Siddhartha had met the Buddha and learnt of Four Noble Truths and Nobel Eightfold Path but that did not satisfy him; he didn’t become a Buddha follower as had his best friend from childhood, Giovinda. There was an inner voice that inflamed him: following the Buddha to exterminate worldly grief could not put his mind at ease. The Buddha’s argument is truly convincing and insightful, but Siddhartha paid no attention to those wise lectures. What really mesmerized him were the Buddha’s gesture, voice, and smiles. Siddhartha looked at him admiringly and learnt that it takes something more than Four Noble Truths and Nobel Eightfold Path to achieve that sense of serenity.
I find this the most inspiring – actually it’s my favorite part of Siddhartha by Nobel-winning writer Herman Hesse. Not only does it prove that the ideas in Siddhartha are the successors of the previous enlighteners, but it also reveals the determination of a truth seeker who is not easily satisfied with given answers.
Hermann Hess has successfully portrayed Siddhartha with a consistent trait: unshakable determination to seek the truth. Siddhartha has all the character required to unveil the true revelation. Since childhood, he always posed questions himself and did not easily believe in or find satisfaction within the contemporary dogmas and practices of the faith. Observing that his father, a Brahmin, had to conduct numerous rituals on a daily basis, he couldn’t help wondering if his father’s mind was ever calm. He realized the fact that staying here forever and leaving everything to fate – becoming a Brahmin like his father – could not help him with the answers to his questions.
What I really like in Siddartha is his determination to go all the way once he had made a decision. The young Siddartha saw ascetic monks – Samanas – wearing plain robes and it seemed nothing bothered their minds, while his father, with his assets, family, social status and many other things, was not able to achieve that peace. It occurred to him that he should follow the Samanas to find that evenness. He persuaded Giovinda to go with him.
He took every lesson seriously and exerted his best effort to do what the Samanas told him. He tried not to eat for weeks, suffered from the burning heat, from stabbing pain and freezing cold. Before long, he became a true Samana with many super abilities: staying alive without food for days, concentrating intensively for a long time, enduring all with endless patience. . . He worked on the psychic link to things around him. He was a bird flying, enjoying the freedom and magnificence of the sky. In his mind he was a tree by the trail, a beast chasing his prey, and many more. All the lessons were learnt quickly and excellently, which made him the apple of the senior Samanas’ eyes. However, after three years, he decided to leave for a place where he could find the true revelation. For him, the super abilities he learnt were no longer interesting. Walking on water, suffering from fire, flying like a bird were not what he wanted. They could not give him the answers he sought. At that time, people were talking a lot about Buddha, an inspiring preacher and an insightful philosopher.
Siddhartha and Govinda bade their farewell to the Samanas and headed for the Buddha to learn the true revelation. The Samanas were very angry and scolded them harshly. Siddhartha was taken aback with the senior Samanas’ responses. They were in their fifties, sixties and had practiced meditation for decades, but they continued to suffer from Three Poisons. Responding to them with a smirk, he hypnotized them in the way they had taught him and made them kneel down. How pitiful they were, after a life of asceticism, to succumb to the Three Poisons.
I enjoy reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha because of his accessible writing and his refusal to use meaningless and superficial Buddhist terms. I would not have enjoyed the book that much if Buddhist terms had been used frequently that would have frustrated even an incarnated Siddhartha. In my mind, genuine Buddhism is not rocket science and reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse has proved this. We all can become another Siddhartha if we don’t desire worldly things and materials, if we don’t desire money, fame, health, power, and bodily satisfaction. I find it ridiculous to see floods of people flocking into pagodas these days and praying for those things. In Siddhartha, we can see throughout the principle among enlighteners of “no avarice”. Avarice is the source of every suffering. To be free from suffering is to be free from avarice. And Siddhartha goes even further. He lets us understand that to find the true revelation is not to ask for revelation. Truth is all over the place, we are only able to access it when we stop looking for it, desiring it. It’s understandable that after Siddhartha became the Buddha, he passed his seat to his oldest disciple, Mahakassapa, because only Mahakassapa smiled when they were enjoying watching the lotus together, while others tried to ponder, to explain, to find the meaning of the lotus blossom.
