This month I am sharing a personal essay based on the events occurring around my life when I was 12 and first read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. It is an exploration of how we might reflect to realize and retore a healthy, prosperous society based on science, democracy, and compassion . . .
In the summer between my seventh and eighth grades, I was old enough to play with my friends independently — which we mostly did by climbing cliffs near the ocean or gamboling in the enormous Golden Gate Park. But memories still hang about my mind of other times — time I had spent running errands with my mother to the grocer’s or the women’s clothing sections of various department stores.
The errands I ran with my mother were excruciatingly tedious — of a deadening consumer-minded purposelessness from which I have yet to recover. There was nothing in those errands that opened the world of sun, or wind, or ocean air. There was no spirit of Cyprus or sand. During such runs to various shopping centers, the gentle, pink, golden light of San Francisco’s enchanting sky was inevitably eclipsed by drab, disorienting, spirit-killing mall architecture and the sickening spell of Muzak.
I don’t know if I will ever forgive my mother for forcing me to accompany her on these errands for ice cream, or trousers, or fish and vegetables. Even if they were sometimes for my own shirts and jackets or pants. I suppose that, together, we somnambulated through this experience — half urban, half sub-urban as San Francisco could feel to me at times.
Every now and then, however, my mother would shop off the beaten-track and buy a loaf of potato bread from Tassajara bakery on Haight Street. And though I didn’t know at the time that the bakery was part of a Zen enterprise, it felt different to shop there. The sweet smell of roasting sesame seeds and goldening flour enchanted and reminded me of the world beyond the store’s walls, reconnecting me with the sun and the sea and the fog and the spirit of something foreign, outside the pale of our mundane consumer life.
K. Arrived from Rajneesh’s Ashram in Puna, India
When I was twelve years old, a friend of my parents, K., stayed with us. We lived in San Francisco, and this friend—a large man with a full beard and a thick Brooklyn accent, and a heavy, passionate way of breathing, as if he were always out of breath for being engaged in a vigorous battle for his life—was staying with us to relocate from India where he had spent the previous five years at Rajneesh’s ashram in Puna, India.
When K. arrived, he would sometimes sit with us at dinner, which we shared together every night. I was always proud when my parents’ friends had dinner with us: proud, I think, of my mother, whose cooking everyone enjoyed. But more than her cooking, I think what I most appreciated was her natural sense of motherhood, and the way she shared it —her generosity, humor, and care for the human body—any human body—that had come to shelter and eat with her, as if to sit at her table were to gather together in a desert, break bread, and share with everyone who had assembled at that table the holy spirit of love, trust, and respect.
People Just Want a Big Daddy in the Sky
This night, the night in which, in retrospect, I feel that I legitimately—which is to say consciously—awoke to religious life, my parents were talking with K. about the psychology of religion. I don’t know why, but I had had a latent interest in this topic. Nothing was more interesting to me than wonder-filled questions about God. And to this day, I remember K.’s electrifying phrase exactly. With regard to God, K., who had supposedly studied the matter in depth and now held forth in his jovial passionate manner, said of the Judeo-Christian God and of peoples’ relationship to Him that, “people just want a big daddy in the sky.”
Upon hearing this I stopped chewing my food (probably chicken) and continued to listen. My twelve-year-old mind worked frantically to arrange the mental maps by which it was beginning to chart its course through the adult world. The thought did not surprise me as foreign, rather, it stated what it seemed I knew without knowing it, what I was too naïve to realize at the time, what I didn’t realize until much later: that this thought was natural because I had been formed by it, by the powerful philosophical paradigms that grew out of the 19th century and flowered in the 20th—frames of reference established by Feuerbach, Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx.
As Free and Creative as God
Instinctively (I don’t dare say it was as lofty as an intuition) my nervous system responded to the idea expressed by K., who had spent his last five years in India devoted to spiritual truth — however misguided this so-called truth may have turned out to be. Like the monster Frankenstein, my spirit shot to life with a jolt of electricity, as if from a deep sleep, to the bright call of the old humanistic notion, born with the Renaissance after the Black Death—that man, not God, was responsible for his life on earth—that I, myself, would—must—determine my fate and reality. I was a being as free and creative as God.
Of course, I write this in retrospect, putting words to an impulse, a moment of ‘resonance’ (to use that vague, popular, new age word) that fell into me the way a tea seed might fall into the soft soil in which it will—without question—be accepted, held, and nurtured until it grows into a plant.
K. stayed with us for two or three weeks, I think (memory is so oddly episodic and selective, but the topic of memory—individual, institutional, social—especially with regard to memory’s role in self-creation and understanding—is too much to consider here, so suffice it to indicate for now the fragile fabric of self and mind by precariously ending this sentence with, ‘I think.’)
In the course of his stay, with the plant of wisdom (why not wisdom?) sprouting in the form of curiosity, I asked K. what he did. And his answer to me reframed my relationship to myself and set me upon a ground more solid and enjoyable than the ground upon which I had stood driving through the drab shopping errands I had powerlessly suffered with my mother. This is how K. explained what he did:
“People are born with a diamond. But life goes on, and it is as if they have dropped this diamond in a garbage can and covered it with garbage. In search of life’s treasure, they do things they believe will make them happy. But peoples’ pursuit of happiness generates more garbage that buries the diamond further. So, I remind people they have their diamond and help them remove the trash to find it.”
