As a part of our review of the Western interpretation and translation of Buddha’s noble truth of suffering, last time I reviewed the plot of Hermann Hesses’s Siddhartha. It ends with the protagonist’s enlightenment with several variations from that of the Buddha. Today we will attempt to unravel Siddhartha’s revelation.
First he reiterates his distrust of doctrines and teachers. Enlightenment cannot be taught or learned, only experienced, and only individually, wherein suffering is a key component of that experience. By contrast, passion is obstructive and evokes death. Nonetheless enlightenment is salvation from both suffering and passion.
Second is a subtle lesson – by seeking a thing, one can find only what one seeks and nothing else; freedom results from cessation of the pursuit of a specific end. Third, for every truth the opposite is equally true: for example, much sorrow comes from loving, yet sorrow and suffering allow us to relate to others and to thereby love them.
Fourth is the metaphor of the river – always the same yet always new. It teaches one to listen with an open heart and a still soul, without passions or judgments, and to strive downwards, to seek the depths. But most importantly, it demonstrates that there is no such thing as time – only the present exists. All sorrow, all torment, all fear exist in time, and so can be conquered by dispensing with time. In addition if time is not real, the dividing line between this world and eternity, and between suffering and bliss, and between good and evil is also an illusion. The sound of the river is the voice of being and of becoming, the unity of the world.
Fifth, the death of self, meaning the psychological self, leads to the emergence of pure thought and the innermost being that is not self. Wisdom is “preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life,”2 but that “wisdom is not communicable.”3 And finally, “love is the most important thing in the world…it is only important to love the world.”4
So what conclusion can we draw from Hesse on how to use our individual experience of suffering? I think he would advise us to allow it to erase artificial purposes and teach us the truth of opposites, the illusion of time and of self, and the value of love in our connection with the unity of the world. Suffering can be the springboard for ultimate wisdom and offer escape from the egotistical self and Schopenhauer’s will.
1Hesse, Hermann, Siddhartha. Bantam Books, New York, 1971. ISBN 0-553-20884-5, page 33.
2Ibid., page 131.
3Ibid., page 142.
4Ibid., page 147.