Sunday, May 29, 2011

ReView of 'Siddhartha' by Herman Hesse

Buddhist Fiction - 112pgs
Shambhala (first published 1922)

Just like with many other books I have now read, this was one book I have been wanting to pick up and read many times before.  I remember having started it a few times before, but I never had enough dedication to it to finish it.  I'm beginning to see that with every book there is a particular timing, and the time for me to read 'Siddhartha' was now, or I should say a few days ago.

I really believe 'Siddhartha' is one of those literary novels with which you have to feel a sense of personal relationship to it order to really understand and even feel what Hermann Hesse was trying to translate through the words.  'Siddhartha' appealed to me because of the theme of the individual to find his or her inner peace through the Zen tradition.  This is what the introduction to the book says about Zen tradition:

'Zen tradition, depicts the stages of the path to enlightenment.  The process begins with a man searching for an ox, symbolizing the practitioner trying to get a hand on his awareness.  After a long time the man finds the ox's footprints, next he glimpses the animal, finally catches it, tames it, and is able to ride it home.  Since the practitioner has now at last become one with his awareness, in the seventh picture the ox disappears; in the eighth the man disappears (ego is gone), and the picture is empty.  In the ninth, emptiness disappears-again there are phenomena, appearing brilliant and clear without the projections of ego.  In the tenth picture, the man reappears, a nondescript old fellow heading for the market place on foot; he drinks at the sake shop, he bargains, he gossips, and whomever encounters him experiences awakening.' 

I think the concept of zen, spiritual enlightening and awakening, has begun to be the center of some people lives just as for me.  This book offers an optimistic, yet scrutinized, feel for the hope of liberation.  I feel a connection to this book because it is pure artistry with depthful honesty about the human spirit and the individual's search for inner peace and self-realization amongst stormy confusion and doubt.

Siddhartha undergoes a series of transformative experiences and it is this journey through life, in his own fashion, that brings him to know who he truly is and what he truly needs to know for himself.  He begins his journey with the acknowledgment that against all the wisdom he has been offered from his father and his teachers, he still finds his 'vessel was not full, his mind was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not content.' And he asks the FIRST, and MOST important question of the journey. 'But what good did it do to know all these things if one did not know the one and only, the most important thing, the only important thing?'  He's referring to the inner self, his own self, who is 'Siddhartha?' His first realization, the reason why the question is so important, becomes really explicit when he says the following. 'This is what had to be found-the primordial spring into one's self; one had to become master of that! Anything else was a vain quest, false direction, a misunderstanding.' I really felt the words echo through me when I read this.

So he embarks on this journey, on his own, to experience and discover for himself, his own true self apart from his father's and his teacher's wisdom and knowledge.  He enters into the 'other' world with fresh eyes but with a natural presumption of the 'other' world even before experiencing it.  'He saw merchants bargaining, princes going off to the hunt, grief-stricken people mourning their dead, prostitutes offering their bodies, doctors working over the sick, priests determining the day of sowing, lovers making love, mothers nursing their babies - and none of it was worthy of his glance.  It was all a lie, it all stank, it was all putrid with lies. Everything pretended to meaning and happiness and beauty, but it was all only putrescence and decay.  The taste of the world was bitter.  Life was pain. Siddhartha had one single goal before him - to become empty, empty of thirst, empty of desire, empty of dreams, empty of joy and sorrow.  To die away from himself, to no longer be 'I,' to find the peace of an empty heart, to open to wonder within the egoless mind-that was his goal.  When every bit of ego was overcome and dead, when in his heart all cravings and compulsions had been stilled, then the ultimate must awaken, that innermost essence in one's being that is no longer ego, the great mystery.' 

Only to later immerse himself into the 'other' world and discover he has become one of them in turn. 'Everything was hard, and in the end, hopeless, when I was shramana.  Now everything is easy, easy like the kissing lesson that Kamala gave me.  I need clothes and money, and that is all.  Those are trivial, easily fulfilled goals, nothing worth losing sleep over.' 

As time passes, as he is one of the 'other' people he finds himself going through a transformation from envy to sickness of the 'other' world.  'He envied them for the one thing he still lacked and they possessed-the sense of importance they were able to attach to their lives, the ardor of their joys and fears, the timorous but sweet happiness of their eternal passion. These people were perpetually in love with themselves, with women, with their children, with honor or money, with their plans and hopes.'  'He began even more often, on mornings following an event with people, to stay in bed for a long time feeling stupid and spent.  He began to be irritable and impatient when Kamaswami bored him with his troubles.  He began to laugh overload when he lost at dice.  His face was still more intelligent and more spiritual than others, but it seldom laughed and it took on one after another those qualities one finds so often in the faces of the rich-discontent, petulance, ill temper, lethargy, lovelessness. Gradually the soul sickness of the rich was taking him over.'

