Second Part - Govinda
DURING A PAUSE between pilgrimages, Govinda spent his time together with the other monks in the pleasure grove which the courtesan Kamala had given as a gift to the followers of Gotama. Govinda had heard rumors of an old ferryman, considered by many to be a wise man, who lived by the river one day's journey away. When Govinda continued his journey, he chose the path that went to the ferry. He was eager to see the ferryman because, even though he had followed the rules his entire life and was now looked upon with veneration by the younger monks because of his age and demeanor, the restlessness and seeking had not been extinguished in his heart.
He arrived at the river and asked the old man to ferry him over; when they got off the boat on the opposite bank, he said to the old man: “You're very kind to us monks and pilgrims, and you have already ferried many of us across the river. Aren't you also a seeker of the right path, ferryman?”
Siddhartha spoke, and a smile came from his old eyes: “Do you call yourself a seeker, O venerable one, although you are already advanced in years and are wearing the robe of Gotama's monks?”
“It's true; I'm old,” said Govinda, “but I haven't stopped searching. I'll never stop searching; this seems to be my destiny. It seems to me that you, too, have been searching. Would you like to tell me something, O honorable one?”
Siddhartha spoke: “What could I possibly have to tell you, O venerable one? Perhaps only that you're doing far too much searching? That, in all your seeking, you don't make the time for finding?”
“How is that?” asked Govinda.
“When someone is searching,” said Siddhartha, “then it can easily happen that the only thing his eyes see is that for which he is searching. He is then unable to find anything or let any thought enter his mind because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search. He is obsessed by a goal; searching means having a goal. But finding means: being free, open, and having no goal. You, O venerable one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, because, in striving for your goal, there are many things that you don't see, even though they are right in front of your eyes.”
“I don't quite understand yet,” said Govinda. “What do you mean by this?”
Siddhartha said: “A long time ago, O venerable one—many years ago—you were once at this river and found there a man sleeping by it. You sat down with him to guard his sleep. But you, O Govinda, did not recognize the sleeper.”
Astounded, like one who has just been spellbound, the monk looked into the ferryman's eyes.
“Are you Siddhartha?” he asked in a timid voice. “I wouldn't have recognized you this time, either! I greet you heartily, Siddhartha; I'm truly happy to see you once more! You've changed quite a bit, my friend—and you've now become a ferryman?”
Siddhartha laughed in a friendly way. “A ferryman, yes. Many people have to change a lot, Govinda. They have to wear many robes. I am one of these, my friend. I welcome you, Govinda, and invite you to spend the night in my hut.”
Govinda stayed in the hut that night, sleeping on the bed which once was Vasudeva's. He posed many questions to the friend of his youth, and had Siddhartha tell him many things from his life.
When the time had come the next morning for Govinda to start the day's journey, he said these words without hesitation: “Before I go on my way, Siddhartha, permit me to ask one more question. Do you have a teaching? Do you have a faith or a knowledge that you follow which helps you to live and to do what is right?”
Siddhartha spoke: “You know, my friend, that as a young man when we lived with the penitents in the forest I was already wary of teachers and lessons, turning my back on them. I have stood by this position. Even so, I have had many teachers since then. A beautiful courtesan was my teacher for a long time, and a rich merchant was my teacher, and also some people who gambled with dice. Even a follower of Buddha who traveled on foot was once my teacher; he sat with me when I had fallen asleep in the forest on the pilgrimage. I've also learned from this river and from my predecessor, the ferryman Vasudeva. He was a very simple person, Vasudeva was, and he was no scholar, but he knew what is necessary just as well as Gotama did. He was a perfect man and a saint.”
Govinda said: “Oh Siddhartha, you still enjoy mocking people a little bit, it seems to me. I believe in you, and I know that you haven't followed any teacher. But haven't you found something on your own? Even though you've found no teachings, you still discovered certain thoughts and insights, that are your own and help you to live. It would delight my heart if you were to tell me some of these.”
Siddhartha spoke: “I've certainly had thoughts and insights, time and again. I have sometimes felt knowledge within me as one would feel life within one's heart for hours or days at a time. There have been many thoughts, but it would be difficult for me to transfer them to you. See here, Govinda, this is one of the thoughts that I've found: wisdom cannot be passed on. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to pass on to someone always sounds like foolishness.”
