“He felt indeed that this love, this blind love for his son, was a very human passion, that it was Samsara, a troubled spring of deep water.”
Siddhartha, Herman Hesse
Ol’ Dad’s trying to do more reading these days, and I just finished rereading Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, so I thought this week I’d share some reflections.
I first read Siddhartha two years ago. There were a dozen or so extra copies in the book room at my school, and I took one home at the start of summer vacation. I read most of it in the hospital after my daughter’s birth, and I loved the book and felt very affected by it but probably would not, at the time, have been able to tell you why.
The story, in brief, is that of a young man in India, a priest’s son and a contemporary of Buddha. As a youth he is a star pupil but leaves his father and teachers to travel with a group of ascetics, begging for food and living in squalor and self-debasement in search of enlightenment. After meeting and hearing the teachings of the Buddha, Siddhartha realizes no teacher can give him what he seeks, so he departs from the ascetics and his friend who becomes a follower of Buddha. He wanders to a town, befriends a courtesan and a merchant, and eventually spends many years living an unfulfilling life as a wealthy merchant. He leaves this life just as the courtesan discovers she is pregnant with his child and decides to also follow Buddha. Siddhartha, meanwhile, takes up a simple life working alongside a ferryman on the river. Some years later, he is reunited with the mother of his child as she is dying, and he is left to attempt to care for his son. It doesn’t go well, the son leaves, and Siddhartha eventually comes to understand that all things are one, time is an illusion, and thus Nirvana is in all things. Got that?
Two years ago, I was in a very different place. I had just completed my sixth year of teaching and was feeling very comfortable and successful in my position. My daughter was a brand new delight and wonder, and my son, at two, was in a magical stage of development that made every day with him a marvel and an adventure. I also was playing in two bands that I loved, had great friends, and was in most every way living a comfortable life.
Reading Siddhartha, I related to the protagonist in the way he sought his own path rather than becoming a follower of any teacher or of anyone else’s philosophy or experience. My own approach, to religion and other things, has always been to reject doctrine and dogma but to search for ideas that help me give more definite shape to my own worldview. I found many such ideas in Siddhartha and in the fundamentals of Buddhism as I read that summer. Some of these I see echoed in the transcendentalists whose writing I used to teach in AP Language classes and in the early writings of the famed 20th Century philosopher George Clinton.
Suffice it to say, in my first reading I found much to reflect on in the untroubled and self-satisfied way one reflects in untroubled and satisfying times.
Siddhartha, like Buddha, experiments with both self-denial and indulgence and finds enlightenment in neither one. His period of indulgence, like the painfulness of his love for his son, is referred to as Samsara, a term shared in Hindu and Buddhist traditions to refer to the cycle of birth and death that one escapes by attaining enlightenment and Nirvana. In Siddhartha, it seems to have a more finite meaning: the pain of desire that comes from investing oneself in worldly affairs.
I came back to Siddhartha two years later because I, too, have been caught up in Samsara, have heard my own voice leave my mouth and wondered who was speaking, have struggled to reconcile the person currently living in my skin with either the person I’m certain I used to be or the one I hope to be. As both a teacher and a parent, I have failed to meet my own standards of patience, empathy, and equanimity. In my first year as a middle school teacher, I made a lot of mistakes and nearly as many excuses. I let stress from work impact my parenting and failed to consistently model for my children the kind of behavior I want them to learn from me.
Rereading this week, I found not the self-satisfied reflection of my own intellect of my first read, but a reminder not just that what may feel like a setback or a failure may be a necessary part of the path towards fulfillment but also that there is good in all bad, Nirvana in all Samsara, divinity in all things. All I have to do is get out of my own way to see it.
“The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life…. Therefore, I see whatever exists as good, death is to me like life, sin like holiness, wisdom like foolishness, everything has to be as it is, everything only requires my consent, only my willingness, my loving agreement, to be good for me, to do nothing but work for my benefit, to be unable to ever harm me.”
Next on my reading list, The Hobbit.
*All photographs in this article (except George Clinton) are by Benjamin Balázs