Reading Siddhartha When You’re Down and Out
The other night, as though I were a college sophomore who’d forgotten to do his homework, I stayed up until 2 AM reading Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, a book normally consumed by literature-starved backpackers who can’t find anything else on the free shelf at the local gringo coffeehouse. I read it on my Kindle, downloaded for free (along with Balzac’s The Country Doctor), because buying books has become a luxury that I can’t afford at the moment, along with getting my hair cut, giving my son any extracurricular activities other than jogging around the block with me, and wearing underwear without holes. In case you sense any hypocrisy in that sentence, the Kindle was a gift, not a voluntary purchase.
Perhaps it’s apt that Siddhartha has entered my life now. The last time that it was demographically appropriate for me to read this book, around 1993, was also the last time that I had this little money in the bank. But in my youth, I disdained the hippie literature of would-be spiritual questers—Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, the novels of Tom Robbins, Be Here Now, and, most prominently, Siddhartha—as the intellectually weak reading choices of puerile minds that were afraid to confront true reality. I made occasional exceptions for Kurt Vonnegut’s books, but had even discarded those by my 18th birthday as too simplistic, too reductive, too pandering. Instead, I chose a more realistic-looking and –sounding reader’s path, heavy on the Mencken and the boring Jews, a collection easily cut down by someone who came over to my apartment for a party, looked at my bookshelves, and said, “someone sure does have a lot of books by guys named John.” Cheever, Irving, Updike, Barth: Mine was not the seeker’s path.
But now, after seven years of practicing yoga, of publishing a book about practicing yoga, of going through a rigorous yoga teacher’s training, and, to a few unfortunate souls, actually teaching yoga myself, I felt ready to receive whatever Siddhartha had to offer. I began the book with an open mind and a clear heart, without any preconceptions of what I’d encounter. Though I assumed, from the title, that it would have some sort of philosophical relevance to my recent study and practice, I knew almost nothing of what was between the covers, or, in this case, inside the machine. My reading would be fresh and direct, like the grocery delivery service.
Much to my great surprise and partial disappointment, the book isn’t a novelistic retelling of the life of the Buddha, though it does take place during the time of the Buddha and the Buddha makes a strange cameo appearance about a third of the way through, similar to Deepak Chopra’s appearance in The Love Guru. Instead, it’s a story about the spiritual quest of a man who, like the Buddha, is also named Siddhartha as a youth and who also grows up in cosseted bliss under the overprotectively watchful eye of a devoted Brahmin father. Then, also like the Buddha, this fictional Siddhartha leaves his father’s house and becomes a beggarly renunciate, growing his hair and fingernails long and practicing all manner of austerities, like fasting and doing yoga postures in 105-degree rooms next to neurotic yuppies wearing Spandex diapers. At the point in the book where Siddhartha meets the actual Buddha, the paths diverge and it becomes clear that a European intellectual wrote this in the 1920s. Whereas the Buddha Siddhartha escaped his renunciate period after accepting some delicious food from a kindly guileless little girl, sat down under the Bodhi tree, remembered a time where his mind was clear and untroubled, spent a night fighting off various temptations presented to him by demons, calmly rose, and began teaching the four noble truths, the life of the book’s Siddhartha experiences a more pretentious turn.
Our hero respectfully rejects the Buddha’s teachings, leaves behind his devoted manservant Govinda, takes a bath, takes a beautiful courtesan as his lover, takes a job at some sort of import/export house, and gradually transforms into a rich asshole devoted to wine, orgies and gambling. He becomes a shell of empty human desires. But a few pages later, he manages to reanimate his dry, dusty soul by leaving all his possessions behind to share a hut with a simple river ferryman who manifests a sweet, trusting smile of pure acceptance. By the time Siddhartha’s illegitimate son made a late third-act appearance, causing yet another round of “why am I here” handwringing, I wanted to throw the Kindle across the room, but didn’t, because I know I can’t afford to replace it right now.
At the same time, I found something deeply resonant in the book. It illuminates the feelings of many Westerners upon first encountering Eastern philosophy. Our tendency toward existential thinking and romanticized selfhood doesn’t melt away overnight upon yogic exposure; the tensions between Western individualism and Eastern values of karmic unity are, to my feeble mind, the book’s true subject. Siddhartha spends the last five interminable pages gazing at the waters of his ferry-river and thinking about how all is one. At last, he’s rid himself of the structures of his ego, unlashed himself from samsara, the great wheel of conditioned existence, and has accepted reality in its pure, luminous, transcendent, ever-changing nature. Or has he?
My first thought, upon finishing the book, was: What a sucker. Ease of mind is nearly impossible. Perhaps it’s my tendency to see everything through the cloudy lens of satirical cynicism, but I wasn’t sure I bought into his transformation. It occurs to me that Hesse might have deliberately put that last bit in there as something extra for us to discard, yet another mind-construct that Siddhartha throws up to perpetuate maya, or the great illusion, as part of his futile quest for self.
I’ve been practicing yoga for many years, with a reasonable amount of dedication. And yet sometimes it feels like my life hasn’t improved at all. All the meditation in the world isn’t going to stop my health insurance from shutting off in January, or make it any easier to pay my bills. My problems are slender compared to those which many people face, but at times they still feel like they’re going to crush my bones. At the same time, I have access to an ancient spiritual and intellectual tradition that promises at least the possibility of transcendence of earthly worries. Some days, I know that if I practice hard enough, things will seem a little bit clearer and better and I’ll be able to see my stupid little struggles as temporary afflictions, blips in the endless progression of an ever-changing universe.
Of course, I also occasionally have the same thoughts after watching an episode of In Treatment. But last night, it was Siddhartha that brought them on, and they linger still. If I’d read the book when I was supposed to, at age 23, I would have finished it in a short afternoon and gone for a long walk, thinking great thoughts, before heading off to get drunk. Now, I don’t really drink, and I realize that my thoughts don’t matter very much. Maybe that represents spiritual progress.
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