Notes from the Whale’s Belly

by Sam Buntz

On July 24, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq, militants from ISIS destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Jonah (or, Yunus in Arabic). Of course, it may not have literally been the resting place of so mythical a figure as Jonah… But in a broader cultural sense, sure—it was Jonah’s tomb. In a world constantly convulsed, it is uniquely appropriate that the destroyers and corrupters of Islamic Civilization—and of Near Eastern Culture, more generally—should’ve demolished a memorial to this specific prophet. It’s a symbolic point for those who advocate Wrath over Mercy.

Like his spiritual descendant, Pinocchio, a whale (or, technically, a “large fish”) swallows Jonah. This is the sum of what most people know about him. In the Bible, his book is short, yet it still manages to contain a few more incidents besides the great fish’s lunch. Here’s the plot: God orders Jonah to preach against the Assyrians—in the eyes of the Israelites, a people who represent lawless degeneracy at its most extreme. Naturally, reluctant to journey to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and criticize people with such a reputation for casual overreaction, Jonah attempts to flee from God by boarding a ship headed into the Mediterranean. This provokes God to send a storm against the ship. The sailors cast lots, discovering that Jonah is the cause of the ship’s misfortune—so they chuck him overboard and the fish swallows him. After sojourning in the giant fish’s belly and praying to God in repentance, the fish pukes Jonah safely back onto shore. Somewhat chastened, Jonah journeys to Nineveh (also in present day Iraq) to preach against the Assyrians, predicting their imminent destruction and the visitation of God’s Wrath.

Far from freaking out, stuffing an apple in his mouth, and impaling Jonah on the nearest spit, the Assyrians wise up. They cease persecuting the innocent or having crazy S&M parties or whatever unspeakable Biblical barbarities they were celebrating. They change their ways, pull a complete one-eighty, and the disaster Jonah predicted never occurs. Rather than being pleased at this outcome, Jonah is outraged. He predicted a disaster—which didn’t happen. God has undercut Jonah’s prophetic authority by forgiving the Assyrians. Jonah can’t bear this insult to his reputation for accuracy and retreats to the desert to sulk.

Despite the mythological prestige of the whale’s belly episode, the conclusion to the book is, in my opinion, the most interesting part. While Jonah is sulking, he complains to God in prayer. God responds with a majestic query, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4:4). Despite earlier enduring the discomfort of living inside a fish for three days, Jonah’s lesson-time isn’t quite over yet. God causes a bush to grow and stretch above Jonah as he sits out in the wasteland, and Jonah is quite pleased with the shade. But the next day, God appoints a worm to kill the bush and makes the weather grow hot and windy, which sends Jonah into histrionics. “It is better for me to die than to live,” he says. (4:8)

God responds to Jonah with a final burst of divine eloquence: “But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’” (4:9-11). And that’s where the book ends. God poses a rhetorical question: clearly the fate of these people is more important than Jonah’s shade or his reputation for prophetic accuracy. But we don’t learn how Jonah responds—if he continues his self-centered sulking, or if he widens the scope of his vision and submits to a higher, merciful purpose. It’s as though God poses his question to the reader and the real conclusion must be found in the reader’s response.

Jonah is a brilliant little book, subtly but surely subverting the Biblical Prophetic tradition. Jonah’s typically Prophetic call for wrath is answered with forgiveness, and God, rather than appearing in the form of a hyper-violent bully (as in the books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah), manifests as a benevolent prankster, teaching the arrogant and stubborn Jonah a lesson by leading him through a series of comic tribulations.

William Blake would later allude to God’s description of the bush as something that “came into being in a night and perished in a night,” by writing in “Auguries of Innocence,” “We are led to Believe a Lie / When we see not Thro the Eye / Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night / When the Soul Slept in beams of light.” Blake means that the human eye, which gazes on the natural world, is impermanent, as is the world on which it gazes (one needs to see “through” the natural eye, to witness the eternal world lying beyond, rather than merely looking “with” it, as he notes in his essay on “The Vision of the Last Judgment). Like Jonah’s shade, the material world is an impermanent illusion, a temporary shelter and not the native climate of the soul. The soul exists in the physical world as though in a dream—a universe of fluctuating desires.

