The Ulro is Samsara
In the complex mythology of William Blake, “the Ulro” is the name Blake gives to this world of Time and Death. The Ulro is a world of shadows — a presentiment or mirage of the true and the real rather than reality — and as such the Ulro corresponds to what is called “Maya”, the world of illusions that arises from avidya (ignorance). The same is called “the camouflage universe” by Seth. The Ulro, which is “this world”, is identical in meaning to what Hindus and others call “samsara” or samsaric existence.
“Samsaric existence” means, to be crucified on the wheel of space and time like the Greek Ixion, which is as profound a myth as the myth of Narcissus and Echo. Samsaric existence is Sisyphus condemned to roll his heavy rock up the mountain forever. Samsaric existence is Prometheus chained to rock, condemned to have his liver devoured by an eagle daily. Samsaric existence is Tantalus forever condemned to have water retreat from his thirsty lips. Samsaric existence is Narcissus, a tale of endless desire eternally frustrated, unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Samsaric existence is dukkha, the realm of pain and anguish, the world of time and death. And the ancient Greek myths are full of the terrors and cruelties of samsara, as Nietzsche understood. This is also the meaning of the Ulro, but which we today call “the secular world“.
That may come as a great surprise to you — that “samsara“, “the Ulro” and “the secular” are the same. But “secular” means “time”, essentially. More specifically, “secular” refers to generation — to the generative and regenerative. The word “sex” is connected with “secular”, and that is one of the features of the Ulro as Blake understood it,
“Such is the nature of the Ulro that whatever enters becomes Sexual & is Created and Vegetated and Born”
Novo Ordo Seclorum — a new order of the ages — is a re-arrangement of the Ulro. Something is done with time. It is arranged differently, but nonetheless remains the same. Other names Blake gives for the Ulro is “Circle of Destiny” or “Generation”, leaving no doubt that the Ulro has something to do with time and the temporal order and is identical with Samsara in that respect — the churning wheel of time and space, the “mill of the gods” (Sextus Empiricus).
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.” — Omar Khayyam
Samsaric existence is regulated by the karmic law of action and reaction. We may also call that the law of the consequential. It is the law of the wheel. “What goes ’round comes ’round” in the Circle of Destiny. For Blake the three states of the cycle of the Ulro are “Creation, Redemption, and Judgement” which pertains to every act in time corresponding to the karmic cycle of samsaric existence — birth, death, and rebirth.
We are, as it were, like fish, immersed in a sea of Time and Death. This sea of Time and Death is called “samsara” or “the Ulro”. Like the fish, we know of no evident “outside” to this sea. Blake depicts his “Newton” as sitting at the bottom of this sea in “Single vision”
The Ulro, or samsara, is our everyday world. Some believe it to be the creation of a perverse and savage God — the demiurgos — who gets his jollies pulling the wings off flies, a tormenting God who gives his creatures a taste of happiness only to cruelly snuff it out again. For Blake, the origins of the Ulro reside in the human breast alone, in the “mind-forg’d manacles” of “the dark Satanic mill” — the activities of the Zoa “Urizen”, who is Selfhood. The Selfhood is the Architect of the Ulro. The ego-consciousness itself has a perverse clutch on our full awareness. The ego-consciousness must be persuaded somehow to relax and relinquish its grip on awareness in order to gain insight into the Ulro so that the Ulro — the secular or profane world — may be perceived in its full transparency — as camouflage for the “real”.
This is the principle behind what I call “Khayyam’s Caution” after the Sufi poet and polymath Omar Khayyam: “only a hair separates the false from the true”. That is a valid insight into the Ulro, and should serve to guard against lapsing into dualistic thinking. The Ulro may be a sham reality, but it is an image and echo of the real.
Acknowledging that this is a world of time and death is the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Impermanence is the rule. All forms are transient, conditional, temporary. It is also really the first principle of Islam: “everything is perishing [except His face]”. The First Noble Truth is the first step in attaining liberation from samsaric existence, just as understanding Blake’s Ulro is necessary to gaining access to the fuller meaning of his complex mythology. In this world of ironies and paradoxes, the way out is the way through. The very impermanence of life and the world is what makes emancipation from samsaric existence and from the wheel of time and space possible at all.
The dance of the god Shiva is the dance of Blake’s Albion as Blake depicted it in “Glad Day”, the day of Albion’s redemption and resurrection: “Albion rose from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves, Giving himself for the Nations, he danc’d the dance of Eternal Death”
The message is clear. Liberation from samsaric existence or the Ulro is not a matter of denying it as illusory, but of embracing it fully. Without death, the human form could not transcend itself. Vom Tod und nur vom Tod fängt alles Erkenntnis an is a German saying. It means, Death is the beginning of wisdom. Death is the spur to learning and knowledge.
The integral philosopher, Jean Gebser, was firmly convinced that contemporary human consciousness was on the threshold of a major mutation in which the “transparency” or “diaphaneity” of the everyday world would become evident. In other words, the “camouflage” nature of physical reality would be stripped away to reveal what was ever hid beneath the sense-constructed appearances. The Ulro would become visible, and in becoming visible also “diaphanous” or translucent. Time and Death would also be transfigured. In that sense, Blake’s Ulro is very much akin to “The Matrix” in the movie by that title, and Blake was also thoroughly convinced that the true reality hid within the Ulro was about to irrupt into human awareness —
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.
And what is that but the astonished “ultimate truth” of Buddhism, too — after the long journey to enlightenment (for that is what the word “samsara” means — “the wandering through”) to return from whence you started in the “ever-present origin”, but now to realise that “nirvana and samsara are the same”. This is the journey of the Prodigal Son through the world of Time and Death, the “far away land” which is samsara — the Ulro.