This is a paper I wrote about Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha in 2010.
Siddhartha is an age-old story of the human quest to understand reality. This powerful novella written by Nobel Prize winning author Hermann Hesse remains a potent piece of fiction nearly ninety years after it was first written. It has been a popular selection for teaching literature in the West for decades (Molnar 82). Along with introducing Buddhism and Eastern philosophy to thousands of Westerners since its publication, Siddhartha is also reminiscent of Hesse’s own journey of self-actualization. In this paper, we will explore the journeys of Herman Hesse and his fictional character Siddhartha, and mainly examine instances of possible misinterpretation of Buddhist tenets by this Western author. What this book may lack in accuracy of certain Buddhist teachings it more than makes up for in accessibility, charm, and insightful commentary. The critiques of several interpretations of meaning is not meant to diminish this celebrated work, but instead to provide a reference for those interested in exploring the ideas and contributions of Buddhist wisdom further, and as an attempt to parse out the reality from the fiction.
To understand Hesse’s journey of self-exploration one must first consider a bit of biographical background information. Hesse was born to pietist missionary parents who had spent time in India (the setting for Hesse’s novel Siddhartha) (AW XVIII). Born in 1877, Hesse grew up, mainly, in the southern German town of Calw (pronounced kalf) and was at times a noted scholar and, more often, bouncing from boarding school to boarding school due to his defiant behavior. (Ziolkowski X). He was even sent to an exorcist in his teens, and reportedly attempted suicide several times (Ziolkowski X). He was also a patient of famous Freudian disciple Carl Jung and his noted student Josef B. Lang (both known for their keen interest in Indian/Eastern thought) (Siddhartha XIV). During World War I, Hesse provided care and support to German prisoners of war in the camps of the Western allies (Siddhartha X). Following the war, Hesse was the recipient of a large amount of criticism for his anti-war writings (Siddharth X).
Both Hesse’s parents and grandparents had been missionaries in India and undoubtedly their tales of the far-away and mysterious country had piqued his curiosity (Tusken 65). In 1909, Hesse and a friend did visit India and several other Far East destinations. He had gone to see “the primeval forests, stroke crocodiles, [and] catch butterflies,” rather than seek out authentic spiritual teachings, it seems (Tusken 65). Stelzig, however, notes, “Hesse’s attempt to experience in some measure the spiritual development he wished to portray in the last third of Siddhartha led him to consciously re-immerse himself” in the Hindu religious epics the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads (p. 174).
It seems that Hesse’s character Siddhartha was someone whom Hesse identified with himself. This novella was part of a four piece set entitled The Way Within (Siddhartha XV). In his Life Story Briefly Told, Hesse states, “Before long I found myself obliged to seek the cause of my sufferings not outside but inside myself” (AW 51). This change in Hesse would be directly expressed in his novel Siddhartha. Molnar notes, however:
[Siddhartha] has to travel in two directions: he has to explore the interior regions of the spirit in their full range and the exterior expanse of the world in all its aspects before he settles at the place where the two realms touch and he comes to identify with the absolute unity that governs them both. (83)
In fact, Hesse seemed much more interested in remaining true to his idea of an isolated inward reflection on the ontology of his contact with the world, as portrayed through his character, Siddhartha, than he did with following accurately any one spiritual tradition. This topic will be addressed extensively in this paper.
The novella is divided into two parts. The first part is the first four chapters of the book, and the remaining section, of eight chapters, is Part Two. The first part was completed in July of 1921 and was published as a stand-alone story (Siddhartha XXI). At this time, Hesse apparently suffered from a block that prevented him from completing the book. In a letter to friend Georg Reinhart, written in August of 1920, Hesse states, “my big Indian work isn’t ready yet and may never be. I’m setting it aside for now, because I would have to depict next a phase of development that I have not yet fully experienced myself” (Ziolkowsk 107). It does seem that Hesse found a parallel between himself and his character Siddhartha. He also apparently did not wish to describe in writing any realization that he himself had not experienced first-hand. This begs the question of whether Hesse felt he realized the total enlightenment experienced by Siddhartha at the end of the story. He did say that he, “often see[s] and feel[s] the outer world connected and in harmony with my inner world in a way I can only call magical” (Siddhartha IX). In the least the novella seems to have provided Hesse a vehicle to express his evolving beliefs and philosophical leanings (Siddhartha XII).
