Art and literature

Lotus Sutra: the Image of the Plants

The Image of the Plants

Monsoon over Biligirirangans, India. (Shyamal – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

From the White Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma Sutra, Chapter 5.
Abridged and adapted by Ratnaprabha for reading aloud.
Based on the translations by Kato et al and Reeves, sub-headings not in the original.

The Buddha adapts the Dharma according to his listeners

The Buddha, the Dharma-king,
Smashing ideas of being,
Appears in this world.

According to the needs of all beings,
He teaches the Dharma in varied ways.

The Buddha teaches people
According to their strengths,
With various explanations
To bring them to helpful views.

The Buddha is like a thunder cloud

The Buddha is like a great cloud
Rising above the [parched] world,
Covering everything everywhere.

A beneficent cloud full of moisture,
Bringing gladness and ease to all,
Where flashes of lightning shine and glint,
And the voice of thunder vibrates afar.

The [hot] sun’s rays are veiled,
And the earth is cooled;
The cloud lowers and spreads
As if it might be caught and gathered.

[Then] its rain everywhere equally
Descends on all sides,
Streaming and pouring without stint,
Enriching all the land.

His hearers are like plants in need of the rain

On mountains, by rivers, in steep valleys,
In hidden places, there grow
The plants, trees, and herbs.

Trees, big or small,
The shoots of all the ripening grain,
Sugar cane and grapevine,

All these are fertilised by the rain,
And abundantly enriched.
The dry ground is all soaked,
And herbs and trees flourish together.

From the same water which issued from that cloud,
Plants, trees, thickets and forests,
According to their need, receive moisture.

All the [plants],
Each according to its scale,
Can grow and develop.

Roots, stalks, branches, and leaves,
Blossoms and fruits in their brilliant colours,
By the pouring of the one rain,
All become fresh and glossy.

Just as their forms and capacities
Are some great and some small,
So the enriching [rain], though one and the same,
Enables each to flourish.

The Buddha proclaims his impartial intent

The Buddha is like this.
He appears in the world,
Like a great [monsoon]-cloud
Universally covering all things;

And having appeared in the world,
He, for the sake of all living beings,
Teaches in varying ways
The reality of all things.

The great World-honoured One
To human and heavenly beings,
And to all the other beings,
Declares this:

“I am the Tathagata,
Honoured by people;
I appear in the world
Just like a great rain cloud,
To pour enrichment on all parched living beings,

“To free them all from suffering
And so attain the joy of peace,
Joy in this world,
And the joy of nirvana.

“Humans and heavenly beings and all!
Give me your full attention,
Gather around
And behold the Buddha.

“For the hosts of the living
I teach the Dharma, pure as sweet dew:
The Dharma with one taste
Of freedom and nirvana.

“With one wonderful voice
I explain this meaning,
Constantly taking the great way
As my subject.

“I look upon all [living beings]
Everywhere [with] equal [eyes],
Without favouring anyone,
With no mind of love or hate.

“I have no preferences
Nor limitations [or partiality];
At all times to all [beings]
I teach the Dharma equally;

“As I would to one person,
So [I teach] to all.
Constantly I proclaim the Dharma,
Never occupied with anything else.

“Going or coming, sitting or standing,
I never weary or get downhearted,
Pouring it abundantly upon the world,
Like the rain, enriching everywhere.

“Eminent and humble, high and low,
Those who keep the precepts and those who break them,
Those of admirable character
And those of imperfect character,

“With right views or wrong views,
Quick-witted and dull-witted,
[With] equal [mind] I rain the rain of the Dharma,
Neglecting no one.”

Summing up

So the Buddha’s unbiased teaching
Is like the one rain.

[But] beings, according to their capacities,
Receive it differently,
Just as the plants and trees
Each take a varying supply.

The Buddha by this [image]
Skilfully reveals [his methods],
And with various expressions
He proclaims the one single Dharma,

The one essential Dharma,
To be practised according to ability,
Just as those thickets, forests, herbs, and trees,
True to their type, grow lush and beautiful.

Just so,
Practising it step-by-step,
All can gain the fruit of the way.

The Dharma taught by the Buddha is like this.
It is just like a great cloud
Which with the same kind of rain
Enriches humans like blossoms,
So that each will bear fruit.

The way in which you all walk
Is the Bodhisattva-way;
By gradually practising and learning,
You will all become Buddhas.

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Grabbing a firebrand

Grabbing a firebrand: aphorisms and Sangharakshita

Whenever we’re presented with a statement, it’s so tempting to take it literally, not to look through it for truth, but to think it is the truth.

The aphorism

The world will be different only if we live differently.[1] This quotation is an aphorism.

Aphorisms are short, pithy statements containing a truth of general import. The etymology is from Gk. aphorismos ‘a definition, a pithy sentence,’ from aphorīzein ‘to mark off, divide’ apo- ‘from’ + horīzein ‘to bound.’ Synonyms are the words ‘maxim’ and ‘saying’. An ‘axiom’ is different, a statement of self-evident truth; and an ‘epigram’ is like an aphorism, but lacking in general import.[2]

So an aphorism is ‘from a horizon’. An aphorism is a statement which defines a perspective by illustrating or describing the horizon of that perspective. Instead of standing outside a viewpoint and describing the viewpoint, an aphorism adopts a viewpoint and identifies the things which are only visible from that perspective.[3]

But an aphorism is like a firebrand — you can easily get burnt if you grab the wrong end.

Caspar David Friedrich, 'Wanderer above the sea of fog'

Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Wanderer above the sea of fog’

Nietzsche was one of the great aphorists. He wrote, in his Zarathustra: In the mountains the shortest route is from peak to peak, but for that you must have long legs. Aphorisms should be peaks: and those to whom they are spoken should be big and tall of stature.[4]

Aphorisms are inevitably ambiguous, because they are short and striking. And to work, they should really hit you, so it’s best if they sound rather controversial, against the run of normal opinion. Sangharakshita does this as an aphorist. But before I move on to his sayings, here are a couple of warnings. An aphorism is never exactly true. It is either a half-truth or a truth and a half.[5] And from Dr Johnson: In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.[6] Lapidary inscriptions are the short sayings carved into tombstones and the like.

Whenever we’re presented with a statement, it’s so tempting to take it literally, not to look through it for truth, but to think it is the truth. But aphorisms say that so much more forcefully:

Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.[7]

Words, like eyeglasses, blur everything that they do not make more clear.[8]

Encountering Sangharakshita’s sayings

When I was a student in 1976, I used to go along to the little Brighton Buddhist Centre in the backstreets not far from the sea. One of the first things I picked up by Sangharakshita was a yellow coloured booklet called Sangharakshita: Sayings, Poems, Reflections. The very first quotation from Sangharakshita was:

One cannot be what one should be merely by closing one’s eyes to what one is. That sort of thing really grabbed me. Wow, I thought! It worked. I was very struck. I had to think about it.

But you can’t get Sangharakshita’s teachings just from aphorisms. Sometimes, you are bound to get the wrong end of the firebrand.

I remember quite a while ago when a lot of people wanted to argue with Sangharakshita (which some have always have wanted to do, at least ever since I started first heard of him in 1976), I remember him saying: ‘before you decide you disagree with me, clarify your understanding of what I’ve said.’ It’s so easy to assume that one disagrees — or indeed that one agrees. But what does it actually mean?

A powerful example was a very controversial little booklet written by Subhuti, Women Men and Angels.[9] Its title comes from a strange saying by Sangharakshita. Angels are to men as men are to women — because they are more human and, therefore, more divine.[10] What on earth does that mean? It sounds like it’s saying that men are superior to women in some sense. If so, in what sense? But what is this angel? What is an angel? Is it good to be more divine? What about the Buddhist idea of the god realms where the devas (angels) live being a dead end? In any case, what is the background to this weird little saying — how does it fit in with traditional Buddhist teachings? How does it fit in with other ideas of Sangharakshita’s, and his life and behaviour? How does it fit in with your experience? There are so many questions. If possible, ask questions, get clarification before you get indignant.

Here’s another one: ‘One should not waste time helping the weak. Nowadays it is the strong who need help.’[11] If you’re like me sometimes, the kind of person that bristles at an outrageous thing, you might go ‘hey, what’s this about ignoring suffering and defenceless people, and only nurturing some master race?’ (For my thoughts on that saying, see note 11.)

