Regeneration

frozen lake

Strangely I submitted this to an online literary magazine and it was accepted. Unfortunately I can’t remember which one;  shows how important it is to make a note of where we send pieces!

 

Remembrance & Redemption

Apologies to St John of the Cross, George Herbert, George Barker, George Macbeth, Edward Lucie-Smith, David Holbrook and Jack Clemo.

In the darkness I crept out, my house being wrapped in sleep.

I am the man who has seen affliction. My enemy has driven me away and made me walk in darkness. He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones.

I leaned into the driving sleet. I found them between far hills by a frozen lake on a patch of deep snow. How could I have been the only witness? Whoever lived in that house must have seen and heard what I saw and heard. So severe the black frost that it bent the white burden of the bracken. Only one red shoe and a discarded glove showed through the snow. I had a vision of the world’s dark deeds. I could smell incinerator smoke; I saw bodies shovelled into dark pits. Children buried in a frozen lake. How long must I bear the unbearable; how long in this shadow of death? I retraced my steps but only succeeded in going round in circles.

It goes, the fever leaves me – my clumsy tongue no longer bursts my lips. I wore a black band on my arm. I thought they’d crucify me; I heard howling throughout the dark night.

Two of them came like bears out of the white forest; one held me in his arms. Dead wood with its load of stones brought to life again. He touched me lightly on the cheek. I lay quite still. I threw away my care and left my fear and trembling behind. Bright sun flooded the forest floor.

I rose up from my ancient grave. Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright!

 

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Nietzsche, Part Two: Who am I?

ecce homo pic

In this Part Two I explore Nietzsche’s view of the self and compare it to the Buddhist view. I also examine what Nietzsche meant by freedom and what existential freedom can be for us today.

I should emphasise that Nietzsche is never prescriptive although his aphoristic style gives the impression that he is. I don’t have the same qualms about being non-prescriptive!

When I was a teenager – and perhaps being unsociable – my mother would often say to me, “Be yourself, Eric.” Needless to say this irritated me because I sensed an ulterior message of ‘be who I want you to be.’

Of course adolescence is the prime time to explore who we are. However, the question is far from straight-forward. Some people seem to arrive at their ‘identity’ as if there were a ready-made mould simply to be filled. They then spend the remainder of their lives reasonably content with their roles: teacher, lawyer, bus driver, builder, wife, husband and so on. Their role and the people they meet contribute to a ‘hardening’ of their character. No doubt many continue to grow psychologically and spiritually, but many others live out their lives ‘being someone else.’ (That is, living The Looking Glass Self – Charles Horton Cooley coined this term to express how the self is shaped by the reflected opinions of others around us.)

Eric Berne was among the first to describe how assigned roles can suffocate us and in the last 50yrs or so the burgeoning market of self-awareness courses and books has encouraged us to examine our identities and question our very thoughts and feelings in order to find out ‘who we are.’

Is it possible that Nietzsche was thinking along these lines? The sub-title of his Ecce Homo is the wonderfully pregnant aphoristic, Becoming Who You Are! And in Untimely Meditations this aphorism is even more to the point:

All that you are now, doing, thinking, desiring, is not you yourself. (my emphasise)

As we saw in Part One Nietzsche denies that there is a permanent, unchanging self – he seems to confirm David Hume’s insight that thoughts and feelings come and go independently of any agent. Buddhism has the same idea or rather, insight, with its anatta – here is a definition taken from a Buddhist Dictionary:

As applied to man it states that there is no permanent ego or self. . . which make up the personality. The Buddha, however, nowhere denied the existence of an ego, but taught that no permanent entity. . . can be found in any of the human faculties.

Here, for comparison is a longer quote from Nietzsche:

Owing to the phenomenon ‘thought’, the ego is taken for granted; but up to the present everybody believed. . . that there was something unconditionally certain in the notion ‘I think’, and that by analogy with our understanding of all other causal reactions this ‘I’ was the given cause of the thinking. However customary and indispensable this fiction may have become now, this fact proves nothing against the imaginary nature of its origin; it might be a life-preserving belief and still be false.

Will to Power; 483

And it is obvious that Nietzsche sees the individual as a ‘ community of selves,’ – and that the free spirit is aware of the multiplicity and harmonises the community. I think his ”will to power’ is the harmonising factor. Just one quote:

The highest man would have the highest multiplicity of drives in the relatively greatest strength that can be endured. Indeed, where the plant ‘human being’ shows itself strongest one finds instincts that conflict powerfully but are controlled.

