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BUDDHA AND BRAHMA, by             Poem Explanation         Poet's Biography
First Line: The buddha, known to men by many names
Last Line: "of purity in silence."
Subject(s): Buddhism; Buddha; Buddhists

To John Hay

The Buddha, known to men by many names --
Siddartha, Sakya Muni, Blessed One, --
Sat in the forest, as had been his wont
These many years since he attained perfection;
In silent thought, abstraction, purity,
His eyes fixed on the Lotus in his hand,
He meditated on the perfect Life,
While his disciples, sitting round him, waited
His words of teaching, every syllable
More and more precious as the Master gently
Warned them how near was come his day of parting.
In silence, as the Master gave example,
They meditated on the Path and Law,
Till one, Malunka, looking up and speaking,
Said to the Buddha: "O Omniscient One,
Teach us, if such be in the Perfect Way,
Whether the World exists eternally."

The Buddha made no answer, and in silence
All the disciples bent their contemplation
On the perfection of the Eight-fold Way,
Until Malunka spoke again: "O Master,
What answer shall we offer to the Brahman
Who asks us if our Master holds the World
To be, or not, Eternal?"
Still the Buddha sat
As though he heard not, contemplating
The pure white Lotus in his sacred hand,
Till a third time Malunka questioned him:
"Lord of the World, we know not what we ask;
We fear to teach what thou hast not made pure."
Then gently, still in silence, lost in thought,
The Buddha raised the Lotus in his hand,
His eyes bent downward, fixed upon the flower.

No more! A moment so he held it only,
Then his hand sank into its former rest.
Long the disciples pondered on the lesson.
Much they discussed its mystery and meaning,
Each finding something he could make his own,
Some hope or danger in the Noble Way,
Some guide or warning to the Perfect Life.
Among them sat the last of the disciples,
Listening and pondering, silently and still;
And when the scholars found no certain meaning
In Buddha's answer to Malunka's prayer,
The young man pondered: I will seek my father,
The wisest man of all men in the world,
And he with one word will reveal this secret,
And make me in an instant reach the light
Which these in many years have not attained
Though guided by the Buddha and the Law.

So the boy sought his father -- an old man
Famous for human wisdom, subtle counsel,
Boldness in action, recklessness in war --
Gautama's friend, the Rajah of Mogadha.
No follower of Buddha, but a Brahman,
Devoted first to Vishnu, then to caste,
He made no sign of anger or remonstrance
When his son left him at Siddartha's bidding
To take the vows of poverty and prayer --
If Vishnu willed it, let his will be done!

The Rajah sat at evening in his palace,
Deep in the solitude of his own thought,
When silently the young man entering
Crouched at a distance, waiting till his father
Should give some sign of favor. Then he spoke:
"Father, you are wise! I come to ask you
A secret meaning none of us can read;
For, when Malunka three times asked the Master
Whether the world was or was not eternal,
Siddartha for a moment lifted up
The Lotus, and kept silence."

The Rajah pondered long, with darkened features,
As though in doubt increasing. Then he said:
"Reflect, my son! The Master had not meant
This last and deepest lesson to be learned
From any but himself -- by any means
But silent thought, abstraction, purity,
The living spirit of his Eight-fold Way,
The jewels of his Lotus. Least of all
Had he, whose first and easiest lesson taught
The nothingness of caste, intended you
To seek out me, a Warrior, Kshatriya,
Knowing no duties but to caste and sword,
To teach the Buddha and unveil his shrine.
My teaching is not his; mine not his way;
You quit your Master when you question me."

Silent they sat, and long. Then slowly spoke
The younger: "Father, you are wise.
I must have Wisdom." "Not so, my son.
Old men are often fools, but young men always.
Your duty is to act; leave thought to us."
The younger sat in patience, eyes cast down,
Voice low and gentle as the Master taught;
But still repeated the same prayer: "You are wise;
I must have wisdom. Life for me is thought,
But, were it action, how, in youth or age,
Can man act wisely, leaving thought aside?"

The Rajah made no answer, but almost
His mouth seemed curving to a sudden smile
That hardened to a frown; and then he spoke:
"If Vishnu wills it, let his will be done!
The child sees jewels on his father's sword,
And cries until he gets it for a plaything.
He cannot use it but to wound himself;
Its perfect workmanship wakes no delight;
Its jewels are for him but common glass;
The sword means nothing that the child can know;
But when at last the child has grown to man,
Has learned the beauty of the weapon's art,
And proved its purpose on the necks of men,
Still must he tell himself, as I tell you:
Use it, but ask no questions! Think not! Strike!
This counsel you reject, for you want wisdom.
So be it! Yet I swear to you in truth
That all my wisdom lies in these three words.