All of this indicates that the rather Buddhist notion of “impermanence” isn’t foreign to the Western and Islamic traditions. Jonah is clear evidence of this as is Plato’s statement that ours is a “world of fleeting shadows.” And the idea that this realm is one of ceaseless mutability is common to Medieval and Renaissance speculation, as well. The Koran records the words “All except God doth perish,” and states that Abraham discovered the worship of One God by observing natural phenomena like the sun and the moon, before noting that they all had their rising and setting, leaving only a single Deity worthy of worship, existing beyond change. Bearing all this in mind, God’s great question to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” means that Jonah has no right to be angry over concerns about the impermanent aspects of reality, like his reputation as a prophet or his desire for shade. He’s failed to place the primary concerns of humanity—in this case, human life itself, as represented by the lives of the people from Nineveh—above his own egocentric, secondary concerns.

In contrast to the news about ISIS destroying Jonah’s tomb—along with the unending and numbing parade of news from the Ukraine, from Gaza and Israel, from Nigeria, from Syria, and elsewhere—I read an article detailing a quite different set of circumstances in The New York Times. (

Since the city of Yushu was devastated by an earthquake that killed three thousand people four years ago, local Tibetan Buddhists have been making a large-scale effort to buy animals from area markets and set them free. In one of the strangest and most striking cases, they’ve been attempting to save trapped river-shrimp—barely perceptible creatures—from the mud. Much of this has been due to the teachings of Chatral Rinpoche, a 101-year-old Tibetan lama who the Catholic-Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton, described (in 1968) as “the greatest man I ever met.”

Some Americans and Europeans might find this absurd, or complain that the Tibetans should be helping humans instead of river shrimp—but the basic sense of this compassionate activity, especially given that it arose in reaction to something so traumatic as an earthquake, is so manifestly pure that it seems, to my mind, beyond criticism. It’s certainly different from ISIS’s standard mode of operation, for one thing. However, as Jonah amply demonstrates, the tools to fashion such a compassionate response to trauma are wholly present in the Abrahamic religions, as well—yet, despite the efforts of many great and sincere souls, this authentic spirit never seems overwhelmingly present on the world stage. It is simply too easy to join the side of an ideology that sets its own peculiar goals and principles above the fundamental concerns of life—you relish the feeling in your bleeding gums as you gnaw on the bit presented by one set of dogmas or another. A supposedly “idolatrous” religious and historical site explodes—and this is labeled a “victory.” But aren’t the real holy warriors the people siding with life itself, as the essential, the unshakeable value? Like Pinocchio and Jonah, such people get to exit the whale.

Eating is Weird

by Sam Buntz

Eating is weird: you have a hole in your face, a kind of trash can (to paraphrase this pseudo-Buddhist manual I read once) into which you can place various objects. If you smoke, you pour smoke into your bizarre-o face-hole; if you chew gum, the face hole can mash around some sweet-tasting puddy for awhile, before spitting it out.

On the most basic level, all you really need to do is eat—if the climate is right, and there aren’t too many savage beasts around, you can probably deal with just folding a giant leaf over yourself. That’s shelter. After satisfying this essential, you can freely cram whatever non-poisonous articles you can find into your face-hole with abandon. Love and togetherness and sexual reproduction and Transcending the Mundane Sphere through Culture and all that stuff are fine, but as Orwell once noted, we are first “bags for putting food in” (not that I necessarily agree with the total primacy of eating—though it’s certainly funny).

[DIGRESSION: Lord Byron, ever the womanizing misogynist (a classic combo), once said, "A woman should never be seen eating unless it be lobster salad and Champagne, the only true feminine and becoming viands."  Contra Byron and most chivalrously, I'll watch a woman eat anything, and will enjoy the experience to boot (not in a sick way, though).  But if I had to pick something to watch this hypothetical chick eat, in particular, it sure as hell wouldn't be lobster salad.  On a related note, I'd like to see someone figure out how to eat a burrito elegantly and without appearing to be a total slob -- only a woman would be capable of fulfilling this challenge, in my humble neo-feminist opinion.]

I’ve never done and have no desire to do psychedelic drugs, but a couple friends of mine took acid (or some weird synthetic peyote powder stuff—I forget) and claimed that they realized that their faces were actually a certain kind of pet.  You needed to constantly care for your face-pet—feed it, comb its hair, tweeze its eyebrows, whatever. Despite my skepticism about the ability of chemicals to expand consciousness in a genuine way, I had to admit that this was sort of an insight. Your face really is like a pet. For some reason, I feel that this is directly related to what I just said about eating.

In any case, I was babbling on about this very subject to a Wise Sage I know. (Something as basic as eating starts to seem like divine Nonsense when you think about it too much—kind of like repeating a word over and over again until it sounds ridiculous.) The sagely man had this to say: “You have to eat the world to stay in the world.” My mind was totally blown—I thought this was great.

