Awakenings: Blake and the Buddha, by Mark S. Ferrara

Ch’an Buddhism and the Prophetic Poems of William Blake

The similarities between William Blake’s philosophical system and that of Buddhism (particularly the Ch’an(a) or Zen School) are no less than astonishing. One is struck by a fundamental similitude underlying the teaching of the Ch’an school and that of Blake’s radical epistemology.

The first English translation of the Bhagavad Gita, by Sir Charles Wilkins

Scholars are aware that William Blake (1757-1827) knew the Bhagavad Gita in its first English translation by Sir Charles Wilkins (1785). Blake’s A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures (1809) even has an entry for a piece called “The Bramins – A Drawing.” Moreover, Kathleen Raine suggests that Blake knew “some of the Proceedings off the Calcutta Society of Bengal promoted by Sir William Jones.”

Further, Blake believed fundamentally that ‘All Religions are One’ (1788). He wrote, “As all men are alike (tho, infinitely various) So all Religions & as all similars have one source.” It was also his opinion that “The philosophy of the east taught the first principles of human perception.”

Although the above constitute enough evidence to suggest Blake’s familiarity with the East (particularly Indian thinking as found in the Vedic tradition) they do not fully explain the strange parallelism of thought between the English poet-painter’s mythic philosophy and that of Mahayanna Buddhism.

The Four Zoas

A supremely important component of Blake’s prophetic mythological writings, especially Jerusalem (1804-20) and Milton (1804), is the concept of the Four Zoas. Briefly, these Four Zoas make up the unified psyche of Albion, the Universal Man. Each of the Four Zoas represents an aspect of the personality of Universal Map. Christine Gallant equates the Four Zoas with the four aspects of the personality in Jungian psychology: Thinking, Feeling, Sensation, and Intuition.

Urizen is the Zoa that most broadly represents the intellectual faculties. Luvah is the emotional aspect of man. Tharmas is the essence of the bodily form of the universal Albion. Urthona is the Zoa most closely associated with the imagination, which Blake considers the seat of wisdom. In Blakean mythology, the harmonious integration of the Zoas is disrupted when Urizen (the intellectual principle) attempts, and succeeds, in usurping Urthona (the wisdom principle). Then the zoas begin to fight amongst themselves, as each tries to function as an autonomous principle apart from the others.

And the Four Zoas clouded rage East & West & North & South

They change their situations, in the Universal Man.

Albion groans, he sees the Elements divide before his face …

And Urizen assumes the East, Luvah assumes the South …

And the Four Zoas who are the Four Eternal Senses of Man

Became Four Elements separating from the Limbs of Albion

“Urizen (the intellect) comes to domininate the psychic terrain, dividing reality into dualistic qualities”

Urizen, whose original position is in the south, displaces Luvah in the east. Subsequently, Luvah assumes the southern position, thus fragmenting the original harmony of the four. Urizen (the intellect) comes to domininate the psychic terrain, dividing reality into dualistic qualities. The senses are darkened, as they are no longer able to perceive reality as a complex of unified psychic properties.

Blake interprets the rise of Urizen to the fore of consciousness as the main cause of the loss of “The Divine Vision,” or the vision of the infinite in all things. This vision is the ability to perceive God, or the ground of existence, in everything and everywhere.

“Urizen is the zoa who abstracts the creative principle and reduces it to a ratio”

As a result of the loss of this vision, the intellect that now dominates perception sees only the ratio between things, for “He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the ratio only sees himself.” It is Los, the primary emanation of Urthona (the wisdom principle), that attempts to restore the dis-integrated psyche. A well known Blake scholar explains:

Urizen is the zoa who abstracts the creative principle and reduces it to a ratio…Los is the creative principle that raises man’s fallen single vision into total vision of fourfoldness. He is the visionary process the visionary eye of a visionary body, the archetype of the artist prophet. Los acts against Urizen, whose sole purpose for existing is to constantly reduce man to the ratio of things known. (Abrahams, William Blake’s Fourfold Man)

Although Blake’s mythic system differs from the Ch’an tradition, Buddhists generally recognize that the intellectual faculty in man is something that must be under-cut in order to properly apprehend the essence of the teaching. The assumption is not that the intellect is inherently evil, but that it simply does not know its proper place.

