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Dharma Poetry: William Blake

by Paul Griffin

I attended a meditation retreat with my teacher Reggie Ray last weekend at the Tibet House in New York City.  Reggie Ray is a wonderful and gentle dharma teacher who was a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and a longtime Shambhala stalwart.  Reggie’s emphasis is on bodywork meditation–essentially on teaching higher level tantric stuff on day one, a relatively controversial position, for what it’s worth– as well as on the dharma in its modern and increasingly universal context.  He offers excellent at-home meditation programs, extensive CD packages, and a dathun in Crestone, CO every year (which I attended this past winter).  It is always lovely and inspiring to study with one’s teacher, and I have felt a dharmic uplift this past week.  

During a talk, Reggie made the claim that William Blake was the first Western tantric practitioner.  This is a fun thought to ponder, but I also think that we could take the opportunity to actually look at what Blake has to say and see if we agree.  While Blake is perhaps most famous for his Songs of Innocence and Experience and his The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, I thought his first poetic expression There Is No Natural Religion would provide a good framework for discussion.  Here is the poem/argument in its entirety…

illustration 6

There Is No Natural Religion



The Argument. Man has no notion of moral fitness but from Education. Naturally he is only a natural organ subject to Sense.

I. Man cannot naturally Perceive but through his natural or bodily organs.
II Man by his reasoning power can only compare & judge of what he has already perceiv’d.
III. From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth.
IV. None could have other than natural or organic thoughts if he had none but organic perceptions.
V. Man’s desires are limited by his perceptions; none can desire what he has not perceiv’d.
VI. The desires & perceptions of man, untaught by any thing but organs of sense, must be limited to objects of sense.


Conclusion. If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio [rational calculation] of all things, & stand still unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.

There is No Natural Religion


I. Man’s perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception; he perceives more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.
II. Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more.
III. [missing]
IV. The bounded is loathed by its possessor. The same dull round even of a universe would soon become a mill with complicated wheels.
V. If the many become the same as the few when possess’d, More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul. Less than All cannot satisfy Man.
VI. If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot.
VII. The desire of Man being Infinite, the possession is Infinite & himself Infinite.


Application. He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.

Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.

Now I know that’s a mouthful for a leisurely Friday morning blog-reading, but at the same time, this is golden stuff and now seems as good a time as any to contemplate Blake’s dharma.  He begins, very tantrically, claiming that “Man cannot perceive but through his natural or bodily organs.”  This principle reflects the tantric focus on working within the body, on working with our energies and the subtle body.  The basic premise is that only through direct experience do we learn anything.  


What I appreciate is the lucidity of Blake’s expression.  In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake strikes an even more luminous tone in perhaps his most famous quote (because of Jim Morrison, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything 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.”

This quote aligns more with argument B of There Is No Natural Religion.  In part B, Blake seems to be speaking about the eye of meditation, that sense that perceives the infinite: awareness.  Through our practice, we see how all things are infinite and the infinite is in all things.  


At the very least, Blake’s poetry could serve as an inspiration to practice.  When we sit, we do cleanse the doors of our perception.  Blake bears witness to the luminosity that lies on the other side of those doors and on the far side of practice. And his witnessing, as with that of our other dharma forbearers, is so crucial.  The fruits of practice are real, he tell us.  And in that way, he bids us to practice, practice, practice!  

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Jennifer Sertl

posted October 3, 2009 at 10:16 am

We can only perceive what we have experience with. That is why so many people are in repetative situations of abuse/violence. What I really appreciate about the message here is that if we want to have a different–more peaceful life experience–we have to put our selves in enviroments to expand our experience.
Today–when you walk a different path, drive a new way to the store, read a new page in a book, or sit in stillness for a new moment the possibility for expansion is there.
Thank you for the reminder of the wisdom from Blake that reminds us that regardless of technology we are essentially human–and that part of ourselves is timeless.

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Anan E. Maus

posted October 3, 2009 at 12:35 pm

I have also heard that William Blake was a very spiritual person. And I think that poetry and the various spiritual arts are an excellent “in” into the spiritual realms. Not for everyone, but if you have an affinity there, I don’t think it should be left unexplored. Sometimes it is an expression of the intuitive spiritual mind.
As far as body movement goes, I think walking meditations, like kinhin (or, for that matter walking the labyrinth from Christian mysticism) are wonderful exercises.
Especially when we find the mind a bit rebellious…giving the mind something to do sees to “make it happy” so that the deeper “us” can be left alone to meditate.

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Becca Faith

posted October 5, 2009 at 8:15 am

Such an interesting read on this work…Of special interest to me was A.III: “From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth.” Just last night I was reading Thich Nacht Han’s “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” and he writes that to know one of the Four Noble Truths is to know them all. A problematic of Romantic empiricism (and one of its strengths of course) is its near-insistence that knowledge of the self be garnered from Nature (that damn capital N!). Maybe if Blake developed more of a sitting meditation practice, he would have seen the inherent connectivity of things instead of believing in the fundamental fragmentation of man from man, nature, etc. I’m sure he would have been happy to know that “the Universal Brotherhood of Eden” was no myth, but a real world he could have lived in had he chosen to see that cultures who are “falling” are always, simultaneously, putting themselves back together.

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posted October 5, 2009 at 1:18 pm

Great post, Paul. I don’t know very much about Blake, but he is a singularity in English literature, a radical and a firebrand who probably would’ve been a Libertarian who supports gay marraige today.
There is context for his beliefs about God that isn’t Buddhist. There is a strong tradition in Christianity of a mystic’s direct connection to God. As far as I know, however, Blake is the first to proclaim so clearly that God is a creative experience within oneself.
Reggie Ray is pretty great, too.

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