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At Sangharakshita’s funeral the Adhisthana trees were filled with golden leaves and the cosmos still flowered burgundy and pink in the formal gardens. The weather changed from a chill breeze to warm sunshine, and heavy rain showers slowly gave way to clear skies stirred with barred clouds, turning ochre in the fading light. It was an autumn scene and filled, for me, with the evocations of autumn when the year declines towards winter, with all its intimations of mortality.
In the 1970s Sangharakshita wrote two autumnal poems that take the seasonal setting as an image for his own life at the transition from his prime and the gradual turn towards death. These are ‘Padmaloka’ and ‘The Sunflower’s Farewell’, and last week at the Cardiff Buddhist Centre I spoke about the first of them as part of an event to mark his passing. ‘Padmaloka’ is one of Sangharakshita’s most formally complete poems, the powerful emotions it expresses contained by its stately form and intricate imagery. It turns out that Sangharakshita died in mid-Autumn, and both ‘Padmaloka’ and ‘The Sunflower’s Farewell’ suggest that, on some. level he associated autumn with death, especially his own.
The same idea is embodied in the figure of Amitabha, who is subtly invoked in the red sun of the poem’s final stanzas, and the poem looks forward to a life beyond death in Amitabha’s Pure Land, the padma-loka where ‘The new-born lotus smiles beside the crystal fountains.’
The idea of autumn as an image of later life is also found in the rich tradition of autumnal poems in the English language, and in the talk I suggest how Sangharakshita’s poem echoes some of them, especially Keats ode ‘To Autumn’. Only afterwards did it occur to me that the principal model is Yeats’ great autumn elegy, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. ‘Padmaloka’ uses Yeats’ sestet form, subtly adapting it to set the poem in a minor key.
‘The Sunflower’s Farewell’ is a companion to ‘Padmaloka’ and a response to its own poetic precursor, Blake’s ‘Ah Sunflower’. Blake’s sunflower is ‘weary of time’ and beckons towards a transcendence that past time and death. Sangharakshita takes the autumn sunflower as an image of his own mortality and prefers the sense of completion that is found through accepting decay. As we say farewell to Sangharakshita in our own turn, the final line of ‘The Sunflower’s Farewell’ has, for me, an intense poignancy: ‘Its seed is ready and its work is done.’
Three Summers and three Autumns have I seen,
And two white Winters, in this quiet spot,
And now the gold shines out among the green,
And reddest roses are remembered not.
For the third time are Winter’s icy fingers
Stretched out – and yet the latest sunflower lingers.
Three Summers and three Autumns! In that time
I have made friends with walnut and with oak,
Have clasped the trunks of holly and of lime,
And cómmuned with them, though no words we spoke.
Watching black ants among the roots of grasses
I heard the wind sigh how our pleasure passes.
Russet and gold, the drifts of leaves are deep,
And the third Winter deep will be the snow;
But the trees mourn not, though no sap may leap,
For deeper still the gnarled roots thrust below.
In this quiet spot, girt by the reeds and rushes,
The soul roots deeper, and the spirit hushes.
Summer and Autumn, on the margined pond,
The waterlily’s leaves are broad and green,
Soon to be yellowed, with the shrubs beyond,
And underneath a film of ice be seen.
But come first Spring, among her budding daughters
Red blooms the lily on the sunlit waters.
Dreaming and thinking as the Autumn ends,
I like the swallow must prepare for flight,
Must leave deep-rooted here my ancient friends
And go where night is day, and day is night.
Brief though my stay, I shall be thinking ever
Of this quiet spot, beside the sluggish river.
Thinking and dreaming, in this quiet spot,
Summer and Winter, I shall end my days,
Till like the rose I am remembered not,
And life has vanished with the sunset-rays.
Then, among silver lakes and golden mountains,
The new-born lotus smiles beside the crystal fountains.
THE SUNFLOWER’S FAREWELL
Aloft on its tall stalk the sunflower hangs
As though half weary. Harvest long since reaped,
It sees beyond the ivied crumbling wall
Blue-vaulted stubble in faint sunlight steeped.
Aloft on its dry stalk the sunflower hangs
In silence: in the West, the round red sun.
The yellow petals, once its glory, wilt:
Its seed is ready and its work is done.