For “Ch’an practice is not simply concerned with the removal of the discriminative processes of thought it also involves the positive reinforcement of wholesome qualities of the mind.” That is to say, rationality and intellection play essential roles in decision making, planning, environment assessment, and such considerations. However, if the intellect comes to dominate, the field of consciousness darkens. As D.T. Suzuki rhetorically asks:

Are we not complete in ourselves and each in himself?  Life as it is lived suffices.  It is only when the disquieting intellect steps in and tries to murder it that we stop to live and imagine ourselves to be short of or in something. Let the intellect alone, it has its usefulness in its proper sphere, but let it not interfere with the life-stream. If you are at all tempted to look into it, do so while letting it flow.

The fact of flowing must under no circumstances be arrested or meddled with, for the moment your hands are dipped into it, its transparency is disturbed, it ceases to reflect your image which you have had from the very beginning and will continue to have to the end of time. (Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism)

Here, Blake and Ch’an are in full agreement as to the nature of the intellect. Both see the intellect not as inherently evil, but as overly active in the normal psyche.

“Let the intellect alone, it has its usefulness in its proper sphere, but let it not interfere with the life-stream”

Ch’an, with its characteristic lack of all extraneous symbolism, points directly to the matter, while Blake employs a heavily symbolic mythology (perhaps more similar to the Tibetan tradition) to demonstrate the intellect’s aggressive dominance. Furthermore, both agree that the original nature of man is whole, and remains so if left alone by the meddling intellect. The Divine Vision, Blake maintains, is the original prelapsarian state of the integrated psyche in which all the zoas are harmoniously balanced.

The Finite Mind and the Infinite Vision

The Divine Vision is obscured from our everyday consciousness because the renegade intellect (Urizen) can see only the ratio, and not the infinity that lies just beneath it. “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” When the psyche is re-integrated the experience of infinity is naturally restored; for “the Divine Vision remains Every-where Forever. ” Kathleen Raine amplifies this insight:

‘Everything that lives is holy’ because the divine spirit in man is the ground, is the place, is the nature of all existent things when truly understood. The holiness of life is not something predicated, as an attribute, but inherent in the divine nature of the ground … and [is] in its essence therefore both living and holy.

Blake’s insistence on the originally integrated nature of the mind becomes particularly interesting when compared to the Ch’an conception of Buddha-nature. A well known koan asks the aspirant: ‘Does a dog have Buddha-nature?’ in hopes of awakening the monk to an awareness of the fundamental nature of reality. The function of the koan is to “blot out by sheer force of the will all the discursive traces of intellection whereby students of Zen prepare their consciousness to be the proper ground for intuitive knowledge to burst out.”

Both terms, The Divine Vision and Buddha-nature, are synonyms for this ground that is eternal and abiding,  although this ground is often not recognized as such by our minds. This is what the monk is asked to recognize, not intellectually, but intuitively: “The Buddha-nature is a spontaneous generation in the sense that it is not a product of intellection, nor of imagination.”

“all things (dharmas) have Buddha nature” – or as Blake put it, “Everything is an attempt/To be human”

Further, that this primal reality (Buddha-nature) is the ground from which all “things” spring, means that all things (dharmas) have Buddha nature. Reality is all-inclusive, there is nothing that can be outside of it. Because it is all inclusive, it is the fullness of things, not a content free abstraction, as the intellect is too frequently apt to make it. It is not a mere aggregate of individual objects, nor is it something other than the objects. It is not something that is imposed upon things stringing them together and holding them together from the outside. It is the principle of integration residing inside things and identical with them.

The Emissary who thinks he’s the Master

“the story of the Western world is one of increasing left-hemisphere domination”

Why then, one might ask, is this primary reality not readily apparent in our everday life? Both Blakean philosophy and Buddhism lay the blame, once again, on the intellect. Blake points out that “reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.” Ch’an Buddhism has it that:

The intellect, forgetting its own nature and limitations, persuades itself into thinking there is an ‘I’ effecting union with a ‘not-I’ and proclaims this ‘union’ to be a mystic experience, the whole thing turns topsy-turvy and a ‘I’ with all its egocentric impulses comes to assert itself.

In Blakean mythology, Urizen (the intellect) usurps the place of Urthona (the wisdom principle), thus creating a primary bifurcation in consciousness and obscuring the Divine Vision. For Blake, the loss of the Divine Vision is the root of all the woes of humankind. When humankind can awake from the dream of Urizen, we return to our original nature.

