via War to end war
via War to end war
I can’t remember if I’ve posted this one before! (Oh dear; I’ve just checked and see I have posted it before! Oh well, I suppose it can stand a repeat?)
The Bare Bones
They never lied to me – my parents:
Santa Claus wasn’t real and tooth fairies
didn’t exist. The guinea pig that died
didn’t go to heaven. I remember
holding my father’s hand in a museum,
gazing in disbelief, once the secret was out,
at a dog’s skeleton, a bird’s and a frog’s.
At seven my first occult knowledge;
a treasure I carried inside me.
A human skeleton was the jewel
wrapped up in a balaclava and raincoat.
Inside, where it was warm, I took it out
and learnt by heart each part – humerus,
radius, femur, pelvis and patella – counted
all the ribs to see if any were missing;
learnt that 24 vertebrae made up a spine
that kept me upright. A hinged framework
for nerves, arteries and softer innards.
When I looked at my mother and father
I knew they were hiding something.
It is a Father’s Tale
Time out of time I carried you in your dressing gown
downstairs out into the moonless night.
We gazed at a thousand suns studding the sky;
meandering along back lanes I lifted your arm
to point at Orion, drifting above rooftops.
We drew a ‘w’ and a triangle in the dark bowl,
traced a hunter’s belt and coloured in a lion,
a charioteer, a plough and a little bear.
I didn’t know then that you’d drift out of reach
when I reached for the thousand and one stories
to keep you listening – to keep you where
(A poem I wrote a while back published by Poetry Kit, UK)
On the morning of 14 Sept there was a slight wiggle in the arms of the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory Detectors.
It was the day the kindly Evangelicals warned us:
you were in the kitchen but didn’t notice the minisculeripple
in your mug of coffee. I was driving to work when the SAT-NAV
brieflystuttered sending me dangerously close to a catastrophic event horizon.
A black cat crossed the road and blipped strangely in and out of existence.
Most people however, didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary:
brown eggs boiled, CDs played and twelve-sided coins were freshly minted
ahead of their release into the wideruniverse.
“It is impossible to make a forgery.” The most beautiful thought
the Royal Mint had ever had. I had an existential crisis the day after
when a black hole suddenly appeared in my bedroom. At least
that’s what I thought it was until I realised it was merely an unspecified amount
of darkenergy leaking out of a radiator thermostat. Now, I’m getting used to
living my life backwards. I’m looking forward to being born again.
There is something heroic about David Hume single-mindedly batttling away to enquire into human knowledge and question the existence of God (in the eighteenth century). His theory of cause and effect is counter-intuitive and takes some reflection to really understand. As Jeremy Neil says, he doesn’t deny the ‘idea’ we all have that one thing causes another; he just points out that there is no sensory or empirical evidence to prove causation. This is typical philosophical thinking; it is thinking about thinking really and questioning appearances.
However, as my poem light-heartedly shows, I am a little sceptical about his scepticism! Blake named Bacon, John Locke and Newton as the Satanic Trinity and he didn’t think much of Hume either. He objected to their extreme scepticism and wrote a poem with these lines: If the sun and moon would doubt, they would immediately go out!
Apparently, Hume was even tempered and was also serene and uncomplaining on his death-bed.
David Hume’s Apple (not Newton’s)
It exists; he’ll not deny (one among five).
It’s even conjoined to two (at least) events:
One, seeing it; two, desiring it.
Hey presto; one minute it’s resting in a bowl,
the next it’s in my tum – (yum, that’s better!).
The principle of custom and habit can of course
explain the non-effect of my non-causal appetite,
the non-effect of my tongue moving up and back,
the non-effect of my epiglottis closing off my trachea,
the non-effect of salivation, juices flowing
(even the blending of non-causes and non-effects in the mind of God!)
and the non-effect of my non-swallowing oesophagus muscles
to deliver the ripe fruit into my stomach (secret powers?).
