Sunny Side Up

I will never know for sure why I found Siddhartha appealing some thirty plus years ago, but I suspect it was because of its optimism. After years of reading existential literature, fighting in Vietnam, serving as a caseworker, and teaching high school English, I was more than ready for a novel that suggested a spiritual journey was still a possibility.

In On Rereading Siddhartha author Nancy Lord says:

It was clear to me, rereading Siddhartha, why the story appealed to me so much in my youth. Didn’t I also resist the values of my family and what I saw as the smallness of the lives surrounding me, and didn’t I also yearn to head out on my own, to live a life of spiritual awareness and intellectual mindfulness?

Although I was much older than Lord when I read the novel I had long since lost faith in traditional Christianity with its endless sermons on sin and damnation to provide a guide to a more meaningful existence and had not yet discovered works like the Gospel of Thomas.

In other words, I was probably Searching for Enlightenment in All the Wrong Places. It was the same motive that had me reading Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Krishnamurti's The First and Last Freedom, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's Meditation: The Art of Ecstasy, and a host of similar books.

Convinced that all roads could lead to God, I somehow found myself walking a maze of roads instead of traveling the Highway to Heaven. The Doubting Thomas in me kept me from going too far down any of those roads before I'd spot something I didn't believe or didn't seem quite right; my LSD friends really didn't seem that enlightened, some seemed downright depressed; the author later joined a commune in Sweden that believes in space ships.

And, yes, like Siddhartha, I tended to trust my deeper self more than others. I've always been far too independent to join any kind of cult. When I came to ideas that didn't fit with my early Christian Scientist beliefs, I examined them more closely than I might otherwise have done. In the end, I found myself turning back to poetry and literature rather than to New Age How-To books for inspiration.

Through Chinese and Japanese poetry I found my way to Taoism and Zen Buddhism, beliefs that seemed remarkably similar to ideas I'd found in Emerson and Thoreau years before and had instantly identified with.

Recently I found The Dhammapada. I wish I had found it years ago.

As noted earlier on this blog, I also find myself returning again and again to the Gospel of Thomas which I found several years ago after the Nag Hammadi Library was published.

The Idea of Self in Siddhartha

A major focus in Siddhartha is on the concept of “self,? particularly the suppression of self to attain enlightenment. Considering the complexity of the subject, perhaps it’s not surprising that Hesse’s attitude toward Self never seems entirely clear. Even Buddhist scholars debate over the Buddha’s view of self, as in “myself,? and Self, as in Atman, and whether or not there is any such thing as an enduring Self. Considering that Romanticism is “noted for its elevation of the achievements of what it perceived as heroic individuals and artists? and Hesse’s Neo-romantic leaning, it’s not surprising that self plays such a large part in his novel.

The story begins with a statement of Siddhartha’s desire to rid himself of the Self:

Siddhartha had one single goal — to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow — to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought-that was his goal. When all the Self was conquered and dead, when all passions and desires were silent, then the last must awaken, the innermost of Being that is no longer Self — the great secret!

While such a goal would seem to be anathema to a European Romantic or to a Christian whose religious goal is to gain entrance to heaven, it might seem perfectly normal to an adherent of an Eastern religion, if, and this is a big if, Hesse means the elimination of “self,? as in ego, not “Self,? as in Atman, Highest Self.

Strangely, it seems to be this very egotism that makes it difficult for Siddhartha to follow anyone other than himself:

It is not for me to judge another life. I must judge for myself. I must choose and reject. We Samanas seek release from the Self, 0 Illustrious One. If I were one of your followers, I fear that it would only be on the surface, that I would deceive myself that I was at peace and had attained salvation, while in truth the Self would continue to live and grow, for it would have been transformed into your teachings, into my allegiance and love for you and for the community of the monks.

This is probably a very real danger, whether it’s in a Christian monastic order or an Eastern one, but I vaguely remember studying the steps to enlightenment and one of the most dangerous stages is the feeling of being “godlike,? a stage where the individual is so overwhelmed with his own worth that he never goes beyond that stage. In fact, more than one critic has suggested that Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself was a celebration of that stage of enlightenment rather than true enlightenment.

For someone who wants to suppress Self, Siddhartha seems to view those who fail to discover enlightenment as “leaves? that drift and fall to ground, while those who are truly enlightened:

… are like stars which travel one defined path: no wind reaches them, they have within themselves their guide and path. Among all the wise men, of whom I knew many, there was one who was perfect in this respect I can never forget him. He is Gotama, the Illustrious One, who preaches this gospel. Thousands of young men hear his teachings every day and follow his instructions every hour, but they are all falling leaves; they have not the wisdom and guide within themselves.

Within themSelves? What is it that guides the traveler if not Self? What is it that contains the wisdom and guide, if not Self? Are all those who follow another necessarily “falling leaves??

Perhaps strangest of all, at least seen from the perspective of Eastern religion, is the argument that it was necessary to go into the world and “sin,? for a lack of a better word, in order to lose that Self:

He had been full of arrogance; he had always been the cleverest, the most eager-always a step ahead of the others, always the learned and intellectual one, always the priest or the sage. His Self had crawled into this priesthood, into this arrogance, into this intellectuality. It sat there tightly and grew, while he thought he was destroying it by fasting and penitence. Now he understood it and realized that the inward voice had been right, that no teacher could have brought him salvation. That was why he had to go into the world, to lose himself in power, women and money; that was why he had to be a merchant, a dice player, a drinker and a man of property, until the priest and Samana in him were dead. That was why he had to undergo those horrible years, suffer nausea, learn the lesson of the madness of the empty, futile life till the end, till he reached bitter despair, so that Siddhartha the pleasure-monger and Siddhartha the man of property could die. He had died and a new Siddhartha had awakened from his sleep.

I’m not sure what doctrine this concept of despair comes from. Though it could derive from the Christian concept of the Dark Night of the Soul, it seems to derive more from existentialist theory than any Eastern doctrine that I’m aware of. It certainly doesn’t sound like Buddha’s Middle Way.

Siddhartha, and Hesse, seem convinced that a “true seeker? and that’s what Siddhartha is portrayed as, cannot accept anyone else’s teachings — they have to be his own:

For a long time he knew that he was not separated from Gotama, although he could not accept his teachings. No, a true seeker could not accept any teachings, not if he sincerely wished to find something. But he who had found, could give his approval to every path, every goal; nothing separated him from all the other thousands who lived in eternity, who breathed the Divine.

This is nothing more or less than the Romantic Ideal grafted on to a Hindu landscape. There would be no Buddhism, no Christianity, if a true seeker could not accept any teachings. God forbid that any of us should have to reach enlightenment purely on our own without any guidance.

According to Hesse, even Self-indulgence is good because in the long run it allows us to learn for ourSelves that these things are bad:

It is a good thing to experience everything oneself, he thought. As a child I learned that pleasures of the world and riches were not good. I have known it for a long time, but I have only just experienced it. Now I know it not only with my intellect, but with my eyes, with my heart, with my stomach. It is a good thing that I know this.

Does anyone really believe that we have to experience everything ourselves in order to attain enlightenment? Does that suggest that a drug addict is more likely to attain enlightenment because their despair is greater than one who chooses an ascetic life? Does any religion advocate such an approach to life?

With such a philosophy it’s no wonder that Hesse’s next book was Steppenwolf, “the account of a man torn between his individualism and his attraction to bourgeois respectability.? It would not be too far fetched to argue that Siddhartha is the account of a man torn between his individualism and his aspiration for enlightenment.

I must admit that I was shocked many years ago when I learned that Hesse wrote Siddhartha before he wrote Steppenwolf. It always seemed to me that the logical step was the other way around. Siddhartha was the answer to Steppenwolf. If the author really felt that he had found the key to enlightenment, how could he end up writing a novel as convincingly tragic as Steppenwolf?

Who Are You Calling Siddhartha?

This can’t be the Siddhartha I read nearly thirty years ago. If it is, I am not the same Loren I was then.

Since the book has been sitting on my shelf all that time, I’m afraid I'm no longer me. I’m finding it’s often hazardous to long-held opinions and beliefs to try to retrace old steps, and not just because I don’t have the strength I used to have.

I'm uncomfortable with Hesse’s use of the name Siddhartha and the comparison he draws between the Buddha and his central character, something that obviously didn’t bother me thirty years ago. Of course, I knew virtually nothing about Buddhism then except what I’d observed in Vietnam — not much — and in Thailand while on R&R — probably even less considering the amount of beer I drank that week.

I’m uncomfortable with an author inventing a character, a bodhisattva as it were, equal to, nay, even superior to, the original Siddhartha as shown in at the end of the novel when Govinda, who had once been Siddhartha’s best friend but had spent the greatest part of his adult life as a disciple of Gotama, sees the two as equals:

And Govinda saw that this mask-like smile, this smile of unity over the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness over the thousands of births and deaths-this smile of Siddhartha- was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mock - big, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha, as he perceived it with awe a hundred times. It was in such a manner, Govinda knew, that the Perfect One smiled.

Siddhartha, unllke Gotama, seems able to bring Govinda enlightenment at the end of the novel.

I’m equally uncomfortable that Hesse's Buddha seems like little more than a one-sided foil to the novels hero. Here’s Gotama’s reply to Siddhartha’s criticism in their first meeting:

Let me warn you, you who are thirsty for knowledge, against the thicket of opinions and the conflict of words. Opinions mean nothing; they may be beautiful or ugly, clever or foolish, anyone can embrace or reject them. The teaching which you have heard, however, is not my opinion, and its goal is not to explain the world to those who are thirsty for knowledge. Its goal is quite different; its goal is salvation from suffering. That is what Gotama teaches, nothing else."

That’s certainly a major precept of Buddhism, but it’s hardly the only thing Gotama taught.

Surprised by this discomfort, I went searching on the net and found that it is not an uncommon concern. This Symposium on Siddhartha does a fairly good job of examining the pros and cons of using Siddhartha as an introduction to Asian culture, i.e. how accurate is his portrayal of Hinduism and early Buddhism.

I found myself particularly agreeing with Marc MacWilliams" assessment of Hesse's view of India, "While the India of his own time remained an uninspiring enigma for him, Hesse constructed his own mysterious Orient out of his literary imagination. This imaginary India, which forms the timeless mytho-poetic world of Siddhartha, owes its genesis in part to Hesse’s study of the sacred books of the East—the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Theravada Buddhist Suttas. Passages from The Upanishads, in particular, are quoted in the novel."

Considering its status as a classic, all of the writers went out of their way to state that they weren't challenging the value of the novel per se but rather its value as an introduction to Hinduism and Buddhism. If the novel has value, and I still think it does, it has value despite its poor representation of Buddhism.