He has now traveled full circle from his own world to the world of 'others;' he now has a comparison of what he had, what he attained in opposition, and what he no longer has a result.  It's like that saying goes, 'light does not exist without dark.'  'Fasting, waiting, and thinking.  This had been his wealth, his power and strength, his trusty staff; in the diligent, hardworking years of his youth he had learned these three skills-nothing else.  And now they had abandoned him, none of them belonged to him anymore-neither fasting, nor waiting, nor thinking.  He had given them away in exchange for the most miserable pittance, the most impermanent of things: sensual pleasure, comfort, and wealth!.'.... 'he had become one of the child people.... I stand once again under the sun as I stood as a child-I have nothing, I know nothing, I have no abilities, I have learned nothing.  How strange!.'

It is at this point that he starts to understand the power of 'experience' over words and wisdom, only through this step in life is he able to begin his journey. 'I had to pass through so much ignorance, so much vice, such great misunderstanding, so much revulsion and dissapointment and misery-just to become a child again and start over.'

All through this journey of his life to attain some sort of inner peace and wisdom about his own self, Siddhartha teaches us also about the concept of learning.  What is learning?  Does learning really exist?  Siddhartha says there is not such thing as learning, but life is more about coming to know what is already there in all of us, and we disguise that in the ego form of learning.

Siddhartha also talks about escapism.  While talking with his friend Govinda, they have this intricate conversation about how the art of zen is just as much escapism as someone drinking their hearts and minds out of their world.  But is there really a difference?  Siddhartha says that even if the drunkard has not gained anything after he awakes from his escape, he as well through his 'practice of austerirites and meditative absorptions I find only a transitory numbness and remain just as far from wisdom and liberation.'  

And as for nirvana?  Siddhartha says 'O Govinda, I think of all the shramanas who exist, there is perhaps not one who will attain nirvana.  We find consolation, we find a deadening, we learn skills that we use to deceive ourselves.  Be we are not finding the essential, the paths of paths.'

It is only through his experiences that he truly finds some things to be sure of.  Has he attained nirvana?  Has he 'learned' anything?  Does he know his true self?  Has he reached a point of zen, a point of inner peace?  I don't really know.  He talks about three things he knows for sure, towards the end of the book.  I felt his words resonate through me so maybe there is some universal truth to them.

'A truth can be expressed and cloaked in words only if it is one-sided.  Everything that can thought in thoughts and expressed in words is one-sided, only a half.  All such thoughts lack wholeness, fullness, unity.  When the venerable Gotama taught and spoke of the world, he had to divide it into samsara and nirvana, deception and truth, suffering and liberation.  There is no other possibility, no other way for those who would teach.  But the world itself, existence around us and within us, is never one-sided.  Never is a person or an act wholly samsara or wholly nirvana; never is a person entirely holy or sinful.  That only appears to be the case because we are in the grips of the illusion that time is real.  Time is not real, Govinda, I have experienced this many, many times. And if time is not real, the the gap that seems to exist between the world and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between good and evil, is also an illusion.' 

'The sinner that I am and you are is indeed a sinner, but in time he will again be Brahma, in time he will attain nirvana, be a buddha.  But see here, this 'in time' is an illusion, only a metaphor.  The sinner is not on the path to buddha-hood, he is not caught up in a process, even though our intellect knows no other way of representing things.  No, the future buddha is present here and now within the sinner, his future is entirely there already.  You must venerate the developing, potential, hidden buddha in him, in yourself, in everyone.  The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect or confined to a point somewhere along a gradual pathway towards perfection.  No, it is perfect at every moment.  Every sin already contains grace within it, all little children already have an old person in them, every infant has death within it, and all dying people have with them eternal life.  It is not possible for any person to see in another how far along the way he is.'

'The only thing of importance to me is being able to love the world, without looking down on it, without hating it, and myself-being able to regard it and myself and all beings with love, admiration, and reverence.' 'but this is just what the Exalted One recognized as a deception.  He advocated goodwill, consideration, compassion, and tolerance, but not love.  He forbade us to bind our hearts to anything earthly through love.'  This is where Siddhartha warns Govinda to beware of the territory where it begins to be a jungle of opinions rather than what our true self knows.  Siddhartha implies, that one must know for themselves, for their own true self, where they stand.

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