There’s a necessary connection (all in the mind?)
between my appetite, will, instinct, motion and gratification.
Can you stomach that? Bon appetite!
We are having our typical summer in the UK – a few days of sun followed by rain!
This is a poem I wrote a year or two ago.
She gazes at her illustration of traveller’s joy
for at least five minutes travelling back
sixty years to art college. There’s no one else in the garden
and she says the words aloud, traveller’s joy. Lips
and tongue curl around other summer arrivals;
willow warbler, orange-tailed bumble bee, swift
and swallow-tailed butterfly.
She’s sitting on a wicker seat, a first edition of her book
open on her lap. Leafs through pages
savouring other kindred names; shepherd’s purse,
roast beef plant, everlasting mountain and forget-me-not.
pinching bits of lavender to smell; her elderly cat follows-
too arthritic to chase butterflies, birds or bees.
A sunlit patch of lady’s bedstraw lies ahead;
her skirt brushes the yellow flowers, a faint smell
of autumn fills the air.
As I wrote recently to my brother, my research for my Blake/Buddhism book is anything but systematic! I get sidetracked and find I’m reading texts which only have a tenuous link to Blake.
This is okay up to a point but I have to be aware that it may be a procrastinating device!
I thought I’d make use of some of my reading to introduce various ideas about William Blake which may not be widely appreciated. I am writing this blog to sort out my own ideas apart from anything else! I am myself, only scratching the surface of Blake’s world and feel I need a few more years to really internalise him.
I’d like to start by showing that he is both a mystic and ecologist. ‘Mystic’ may be an unfashionable word today and I would supplement the word by saying that Blake is a sort of Gnostic Master who can provide directions and instructions for each of us to follow. (Or in the manner of the Kabbala)
To lead us out of a fragmentary state of consciousness into wholeness.
Also, to many readers who are only familiar with Tyger and The Lamb, I would like to dismiss once and for all the idea that his poems are simple and childish; the opposite is true. His whole ouvre is among the most complex in all of literature and that includes Shakespeare, Dante and Milton. Needless, to say while his shorter poems can be understood from a few readings his prophetic poems cannot; they must be read again and again – with the help of commentaries and background reading.
Although Blake is not a pantheist of the likes of William Wordsworth, he nevertheless venerates nature – but not as something separate from consciousness (which may align him more with Bishop George Berkeley). He famously expresses this view in his reply to someone who asked about looking at the sun:
I assert, for myself, that I do not behold the outward creation, and that to me it is hindrance and not action. “What !” it will be questioned, “when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea !” Oh ! no, no ! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty !” I question not my corporeal eye any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it, and not with it.
As I am more or less thinking aloud here I’d like to consider The Book Of Thel which is one of Blake’s early works and not so well known. In this illustrated manuscript Blake devises a dialogue between consciousness and materiality. Thel, who personifies female pubescent innocence, asks plants and animals about existence, particularly about the impermanence of life (very Buddhist!). In turn she asks a lilly, a cloud, a lump of clay and a worm these existential questions. What, I can hear you cry, talking plants and animals; how naively anthropomorphic! Ah, well, appearances can be deceptive and one thing Blake is not, is anthropomorphic. Here is the first section:
(The lines in bold are my commentary. Odd spellings are Blake’s own spellings.)
Does the Eagle know what is in the pit?
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole:
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod?
Or Love in a golden bowl?
The daughters of Mne Seraphim led round their sunny flocks.
All but the youngest; she in paleness sought the secret air.
To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day:
Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard:
And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew.
O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the spring? born but to smile & fall.
Ah! Thel is like a watry bow. and like a parting cloud.
Like a reflection in a glass. like shadows in the water.
Like dreams of infants. like a smile upon an infants face,
Like the doves voice, like transient day, like music in the air;
Ah! gentle may I lay me down, and gentle rest my head,
And gentle sleep the sleep of death. and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time.