Will to Power, 966

Some people, when they first come across this idea of ‘no-self’ (or the notion that they don’t originate their thoughts) begin to experience panic, as if they are going to somehow disappear or disintegrate. Of course it can be unsettling and that is all to the good. However, Buddhism is not saying the self is a complete illusion or that we should not act as if we were individual agents with free will. It is rather like the physicists’ description of reality consisting of indeterminate sub atomic particles in an endless energetic flux. We don’t go around (unless you are a quantum physicist!) visualising this sub atomic world; tables and trees are still solid to all intents and purposes. By analogy the self is separate and acting-on-the-world – but, there is a deeper reality also there once we question appearances.

It was Heraclitus who said we never step in the same river twice. Nietzsche too sees everything in a state of flux or ‘becoming.’ He also echoes Eckhart Tolle’s insistence that the ‘present moment’ is the only reality:

the present must not under any circumstances be justified by a future nor must the past be justified for the sake of the present. . . Strictly speaking nothing of the nature of Being must be allowed to remain – because in that case Becoming loses its value. .

Will to Power 708

And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

But the best parables should speak of time and becoming: they should be a eulogy and a justification of all transitoriness.

If we think of present-moment moments when we were, say transfixed by the beauty of a bird’s song, or moved by a painting, we can clearly see that we are much more than our thoughts and feelings or even our memories. In that moment consciousness is heightened and the ‘small self’ transcended. We are not aware of ourselves as a ‘particular person’ or as ‘someone’ carrying out a particular role.

As I stated in Part One, we today have a tremendous advantage over Nietzsche; many of us are incorporating meditational practices into our lives. For example the Buddhist anatta is not mere philosophy or metaphysics – it can be a real aid for us in letting thoughts and feelings pass though consciousness. I’m thinking of the problematic or painful thoughts of course, but it applies to all thoughts really. If I keep having the thought that ‘so and so ignores my emails because he isn’t interested in my ideas’ I may slip into a whole narrative of judgemental thoughts and end up in self-loathing. We may be able to accept the idea, ‘don’t believe everything you think,’ but ‘don’t believe everything you feel,’ is much more difficult. Most of the time we invest our identity in what we think and especially what we feel. Buddhism says this is delusive and I think Nietzsche is saying something similar. Getting to know how our minds work and the tricks they play on us is all part of what today is called mindfulness. I know of no other method other than some sort of mind-awareness practice such as mindfulness – which can enable us to respond in freedom to circumstances. If we are not self-aware in this respect we will be reactive to life, always acting from conditioning, rather than proactive. Where Nietzsche isn’t prescriptive, we can be prescriptive. (Even a book like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People talks of changing the obsolete scripts we were handed out in childhood/during our education etc.)

Another area where there is a huge overlap between Buddhism and Nietzsche is in the acknowledgement of suffering as part of life and how to incorporate it positively into our lives. As we saw in Part One Nietzsche’s solution is in his amor fati – to praise in spite of. Buddhism sees the cause of suffering (secondary suffering that is, as explained in Part One) as ‘grasping’ at things which we think will be advantageous to us and rejecting what we think will be disadvantageous.

Ahjan Chah emphasises that mindfulness of our likes and dislikes is a constant effort, not for the faint-hearted!

The Dhamma (Teaching) of the Buddha is profound and refined. It isn’t easy to comprehend.. If true wisdom has not yet arisen you can’t see it. . . When you experience happiness you think there will be only happiness. Whenever there is suffering you think there will only be suffering. You see only one side and thus it’s never-ending. There are two sides to everything; you must see both. Then when happiness arises, you don’t get lost; when suffering arises, you don’t get lost.. .. you see that they are interdependent.

Food For the Heart.

I am afraid if we want to be really free existentially and spiritually we will have to go against the current of accepted values and opinions. Nietzsche of course exemplifies this alone-ness. Here he is writing about the pioneer, ‘we free spirits’.

Solitude, that dread goddess. . . encircles him . . who today knows what solitude is? . . .If once he hardly dared to ask ‘Why so apart, so alone, renouncing all I loved? Already hearing the answer.

You had to become master over yourself. . of your own good qualities. Formerly they were your masters. You had to acquire power over your Yes and No and withhold them in accordance with your higher aims.” (my emphasis)

Human, All too Human

If we can become more all-embracing in our attitude to life and less self-concerned we will find our sense of self changing; I have had to incorporate my experience of depression into the context of Buddhist training and it has meant going into some very dark places. Once the journey has been started it is likely painful memories and feelings will surface. We use right effort and patient endurance to convert the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion into generosity, compassion and wisdom. Likewise, Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ is a good antidote to akrasia ( the inability to act according to our good judgement) and helps us to keep our minds receptive to new experiences and to grow in self-knowledge.