The Dream of Urizen: “Urizen (the intellect) usurps the place of Urthona (the wisdom principle), thus creating a primary bifurcation in consciousness and obscuring the Divine Vision”

This return is a kind of reversion back to a unified field of consciousness. Indeed, the restoration of the Divine Vision is the theme of Blake’s three greatest prophetic poems: Jerusalem, Milton, and The Four Zoas. Ch’an also suggests that a reversion (or revulsion) is needed in the deepest seat of consciousness in order to restore the mind to its original nature.

Awakening from the Dream of Ratios

Both Blake and Buddhism often employ the analogy of awakening as if from a dream to suggest this reversion in consciousness. That is to say, a re-orientation of consciousness relegates the intellect to its proper sphere, thus making possible the direct apprehension the most fundamental reality. D.T. Suzuki, in his Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra (an Indian text of major importance to the Ch’an school), describes this turning-about in the deepest recesses of consciousness as:

the Lankavatara Sutra

a revulsion toward true perception (paravritti) … [which] marks the culmination of the practical psychology of the Lankavatara, for it is through this fact that the realization of Pratyatmaryajnanagocara is possible, and this realization is the central theme of the discourse …The new orientation takes place when the ego-centric and evil-creating discrimination based upon the dualism of subject and object ceases by the realization that there is no external world besides what is perceived within the self; and this realization is effected by the cultivation of the intellect known as non-discriminative and transcendental … This sudden turning is in a sense re-turning, the Alaya or Tathagata-garbha returns by this to its original purity (suddha), happiness (sukha), and eternal nature which is above pravritti and nirvritti (rise and disappearance).

There are two pertinent concepts in the above quotation from Suzuki that have correlates in Blakean philosophy. The first is the “revulsion toward a true perception.” ‘True perception’ as it is used here is synomous with Blake’s Divine Vision. The second pertinent concept is that this revulsion is in a sense a re-turning to the originally holistic and grounded nature of the mind.

“the realization that there is no external world besides what is perceived within the self”

For Blake also, the triumph of Urthona over Urizen marks a return to the fundamentally undivided ground of being. Let us take a closer look at the concept of the Divine Vision in Blakean Mythology. To recapitulate, the central discourse of Blake’s prophetic writings is the restoration of the Divine Vision, by means of the reinstatement of Urthona to his rightful place in the seat of consciousness. When Urthona is restored, reality is no longer perceived in ratio. No longer are the senses darkened and petrified against the infinite. William Blake and Ch’an Buddhism suggest that reality as it appears to our consciousness is, in some senses, a “reflection” of our psyche. That is, if the mind is fragmented it can only perceive in terms of ratio.

“tho it appears Without it is Within”

By contrast, the unified mind perceives a fundamental unity in multiplicity. In Ch’an thinking this is known as the doctrine of ‘mind-only.” In Blakean terms:

Rivers Mountains Cities Villages,
All are Human & when you enter into their Bosoms you walk
In Heavens & Earths; as in your own Bosom you bear your Heaven
And Earth, & all you behold, tho it appears Without it is Within
In your Imagination of which this World of Mortality is but a Shadow.

In slightly different terms we read that “If Perceptive Organs vary: Objects of Perception seem to vary: If the Perceptive Organs Close: Their Objects seem to close also.” This is why for Blake, “A fool sees not the same tree as the wise man sees.”

Integrated Vision, Integrated Reality

Los, the fiery prophet

When perception is cleared of egoistic and intellectual obstructions, the infinite, that “which was hid,” is once again known. The restoration of the Divine Vision is equated to the re-unification of the Four Zoas. When Urizen usurps Urthona, the Zoas cease to operate in conjunction with each other. The result is the loss of the Divine Vision. The re-unification of the Zoas is tantamount to the recovery of this lost vision.

It is Los, the emanation of the Urthona principle, who struggles to bring the rebellious Zoas back to their proper spheres. Los is the “fiery prophet” of the wisdom principle (Urthona) and the rightful seat of consciousness. Urthona is both wisdom and imagination, for Blake. Once one remembers his dual vocation as poet and painter, it is perfectly understandable that imagination should be equated with wisdom.

However, Ch’an equates imagination with delusion, which arises out of the habit energy of the mind. Although Ch’an Buddhism’s use of the term imagination seems to be a contradiction of Blake’s use of the term, the problem is a difference in terminology, rather than philosophy. For Imagination is in Blakean philosophy the anti-thesis of delusion. He writes in his annotations to Wordsworth’s poems: “One Power alone makes a Poet. Imagination, The Divine Vision.” Thus Imagination and The Divine Vision are synonymous terms for the wisdom principle, rather than the opposition of truth and fancy.

