Blake and the Bodhisattva's Dream

Michael Attwood

Introduction

Carl Jung coined a word for those coincidences which seem to be meaningful – when things come together in a way that is unexpectedly significant. He called it “synchronicity” and held that there really was meaning in the coincidence, and tells us something about the interface between the psyche and the world.[1]

Recently I was studying the Sutra of Golden Light as part of the mitra study course. The Sutra was compiled over the period 500-800 CE. It is thought to have grown as a series of accretions around the celebrated third chapter which includes a set of devotional verses, that are revealed in a sublime vision. At the same time I was following up an interest in William Blake, sparked by attending a lecture by Ratnaprabha who pointed out the parallels between visions of self transcendence in Blake’s writing and Buddhist tradition. Blake enunciates his vision through his art and poetry – often combined in illuminated books. Ratnaprabha says: “In my experience, modern Western Buddhists are very excited by Blake”. [2] He goes on to show some interesting parallels between Blake’s constructed mythology, and the traditional Buddhist mythology.

While reading a biography of Blake by Peter Ackroyd I was struck by the strong parallels between a particular vision of Blake’s and the central vision of the Sutra. These were not mentioned by Ratnaprabha, nor could I find any other mention of them in Buddhist or literary indexes.

What I intend to do in this essay is simply to outline the both of the visions and then to look at parallels and points of departure. I’ll look into the relativity of space and time, and at solar symbolism. I’ll explore how the world is transformed in visions, and the meaning of that transformation. Self transcendence also needs to be addressed. Finally I’ll say something about the overall significance of Blake’s vision from a Buddhist point of view.

Ruchiraketu’s vision

The Sutra of Golden Light begins with a Bodhisattva named Ruchiraketu. He is pondering a problem – the apparently short lifespan of the Buddha. Knowing that the practices of refraining from killing living beings and giving away food lead to long life; and knowing that the Buddha Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) has practices these two virtues over many millions of aeons: how then did his life span amount to a mere 80 years? There’s a bit of a paradox here, because as we’ll see the Buddha is not yet dead. However, while he is pondering this his house undergoes a miraculous transformation. It expands to become “vast and extensive” and it is transformed into the precious stone beryl. Within the house, on jewelled thrones, appear four Buddha’s. The transformation then extends to the whole city where the Bodhisattva lives. A great light fills the city of Rajagrha, the blind can see, the sick are healed, the mad become sane, heavenly flowers rain down, and so on. The four Buddha’s explain to Ruchiraketu that Shakyamuni Buddha may have appeared to live only 80 years, but in fact his life span cannot be measured. It is infinite. Sangharakshita explains: “in effect they tell him not to identify the Buddha with his physical body… that the Buddha transcends time… because in the depths of his being he does not live in time at all”. [3] Ruchiraketu then sleeps and dreams of a drum “made of gold, shining everywhere just like the sun”. [4] In the dream Ruchiraketu’s world is further transformed so that now he sees an incalculable number of Buddhas, sitting on beryl seats, under jewelled trees, preaching to hundreds of thousands of disciples. A man in the form of a Brahmin beats the drum which gives forth a series of devotional verses – particularly focussing on confession of evil. When Ruchiraketu awakes he goes to the Buddha and relates the dream, including the verses which form the heart of the sutra.

Blake’s Vision

Blake’s vision is a story which doesn’t come to us first hand as so many of his other visions do. It comes third hand via Allan Cunningham, who tells us what Thomas Phillips told him that Blake had said. That said, Blake’s biographer Ackroyd tells us that it is Blake himself speaking.

In the winter of 1807 Blake sat for a portrait by Phillips, and in order to set his subject at ease Phillips engaged him in conversation. Talking about renaissance painting Phillips opined that Michelangelo could not paint an angel so well as Raphael. To which Blake adamantly disagreed. When Phillips points out that Blake has never seen a Michelangelo painting of an angel, Blake tells him that his opinion is informed by an impeccable source – the arch-angel Gabriel.

