“Buddha in Glory” is a poem about the triumph of the spiritual world over the physical world. Buddha himself symbolizes this triumph. Buddha’s perfected and all-encompassing consciousness allows him to merge with all of existence. The suns are now his suns; the rays of the heavens are his. Rilke thus succeeds in embodying in his poem a very complex mystical experience of spiritual perfection, of the attainment of Buddhahood. While it would be extremely difficult for a poet to explain such an experience to a reader in discursive language, Rilke manages to capture this mystical fulfillment in a striking image (the almond) drawn from the natural realm more familiar to the reader.
The tone of the poem is one of admiration. The persona of the poem greets and celebrates Buddha and his spiritual accomplishments. The persona recognizes that Buddha has achieved the purification of consciousness that allows him to merge with all of existence, to burn with a spiritual intensity that will outlast the sun itself. The sculptor has captured this spirituality in his sculpture just as nature captures it in the perfection of its fruits. Rilke now attempts to do the same in his poem. In a gesture of unification reminiscent of German Romanticism, Rilke manages to merge the aesthetic world (the sculpture), the world of spirit (Buddha’s consciousness), and the natural world (the almond) in a single image of metaphysical wholeness. Rilke creates in his poem something of the same experience that Buddha achieves in his unification with all of existence. Thus the poem, like Buddha, provides an example of perfected consciousness and reunified existence.
Although Rilke begins with a single point of concentration (perhaps akin to T. S. Eliot’s “still point of the turning world” in the Four Quartets, 1943), his poem is about expansion of that center of centers into infinity—that is, about the elimination of all boundaries. Here Buddha (and the almond that symbolizes him) surpasses all dependencies, all limits of space and time, in order to become his own universe, his own suns. The apparent limitations of the shell or husk are overcome as the image encompasses all existence. The sap that flows in the almond’s veins (and in Buddha’s) is part of the system of the stars’ rays. Yet the real growth and expansion is an inward one. Returning to that point of concentration within Buddha himself, the poem comes to rest on the internal rather than the expansive external universe it has opened up. Within, in the realm of the spiritual, is the source and beginning of an intensity that will outlive even the sun that symbolizes the life force of our ordinary universe. Consciousness, internal life, outstrips all external existence. Finally, Rilke suggests that the enlightenment signified by Buddha’s name is to be found within.