Monday, September 24, 2007

BOOKS | Thoughts on Siddhartha

I believe it was Matt's reading list that reminded me of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. Like many people, I first picked up the book when I was on my journey of spiritual enquiry. I can't say I am any wiser now than I was a few years ago -- I can only say this: I am slightly better read than I used to be.

I was surprised that the Siddhartha in the novel wasn't the Siddhartha -- the Gautama Buddha, as I had assumed. Hesse's book was about a seeker, a man born at around the same time as the Gautama Buddha, who went through different paths on his way to truth. He left home in spite of his father's objection and became an ascetic. With the beautiful courtesan Kamala, he explores the world of carnal pleasures, and he also became a successful merchant. Yet after many years, Siddhartha realises the emptiness inherent in the worldly experiences. So he left it all behind to become a ferryman. Then one day Kamala arrives with their son, and Siddhartha has to learn the final lesson of letting his son go.

In the introduction to the Shambhala edition of Siddhartha, Paul W. Morris wrote: "Hesse's grasp of Buddhist thinking was imprecise. He did not escape touches of theism and thoughts of sin, being the offspring, as he was, of two generations of Christian missionaries. Doctrinally, Siddhartha is not sharp, but sweetly and naively eclectic. But this hardly matters, for in Siddhartha, Hesse captured the truth of the spiritual journey."

When I first read Siddhartha, I had some problems with it. I felt it did not address the teachings of Buddhism, nor did it seem familiar with the foundations of Buddhist philosophy, such as the Four Noble Truths or the Noble Eightfold Path. It wasn't until I shed off the pre-existing assumptions and expectations that I managed to appreciate it more. Siddhartha should not be taken as a primer to Buddhist philosophy -- but as an allegorical novel of the spiritual quest, it has its beauty.

What I found most memorable in Siddhartha was Siddhartha's relationship with his son. He tried to lead his son on the path of enlightenment. However, the boy was brought up by his rich mother, and he was used to a life of luxury. The son resisted and resented the poverty and the humility of his father.

Vasudeva, his friend, tells him this:

"...Do you really believe you committed your follies so you could save your son from them? Can you protect your son from samsara? How could you? Through teaching, through prayer, through warnings? ... What father or teacher could have shielded him from living life himself, from soiling himself with life, from blaming himself, from drinking the bitter potion himself, from finding his way on his own? Do you, my friend, believe that perhaps someone could be spared having to tread this path? Perhaps your little son, because you love him, because you would so much like to spare him suffering and pain and disappointment? But even if you were to die for him ten times over, you would not be able to subtract the tiniest fragment from his fate."

In this little tale lies the poignancy of the world: We do not change other people's lives just because of our good intentions. We are owners only of our own karma. It is futile, and perhaps even arrogant to believe we have a right to save someone from themselves. The road to knowledge, to repentance, to enlightenment -- is a personal one.

So often I thought if I love someone enough, if I tried hard enough, I could protect my friends from suffering through similar mistakes I had made before. I thought I could help them, perhaps even save them. I was misguided; we all have the right to make our own mistakes. Without the follies, no lessons could be learned.

A while back, one of my friend is going through a bad patch. A mutual friend asked if there is anything we can do?

Where we can, we try. But sometimes you know there is nothing you can do. That no matter how much you love your friends, you cannot live their lives for them.

My own parents tried so hard to protect their children from the world, that at the end they only delayed the sufferings.


Heather said...

But that is what parents do for us - shield us until they can't any longer. Thank you for post - your reviews are so good.

darkorpheus said...

Thanks, Heather. :)

I'm not sure if it's always a good thing for parents to shield us -- but I say that because I am luckier than a lot of people. Some people don't even have parents who care.

Somewhere along the way we have to come to our own. Being brought up in a hothouse may not help us.

Anonymous said...

You have written a very insightful post that speaks my mind.

What hits me about the book, and makes me re-read it, is the fact that Siddhartha realises the emptiness inherent in the worldly experiences.

I have been at the crossroad of choosing between this world and monkhood. I gave a lot of thoughts about the possibility of becoming a monk. Seriously.

What distracts me from taking that path is (I'm still very worldly) people who are in my life. It would be very difficult for me to walk out of these people's lives, renounce them, and live the life of my own in some hermitage.

darkorpheus said...

Matt At some point in my life -- during moments of deep despair, I have also considered a life of renunciation. But then I realise I'm just looking for a way out; I couldn't deal with the pain of dealing with the world, and I wasn't prepared to die.

It came to me that if I should choose to take the vows, it should be from a place of genuine spiritual pursuit, not escape.

What the book illustrates is that Siddhartha has to live through a worldly life before being able to truly see through the emptiness in it. Perhaps that is also the test for me -- to work my way through the pains and delusions of ordinary life -- that all my mistakes and my sufferings -- they are all necessary to my greater understanding of how to really live.

Anonymous said...

Very true.

The life of renunciation seemed like a way out but that was more of an escape from problems. It's like going away for a vacation for a week and come back expecting all your problems will have melted away.

I wouldn't go as far to say I live for my friends and people. But being in this world, every human being to me exerts a considerable influence on other human being. There is a reason why we are all here.

A monk in Bangkok told me that until I have thoroughly wormed my way into sufferings, pain, and unhappiness, I will never be able to achieve nirvana. For nirvana means the flame goes off.

That rings a truth, how would I appreciate that peace and happiness if I haven't tasted the worst?