“Are you joking?” asked Govinda.
“I'm not joking; I'm telling you what I've found. Knowledge can be transferred, but not wisdom. It can be found and lived, and it is possible to be carried by it. Miracles can be performed with it, but it can't be expressed and taught with words. This was what I sometimes suspected even as a young man, and what has driven me away from teachers. I have found another thought, Govinda, that you'll also regard as foolishness or a joke, but which is my best thought. It says: the opposite of every truth is just as true! That is to say, any truth can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided. Everything that can be thought with the mind and said with words is one-sided, it's all just the half of it, lacking completeness, roundness, or unity. When the exalted Gotama spoke his teachings about the world, he had to divide it into Samsara and Nirvana, deception and truth, suffering and salvation. It can't be done any differently, and there is no other way for the person who wants to teach. But the world itself that exists around us and inside of us is never one-sided. A person or an action is never entirely Samsara or Nirvana, and a person is never completely holy or sinful. It really seems like this, of course, because we are subject to the deception that time is something real. Time is not real, Govinda; I have experienced this many times over. And if time is not real, then the divide which seems to separate the world from eternity, suffering from bliss, and evil from good, is also a deception.
“How is that?” asked Govinda timidly.
“Listen well, my friend; listen well! The sinner—as I am and you are—is a sinner, but in time he will come to be Brahman again. In time, he will reach Nirvana and will be Buddha, and these “times to come” are only a deception and a parable! The sinner is not on his way to becoming a Buddha and is not in the process of developing, even though our capacity for thought does not know how else to envision these things. No, the future Buddha is within the sinner now; his future is already completely there today. One has to worship within oneself, in you, and in everyone else the Buddha that is coming into being, that is possible: the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect or on a slow path towards perfection; no, it is perfect every moment. All sin already carries divine forgiveness within itself, all small children already have the old person within themselves, all infants have death, all the dying have eternal life. It isn't possible for any one person to see how far another one has already progressed on his path, because the Buddha is waiting inside the robber and the gambler, and the robber is waiting within the Brahmin. It is also possible through deep meditation to put time out of existence and to see all the life that was and is and ever will be as if they were all simultaneous; in that simultaneity is everything that is good, perfect, and Brahman. I therefore see whatever exists as good. Death is like life to me, sin is like holiness, wisdom is like foolishness; everything has to be just as it is, and everything requires only my consent, willingness, and loving agreement to become good to me and work for my benefit, unable to ever harm me. I have experienced a great deal of sin in my body and soul that I needed; I needed lust, the desire for possessions, vanity, and the most shameful despair in order to learn how to surrender all resistance, love the world, and stop comparing it to some kind of world that I imagined or wished for—a perfection that I had dreamed up. I had to learn how to leave the world as it is, to love it, and to enjoy being a part of it. These, oh Govinda, are some of the thoughts that have come into my mind.
Siddhartha bent down, picked a stone up from the ground, and weighed it in his hand.
“This here,” he said playfully “is a stone. It will, after a certain time, perhaps turn into soil, and from soil it will turn into a plant, animal, or human being. In the past, I would have said: ‘This stone is just a stone; it is worthless and it belongs to the world of the Maya. And yet, because it might be able to become a human being and a spirit in the cycle of transformation, I also grant that it is important.’ This is how I might have thought in the past. But today, I think that this stone is a stone, and it is also an animal, a god, and Buddha; I do not venerate it because it could turn into this or that, but rather because it already is and always will be everything. The very fact that it is a stone and appears to me today and now as a stone is the reason why I love it and see worth and purpose in each of its veins and cavities, in the yellow and gray, in the hardness, in the sound it makes when I knock at it, or in the dryness or wetness of its surface. There are stones which feel like oil or soap, and others that feel like leaves or sand. Every one is special and prays to the “Om” in its own way, and each one is Brahman, but at the same time they are just as much a stone, and are oily or juicy, and it is this very fact that I like and regard as wondrous or worthy of worship. But I won't speak any more of this. These words are not sufficient for this secret meaning. Everything always comes out a little differently as soon as it is put into words. It gets distorted slightly and seems a bit silly—yes, this is also very good and I like it quite a bit, and I agree with the idea that what is one man's treasure and wisdom always sounds like foolishness to someone else.”
