Before Alan Watts prescribed a remedy for a generation craving spirituality; before DT Suzuki introduced the West to Zen Buddhism; before Aldous Huxley synthesized Western and Eastern thought in his Perennial Philosophy; Herman Hesse charted one man’s journey of self-discovery in his 1922 novel Siddhartha. Perhaps no other work in pursuit of enlightenment is as prevalent in pop culture as Hesse’s novel. It follows Siddhartha, a young man who leaves his family and becomes an ascetic, a traveler, a business owner, and a simple ferryman living by the river.
In his search for wisdom he learns how to live.
Wouldn’t life be easier if there was one key-shaped answer that unlocked the door to happiness? As if all our worries, doubts, and fears could be solved with the right words tied to a string and hung around our neck. Gurus from nearly every civilization promised such salvation. Many were false; and many had good intentions. Regardless, a teacher—no matter what kind—has something he can never share with his student.
“You have done so by your own seeking, in your own way through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment, You have learned nothing through teachings, and so I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings. To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment.”
Siddhartha arrives at the venerable epiphany while speaking to Gotama, the enlightened one: it is easy to recite the 4 Noble Truths, the 10 commandments, the categorical imperative; it easy to know words and sayings and aphorisms. And another to know, to understand, to have internalized the teachning, something we can only arrive at through self-reflection.
In our haste to satisfy desire we forget to see the world around us.
“When someone is seeking… it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.”
Often we are swept away by the current of our goal, focusing our entire existence on some misty pinpoint in the future: a torrent of moments rushing by without us. When we finally find what we were looking for we wonder where we’ve been.
Near the end of the novel Siddhartha is reunited with his childhood friend. He relates his peace as an attitude towards life, something that cannot be taught, but only accepted:
“Therefore, it seems to me that everything that exists is good—death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me. I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to learn to love the world, and no long compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.”
Penitence will not free us, nor will seeking hermitage in the mountains or taking a vow of silence. Denying reality is a veil that obfuscates life.
To love life one must live it, fully, completely, attentively. It is through life’s totality in which we find enlightenment and only by accepting life can we be free from the thirst for serenity. Maybe that’s the hardest lesson to learn: remembering you’re alive.
Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha is a wonderful, rhythmic novel that’s easy to read and an excellent introduction to the life well-lived. While it lacks the rigor of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way) or David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, it is a spiritual coming-of-age story offering solace for anyone who has ever doubted the belief system in which they were raised. Remember, do not get so lost in the search that you forget to live.