The Ancient City:  the Buddha and William Blake

The Buddha once tried to describe to his disciples what it had been like to discover the path of total spiritual transformation.

He said that he had felt like a traveller walking through the wild forests on a mountain height.  The traveller came upon an ancient trackway, overgrown, untravelled for many years,.  He scrambled through the undergrowth and followed the track to a great and ancient city, uninhabited, in ruins, almost obscured by the jungle.  The traveller decided he would not stay in the place, though he loved its beauty, but would return down the ancient trackway and go to see the ruler of the country.  He said, “Sire, I have found an ancient trackway, and at its end  an ancient city, and I know that city was once the capital of our country.  Sire, let us restore that city!”  And this is what they did — they went back, with many men and women, and lovingly restored the city to its former glory, and cleared the ancient trackway so that all could follow it.

William_Blake_by_Thomas_Phillips wikimediaWilliam Blake was a Londoner, he lived in the biggest city in the world at that time, around the turn of the Nineteenth Century.  It was a dirty and stinking place, with a sinister repressive government at its hub, and it was teeming with little tyrants and their little victims.  Blake saw all this very clearly.  He felt pity and anger.  Yet he was a visionary, and he also saw a different city, made of light.  His was not a utopian vision, a wonderful gleaming marble London of some ideal future.  For him, the harmonious city of light was the human mind, his own and everybody’s mind, completely liberated from the oppression of self obsession, completely cleansed of the smoke and grime of error.  He called the perfect city Jerusalem.

If Blake had been more ordinary, he might have dreamt again and again of his Jerusalem, and sighed when he woke up.  He might have taken to the streets to demand that someone build it for him.  Or more probably, the everyday oppressions of life might have smudged the image, until all that he was seeking was a bit of recognition, a reasonable income as an engraver and painter, and a few cronies to reminisce and grumble with.

However, Blake was not ordinary.  I won’t call him great, or a genius, because that would be to betray his own insistence that everyone has access to that vision of Jerusalem, though the trackway to it is still overgrown, a tough climb.

His vision changed and became more dynamic.  He took his eyes off Jerusalem’s glistening spires of golden light, shimmering on the horizon.  His new vision was a plan, a life’s-work.  It was of a different city, to be built with work and action, with conversations and personal connections, and particularly with the works of the artist.  This city, which is always being built, he called Golgonooza.

Blake was an artist, he was a painter, an engraver, and a poet.  The Buddha was also a visionary, but he was not, as we suppose, an artist.  He was the discoverer of a trackway leading to the ancient city which he called Enlightenment, and the work of his life was to point out this trackway to as many people as he could, to assure them that it was not impassable, and to entreat them never to let it become overgrown again and to keep it clearly marked on all the maps.  I am a Buddhist, and I am also an enthusiast for the visions of William Blake.  I have a very strong sense that in a way Blake’s city of art is the same as the city being restored in the Buddha’s vision.  However, even if the cities are the same, the trackway of artistic creation would seem to be a very different route to it than the track way of leading a Buddhist life.  Was Blake’s track the same as that of the Buddha?

Please don’t take these explanations  too seriously. Blake’s vision is not really of a city.  The Buddha did not really follow a track, in fact was known as the ‘Trackless One’. These ideas may indicate something which you can live, but they are no more than ideas until they are lived, and when they are lived, they have a life of their own, and these words become superfluous.

In any case, here we are now.  There is nowhere else we can start from.  And sometimes, we realise, we are wandering through a thick forest.  Usually, we are not even on the mountain height, and the little animal tracks that we follow do not really lead anywhere.  There is something wrong, something lacking.  The world falls short of our desires.  We have a sense that we are staring at an engraved print, and we can’t find the window that looks out onto the real thing.  As we look at this two-dimensional illustration of life, we feel a longing.  It may occasionally be a longing for the complete unbounded green landscape itself, but often it is one of many little longings stimulated by some little shape in the illustration.  The imagination is vast, but the world that flickers through our senses is small, and so frustration and pain are endemic.

