Buddha in the Reader, Buddha in the Tale: A Buddhist Reading of Chaucer's Knight's Tale by Charles Bivona
As a graduate student in English literature and also a practicing Buddhist,
I have often found many parallels to the teachings of the Buddha in the great
western works. I never paid much attention to this decidedly Buddhist slant
because I either knew that the author had had no contact with the teachings
or I wasn't sure and feared being shot down by a zealously western minded expert.
So I happily jotted my eastern marginalia in many of my books and delighted
in the idea that perhaps, at heart, the Judeo-Christian religion my parents
chose for me was not very different from the Eastern religion I had chosen for
myself. So was my attitude, for many years, about my own contribution to the
occurrence of literature.
That attitude changed at a weekend conference, in what my Buddhist teachers
would call a great moment of synchronicity, when I was introduced to the book
The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work
by Louise M. Rosenblatt. In her slim 175 page manual, Rosenblatt argues for
the role of the reader in the actual creation of literature. For indeed, literature
happens in that moment to moment interaction between a single reader and the
verbal symbols on the page. She reasons:
The reader's attention to the text activates certain elements in his past experience-external reference, internal response-that have become linked with the verbal symbols. Meaning will emerge from a network of relationships among the things symbolized as he senses them. The symbols point to these sensations, images, objects, ideas relationships, with the particular associations or feeling-tones created by his past experiences with them in actual life or in literature. The selection and organization of responses to some degree hinge on the assumptions, the expectations, or sense of possible structures, that he brings out of the stream of his life. Thus built into the raw material of the literary process itself is the particular world of the reader (11). I experienced a great liberation when I read this passage.
For if Rosenblatt is correct, then all of my Buddhist marginalia was suddenly
valid and rich and worthy of my attention. For regardless of whether or not
Shakespeare, Milton, Dante or Chaucer ever chanted a mantra or spent a moment
in cross-legged meditation, I had, and when I read their work I carried all
of that personal history and experience into my interaction with their language.
It was in me, and therefore, it was in the literature.
So, in honor of that liberation, I will attempt to offer a Buddhist reading
of Chaucer's Knight's Tale. To illustrate how certain aspects of the morality
presented within the framework of the tale can be read from decidedly Buddhist
perspective. However, I am not a medievalist and therefore any attempt to directly
link Chaucer to the Buddha's teaching would be unwise. The source of this particular
tale, Bocaccio's Teseida (written ca. 1339-41), suggests that Buddha Dharma
was not in the poet's mind when he reworked the story. But in the spirit of
Rosenblatt, there are some interesting parallels that leap out and make the
Buddhism within me creep into the literary interaction more freely. This essay
is intended to share that experience with this text.
I. THE INTERCONNECTEDNESS OF ALL BEINGS
In the film adaptation of the book Seven Years in Tibet, a German exile helps
Buddhist lay people construct the country's first movie house. Early in the
construction, the workers refuse to continue because digging the foundation
for the building is slaying countless worms. The actor portraying the Dalai
Lama explains to the westerner, who is rather amused by such a concern, that
to the Buddhist mind all beings are interconnected and one. Furthermore, since
they believe that every sentient creature is born and reborn countless times
in a continuous wheel, then every creature had at some point in that great expanse
been everything to everyone-a mother, brother, child, etc.
Shades of this kind of interconnectedness appear early in the Knight's Tale
and are represented in the medieval theory of the wheel of fortune. When Theseus
is returning from a victory he notices a company of women crying. He approaches
them to inquire as to the cause of their suffering. They tell of their slain
husbands whose bodies have been desecrated, and they plead with him for mercy
Have mercy on oure wo and oure distresse!
Som drope of pitee, thurgh thy gentilesse,
Upon us wrecched wommen lat thou falle,
For, certes, lord, ther is noon of us alle
That she ne hath been a duchesse or a queene.
Now we be cytyves, as it wel seene
Thanked be Fortune and hire false wheel
That non estaat assureth to be weel.
The medieval mind saw the wheel of fortune as the controlling force behind all destinies. When fortunes were high one would do well to remember that eventually they would fall to a lowly position on the wheel. Furthermore, one should have mercy for the people who are coming around the misfortune curve of the wheel, for not only are we all destined to the same fate, but, in a way, our prosperity makes us responsible for the wretchedness of others. By moving along on the fortunate turn of the great wheel we have pushed others into a state of despair and suffering. The women who have been reduced to cytyves, miserable wretches, remind Thesues that fortunes wheel will turn for him as well. They plead with him to have compassion for those who are where he may eventually be.
