Siddhartha: Contradictions and Enlightenment
Peacework asked activists across the country to answer, "What work of poetry or fiction changed your life?" This is one of the answers. Please comment on our blog and describe how a particular work of literature has affected you.
Joe Gerson is Co-Program Director of the New England Region of the American Friends Service Committee.
It's Sunday morning. I've written an initial draft of this review about one of my all time favorite books, Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse (1951). The review is due to Peacework's editors tomorrow morning. And, after an exhausting week, what I really want to do, uncharacteristically, is to kick back, to read, to play with my newly born grandson, and to take a walk on this beautiful day. I am struggling with the tension between my obligations and commitments to others, and savoring the What Is.
There lies the essential contradiction, more accurately the paradox, between the truths of Hermann Hesse's tale of Enlightenment, and the lives that most people live. As Karen Armstrong explained in her biography of the Buddha, he taught that one can give oneself to the path of Enlightenment or live a less conscious life, earning a livelihood and engaging with family and communal responsibilities. But we can't simultaneously live conventional lives and pursue true Enlightenment.
However, what now appear to be contradictions may not be seen as such from other vantage points, including old age. Hermann Hesse understood this, which is why Siddhartha can also be read as the wisdom, enlightenment, and freedom that can develop only through the experiences of lives lived fully, spiced perhaps with a dash of psychotherapy.
These apparent contradictions, Hesse's compelling story telling, and the book's easily identifiable truths (and looking back at it now, its male orientation), help to explain why I have loved this book since this Jew first read it for a seminar on European intellectual history taught by a Palestinian revolutionary at an elite Catholic university forty years ago. It is part of why it left me weeping then, and why it still brings tears to my eyes. Siddhartha describes or parallels essential moments of my life (which are part of the life experiences of so many of us), and it illuminates truths about elements of the path I have taken or -- allegorically -- anticipate in the future.
Siddhartha is a short little book that, like E. L. Doctor's Ragtime, can mistakenly be read too fast. It was widely popular in Germany in the 1920s, and, along with Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game, it gave Jack Kerouac's On the Road a run for its money in the 1960s. Although no longer the best seller that it used to be, it remains popular throughout the West, and it is well known enough in Asia to have been discussed at a gathering of Japan Religionists for Peace. When a young Montenegrin couple saw me re-reading it on an airplane a month ago, they waxed nostalgic about how important it was to them when they read it in high school, and they mourned that they'd probably been too young then to fully appreciate its depths.
Quest for Enlightenment
The plot line is simple, almost didactic: Siddhartha, a privileged son, decides against his father's wishes to leave home to join wandering ascetics in pursuit of spiritual understanding. An apparently mature act of will is required to win his father's blessing, and Siddhartha leaves with no comprehension of the heart--rending pain he is causing his father.
Siddhartha learns many religious practices while wandering with the ascetics, but they do not lead to Enlightenment. With his childhood friend, he parts company with these seekers and happens upon the Buddha who teaches the four main points and the Eightfold Path with a voice that "arrived… like a light, like a star in the heavens." The Buddha has "conquered his Self" and achieved peace. Yet, in a precocious conversation with the Master, Siddhartha describes a contradiction in his teachings: Enlightenment cannot be taught. One must find one's own way to understanding.
Soon after leaving the Buddha, our poor and disheveled ascetic, who has learned to think, fast, and wait, begins to awaken, seeing that the world can be beautiful. He views a lovely courtesan being escorted onto her estate, and predictably, they become lovers.
Siddhartha becomes a businessman, at first working with a sense of critical distance, seeing people "suffer and grow gray" about things that to him did not seem worth the price -- for money, small pleasures, and trivial honors. He saw them scold and hurt each other and "suffer at deprivations which [an ascetic] does not feel." Yet, he too is gradually lost to pleasure, greed, and materialism. Disgusted with himself, he quits the city to wander in the forest.
He happens upon an enlightened ferryman, from whom he learns to listen to and learn from "the river." It is only after he cares for and loses his son that Siddhartha fully experiences love's salvation and suffering, and by listening to "the river," that he finds Enlightenment, the elements of which have always been accessible to him.
When I first read Siddhartha, the similarity of his respectful but defiant refusal to be held back by his father's love and the young man's pursuit of what he knew to be the rightful path clobbered me emotionally.
In his case it was to join the ascetics. In my case it was to join a civil rights demonstration in a neighboring town. My father, who was the foundation of whatever sanity I have, was afraid that I would be hurt, but when I returned unscathed, nothing more was said about it. Soon thereafter I left for college, and I lost my father to his sudden and unexpected death. Like Siddhartha I was on my path, alone, from an early age.
The River of Life
To this day, especially when I am in need of perspective, I "put on my Buddha head," rooted in Hesse's description of Siddhartha's Enlightenment:
"Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. All the waves and water hastened, suffering, toward goals, many goals, to the waterfall, to the sea, to the current, to the ocean and all goals were reached and each one was succeeded by another. The water changed to vapor and rose, became rain and came down again, became spring, brook and river, changed anew, flowed anew…. It still echoed sorrowfully, searchingly, but other voices accompanied it, voices of pleasure and sorrow, good and evil voices, laughing and lamenting voices, hundreds of voices, thousands of voices…. He had often heard all this before… but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices…. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together were the stream of events, the music of life."
At one level, Hesse is teaching us about the human life cycle as later described by Erik Erikson and M. Esther Harding. The river is the river of all life. We leave home, engage in the world, and if we are wise, make meaning of our brief sojourn here before we pass again into the unity of all things. At another level, Hesse has found a means to share the insights of Buddhism -- Zen and otherwise -- Daoism, Quaker teachings, and even that place where Einstein's theory of relativity meets his Spinozan skepticism and understanding of the What Is.
Then, with or without Enlightenment, there is the Zen master's slap: the dishes to wash, diapers to be changed, immediate suffering to be relieved, killing and preparations for nuclear genocide to be stanched, and our vision of a better world -- free of systemic or structural violence -- to be pursued. There lies the disjunction between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, neither of which requires a deistic godhead: does the enlightened Bodhisattva leave this world behind for Nirvana, or return to help relieve suffering in this world?
See also: Erik Erikson: Identity and the Life Cycle, M. Esther Harding. The Way of All Women, and Max Jammer: Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology