Ajita: What pollutes the world
and what threatens it most?
The Buddha: The hunger of desire pollutes the world
and fear of pain from suffering (threatens it most).
In the early 1920’s when T.S. Eliot was putting together his collection of fragments that formed The Waste Land, he wove into the poem his appreciation of the Buddha’s teachings.
Many readers of poetry regard The Waste Land as the finest poem of the 20th century in the English language – a poem of deep concern about wilful destruction of the Earth and spiritual emptiness in daily life. Eliot frequently turned to the early Buddhist texts, particularly Henry Clarke Warren’s “Buddhism in Translation” (Harvard Oriental series), for insight and inspiration.
(Warren wrote: “Protestant Christianity teaches salvation by faith while Buddhism places its greatest reliance in meditation”).
The Waste Land and the elegant Four Quartets are Eliot’s most revered poems. The Waste Land is the most analysed 20th century poem in English. It exposes the soul-destroying forces of a wretched and pained life, a perception expressed in the First Noble Truth of Suffering. This poem established Eliot as one of the greatest English language poets of the 20th century. In1948, he received the Nobel Prize and the Order of Merit.
Eliot often gave free rendering in his poems to the teachings of the Buddha, the Bhavagad Gita and the Upanishads. The poet, Stephen Spender, wrote: “If Eliot’s own views are to be considered I once heard him say to the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral that at the time he was wring The Waste Land he “seriously considered becoming a Buddhist.” Eliot said that after three years of study and reflection on Oriental philosophy it left him in a “state of enlightened mystification.” Another great poet and Nobel Prize winner, W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) also publicly acknowledged the influence of the Buddha’s message on his own life.
Regarded as the Everest of 20th century poetry, The Waste Land awakens us to the futile features of daily life in Western civilization and offers the occasional glimpse of something of a different order. The poem has earned an international reputation for being difficult to understand; this vexed Eliot although he acknowledged that it was not easy to read. He explained: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.’ Still, he made his subsequent poems, including Four Quartets, easier for readers to comprehend.
The poet, Ezra Pound edited whole sections from The Waste Land but did nothing to alter its structureless appearance. Following the 434-line poem are 196 lines of Eliot’s notes on it but these make only a small contribution to the reader’s insights into the messages within the poem. The notes detail the significant influences for each of the five sections of the poem:
1-. The Burial of the Dead
2. A Game of Chess
3. The Fire Sermon
4. Death by Water
5. What the Thunder said.
1. The Burial of the Dead
From the famous opening lines to the end of the poem there is an intensity accompanied by awareness of a painfully harsh existence that compels our attention.
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire stirring…
…1 was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.”
Rooted in the London of dark suits and black umbrellas of the 1920’s, the first section of the poem refers to London Bridge across
which tens of thousands of office workers march daily, morning and evening, in tedium and conformity. (Between the ages of 15 and 22, 1 travelled five days a week across this bridge on foot or the number 13 bus. Forty years after Eliot, can recall occasions when I had similar thoughts until I walked out of the office and wandered to the East for about a decade).
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where St. Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.”
Office and factory workers in the city who enter the daily treadmill of the work environment have to undergo, as Eliot himself did, those long, drab winters when cold chills the bone. During his 12 years as a city bank clerk, Eliot witnessed the degree to which he and others remained embroiled in their memories and desires. Amidst the drab conformity and polite veneer of civilization, were a range of inner voices desperately trying to break out-to escape these wastelands and journey to something different. These voices speak in the poem.
Whether Eliot intended it or not, The Waste Land has become an incisive and telling indictment of the wretchedness of our society. Degradation of our environment is not only a matter of defilement of land, water and air, it includes a psychological environment reduced to chilling drabness.
2. A Game of Chess
“From satin cases poured in rich profusion.
ln animals of ivory and coloured glass
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powder ed or liquid-troubled, confused
And drowned the senses in odours; stirred by the air…
‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
What are you thinking of7 What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.’
I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.”
Unlike the Buddha, Eliot declined to pinpoint the remedy for this bleakness of city life but instead highlighted, even accelerated, the reader’s confrontation with the First Noble Truth. Eliot said he wrote the poem out of need rather than with any intention to make a comment about 20th century civilization. He told one critic: “I wonder what an ‘intention’ means! One doesn’t know quite what it is that one wants to get off the chest until one’s got it off. But I couldn’t apply the word ‘intention’ positively to any of my poems.