The story goes that he had been reading Young’s Night Thoughts – for which he had been commissioned to create some engravings – when he came upon a passage which asked : “who can paint an angel?”. Struck by this Blake closed the book and repeated the question aloud. He was answered by a disembodied voice which said Michelangelo could! “And how would you know?” asked Blake. “I know”, said the voice, “because I sat for him: I am the arch-angel Gabriel”. Blake is not entirely convinced by this however as he is well aware that evil spirits sometimes masquerade as good, and he asks for proof – then:

“I looked whence the voice came, and was then aware of a shining shape with bright wings, who diffused much light. As I looked the shape dilated more and more: he waved his hands; the roof of my study opened; he ascended into heaven; he stood in the sun, and beckoning to me, moved the universe.” [5]

Discussion

In his commentary on the Sutra of Golden Light, Sangharakshita draws out the difference between a ‘problem’ and a ‘difficulty’. The latter is able to be solved on it’s own level “simply by using our intelligence and making an effort”; [6] while the former cannot be solved on it’s own level and must be transcended. “Problems, we could say, are a means of development, even a means of transformation”. [7] Koans are the best known examples of this type of problem in the Buddhist context.

Blake's problem - who could paint an angel? - is a problem in the sense defined by Sangharakshita because it can’t be solved on it’s own level. For to paint an angel, one must see an angel, one must know what an angel looks like. It is a real problem because Blake not only believed in angels, he regularly saw and conversed with them throughout his life. If we don't even believe in angels then whether or not they are well painted is of no consequence to us. The answer to Blake’s problem is not to be found in comparing paintings and trying judge whether one is better than another. This would simply be to approach the problem on it’s own level, and would only result in subject opinion which is no real solution. In order to find out who could paint angels, Blake does not go to the art gallery. Why would this not have solved the problem? Because angels are not of this realm – they are messengers from the divine realm, from outside space and time. Only another being who exist outside space and time, could judge whether any painter had really painted angels and not simply his imagination.

Blake was at first suspicious of whether the voice he heard truly was an angel. So another question about who could paint angels is implied: that is “who could tell an angel from a devil in disguise”? Gabriel convinces Blake by performing a feat which no devil could manage – by performing a miracle to show that he was not bound by time and space, but that time and space were at his command.

The solution of Blake’s problem comes, not from the material world of space and time, but from the divine world, from an angel – the Archangel Gabriel. For Ruchiraketu the answer also comes from the divine, although in this case it is four Buddha’s. But in what sense are angels like Buddhas? Can we equate these symbols at all? Well I think in this case we can without too much trouble, if we go back to the roots of angels, and don’t take things too literally.

Angels are not originally Christian symbols. They are common to all the Abrahamic religions, but actually originated in Persia with the Zoroastrian tradition. The Jews seem to have assimilated angels into their religion during their sojourn in Babylon. [8] So angels predate Christianity, predate Judaism even – they are symbolic figures with a history that reaches back into time, and most likely at some point joins with India mythology since both India and Persia were settled by the so-called Aryan peoples. The roots of angels as cultural/mythic symbols are the same as those of Buddha’s. Angels are symbols that transcend organised religion as we know it.

The essential similarity between the Buddha’s of Ruchiraketu’s vision, and Gabriel in Blake’s vision is that both are evidently not constrained by space and time. The dimensions of conventional reality are stretched and moulded to suit the purposes of the figures. They are masters of time and space.

We should also remember that Blake’s theology was rather unconventional. In his long poem Jerusalem he says “I know no other Christianity and no other Gospel than the liberty of body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination”. [9] Ratnaprabha describes his beliefs: “for Blake there is no God who punishes sin, there is no saviour who can rescue you from personal responsibility, there is no personal devil, no everlasting hell, and no unquestionable scripture. Apart from that Blake was a Christian”. [10]

Another common feature of Blake’s vision and the sutra is the solar imagery. The sun is very often deified and personified in world mythology and there do seem to be some common features in the myths. The sun radiates light and warmth. One the one hand these are essential to life and so gods like the Egyptian Ra and Greek Apollo are associated with ripening crops. Ra was also considered by Egyptians to be the creator of the world. [11] On the other hand too much sun can be a bad thing so Apollo is also given to striking people down at a distance Vessantara, in discussing Buddhist solar symbolism, suggests that the sun represents “the spiritual principle which illuminates the universe”. [12] Surya, the Hindu god of the sun, was said to irradiate even the secret hearts of men”, [13] while the Assyrian god Shamash was endoured with vigour and courage and triumphed over the darkeness of night and winter. Shamash saw everything, and his rays were like a net that caught criminals. [14]

Gabriel, it is said, stands in the sun. To stand in the sun and not be burnt up one must be of the same nature as the sun. The gnostic Book of Enoch, was included in the Bible until about the 4th century CE. It describes the transformation of Enoch into the angel Metatron:

"When the Holy One, blessed be he, took me to serve the throne of glory… at once my flesh was turned to flame, my sinews to blazing fire, my bones to juniper coals, my eyelashes to lightning flashes, my eyeballs to fiery torches, the hairs of my head to hot flames, all my limbs to wings of burning fire, and the substance of my body to blazing fire”. [15]

So we see that angels are indeed of the same stuff as the sun – that is: fire. Not material fire, but the elemental principle of fire which encompasses heat, energy, movement, activity, emotion, but also, and especially, transformation. So Gabriel is an emanation of solar energy, he is the Spirit of Transformation.