I have underlined the lines which I relate to these words from a Buddhist scripture:
Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world/a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a child’s laugh, a phantasm, a dream.
The lilly answers Thel:
The Lilly of the valley breathing in the humble grass
Answer’d the lovely maid and said: I am a watry weed,
And I am very small, and love to dwell in lowly vales;
So weak, the gilded butterfly scarce perches on my head.
Yet I am visited from heaven and he that smiles on all.
Walks in the valley. and each morn over me spreads his hand
Saying, rejoice thou humble grass, thou new-born lilly flower,
Thou gentle maid of silent valleys. and of modest brooks;
For thou shalt be clothed in light, and fed with morning manna:
Till summers heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs
To flourish in eternal vales: then why should Thel complain,
Why should the mistress of the vales of Har, utter a sigh.
She ceasd & smild in tears, then sat down in her silver shrine.
And Thel answers:
Thel answered. O thou little virgin of the peaceful valley.
Giving to those that cannot crave, the voiceless, the o’ertired.
Thy breath doth nourish the innocent lamb, he smells thy milky garments,
He crops thy flowers. while thou sittest smiling in his face,
Wiping his mild and meekin mouth from all contagious taints.
Thy wine doth purify the golden honey, thy perfume,
Which thou dost scatter on every little blade of grass that springs,
Revives the milked cow, & tames the fire-breathing steed.
Thel understands that everything in nature is interconnected; she is learning to be a good ecologist for someone so young. However, she can’t see the purpose of her life. She enquires:
But Thel is like a faint cloud kindled at the rising sun:
I vanish from my pearly throne, and who shall find my place?”
Why not ask the cloud?
“Queen of the vales,” the Lily answered, “ask the tender cloud,
And it shall tell thee why it glitters in the morning sky,
And why it scatters its bright beauty thro’ the humid air.
Descend, O little cloud, & hover before the eyes of Thel.”
The Cloud descended, and the Lily bowd her modest head,
And went to mind her numerous charge among the verdant grass.
“O little Cloud,” the virgin said, “I charge thee tell to me,
Why thou complainest not when in one hour thou fade away:
Then we shall seek thee but not find; ah, Thel is like to Thee.
I pass away, yet I complain, and no one hears my voice.”
Why do I have to suffer? Why do loved ones have to die? “Our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
The Cloud then shew’d his golden head & his bright form emerg’d,
Hovering and glittering on the air before the face of Thel.
“O virgin, know’st thou not our steeds drink of the golden springs
Where Luvah doth renew his horses? Look’st thou on my youth,
And fearest thou because I vanish and am seen no more,
Nothing remains? O maid, I tell thee, when I pass away,
It is to tenfold life, to love, to peace, and raptures holy:
Unseen descending, weigh my light wings upon balmy flowers,
And court the fair eyed dew, to take me to her shining tent:
The weeping virgin trembling kneels before the risen sun,
Till we arise link’d in a golden band, and never part,
But walk united, bearing food to all our tender flowers.”
Is this a scientific/ecological description of the water-cycle? Everything is in flux and interconnected. Perhaps we can allow things to change, in our minds, if we do not cling to phenomena?
“Dost thou O little Cloud? I fear that I am not like thee;
For I walk through the vales of Har and smell the sweetest flowers,
But I feed not the little flowers; I hear the warbling birds,
But I feed not the warbling birds; they fly and seek their food;
But Thel delights in these no more, because I fade away,
And all shall say, ‘Without a use this shining woman liv’d,
Or did she only live to be at death the food of worms?'”
The cloud is about to give some unsavoury philosophical explanation – you have a purpose ; you are food for the worm!
The Cloud reclind upon his airy throne and answer’d thus:
“Then if thou art the food of worms, O virgin of the skies,
How great thy use, how great thy blessing! Every thing that lives
Lives not alone, nor for itself; fear not, and I will call
The weak worm from its lowly bed, and thou shalt hear its voice.