The Waste Land has lost none of its authenticity; some would say that its relevance is even greater today. A generation of young men died in the battlefields of Europe from 1914-18. In the post First World War era, when the merciless tyrannies of fascism and communism cast their dark shadows over so-called Western civilization, a pervasive spiritual despair prevailed. Yet Eliot’s despair focuses on the city environment rather than any predominantly political ideology. Though fascism and totalitarianism represented the ugly face of civilization of the 1920’s, we have as pernicious a threat to our welfare today. This is the same holocaust of spiritual values and systematic worldwide destruction of community life, cultures and environment as that Eliot wrote about.
As the title of the poem implies, a tone of bleak grandeur infuses the reader from one line to another as Eliot conveys his experience of despair and torment. The physical and mental unhappiness of his first wife, his struggles between belief and scepticism, his conversion from “American” to “English” (dress, accent, London residence and citizenship) had a telling impact on his consciousness.
The Waste Land‘s fragmentary rhythm speaks of Eliot himself who acknowledged his “only hope of really penetrating into the heart of the mystery of Indian philosophy would lie in forgetting how to think and feel as an American or an European which for practical as well as sentimental reasons I do not wish to do.”
3. The Fire Sermon
Thomas Stearns Eliot, born in 1888 in Missouri, held deep feelings for a religious life, without holding to a religion during his student days at Harvard University. Inspired by the 19th century endorsement of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the “Brahmin” tradition of Harvard University emphasized the study of Indian philosophies and religion.
It was at this time that he began writing some early pieces that became fragments of the poem. Inspired by saints and spiritual seekers, who shrug off worldly pursuits and the unimaglnative conformity of civilization, Eliot devoted much of his studies to reading Buddhist and Hindu texts on the wisdom of the spiritual life. In 1912 -1913, three of his seven courses were in “Indic philology, ” two being sections in the original Pali, the language used to record the Buddha’s teachings. He regarded his two teachers of Buddhism and Hinduism, Irving Babbit and Paul Elmer More, as the two wisest men he ever met. Eliot had stated that poet’s maturity depended upon his or her “range of sensibility… especially in the range of religious feeling.”
The most damning statement about the Western world is in the third section. In his notes at the end of the poem, Eliot writes: “The complete text of the Buddha’s Fire Sermon (which corresponds in importance to the Sermon on the Mount) from which these words are taken will be found translated in the late Henry Clarke Warren’s Buddhism in Translation (Harvard Oriental Series). Mr. Warren was one of the great pioneers of Buddhist studies in the Occident.”
Although Eliot overestimates the significance of the Fire Sermon, he recognizes it as a fundamental talk of the Buddha designed to disillusion the listener from all hope of finding any genuine satisfaction through desire and pleasure. The Buddha said that we are burning up with greed, hate and delusion and, as a result, the world is on fire. Due to the overheated mind, we burn up with desire for things of the world. Selfish demands upon each other and the environment generate wars, famines and destruction. The Buddha exposed the unresolved personal problems of human behaviour and our burning desire for gratification regardless of the resultant suffering for everybody and everything, including the Earth.
In a talk given in Gaya, Bihar, India, the Buddha used dramatic language when he said:
“All is burning. And what is All that is burning?”
The eye is burning. Visible forms are burning.
Eye consciousness is burning. Eye contact is burning. Also feeling, whether pleasant, painful or neither-painful-nor pleasant, that arises with eye contact as its condition, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of anger, with the fire of confusion; ii is burning with birth, ageing and death, with sorrow, regret, pain, grief and despair, I say.
The ear is burning. Sounds are burning…
The nose is burning. Smells are burning….
The tongue is burning. Tastes are burning…
The body is burning. Touch is burning…
The mind is burning.
Mental objects are burning.
Mind consciousness is burning.
Mind contact is burning.
Also, the feeling, whether pleasant, painful or neither painful- nor pleasant that arises with mind contact its condition, that too is burning. Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of anger and with the fire-of confusion; it is burning with birth, ageing and death, with sorrow, regret, pain, grief and despair, I say. ‘ Seeing thus, the wise noble one becomes dispassionate towards the eye, Towards visible forms, towards eye consciousness, towards eye contact’ Also he becomes dispassionate towards the feeling, whether pleasant, pain fut or neither-pleasant-nor painful, that arises with eye contact as its condition One becomes dispassionate towards the eye, nose, tongue and body and mind….
Being dispassionate his lust fades away; with the fading away of lust his heart is liberated; when the heart is liberated there comes the spiritual insights: it is liberated. One understands: birth is exhausted, the spiritual life has been lived out; what was to be done is done, there is no more of this to come.”
Verse after verse of The Waste Land conveys the same pointlessness of grasping after pleasure and mediocrity. The “sweet Thames” nourishes the religious voice of Eliot’s rebellion against a shadowy existence of daily work rituals and the boredom of the home life, including sex. Eliot communicates our daily struggle with circumstances with only occasional points of light to uplift the spirit-communal feelings found in a pub, or in a sculpture, Magnus Martyr, in a church of Christopher Wren.
