Rilke: The Buddha

As if he were listening: stillness, distance. 
We hold our breath and cease to hear it. 
He is like a star surrounded 
by other stars we cannot see. 
He is all things. Do we really expect him 
to notice us? What need could he have? 
If we prostrated ourselves at his feet, 
he would remain deep and calm like a cat. 
For what threw us down before him 
has circled in him for millions of years. 
He, who has gone beyond all we can know 
and knows what we never will. New Poems
New Poems

Rilke ascribes to Buddha much of what people might conventionally ascribe to an impassive deity. I especially admire the middle: “If we prostrated ourselves at his fee…”This is quite different from what YHWH speaks in Isaiah 1 and elsewhere in the Prophets. But Rilke offers a different side to the same challenge: Don’t think for a moment that you can manipulate god or buddha with prostrations or offerings.

On the other hand, this is obviously almost the opposite from the Rilke poem I posted yesterday and from the Jesus who identifies with the least among us and who thirsts and hungers together with and in the least! Interesting that Jesus in the Gospels comes across as more human than the Buddha. And yet, Christians have either trivialised Jesus to be their buddy or the ‘man upstairs’, or have removed him so far that we need to go through saints and priests to speak to him.

Christian theologies are all screwed up. Although Rilke’s Buddha is impassive, there’s perhaps more genuine theology in this poem than in most Orthodox theologies! The apatheia of God that we find in much of patristic theology is actually in sharp opposition to the God and Jesus of Scriptures. The apatheia of Rilke’s Buddha is of a different kind, a beautiful and cosmic kind more worthy of God than the mental gymnastics of patristic theologies that often ended up being Hellenistic philosophy rather than exposition of Scripture. Rilke’s impassive buddha is a necessary complement to the passionate Jesus we encounter in the Gospels and in authentic living.

Rilke was a true theologian! I’ve been slow in coming to know him, though I’ve owned several volumes of his writings for many years. Perhaps I needed to grow a bit before I could relate to him.

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