I am a firm believer that books find me right when I need them. After relating the story of Buddha, as presented to me by the Lama Mynak Tulku, to my good friend Beth, she suggested I borrow her old copy of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. It had been on her reading list in junior high. Mine? Not so much.
Buddha was born an Indian prince or Brahman, named Siddhartha about 2,500 years ago. Mr. Hesse’s tale of Buddha is a perhaps a more true-to-life version of the story of Buddha as it is more grounded in the realities of the time. In Hesse’s story we follow Siddhartha’s journey from a boy to a father – his journey before enlightenment - which makes the Buddha all the more relatable. I believe that to be the brilliance of Hesse’s version. After all, Buddha was born a human. He had an ego, desires, attachment, the works. His humanity is meant to inspire and remind us that enlightenment is possible for us, too – we are no different than him.
Siddhartha’s pre-enlightenment journey is informative as it swings from asceticism to hedonism and then finally to its peace on the middle path. But it was a struggle.
At the time of Siddhartha, there were many Buddhas. In fact, Siddhartha or Shakyamuni, is thought to be the fourth of a thousand Buddhas. Siddhartha, an intellectual and independent spirit, chafed at the teachings of his contemporary Buddha. As an example of Siddhartha’s arrogance yet prescience, in Hesse’s story: “What he [Siddhartha] said to the Buddha – that the Buddha’s wisdom and secret was not teachable, that it was inexpressible and incommunicable – and which he had once experienced in an hour of enlightenment, was just what he had now set off to experience, what he was now beginning to experience. He must gain experience for himself.”
He’s even downright critical of the Buddha’s followers: “the Illustrious One, who preaches this gospel. Thousands of young men hear his teachings every day and follow his instructions every hour, but they are all falling leaves; they have not the wisdom and guide within themselves.”
Siddhartha instead of also following the Buddha of the time decides to set out on his own path. But he struggles.
He first tries the ascetic life and comes to the realization that he must listen to his inward voice and leaves his ascetic community, much to the dismay of its leader. He emerges from the ascetic life only to be lured into a material life -by a woman, no less. Her temptations require funding and he finds his way in through learning business. At first he is able to keep a healthy remove, but soon enough he finds himself drowning: “Slowly the soul sickness of the rich crept over him…Siddhartha did not notice it. He only noticed that the bright and clear inward voice, that had once awakened in him and had always guided him in his finest hours, had become silent.”
So he leaves his woman (soon to be the mother of his child) and riches behind and finds himself on the banks of a river. There he is reunited with an old man who had given him a ride across the river when he was young. He decides to stay with the man and learn from the river.
Here, contemplating the many facets of the river, he learns he is a father and tries in vain to connect with his son. His heart is broken and the wound leads to a great many realizations.
On his struggle to find his path, his center: “Siddhartha now realized why had struggled in vain with this Self…He had been full of arrogance; he had always been the cleverest, the most eager…Now he understood it and realized that the inward voice had been right, that no teacher could have brought him salvation.”
He tried to resist the path he simply had to take – he tried to deny his inward voice and this resistance caused him much suffering, but in essence, his struggle was perfectly necessary: “Is it not true, that slowly and through many deviations I changed from a man into a child? From a thinker into an ordinary person? … I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. But it was right that it should be so; my eyes and heart acclaim it. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace, to hear Om again, to sleep deeply again and to awaken refreshed again. I had to become a fool again in order to find Atman in myself. I had to sin in order to live again. Whither will my path yet lead me? This path is stupid, it goes in spirals, perhaps in circles, but whichever way it goes, I will follow it.”
When he finally stops fighting his path, what is, he experiences a rebirth, which also means that something has died: “The bird, the clear spring and voice within him was still alive…If this bird within him had died, would he have perished? No, something else in him had died, something that he had long desired should perish…. Was it not his Self, his small, fearful and proud Self, with which he had wrestled for so many years, but which had always conquered him again, which appeared each time again and again, which robbed him of happiness and filled him with fear? Was it not this which had finally died today in the wood by this delightful river? Was it not because of its death that he was now like a child, so full of trust and happiness, without fear?”
In the end, Siddhartha’s pre-enlightenment journey is the embodiment of the message: there is a difference between knowledge and experience. Only experience teaches you wisdom and you get experience only by following your own path. In Siddhartha’s words, “Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish. … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom.”
Wisdom, however, is only one step towards transcendence. When he begins, with the help of the river, to realize his connectedness to others (“He now regarded people in a different light than he had previously: not very clever, not very proud and therefore all the more warm, curious and sympathetic”) and the unity that exists beyond dichotomous words (“in every truth the opposite is equally true…. Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth; it all lacks totality, completeness, unity“) enlightenment is within reach.
Which boils down to this: “The sinner is not on the way to a Buddha-like state; he is not evolving, although our thinking cannot conceive things otherwise. No, the potential Buddha already exists in the sinner; his future is already there. The potential hidden Buddha must be recognized in him, in you, in everybody. The world, … is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment… It is not possible for one person to see how far another is on the way; the Buddha exists in the robber and dice player; the robber exists in the Brahman…Therefore, it seems to me that everything that exists is good – death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me. I learned though my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to learn to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.”