The Ch’an school of Buddhism recognizes Prajna as the wisdom principle. Thus both Blake and the Ch’an tradition recognize wisdom (Urthona and Prajna respectively) as the rightful seat of consciousness. Suzuki explains the Ch’an concept of Prajna in his Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series:

It was the presence in every individual of a faculty designated by the Mahayanist as Prajna. This was the first principle that made Enlightenment possible in us as well as in the Buddha. Without Prajna there could be no Enlightenment, which was the highest principle in our possession … Enlightenment consisted in personally realizing the truth, ultimate and absolute and capable of affirmation. Thus we are all Bodhisattvas now, beings of Enlightenment, if not in actuality, then potentially. Bodhisattvas are also Prajna-sattvas, as we are universally endowed with Prajna, when fully and truly operating, will realize in us Enlightenment.

Here two truths are observed in the Buddhist tradition; the first is demonstrated in Suzuki’s correlation of Prajna with Enlightenment, and that it is an active principle capable of affirmation.

The word ‘Enlightenment’ is an unfortunate mistranslation of the Sanskrit term ‘bodhi’ (hence ‘Buddha’) which means “to wake up” or “to recover consciousness”. Bodhi is not the result of an illumination, but of a path of realization, or coming to understanding: the term “enlightenment” is event-oriented whereas the term “awakening” is process-oriented

The second important  feature of this passage is the implication that all people possess the quality of ‘awakening’, but may not have actualized it. “Hence the Mahayana doctrine that all beings, sentient or nonsentient, are endowed with the Buddha-nature, and that our minds are the Buddha-mind.” Here is Prajna extended to its fullest potential. The question then naturally arises: If Prajna and The Divine Vision are the same principle of wisdom operating in two different systems, and Prajna facilitates the realization of Enlightenment, do these truths correlate The Divine Vision in Blakean philosophy with Enlightenment, as Buddhists use the term?

In order to answer this question, let us take a closer look at each of these important concepts. The restoration of The Divine Vision is the concluding action of the three major Blakean prophecies: Milton, Jerusalem, and The Four Zoas. As such, we cannot underrate the importance of The Divine Vision. Blake equates it with awakening, affirmation, and the ability to perceive the infinite in all things. It has been said the The Divine Vision is restored when The Four Zoas are reintegrated. This means that Urthona (wisdom) once again becomes the governing principle of consciousness; and further, that the remaining three Zoas harmoniously follow the edicts of Urthona.

“the ability to perceive the infinite in all things”

Here there is a marked similarity with C. G. Jung’s psychology of Integration. According to Jung, ‘Integration … is an act of self-recollection, a gathering together of what is scattered, of all the things in us that have never been properly related, and coming to terms with oneself with a view of achieving full consciousness.” The re-unification (or ‘gathering together’) of the Four Zoas is also for Blake the means for achieving full consciousness. This re-unification awakens the sleeper from the cold dreams of Urizen, restores sensual perception, exposes the Infinite where there was only finiteness and ratio.

“When the self thus stands in its native nakedness, it defies all description”

Through the process of self-examination, Blake proposes that humankind can awaken to Enlightenment.

All that can be annihilated must be annihilated … the Reasoning Power in Man: This is a false Body; an Incrustation over my immortal Spirit; a Selfhood, which must be put off & annihilated always, To cleanse the Face of my Spirit by Self-examination.

Ch’an Buddhism also recognizes the necessity of self-examination as a means to the realization of enlightenment. Self examination culminates in the recovery of the Self’s native unlimitedness, which is then expressed on the field of perception. The essential discipline of Zen consists in emptying the self of all its psychological contents, in stripping the self of all those trappings, moral, philosophical, and spiritual, with which it has adorned itself ever since the first awakening of consciousness. When the self thus stands in its native nakedness, it defies all description.

Further, “The self in its is-ness, pure and simple, is comparable to a circle without circumference and, therefore, with its centre nowhere – which is everywhere. Or it is like a zero that is equal to, or rather identical with, infinity.” This Zen analogy of the Self as identical with infinity is precisely the analogy that Blake uses to describe the effect of the restoration of The Divine Vision on consciousness. In a well known passage from Auguries of Innocence Blake illustrates this profound identification of Self with infinity:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

It is no coincidence that D. T. Suzuki quotes the very same passage in his Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series to demonstrate the fullness of Zen experience.

