Modern Monasticism The Piercing Perception of William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
By Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD
William Wordsworth Immersed in the Lake District Fog...
A meditation rose in me that night
Upon the lonely mountain, when the scene
Had passed away, and it appeared to me
The perfect image of a might mind
Of one that feeds upon infinity...
William Wordsworth: Mount Snowdon (1791)
Author’s Note: ‘I've been researching Wordsworth for years. When Richard Hunn (my teacher) passed away in a Kyoto hospital in 2006, his last words were 'Let's go to the bookshop and buy some Wordsworth!' I found this curious as he spent his entire life specialising in Chinese Ch'an and Japanese Zen Buddhism. Just before this (around 2004), he had visited my home in London before going to see his elderly parents in Norfolk. I then received a box of vary interesting books sent from him, amongst which was a copy of John Rudy's 'Wordsworth and the Zen Mind'. I never read this book properly for some time and was surprised to find this American scholar had interviewed and quoted Richard in his work. In the meantime, I had listened to a cross section of Wordsworth's work and realised that his insight 'pierces' (eternally) the surface veil of material existence. Wordsworth was unique beyond the ironic (and poignant) name. He saw, (without any access to, or influence from Eastern religion), that a plurality of existence confronts the senses that is not contradictory or paradoxical, but which is perfect whilst calling-out to be understood by humanity (which exists within it)! Most cannot penetrate the material veil - staying firmly this side of it - whilst a few others are attached to the reality on the other side - to the exclusion of this side - both are errors of positioning (like an ill-thought-out movement made on a chessboard). Wordsworth, however, with no training in Zen, (or Christian monasticism, for that matter), was able to a) see through this veil, b) report exactly what he saw, and c) integrate fully with both realities (the shallow and the deep) so as to form a perfected triad of awareness! ACW-Email to Gillian Chang (11.10.2020)
Still paramount to every change
Which years can bring into the human heart
Our feelings are indissolubly bound
Together, and affinities preserved
Between all stages of the life of man
William Wordsworth (1800)
What is it that Wordsworth does? This question – and its answer – is the entire crux of the matter. Needless to say, all the old or expected answers are not ‘answers’ in the true sense of the word, as the surface of this question is not even scratched. Indeed, with such a staid response, this question dies a death even as it emerges looking for life. Superficial formulations about the functionality and meaning of the life of William Wordsworth will not serve to ‘free’ the reader from his or her habitual attachments, and neither will it reveal any type of underlying reality relevant to East or West. William Wordsworth was not Chinese but this fact may be balanced with the good news that neither was he an American. Indeed, ‘America’ did not exist when he was born as its War for Independence would not end until he was just 6-years-old (in 1776). He did live through (and witness) the French Revolution (beginning in 1789), and forever aligned his political views with the causes of progression (causing his poetry to often be described as ‘radical’, as a consequence). He never frequented a mosque, synagogue or Buddhist (and Hindu) temple, but despite being a very spiritual man – he tended to not get involved with established religion or formal theology. Whilst living in the idyllic Dove Cottage (and elsewhere), William Wordsworth certainly lived what can be described as a ‘Bohemian’ lifestyle with his cadre of middle-class hangers-on, friends, relatives, fellow poets and the curious. Although he occasionally travelled abroad, and certainly possessed the independent means not to work in a regular place of employment, his mind was always focused upon a) correctly (and dialectically) perceiving the superficial conditions that comprised his physical existence, and b) incisively ‘penetrate’ these circumstances so that an entirely ‘new’ and ‘fresh’ reality is conveyed through the well-chosen and precise words that comprised his poetical constructions. A perfect ‘surface’ of mundanity was re-interpreted through being made cognitively ‘transparent’ by Wordsworth masterful perception, so that its underlying (and ‘pristine’) reality could shine through – dazzling all and sundry!
He is compassionate, and has no thought,
No feeling, which can overcome his love.
And further, by contemplating these forms
In the relations which they bear to man
We shall discover what a power is theirs
To stimulate our minds, and multiply
The spiritual presences of absent things.