Here’s some advice from Sangharakshita himself on how you might regard teachings or dharmic ideas that you come across. It is not enough to sympathise with something to such an extent that one agrees with it. If necessary, one must sympathise to such an extent that one disagrees.[12]

Attitudes to dharma teachings

Can you look at traditional Buddhist teachings in this critical, non-literal way? Sangharakshita writes: Many years ago, I constantly asked myself: ‘How does this teaching relate to one’s actual spiritual experience, spiritual life and spiritual development? Why did the Buddha say this? Why was the Buddha concerned with this? Where does it connect up with the spiritual life?’ And I found that very, very few scholars ever thought in those terms. In many cases it didn’t even seem to occur to them to do so — even to Buddhists themselves, very often. As though it was just a sort of game, you know, that had no relevance to life and no bearing on the spiritual life or on spiritual development as an individual.[13]

So is Buddhism, the Dharma, true? The Dharma is the Buddha’s Enlightenment objectified, and therefore falsified.[14]

One can only speak the truth to one person. The larger the number of people to whom you are speaking, the more will what you say become an approximation to the truth.[15]

Religion cannot be taught; it can only be caught. You have to catch the spirit of religion, and you do that through the influence of other people.[16]

The Buddha taught and influenced people by what he was, far more than by what he said.[17]

My personal view about Sangharakshita, having lived in the same community as him for five years, having read his stuff, having argued and disagreed with him sometimes, becoming his pupil and disciple by being ordained by him, my personal conclusion is that he is not stupid, and he is not malicious. I could say much more positive things about him than that, but I just want to try to assert those relatively uncontroversial characteristics. He is not stupid, he is not malicious.

I have sometimes heard people, including people in the Triratna Order, taking issue with what they think Sangharakshita believes, either as if he has not thought it through at all, i.e. he is stupid, or as if he’s actually trying to cause trouble. If you start from the view that he basically has a kind intention, and that he does have a reasonable knowledge and intelligence, then you can take what he says rather more subtly, rather more seriously. You might conclude that if your first response to it was ‘that’s puerile’ (to quote a commentator on some of his stuff that I saw recently), or ‘that’s nasty’, then you might pause in your response and say, ‘hang on a minute, perhaps I didn’t quite get it the first time’.

Having a project

I’d like to help his readers to see that Sangharakshita encourages them to make a difference in the world, to make the Dharma more available to people who might enormously benefit from it, if only they could encounter it in the right way. I feel quite strongly about this, though I’m not much good at it myself in most respects.

It seems to me that just about all the Triratna Order members I meet have a lot to congratulate themselves for. They are very impressive people. They have achieved something wonderful. They have found a real meaning in life. They have arrived at a sort of maturity, they’re confident, they have a lot of positivity, they are really alive. Even more importantly, pretty much all the Order members I know, as well as many other Triratna and other Buddhists, are genuinely working on themselves. They are putting into effect the first half of a saying by Sangharakshita: (1) Man can change. (2) He can change himself

It’s such an achievement to have a healthy life worked out, with a real sense of working on oneself, such an admirable and rare achievement. It’s wonderful to see it happening so much, so genuinely. I think it’s there much more now than it was amongst the practitioners that I knew forty years ago when I started coming along to Triratna activities. Much more maturity, confidence, and indeed kindness towards each other, happiness with the lifestyle each has chosen, people thinking for themselves, and making their own decisions. It’s impressive; it is to be rejoiced in.

I’m a bit scared though. I’m scared that because it is so satisfying to have reached that position, that we will stop there. Now we can be happy, now we can be fulfilled and integrated people, we can be comfortable, we can have our achievements on an ordinary human level — perhaps find a profession that helps others to some extent or is creative; perhaps find a loving partner and a good, aesthetic living situation; perhaps find financial security for our futures; perhaps raise a family. In itself, that’s not scary, it’s lovely; it’s a great relief that it is indeed possible!

But what about this poor world? What about human beings, what even about our own future selves, our long-term future selves, ourselves as we die, as we move on into the bewildering unknown.

Let’s finish Sangharakshita’s saying: (1) Man can change. (2) He can change himself. (3) He can help others to change. (4) Together they can change the world.[18]

My own feeling and hope is that a lot of people, to be truly fulfilled, need something else. We need our own projects. Projects for making a difference in the world, but projects that are genuinely our own, that we care about, not just things we have joined in with that looked nice when we were young. Have we got a project? I’ll end this post with some more sayings of Sangharakshita’s.