Govinda listened silently.
“Why did you tell me about this stone?” he asked hesitantly after a pause.
“I did so without any specific intention. Or perhaps I intended to say that I love this stone, and the river, and all the things at which we are looking and from which we can learn. I can love a stone, Govinda, as well as a tree or a piece of bark. These are things, and things can be loved. But I cannot love words. Teachings, therefore, are no good to me. They have no hardness or softness, no colors, edges, odor, or taste; they have nothing but words. Perhaps it is these many words which keep you from finding peace. In the same vein, salvation and virtue as well as Samsara and Nirvana are merely words, Govinda. There is nothing that could become Nirvana—there is only the word Nirvana.”
Govinda spoke: “Nirvana is not just a word, my friend. It is an idea.”
Siddhartha continued: “It might be a thought, that's true. I have to confess to you, my friend, that I don't differentiate much between thoughts and words. To be honest, I don't have a high opinion of thoughts, either. I have a better opinion of things. Here on this ferry boat, for instance, a holy man who for many years believed simply in the river, and nothing else, has been my predecessor and teacher. He noticed that the river spoke to him and he learned from it. It educated him and taught him; the river seemed to be a god to him, and for many years he did not know that every wind, cloud, bird, and beetle was just as divine, knows just as much, and can teach just as much as the reverent river. When this holy man went into the forest, however, he knew everything. Without teachers or books, he knew more than you and I do—only because he had believed in the river.
Govinda said: “But is that which you call ‘things’ actually real; is it something which has existence? Isn't it just an image or illusion—a deception of the Maya? Is your stone, your tree, or your river actually a reality?”
“I don't care very much about this, either,” said Siddhartha. “They may be illusions, and they may not be; after all, I would be an illusion, too, and in any case they are always as I am. This is what makes them so dear to me and worthy of veneration: they are like me, and, therefore, I can love them. This is another teaching that you will laugh about: love, O Govinda, seems to me to be the most important thing of all. Great thinkers may try to thoroughly understand the world, explain it, and despise it. But I'm only interested in being able to love the world, not despise it. I don't want to hate it and have it hate me; I want to be able to look upon it and myself and upon all beings with love, admiration, and great respect.”
“I understand this,” said Govinda. “This very thing, however, was discovered by the exalted one to be a deception. He commands us to be benevolent, forgiving, sympathetic, and tolerant—but not to love. He forbade us from binding our hearts to earthly things with love.”
“I know that,” said Siddhartha. His smile shone like gold. “I know that, Govinda. Behold, with that we are now right in the middle of the thicket of opinions, disputing over words. I can't deny that my words about love seem to contradict Gotama's words. It's for this very reason that I mistrust words so much, because I know this contradiction is a deception. I know that I am in agreement with Gotama. How could he, who has discovered all elements of human existence to be transitory and meaningless and yet still loved people so much, using his long, laborious life only to help and teach them—how could he not know love? Even with him, your great teacher, I prefer the thing itself to the words, and place more importance on his actions and life than on his speeches, more stock in the gestures of his hand than in his opinions. I see his greatness not in his speech or his thoughts, but only in his actions and life.”
The two old men said nothing for a long time. Then Govinda spoke while he was bowing in farewell: “Thank you, Siddhartha, for telling me some of your thoughts. They are somewhat strange thoughts, and it hasn't all been immediately understandable. Be this as it may, I thank you and I wish you peaceful days.”
(Secretly, however, Govinda thought to himself: This Siddhartha is a strange person. He articulates odd ideas and his teachings sound foolish. They sound so different from the exalted one's pure lessons, which are clearer, purer, more understandable. Nothing strange, foolish, or silly is contained within them. But Siddhartha's hands, feet, eyes, forehead, breath, smile, greeting, and gait seemed different from his ideas. I have not seen since our exalted Gotama became one with the Nirvana a person of whom I could say: ‘this is a holy man!’ I have found only Siddhartha to be like this. His teachings may be strange and his words may sound foolish, but a purity, calmness, mirth, mildness, and holiness that I have found in no one else since our exalted teacher's death shines out of his gaze, hands, skin, and hair.)