Although Nietzsche is all too often associated with wilfulness, and Dionysian abandon, one of his last acts before insanity overtook his last years, was to throw his arms around an ill-treated horse in an act of empathy. And who said he never wrote about love?

To have travelled the whole circumference of the modern soul, and to have sat in all its corners – my ambition, my torment, and my happiness. (sounds like becoming friends with hatred, greed and delusion to me!) Veritably to have overcome pessimism, and, as the result thereof, to have acquired the eyes of Goethe – full of love and goodwill.

The Will to Power, 1031

Nietzsche: would you be prepared to re-live your life in exactly the same way?

penguin nietzsche reader

Dipping into Nietzsche: would you be prepared to re-live your life in exactly the same way?

Part One

Nietzsche is both a heroic and tragic figure. He epitomises the individualist; the person who finds the ordinary conventions and values of life trivial and stultifying. Who cannot be moved by the picture of him striding over the mountain tops, ‘6000 feet beyond man and time’, when ‘the abysmal thought’ came unannounced into his mind.

Nietzsche’s master- stroke is his much misunderstood Eternal Recurrence. The relevant passage is from The Gay Science/The Joyful Wisdom:

The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life
to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann, translator

Buddhist metaphysical ideas about karma are too complex to go into detail here but suffice it to say that everything we have thought or done in the past determines the sort of person we are in the present. One saying which has become common currency is – what we think today determines who we are tomorrow, which suggest it is widely understood outside of Buddhism. Here is a simple example of how we could create negative karma: if we are nasty to people habitually, one of the consequences is likely to be a lack of friends. If we are always criticising others we will suffer consequences; probably again people will avoid us. Why bother? (some might say!) The whole point of Buddhist training for me from the beginning was that I was sick of myself; I wanted to do something about myself. I wanted to change! (Keep this in mind as you will come across the same idea in Ivan Osokin’s story.) Any genuine spiritual training addresses these questions, ‘is it possible to change for the better? Is it possible to find lasting peace of mind?’ Surely everyone of us, if we are honest and have enough courage for self-reflection, has regrets about our past? (Not that many of us are like Edith Piaf with her Je ne Regrette – although perhaps she was only putting Nietzsche’s philosophy into practice?)

I wrote the above before I’d read the relevant chapter in Alexander Nahamas’, Nietzsche, Life as Literature. He dismisses a cosmological view of eternal recurrence preferring to interpret Nietzsche’s idea in psychological terms. His chapter devoted to Nietzsche’s idea is of considerable subtlety so I will merely pick out a few of the peaks and ‘free-associate’ a little.

It is vital to grasp that although Nietzsche describes his insight as ‘that abysmal thought’ – he paradoxically sees it as the ultimate spiritual test wherein we either succumb to life’s ills and challenges or completely accept them (how Buddhist is that!). This is how he puts it:

My formula for greatness for a human being is amor fati (love of one’s fate): that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it – all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary – but love it.

Ecce Homo

Nehamas describes how all actions, situations and circumstances are interconnected in ways which sound to me very similar to the Buddhist idea of Indra’s Net; here is a typical description:

In the realm of the god Indra a vast net stretches infinitely in all directions. In each “eye” of the net there is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel also reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever effects one jewel effects them all. The metaphor illustrates the interpenetration of all phenomena. Everything contains everything else. At the same time, each individual thing is not hindered by or confused with all the other individual things.

At the same time Nehamas wonders why Nietzsche’s demon does not offer an opportunity for us to put right the mistakes we made in our previous life/lives, instead of mechanically repeating the life as if it were fixed. (Remember Nietzsche is thinking hypothetically.) The answer is related to Nietzsche’s view of the self being non-substantive (more Buddhist parallels):

There is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything. . . our entire science still lies under the misleading influence of language. . (This ‘no self’ in Buddhism is referred to as ‘anatta’)

The Genealogy of Morals

and

our bad habit of taking a mnemonic, an abbreviated formula, to be an entity, finally as a cause, eg. to say of lightening ‘it flashes.’ Or the little word ‘I’.

Will to Power, 548

Nietzsche believes that everything is so interconnected that if one detail in an event of the past were hypothetically changed the whole event would be different. Therefore – ‘there is no thing without other things.’ We need to accept good and evil as we imagine them to be; the warp and woof of existence.

Zarathustra asks:

Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamoured; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, “You please me, happiness! Abide moment!” then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamoured.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Nehamas continues: a life that was different in any way would simply not be our life: it would be the life of a different person. To want to be different in any way is for Nietzsche to want to be different in every way; it is to want, impossible as that is, to be someone else.. . if we were to have another life it would necessarily have to be, if it were to be our life at all, the very same life we have already had.