In the vast world glimpsed in imagination, that is, complete Imagination, there is no need for any limit of any kind, not even the separation of the inside, my mind, from what I think of as an indifferent world outside.  That completely open dimension is not something to be manufactured, and it is not in any way limited by our inability to dwell in it, and so, for Blake, it is an eternal realm from which conscious beings have wandered.  His task is to restore us to that open realm.  He sees himself and others as human beings to be perfected through great struggle.  As he advances, his surroundings will light up more and more, their imperfections will drop away, until he finds himself as the ideal man, within Jerusalem.

Yet here we are now, in the thick forest.  There is something wrong, there is a lack, and we are, all the time, scrabbling about, driven by the sense of lack.  It is like an intense thirst, but most of what we drink to try to quench that thirst only satisfies very briefly, if at all.  The Buddha and Blake share an intense optimism, which one feels must have come from their genuine discoveries.  They both thought that lack, thirst and aimlessness are not inevitable.  But we have to have the courage to see what it is that we do that is not working.

What Buddhism characterises as a desperate thirst, Blake describes in dramatic terms.  Here is a stupendous human being, like a god, who has become estranged from the eternal city of Jerusalem.  The human being is Blake himself, and is Everyman.  As a Christian, he might give him the name Jesus.  But usually, he calls him Albion. He is the Sleeping Lord whose bones are the hills of Britain, or who is made up of all the potentially united people of Blake’s own nation.  Albion is asleep, or perhaps he’s dead.  In his dreams, the city Jerusalem has become his estranged wife, and his divided mental life has cascaded into two, and then four, and then many many beings, who clasp each other or fight each other, as they grapple with their dim memory that something has been lost.  His poems describe the dreadful and cruel selfishness of the female emanations and the male spectres in the fallen state.

It is possible that the Tibetan Book of the Dead is talking about a similar estrangement.  Like Albion, we topple at last into the uncontrolled dreams of death.  The light of reality is so dazzling as to be both agonising and terrifying.  And, the Tibetan Book of the Dead says, we swoon away from the light, and eventually struggle out of complete unconsciousness into a sequence of dream visions.  At first, there is an intensely beautiful, symmetrical, colourful mandala of five male Buddhas each embracing a female Buddha.  Spangled discs of pure colour offer a trackway into that mandala, which is sometimes described as a palace or even a city.  Coloured smokes wreath about it, seeming safer and more familiar, and the dreamer (or dead person) finds the smoky colours alluring, and loses the vision of the beautiful mandala.  The mandala is replaced by visions of enlightenment which become increasingly wild and ferocious, but each of which offer a pathway into the completely open realm.  We tumble along ‘the bardo’s dangerous pathway’, buffeted and dragged by all the habits and tendencies we have been consolidating over the years, until eventually we are left only with our future father and mother making love, and in a tantrum of jealousy, we hurl ourselves between them.

For Blake, the dream drama of Albion’s fragmented selves is not an utter nightmare, because he can begin to identify the different characters, and discover the games they are playing.  Far worse would be an undifferentiated confusion in which there is no awareness at all.  Nevertheless, confusion and tragic misunderstandings underlie most of our attempts to express our longings in the fallen world.  Confusion, rationalised, becomes error.  If only error can be given a clear outline, can be compelled to fully reveal itself, then it can be overcome.  If, as Blake claims, “Truth can never be told so as to be understood and not be believed”, then if error is uttered clearly enough, it must immediately be seen through.

For a similar reason, the Buddha devoted a lot of effort to exposing what he called false views.  He and Blake both felt that evil ultimately comes from a basic confusion.  What is really immoral is not to disobey a set of ordained laws, but to act from the fear, thirst, and cruelty that we use to defend a selfhood trapped in confusion.  Confusion perceives a divided world (the Buddhist word for ordinary consciousness means “divided knowing “), corresponding to the fragmentation of the giant Albion.