The four Buddha’s of the sutra are also said to represent aspects of ultimate reality, and their appearance coincides with the transformation of Ruchiraketu’s house, city and world. In the sutra it is the drum that has a solar aspect. It is described as “shining like the sun everywhere. It glowed in the ten directions”. [16] Sangharakshita points to the drum as symbolising the goal of the spiritual life:

“The drum is the Absolute, the Truth, ultimate Reality…The drum is also the Buddha: the historical Buddha who proclaims the Dharma even as the drum shines with its golden light; and the eternal Buddha of the Mahayana, who is the sun of the spiritual universe”.[17]

The verses of confession amount to a total repudiation of evil done for whatever reason, under whatever influence, and for all time. The extent, the passion, of the confessions could only come from the total transformation known as ‘turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness’, which comes from the transformative power of the Buddha sun.

In both visions the ascent to the sun, the appearance of the solar symbol comes only after the initial transformation, and after the question has been answered. In the Pali canon we find very many examples of people making spiritual progress and even attaining the goal of Awakening. Most often this is a two stage process. Firstly a vision of transcendence arises. This is frequently as a result of meeting and talking with the Buddha or one of his disciples. Then there is a period of practice which results in the fulfilment of the vision, the total transformation of Bodhi, or Awakening. What is fascinating here is that Blake’s vision has the same two stages, although as we will see it does not seem to result in the same extensive transformation that Ruchiraketu undergoes.

In the Sutra the whole world is transformed. In Blake the whole world is moved, but not transformed. Here we come onto the essential differences between the two visions. Sangharakshita relates the transformation of the city of Rajagrha to the transpersonal nature of Ruchiraketu’s vision. For Blake it is only his room that is transformed – and this is very significant. Although there is something of the transcendental in this vision, the implication is that it doesn’t really go beyond Blake himself. Further more Ruchiraketu undergoes a symbolic or spiritual death in the form of sleep, where the fulfilment of his visions is seen. Blake stays conscious, which suggests that his transformation is not as extensive as Ruchiraketu’s.

In his essay on satori, or enlightenment, D. T. Suzuki gives a list of the features of the satori experience that may illuminate this aspect of Blake’s visions.[18] I’ll simply touch on many of the features without going into depth, but most of the terms from Suzuki (given in italics) are self explanatory. Blake clearly has a sense of something beyond time and space. The visions are authoritative and he was never dissuaded from believing that he had indeed conversed with angels, and held their words in high esteem. Blake’s visions are affirmation of all that exists – “And all that lives is holy”. [19] Nor can these experiences of his been a mere thought process, they come from the depth of his imagination, and represent intuitive insights. There is a sense of joy although it may not have been an infinite expansion and release. Suzuki describes the experience of satori as being one of release from bondage, but one feels from reading Blake’s life story that he was never free from bondage. The crucial characteristic however may be the impersonal tone of satori. Suzuki says:

“…there is no doubt that in spite of having some of its having some points of similitude to the Christian mystic experience, the Zen experience is singularly devoid of personal or human colourings.” [20]

The sense of self is often attenuated or absent during insight or satori experiences. But in reading the account of Blake’s vision one gets the sense that Blake is always present. My overall impression is that Blake’s vision, in this case, seemed not to allow him to transcend his humanity. Self transcendence is something that concerns Blake however. In his poem Milton, he has Milton say:

“To bathe in the Waters of Life; to wash off the not Human
I come in self-annihilation & grandeur of Inspiration
To cast off Rational Demonstration by Faith in the Saviour
To cast off the rotten rags of Memory and Inspiration
To cast off Bacon, Locke & Newton from Albion’s covering
To take off his filthy garments, & clothe him with Imagination
To cast aside from Poetry, all that is not Imagination”. [21]

To wash off the “not Human” is to become a whole, happy healthy human being. The rest of these lines are indicating that self-hood, the narrow self definitions of self that are called self-view in the Dharma are to be annihilated. But this is not mere nihilism, since Blake would replace self with Faith in the Saviour, with inspiration and especially with Imagination. Imagination, for Blake, is synonymous with the Spiritual Life – ie that which is concerned with the transcendental. The same phrase – self-annihilation – appears in another context in the same poem, and then again in the poem Jerusalem.

