Saturday, June 12, 2010

Siddhartha, 1922 Herman Hesse

Siddhartha, 1922 Herman Hesse
"I can think, I can wait, I can fast". When asked what job qualifications and training Siddhartha had, he replies,
"I can think, I can wait, I can fast." This response bewilders the merchant and potential employer, who asks, “That’s everything? “And what’s the use of that? For example, the fasting-what is that good for?" Siddhartha explains: “It is very good, sir. When a person has nothing to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he could do. When, for example Siddhartha hadn’t learned to fast, he would have to accept any kind of service before this day is up, wither it may be with you or wherever because hunger would force him to do so. But like this, Siddhartha can wait calmly, he knows no impatience, he knows no emergency, for a long time he can allow hunger to besiege him and can laugh about it. This is what fasting is good for. "
This life lesson, fasting, thinking and waiting was my favorite part of the book and was repeated several times in different situations. If we all had these attributes ingrained in us, our lives would be much easier and successful. Let me restate them, fasting=self control,delayed gratification wait=patience, tolerance, think=reasoned deliberate actions, goal setting and planing. In this there is wisdom.
This book is an exploration of Siddhartha’s search for enlightenment, Nirvana. It is a story of a Brahman, his friend and others set in India during the time of Buddha. Gotama is encountered in the story and in a play on words, Siddhartha may be Buddha’s first name historically (spelled Siddhartha Gautama). Hesse uses this text to explain the path to enlightenment. It is paradoxical as Hesse is a German, presumably a Christian who was interested in Buddhism but was not a Buddhist per se.
The point of the book is the lyrical prose and wisdom offered for “seekers”. I read it in German in my youth and I think I liked it better then. Either the German text read better or the philosophical tome more easily influenced me in my immaturity.
I offer several examples from the text. Buddha answers Siddhartha’s question about his teaching:
“But be warned, oh seeker of knowledge, of the thicket of opinions and of arguing about words. There is nothing to opinions, they may be beautiful or ugly, smart or foolish, everyone can support them or discard them. But the teachings, you’ve heard from me, are no opinion, and their goal is not to explain the world to those who seek knowledge. They have a different goal; their goal is salvation from suffering. This is what Gotama teachers, nothing else.”
Or “his past life also stayed behind and parted from him. He pondered about this sensation, which filled him completely, as he was slowly walking along. He pondered deeply, like diving into a deep water he let himself sink down to the ground of the sensation, down to the place where the causes lie., because to identity the causes, so it seem to him, is the very essence of thinking, and by this alone sensations turn into realizations and are not lost, but become entities and start to emit like rays of light what is inside of them”
What does this mean?
When Siddhartha reaches enlightenment, it occurs with the tutoring of a ferryman and by listening to the river talk to his soul. At this point, Siddhartha had experienced all of life’s foibles, lost a son, lost a lover, given up riches and all worldly possessions. These sufferings seem to be necessary prerequisites for enlightenment. (I am always hoping for less suffering, not more.) I quote the book again:
“But out of all the secrets of the river, he today only saw one, this one touched his soul. He saw: this water ran and ran, incessantly it ran, and was nevertheless always there, was always at all times the same and yet new in every moment! Great be he who would grasp this, understand this! He under stood and grasped it not, only felt some idea of it stirring, a distant memory, divine voices.”
I did not find this to be a great or particularly deep philosophical glance into the meaning of suffering or life. Kind of dumb really. The river is "always there and always new"? Please. Sometimes it dries up or floods or is dammed and stops flowing. I found this a rather weak allegory.
That being said, It is a good book and worth the read. It provided a superficial insight to Buddhism and the ascetic life style of the monks. It provided a plausible explanation of the value of self-denial, denunciation of physical possessions, and the possibility of happiness independent of worldly things. I think those are worthy aspirations. In spite of that, I confess after reading the book, I was not inclined to give it all away and live in a shack by the river to listen to it talk to me. I will fast better, wait more and be "always thinking".

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