In the science-fiction novel, The Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, the hero travels to another planet by drinking a bottle of light from that planet’s solar system. It’s a specific kind of light called “back rays”—the tendency of back rays is to return to their source, so when you imbibe them, they transport you to that same source. In tandem with the aphorism from the contemporary Ecclesiastes just cited, this provoked me to wondering: if we were able to eat food from another world—a better one—maybe we could go live there… If a stranger gave you some Celestial Vittles, wrapped up in wax paper, on a drizzly November evening, maybe you could take off for Arcturus or Narnia or The Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha. And maybe the food that can do that is… Compassion. Soul Food. (Yeah—I know you didn’t think this was going to get all lame at the end.)

Self-Involvement: A Short Primer

by Sam Buntz

[NOTE: Was this post written with help from a bit of caustic self-analysis? Feel free to speculate... I would say, though, that it isn’t just a piece of nearly morbid self-deprecation. I suppose I noticed aspects of these tendencies in myself, at times, but I based the rest on observations of other people my own age… -Sam]

It’s easy to become self-involved when your survival—or, what you’ve become convinced amounts to your survival—is at stake. The contemporary, self-involved Millennial has convinced himself or herself that his or her position in the world—the correct placement and wiring of the individual human circuit within the greater technological network—is something that can be solved through an intense meditative absorption in the current of self-interest. Sink or become self-involved: those are the apparent options. If you’ve moved back in with your parents after graduation and continually contemplate your future while applying for jobs, failing to get those jobs, and generally occupy yourself with hashing and re-hashing your plans for the future, you’re inevitably going to get stuck in yourself.

However, this is different from being a narcissist (I’ve noticed people abusing the word “narcissist” quite a bit over the past decade or so). If you’re a narcissist, you’re in love with yourself—usually in a nearly physical manner. But if you’re self-involved, you’re something relatively less irritating but more common: just an ordinary egotist, sealed inside yourself, attempting to pick the locks, while discovering that this only leads you into passages that plunge deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of self.

Countless people throughout the United States are suffering this fate. It might be hard to feel bad for them when there are innocent civilians being slaughtered in Syria; at any rate, they’re there. They can’t just tell the world to piss off and then go chop wood alone or find solace living with the bears. They’ve got college loans to deal with, and Mom and Dad’s house is a pretty comfortable way station on the road to finally paying those off. So, one contemplates the design of one’s life within that greater techno-industrial network, attempting to guess what twist or turn it’ll take next—which is a futile task. Your life isn’t something that you’re supposed to find intellectually comprehensible, so much as it’s something that just happens (in or out of tune with the Tao).

This is the predicament of the Self-Involved Young Person of Today. As he or she tries to un-tie the tangle of the self, the knots grow tighter, the mess grows in complexity. One deals with the terror of a labyrinth with no entrances, no exits— not even a Minotaur—just an increasingly perplexing series of passages. This is, no doubt, a false way of seeing things: in reality there isn’t an entrance or an exit, since the labyrinth itself, the specter of the ego, is an illusion: one that would disappear if we could tear our attention away from it. Yet it’s a specter with the capacity to terrify.

Blue Devils

by Sam Buntz

“The Blues” is short for “Blue Devils” – you might already know this, but it’s important. It indicates that we’re not talking about devils associated with devious passions, with energy in action. Those would be red. We’re talking about devils of inertia, devils that put you down in a hole.

Of course, “The Blues” as a style of music deals with lust, anger, attachment—and all the other canonical sins—but it doesn’t (typically) come from a place of commission, but from the place you’re in before or after engaging in such violations of the Karmic Law, or after someone else has done you wrong. You’ve been abandoned by your girl—you’re going to kill your girl: that’s the kind of thing American bluesmen are always singing about (if not blues-women). (Obviously, this isn’t very P.C., and it would be a caricature to suggest that meditating on shooting your woman is central to the Blues—though it’s definitely a part of the tradition.) The Blues resides in the space between these plot beats: it’s not in the moment of the deed, but in the fever before or the fever after. It comes from that spiral of self-gnawing-on-self—a mood of depression, interior darkness. Like that American bluesman, T.S. Eliot, once wrote, “Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow.”

But, here’s the thing: The Blues is itself a struggle with these feelings, not their glorification. It’s not about wallowing in pain—it’s about an active engagement with it, an attempt to appropriate the energy it’s wasting and plug it into something creative. It calls energy out of inertia, wrestles with that painful and unproductive stasis—that Dark Spirit of the Earth, with its gnarled fibers swirling in the bloodstream. If you take something that’s been moving in a circle, running down the cosmic drain, and suddenly get it to move straight, up and out of its circle—or to, at least, make the attempt—that’s the kind of feeling authentic blues delivers. It gets your soul out of the whirlpool fit.