Now, you are probably thinking that this is all very theoretical and that it doesn’t have much practical relevance for our actual lives. I personally have found that if you use Nietzsche’s idea as a ‘thought experiment’, it sheds considerable light on how we regard such things as regret, shame and contrition. One of Nietzsche’s enduring ideas is that interpretation and re-interpretation are essential approaches to experience; this is a very optimistic standpoint which may alleviate the possible pessimistic reaction to the idea of his eternal recurrence.

Other thinkers have wrestled with the problem. Consider the Russian writer, P. D. Ouspensky’s novella, The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. (Ground Hog Day uses the same idea of eternal recurrence to great effect.) Ivan – in the novella – goes to a magician and asks to be sent back to his childhood in order to live his life over again and avoid all the mistakes he’s made. As we reflect on our past mistakes, naturally shame and regret will arise and it takes courage even to look; many people will not even acknowledge they’ve made mistakes. The question Nietzsche poses is; can we embrace all of it; the joys, woes and shame together; could we go back to our childhood and welcome the magician’s deal on condition that everything would occur exactly as the first time?

If you are wondering what happened to Ivan Osokin, he goes back to his childhood and repeats his life and makes exactly the same decisions as before, because he could not remain ‘present’ to the present. In Ouspensky’s terminology he was too identified with the situations he found himself in. (This aspect of mindfulness in the present moment is not something that Nietzsche discusses (and probably isn’t familiar with?) and could be considered to be the one factor missing from his account.) It is quite moving towards the end when he has glimpses of deeper realities when he is more alert; more present. This is the magician speaking when Ivan returns to him after re-living his life:

You know that everything repeats again and again. There have been other people who made the same discovery but they could make nothing more of it. If you could change something in yourself you could use this knowledge for your own advantage. You say you have nothing. Not quite. You have your life. So you can sacrifice your life. (my emphasis)

In the story, Ouspensky could have had Ivan become aware of his habitual reactive responses to life, and hence show him able to change. (Change often happens if we acknowledge our mistakes and vow not to repeat them, and then live in the ‘Now’. ) However, to show Ivan repeating the same mistakes drives the message home, that he is pinioned to the ‘wheel of life.’ Ouspensky’s view is somewhat pessimistic compared to Nietzsche’s.

To sum up: Osokin illustrates our common experience of regret and wanting to change the past. If this regret leads to us re-orientating our lives, becoming less self-concerned then all the better. This is where Buddhism, or any genuine spiritual practice, scores over Nietzsche! Ouspensky’s story is the antithesis of Nietzsche’s view as Osokin certainly cannot accept his past. He is ultimately a ‘nay-sayer.

As I’ve tried to argue, Nietzsche does not intend the idea of Eternal Recurrence to be taken literally. It is a thought experiment to focus our attention on the will, past events, self forgiveness and a celebration of life, ‘in spite of’. No amount of thinking will enable most of us to shout a resounding ‘Yes’ to the question, ‘Would you be prepared to live your life again exactly as before?’ But it may be possible to forgive ourselves and live in the present.

This is a good place to end Part One. Part Two will be posted some time in May. For anyone new to Nietzsche I’d recommend the ‘Penguin Classic’, A Nietzsche Reader (Translation by R. J. Hollindale) in which extracts from Nietzsche’s books are arranged chronologically. There is also a humorous and accurate short video here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ti9zdpLlXf0

Blake the Ecologist

thel frontspiece

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.)

THEL’S MOTTO
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?

I

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.

II

“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.

III

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.”

IV

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 kingmen 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.

Sea Fever

trapped seal

The subject this week for my writing group is to write a parody of a well know poem. Here is mine.

Sea Fever

[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.

Dogen Festival

throssel hole hall

It was the Festival of Eihei Dogen at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey last Sunday. Dogen (1200- 1253) is the Japanese founder of the Soto Zen Buddhist Tradition and his writings have been a spiritual revelation here in the west since some of the first translations became available in the 1950s.

When I first went to Throssel in the 1980s I was captivated by the style, subtlety and spiritual depth of Dogen’s talks, then translated by Rev Master Jiyu-Kennett. (I give some extracts later.)

On the first Sunday of every month there is a different festival at Throssel. The altar is adapted to the festival; this Sunday’s had a reproduction of a famous painting of Dogen at the front. During the ceremonial there are bows, a circumambulation of the hall while singing sutras and incense offerings at the altar. A monk weaves in and out of the moving congregation sprinkling water while another throws coloured lotus petals (made from fabric) which float down onto the carpet.

After the ceremonial and tea we had sitting and walking meditation.

During our meditation Reverend Master Leandra gave a talk in which she quoted from Dogen’s Gyoji (translated as Ceaseless Training). I can’t locate the particular extract now but know it had to do with acknowledging our circumstances fully and using them as our ‘training ground.’ This is a familiar theme with Dogen; no separation between training, ordinary life and enlightenment. (A modern-day Buddhist teacher who emphasises how to deal with the, often, ‘messy’ parts of our lives is Pema Chodron.)

In my previous blogs I have not mentioned that I have an ongoing struggle with depression. It is tempting for me to see this as an impediment, and even worse, to regard myself as at a disadvantage to other lay Buddhists who don’t have mental health difficulties. However, this is my particular circumstance; all I can really do is regard it as ‘a given’ and get on with trying to live by the Buddhist Precepts and continue meditation regularly! (At the same time I must be careful not to identify myself as a ‘depressive’ – the whole point of Buddhist practice is to allow us to drop off any fixed ‘identity’ and know the universal truth that the historical Buddha actualised. This deeper Reality is the birthright of every human being.)

Another point that the extract made was that ‘ceaseless training’ includes the times we fell off the straight and narrow or acted wilfully and caused harm to ourselves and others. How all-embracing this teaching is! At heart most of want to do the right thing; most people (whether they think of themselves as spiritual or not) know when they have caused harm and don’t want to repeat the same mistake. (For anyone reading this who feels despair or hopelessness and who isn’t a Buddhist and doesn’t follow any spiritual practice, I would encourage them to find out what spiritual groups may be in their locality. Often we first find a spiritual path when we are at our lowest and all else has failed; in other words, suffering, of one kind or another.)

I am now 70 years old, hence this extract from Gyoji! (It gives a flavour of Dogen’s style for anyone unfamiliar with him.) I should say that although I am in my seventh decade I feel I am only scratching the surface of Buddhist training.

Do not regret your reaching old age. It is difficult to know what this thing called life really is. Is a person ‘really living’ or ‘not really living’? Is a person ‘old’ or ‘not old’? The four perspectives are completely different; all the various types of perspectives are different as well. Just concentrate on your intention and make your utmost effort to pursue the Way. In your pursuit of the Way, train as if you were facing a life-and-death situation: it is not simply your pursuit of the Way within life-and-death. People today have become so foolish as to set aside their pursuit of the Way upon reaching the age of fifty or sixty, or upon reaching seventy or eighty. Although we are naturally aware of how long we have lived, this is simply the human mind energetically engaged in discriminating and has nothing to do with studying the Way. Do not concern yourself with being in the prime of life or having reached old age. Just be single-minded in exploring the Way thoroughly. . .

Elsewhere Dogen says we should train ‘as if out hair were on fire’! This is not to make training appear a grim, tenacious activity, merely to show that we need to make it the centre of our lives if we are serious about it. To not waste time.

Here are two more of my favourite extracts from Great Master Dogen’s writings:

Awakening To The Mind Of The Bodhisattva (From the Shushogi)

When one awakens to True Wisdom it means that one is willing to save all living things before one has actually saved oneself: whether a being is a layman, priest, god or man, enjoying pleasure or suffering pain, he should awaken this desire as quickly as possible. However humble a person may appear to be, if this desire has been awakened, he is already the teacher of all mankind: a little girl of seven even may be the teacher of the four classes of Buddhists and the mother of True Compassion to all living things. One of the greatest teachings of Buddhism is its insistence upon the complete equality of the sexes.
However much one may drift in the six worlds and the four existences even they become a means for realising the desire for Buddhahood once it has been awakened: however much time we may have wasted up to now, there is still time to awaken this desire. Although our own merit for Buddhahood may be full ripe, it is our bounden duty to use all this merit for the purpose of enlightening every living thing: at all times, there have been those who put their own Buddhahood second to the necessity of working for the good of all other living things.

Trans Rev M Jiyu-Kennett

Genjo Koan – Actualising the Fundamental Point

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the

water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies, there is no end to the air.

However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is

large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of

them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its· realm. If

the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.

Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be

the bird and life must be the fish. It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies.

Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.

Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it,

this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place. When you find your place where

you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way

at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the

way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others’. The place, the way, has not

carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now. Accordingly, in the

practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it; doing

one practice is practising completely.

Trans Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi

I hope I have given a taste of Dogen’s teaching here. If you look at my previous posts there is a little more about the nitty-gritty of Zen training.

Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey (UK) – www.throssel.org.uk

Shasta Abbey (USA) – www.shastaabbey.org

Achalanatha and the Spectre

achalanatha

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?

POSTSCRIPT

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.