Hesse's Demi-Buddha

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 23, 2002 | Destinations: China / Beijing

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Review of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, Shambala, 2000.

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The story of the Buddha's life is not entirely credible. True, the Buddha was mortal, had a wife and a kid, and so on. But that he should become enlightened simply by realizing a kind of truism - that craving leads to dissatisfaction - has a finality possessed only by myth. If he was human, mightn't he have become dissatisfied even with enlightenment, like Rasselas deciding to leave the happy valley? Didn't he ever miss the delights of the palace he abandoned for the begging bowl? And if the Buddha was one of a kind, above us all, what can we possibly learn from him except frustration at our bumbling attempts at achieving bliss?

If the life of the Buddha is a model for the aspirants of the Inertial East, the life of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha provides an alternative for the aspirants of the Irritable West. For Siddhartha follows in the Buddha's footsteps only to strike out on a path all his own. Siddhartha abandons his Brahmin background to become a wandering ascetic, and like the Buddha he eventually discards self-mortification as a path to happiness. While travelling with his friend Govinda, Siddhartha encounters the real Buddha and his retinue, which Govinda happily joins. But Siddhartha uncovers some inconsistencies in Buddhist doctrine, which he has the audacity to take up with the Exalted One.

According to Siddhartha, the Buddha's existence refutes the First Noble Truth: all sentient beings suffer. The Buddha suffers not. It is also refuted by the Buddha's supposed cure-all, the Eightfold Path. In other words, Karma is universal and irrevocable, but thanks to the Buddha it can be overcome by individual endeavor. Siddhartha cannot accept this contradiction, nor presumably could Hesse. For though Hesse contended that Buddhism had been his "sole source of consolation", his faith in its doctrines was never pure.

Siddhartha also objects to the idea that the path to enlightenment can be taught, that the Buddha's experience under the Bodhi tree can be articulated. He is even concerned that by joining the Buddhist order, his ego will not be effaced. Instead it will be replaced by "the teaching, my discipleship, the love of you, and the community of monks." The desire to become enlightened is itself an obstruction. To his everlasting credit, the actual Buddha told his disciples to question everything he said, and he even showed some reluctance to have disciples at all, lest they become as dogmatic as the Brahmins he repudiated. Hesse's Siddhartha takes him on his word, and thus is more Buddhist in a sense than Govinda. "A true seeker," he muses, "one who truly wished to find, could not accept any doctrine" - for then he would only be indoctrinated.

Here the story takes its most interesting turn. The Buddha went from worldly life to renunciation and never turned back. Siddhartha turns back, and with gusto. He shacks up with a courtesan (no mere prostitute, mind you) and studies the bliss of love. Siddhartha also gets rich, gambles, wears fancy clothes, and indulges in wine - all for the first time in his life. He lives, in other words, as most of us would want to live given the choice. He justifies his lifestyle by appealing to the necessity of experiencing first-hand all that tradition would bar from us.

But dissolution too grows stale, and our hero abandons his happy seraglio. His next and last stop on the road to reconciliation with life is a river, and his last mentor is the ferryman placidly plying its waters. Siddhartha discovers that this common man is uncommonly wise, and that the river is his only teacher. The Buddha has compared the soul to a flame, which is the same yet ever-changing. Siddhartha realizes that the same could be said of a river. Moreover, a river does not strive. So Siddhartha stops striving and thus becomes a sage -- but not a prophet. To Govinda he says, "Wisdom is not expressible. Wisdom, when a wise man tries to express it, always sounds like foolishness." Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen.

Siddhartha is heartening for a number of reasons. One is its message that - well, that everything turns out all right in the end. Life need not be a sickening downward spiral into hedonism and alcoholism, nor need it be a stiff upward ascent into the cloister or the rehab clinic. You are permitted and even encouraged to screw up, so long as you learn and move on. And the tempering of the passions by age resolves problems that seem insoluble in youth. Even the dark days bring us closer to the light. Bunk up, little camper.

Hesse has always been a favorite among Western youths, so much so that his works are sometimes dismissed as "adolescent" - true perhaps of Steppenwolf, but slanderous when it comes to the The Glass Bead Game. Siddhartha, his most seminal work, enjoyed particular fame during the countercultural movements of the 1960s, and continues to be thumbed and dog-eared by malcontents the world over. I first read the blue Bantam edition in high school, and it spurred me on to read much of Hesse's corpus and its Eastern antecedents like the Upanishads.

I am not sure why Shambala Publications has undertaken a new translation of Siddhartha, except perhaps to renew interest and make a buck. Walter Kaufmann has shown how early translations of Nietzsche grossly misrepresented his style and ideas. But Hesse seems too straightforward to admit of much bickering over his intentions.

The new translation is good, but at times it suffers from the clumsiness and prolixity of much contemporary English. So on the very first page we find: "Shadows flowed in his dark eyes in the mango grove as he played his boy's games, as his mother sang, during the sacred sacrifices, while his father, the scholar, taught, and during the discourses of the wise men." Just as this wheezing bulldozer of prose grinds to a halt at "taught", we're off the to the races again. Here the common joke that the passage might make more sense in German is perhaps no joke. The sentence certainly doesn't want for commas.

But the translator is apparently an accomplished Buddhist, capable of stamping the text's Buddhist ideas with authenticity. It seems fitting that someone with the hybrid and almost incredible name of Sherab Chodzin Kohn should translate Hesse, a German who so loved the East. And any work that presents the plain truth about the human predicament will rise above its translations and even above its own faults. It may be that more people in the West know the story of Hesse's Siddhartha than the story of Siddhartha Gotama, the bona fide Buddha. Its readers thus constitute a kind of religion of their own, spreading by word of mouth, with Siddhartha as its Bible, passed from hand to striving hand. The Shambala version's main fault may be that it is too beautiful to look at (and too big) to be handled by the grubby bohemians to whom Siddhartha most appeals.

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