While Govinda thought these things, there was a conflict within his heart. Drawn by love, he once again bowed to Siddhartha. He bowed deeply to the one who was sitting calmly.
“Siddhartha,” he said, “we have become old men. It is unlikely that we will see each other again in this incarnation. I see, my beloved friend, that you have found peace. I confess that I have not found this. Tell me one more word, oh honorable one; give me something as I go on my way which I can grasp and understand! Give me something that will be with me along my path. My path is often dark and difficult, Siddhartha.”
Siddhartha said nothing, and looked at Govinda with his quiet smile that never changed. Govinda stared at his face with fear, yearning, and suffering. The eternal search and endless not-finding was visible in his look.
Siddhartha saw it and smiled.
“Bend down to me!” he whispered quietly in Govinda's ear. Bend down to me! Like this, but even closer! Very close! Kiss my forehead, Govinda!”
Drawn by great love and expectation, Govinda obeyed these words with astonishment. But while he bent down close to Siddhartha and touched his forehead with his lips, something miraculous happened to him. While his thoughts still dwelled on Siddhartha's strange words, and while he struggled in vain and with reluctance to banish time with his thoughts and imagine Nirvana and Samsara as one, and while certain contempt for his friends' words was fighting within him against an immense love and veneration, the following happened to him:
He saw the face of his friend Siddhartha no longer, but instead saw a long sequence of many other faces—a flowing river of hundreds or thousands of faces—all come and disappear, and yet seem to be there simultaneously. The faces were constantly changing and renewing themselves, and yet they were all still Siddhartha. He saw the face of a fish—a carp—with a mouth opened in unending pain. It was the face of a dying fish, with fading eyes. He saw the face of a newborn babe that was red, full of wrinkles, and distorted with crying. He saw the face of a murderer, and saw him plunging a knife into someone else's body. In the same instant, he saw this criminal in bondage, kneeling while his head was chopped off with one blow from the executioner's sword. He saw the naked bodies of men and women in positions and struggles of frenzied love. He saw corpses that were stretched out, cold, motionless, and empty. He saw the heads of various animals: boars, crocodiles, elephants, bulls, and birds. He saw gods: Krishna and Agni. He saw all these figures and faces in a thousand relationships with one another, helping, loving, hating, destroying, or giving birth again to each other. Each one had a will to die, and a passionate, painful recognition of ephemerality—and yet none of them did die, they were only transformed, and were always reborn. They eternally received a new face, without any time passing between the one face and the next, and all of these figures and faces rested, flowed, and conceived themselves. They floated along and merged with one another, and they were always covered with something thin that had no nature of its own but nonetheless existed—like thin glass or ice, a transparent skin, mold, or mask of water. This mask was smiling, and this mask was Siddhartha's smiling face, which Govinda touched with his lips at this very same moment. And Govinda saw that the smile of this mask, the smile of unity on the flowing forms, the smile of coexistence in the thousand births and deaths, the smile of Siddhartha, was exactly the same type of smile as the quiet, delicate, impenetrable, wise, sometimes-benevolent, sometimes-mocking, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha, as he himself had looked upon it with reverence a hundred times. Govinda knew that perfected ones smiled like this.
Not knowing any more whether time existed, whether the vision had lasted a second or a hundred years, not knowing any more whether there existed a Siddhartha, a Gotama, a me and a you, feeling in his innermost self as if he had been wounded by a divine arrow, the injury of which tasted sweet, being transformed by magic and dissolved in his innermost self, Govinda still stood for a bit while bent over the quiet face of Siddhartha, which he had just kissed and which had just been the scene of all manifestations, all transformations, all existence. This countenance was unchanged, and after the depth of that thousand-fold face had subsided beneath the surface, Siddhartha smiled silently, quietly, and softly. It was perhaps benevolent, perhaps mocking, and was precisely like the exalted one used to smile.
Govinda bowed deeply. Tears coming from he knew not where ran down his old face, and a feeling of the most intimate love and most humble veneration burned like a fire in his heart. He bowed deeply and touched the ground before the one who was sitting motionlessly and whose smile reminded him of everything he had ever loved and everything that had ever been valuable and holy to him in his life.