Saturday, December 26, 2015

Buddhism Meets William Blake's Devil

The Argument.

     Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden'd air;
     Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

     Once meek, and in a perilous path,
     The just man kept his course along
     The vale of death.
     Roses are planted where thorns grow.
     And on the barren heath
     Sing the honey bees.
     Then the perilous path was planted:
     And a river, and a spring
     On every cliff and tomb;
     And on the bleached bones
     Red clay brought forth.

     Till the villain left the paths of ease,
     To walk in perilous paths, and drive
     The just man into barren climes.

     Now the sneaking serpent walks
     In mild humility.
     And the just man rages in the wilds
     Where lions roam.

     Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden'd air;
     Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

     Since this blog was born well over three years ago, I have been intending to write this post. I’m not sure why I put it off for so long (possibly because I’m not sure why I intended to write it), but now is opportune, so here it is.
     I do not pretend to be an authority on William Blake, or on what he wrote. Pretty much all I know about the man is the most famous stuff, like that he was a visionary, a kind of radical, an anarchist, prophet, and heretic, and that he is considered by at least a few modern art critics to be the greatest artist England ever produced. 
     He saw visions. There is one famous story about Blake as a boy of about ten years old. On his way home he happened to see a tree full of angels. When he told his parents about it, excitedly describing that he saw in detail, he almost received a beating from his father for lying. He continued to see spirits, and to communicate with them, throughout his life; and his contemporary William Wordsworth once said of him in this regard, “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.” But madness and genius are often closely related, as is well known. 
     In addition to being a great and inspired poet (we can know that he was a great poet if only because only a great one could get away with rhyming the word “eye” with the word “symmetry”), he prophesied, often in very dense writings that are practically incomprehensible to the uninitiated. He was much influenced by the visionary Emanuel Swedenborg, a man approximately as psychic and eccentric as Blake was. It appears that Blake was Christian for no better reason than that he was born in England in the 18th century; his parents were “Dissenters,” and his own religious views would have had him burned at the stake a few hundred years earlier. Some prime examples of his heresy and blasphemy will be shown in what follows. 
     I must admit, Blake is not my favorite poet; and most of his prophetic prose is way out of my league. But there is one spiritual philosophic opus of his, a manifesto of sorts, that has made a significant impression on my outlook on life, and that is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. When I was in my late teens this brief work, and also Khalil Gibran’s The Madman, came about as close to a personal Bible as I had. They advocated freedom, and, to some degree, wisdom-inspired rebellion against “the establishment.” One of my mottos as a college student was a Proverb of Hell: You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough. There are probably more quotes on this blog from this one literary work than from any other.
     Although The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is not long—the whole thing could be read in maybe half an hour, an hour at most—it is too long to publish here in its entirety. Besides, my purpose is more to compare the philosophical/religious approach of the work with that of Buddhist Dharma. So I will just include here some of the meatier passages from it, as well as the juiciest bit of all, the Proverbs of Hell, amounting to about one-third of the whole. The whole thing is worth reading though. Please bear in mind that the work was written almost as a dark satire, being a kind of biblical tract written from the point of view of devils, not angels. 

     …Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
     From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
     Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

     The voice of the Devil.
All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors:
     1. That Man has two real existing principles: Viz: a Body & a Soul.
     2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body; & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
     3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True:
     1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
     2. Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
     3 Energy is Eternal Delight.

     …Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
     And being restrain’d, it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire.
     The history of this is written in Paradise Lost, & the Governor or Reason is call'd Messiah.
     And the original Archangel or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is call'd the Devil or Satan, and his children are call'd Sin & Death.
     But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is call'd Satan.
     For this history has been adopted by both parties.
     It indeed appear'd to Reason as if Desire was cast out, but the Devil's account is, that the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.
     This is shewn in the Gospel, where he prays to the Father to send the comforter or Desire that Reason may have Ideas to build on, the Jehovah of the Bible being no other than he who dwells in flaming fire.
     Know that after Christs death, he became Jehovah.
     But in Milton, the Father is Destiny, the Son, a Ratio of the five senses, & the Holy-ghost, Vacuum!
     Note: The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.

Proverbs of Hell.
     In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
     Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
     The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
     Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
     He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
     The cut worm forgives the plow.
     Dip him in the river who loves water.
     A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
     He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
     Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
     The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
     The hours of folly are measur'd by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure.
     All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.
     Bring out number, weight, & measure in a year of dearth.
     No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.
     A dead body revenges not injuries.
     The most sublime act is to set another before you.
     If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
     Folly is the cloke of knavery.
     Shame is Prides cloke.
     Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
     The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
     The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
     The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
     The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
     Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
     The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity, too great for the eye of man.
     The fox condemns the trap, not himself.
     Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.
     Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.
     The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.
     The selfish, smiling fool, & the sullen, frowning fool shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.
     What is now proved was once only imagin'd.
     The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbet watch the roots; the lion, the tyger, the horse, the elephant watch the fruits.
     The cistern contains: the fountain overflows.
     One thought fills immensity.
     Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.
     Every thing possible to be believ'd is an image of truth.
     The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.
     The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion.
     Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
     He who has suffer'd you to impose on him, knows you.
     As the plow follows words, so God rewards prayers.
     The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
     Expect poison from the standing water.
     You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
     Listen to the fools reproach! it is a kingly title!
     The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth.
     The weak in courage is strong in cunning.
     The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow; nor the lion, the horse, how he shall take his prey.
     The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.
     If others had not been foolish, we should be so.
     The soul of sweet delight can never be defil'd.
     When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius; lift up thy head!
     As the catterpiller chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.
     To create a little flower is the labour of ages.
     Damn braces. Bless relaxes.
     The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.
     Prayers plow not! Praises reap not!
     Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!
     The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands & feet Proportion.
     As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
     The crow wish'd every thing was black, the owl that every thing was white.
     Exuberance is Beauty.
     If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.
     Improvement makes strait roads; but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius.
     Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
     Where man is not, nature is barren.
     Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ'd.
     Enough! or Too much.

     …If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. 
     For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

     …Thus one portion of being is the Prolific, the other the Devouring: to the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains, but it is not so; he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.
     But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea, received the excess of his delights.
     Some will say: 'Is not God alone the Prolific?' I answer: 'God only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men.'
     These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.
     Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.

     …'The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.'

     …Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.

     Unquote. Obviously, a devout, traditional Christian, or for that matter a traditional Buddhist, would consider much of this stuff to be outrageous blasphemy and heresy. What is a good Buddhist to think of, say, “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”?
     But there is a method to Blake’s madness, and some real profundity also. Blake realized that a polarized, one-sided attempt at spirituality, emphasizing Good over Evil, doesn’t work. A duality requires both extremes for its existence. Every strength has its weakness; every light has its corresponding darkness; one end of a polarity cannot exist alone, and thus a one-sided religion of Virtue simply reinforces and perpetuates what it is attempting to defeat.
     Blake’s vision of a complete spirituality reminds me of the traditional Hindu conception of the God-man Krishna: He was not just the embodiment of goodness and virtue, but was the divine embodiment of everything—which includes war, death, romantic love, sex, deception, trouble, and everything that might be called “impurity” or “sin.” Krishna is all-encompassing, universal. Absolutely everything lies within the scope of the God of Everything; and thus, ultimately, everything is Divine. Absolutely everything is sacred and holy. Even evil itself is seen as evil only due to a very polarized, incomplete vision of how things really are.  
     The predominant theme of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, though, is not so much the idea of embracing evil as well as good, since, as just pointed out, Blake apparently considered evil to be a kind of illusion (as have many others, like Mary Baker Eddy, Walt Whitman, and millions of Mahayana Buddhists). The dual polarity he embraced was Reason and Energy, stability and chaos, or, as he states the case later on, the Devouring and the Prolific. Using the language of Greek Paganism, the philosophy of Nietzsche, and modern cultural anthropology, we could call it the duality of Apollo and Dionysus. 
     According to Blake, it is Energy or “Evil” which creates, and Reason or “Good” which organizes and stabilizes what has been created, which establishes order out of chaos. Thus both are necessary for the world to exist. And thus it makes sense to accept and allow both principles—if, that is, we want the world to exist.
     Blake was a poetic visionary and a prophet, although he seems not to have been deep enough of a mystic to fully appreciate the idea that this phenomenal world is an illusion. He acknowledges that we see the world very imperfectly, but stops short of the realization that what it really is, is formless, unthinkable Void, or what a Christian mystic might call “God.” So when he asserts that trying to reconcile the Prolific with the Devourer is an attempt of “religion” (apparently used in a devilish, derogatory sense) to destroy the world, he seems to consider this attempt to be ill-advised, as he saw this world to be a genuine manifestation of Divinity. This is why, as a Buddhist of sorts, I cannot really endorse Blake’s vision of spirituality. If the phenomenal world is an illusory system generated from a dependently co-arising duality of positive and negative, yang and yin, then although Divinity underlies it, the system itself obscures that Divinity by distracting people and causing them to believe that the illusion is all there is, and that it is the only truth. Although embracing the whole is better than embracing half and rejecting half, still, the Buddhist option of not wallowing in it at all, neither in Energy nor in Reason, seems wiser. Accepting the whole world with love is of course much better than rejecting it, or even half of it, with aversion; but Buddhist philosophy teaches that a serious practitioner of Dharma would detach from all of it, neither doing good works nor bad. This destroys the world in a sense, but it is destroying an illusion.
     So better a Blake-like acceptance of passion and chaos than a Puritan rejection of same; but better still a profound detachment from (not rejection of) the whole phantasmagoria. But if you are unable or unwilling to detach from the system, then better Blake than Milton.

     Before ending this I would like to add one little commentarial discussion of one of the juiciest-sounding of the Proverbs of Hell: Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion. It has a really visceral appeal, doesn’t it? But nowadays I suspect that most people who read it don’t realize what it’s supposed to mean. One should bear in mind that when the Proverbs were published, in the early 1790’s, there were only two kinds of women in Christian England: respectable women, and whores. And if a young Christian woman lost her virginity before marriage, and the cad who “deflowered” her then refused to marry her, then she was “ruined,” no longer respectable, and considered unworthy of becoming a “respectable” man’s wife. She might even be disowned by her family, and banished into the streets. Thus if a young woman followed her energy and passions more than her passivity and reason, she might easily find herself in a situation in which becoming a prostitute was one of her only, desperate options for survival. So breaking the laws of the land could land a person in a stone prison, and breaking the laws of religion could land her in a brick whorehouse. But of course nowadays the dividing line between respectable women and whores has been pretty much erased.  

     Let the Priests of the Raven of dawn, no longer in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the sons of joy. Nor his accepted brethren, whom, tyrant, he calls free: lay the bound or build the roof. Nor pale religious letchery call that virginity, that wishes but acts not!
     For every thing that lives is Holy.

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