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.