In Spain, the same notion exists, except, rather than identifying it with “blue devils”, the Spanish poetic tradition identifies it with “duende”, another folkloric creature. The great Spanish Bluesman, Federico Garcia Lorca, wrote a classic essay on the role of duende in his country’s literature—and in the literature of the world, as a whole. Lorca explains: “Years ago, an eighty year old woman came first in a dance contest in Jerez de la Frontera, against lovely women and girls with liquid waists, merely by raising her arms, throwing back her head, and stamping with her foot on the floor: but in that crowd of muses and angels with lovely forms and smiles, who could earn the prize but her moribund duende sweeping the earth with its wings made of rusty knives?”

The old Spanish lady’s duende-filled foot-stamping was probably pretty close, in feeling, to the a cappella blues songs of Son House. With only his voice and handclapping, Son House manages to take his auditors more deeply into the meaning of the blues than many artists who use a full band. And the blue devils and duende are still around. For example, you can easily detect their presence in Frank Ocean’s R&B tracks, and in the straight-up rock of Jack White.

The blue devils and the duende don’t exist merely to possess and prod their victims—they exist to provoke a struggle, like Jacob wrestling with the Angel of Death at the riverside to win the name “Israel”. There is no progression without the opposition of some dark double, no flower that hasn’t first marshaled its form through the earth’s inner obscurities. Keeping this in mind, it’s interesting that so many bluesmen and blues-women have swung back and forth between singing the Blues and singing Gospel (like Son House or Reverend Gary Davis). Rather than seeming to be contradictory, the two styles become complementary, part of one discipline, one process. The bluesman brings the darkness of the self’s longings into direct contact with the light of a higher revelation—and he continually forces them together until they comprehend one another. Lorca himself claimed that the duende guarded the deepest secret of spirituality: “the subtle link that joins the five senses to what is core to the living flesh, the living cloud, the living ocean of love liberated from time.”

Living Form

by Sam Buntz

[Note: I have never taken a course on architecture or its history—these observations spring from personal reading and my own internal reception of the art. So, any scholarly expectations should be diminished.]

William Blake once wrote, “Grecian art is mathematical form; Gothic is living form.” By this Blake illustrates something that a great many people have likely noticed: there’s a difference between the Parthenon and Chartres Cathedral, and the same kind of difference continues to manifest itself in contemporary architecture. The Parthenon exemplifies an ideal geometric design—its columns and its scale are impressive, but it isn’t very human or homey…The Classical World lacks the quirk and eccentricity of the Medieval World. You wouldn’t want to have a sleepover in the Parthenon—but, by contrast, you might not mind dragging a cot into Chartres or other Gothic cathedrals. The cathedrals are certainly as monumental as the Parthenon, but they relate to the humans who enter them quite differently. (Curiously, Islamic architecture—with its insistence on pure geometric pattern in many of its designs—strikes me as being closer to the impersonal Greek mode, as opposed to the personal Gothic mode. This would be true for the spare interiors of so many old Puritan churches, as well.).

The great cathedrals are, after all, modeled on the human form—attempting to mimic the proportions of a Universal Mother, a feminine embrace containing the human congregation. The same is true for Hindu temples, which are explicitly modeled on the human body, with the central space also functioning as a kind of womb in which the divine presence can be received. Also, the cathedrals’ ascension from dark depths up to bright heights mirrors the progression from ignorance to wisdom that religion attempts to instigate in the human mind through its rituals, its art—its full aesthetic package. In Gothic Architecture and other specimens of “Living Form”, there are metaphors hidden in everything—and even if we aren’t consciously, intellectually aware of them, they resonate with us. We encounter ourselves, in Wallace Stevens’ words, “more truly and more strange.”

Overall, Modern Architecture—despite its “Modern” tag—feels more like a parody of the Classical Greek style: it’s much closer to the Parthenon than to Chartres.   Its structures are vast and impersonal—titanic and functional, but not pleasant. They try (unsuccessfully, in my view) to negate E.F. Schumacher’s dictum, “Small is beautiful.” (Not that Gothic Cathedrals are small either—but they are comprised of small moments of beauty which create, in the aggregate, an impression of a larger Beauty: the universal experienced through the particular). Modern and Post-Modern buildings appeal to the mathematical mind, but not to the human whole (and not to the emotions, in particular). The designs of contemporary elementary schools and corporate skyscrapers both insist on geometrical purity, but they typically lack any kind of human touch. They don’t seem like buildings made for people—the building is primary, and the human is secondary. They decidedly fall onto the “tool” side of John Ruskin’s injunction: “You must either make a tool of a man or a man of him. You cannot do both.” Humans seem instrumental in relation to these structures.

