I found my old copy of Siddhartha on a shelf at home, a New Directions edition dated in my hand April 1964. It was an important text in the wilderness of suburban high school, along with Basho, Tang dynasty poets and the Beat generation. These writers conveyed a sense of what was transcendent right within the ordinary, and this compelling esthetic helped lead me to the Dharma.
I’ve not revisited Hesse’s Siddhartha since then—forty-five years!—and in those years, like most readers of Inquiring Mind, I have come to cultivate the Dharma. In this age of trouble and insecurity, Dharma practice is my rock and compass. Clearly this was true for Hesse, who began writing this novel in 1919 in the nightmarish aftermath of World War I and his wife’s overwhelming schizophrenia. This was Hesse’s effort, like Siddhartha’s, to meet the fear of impermanence and find a true path. Thirty years later, Siddhartha, published in English in 1951, resonated with seekers of the Beat and post-Beat generations, who knew in their bones that the times were changing.
But what about the book? The story is simple, the language plain as befits a fable, maybe a bit preachy, overladen with teachings. Siddhartha is both spiritual biography and fiction. This simultaneously interests and discomforts. It seems at first to parallel the life of Buddha, then diverges and becomes, perhaps, the life of a buddha. It would be a stretch to say there is a plot. Rather, the novel moves through a sequence of relationships—with Siddhartha’s boyhood friend Govinda, who becomes a disciple of the Buddha; Gotama Buddha himself; the courtesan Kamala, who schools Siddhartha in sensuality but sees that he is sadly unable to open his heart; the merchant Kamaswami, who teaches him the ways of commerce, simultaneously leading toward material wealth and spiritual poverty; the saintly old ferryman Vasudeva, his closest companion; Siddhartha’s unnamed and prideful son, child of Kamala, who flees his father’s righteousness; and, at last, the river itself, all-accepting, ever-flowing. Siddhartha’s understanding is tempered and shaped by each encounter. Each is incomplete, each leads to suffering, yet the reader sees that wholeness is always nearby. But it takes all of this book, all his life, for Siddhartha to see this himself and mysteriously transmit it with a kiss to his oldest friend and fellow seeker, Govinda.
Is Siddhartha’s message particularly “Buddhist”? Maybe not, but it has surely led many thousands in that direction. Hesse, speaking through Siddhartha, calls his path “yoga-veda,” or the yogi’s way. Doctrinal purity is impossible, but each of us can choose to live a meaningful life. I would say, to borrow from Sulak Sivaraksa, that this is Buddhism with a small b. From reading about Hesse’s life and his deep involvement with psychoanalysis, it strikes me that this novel is the first melding of psychology and Dharma, a melding that today is often found in Western Buddhism. One can see the ferryman Vasudeva, with his infinite ability to listen, as a scantily clad proto-analyst.
In the middle of the book, Siddhartha is asked several times to explain what he has learned from his years as a mendicant and seeker. He says, “I can think, I can wait, I can fast.” This means, I believe, that Siddhartha can use his mind and senses, he can practice patience, and he can endure hardship—essential capacities for the practice of spiritual life. No one of these qualities is sufficient for awakening, but the ability to wait, to be patient, to accept and release each moment is key. I recall a lecture of the Thai teacher Ajahn Buddhadasa in which he says,
“Patience is the supreme incinerator of defilements.”
Aside from fasting (which has never been my strong suit), I find that mindfulness, thoughtfulness and patience are at the root of a compassionate life. Finally, this is where Siddhartha arrives and embodies his own name, which means “one who has accomplished his aim or purpose.” From ferryman Vasudeva, from the river, from his own trials and reflections, Siddhartha learns to listen—and his innate wisdom flowers:
“It was nothing more than a readiness of the soul, a mysterious knack: the ability at every moment in the midst of life to think the thought of unity, to feel and breathe unity.”
Hamlet says that “readiness is all.” In the face of impermanence, this is my watchword. Between the writing of Siddhartha’s “Part One” and “Part Two,” two years unfolded as Hermann Hesse worked his way out of depression and became “ready,” receptive, able to find his way to the novel’s end. I admire his intention, dedication and skill. May we all get ready and wake up.