Hesse hints at this possibility, of Siddhartha being a character through whom he was channeling his own thoughts, in another written correspondence from 1922 shortly after Siddhartha was first published. He states, “It represents the sum of my life and the ideas that I have absorbed over the course of twenty years from Indian and Chinese traditions.” This is a pretty bold claim. In the novella Siddhartha finally reaches full liberation from samsara (the endless cycle of birth and death and its inherent suffering). He succeeds his teacher, Vasudeva, whom Siddhartha described as a “perfect man, a saint” (Siddhartha 123). In the concluding chapter, his old friend Govinda realizes enlightenment simply by kissing Siddhartha’s forehead (Siddhartha 130). Did Hesse really believe his own journey and self-actualization was equal to a fully enlightened person such as the Buddha, or his character Siddhartha?
The question of whether Hesse believed himself to be enlightened may be impossible to answer, unless someone has simply asked him directly and recorded his response accurately. In the same letter to Helene Welti cited above, Hesse states that he read the ending of Siddhartha at a conference in Lugano, and that, “naturally enough, there were only a few who understood it” (Ziolkowski 118). Hesse also mentions an Indian professor from Calcutta who approached him and was “astonished and quite moved to find a European who had reached the core of Indian philosophy” (Ziolkowski 118). A couple of paragraphs later he returns to the Indian professor, stating, “While he realized that we Europeans were aware of Buddhist doctrine and were studying it actively, he was amazed that one of us got so close to the real, inner, nondogmatic Buddha” (Ziolkowski 118). But, how accurate is Hesse’s depiction of Buddhist thought in the novella Siddhartha? He only had access to a limited amount of texts that were translated into German at the time (which may or may not have been accurate themselves) (Siddhartha XVII). In today’s spiritual marketplace we have access to countless thousands of books, teachings, sutras of the Buddha, and so on, right at the click of our mouse pointer via mega book sellers, such as, Amazon. Thanks to the Tibetan diaspora following the Chinese invasion of 1959 we have access to genuine spiritual masters in the West, such as Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, and many more, who are descendents (and incarnations) of an unbroken lineage of teachers and disciples that can be traced directly back to the historical Buddha (and who are now also often fluent in English). Considering this in-flux of knowledge and accessibility, the next section of this paper will attempt to explore whether or not there are some deficiencies in Hesse’s understanding and portrayal of Buddhism in the book Siddhartha.
Interestingly, Siddhartha is the actual given name of the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama). In Hesse’s novella, the fictional protagonist, Siddhartha meets the historical non-fictional Buddha referred to as Gautama in the story and rejects his teaching (Siddhartha XXV). So, this tale marks both a parallel and a diversion of the traditional story of the life of the Buddha. It is both a recreation and variation of the preserved account of the life of Siddhartha Gautama (Siddhartha XXVII). Both Siddharthas (Hesse’s protagonist and Siddhartha Gautama) were born as princes, had every material desire fulfilled, but left that life to become forest ascetics (Siddhartha XXVI). After this point, however, the stories split; where the Buddha continued on his spiritual journey, Siddhartha enters the secular or worldly life of the senses. In the end, though, they both end up at the same goal.
It is true that the historical Buddha, as well as Hesse’s character Siddhartha, comes from a Hindu background. It is important, however, to not conflate the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism because they are vastly different. Ponlop Rinpoche states, “The Buddha’s teachings were not compilations from previous traditions; they were not putting together bits of Hindu tantra, Brahmanism, and so forth, as some have claimed. The Buddha would teach spontaneously from his wisdom…” (Ponlop 24). It is with this understanding and intention that we will approach the Buddhism within Hesse’s Siddhartha.
When Siddhartha and Govinda, his childhood friend and companion, finally meet the Buddha in person and hear his teachings, Siddhartha finds fault with them. Siddhartha states that he admires the Gautama’s teaching on cause and effect (karma) and the inter-connectedness of all things. But, he also says:
Yet now, according to that selfsame law, this unity and consistency of all things is nevertheless interrupted in one place: something alien, something new is pouring through a small gap into this world of unity, something that was not here before, something that cannot be shown and proved. That gap is your Teaching about the overcoming of the world, about deliverance. And that small gap, that small break shatters and abolishes the whole eternal and unified law of the world. (Siddhartha 31)
This statement demonstrates a misunderstanding of the Buddha’s teaching and awakening. Enlightenment is not “overcoming” the world or transcending it. In actuality, the Buddha purposed (after experiencing directly) that there doesn’t exist an independent (remember that all things are inter-connected) self that could transcend anything (Kohn 45). Enlightenment is simply waking up to the way things actually are. This does not indicate any sort of overcoming, but instead, a clearing away of the obscurations that prevent us from seeing reality directly.