Along with Blake, I find this to be the wrong approach. The architecture I find most inspiring includes Gothic Cathedrals and Hindu and Buddhist Temples—also, the Neo-Gothic revival and “Arts and Crafts” movement spearheaded by Ruskin, William Morris, and other great, British aestheticians in the 19th Century; Art Deco Architecture; Anthroposophical Architecture (which is a lesser-known style, but frequently an affecting one); and certain rare examples of Modern and Post-Modern Architecture, bucking the more common traits of those schools. There are probably more examples and styles that would resonate with me if I knew about them—but this should be a decent sampling.

This duality between the Classical-Impersonal-Inorganic-Functional and the Gothic-Personal-Organic-Romantic is true for visual art as well as architecture, and to some extent for popular music (people who are really into contemporary House and Techno music appreciate pattern—but they lack an affinity for the subtle, emotional forces that guide pattern in, say, R&B, or the better kinds of indie rock.) I wouldn’t wish the more impersonal and geometrical style out of existence—but it seems present to a greater extent than it should be, indicating an imbalance in our own mode of being. I think it hints that we’re not paying enough attention to the more human aspects of…well, humanity. The strictly quantitative, mathematical part of the mind is (to put it somewhat paradoxically) the least human part of human beings—it strains for a pure objectivity divorced from the tastes of the subjective person. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, I don’t think this part of the mind can function as it should unless it is harnessed to the interests of the whole person, the subjective being. Otherwise, it becomes a deranged Sorcerer’s Apprentice (like in the famous Fantasia sequence), producing and designing without any thought for the humans served by those designs and productions. It leads one into the world described by Thoreau’s famous quotation: “We have become the tools of our tools.”

Contemporary visual art furnishes numerous examples of this problem. I like a lot of contemporary art, but I find myself left cold by, say, sculptures that are un-ornamented green pyramids or paintings that are perfectly square canvases painted entirely black. Again, it’s like a parody of this more geometrical and less human style of creation. I’m not saying that art needs to always be representational—but I tend to prefer art that conforms to the human shape in some way, or to natural shapes. It needs to feel alive and impart a sense of life, as opposed to feeling dead and sterile (which sounds obvious enough) 

For instance, Anthroposophical Architecture aims to create structures that appear to have “grown” rather than been fabricated: a worthy goal. By contrast, the qualities of art objects that seem “produced” as opposed to “created”, tend to heighten a rather eerie, mechanical, inorganic sense of being… Basically, they seem soulless. They only appeal to the conceptual, measuring part of the mind, and leave out the emotional and imaginative aspects of the human being—they totally eschew the insights provided by one’s dream life or fantasy existence. On the other hand, one can create art that seems excessively based on feeling—all pastels with no edge, for instance; something totally soft. The point is really to create a fusion—since humans are a fusion between reason and feeling, between impersonal capacities of thought and personal relations. But our mental instruments of thought and judgment should always submit themselves to the feeling and perceiving core of our being. That way, the tools will remain in their toolbox until needed, rather than in a position of power and control.        

Why I Am a Moderate

by Sam Buntz

Many people think that if you identify as a moderate, you embrace the politics of watered-down wimpdom. David Brooks is a pretty moderate conservative, for example, and the Libertarian magazine, Reason, once lambasted him for a “compulsive need to seem reasonable” (which, it only now occurs to me, is somewhat ironic given the title of the magazine, no?): when faced with one faction, in a hypothetical debate, favoring cream of wheat and another faction favoring raisin bran, Brooks will reliably choose a third, oat-based option. This is funny—but it’s not exactly a fair judgment. People on the Far Left frequently attack moderate Democrats on similar grounds—compromises are for chumps, and if you think, say, that charter schools might not really be such a bad idea, you’re suddenly, dangerously close to pledging undying fealty to the Tsar.

The great essayist and fiction writer, G.K. Chesterton (in his day, a moderate) offered a better and more succinct definition of a political moderate, as someone who is really a “zealous judge”—interested in extracting pearls of practical truth from the bullshit amply ladled out by partisans on both sides of the aisle. Rather than simply picking a team and embracing its platform wholesale, the moderate is intellectually active and full of energy—doubting where doubt is necessary and affirming that which must be affirmed.