As K. spoke, I imagined a phantasmagoria of ghost-like wraiths twisting upon each other like the terror-stricken figures in Rodin’s The Gates of Hell: dark, writhing, and lost. I did not relate to these people. I was not of them. They were adults in the adult world—a world I had not yet entered. Unfortunately, I was not sufficiently frightened to prevent my own fall from happening. Indeed, I too, would soon-enough find myself, the lost Prodigal cavorting in the mud with the pigs. But for now, I was safe, at home, with a clean feeling, clear that I had no need for religion or God, until we somehow came to the subject of Buddha.
When You See the Buddha, Kill the Buddha
It is true that it’s recorded that the great Zen Master Linji said to his disciples “when you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” K. told me about this (though I forget the question that prompted it). Again, the words struck me—though this is not the sense in which master Linji meant it. Let me paraphrase my then, incorrect, understanding of Linji here, “Organized religion is hypocritical, for though it says you’re free, it says that you do not realize or know your freedom. Therefore, you must follow religion to be free, and with its promise to save you, religion does the opposite and enchains you, using you and your resources to sustain its power. Thus, you are better off to discover your truth independently of such religions. Real truth is, therefore, personal and individual. Not social. Not institutional.” And a clear example of how to do this is, said K., presented by Herman Hesse in his Siddhartha.
A day later, I read Siddhartha in a sitting and my life seemed to open. (I won’t describe the scene of my reading too much here. It was in a sunroom in my parents’ house—a shuttered room of soft light, quiet for looking onto a back garden and walls decorated with Kostya Cream Grasscloth wallpaper.)
The passage that opened me was this:
“The body was certainly not the Self, nor the play of senses, nor thought, nor understanding, nor acquired wisdom or art with which to draw conclusions and form already existing thoughts to spin new thoughts. No, this world of thought was still on this side, and it led to no goal when one destroyed the senses of the incidental Self but fed it with thoughts and erudition. Both thought and the senses were fine things, behind both of them lay hidden the last meaning; it was worth while listening to them both, to play with both, neither to despise nor overrate either of them, but to listen intently to both voices. [Siddhartha] would only strive after whatever the inward voice commanded him, not tarry anywhere but where the voice advised him. Why did Gautama [Buddha] once sit down beneath the bo tree in his greatest hour when he received enlightenment? He had heard a voice, a voice in his own heart which commanded him to seek rest under this tree, and he had not taken recourse to mortification of the flesh, sacrifices, bathing or prayers, eating or drinking, sleeping or dreaming; he had listened to the voice. To obey no other external command, only the voice, to be prepared [to follow the voice]—that was good, that was necessary. Nothing else was necessary.”
Upon reading this passage, my own inward voice became clear. My life would be spiritual. I would wander and teach like the Buddha. I saw myself teaching as I had heard the Buddha had taught—imagining myself crafting stories for people from all walks of life, guiding people to peace—to the peace I felt reading Hesse’s book (did one need more peace than this?), to the peace of knowing that one possesses all one needs—one’s own diamond. The world of “the shade of the house, in the sunshine on the riverbank by the boats, in the shade of the sallow wood and the fig tree,” opened in me, and I stepped into it. I had begun to grow.
There is much I mistook about life, interpreting it as I did through K. and Hesse. And much, the more I investigated, that I needed to question: Whose inner voice is this? Where does it come from? How do I know it’s not mere imagination? How do I know how to act or what to do in any given situation?
A Dangerous Confusion
It would not be fair to end this story without telling that eventually K. found his way to a suburb of Seattle where he taught his eclectic, self-constructed “Way of Seeing” for several decades before committing suicide. I had had the chance to visit with him several years before his suicide and he had grown increasingly cynical, accusatory of society, proud, paranoid, and isolated.
The cost of living one’s spiritual life carelessly and uncritically is high. Not only might we mislead ourselves, but it’s likely that we’ll mislead others, especially those we love. Perhaps it’s correct and helpful at times to think that we ought not to insist that authorities outside of ourselves know the truth—our truth—better than we do. On the other hand—perhaps we ought to keep in mind what the ancients have always warned us against: the consequences of too much arrogance, self-assurance, immodesty and pride.
What are the consequences for us if we think that we’re equal to — or know the mind of — God? This was a dilemma the ancient Greeks faced seriously.
What Hesse wrote of Buddha and Gautama is not accurate. It was not Buddha’s inner voice that moved him to sit for his enlightenment. Rather, it was his nature, his fundamental intuition that to help others is the purpose of human life—of all true religion.
American confusion around self-fulfillment, enlightenment, peace, delusion, God, religion, is profound and dangerous. I have watched on as many have lost their lives to mistaken thinking, what is referred to by contemporary psychologists as ‘cognitive distortions,’ like Emotional reasoning, characterized by the thought patterning in which, as a psychologist has put it, one thinks: “’I feel, therefore I am.’ Assuming that a feeling is true—without digging deeper to see if this is accurate.”
Given the trepidatious character of an untrained mind, and the harms of which we know it’s capable, why do we accept our consciousness and its plans for us so easily?
To know one’s self, to think of all beings as one’s children—it’s like being cleansed by the wind and light of a gentle mountain breeze.