I taught English and Rock and Roll on the Oregon Coast for almost two decades until my career came abruptly to an end. One of the highlights of this job was teaching Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, a book suffused with Buddhist thought and ideals that was almost universally read by high school students in the 1960s and 70s, but has since fallen deep out of favor, nearly into the curricular abyss. I was happy to lead a tiny resurrection of this novel for young people in my rainy corner of the world, but have had to let all of that go.
Letting go. That’s one of the central powerful yet agonizing themes of Siddhartha. What must a person let go in order to end his suffering and transcend to something more enlightened?
I am living that agonizing theme now, and Siddhartha has taken on a whole new meaning. I am not teaching the book to high school students on the beginning of their journey into adulthood; the novel is teaching me in the middle of middle age. I think it might be kicking my ass—in a good way.
For those of you not familiar with the novel, it unfolds the story of a privileged young man named Siddhartha who renounces his family’s wealth and prestige and spends his entire life trying to find answers to life’s eternal vexing questions. In his quest for truth, Siddhartha follows several paths, extreme poverty and asceticism, then pleasure and material acquisition. He learns the root of all human suffering, the importance of letting go, and the value of seeking answers not from books, teachers, creeds and traditions, but rather through direct experience, self introspection and intuition. At the end of his life, after suffering and losing everything, he settles near a river with a wise old ferryman and begins to listen to the river. There he learns that one thing and reaches the enlightened state of Nirvana. Hesse writes:
Siddhartha tried to listen better. The picture of his father, his own picture, and the picture of his son all flowed into each other…They all became part of the river. It was the goal of all of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river’s voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire. The river flowed on towards its goal. Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. All the waves and water hastened, suffering, towards goals, many goals, to the waterfall, to the sea, to the current, to the ocean and the goals were reached and each one succeeded by another. The water changed to vapor and rose, became rain and came down again, became spring, brook and river, changed anew, flowed anew.
I can’t think of more beautiful passage in all of literature about the wonder of the water cycle and how human beings belong to it. Really, when I was teaching Siddhartha, I believed all the healing and clarifying answers of the world were contained within watching a river flow. I used to assign students the task of sitting near a river, watch it flow, and record their stream-of-consciousness in their journal while doing so. They all did it without complaint. Who really doesn’t want to watch a river flow and figure it out? Prisons and jails should have views of a river. It they did, the rate of recidivism would certainly go down. It’s so obvious.
During the course of teaching the novel, I had students write on prompts I generated from my reading of the novel. These prompts never failed to elicit some of the most beautiful and terrifyingly honest examples of personal writing I ever read from teenagers.
I will miss reading their responses. They inspired me to teach with all my heart. We were in the fray together. Or, more accurately here on the Oregon Coast, the scrap. I scrapped for my students.
Recently, in a moment of crisis during my ongoing navigation through the black Registry of Sexual Offense, I returned to Siddhartha and the journal prompts with no expectations of clarification or healing. I only wanted to respond in concert with a river and see where it took me. I would go anywhere the river of reflection desired, perhaps to eddies, perhaps through rapids, perhaps into slack water and utter stasis.
I walked the steep wooden stairs on the back property of my home, to a platform with a real estate agent’s view of the Columbia River, a watercourse merging into Youngs Bay, watersheds upon watersheds, flowing, coming together, moving downstream, to the Pacific Ocean, the greatest force on the planet and not one elected politician in American knows it.
It was overcast. Rain threatened, but I would stay dry thanks to a canopy of hemlock branches overhead. I sat down on the platform with a list of the prompts and responded to:
- What experience in life taught you the most?
- What’s happening too fast?
- What’s your greatest desire?
- What causes you suffering?
- What do you one day hope to learn about yourself?
- What’s been the lowest point in your life?
- What’s the one attachment you need to release in order to get wherever you want?
- What distracts you?
- How does a person obtain wisdom?
- Who or what do you go to for answers to life’s hardest questions?
- What do you need to be patient about?
- Leaf or star? Which one are you?
- What guides you on your journey in life?
- Describe a moment of perfect clarity in your life.
- Describe a time you listened.
- What’s the hardest thing in life to do?
- Describe a time you did/didn’t give up on someone or something.
- What can you learn from watching a river flow?
- What did a teacher teach you that became valuable?
- What’s your greatest gift to the world?
The exercise took about…I lost track how long. I found different implications in the length of an hour. The familiar durations had changed. What is time when you are waiting like Siddhartha? I am waiting now. If you remember the book, that’s how he triumphs.
I will refrain from sharing my responses at this time. The time isn’t right yet. It will be one day.
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