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:
Please share your experiences of listening to the river or the books that inspired you.
Spencer, the Urban Monk