Ginsberg on Blake – 85   (Blake and Buddhism – The Skandhas – 1)

Allen Ginsberg’s 1978 Naropa class on William Blake continues from here 

AG: Those who have read (Chogyam) Trungpa‘s book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, in its chapters on the Five Skandhas may find a very exquisite parallel between Blake’s natural psychology – psychology of creation from the womb –  and the theory of the Five Skandhas.  And in the Book of Urizen over and over a similar sequence of what might be called a rough approximation of the five stages of the building of consciousness – from the original separation of ego in space to the building of the illusion of a mortal consciousness – is repeated in the Book of Urizen, and that section from The Book of Urizen is paraphrased here.  So I think I’d like to swiftly go over that.  For those of you who know the Skandhas, it might be interesting.  For those of you who don’t, I’ll give a one-minute explanation of the ancient Buddhist theory of Five Skandhas, which is … do you know about this at all?

Student:  No.

AG:  The Buddhist aspect of Blake is really interesting.  This is one piece of quack scholarship I can lay on you, and it parallels the development of ego and the world consciousness in Urizen, and we’ve got this next passage, this one (on) page fifty-four does it.

The Buddhist version is there’s five successive stages of (the) building up of consciousness from the Void and how it all begins.  First is separation or alienation from space – something emerges – some quack ducks its head out of the void, lo, a form is arisen – (from) the beginning of the Book of Urizen.  The first statement of it is in the first lines of the Book of Urizen, on page sixty-nine – “Lo, a shadow of horror is risen/ In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific!/Self-closd, all-repelling…” (What happened?  Something rose in the vacuum)

“… what Demon/Hath form’d this abominable void/This soul-shudd’ring vacuum? – Some said/”It is Urizen”, But unknown, abstracted/Brooding secret, the dark power hid”

So it’s the first appearance of some self-consciousness.  And that in a Buddhist Skandha is termed form, or separation. Individuated form or separation.  But as yet there’s no consciousness.  Or as yet there’s no overt consciousness or self-consciousness.  It is a self-consciousness without awareness of itself.

Then the next Skandha is sensation or feeling.  It bumps into something.  It’s out there by itself and it bumps into something; so you might say sensation, or feeling as it’s called.

Then, according to the Buddhist scheme, the third stage of sensation is reaction; i.e., it bumps into something and says “Um, that feels good,” or “Ah.”  (Or) it’s a threat.  Or “I don’t care.”  So it’s positive, negative, or indifferent.  But that’s the reaction.

So first you have separation or alienation, then you have contact and bumping into – feeling of some sort – then you have a decision on the feeling – whether it threatens this individuation or not.  In other words, you have some polyp that comes out of the ocean and it bumps into a sardine’s mouth, and it squishes away, because it feels the danger.

Then there would be the next (stage) – a repeated series of experiences of the same (reactions), which would build up a habit or fixation.  So you have alienation, then you have sensation, then you have reaction, then you have a fixation of the reaction – a repeated reaction that forms a continuum, like “Sardines are a threat” … I don’t know, what do polyps eat?  What do you call those little bacterial….

Student:  Algae.

AG:  Algae, or something.  So they like the algae, they don’t like whatever fish has teeth that sucks up squids.  Or the squid that might suck up a polyp.

And then there would be an indifference –  I mean, the polyp – the jellyfish –  might bump into a kelp head and not care. (And it would) bump into another one because it has no threat.

So there’s alienation or separation, then there’s sensation, then there’s reaction, then there is fixation on the reaction, and then finally a series of fixations like separate pictures on a filmstrip (that) form a continuous strip and the appearance of a continuity or the human illusion or mentation or world consciousness and space-consciousness.  Consciousness of a world in space around (them).

So my own poetical formulation is, alienation-separation is the first stage; sensation is the second; reaction is the third; fixation or conception is the fourth, and mentation or consciousness is the fifth.

Now the Buddhists say this process goes on every 1/64th of a second in our consciousness.  And that’s why it appears to be (continuous).  That actually there’s the undifferentiated first flash of space, then there may be a reaction to it and a recognition, according to our habit conditioning, and then reactions to that and decisions and then you space out again for a second.  But 1/64th of a second being the smallest amount of time.  The time for one synaptic reaction.  And I think scientifically 1/64th of a second is the shortest interval between thoughts (as well as), according to Buddhist theory, (which) also seems to roughly approximate scientific synaptic theory.  In other words, in order to have a thought you’ve got to have whatever it is – juice is moving along the wires of the brain, along the nervous system.

Student:  Blake has a quote later on where he calls it the “pulse of an artery.”

AG:  Yeah.  Between one pulse of an artery.

Student:  Right.

AG:  Or the daughters .. .[Editorial note – “(A moment equals a pulsation of the artery)/And between every two Moments stands a Daughter of Beulah”]  –  the daughter that exists between one minute and another.  That’s a very famous thing in Buddhism.  The gap between thoughts.  One of the central conceptions of Buddhism.  In fact, that’s sunyata or emptiness.  The famous void in Buddhism –  the abyss or void –  is the gap between thoughts.  This is all esoteric doctrine.

Okay, the reason I’m interested is (that) the Buddhist thing I think is not merely theory but is the byproduct of a couple thousand years or a couple hundred years of psychological observation through the direct confrontation (and) the direct viewing of the phenomena of consciousness through sitting practice.

Blake has arrived at a very similar sequence in his account of Los, the imagination, building up a body for Urizen.  So, let’s follow it, beginning on page three-two-nine –   That great line – “Forgetfulness dumbness necessity!”

to be continued tomorrow

Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately eighty-three-and-a-half minuets in and concluding at approximately ninety-and-a-half minutes in

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