In the third section, Eliot writes:
“The river’s tent is broken; last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are
By the waters of Leman, l sat down and wept…
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast, l hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal…
O City, city I can sometimes hear
Besides a public bar in lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from wiithin
Where fishermen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
lnexplicable splendour of lonian white and gold.
The river sweats
Oil and tar…”
Eliot’s attention in the final lines of The Fire Sermon turns to the seaside resort of Margate. In the autumn of 1920 Eliot’s father-in-law became seriously ill so Eliot and his wife, Vivien, nursed him day and night. Eliot returned the following year: In October,1921, he went to recuperate at the Albermarle Hotel, Cliftonville, Margate, for the first week of his stay, and two weeks more at a cheaper hotel. He took with him a mandoline that Vivien had given him.
While there he wrote much of The Fire Sermon. Eliot was unhappy: his marriage was in a shambles, his mental and physical health were under severe strain. Yet in this section of the poem, he expresses a suffering that runs deeper than personal circumstances, becoming impersonal and pervasive in its mode.
4. Death by Water
By the end of the year, Eliot was putting together the final version of the entire poem for Ezra Pound to edit. Vivien and Eliot went to Paris where Pound made changes in the various sections of the poem. Eliot wrote the 10-line Fourth Section, “Death by Water,” in Lausanne, Switzerland where he travelled after Paris to seek psychological help. In this section Eliot compares the fine life of fishermen in Nova Scotia with the world of “profit and loss” It speaks as though Eliot had discovered that the city is a lifeless world: he inward otherwise he is spiritually dead.
“Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forget the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew)
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”
5. What the Thunder Said
The fifth and final section “What the Thunder Said,” written during his depression of December l92l, compares a life without spirituality to a life without water. The poem continues to convey religious overtone in the Buddhist sense of a spiritual experience
through awareness rather than through metaphysical beliefs. “lf there were water we should stop and drink. Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand…
There is not even silence in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
Erom doors of mudcracked houses
lf there were water
And no rock
lf there were rock
And also water,,..
“Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and burst in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
To his credit, Eliot did not fall into the oldest stereotype about East and West, namely that the East is spiritual and the West is materialistic. Though some believe that the West has much to learn from Indian spirituality if it is to save its soul, Eliot did not fall into such dualistic standpoints. He regarded wisdom as something common to both. He wrote that the “Christian, the Brahmin, the Buddhist and the Muslim apprehend the same reality. Thus, a passage from the New Testament or Thomas a Kempis or Pascal may be juxtaposed with one from the Nikayas or the Upanishads or from some Sufi mystic, in complete concord.” But Eliot also warned against dismissing the differences between religions: “No man has ever climbed to the higher stages of the spiritual life, who has not been a believer in a particular religion or at least a particular philosophy.”
In the final 40 lines of The Waste Land, Eliot turns again to the influence of Hindu religion on his poem, and his life. He appears to have given up all hope for cities, past or present, preferring to regard them as unreal, as maya, as belonging to the dead. What is of profound significance is not the daily fortunes of city life but, he declares, “Datta, dayadhvam and damyata”-give, be compassionate and control. To give here means to surrender, to be compassionate means to be receptive and to control means to be disciplined pilgrim travelling the waters from the known to the unknown.
“Ganga was sunken, and the limp learses
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, oaer Himavant
The jungle untouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder (of datta, dayadhrvam and damyatta).
His final verse reads in part:
“l sat upon the shore
Fishing, with arid plains behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down, falling down’.
Datta. Dayadharaaam. Damy ta.
Shantih, shantih, shantih. “
Thus, one of the most remarkable poems in the English language ends with the Sanskrit words for Peace, Peace, Peace. This is, as Eliot points out in his final footnote to the poem: “A formal ending to an Upanishad. The Peace which passeth understanding is our equivalent to this word.”
In 1927, about five years after he completed The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot became a member of the Anglican Church and several months later became a British citizen. As he admitted, his religious aspiration had “no longer wings to fly.” His new faith brought him simultaneously closer to English life and answered personal needs it was at some cost in that he sacrificed his earlier faith in silence and a spiritual quest grounded in surrender and discipline. Instead, he opted for a Church with solid beliefs. It is not clear whether Eliot entered the Church as a remedy for unhappiness, or out of need for certainty, or both.
Years later, he stated: “I am not a Buddhist but some of the early Buddhist scriptures affect me as parts of the Old Testament do.”
Text above first appeared as a chapter in:
THE GREEN BUDDHA
Published 1995, UK