I am personally a moderate because I lack any specific emotional attachment to the dual creedal faiths of American politics. It seems clear to me that direct government action can solve certain problems and individual initiative and decentralization can solve others. There’s no one pill you can swallow to make it all better, so you need to constantly be on the alert, trying to negotiate between partial truths. If you look at great moderate thinkers—like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (cited by both President Obama and John McCain as an influence, weirdly enough)—you don’t encounter people who are saying, essentially, “Woah—don’t rock the boat!”

Instead, you see someone who understands that no ideology is so flawless that it can impose its system in total, without opposition or without a measure of self-doubt and humility. Today, by contrast, it seems that many politicians believe that, if they could only implement their vision in full, everything would be fine—we’d be living in either Ayn Rand or Noam Chomsky’s utopia. Tea partiers and Bill De Blasio-style Sandinista liberals are both equally guilty in this regard. Moderate politics might not appeal to stereotypical youthful idealists who think Paul Simon’s Graceland album is “cultural appropriation” or to a stereotypical super-conservative old person who is busily transforming all of his or her money into the form of gold (like Smaug the Dragon)—but they appeal to the person, of any age, “whose passion is Reality.” After all, there is no higher value than Reality… How could there be?

Far from being relative bystanders who don’t want to rock the boat, true moderates occupy the hub of action. Confronted by two opposing forces that are both necessary for the greater social ecology of life on planet earth—the “Yes” of the Left and the “No” of the Right—the moderate seeks to reconcile and balance those forces. He or she lifts the gates, opens the valves, allowing a certain amount of “Yes” and a definite proportion of “No” to enter into the world. Thus, the ideal moderate stands at the fulcrum of political action—like a Taoist sage, harmonizing Yin and Yang. (Obviously, its necessary to have this ideal reconciler-conserver-reformer present in both parties—since, if one party had a monopoly on the moderate type, the other party would be bound to react badly to moderate solutions.)

The problem with the common, hyper-arrogant human belief in the total superiority of one’s own political platform is that it fails to recognize that every aspect of life is based on balancing and reconciling dualities. All the ills that afflict humans due to imbalances between pairs of opposing forces can just as easily be applied, by analogy, to the political and social body: obesity, hypertension, constipation, etc.  These are all ultimately failures to reconcile “Yes” and “No” within a system, to provide that ideal fulcrum. Just as the body and individual mind function by bringing conflicting pressures into harmony—systole/diastole, ingestion/excretion, reason/feeling—the political body works in the same way. But a true moderate makes these oppositions seem like they aren’t inherently based on conflict: politics begins to feel more like a dance and less like a war.

Eternity’s Sunrise: Blake and Buddhism

by Sam Buntz

The British poet-engraver, William Blake, is often a favorite of Americans with an interest in Buddhism.  Poets with Buddhist affinities, like T.S. Eliot and W.S. Merwin, have cited him and expressed their admiration, and, in a notable instance of hippie, counter-cultural influence, the band “The Doors” took their name from Aldous Huxley’s book about drug experiences, The Doors of Perception, which itself had borrowed its title from a famous observation of Blake’s: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

Yet Blake, himself, never did drugs. Admittedly LSD hadn’t been synthesized in the late 18th Century, and magic mushrooms weren’t exactly a craze either. But the great poet would’ve likely had little interest in such substances even if they had been available, since he condemned making the human mind the overly complacent subject of any external influences, chemicals included. To risk applying a cliché to such a genius (though a very true one), for Blake, change—and especially spiritual change—needed to come from within. Negative external influences—from the scolding he received as a child for “telling tales” about his mystical experiences, to an accusation of treason later in life (albeit one levied by a drunken soldier with a grudge)—could not dim the light of that internal revelation, no matter how grim the wider world seemed to be. And it often seemed very grim, indeed, as the French Revolution declined into the “Reign of Terror” and repressive government policies took hold at home, in England. But Blake’s visions were entirely the product of a naturally awakened consciousness, that of a man who perceived the Earth not as we usually see it—hypnotized as we no doubt are—but as the infinite landscape that it really is, what his fellow visionary, Rilke, called “The Open”. A new bout of political oppression from Parliament or a rise of rents always seemed to be “something other than Human Life” to this rebellious seer.

