The Tiger's Eye

By Robert K. Davidson

A friend has a Japanese wall-hanging of a tiger striding forward, an embodiment of controlled strength. The concentrated stare of the eyes reminds me of the quaint Japanese figurines called 'daruma,' after the name of the supposed founder of Zen. These strangely conceived pieces of pottery represent the catalytic impact of Zen insight into the fundamental oneness of nature: the piercing look or glance is meant to penetrate into our being and shock us into an awareness that life is everywhere and inner wisdom immanent. Like the tiger awaiting its chance to spring, so is the 'true face' inside the mask of our daily personality ready to make itself known — all it needs is the opportunity. We alone can give it that opening by letting go of our possessions: the accumulations of lifetimes of self-service and self-seeking. Blake's famous poem The Tyger, written about 1793, conveys the same impersonal fire and strength:

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or sides
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

We need to bear in mind that Blake entered into a stream of ancient wisdom-knowledge that had had to flow underground ever since the dogmas of the church councils were imposed upon European culture. He imparted his own patina of meaning to the visions and concepts he derived from his researches, and one of these was the duality manifest throughout nature: on the one hand, the creator of physical existence or 'Workman'; and on the other, the divine Source or Consciousness whose purity remained inviolate. He looked upon the descent into matter of a once spiritual entity and his cohorts as a calamitous thing, as the 'fall' into generation of beings previously enjoying the divine grace of original purity.

This is believed to be the motif of "The Tyger" — the image of the "forests of the night" reflecting the bewildering density and darkness of embodied existence, as does the "endlessly multiplied vegetation of the mortal life of nature."

The fifth verse of the poem reads:

When the stars threw down their spears
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did He smile his work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

It provokes a further question: did the spiritual creator of the Christos of the universe, whose well-known symbol is the lamb, also create the dread beast of prey, the rampaging creature of material life with all its hunger arising out of egoism? Or, indeed, were there two creators?

The answer may lie in the first two lines, as the image of the stars "throwing down their spears" and "watering heaven with their tears" is not as ambiguous as it first appears. May it not refer to the influences upon us of diverse kinds channeled through the stars and from Space beyond them — energies from the most tenuous to the coarsest, making possible the various manifestations upon our globe? This view points to a possible explanation of the poet's choice of lamb and tiger as symbolic of hierarchies of greater and lesser cosmic beings, creating and inspiring. For Blake spiritual creation came through the Imagination: man is the mirror-image of the larger host, so the emblems used have application for both. The lamb is the ages-old emblem of sacrifice, representing the offering of oneself or one's advancement that others might benefit. The tiger then stands for man's competitive aspect, the predatory, lower selfhood.

But surely the splendor of the poem suggests more than mere contrast between the higher and lower aspects of life. It is by no means certain that Blake thought of the tiger as entirely bad as opposed to good. He might well have had an intimation much more profound the first appearance of consciousness as light/energy at the dawn of the manifestation of the universe. Clear fire in its original purity is spirituality unalloyed; only later come the lesser emanations, the fumes of egoic existences making a murky smoke around the pristine flame of the first godhead.

Throughout infinity evolution sweeps along all the children of an ever-fecund mother who is Space-as-consciousness. Consequently the descent into individualized life on earth is necessary for growth. Thereby our experiences call out of our hidden recesses a limitless range of qualities that are expressed in ever-larger degrees of refinement.

"What the hand dare seize the fire?" Does this line of the poem not echo the Greek myth of Prometheus who 'stole' the fire of the gods — mind — to give to man, thereby dooming himself to the aeons-long torments of physical existence in order to inspire the human race to become aware that they are embryo gods, cosmic beings at school? The descent into matter is matched by a later ascent into the realms from which all have come, back to the primal source.

The fiery look of the tiger is a challenge to awaken and to scale the rungs of the limitless ladder of beings that comprises the vast ranges of nature. 

 (From Sunrise magazine, January 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)


Back Issues Menu