William Wordsworth (1798)
Seeing through reality was only half the story for Wordsworth. Although he could not change the structure or dynamics of the material universe, he could effect change in another way. Through a combination of his insight, understanding, timing and chosen words, he could literally illicit a ‘change of consciousness’ in the minds of his audience. He could not change the physical world, he could certainly ‘influence’ the manner in which his audience encountered and interpreted the world! Through his written and spoken words, others began to have an inkling that perhaps reality was not exactly as they thought it to be, or had been taught to interpret it. Through his developmental presence, Wordsworth managed to ‘loosen’ the bonds of conditioning that prevented people from seeing beyond the surface structure of material reality. This process of self-empowerment has sometimes been likened to Ch’an and Zen practice, with Wordsworth living a life very much like the masters of old... As Wordsworth possessed no knowledge whatsoever about Buddhism, and never encountered Chinese Ch’an or Japanese Zen, barring the metaphysics of ‘rebirth’ (which I do not entirely rule-out), what seems to be happening is that Wordsworth developed quite naturally – the ability to ‘see through’ the material (surface) veil and clearly perceive the underlying reality. By accident of circumstance, a middle-class poet living a relatively opulent lifestyle, somehow developed the ability to perceive reality through what might be better described as a ‘secular’ spirituality, as Wordsworth rarely, if ever, directly referred to theology to colour or describe what he saw. Wordsworth was in many ways a ‘modern’ philosopher of the senses who expressed his findings through the agency of poetry. In one way he was a materialist, whilst in another he was an ‘immaterialist’. Both elements of his insight integrated perfectly and without contradiction. There is in fact a third element of awareness which linked the ‘material’ to the ‘immaterial’, namely that of Wordsworth’s pristine perception. This triad of awareness did not require any assistance from religious rhetoric to be described by Wordsworth’s bare attention. He sees reality as it is – here and now – and it is this reliance upon the present moment that encourages a number of commentators to equate Wordsworth’s method of interpretation as being the English equivalent of Japanese Zen.
Attends upon the motions of the winds,
Embodied in the mystery of words;
There, darkness makes abode, and all the best host
Of shadowy things to work their changes there,
As in a mansion like their proper home.
Even forms and substances are circumfused
By that transparent veil with light divine,
And, through the turnings intricate of verse,
Present themselves as objects recognized,
In flashes, and with a glory scarce their own.
William Wordsworth (5.619-29)
On occasion, Wordsworth doubts his own awareness, or at least chooses to stay this side of material reality! At such times, all he sees is the passing of time, and the deterioration of conditioned reality. In-short, things become ‘old’ and ‘worn-out’ - but this is a matter of playing with perception – as Wordsworth is aware that when he looks ‘beyond’ the surface veil, time ‘stops’ and there is no retrograde development. This is the presence of eternity which envelopes the finite human existence and which is revealed through religiosity in one form or another. Most of humanity become perceptually ‘stuck’ in their physical being, and all they see is the passing of time and the apparent ‘loss’ of all that came before. Wordsworth knows different, however, and through his insight achieves a certain immortality, although he sometimes ‘plays’ with perception and indulges the bitter-sweet sentiment of bourgeois morality. This is the achievement of genuine freedom, although, of course, Wordsworth’s method is as ‘English’ as Zen is ‘Japanese’. Wordsworth breaks-free of the Judeo-Christian reality that defines his cultural manifestation – whilst Zen breaks-free of the Buddhism that equally defines Japanese culture. Both methods are vehicles for the death of certainty, as it is this loss of ‘certainty’ which is the key to this type of advanced self-cultivation and self-development. The timeless and the ‘passing of time’ mix like to rivers flowing into one another. Whatever chaos there may appear to be, exists only on the surface play of events, as beneath the surface all is eternally calm and peaceful. This perspective and non-perspective operating simultaneously, generates an entirely ‘new’ way of using the old machinery of perception. Everything becomes pristine, shining, bright, positive and all-embracing in its universality! Death arrives every moment and it is nothing to fear. Life arrives every moment and although there are fearful things, the fact that the surface play is continuously changing, dissipating and transmigrating into something (and ‘somewhere’) different allows for hope to replace fear. This is using change for change sake, but by continuously ‘communing’ with the quiet and deep underlying reality takes away the surface reaction of emotionality. This depth of psychology permeates the cellular level of the mind and body and quite literally ’purifies’ the blood-flow and the process of cellular interaction. Awareness becomes transparent, timeless, all-pervading, effervescent, lucid, loving, wise and supportive of creation.
