‘My life passed as if I had not lived’, says Firs, the old family servant at the end of The Cherry Orchard, and it’s a thought that could be echoed by many of the characters in Chekhov’s plays. They live in a fantasy world of the past or some imagined future, and as if at one remove from their present reality and situation in life.
In a similar way, the Buddha diagnosed the root cause of our problems as suffering, or perhaps dissatisfaction might be a better translation, which arises from either clinging on to things or pushing things away from us. We live life as if in a trance, hardly aware of what we are doing. This state of being he called samsara which literally means ‘going round in circles’.
Characterising the impermanence of life, the Buddha compared it to:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
In Buddhism, the past does not exist and the future has not yet come, so the only thing we can access is the present moment. It is the only point at which we can have direct contact with reality, everything else is a mental construction. That is why there is such an emphasis in Buddhism on awareness and mindfulness in everyday life: it helps us to become aware of our habitual patterns of behaviour and gives us a wider choice of response. We don’t automatically have to fly off the handle when something goes wrong or someone crosses us. Gradually, and slowly and painfully, through waking up in the crucible of meditation, we can find other ways of reacting that perhaps aren’t as harmful to other people and ourselves.
In his plays Chekhov depicts characters painfully locked in a samsara-like state, in delusive and ultimately self-destructive patterns of behaviour. The sisters in Three Sisters constantly hark back to their previous life in Moscow and fantasize about a future life in Moscow. Gayev and Ranyevskaya in The Cherry Orchard can only see the estate as it was when they were children. Even progressive characters, like Dr Astrov in Uncle Vanya fantasize, about a better future when they will no longer be alive.
Chekhov was an atheist. In his youth though he had been a server at church in Taganrog and knew the Bible well and his friend, the painter Repin, consulted him on details from the Bible when painting some of his pictures. Modern scholars have also noted subtle Biblical echoes in the texts of his short stories. But there is no denying that at first sight the Chekhovian vision of life as depicted in his plays is a bleak one. He seems to be telling that life is better lived without delusions or fantasies that blind us to the life we have before us right now. One of the starkest expression of this is at the end of Three Sisters when the sisters are left on stage listening to the retreating music from the military band as the soldiers leave the town and Olga says to her sisters:
O, dear sisters, our life isn’t over yet. We shall live! The music is so happy and joyful and it seems in a short while we shall find out why we live , why we suffer…if only we knew. If only we knew!
This lyrical flight is however undercut by the military doctor, Chebutykhin, singing quietly to himself:
Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay… I’m sitting on a bollard…It makes no difference! It makes no difference!
Chebutykhin is singing a popular music-hall song of the 1890s, but in Russian it has different, darker words which are not completed in the play, but they go something like this:
I’m sitting on a bollard.
I’m weeping bitter tears
Because I have no meaning.
It’s perhaps one of the darkest endings of any play that I know.
I have no evidence that Chekhov was a Buddhist, nor even how widely Buddhist ideas were disseminated in late nineteenth century Russia. Certainly Buddhist ideas had become more widely known in western Europe in this period: even Wagner at his death was planning a music drama on the life of the Buddha (what an interesting work that would have been!). Chekhov never went to India, but on his way back to central Russian from Sakhalin he did spend three days in Ceylon. (modern day Sri Lanka).
Despite my provocative title I am inclined to think that it is a coincidence of ideas. There’s an interesting work by the scholar R H Blyth on Zen ideas prefigured in English literature in his book Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics.