identify with Macbeth we are enrolled as his companions, prompting the disturbing thought that the same irresistible impulses may lie dormant within us, too. We witness Macbeth’s compulsion to kill, slide passively towards his crime and wade with him through the river of blood, sensing his diminution and the terror of his ultimate fate.

The play that takes us on that journey can hardly be said to be ‘full of sound and fury’, and the experience of travelling it could scarcely be further from the ‘intoxication and heedlessness’ of which the Buddha spoke in his dialogue with Talaputta. As a karmic teaching it signifies much more than nothing. Had the Buddha somehow miraculously encountered Macbeth, I believe he would have recognised in it an astonishingly rich expression of a vision of existence that was close to his own.

This article was first published in Urthona Magazine, Summer 2012