Ferryman Enlightenment – Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha - a novell by Hermann HesseListening to the River – “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse

My favorite book,  “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse, is set in the time of the Buddha, over 2,500 years ago. Like the Buddha, Siddhartha left home, traveling with his friend Govinda to the forest to seek spiritual knowledge.

Over the course of  his journey he meets Vasudeva, a lowly ferryman who subtly and profoundly alters his life. Through their conversations as they observe the flow of the river, Siddhartha eventually becomes enlightened.  Although Siddhartha spent time with great teachers during his wanderings,  he learned more from the ferryman who simply listened to the river.

There are many Buddhist insights and realizations in this book.  Today, I would like to focus on one such realization: Siddhartha’s enlightenment by listening to the river and his wise teacher, Vasudeva, the ferryman.

First, I would like to share my own experience listening to the river.

In a remote village in Eurasia, my best friend, eight year old  Sasha, and I would leave early in the morning with a knapsack, a fishing rod and worms to trek to the river a few miles away. On those warm summer days we would stroll along the riverbank until we found a perfect spot for the day’s fishing.

Though I never even liked eating fish, there was something about sitting in silence and watching the float that mesmerized me.  Sasha and I would sit quietly and though I was (am) a chatterbox, we exchanged few words.

Taking turns, Sasha and I threw dirt into the river to attract some fish. It was the only time we disturbed our  idyllic moments. When our attempts eventually yielded a catch, we gave each other a satisfied nod and returned to our silence.

At the beginning of the day, my mind was like a monkey jumping from one thought to another and daydreaming about a big catch.  But as the day progressed,  the sound of the waves lapping on the sandy shore gently calmed my mind. After a while, I had no thoughts, but developed a spaciousness, openness and moment-by-moment mindfulness.

As the day came to a close, Sasha and I would head home with our fish. Though I was tired physically, I felt a secret serenity and happiness that I didn’t need to verbalize or conceptualize. I was simply content.

Lessons learned from listening to the river:

As I gazed on the river, it seemed that there was no beginning and ending of the river. The waves appeared to be changing yet staying the same. As they hit the river shore, they seemed to engage in a dialog about endless time…

Even as a young child I sensed that there was only ‘this moment’ and realized that experiences were not a constant or permanent. All that is certain is our ever-changing moment-to-moment awareness. That day I sensed there is no place to reach, no goals to accomplish, no enlightenment to be sought. All can be discovered in ‘this moment.’

In this realization, my ego seemed to dissolve. I experienced Anatta – no-self or sense of separation from the universe.   I was there and yet everywhere at the same time.  Time seemed to stop and there was nothing: emptiness, the river, the fish, Sasha and me.

At times, I would be out of that moment and my mind would be flooded with thoughts, anticipation, ideas and daydreaming. The river with its calming waves kept bringing me back to moment-to-moment mindfulness – to ‘this moment.’  The river was my teacher and the confidant,  holding timeless wisdom and the key to serenity.

In the book, Vasudeva, the ferryman said to Siddhartha:

“The river has taught me to listen; you will learn from it, too. The river knows everything; one can learn everything from it. You have already learned from the river to strive downwards, to sink, to seek the depths… You will learn other things, too.”

… Siddhartha once asked Vasudeva, “Have you learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?”
“Yes, Siddhartha,” Vasudeva said. “Is this what you mean? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future?”

“That is it,” said Siddhartha, “and when I learned that, I reviewed my life and it was also a river, and Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man, were only separated by shadows, not through reality. Siddhartha’s previous lives were also not in the past, and his death and his return to Brahma are not in the future. Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence.”
(Excerpt from the book “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse)

Herman Hesse’s book “Siddhartha” and the ferryman’s wisdom in particular is an inspiration for my own path to see things as they are.  Listening to the river is just one of the great insights in this book. I will share some other realizations in the next couple of essays.

“Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse is my favorite book and I recommend it to anybody who is on the path themselves and looking for liberation,  happiness and ultimately Buddhist enlightenment. The book encompasses complex Buddhist concepts in an elegant way weaving it into the life story of a Brahmin, Siddhartha, who became enlightened.

It is an easy read and showcases Buddhist wisdom, philosophy and its application to everyday life.

You can buy Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse from:

| Amazon.com – $ 6.99 US | Amazon Canada $ 6.99 CDN | Amazon UK £ 3.55 |

Please share your experiences of listening to the river or the books that inspired you.

With loving-kindness,
Spencer, the Urban Monk

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
About Spencer

Spencer is the Urban Monk. He is a blogger, writer, healer and is a
dedicated and long-term Buddhist Meditator (Theravada tradition).

The Urban Monk lives simply and his life goal is to share his insights with everyone interested in bringing Buddhist meditation to their everyday life. Focusing on experiential approaches, Spencer is a student on the path of 'seeing things as they are.'

Connect with Spencer, the Urban Monk on Google +


  1. Very salty says:

    I was lulled into memories when in my own life so many positive experiences have taken place in or by streams and rivers – swimming in cool streams after a hot day at the beach, fishing with my brother on misty mornings without conversation -just being, lying at eye level with a stream, watching the froth from the current create artwork on the surface … Your prose is poetic. I can’t wait for your next installment! Vs

    • Hi Vs,
      Thank you for your kind words about my style. I am glad that this essay evoked some of your experiences of ‘being in the moment.’ I hope that these moments would be more and more in people’s lives so that they can truly live in the moment and be happy. With loving-kindness, Spencer, the Urban Monk

  2. After reading your article, I understood why I like river so much over ocean: when I am near river, I feel happiness because I feel that the river is not over me, it is not dominating me (like ocean does), it is rather with me…But it is my personal preference.

    Reading about your past experiences, I was seeing myself in Costa Rica, on my trip to river (white water rafting), the river had places where it was calm and quiet, and those moments pop up in my mind quite often, maybe because I was content those particular moments not realizing that at that time…

    Please keep sharing with us your experiences.


    • Hi Julian,

      Thank you for sharing your experiences and preference. I am glad that this article reminded you of happiness while near the river. I hope that you would experience mindfulness in all your activities. I will share my experiences and insights that I have personally realized.
      With Loving-Kindness, Spencer, a.k.a the Urban Monk

Speak Your Mind