Hesse, seemingly, had no interest in experiencing reality. He said as much in his own autobiographical writings, “I consider reality to be the last thing one need concern oneself about….Reality is what one must not under any circumstances be satisfied with…for it is accidental, the offal of life” (AW 56). Perhaps more should be said about what “awakening” to reality actually entails in the Buddhist teachings. Our mind, at its most basic, is likened to the sky. The mind is naturally stable, clear, and joyous. Our kleshas, or defilements, that arise in the three basic categories of passion, aggression, and ignorance, are like clouds that obscure the the pristine quality of our basic mind. Hearing and contemplating the teachings of the Buddha, and doing practices, such as, meditation, work as a sort of obscuration Windex to clear away the adventitious stains that spot our true enlightened nature (Ray 421). So, the Buddha did not transcend the world, he experienced it fully and deeply. Really, it is the opposite of overcoming it. It could be said that we are overcoming the world in our conventional daily experience of distracting ourselves with story-lines filled with the self-frustrating hope and fear of wishing things were different than they actually are. That is the description of someone who overcomes her world by creating an artificial conceptual padding around herself so as not to have deal with the realities of life and existence.
There are two levels of enlightenment in Buddhism. The first, the Hinayana (smaller view) has as its goal the realization of selflessness, or the absence of the ego. The basis for this school is that there exists no entity that could be identified as the “self”. What we conventionally refer to as “I” is really a compounded formation of reducible parts. There is no single thing that exists that can be identified as a self. Each part can be broken down further and further ad infinitum. The second school, the Mahayana (larger view) holds the position that not just the self, but everything in the entire universe has as its basis this quality of emptiness (that is, emptiness of an independent existence). Modern science is now corroborating this view expounded by the Buddha over 2500 years ago; that nothing exists independently of anything else, and at the smallest level of sub-atomic particles lies not building blocks of matter, but a web of particles and waves constituting a webbed universe of Oneness (Capra 68). Pervading all of existence and at the heart of all space and phenomena is tathagatagarbha, or buddha-nature, the luminous and wisdom-filled quality that is our true nature (Gampopa 50). This is what we wake up to upon enlightenment.
Strangely, the fourth and final chapter of Part One, entitled Awakening, describes a revelation that Siddhartha has that does not seem to be based on any school of thought, Buddhist or otherwise. Siddhartha’s revelation was that he had spent all these years as an ascetic trying to kill his ego, but now realized that he didn’t even know who or what this egoic Siddhartha really was. His big breakthrough was to get to know himself (Siddhartha 36). After having this thought, “he looked around as if seeing the world for the first time,” trees looked different, colors were more vivid, and everything appeared beautiful and magical (Siddhartha 37). In Buddhist thought, this a realization does not make. As mentioned previously, the enlightenment of the Hinayana path is to experience the reality of selflessness. Siddhartha’s idea here was that he was approaching his journey from the wrong direction (inducing and enduring suffering in order to crush the ego) and would now, instead, study himself and, “get to know myself, the secret that is Siddhartha” ( Siddhartha 36). This discovery does not negate that this self is still present. The attachment to this idea of self still persists at this point, so in reality, he hasn’t yet achieved anything. It is indeed strange that Hesse chose to title this chapter Awakening.
Previously, it was mentioned that Hesse took a break, or suffered from writer’s block, after completing this last chapter, Awakening. Hesse stated that he wasn’t comfortable writing about things that he hadn’t experienced directly. In examining what had happened in Hesse’s life between the two parts of the novella, it is apparent that Hesse’s working with eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung was the catalyst for his being able to resume his writing. After working with Jung for a short time, a man that he said impressed him very much, he was able to complete the novella in the following year (Siddhartha XX). It is thought to be due to Jung’s influence that Hesse came up with his formulation of the three stages of becoming a person: “first innocence; then despair; and, finally, downfall or salvation,” written by Hesse in a 1932 essay entitled “A Bit of Theology” (Tusken 99). Clearly, we can see this pattern in the character arc of Siddhartha. Molnar describes it as, “the mystic experiences the stages of his life as guideposts that point in the direction of the absolute unity from which they derive their relative value” (Molnar 83).
When Hesse returned to his novella in Part Two, he began where he left off. Siddhartha is now appreciating the world around him, the “stars arranged in the sky and the crescent moon drifting like a boat in the blue” (Siddhartha 43). He was no longer shunning the phenomenal world, but instead opening to it. He is now engaging with the world in a way that is compatible with Buddhist thought to some extent. As Dr. Jeremy Hayward states in his book Sacred World:
We have perceptions and awareness, so that all of this beautiful and powerful world comes within our experience. Everything works together. It is so ordinary, we usually don’t think twice about it. But that ordinary world is sacred and magical when we look again, when we feel it, see it, hear it, open all our senses to its profundity. (3)
We learn to see this ordinary magic by connecting with our experience in a way that it is not concealed by our preconceived notions or concepts. This ability comes from ceasing to identify with the conceptual self, not by embracing it, “more ego than before, more concentrated,” as Siddhartha experiences in his moment of “awakening” (Siddhartha 39).