The world is able to be perceived in a grain of sand because the self, having its center everywhere, can identify itself in the “Minute Particulars” of our world. Every encounter becomes a potential for enlightenment. The self no longer stands against the other, but rather becomes the other. That is why, for Blake, ‘The most sublime act is to set other before you.”

Further, this experience (Prajna or The Divine Vision) makes possible an identification with the most ordinary of things. In Songs of Experience (1794) it is a common fly that Blake identifies with:

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

In Ch’an Buddhism this identification plays a key role in shaping the philosophy of the Bodhisattva, and even develops into the Mahayana doctrine of “mind only” which is advocated by the Lankavatara Sutra. This sutra states that “When there takes place a revulsion at the seat of discrimination by realizing that external objects are appearances or manifestations of one’s own mind, then there is deliverance, which is not annihilation.”

This revulsion has been described above as Enlightenment, a recognition of Prajna (The Divine Vision) in one’s own mind. Once external objects are viewed as manifestations of ones own mind, a profound identification can take place which unifies the once bifurcated experience that interprets only in terms of subject and object. Blake and Ch’an both realize this profound identification as the necessary ground of human experience. This realization is for the Mahayanist Enlightenment and for Blake The Divine Vision.


In conclusion, then, we notice that even though Blakean and Ch’an philosophies differ, a strange parallelism emerges that defies a purely historical explanation. Although Blake employs an elaborate system of mythological figures to give flight to his thought, his primary concern is the restoration of The Divine Vision (Enlightenment). This is clearly the main thrust of his epic prophetic poems that were painstakingly engraved and illuminated.

Ch’an Buddhism, although avoiding the use of heavy symbology, primarily emphasizes the realization of Enlightenment through the recognition of Prajna, or the wisdom principle. Ch’an points directly to the matter, being suspicious of both extraneous symbolism and language. On the other hand, Blake describes this realization in terms of the restoration of the Zoa Urthona (the wisdom principle) to the seat of consciousness. However, both agree that the intellect is the primary reason for the obscuring of the wisdom principle. For those readers who desire further explanation of these seeming strange parallelisms between Blakean and Ch’an, consider C. G. Jung’s comments as he attempts to explain the similitude he saw between the Eastern mind and the Western:

[I]t must be pointed out that just as the human body shows a common anatomy over and above all racial differences, so, too, the psyche possesses a common substratum transcending all differences in culture and consciousness …This [collective] unconscious psyche, common to all mankind, does not consist merely of contents capable of becoming conscious, but of latent dispositions toward certain identical reactions … This explains the analogy, sometimes even identity, between various myth-motifs, and symbols, and the possibility of human beings making themselves mutually understood. The various lines of psychic development start from one common stock whose roots reach back into all the strata of the past.

From here it is hardly a giant leap to suggest that Ch’an Enlightenment and Blake’s The Divine Vision are fundamental and omnipresent experiences (though often obscured) in the psyche of all human-kind (past and present).

The concept of Awakening can be found in nearly every religious (and often philosophical) tradition, though it will be necessarily couched in the symbology and language of the culture through which the experience comes. Perhaps it is here that we may come most closely to an explanation of the similarities between Blakean and Ch’an Buddhist thought. It may be suggested, then, that Blake experienced Enlightenment (The Divine Vision) and expressed it in the symbols and language available to him from his Western cultural heritage, while Ch’an expresses Enlightenment in the terms made available in Eastern culture.

This is an edited version of Ch’an Buddhism and the Prophetic Poems of William Blake by Mark S. Ferrara. To read the full article please click here.


  1. PlanetThoughts · December 7

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article.

    One type (I believe): should be “defied” not “defined”, if I understand your intention, in this paragraph:

    In conclusion, then, we notice that even though Blakean and Ch’an philosophies differ, a strange parallelism emerges that defines a purely historical explanation.


    • Golgonooza · December 7

      Thanks for you comment and your very thoughtful reading of the article. I’ve checked the spelling against the original, and see that they use the word “defines” here – but I agree, it should probably be “defies”, so I have amended it accordingly. Thank you again for your observant feedback.


  2. PlanetThoughts · December 7

    Wow, that was quick action! And I see my own comment misspelled “typo” as “type”.

    There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in (Leonard Cohen)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s