Rilke: Buddha in Glory

The man known as Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) was a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist.  According to Wikipedia, Rilke’s work has been described Rilke’s work as “inherently ‘mystical’”.  Irish novelist and Booker Prize winner, John Banville says that “For Rilke, life and the world are all potential.”

I wonder what potential he saw when, in 1908, working as a secretary for the sculptor Auguste Rodin and living in Rodin’s house, each day he viewed the statue of Buddha in Rodin’s garden.

It certainly inspired him.  He wrote three poems on the Buddha.

Ulrich Baer, in The Rilke Alphabet, notes that in the following poem, inspired by the Buddha statue and composed in 1908, the poet makes no distinction between Buddha as a man or an icon and idea:  “We don’t know if he means Buddha himself or an image like the large statue in Rodin’s garden.”  Distinctions such as this, born of Western dualistic thought, is according to Baer, just what Rilke makes “unrecognizable.”  For Baer, and for myself, “Ultimately, ‘Buddha in Glory’ looks beyond itself.”

In a letter to his wife Clara in 1905, Rilke described the statue, “Then the huge blossoming starry night is before me, and below, in front of the window, the gravel path goes up a little hill on which, in fanatic silence, a statue of Buddha rests. . .

BUDDHA IN GLORY

Centre of all centres, core of cores,
almond that encloses and sweetens itself –
everything, reaching to all the stars
is your fruit’s flesh: Hail.

Look, you feel how nothing clings to you;
now your shell surrounds the infinite
and there the strong sap dwells and rises.
And from without a radiance assists him

for high above your suns are turned,
whole and glowing, in their orbits.
Yet in you has already begun
what endures beyond the suns.

– – – – – – – – – –

English version by Stephen Mitchell

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