In the 2003 documentary film, Words of My Perfect Teacher, about the Tibetan Buddhist lama, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, acclaimed director Bernardo Bertolucci recalls something that Rinpoche once said to him, “Wouldn’t the ultimate renunciation be the renunciation of renunciation?” (WMPT). This is the attitude that Siddhartha takes in the next part of his journey. He learns the great pleasures of love from the beautiful courtesan Kamala, and the art of individual material success from the successful businessman Kamaswami. But, is this really what Khyentse Rinpoche meant by renouncing renunciation? Did he mean that it didn’t matter what one did, that there are no repercussions for our actions? The reason why Bertolucci recalled and shared that statement is because our concepts, no matter what they are, can prevent us from experiencing the world directly and breaking free of our attachment to the ego that causes all of our suffering. Looking ahead to the end of the story, it is “only by his ability to say ‘yes’ to the entirety of phenomenal existence does Siddhartha lend valid expression to his love of the absolute, to his ‘eternal thirst,’ and in doing so, he attains his goal” (Molnar 86). Chogyam Trunpga speaks to the tricks of the ego in his seminal work Cutting Through Spiritual Materialsm:
Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality….Ego translates everything in terms of its own state of health, its own inherent qualities. It feels a sense of great accomplishment and excitement at having been able to create such a pattern. At last it has created a tangible accomplishment, a confirmation of its own individuality. (7)
Siddhartha has convinced himself that he is awake and that he can now do whatever he wants without consequence. But, the flaw in his thinking is that it was by re-discovering his egoic self that he was able to be liberated from suffering. There is an anecdote that witnessing your own enlightenment is like trying to attend your own funeral; since enlightenment is waking up from the dream of an individually existing self, you won’t be around to see your own awakening.
As time goes by, Siddhartha’s exploits with Kamala and Kamaswami begin to take their toll. The clear eyes that saw the world anew after his epiphany, now “were covered with dust” (Siddhartha 68). Siddhartha began to drink, gamble, keep servants, until, “worldliness and slothfulness had crept into Siddhartha’s soul; slowly they filled his soul, made it heavy, made it weary, lulled it to sleep” (Siddhartha 68). Besides the fact that there isn’t really any acknowledgment of a “soul” in Buddhism, is enlightenment something that can be lost once realized? (HOB 93). Trungpa Rinpoche states, “Enlightenment is permanent because we have not produced it; we have merely discovered it (CTSM 4). The Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche explains:
When the delusion of samsara is eliminated, we reach Buddhahood…. It’s as if there is a rope that we mistake for a snake. Seeing the snake is a delusion, and as a result of that, we feel fear. Buddhahood is like the rope, and the delusion is like the snake, or samsara. Once we see that there’s no snake, then the delusion of the snake disappears and the suffering of the fear of the snake is gone. In the same way, once there is Buddhahood, there is no return to wandering in samsara. (Thrangu 14)
Either Hesse or his character Siddhartha didn’t realize the nature of awakening. It’s either that Hesse misunderstood what awakening meant when he described it at the end of Part One and the beginning of Part Two, or that Siddhartha, under Hesse’s direction, of course, mistook his revelation as something more than it was.
Following his decision to leave the “child people” Siddhartha begins to have thoughts that are more in line with Buddhist philosophy, “too much knowledge had hindered him….He had been full of pride, always the cleverest…always the knowledgeable and intellectual one, always the priest or the sage. His ego had hidden away in this priesthood, in this pride” (Siddhartha 87). Siddhartha is finally realizing that his ego has been the problem all along. It sure took him a long time to figure that out. This is generally one of the first things that are taught in Buddhism, it is a way of “unmasking ourselves, our deceptions of all kinds” (Path 4). It is not even that the ego itself is the problem. It is only our attachment to it, the way we relate with it as if it were a solid, permanent, independently existing thing (CTSM 127). This realization of how this clinging to the ego causes suffering doesn’t make the clinging stop or the problem go away. If only it were so easy! It takes a lot of practice to break the habitual patterns we’ve been accumulating our entire lives, but it starts with this mental acknowledgment of what we’re working with (in relating to our ego).
When Siddhartha was learning love from Kamala and business from Kamaswami, he referred to the people of the world with the derogatory term “child people” (Siddhartha 57). Siddhartha called them child people because their concerns were petty, their interests unimportant, and their understanding of the world inadequate. But, later on after leaving the worldly people behind and discovering himself alone and starting all over once again, Siddhartha is “like a child” himself, but now the word child is used in a positive way (Siddhartha 53). The idea of being in the world as a child is not about being naive or underdeveloped intellectually. It implies seeing the world in a fresh way, not being trapped by a conceptual web of ideas that prevent us from experiencing the freshness of each moment (Suzuki XIV). Siddhartha seems to think it is good when he is like a child, but it is bad when others are.