We can change our perception and escape from confusion by trusting what Blake at first calls the Poetic Genius; in trusting it, it strengthens.  Later, he calls it Imagination or Vision: it corresponds to the Buddhist term shraddha.  Shraddha is usually translated as faith,  but actually, it is a combination of a vision of what is truly significant in life with a longing to create a truly significant life.   It comes from an expansion of awareness, initially, an improvement in sensory awareness.  Here, Buddhism stresses mindfulness practice, and Blake’s practice of mindfulness was the exercise of his acute powers of observation through drawing and writing.  “A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect: the Man or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian”, by which he meant someone willing to expand his or her visionary awareness.  Although there are other means, it seems to me that some kind of artistic practice is probably the best way for us in this secular age to cultivate shraddha.

Shraddha, vision, is an enlargement of perspective, which opens the space for an energetic engagement with life.  “Energy is Eternal Delight” says Blake, and the free expression of energy is perhaps his prime human virtue.  Both life and consciousness provide unlimited reserves of energy to every human being, but its expression is inhibited, often because what one feels like doing with it is thought to be unacceptable or wicked.  Here we come to an apparent difference between traditional Buddhism and William Blake.  For Blake, at least according to his rhetoric, any form of restraint is anathema.  “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; … being restrained, it by degrees becomes passive.”   Buddhism however insist that genuine spiritual energy must always be put into what are called ‘skilled’ states of mind.  ‘Unskilled’ states of mind should be subject to restraint, because of the dreadful consequences of acting from them.

Consequently, I puzzled for a long time over Blake’s proverb “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”  It seems to say that you should do whatever you feel like doing, even if it causes harm.  At first I thought that as a “Proverb of Hell” it was intended just to shock.  Later I concluded that Blake did sincerely mean what he wrote, and at the same time definitely wished no one to harm another. Desire is an uprush of energy, and that energy is potentially enormously creative, but festers if it is allowed to stagnate.  So it is crucial to use desire, or energy, as a basis for action, even if it is only mental action.  Desire is a signal to create, and the fuel of creativity.

Joyful engagement is the way of grappling creatively with one’s surroundings.  The most significant element of one’s surroundings is other people.  Blake said “Mutual Forgiveness of each vice/These are the Gates of Paradise”.  It is easy to be overwhelmed by the flaming energies into which Albion has fragmented in Blake’s writings, and thus miss both the motive and message of his work.  He seeks the cleansing of our vision because we are in such a terrible plight: he wants everybody to be able to live in what he calls Eternity, in mutual love, and he wants this because of the swelling of love in his own breast.  Blake marvellously displays the greatest Buddhist virtue — compassion.

Blake ran along the ancient trackway, and came back with excited news of the ancient city, wanting to restore it, and wanting to call it Jerusalem.  His vision of that city, and of why it is in ruins, is immensely stimulating, and it is worth scrutinising his words and images just for that.  He has also opened up sections of the ancient trackway.  Add one extra stretch of track to his map, and perhaps it is complete.  What is lacking is samadhi: intense, calm, one-pointed contemplation of experience in states of deep meditation.  As a visionary artist, it may be that he possessed the equivalent of samadhi, but I don’t think he realised that without it, anxiety and vacillation will entangle most of us before we reach the city.

First Published in Urthona magazine, 2000.


The Buddha’s Ancient City: Samyutta Nikaya, 12-65; and see F. L. Woodward, Some Sayings of the Buddha (Oxford, 1973), page 25.

For the myth of Albion, Jerusalem and Golgonooza, see Blake’s prophetic books Milton and Jerusalem, especially in the beautiful facsimile editions published by the Tate Gallery.

Most of the quotations on desire and energy are from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

I think that the best commentary on Blake’s writings is still Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry (Princeton University Press, 1947).  Also see Sangharakshita, Buddhism and William Blake (Ola Leaves, 1981).