Blake lived in a time and a place where only vague and largely garbled notions of Buddhism had penetrated—which is part of what makes it so uncanny that he was able to precisely mirror much of the Dharma. The child of dissenting Protestants, he spent nearly all of his external, corporeal existence in late 18th and early 19th Century London, with a brief sojourn to the seaside village of Felpham. Derided during his lifetime as mad, Blake remained with London’s working class, laboring productively, but without any overwhelming success, as a printer and an engraver—though he occasionally garnered admiration from major figures of his time, like his friend Thomas Paine, the poet William Wordsworth, and the Swiss painter, Henry Fuseli. For the most part, however, he dwelt in immense obscurity. As he confided in his notebooks: “I am hid.” But, in the country where he really spent most of his time—“The Worlds of Thought… / Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination”—Blake was a king.

While his songs and lyrics gradually gained a large popular following after his death (“Did Those Feet in Ancient Time?” is a kind of second national anthem in Britain) Blake’s reputation is that of a poet almost willfully obscure.  As his greatest critic, Northrop Frye, wrote, his work is “in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language.” But this was never something he intended, and when one pierces through the veil that two centuries of misunderstanding, neglect, and accusations of insanity have cast around Blake, one begins to see the fundamental clarity of his vision, and hence understands what he really has in common with Buddhism, and why so many American Buddhists have found a kindred spirit in London’s native seer.

Blake was, first of all, a non-dualist. In an age when philosophers largely accepted the strict division between mind and matter, body and soul, subject and object, Blake stridently objected, referring to all such systems of thought as “cloven fictions.” He viewed “Energy” as the only true reality: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for all that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age. Energy is the only life…Eternal Delight.” In these lines, we find a person thinking and saying things that no one else in England was prepared to say, let alone understand—excepting a few isolated spirits, like the philosopher Bishop George Berkeley and the poet, Christopher Smart (who actually was rather mad).

While most Christians of the time were busy believing in a God “out there”, lingering as a ghostly presence somewhere above the world of nature, and while most Deists and Agnostics saw any attempt to attain transcendence as mystical madness and crankery, Blake asserted that the distant creator of the Deists and the Father God of most orthodox Christians was only a human fantasy, a kind of divine “Caesar Augustus” projected into the sky, and comprised of our most terribly confused qualities. To the contrary, Blake asserted that God was actually “The Human Form Divine”, which, as a dissenting Christian, he often identified with Jesus. What Blake meant by the “Human Form Divine” is not immediately clear, but in the course of his poetry, he gradually makes it evident that he means all the world is part of one Divine Form—similar in nature to the Buddhist Dharmakaya, in certain interpretations of Mahayana philosophy, although Blake’s idea that everything is part of one “Form” might seem to contradict the Buddhist statement that “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” and that neither being nor non-being are absolute.

But, as Professor Frye notes, this is the logical next step apparent at the end of Blake’s masterpiece, Jerusalem. Blake ends his prophetic epic, stating that everything on earth has been “identified” as one human form—yet ultimately this form isn’t a static being. It’s “Energy”, a subtle stream of life and light: Blake’s idea of the “Word” that became Jesus Christ at the beginning of John’s Gospel. Frye draws a parallel between Blake’s view of The Word and the idea of “Indra’s Net” found in the Avatamsaka Sutra (sometimes known as the “Flower Ornament Scripture”): The Avatamsaka Sutra states that the universe, when seen without confusion, appears to be like a sort of net or web, sparkling with dew, in which every dew-drop reflects every other dew-drop, so that, in Frye’s words, “everything is everywhere at once.” For Blake, this is really what the vision of the “Human Form Divine” is. It’s a state in which every being seems to reflect every other being, appearing exactly as what it is individually and as everything else, simultaneously. This is the real meaning of one of his most famous verses: “To see a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wildflower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour.”

Such parallels are fine, you suppose, as far as metaphysics go—but what about Compassion, absent which any high-falutin’ Indra’s Net conceptions are null and void? Well, for Blake, the Human Form Divine is compassion, just as the Gospel of John’s Christ the Word actually is love: “And every man in every clime / That pray’s in his distress / Prays to the Human Form Divine / Love Mercy Pity Peace.” Those last four qualities actually arethe four attributes of the Human Form Divine: in a state where everything is everywhere at once, the only natural response can be compassion. Completely rejecting the Biblical God of Wrath and his harsh unyielding penalties, Blake wrote “Mutual forgiveness of each Vice / Such are the Gates of Paradise.” “Paradise”, again, was not a kingdom in an actual “terrestrial celestial telescopic heaven”, but a state in which every member treated every other with complete forgiveness and compassion—an “Eternity” that is not un-ending temporal duration, but the Eternal Now—“The Quick” as D.H. Lawrence (that second-tier Blake) would’ve said. This leads us from Blake’s cosmology—his big, overarching picture of reality—into the minimal, the world of his ethics, of action. This is rather like descending from the large-scale level of physics where Einstein’s laws apply into the realm of the particular, the Quantum level where things really start to pop and fizz.

