Blake & Buddhism

Blake’s poem, “The Fly,” begins with the narrator thoughtlessly killing a fly, “Little fly/Thy summers play,/My thoughtless hand/Has brush’d away.” The narrator then thinks about the similarity of his life and the fly’s, concluding that they will both dance, drink, and sing until they are killed by the hand of a greater force:

Am not I

A fly like thee?

Or art not thou

A man like me?

For I dance

And drink & sing;

Till some blind hand

Shall brush my wing.

The narrator then realizes that thoughts like these are an act of creation, and a lack of thoughts like these is an act of destruction: life and death, “If thought is life/And strength & breath;/And the want/Of thought is death.” He concludes that if he can create through thought, then his imagination is divine, his life is justified, and he is happy to live or die, “Then am I/A happy fly,/If I live,/Or if I die.”

Blake’s ever-present idea that imagination is a door to perception that transcends those of our five senses, and in doing so transcends life and death, is present in this poem as the idea of “thought.” In the beginning of the poem, Blake’s “thoughtless” hand kills the fly. But by the end of the poem, through his imagining of the fly – the creation of the poem – he has given life to a fly that transcends sensory perception and death. It was brought to life through thought, “If life is thought,” and will persist as long as people are thinking about the poem, “Then am I/A happy fly/If I live,/Or if I die.” Blake’s ideal that one can justify life through an active imagination is very similar to the Buddhist ideal of mindfulness. One Buddhist meditation on mindfulness that bears many similarities to Blake’s “The Fly,” is Thich Nhat Hanh’s, “Eating a Tangerine:”

When you children peel a tangerine, you can eat it with awareness or without awareness. What does it mean to eat a tangerine in awareness? When you are eating the tangerine, you are aware that you are eating the tangerine. You fully experience its lovely fragrance and sweet taste. When you peel the tangerine, you know that you are peeling the tangerine; when you remove a slice and put it in your mouth, you know that you are removing a slice and putting it in your mouth; when you experience the lovely fragrance and sweet taste of the tangerine, you are aware that you are experiencing the lovely fragrance and sweet taste of the tangerine. The tangerine Nandabala offered me had nine sections. I ate each morsel in awareness and saw how precious and wonderful it was. I did not forget the tangerine and thus the tangerine became something very real to me. If the tangerine is real, the person eating it is real. That is what it means to eat a tangerine in awareness.

Children, what does it mean to eat a tangerine without awareness? When you are eating the tangerine, you do not know that you are eating the tangerine. You do not experience the lovely fragrance and sweet taste of the tangerine. When you peel the tangerine, you do not know that you are peeling the tangerine; when you remove a slice and put it in your mouth, you do not know that you are removing a slice and putting it in your mouth; when you smell the fragrance or taste the tangerine, you do not know that you are smelling the fragrance and tasting the tangerine. Eating a tangerine in such a way, you cannot appreciate its precious and wonderful nature. If you are not aware that you are eating the tangerine, the tangerine is not real. If the tangerine is not real, the person eating it is not real either. Children, that is eating a tangerine without awareness.

In this meditation, the Buddhist ideal of mindfulness is referred to as “awareness.” When the narrator of “Eating a Tangerine” speaks of eating a tangerine in awareness, he describes all of the sensory sensations of eating a tangerine – “the lovely fragrance,” the “sweet taste,” and the amount of sections – and then moves beyond the sensory perception of the tangerine, saying that by being fully aware of the tangerine and his eating of the tangerine, the tangerine and he become “real.” In contrast, he says that when one eats a tangerine without this awareness – when one does not pay attention to all of sensory perceptions of eating the tangerine – then neither the tangerine nor its eater are “real.”

In Blake’s language, eating a tangerine without awareness is akin to not fully imagining the tangerine – not seeing what lies behind the sensory perceptions of everyday life; and not being “real” is akin to not maximizing the possibility of creation available in ones experiences, and thus not living. There is a clear parallel in killing a fly without thinking about the fly, and gobbling down food without fully experiencing it. In Buddhist language, doing either is to be living unmindfully.

Blake would like the sense of imagination behind eating a tangerine in awareness. To Blake, taking the time to think about the tangerine as one is eating it – to think about the fragrance as lovely and the taste as sweet – is like creating the tangerine, because “thought is life.” This is similar to what Hanh is saying when he says that one who eats a tangerine in awareness is “real” – his is alive. Yet Blake takes this idea further by putting faith in an imagination that is greater than himself.

It is interesting that the authors of these two passages about living mindfully and living through imagination and creation, express themselves through acts of destruction: Blake through the destruction of a fly, and Hanh through the destruction of a tangerine. This is because both ideals must justify the act of destruction to cultivate a complete way of living (creating). Each practice justifies this paradox in subtly different ways.

In Hanh’s meditation, he justifies the destruction of the tangerine through the destruction itself. If the destruction is mindful, Hanh would say, it is justified, it is real. And thus through destroying with awareness, you are becoming “real” – more real than if you were to ignore destruction and focus solely on the more easily justifiable action of creating. Simply, Hanh would say, destruction is another form of creation, and one must be aware of all of its elements and beauties just as one must be fully aware of everything, in order to be “real.” Blake takes this acceptance of destruction as creation and goes further.

Blake is also aware that destruction is an inevitable part of life, and thus must be dealt with. Like Hanh, he would say that when destruction must be practiced, like in killing a fly or eating a tangerine, it must be done thoughtfully (mindfully), and he would even agree that destruction is another form of creation, but this would not be enough justification for him. For Blake, even a mindful life is not justified if there is not equal mindfulness in death. Blake deals with this by accepting that every act of creation and destruction is a thoughtful act of the greater hand that brushes man’s wings.

The crucial element of “The Fly” that “Eating a Tangerine” lacks, is the element of Blake’s greater hand – the hand of God. Through meditations on life – by means of a fly and a tangerine – Blake and Hanh see similar ideal ways of living, but Blake sees through these ways of living to the ways of God, and finds comfort in them. If the fly’s destruction is justified by us being conscious of our creative and destructive powers, than our destruction is justified through the consciousness of our creator and destroyer. We can see this by taking Blake’s parallel of man to fly and God to man to a conclusion: like Blake can create a fly with his imagination, God created man with his imagination, and thus if man can create something greater than the fly through the destruction of the fly, so can God create something greater than man through the destruction of man. The biblical character of Christ is a metaphorical representation of this idea – God destroyed his flesh to create something greater for all of humanity. Thus the last line of Blake’s poem, “The Fly,” goes beyond justifying life through mindful living, and, through the divinity of our imagination – the similarity of God’s imagination of ours – and justifies death through the same, “Then am I/A happy fly/If I live,/Or if I die.”

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