William Blake class – 7 (Urizon and the Skandhas)

I want to go through the text (of the Book of Urizon) more carefully now. Chapter IV. There are six verses. What I’m going to do is deal with this very, very carefully, so if you pay attention you can hear something (if you don’t pay attention, it’ll go right by you). The first verse, form is established – “Los smitten with astonishment/ Frightened at the hurtling bones” – (In the) second verse, there is some relation of feeling, “peturbed” and “sulphureous”. (In the) third and fourth verses, some kind of discrimination and conception being made, and formations – “In whirlwinds and pitch and nitre/ Round the furious limbs of Los”. “And Los formed nets and gins” – to contain Reason – “And threw the nets round about” – to contain this mad Reason, to give a form to Reason. So he’s beginning to find some kind of a (form). There’s this form that rises, there’s these feelings’ relations to it in this active creation of Urizen over and over again, cyclically, as you’ll notice. Then there’s a choice among the feelings, and then the creation of a structure, and then finally the birth of a consciousness – “He watched in shuddering fear/ The dark changes and bound every change/ With rivets of iron and brass” – Till, finally, there is a definite fixed existence there. In other words, this one little cycle in Chapter IV repeats the cycles I’ve already tried to point out to you, or tried to define to you. There are similar cycles in Chapter I and II – one series – and Chapter III, the same series.

Is anybody following this? Is it making any sense? Then I can outline it, going through again, several times more, in the book. But before I do that, I want to tell you what I’m up to, which is correlating these mysterious changes in the birth of Urizen with the classic Buddhist skandhas.

This is, say, a swift summary of the doctrine of the skandhas that I’ve composited from (Chogyam) Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and various other writings and lectures. (“Skandha” means “heap”, or appearance, the five “heaps”). Beginning (with) “Rūpa form – a split in ignorance, or in the vast inane, or a split in the void, or an eternity, a split which suddenly becomes panic. Very similar to Urizen’s panic described over and over again in the first stages of appearance of the form, that split off from the infinite, where (there were) internalizations of the split, impulsive accumulation of experience, and outward looking for verification of the split. (That’s) the traditional skandha scheme. This is all part of ignorance, by the way, basically, to be subsumed under Ignorance. Then, the second skandha is feeling, or “Vedanā, as it is called, a reaching out for texture or sensation. I kept interpreting Vedanā as “he strove in battles dire/ in unseen conflictions which shapes/ Bred from his forsaken wilderness”, a reaching out for texture or sensation, but still just sort of the blind sensation, textures of different forms rising. But then, there is what they call “Saṃjñā”, or perception impulse..how would you say it?..perception impulse, or impressions, or reactions. That’s the third (which would be three separate reactions – attraction, repulsion (or indifference, in this case. In any case, attraction, repulsion and indifference). In other words, you get born, you get faced with a wall, then you say you like it, or don’t like it, and then you establish “wall”. Then the next stage would be establishing “walls” as friendly, or unfriendly, forever, and then having a whole universe with “walls” – or whatever. Other people – you like other people or you don’t like other people. So the third is perception impulse or reaction – the third stage of consciousness, so to speak. First stage of consciousness – there. Second stage of consciousness – something outside to bang against, third state of consciousness – do I like it or not? Attraction repulsion ignorance..love..hatred..or indifference. (The) fourth stage is called “Saṅkhāra, which would be sets, habits, inclinations, that is – do I like it? – Several times I see the wall, I like it, a couple of times, so therefore, I finally see that, that’s alright, that’s alright, that’s alright, (but) fire? – no – Los? – no, Orc? – no, my brass Laws? [“the book/ Of eternal brass] – yes. So there would be repeated experience of pleasure or pain, the fourth stage would be repeated experience of pleasure or pain forming a kind of set or a vocabulary or symbol, or a repeated experience (so (that) you look back on it as a recognizable experience). The first time, you react. The second time – “Oh, I reacted that way before”. And you have enough of these.

The fifth stage would be consciousness itself, the birth of consciousness itself, where you’d have a continuum of consciousness made out of all these sets. Just like a movie continuum of consciousness made out of separate pictures – still pictures making up a movie.

This is the classic or traditional Buddhist division of “skandhas” or “heaps”, which is their classic description of the rising of consciousness. Buddhists here recognize that, don’t they? How many here know about the skandhas? [a fitful show of hands] – Then most don’t. (But) what I’ve been explaining is a somewhat abstract form of what it might feel like to be rising out of Eternity, or out of nothing, and coming into consciousness, what steps there might be.

First, there’s sort of a logical analysis of the growth of consciousness in the fetus, maybe, or from fetus to wakened separate being. It comes, in the Buddhists, from observation of phenomena, from very close observation of the phenomena of mind. (And) what I’m pointing out is a very similar cycle of rising from Ignorance, or void, through the appearance of form, all the way up to the building up of different stages, till you get a complete birth of consciousness, from Blake’s own observation of mental phenomena, he seems to have arrived at a somewhat roughly approximately equivalent series of stages, which is quite amazing. Since I don’t think any Blakean has ever checked out (the skandhas) before, or any Buddhist checked out Blake (in this way) before, (I think) this is probably sort of a little interesting literary moment in history, discovering the correlation between Blake’s psychology of genesis and Buddhist psychology of genesis.

Student: Did you (ever come across any similar correlation in Gnosticism and the skandhas)?

AG: I don’t think so, because I think that was before the translation began in Europe of real Buddhist thought. But as I kept saying, Buddhist thought and Gnostic (thought), or Eastern Buddhist, Western Gnostic (thought) comes from (the) Middle Eastern Mesopotamian Tree of Knowledge, somewhere. They come from similar areas originally. So that the Gnostic theories that he knew – like the theories of Basilides, who was a Gnostic, included the fact that there were 365 separate heavens, or 365 different universes.. well, that’s not very far from the Buddhist notion of a number of different, simultaneously occurring universes. (This was Basilides – B-A-S-I-L-I-D-E-S, Basilides’ version of the universe, which you can check out in the Hans Jonas book. [The Gnostic Religion]. So he came across similar ideas, probably in Gnostic theory. This set of gradations, of progressions, of the development of wider and wider consciousness, from the first snap, to the final unfolding of five senses and the continuum, that probably has a Gnostic reference, but I don’t know. But I bet it wouldn’t be very hard to find in Jonas’ book).

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