Reading Siddhartha, many of us find ourselves in Giovinda. He is a loyal and very kind friend but he’s always afraid of something. He accompanied Siddhartha in the journey only to calm his mind. Like Giovinda, we keep feeling nervous about this and that, about the unknowns, the threats, the loneliness in both the real and unreal world. This makes us depend heavily on influences, from supernatural forces to powers in economics and politics.
However, in Siddhartha hides something different that helps him be immune to those troubles. He is not scared, he’s just searching, always searching. He left the Samanas for the Buddha. And from Buddha, he learnt that the world of meditation and the real world are separated. Tranquility of the mind can’t be obtained through the practice of meditation, like the Samanas or the Buddha’s disciples. That’s just a way to escape, a choice of giving up the secular life for meditation. From the Buddha, Siddhartha can see the ultimacy of a meditator, and Buddha’s gestures and deeds have etched an impression in him. Four Noble Truths and Nobel Eightfold Path are genuinely enlightening but they cannot bring him the truth he is searching for. The Buddha has shown him only one spectrum of the experience in human lives: the non-secular life. He is still curious about the other one: a normal life of an ordinary man.
There is never a moment that Siddhartha seems discouraged or embittered. He always puts heart and soul into doing what his mind tells him. After farewells to the Buddha and Giovinda, he entered the city to fully experience a normal life. The first woman he met was named Kamala, a high-end prostitute. Her beautiful face with juicy lips made his heart beat fast, and Siddhartha decided to explore with her the art of sexuality, of which he has not the slightest idea. Kamala said she would agree only if he was rich. So he rushed to make money.
He did not fawn over employers, because he could figure things out, he was patient and could restrain himself from food. This helped him to be free and independent, hence unreliant. Thanks to reading and writing abilities learnt from childhood in Brahmin class, he quickly grasped the business and became an assistant to a rich businessman introduced to him by Kamala. He got rich very fast because the job was so easy for him. Indulging in carnal love with Kamala, he was now her favorite lover. Everything was a piece of cake to him. He learnt well and did an excellent job in all commissions, which would take an ordinary human a whole life to achieve. That’s the value of “thinking, waiting, and restraining from food” – which seem worthless in a worldly life.
However, he has not yet had what secular men have: greed for money, for love, careerism, fame . . . He wondered and admired the people on the streets with very human desires and sorrows. He simply could not understand them, what drove people into endless circles of ecstacy and grief. When he was a Samana, he used to look down on people driven by material things. After getting rich, he felt pitiful disrespect for them. He wondered how they could be that miserable. After years of making money and indulging in bodily love, Siddhartha eventually embraced those secular desires: he was fascinated with gambling, angry at loss and happy at gain, scolding and impatient with fools. He had enough of the “qualities” of a normal man.
His life was supposed to be on that path until the end, but his previous self woke up, took him back to the pursuit of truth. He again bade farewell to his beautiful wife and his wealthy life, as he had disconnected with his Brahmin family. But this time, he had learnt more. He realized that the young Siddhartha, the Samana Siddhartha or the businessman Siddhartha had exited at the same time. The previous life, the past, the present and the future concurrently appeared in front of him, and he looked at them understandingly. He was invariable. His experiences were just dreams and mirrors helping him to see himself. Like a river, his awakened spiritual experiences became a timeline in which the continuity of the previous and following lives was presented.
When we look at the river, we find its reflection to be a flow from the past to the future. But when we are the river, everything present, past and future become one. Only in presence can the true revelation be unveiled.
The whole story is an experience of metaphysics. Siddhartha does not care for secular problems, he has no desire to be a saviour nor has he the need of mediating to gain mighty power. He just looks for the truth, for his true ego. Who am I? He spends his entire childhood and youth to find the answer.
Read Siddhartha with a judgement-free mind, forget everything you know of Buddhism. Just give yourself a peaceful and relaxing day to track Siddhartha’s path, let your mind float in thoughts, and a new path is open for you.
Writer: Lê Duy Nam
Translator: Vương Minh Thu
Editor: Chuck Searcy
Người dịch là Học viên khóa HỌC TIẾNG ANH QUA VĂN CHƯƠNG ANH MỸ