Buddhist teachings support a similar belief in that every being is seen as caught on the great wheel of birth, death and rebirth. However, unlike the medieval mind, the Buddhist believes that one is propelled through this cycle by one's own behavior. This is traditionally called Karma, a word that translates roughly as "what you do." Despite the differences, the belief that we are all responsible to each other due to this shared experience is fundamental in the Buddhist teachings on compassion. Just as the wretched women remind Theseus of the universal truth of misfortune, so the Buddha reminded his disciples of the universal truth of suffering. This first noble truth is the basic starting point of all Buddhist practice
II. THE FIRST TRUTH: THE NOBLE TRUTH OF SUFFERING
What now is the Noble Truth of Suffering? Birth is suffering; Death is suffering; Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief and Despair are suffering; not to get what one desires is suffering. (Buddhist Bible p.23)
This, the famous first teaching of the Buddha after his enlightenment, is often viewed by other faiths as decidedly pessimistic. Having been raised on the idea of salvation and a glorious heaven after death, the idea that life is fundamentally suffering which continues on a great round of rebirth creates a fair amount of cognitive dissonance in the western mind. But every student of the teachings must grapple with the chilling reality of this statement. For we all understand that every aspect of our life is ultimately fleeting. Thus, nothing is permanent and because westerners grow so attached to situations, possessions, and people, the deep knowledge that all of it will not last forever gives our experience an underlying ache.
Even love, the most positive of human emotions, contains a seed of this suffering. Love can fail, love can die, and even when it endures for a lifetime each lover will still someday perish. The reality of this was obvious even in Chaucer's time. Hence, when we are introduced to the temple of Venus in the Knight's Tale we are given vivid descriptions of the images of suffering adorning the walls. (Lines 1918-34):
First in the temple of Venus maystow se
Wroght on the wal, ful pitous to biholde,
The broken slepes, and the sikes colde,
The sacred teeris, and the waymentynge,
The firy strokes of the desirynge
That loves servantz in this lyf enduren;
The othes that hir covenantz assuren;
Pleasance and Hope, Desir, Foolhardynesse,
Beautee and Youthe, Bauderie, Richesse,
Charmes and Force, Lesynges, Flaterye,
Despense, Bisynesse, and Jalousye,
That wered of yelewe gooldes a gerland,
And a cokkow sittynge on hir hand;
Festes, instrumentz, caroles, daunces,
Lust and array, and alle the circumstaunces
Of love, which that I rekned and rekne shal,
By ordre weren peynted on the wal,
The suffering of love is juxtaposed with the pleasures of love as a reminder
to the worshiper that pain and anguish are part of the passionate experience
of loving. This was understood so completely by the medieval world that love
was viewed as a kind of disease with very distinct symptoms, capable of completely
transforming the very physical appearance of the afflicted. Poets developed
this idea in the image of the courtly lover, usually a knight, who idealized
the love object and obeyed her every whim. Indeed, the very code of the courtly
lover embraced the suffering aspect of love as a display of devotion to the
idealized love object. In A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams describes
the ordeal of the courtly lover.
The lover suffers agonies and sickness of body and spirit at the caprices of his imperious sweetheart, but remains devoted to her, manifesting his honor by his unswerving fidelity and his adherence to a rigorous code of behavior, both in knightly battles and in complex ceremonies of courtly speech and conduct (38).
The rituals of the courtly lover seem designed to force an acceptance of the negative aspects of love, to condition one to endure the sufferings that are naturally wedded to the pleasures of passionate love.
Within the tale itself we are given a dramatic illustration of the transforming influence that the illness/love has on the body of Arcite. After being released from prison and banished from the distant view of his beloved, his desire-sickness so alters his appearance that he is able to return from banishment unnoticed. It is striking to realize that this character would prefer a prison that affords a distant glimpse of a love object to a freedom that removes him from the sight of her. But Chaucer wants us to ponder this, to realize the power of this courtly love over the consciousness, so much so that he questions us directly. (Lines 1347-54)
Yow loveres axe I now this questioun:
Who hath the worse, Arcite or Palamoun?
That oon may seen his lady day by day,
But in prison he moot dwelle alway;
That oother wher hym list may ride or go,
But seen his lady shal he nevere mo.
Now demeth as yow liste, ye that kan,
For I wol telle forth as I bigan.
Both men have tied their happiness so entirely to the object of their passion that being removed form that desire, from that distant longing, is a fate worse than death which tortures and damages the physical and mental health of Arcite. This moves us very easily into the second noble truth that the Buddha taught his disciples.