One of Blake’s short, immediately likeable wisdom poems offers a taste: “He who bends to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy / He who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sunrise.” Here we find a flawless summation of the Buddhist understanding of non-clinging. Our very desire to prolong joy paradoxically maims and shortens it, whereas the person who “kisses the joy as it flies” lives in a pure present, a state where it always seems to be morning, because the sun of joy never sets. It is perpetually fresh. Strikingly similar statements are sure to be found in the teachings of almost every major Buddhist teacher to offer up the dharma in America, but we can see the same truth reflected in the earliest Buddhist scriptures. Consider the Dhammapada, where Gautama Buddha says, “As the bee takes the essence of a flower and flies away without destroying its beauty and perfume, so let the sage wander in this life.” And is there not a sublime hint of Tantra in Blake’s “To be in a passion, some good you may do / But no good if a passion is in you”?

It is the brief, lyrical poems like this one—which condense so much into so short a span—which speak most directly to the contemporary reader. Blake’s long, extraordinarily difficult “Prophetic Books” are rightly considered to be his greatest works—but the lyrics have a brilliant quality of life-wisdom, particularly the “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience.” They are accessible and by no means daunting, but they contain unexpected depths. One of Blake’s lines can itself become like the “grain of sand” in which the poet saw the entire world endlessly reflected. We can meditate on them over and over again, and find new dimensions hidden in, say, two lines that we’ve already read many times before. When he writes, “Tyger, Tyger burning bright / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” we may at first take it as an indictment of a wicked Gnostic creator god, whom Blake condemns for making a world full of ferocity and suffering. But, when we look at the poem from another angle, we are forced to consider more seriously the beauty and majesty of the Tyger. Blake doesn’t intend us to view it one way or another: he intends us to view it every way at once, or at least in every justifiably possible way.

Blake is widely considered to be a prophet of liberated desire—and he was and is. “Visions of the Daughters of Albion” is an immensely powerful attack on the psychology of sexual repression, out-pacing and out-doing Freud by a full century. But he was not interested in liberating desire for purely hedonistic purposes. He wrote, “‘More! More!’ is the cry of the mistaken soul. Less than All cannot satisfy Man.” Here the “All” is the same as Blake’s “Eternity”, or the “infinite” world mentioned in the “Doors of Perception” quote. Our desires have been all balled up by our limited degree of perception, stuck within that shadowy circumference which Blake calls “the Selfhood” and which most of us would probably call “Ego.” Yet this Selfhood or Ego is, for Blake, just a shadow or a “Specter”—something that doesn’t really exist, and a mere shade cast by “The Human Form Divine.” Desire is compelled by the ego’s lack of vision—stuck in a small, dry, finite world, like the Toad stuck in his well, unable to imagine the ocean—to keep going around and around, attracted and repelled by the same perishable objects over and over again. Blake calls this the “circle of destiny”, but a Buddhist would likely call it Samsara, endless wandering and returning, attached to impermanent aims that flash on and off in the dark. Blake’s vision here naturally evokes the “Wheel of Birth and Death”, the vast diagram of cyclic existence, with reincarnation and karma implicit within it.

Blake holds that free desire can reach toward the All, toward the latitude of infinite vision, and that it can eventually snap free of its bondage to egotism and its sundry finite attachments. This is the state in which one realizes that “Energy is eternal delight”—a source continually replenished. Liberated from the Selfhood, the Human Imagination finds itself capable of radiating compassion towards other beings without limit. Over two centuries later, it begins to seem pretty obvious that—despite the massive confusion common among Blake’s contemporaries—everything Blake wrote and painted in his canon of engraved and illuminated books is just such a manifestation of compassion. As he himself wrote, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

Dealing with his own spectral Selfhood, Blake likely felt that he was as much a “production of time” as the rest of us—continually ground down by decay, by the endless movement of the Wheel. But, liberated from that Selfhood, and speaking (as he almost always did) from a better vantage point, he continues to have something to say to us—something of permanent and, in fact, infinite value. Buddhists—as well as Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and the wholly secular—can still find plenty to perplex and amaze in the writings of the English language’s greatest visionary poet. Blake can both hearten and disturb—but being so disturbed, from his perspective, was the necessary beginning of that precious gift, indispensable for the proper application of Compassion… Wisdom.