Come forth, worm of the silent valley, to thy pensive queen.”
Nothing is separate, including human beings. Birth, growth and death are sacraments – as Swinburne says: “eternal generation in which one life is given for another.” It is our “human all too human” (Nietzsche) view – our anthropocentric standpoint which obscures this eagle-eyed view. The aphorism at the head of the poem shows the two ways of looking at life; looking at particulars from the mole’s viewpoint and the sweeping wider-distance view of the eagle.
The helpless worm arose, and sat upon the Lily’s leaf,
And the bright Cloud saild on, to find his partner in the vale.
Then Thel astonish’d view’d the Worm upon its dewy bed.
“Art thou a Worm? Image of weakness, art thou but a Worm?
I see thee like an infant wrapped in the Lily’s leaf;
Ah, weep not, little voice, thou can’st not speak, but thou can’st weep.
Is this a Worm? I see thee lay helpless & naked, weeping,
And none to answer, none to cherish thee with mother’s smiles.”
The Clod of Clay heard the Worm’s voice, & raisd her pitying head;
She bow’d over the weeping infant, and her life exhal’d
In milky fondness; then on Thel she fix’d her humble eyes.
“O beauty of the vales of Har! we live not for ourselves;
Thou seest me the meanest thing, and so I am indeed;
My bosom of itself is cold, and of itself is dark,
But he that loves the lowly, pours his oil upon my head,
And kisses me, and binds his nuptial bands around my breast,
And says: ‘Thou mother of my children, I have loved thee
And I have given thee a crown that none can take away.’
But how this is, sweet maid, I know not, and I cannot know;
I ponder, and I cannot ponder; yet I live and love.”
Thel had never thought that a worm could be valued; Darwin said that life would disappear if it were not for the humble worm! What about coral reefs dying and climate change today. Is this a direct result of the Enlightenment valorization of Reason; a result of Cartsian dualism? Dualism sees a separation between mind and matter, subject and object. This ‘meme’ has led to us seeing a world of insentient matter, there for endless exploitation. Perhaps Gaia is having her revenge now with climate change. Thel may not have heard of Rene Descarte or dualism, but she is a natural philosopher.
The daughter of beauty wip’d her pitying tears with her white veil,
And said: “Alas! I knew not this, and therefore did I weep.
That God would love a Worm, I knew, and punish the evil foot
That, wilful, bruis’d its helpless form; but that he cherish’d it
With milk and oil I never knew; and therefore did I weep,
And I complaind in the mild air, because I fade away,
And lay me down in thy cold bed, and leave my shining lot.”
“Queen of the vales,” the matron Clay answered, “I heard thy sighs,
And all thy moans flew o’er my roof, but I have call’d them down.
Wilt thou, O Queen, enter my house? ’tis given thee to enter
And to return: fear nothing, enter with thy virgin feet.”
The eternal gates’ terrific porter lifted the northern bar:
Thel enter’d in & saw the secrets of the land unknown.
She saw the couches of the dead, & where the fibrous roots
Of every heart on earth infixes deep its restless twists:
A land of sorrows & of tears where never smile was seen.
She wanderd in the land of clouds thro’ valleys dark, listning
Dolours & lamentations; waiting oft beside a dewy grave,
She stood in silence, listning to the voices of the ground,
Till to her own grave plot she came, & there she sat down,
And heard this voice of sorrow breathed from the hollow pit:
“Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?
Or the glistning Eye to the poison of a smile?
Why are Eyelids stord with arrows ready drawn,
Where a thousand fighting men in ambush lie?
Or an Eye of gifts & graces, show’ring fruits and coined gold?
Why a Tongue impress’d with honey from every wind?
Why an Ear, a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in?
Why a Nostril wide inhaling terror, trembling, and affright?
Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy?
Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?”
This penultimate verse illustrates the limited, shrunken life if it is merely based on sense-experience. A crucial word in Blake’s scheme is ‘corporeal’ and by the use of such personifications as Urizen and the Spectre he warned us of the dangers of cutting ourselves off from both nature and the numinous. He said:
Ancient poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses (his word for the indwelling spirit or Buddha Nature if you are a Buddhist) But once Reason was crowned king ‘men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.’ Put rather simplistically he sees wholeness where we have division and separateness. His ‘fourfold vision’ was the high point of a consciousness where the ‘doors of perception were cleansed’ and ‘everything appeared infinite.’
Some commentators find the last couplet unexpected but is it? Thel returns to Har, symbol of self-centredness. Why does she do this? Perhaps she is not yet strong enough to stand on her own feet and realise she is both a particular being and one with all existence? She has an excellent excuse of being young. There is plenty time for her to let Experience work on her inner self; plenty of time for her to make mistakes and learn from them.
The Virgin started from her seat, & with a shriek
Fled back unhinderd till she came into the vales of Har.
The subject this week for my writing group is to write a parody of a well know poem. Here is mine.
[Apologies to John Masefield]
I must go down to the sea again, to the dirty sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a Greenpeace ship and a cause to sail her by;
And the oil slick and the dead fish and the oiled gulls drowning;
And a green scum on the sea’s face and a poisonous dawn breaking.
I must go down to the sea again to rescue the beached whales;
Most are covered in oily sludge so our futile rescue fails;
And all I ask is a clean-up plan and a white surf flying,
And a pure spray and dolphins leaping and bright gannets diving.
I must go down to the sea again and offer up a prayer
For the dolphins caught in plastic nets and seals gasping for air.
And all I ask is a global plan to honour life on earth;
To work together for a green vision and a glorious new birth.
Achalanatha symbolises the determination required to stay still when we are subject to hatred, greed and delusion within ourselves. To acknowledge these three poisons, as they are called, is part of the battle; if we pretend they have nothing to do with us we could project onto others and so compound delusion and hatred. (This is what happens when people gang up against minorities or ‘aliens.’)
The flames are the three poisons and the sword is to cut through delusion. By meditating and trying to live preceptually (do no harm, watch what you say and do etc.) we gradually purify the poisons ( as fire purifies). This is a lifetime’s work!
In Blake’s ‘system’ the Spectre is that part of our psyche which is equivalent to the discriminative mind of Buddhism. It can be thought of as thef egocentric self; elsewhere Blake talks of Selfhood. (The ‘ego’ in Eckhart Tolle’s books.) Foster Damon writes in his Blake Dictionary:
The Spectre is ruthless in getting its way, and cares nothing for the individual it obsesses; it will drive him into unhappiness, disaster and even suicide.
Eckhart Tolle calls it the ‘pain body’ when it suffers in extremis like this.
Many religious traditions talk of ‘renunciation’ and how neccesary it is to go beyond the egocentric self with its selfish desires. This is a huge topic and it is not possible to explore it here. (I’d recommend Ken Wilber’s work for an in depth exploration.) All I want to do here is make a connection between Buddhist thought and Blake – as this is the theme of my book. It is a necessary simplification as I am limiting my wordcount on this blog!
Here is Blake’s poem which shows the conceptual comparison.
Each man is in his Spectre’s power
Until the arrival of that hour
When his Humanity awake
And cast his Spectre into the Lake.
Note the important word, ‘awake’ – this is an injuction found in all spiritual works. How much Blake managed to awake from ‘spiritual slumber’ in his own life is not possible to ascertain. It is said he ‘died singing’ – perhaps this suggests that he did put his own visionary ‘system’ into practice?
When I posted this I was unaware that an Achalanatha Festival was to be celebrated at Throssel Buddhist Abbey, my local monastery. A fortuitous email enabled me to go on Sunday 5 Feb. Here is part of a scripture we sang:
If any human being is prone to entertaining despair, beset by hopelessness/That peron should meditate on the ever vigilant One, – and thus learn to stay rooted in the present moment./The Eternal present is the realm of Achalanatha Bodhisattva;/He severs entaglement with the past and the future, – leading beings to realize the joy of sitting still withiin body and mind.