III THE SECOND TRUTH: THE NOBLE TRUTH OF THE ORIGIN OF SUFFERING
What now is the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering? It is that craving which gives rise to fresh rebirth, and, bound up with pleasure and lust, now here, now there, finds every fresh delight. …Wherever in the world there is the delightful and the pleasurable, there this craving arises and takes root. (Buddhist Bible p. 29)
In a world of impermanence and temporary existence, clinging on to anything as a source of happiness is destined to produce suffering. Indeed, even while the object that we desire and cling to be still within our grasp we still understand unconsciously that it will eventually reach an end. That deep knowledge gives even the temporary happiness a marked pathos. Arcite and Palamon both fixate all of their happiness on Emelya to such an extent that being in a prison that afforded a distant glimpse of her is preferred to a freedom banished from her image.
From a Buddhist point of view the prison of Arcite and Palamon can be viewed as a rich metaphor for the cyclic existence that a being becomes trapped in when he yields to his own craving and desire. The psychological aspects of this are not lost on the Buddhist scholar. For indeed the cycle of delusion described in the scripture parallels the cycle of the neurotic mind, constantly feeding on and reinforcing its own delusional perceptions. But in the Buddhist model, it is this delusional clinging to objects outside of the self as a source of happiness that propels the wheel of birth and rebirth and that keeps sentient being locked in the prison of this cycle. This is the very quagmire of Arcite and Palamon, imprisoned by their attachment to such an extent that even when they are free from the physical reality of the prison walls they are still imprisoned by the power of their own desire. And the power of this clinging attachment to a loved object is powerful enough to drive two cousins, sworn to love and defend one another, to attack each other in the forests of Thebes. This destructiveness, anger, and hatred are key elements of what Buddhist teachings call samsara, the delusional state that we all exist in when we attach our happiness to something or someone outside of ourselves. But Buddha taught a way out.
IV THE THIRD TRUTH: THE NOBLE TRUTH OF THE EXTINCTION OF SUFFERING
What now is the Noble Truth of the Extinction of Suffering? It is the complete fading away and extinction of this craving, its forsaking and giving up, the liberation and detachment from it (Buddhist Bible p. 31).
In a way the good news of Buddhist teaching is that there is a way out of this cycle. Though not an easy path, the Buddha formulated a program of mind training and meditation designed to wake up from the delusions of attachment and clinging. The great enlightenment known as Nirvana is ultimately nothing more than a state of mind, a deep realization of the true reality of human existence, a reality of impermanence. The student is taught to find a happiness and joy of living that is not attached to anything, not dependent upon the continuation of any part of existence, including the self. In this spirit Buddhists spend a great deal of time meditating on death in order to develop an acceptance of one's inevitable end.
After the death of Arcite at the end of the Knight's Tale, Palamon and Emelya are given a similar preaching by Thesueus on the impermanence of all existence (lines 3021-30).
Considereth eek how that the harde stoon
Under oure feet, on which we trede and goon,
Yet wasteth it as it lyth by the weye.
The brode ryver somtyme wexeth dreye;
The grete tounes se we wane and wende.
Thanne may ye se that al this thyng hath ende.
Of man and womman seen we wel also
That nedes, in oon of thise termes two --
This is to seyn, in youthe or elles age --
He moot be deed, the kyng as shal a page.
And the conclusion that Theseus draws from these realizations can be strongly correlated with Buddhist teachings and may be grounds for arguing that his character experiences Nirvana at the end of the tale (lines 3041-46).
Thanne is it wysdom, as it thynketh me,
To maken vertu of necessitee,
And take it weel that we may nat eschue,
And namely that to us alle is due.
And whoso gruccheth ought, he dooth folye,
And rebel is to hym that al may gye.
His advice is profound in its very simplicity. The way to live wisely, he suggests, is to accept the inevitable and simply be happy with in the moment, finding joy in the simple pleasure of living and not mourning too long over the natural losses of an impermanent life. Buddha would agree.
There is, of course a fourth noble truth that is known as "the Noble Truth
of the Path that Leads to the Extinction of Suffering" (Buddhist Bible p. 33),
but this is more an list of instructions on behavior and thought and constitutes
the actual practice of Buddhism. Since my intention was never to fit Chaucer
for monk's robes I have elected to leave this truth absent.
In the end, one must concede that The Knight's Tale is not a Buddhist tale, but a Medieval tale of Christian virtue designed to teach humility in the face of God's divine plan. But in the spirit of Rosenblatt's transactional theory of literary creation it serves as a testament to the greatness of Chaucer's work that a twenty-first century Buddhist mind can find so many shared values in such an old tale.
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Oralndo, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993.
Benson, Larry D. Gen. Ed. The Riverside Chaucer 3rd Ed. New York: Houghton
Mifflin Company, 1987.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. V.A.
Kolve & Glending Olson. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, Inc., 1989.
Goddard, Dwight. Ed. A Buddhist Bible. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory
of the Literary Work. Southern Illinois U. Press, 1978.
NEXT BACK TO ESSAYS INDEX