"You ask Gautama's meaning, for you know
That since his birth, his thoughts and acts alike
Have been to me a mirror, clearer far
Than to himself, for no man sees himself.
With the solemnity of youth, you ask
Of me, on whom the charm of childhood still
Works greater miracles than magicians know,
To tell, as though it were a juggler's trick
The secret meaning which himself but now
Could tell you only by a mystic sign,
The symbol of a symbol -- so far-thought,
So vague and vast and intricate its scope.
And I, whom you compel to speak for him,
Must give his thought through mine, for his
Passes your powers -- yours and all your school.

"Your Master, Sakya Muni, Gautama,
Is, like myself and you, a Kshatriya,
And in our youths we both, like you, rebelled
Against the priesthood and their laws of caste.
We sought new paths, desperate to find escape
Out of the jungle that the priests had made.
Gautama found a path. You follow it.
I found none, and I stay here, in the jungle,
Content to tolerate what I cannot mend.
I blame not him or you, but would you know
Gautama's meaning, you must fathom mine.
He failed to cope with life; renounced its cares;
Fled to the forest, and attained the End,
Reaching the End by sacrificing life.
You know both End and Path. You, too, attain.
I could not. Ten years older, I;
Already trained to rule, to fight, to scheme,
To strive for objects that I dared not tell,
Not for myself alone, but for us all;
Had I thrown down my sword, and fled my throne,
Not all the hermits, priests, and saints of Ind,
Buddhist or Brahman, could have saved our heads
From rolling in the dirt; for Rajahs know
A quicker than the Eight-fold Noble Way
To help their scholars to attain the End.
Renounce I could not, and could not reform.
How could I battle with the Brahman priests,
Or free the people from the yoke of caste,
When, with the utmost aid that priests could give,
And willing service from each caste in turn,
I saved but barely both my throne and them.

"So came it that our paths were separate,
And his led up to so supreme a height
That from its summit he can now look down
And see where still the jungle stifles me.
Yet was our starting-point the same, and though
We now seem worlds apart -- hold fast to this! --
The Starting-point must be the End-point too!
You know the Veda, and need not be taught
The first and last idea of all true knowledge:
One single spirit from which all things spring;
One thought containing all thoughts possible;
Not merely those that we, in our thin reason,
Hold to be true, but all their opposites;
For Brahma is Beginning, Middle, End,
Matter and Mind, Time, Space, Form, Life and Death.
The Universal has no limit. Thought
Travelling in constant circles, round and round,
Must ever pass through endless contradictions,
Returning on itself at last, till lost
In silence.
"This is the Veda, as you know,
The alphabet of all philosophy,
For he who cannot or who dares not grasp
And follow this necessity of Brahma,
Is but a fool and weakling; and must perish
Among the follies of his own reflection.

"Your Master, you, and I, and all wise men,
Have one sole purpose which we never lose:
Through different paths we each seek to attain,
Sooner or later, as our paths allow,
A perfect union with the single Spirit.
Gautama's way is best, but all are good.
He breaks a path at once to what he seeks.
By silence and absorption he unites
His soul with the great soul from which it started.
But we, who cannot fly the world, must seek
To live two separate lives; one, in the world
Which we must ever seem to treat as real;
The other in ourselves, behind a veil
Not to be raised without disturbing both.

"The Rajah is an instrument of Brahma,
No more, no less, than sunshine, lightning, rain;
And when he meets resistance in his path,
And when his sword falls on a victim's neck,
It strikes as strikes the lightning -- as it must;
Rending its way through darkness to the point
It needs must seek, by no choice of its own.
Thus in the life of Ruler, Warrior, Master,
The wise man knows his wisdom has no place,
And when most wise, we act by rule and law,
Talk to conceal our thought, and think
Only within the range of daily need,
Ruling our subjects while ourselves rebel,
Death always on our lips and in our act.

"This is the jungle in which we must stay,
According to the teachings of the Master,
Never can we attain the Perfect Life.
Yet in this world of selfishness and striving
The wise man lives as deeply sunk in silence,
As conscious of the Perfect Life he covets,
As any recluse in his forest shadows,
As any Yogi in his mystic trances.
We need no Noble Way to teach us Freedom
Amid the clamor of a world of slaves.
We need no Lotus to love purity
Where life is else corruption.

"So read Siddartha's secret! He has taught
A certain pathway to attain the End;
And best and simplest yet devised by man,
Yet still so hard that every energy
Must be devoted to its sacred law.
Then, when Malunka turns to ask for knowledge,
Would seek what lies beyond the Path he teaches,
What distant horizon transcends his own,
He bids you look in silence on the Lotus.
For you, he means no more. For me, this meaning
Points back and forward to that common goal
From which all paths diverge; to which,
All paths must tend -- Brahma, the only Truth!

"Gautama tells me my way too is good;
Life, Time, Space, Thought, the World, the Universe
End where they first begin, in one sole Thought
Of Purity in Silence."

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