Such minds are truly the deity,
For they are powers, and hence the highest bliss
That can be known is their – the consciousness
Of whom they are, habitually infused
Through every image, and through every thought,
And all impressions; hence religion, faith,
And endless occupation for the soul,
Whether discursive or intuitive,
Hence sovereignty within and peace at will,
Emotion which best foresight need not fear,
Most worthy then of trust when most intense;
Hence cheerfulness in every act of life;
Hence trust in moral judgements; and delight
That fails not, in the external universe.
William Wordsworth (1805) Prelude
This is how Wordsworth became a ‘monk’ in the modern and secular context. A monk does not have to live in a monastery to find ‘oneness’ and ‘fulfilment’ - they simply must align their awareness with the superficial and the deep. What else is there to do? Seeing things as they actually are is quite different to perceiving things as we are taught. Undoing this conditioning is why many people look ‘within’ and attempt to seek answers. This triad of Wordsworthian perception combines to form a ‘oneness’ of perception that all monastics seek, but it is not ‘one-sided’. On the contrary, this ‘oneness’ which is often re-discovered whilst living a life of solitude, is three-dimensional, contains all things because it is fundamentally ‘empty’, and is as loving as it is wise. There is a) human perception, b) awareness of superficial reality, and c) awareness of depth-reality – this is the triad of Wordsworthian perception.
While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise,
We Men, who in our morn of youth defied
The elements, must vanish; - be it so!
Enough, if something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the future hour;
And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,
Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,
We find that we are greater than we know.
William Wordsworth (7-14)
William Wordsworth lived for 80-long years. He had spent much of his life thinking about ‘thinking’ and thinking about ‘sensing’. This appears to be exactly the type of contemplation and meditation practised by a monk of the Christian or Buddhist traditions – and yet for Wordsworth he was not encumbered by the restrictions associated with formal religion – and did not answer to any Abbot or Head monk. Formal religions tend to downplay the ability of the laity whilst deifying the formal monastics – as if the ordinary people cannot realise any substantial spiritual attainments without surrounding themselves with religious dogma. In this regard, Wordsworth is similar in attitude and insight as is the Indian lay-Buddhist practitioner Vimalakirti, and that of the Chinese 6th Patriarch Hui Neng, as both achieved a great spiritual understanding whilst living within lay-society. Monasticism can mean to ‘look within’ and find ‘oneness’, and it can also imply a lifestyle of living in solitude – even if one were to live in a monastery with hundreds of other monks. Looking within and looking without with a penetrative vigour that eventually understands that the reality that resides deep within the mind is also the reality that underlies all physical matter. The empty mind ground does not only exist in the deep mind – but it must be discovered in the deep mind to comprehend that all of material reality shares exactly the same essence. This understanding is the pursuance of genuine monastic practice divorced from all discriminating religiosity. This is not to say that religious monasticism is incorrect or inappropriate, far from it, but that the circumstances and conditionality of the life of ordinary people can, and often does facilitate spiritual attainment. William Wordsworth demonstrates that an ordinary person can develop his or her mind and use that mind to penetrate the reality of bodily and material reality.
'Licchavi Vimalakirti came to the foot of that tree and said to me, ’Reverend Sariputra, this is not the way to absorb yourself in contemplation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation so that neither body nor mind appear anywhere in the triple world. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest all ordinary behavior without forsaking cessation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest the nature of an ordinary person without abandoning your cultivated spiritual nature.' Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra