How To Hold Infinity In Your Hand

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.

– William Blake (Opening Verse from ‘Auguries of Innocence’)

This celebrated stanza is often seen to be very Zennish in nature. As with the Zen teachings in verse, poetry in general is often seen as flowery, mystical or plain incomprehensible. However, effective spiritual poetry is never written to confound, but is articulately crisp and crystal clear in its messages, even when metaphors are used to condense them. Now, how would a Buddhist interpret Blake’s words? How can an entire universe be witnessed within a grain of sand? It might not be literally seen straightaway, yet, for the single grain to exist, countless cosmic causes and conditions must come together to allow it to come into being, and to sustain its existence. The microcosm thus contains and reflects the macrocosm. This is the Buddha’s teaching of interdependence, of how all can be in one and one in all.

Next, he speaks of seeing the heavenly in an earthly flower. Again, due to the interconnected nature of the scheme of things, ‘as above, so below’. Perhaps usually taken for granted, even that deemed ordinary is extraordinary when perceived in the light of mindfulness. Even the simple yet full experience of a flower can inspire great bliss. Indeed, there is nothing that holds no wonders when there is heightened awareness of everything. This reminds us of the classic Zen story of how the Buddha once held up a golden lotus flower, thus imparting a silent teaching to Maha Kasyapa, who realised and smiled at its essential message, the very heart of the Dharma, that cannot be verbally expressed; but only personally experienced. Words can only do so much (or little) to guide us to the wordless truth.

Just as the Buddha held the infinitude of all in a flower, Blake wrote of holding infinite space in a finite hand, in this centre of ‘here’. Whatever it holds, be it a grain of sand, a flower or whatnot, it is paradoxically both something specific (as a form), as an aspect of conventional truth, and everything (nothing specific; being empty of fixed forms), as an aspect of ultimate truth. A flower is conventionally a flower. Yet, ultimately, for it to be, as before, boundless conditions like water, light, nutrients, air and heat are needed. Each condition dependently arises from infinite conditions elsewhere too, with every one constantly changing, morphing into something else since beginningless time, and continuing to do so indefinitely. In this sense, to admire the marvels of a flower even for a second is to behold the centre of infinite time in this ‘now’!

To perceive everything from anything,
And the extraordinary in the ordinary,
Behold all things before you here,
And all time before you now.

– Opening Verse Reworded

Related Article:
How Is One In All & All In One?

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