"O Saviour pour upon me thy spirit of meekness and love:
Annihilate the self-hood in me, be thou all my life!" [22]

Conclusion

The vision I have recounted, with it’s clear parallels to the Sutra of Golden Light, does seem to have a touch of the transcendental about it. Looking at the portrait that resulted from the sitting, it has often been remarked that Blake seems to be looking at something extraordinary – as though he is reliving that meeting with Gabriel. The similarity of the imagery in both vision and sutra is striking. We find that reason and intellect have limited application, that there are some problems which cannot be solved on their own level, but require a spiritual solution. In both there is transformation of the physical world in a way which indicates that there is something beyond time and space. And we meet messengers from beyond time and space – beings not constrained by physics. Of course we may interpret this in different ways. We could simply write it all off as ‘fancy’ or even madness – Blake was widely considered to be mad in his time. But there is something compelling about the emergence of these symbols in such widely different environments and cultures. That the two visionaries are so wildly separated in time and space does suggest some sort of universality in their experience.

In both we find the sun as a symbol of something higher. This is perhaps less surprising than other parallels. Almost every culture has deified the sun – it is ubiquitous as an actual phenomenon, and as a symbol.

Blake was as misunderstood as any artist of any time, and he suffered as a result. He was very poor throughout his life, and often ridiculed by his contemporaries. And yet he could write:

“Yet I laugh and sing, for if on Earth neglected I am in heaven a Prince among Princes…I shall live altho’ I should want bread – nothing is necessary to me but to do my duty & to rejoice in the exceeding joy that is always poured out on my Spirit.”

These words, and his work generally are very inspiring. Blake certainly had his flaws, and the vision I’ve recounted seems to have stopped short of the total transformation of Ruchiraketu. Still, there is something very familiar about Blake, something almost…well Buddhist.



Notes

[1] Von Franz, M.-L. in Jung, C.G et al. Man and his symbols. (London : Picador, 1978) p.226-7

[2] Ratnaprabha. The Buddha and William Blake: Some Affinities. Unpublished notes from a talk originally delivered at the Tate Britain, 23rd November 2000.

[3] Sangharakshita. Transforming self and world : themes form the Sutra of Golden Light. (Birmingham : Windhorse, 1995). p.42

[4] Sutra of Golden Light. [Emmerick, R.E. trans.] (London : Pali Text Society 1996). p.8

[5] Bentley, G.E. Blake Records. (Oxford, 1969) p.182-3

[6] Sangharakshita. op. cit. p.39

[7] Sangharakshita. op. cit. p.39

[8] Bloom, H. Omens of the millennium : the gnosis of angels, dreams, and resurrection. (London : Fourth Estate, 1996) P.?

[9] Blake, Jerusalem plate 77 in Complete poetry and prose, p.231.

[10] Ratnaprabha.

[11] New Lourosse Encyclopedia of mythology, (London : Paul Hamlyn, 1969). p 109-116

[12] Vessantara. Meeting the Buddhas : a guide to Buddhas, bodhisattvas and tantric deities. (Glasgow : Windhorse Publications, 1993.) p.123

[13] New Lourosse Encyclopedia of mythology, p 332

[14] New Lourosse Encyclopedia of mythology,ibid p.57

[15] 3 Enoch 15 in Bloom. p.50

[16] Sutra of Golden Light….

[17] Sangharakshita, p.47

[18] Suzuki, D. T. Zen Buddhism: selected writings of D.T. Suzuki. (New York : Double Day, 1996). p.105

[19] Blake, W.. The marriage of heaven and hell. (Oxford University Press, 1975). Plate 27.

[20] Suzuki. p.106

[21] Blake, Milton plate 41 in The complete poetry and prose of William Blake. [New revised ed.] Erdman, D. ed. (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1982), p.142.

[22] Blake, Jerusalem plate 21 in Complete poetry and prose, p.147.

[23] Ackroyd, P. Blake (London : Vintage, 1999). p. 264.