People are sometimes surprised by the amount of ceremonial there is in Soto Zen. The point of all this ceremonial is to allow us to get in touch with the reality that the Buddha realised and taught to his followers. The singing engenders a kind of joy (not always) and points to the true self in each of us. When I first went to Throssel this part of Zen appealed to me as much as the meditation. The words of course blend with the movement in the ceremonial and the music (which is mostly based on Western plainchant) To sum up: the ceremonies are carried out in the mind of meditation, they also have a devotional element to them.
I am, as previously mentioned, writing a book about Blake and Buddhism, attempting to find correspondences between the two. The writings and teaching of Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) are studied by Soto Zen schools of Buddhism. His teaching is very forthright and sometimes challenging and puzzling because he writes in a metaphorical, non-literalist style and it comes from his deepest spiritual realisation.
Like Blake his writings are always fresh as if written yesterday; in other words the truths he writes about are timeless. I have, and continue to find, them helpful in my spiritual practice. Zazen (meditation) is the central practice of Soto Zen and is said to contain everything else. (Preceptual daily living, ceremony, study of teachings etc. etc.) The other feature in this tradition is the emphasis on training and enlightenment not being separate.
The following is a translation of part of Shushogi by Rev. Master Jiyu Kennett.
* * * *
The comparison I see with Blake is from his Proverbs of Hell. One line only!
The most sublime act is to set another before you.
Okay – as I’m in a generous mood, here is a quatrain:
But vain the sword & vain the bow,
They never can work war’s overthrow.
The Hermit’s prayer & the widow’s tear
Alone can free the world from fear.
* * * *
Shushogi – From What is Truly Meant by Training and Enlightenment
Great Master Dogen.
The Four Wisdoms, charity, tenderness, benevolence and sympathy, are the means we have of helping others and represent the Bodhisattva’s aspirations. Charity is the opposite of covetousness; we make offerings although we ourselves get nothing whatsoever. There is no need to be concerned about how small the gift may be so long as it brings True results for, even if it is only a single phrase or verse of teaching, it may be a seed to bring forth good fruit both now and hereafter.
Similarly, the offering of only one coin or a blade of grass can cause the arising of good, for the teaching itself is the True Treasure and the True Treasure is the very teaching: we must never desire any reward and we must always share everything we have with others. It is an act of charity to build a ferry or a bridge and all forms of industry are charity if they benefit others.
To behold all beings with the eye of compassion, and to speak kindly to them, is the meaning of tenderness. If one would understand tenderness, one must speak to others whilst thinking that one loves all living things as if they were one’s own children. By praising those who exhibit virtue, and feeling sorry for those who do not, our enemies become our friends and they who are our friends have their friendship strengthened: this is all through the power of tenderness. Whenever one speaks kindly to another his face brightens and his heart is warmed; if a kind word be spoken in his absence the impression will be a deep one: tenderness can have a revolutionary impact upon the mind of man.
If one creates wise ways of helping beings, whether they be in high places or lowly stations, one exhibits benevolence: no reward was sought by those who rescued the helpless tortoise and the sick sparrow, these acts being utterly benevolent. The stupid believe that they will lose something if they give help to others, but this is completely untrue for benevolence helps everyone, including oneself, being a law of the universe.
If one can identify oneself with that which is not oneself, one can understand the true meaning of sympathy: take, for example, the fact that the Buddha appeared in the human world in the form of a human being; sympathy does not distinguish between oneself and others. There are times when the self is infinite and times when this is true of others: sympathy is as the sea in that it never refuses water from whatsoever source it may come; all waters may gather and form only one sea.
Oh you seekers of enlightenment, meditate deeply upon these teachings and do not make light of them: give respect and reverence to their merit which brings blessing to all living things; help all beings to cross over to the other shore.