Need for vision

If one does not dream, one becomes a monster.[19]

Working on a project

If one is healthy, one has energy, and if one     has energy, one naturally wants to put it into something — that is, one wants to work, whether the work consists in digging the soil or painting a picture.[20]

Sometimes I think work — real work, work in which one believes — is the greatest enjoyment in life.[21]

You learn what it is that you are trying to do in the process of trying to do it.[22]

People who have no real work of their own to do will always interfere with that of others. They may even make their ‘work’ to interfere.[23]

Not underestimating oneself

We are usually able to bear much more than we — and others — think we can.[24]

Altruistic projects

You can’t help helping others when you are truly helping yourself… one can help others even simply by providing facilities whereby they can help themselves. The importance of being able to help others in a supportive way is also very great. In a way, even people in the forefront of our activities are only supporting the whole activity of the Sangha. This is developing the faculty of rejoicing in merit.[25]

The deeper the internal realisation, the broader and stronger should be the outflow of energy. A spirituality that is sterile in respect of ‘good works’ is highly suspect. Of course there is such a thing as purely spiritual action on higher levels of consciousness, and this is far more effective than ordinary action, but for most treaders of the spiritual path it is many, many years before this stage is reached, and meanwhile we have to busy ourselves with humble, everyday tasks of service on the mundane level.[26]

Duty

From a Buddhist point of view, your duty is what you see as incumbent upon yourself in view of the principles on which you believe, and the situation in which you find yourself.[27]

It is not a sign of spirituality to allow oneself to be exploited. Sooner or later you begin to start resenting it.[28]

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.[29]

[1] Maturana, H R and F J Varela, The Tree of Knowledge (Shambhala, 1992).

[2] Online etymological dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=aphorism

[3] Wikipedia

[4] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pt. 1, ‘Of Reading and Writing,’ 1883-92, trans. 1961

[5] Karl Kraus, Sprüche und Widersprüche, 1909

[6] Johnson, Samuel, in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Vol. vi. Chap. i., 1775

[7] Picasso, quoted in Dore Ashton, Picasso on Art (1972)

[8] Joubert, quoted in Auden and Kronenberger, Faber Book of Aphorisms (1962), 357.

[9] Windhorse Publications, 1995

[10] Peace Is a Fire (Windhorse Publications, 1979), 64

[11] Peace Is a Fire, 75. When I thought about this aphorism, years ago, I decided that it was suggesting that the most effective way of making a difference in the world is to band together with others who seem to be capable of making a difference in the world, referred to here as ‘the strong’ because of that capability. Help the strong in order that the world — which includes everybody, weak or strong — can be genuinely transformed in a radical and lasting way. It could also be hinting that it is a waste of time helping the weak in the sense that you need a certain amount of strength to be able to accept help. But don’t be cowed by this idea. In my opinion, your project must be your own project. Your heart, your vision, is so important. If that vision is to be involved intimately with people who are weak in the sense of being dependent on illegal drugs in extreme ways, for example, than that is admirable. You have found something very hard but very rewarding to do. Wouldn’t it be appalling if somebody was put off from a project like that by some silly little saying in Peace Is a Fire!

[12] Peace Is a Fire, 60

[13] Peace Is a Fire, 99

[14] Peace Is a Fire, 102

[15] Peace Is a Fire, 105

[16] Buddhism and education lecture, A Stream of Stars (Windhorse Publications, 1998), 15

[17] Peace Is a Fire, 106

[18] A Stream of Stars, 18

[19] Peace Is a Fire, 32

[20] Correspondence, A Stream of Stars, 69

[21] Correspondence, A Stream of Stars, 70

[22] ‘A Method of Personal Development’ Lecture, Peace Is a Fire, 30

[23] Peace Is a Fire, 30

[24] Correspondence, Peace Is a Fire, 105

[25] Door of Liberation seminar, Peace Is a Fire, 31

[26] Correspondence, Peace Is a Fire, 31

[27] Tuscany 1982 Question and Answers, A Stream of Stars, 72

[28] Door of Liberation seminar, Peace Is a Fire, 30

[29] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, May 1849

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.

Sources

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).