Again during this second epiphany at the river following his departure from Kamala and the townspeople, Siddhartha once more thinks he has awakened. He again feels transformed. When he wonders what has taken place inside of him, he asks, “Was it not his ego, his small, proud, anxious ego with which he had fought for so many years, which had always defeated him, always returned[?] Was it not this which had finally found its death today, here in the forest, on this lovely river?” (Siddhartha 87). As was mentioned previously, it is doubtful that what actually happens is the eradication of the ego, but instead, our clinging attachment to it. For in the next paragraph, Siddhartha states that a new Siddhartha was born and full of joy (Siddhartha 88). If there were actually no ego at all, then there would be no Siddharthas of any kind. Siddhartha is a name, of course, a concept. It is hard to imagine what an entirely egoless being would look like in terms of how she would function in the world. Buddhism makes efforts to avoid these pitfalls of language. Alan Watts said, where “Buddhism differs from Hinduism is that it doesn’t say who you are, it has no idea, no concept” (Watts 6). The focus is on experience rather than concepts. Molnar recognizes, “that these abstract and seemingly remote ideas do not have to be accepted on faith” (Molnar 83). The emphasis is how we live in each moment and how we relate with other people. But, at the end of the day we’re still going to have a name, and bills, and the relative world to relate to. And if we are not blindly attached to our ego and mistaking it for a solid reality, and begin to see things as they are, we may find that we are much less prone to self-inflicted suffering. In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s first set of teachings, he explained that suffering is caused by trishna, a Sanskrit word that is translated to English as clinging, or grasping, and not ego (Ray 261). That the goal of Buddhism is to kill the ego, besides the fact that it is hard to explain what that could even mean, is one of the biggest misconceptions of this path.
An interesting example of how relating with concepts changes with the Buddhist approach is in the different treatment of God(s) in Hinduism versus Buddhism. Hinduism is resplendent with Gods of all sorts. It is much closer to Christianity than Buddhism in this respect. Brahma is known as “God the Creator,” and is joined by Vishnu and Shiva as the Hindu Triumvirate (Yogananda 186). Buddhism, on the other hand, posits that God is just another concept. As Joseph Campbell said, “God is a metaphor for the unexplainable phenomena in the universe” (The Hero’s Journey). It is not a denial of God, it is a denial of the validity of the question that ends with a conceptual answer. For this reason, Buddhism is considered non-theistic rather than atheistic. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche:
This is a non-theistic tradition: the Buddha gave up relying on any kind of divine principle that would descend on him and solve his problems. So taking refuge in the Buddha in no way means regarding him as a god. He was simply a person who practiced, worked, studied, and experienced things personally. With that in mind, taking refuge in the Buddha amounts to renouncing misconceptions about divine existence. (HOB 93)
Buddhism emphasizes personal experience rather than belief. The difference is in some sense subtle, because Buddhism isn’t flatly denying the existence of God(s), only the validity of concepts.
It seems that Siddhartha is coming closer to this line of thought during the last stage of his journey at the river with the ferryman Vasudeva. The river becomes his most profound, and non-conceptual teacher, the water is “running and running, constantly running, and yet it is always there, was always and forever the same, and yet new every instant!” (Siddhartha 89). The sound of the river is not an idea, it is non-verbal, yet, as Vasudeva remarks, “the river knows everything, one can learn everything from it” (Siddhartha 92). How is it that the river knows everything? Perhaps it isn’t the river specifically that knows anything, but, it is that when the ego or self is drowned out by an experience of being totally with the phenomenal world, sans distinctions of this and that, here or there, we are able to touch in with a deeper wisdom of the world as it is.
More than anything, Siddhartha realized, was that the river taught him how to listen, “with a silent heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinion” (Siddhartha 94). That is to say that he was able to rest in the present moment without adding onto it with projections or additional commentary. Indeed, as Trungpa Rinpoche wrote in the Sadhana of Mahamudra in 1968, at some point along our path “the phenomenal world is the only book one needs.” This is why the initial practice of meditation is referred to as “taming the mind” (Turning 194). We tame the seemingly ceaseless torrent of thoughts and emotions by working with a meditation technique that breaks our habit of being lost in thought and increases our mindfulness and awareness of experiencing the present moment in its totality (Turning 62). Although Hesse seems to overly de-emphasize the practice of meditation in Siddhartha, his education from the river could be viewed as a sort of “river meditation.”
In actual Buddhist practice, meditation is indispensable. In the Path is the Goal, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche states, “The practice of meditation is the and only way” (4). He is quite adamant about this point. He further states, “according to the Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, there is no doubt, none whatsoever, that meditation is the only way for us to begin on the spiritual path. That is the only way” (Path 5). This contrasts sharply with how Hesse presents Siddhartha’s path. He has his awakenings or epiphanies at times of being lost in thought reflecting on his experiences. Meditation is scarcely mentioned at all in the story. He goes as far, during his first awakening experience, described at the end of Part One, by stating, “What am I to do at home, in my father’s house? Study? Sacrifice? Cultivate meditation? All that is gone now; none of that lies on my path now” (Siddhartha 38). It is this type of statement that is troublesome, because of its direct contradictions to all Buddhist practice and traditions, and its potential to be misleading to someone who is interested in understanding the basic tenets of Buddhism. It is true that Siddhartha is a fictional novel and should not have to bear the burden of adhering to every accurate teaching of the Buddha, but the fact remains that many thousands of people in the past sixty years have been introduced to the Buddha and his teachings by this book. Therefore, it is important that people realize that it has several inaccuracies regarding traditional Buddhist practice and philosophy, so as not to be misled by its contents.
Another point of contention, as it relates to contradicting the spiritual path of awakening as outlined by the historical Buddha and as it carries on to this day, is the idea that one does not need a teacher as a guide along the path. In his meeting with the Buddha, Siddhartha tells him that he cannot accept him as a teacher because the Buddha’s illumination did not come from a teaching; it instead was the result of his own seeking, meditation, and knowledge (Siddhartha 32). A lot could be said about this interpretation. For one, if one believes in reincarnation, it is said that the Buddha’s final enlightenment only came after countless thousands of lives, each one progressing closer to the ultimate goal of full Buddhahood (Ray 356). The point being that a teacher is completely necessary so that each person is not stuck with the task of reinventing the wheel themselves each time. If one wishes to be an auto-mechanic she does not build a car from scratch with no help whatsoever, and then learn how to take it apart and put it back together, diagnose problems, etc. She goes to a school, or is trained as an apprentice, she studies books and diagrams, and thus comes to her goal much sooner and avoids having to recreate all of the work that has already been done by all of the other mechanics.
It is true, however, that one still has to make the leap, so to speak, herself. The teacher can point out the way, tell you which bridges are out, which roads are full of traffic, etc., but the student still has to make the journey. The wise ferryman, Vasudeva, says as much when Siddhartha is struggling with the wish to help his own son, “And can you shield your son against samsara?…What father, what teacher could shield him from living his own life, soiling himself with life….Do you really believe, dear friend, that anyone at all is spared this path? (Siddhartha 106). But this does not negate the importance of the spiritual guide, “in following the path it is very much necessary to have a personal relationship with a teacher” (Path 39). We cannot progress and make the journey along the spiritual path without a teacher; the teacher is the proof that the teachings work and the spiritual guide serves as the one who can make it possible for us to follow in her footsteps (HOB 70). Furthermore, without a spiritual guide one risks making misinterpretations along the path, or straying from it entirely (as Siddhartha did in the beginning of Part Two) (Gampopa 70). The lack of emphasis on the practice of meditation and the denial of the importance of a teacher are probably the two biggest flaws with Hesse’s Siddhartha from a Buddhist philosophical viewpoint. Even when speaking with Govinda in the last chapter of the book Siddhartha states that, “teachings mean nothing to me” (Siddhartha 127). But, earlier, in the same conversation he has said that he has had many teachers, Kamala, Kamaswami, Govinda, and “most of all I have learned from this river and from my forerunner, Vasudeva the ferryman” (Siddhartha 123). So, seemingly, the enlightened Siddhartha at the end of Hesse’s tale contradicts himself by stating that teachings mean nothing to him, but at the same time if he hadn’t learned from the river and had Vasudeva to guide him along the way, he would have never emerged from the depths of samsara.
The river, with its ten thousand simultaneous voices, speaks the sacred sound of om (Siddhartha 95). What is the significance of using a river as Siddhartha’s primary teacher? The thread that runs through all of the linked phenomena in existence is an undifferentiated consciousness that is accessible to each of us, not when we die and dissolve back into the void from which we came, but while we are alive through a transformation of consciousness that spiritual practice provides as a conduit. The image, Campbell explains, is of a pond that is rippled by the wind. The pond, through the waves, reflects broken images. The individual ego identifies itself with one of the fragments on the water. When the consciousness is transformed, the waters are again still, and we are back to a single perfect image. This is our true selves and this everyone else’s true selves also (Mythos).
Toward the end of the story Hesse is still using more terminology and philosophy from Hinduism as opposed to Buddhism. As mentioned previously, Siddhartha is the given name of the historical Buddha. Presumably Siddhartha’s journey is meant to reflect Buddhism more than Hinduism. Yet, in the final pages, Siddhartha is still seeing Brahma, the God of Creation, in the faces of the people on board his ferry (Siddhartha 114). This mirrors Hesse’s own life in that he never abandoned, throughout his life’s journey, the idea of God; “Hesse’s affirmation of such a divine principle within the individual remained constant throughout his life” (Stelzig 73). At this point in the novel, Siddhartha still speaks, in decidedly Hinduistic terms, of his conceptual soul, and the oneness of all things.
Strange as it seems, and though it has a tendency to be misinterpreted as nihilistic, it would be more accurate in Buddhism to say that everything is zero, rather than everything is one. The Buddha discovered that all phenomena are composite particles and that nothing exists independently of anything else (Garfield 211). When you look at a person, or anything else for that matter, there is no identifiable substance visible or otherwise, that can be pointed to as essentially existing. You can continue to remove the composite parts from the person, or chair, or anything, and at what point does it cease to be what we have conceptually named it? Any distinction between any two things in the entire universe is ultimately arbitrary. This is not to say that there is nothing, and nothing at all exists; it just means that nothing exists independently of anything else, and so all phenomena is empty (Sanskrit: shunyata) of an inherent existence. For there to be one thing, that one thing would have to exist, and since there is no one thing that cannot be further reduced, everything is zero. But, again, lest we are inclined to view this as nihilistic, being empty of self-existence, means to be full of everything (Hanh 10). The popular contemporary teacher of Zen Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, explains that in a sheet of paper we can see the tree, the sunshine, the soil, the rain, the logger, and everything that went into its becoming a sheet of paper (Hanh 4). The same with people, and with everything else: to be empty of a single separate existence means to be full of everything that has ever happened in the history of the universe. Everything that has ever happened had to happen for each present moment to be exactly how it is. That totality, inherently empty yet utterly full, is who we really are and what we are waking up to on the spiritual path that was laid out by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, over 2500 years ago.
In a moment of deep despair the river laughed at Siddhartha. It laughed at the foolish way he, as we all do, perpetuate the cyclic nature of the suffering of samsara. He looked overboard at his reflection in the water, and saw his father’s face (Siddhartha 115). An older man now, who had left his father’s home never to return, Siddhartha’s own son had now run away from him as well. Siddhartha now realized that his son, defiantly refusing to follow Siddhartha’s ways had left his home, just as Siddhartha had once done to his own father. Somewhere, on some iPod among the undifferentiated sea of ten thousand voices, Cat Stevens sings, “he’d grown up just like me/ my son was just like me.” The momentum of samsara is powered by the familiar, but also oft misunderstood, term karma. “Everything not fully suffered, not fully resolved came again: the same sorrows were suffered over and over” (Siddhartha 115). The situation that we currently find ourselves in is the result of our past actions; every cause has an effect, and this is what is meant by karma (Taming 63). The result of this karma is the suffering of samsara. The good news is that there is always a choice in the present moment (Taming 63). Everything that has happened in the past has led up to this moment, and because of this there is a propensity to continue to act in a certain way, but it is possible in the present moment to make a choice that will result in better karma in the future. Good and bad karma are not necessarily moralistic in nature. In Tibetan, to give an example, the words gewa and migewa that are translated as virtue and non-virtue are distinguished by actions that lead towards the end of waking up to reality or take one further away from it (Taming 69). At enlightenment one no longer accumulates karma and is freed from the suffering of samsara.
Siddhartha’s final moment of realization, his irrevocable moment of true enlightenment comes at last as he receives his most profound teaching from the river. Hesse’s prose builds into a crescendo of flowing dharma. In the river Siddhartha saw the faces of his father, himself, his son, every person he had ever known, he saw all people flowing on, laughing, crying, good and evil, flowing and accomplishing goal after goal (Siddhartha 118):
Everything together was the music of life. And when Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, listened to this song of a thousand voices, when he did not listen to sorrow or laughter, when he did not enter them with his ego, but listened to all of them, heard the wholeness, the oneness- then the great song of the thousand voices consisted of a single word, which was “om”: perfection. (119)
In Buddhism it is the teaching of one taste. With the practice of one taste one regards everything that happens, whether good or bad, with the same flavor, never moved from the state of equanimity (Ray 173). When one no longer identifies with the forms within the space, but rather the space in which these forms rise and fall, then it is possible to experience the absence of the illusion of the separate self and the reality of the inter-connected beingness that is all permeated by all, and our true and ultimate nature.
Much of the past criticism of Siddhartha is utterly unhelpful in the sense that the critics seemed to know next to nothing of the subject matter. Robert Conrad lists a litany of ridiculous statements regarding Siddhartha in his critique; past rhetoric has tried to attribute Siddhartha’s actions to European origins (358). One author concludes that Siddhartha is a “functional European” due to his going against the established order; another sees Nietzsche’s Zarathustra as an influence on Siddhartha’s rebel behavior (Conrad 358). Clearly these critics were unfamiliar with Buddhism and the life of the Buddha who managed to possess these attributes without ever hearing of Western ideologies. Colin Butler sloppily misinterprets the meaning of samsara simply as “a game” (120). Stelzig recognized this failing in his book, Hermann Hesse’s Fictions of the Self, when he said that making sense of the different influences of Hinduism and Buddhism “are difficult to answer, particularly since most Western critics (myself included) simply do not have the necessary expertise to address it authoritatively” (175). Much disinformation results when trying to fit Buddhist practice and philosophy into a Western grid of thought. This same Euro-centric viewpoint has caused Westerners to misinterpret mythologies and spiritual practices throughout time and space. A true understanding requires an anthropological-like immersion into the culture and requires one to know the topic as an insider, rather than by making flip presumptions based on the false idea that there is only one way to view and experience the world and that one, as a Westerner, possesses the magic key.
It may be the case that, rather than be an informative reference for an accurate portrayal of the Buddhist or Hindu spiritual path, that Siddhartha is Hesse’s meditation on the shortcomings of all religions, and instead the empowerment of the individual (Stelzig 177). But, rather than tackle the impossible task of authorial intent, it has been the task of this writing to identify inaccuracies and potentialities for misunderstanding Eastern spirituality, Buddhism in particular.
As for the end game of Hermann Hesse’s own spiritual journey conclusions are hard to demonstrate. We are saddled with the paradox of Hesse as an autobiographical writer and his own insistence that “wisdom is not communicable” (Stelzig 186). This was notedly the fault that Siddhartha found with the Buddha’s teachings (Siddhartha 32). If its aim was to show the way, that one must find her own path and not rely on the words of tradition, then it reached an eager and just-in-time audience that received it with open-arms in the counter-cultural revolution in the 1950’s & 1960’s of the United States when it was first translated into English. Shortly before his death in 1962, Hesse found joy in reading and listening to music, and states his eighty-fifth birthday party “was a very wonderful, cheerful affair” (Soul 336). So, after a tumultuous beginning, Hesse seemed to avoid the downfall of the third stage of becoming a person, and instead found his own version of salvation.
Herman Hesse’s effort to explore new frontiers of spiritual thought and boldly attempt to write his own version of the story of the Buddha deserves to be applauded. Despite its deficiencies, Siddhartha is an intriguing tale of lyrical prose that blew open the imaginary doors that separated the rich spiritual and humanistic traditions of the East and a ripe audience of seekers in the West. It seems, though, that considering his published letters, autobiographical writings, and body of literary work, that Hesse should not be considered an authoritative figure on Eastern religion and philosophy. This interest appears to have been more of a passing fancy rather than an in-depth study. In this essay we have explored Hesse’s childhood and upbringing, made connections between his youth and his later interests that led to his eventual authorship of his celebrated novella Siddhartha.
The main focus of this essay, however, has been the identification of potential inconsistencies and inaccuracies in Hesse’s portrayal of Buddhism. How much accuracy Hesse even intended to exhibit in this piece is questionable, but regardless of intent this short work of literature has been, and continues to be, an introduction to the esteemed philosophies and spiritual achievements that were born out of the land of Mother India. Therefore, it is important that as a companion piece to this novel we have an explanation of any conflicts or misrepresentations of the traditions that are depicted in Siddhartha. It has been shown how concepts of supreme beings or divine Gods is incompatible with Buddhist doctrine. Further, we have explored the limitations of concepts in general and how Hesse perhaps lacked the knowledge of the teachings he was attempting, in some degree, to represent. By referencing some of the most highly realized and respected contemporary and historical teachers of Buddhism, we have parsed out precise meanings to complex topics, such as, the meaning of awakening, emptiness, and karma. Awakening is not a denial of, or escape from, the world at all, as many Western critics have maintained. It is realizing, experientially, that our everyday conventional experience is the actual escape from seeing the world as it is. It is a removal of buffers and projections to see the ordinary magic, and miracle, that is existence. We learned that emptiness is not a meaningless void, but, instead, is to be full of life in its most profound and literal sense. Perhaps most importantly, we have discussed the unequivocal emphasis on the necessity of a spiritual guide and the practice of meditation. Regardless of whether one agrees that having a teacher and practicing meditation is important or necessary, it must be made clear that this is reflective of what the Buddha taught. Buddhism is a method of going from the shore of the suffering of samsara to the shore of enlightened liberation from that suffering. It has been the aim of this essay to accurately demonstrate these teachings.
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