First Part - With the Samanas

THEY CAUGHT UP with the ascetics, the scraggly Samanas, in the evening of that same day, and they offered to accompany them and obey them. They were accepted.

Siddhartha gave his robe as a gift to a poor Brahmin along the road. Siddhartha wore only a loincloth and an unstitched, earth-colored shawl. He ate only once a day, and never ate anything cooked. He fasted for fifteen days. He fasted for twenty-eight days. The flesh on his thighs and cheeks dwindled away. From his enlarged eyes flickered hot dreams; the nails grew long on his dried-out fingers and he had a dry, unkempt beard on his chin. When he encountered females, his gaze was frigid; when he went through a city where the men were handsomely clothed, his mouth twitched with contempt. He saw merchants conduct trade, princes go on their hunts, mourners bemoan deaths, whores offer their services, doctors tend to their sick, priests specify which days were good for sowing seed, lovers love, mothers shush their children—and nothing was worth even the glance of his eyes. Everything was a lie, everything stank, everything stank of lies, everything feigned meaning and happiness and beauty, and yet everything was decaying while nobody acknowledged the fact. The world tasted bitter; life was agony.

One goal loomed before Siddhartha, and only one: to become empty, to be empty of thirst, of wishing, of dreams—empty of all joy and pain. He wanted the Self to die, to no longer be an “I,” to find peace with an empty heart. His goal was to stand open to the wonder of thoughts conceived in self-dissolution. When every shred of his self had been conquered and put to death, when every longing and every inclination of the heart had been silenced, then the Ultimate had to awaken, that which was innermost had to come into being, that which was nothing less than the ego, the great secret.

Siddhartha stood silently in the intense rays streaming vertically from the sun; blazing with pain and blazing with thirst, he stood until he felt neither pain nor thirst any longer. He stood silently in the rain while water dripped from his hair over his frozen shoulders, over his frigid hips and legs, and still the penitent stood there until his shoulders and legs were frozen no longer, until they became silent and were still. Silently he crouched down among the briar tendrils, while blood dripped from his burning skin and pus came from his lesions. Siddhartha languished there without movement or any animation until the blood flowed no longer, until he felt nothing stinging or burning any more.

Siddhartha sat upright and learned how to breathe sparingly, learned how to get by with little breath and then learned how to halt his breathing. He learned, beginning with the breath, how to quiet his heartbeat, and then how to diminish his heart's beating until it was very little and then was almost nonexistent.

Under the teaching of the oldest Samanas, Siddhartha mastered self-denial, practiced mystic contemplation according to the new methods of the Samanas. A heron flew over the bamboo forest—and Siddhartha took the heron into his soul, he flew over the woods and the mountains. He was a heron: he fed upon fish and hungered with the heron's hunger, he spoke the cawing of the heron and died the heron's death. A dead jackal lay there on the sandy riverbank, and Siddhartha's soul slipped into the dead body. He was a dead jackal: he lay on the beach, he swelled up and stank, he rotted away and was dismembered by the hyenas before being skinned by the vultures. He turned to a skeleton and then to dust, and then he blew into the fields. And Siddhartha's soul returned. His soul had died, it had decayed, it had crumbled to dust. He had tasted the hazy intoxication of the cycle of existence and, like the hunter poised for the opportunity, awaited his chance to escape from this cycle to the place where causality ended and an eternity free of sorrow began. He deadened his senses and dulled his memory, he slid out of his self-existence into a thousand strange created things: he was an animal, he was carrion, he was stone, wood, and water, and every time when he found himself awakened once more, whether the sun or moon was shining, he was once more himself within the cycle of existence. He felt thirst, he overcame his thirst, and then he felt new thirst.

With the Samanas, Siddhartha learned quite a bit, and learned how to go away from the self in many ways. He followed the method of self-dissolution through pain, whereby he suffered voluntarily and overcame the pain, hunger, thirst, or fatigue. He achieved self-dissolution through meditation, by the concentrated clearing of all perceptions from his senses. He learned to go by these ways as well as others: he abandoned his being a thousand times, he lingered in the Not-Self hours and days at a time. But, although these paths led away from one's being, in the end they always led back to the self. Although Siddhartha fled the self a thousand times and tarried in nothing, although he spent time within animals and stones, the return was unavoidable. The hours where he found his own being were inescapable, whether in shadows or in rain he was once more Siddhartha, and the agony of the cycle of existence was once again laid upon him.

Govinda, his shadow, lived by his side. He followed this same path and he himself undertook the same tasks. They seldom spoke more to one another than the service and practices required. At times, these two went through the villages so that they could beg sustenance for themselves and their teachers.

“What do you think, Govinda?” said Siddhartha once during these begging trips, “What do you think? Should we go further? Have we achieved our goal?”

Govinda answered: “We have learned, and we continue to learn. You will be a great Samana, Siddhartha. You have learned every practice quickly, and the old Samanas have often marveled at you. One day, you will be a saint, Siddhartha.”

Siddhartha spoke: “It doesn't look that way to me, my friend. The things that I have learned with the Samanas up to this point, O Govinda, I could have learned even easier and more quickly. I could have learned it in any pub located in the whore's district, there among the manual laborers and the gamblers, my friend.”

Govinda said: “Siddhartha is joking with me! How could you have acquired meditation, and how could you have learned how to cease breathing; how could you have possessed immunity to hunger and pain there among all that is miserable?”

And Siddhartha spoke quietly, as if to himself: “What is mystic contemplation? What is an out-of-body experience? What is fasting? What is the cessation of breath? It is flight from one's being, it's a brief escape out of the agony of self-existence, it's a momentary anesthetic against the pain and meaninglessness of life. The ox driver could find this selfsame flight. He could find the very same momentary anesthetic in the tavern when he drinks a couple of bowls of rice wine or fermented coconut milk. At that point he no longer senses his self. He finds fleeting anesthesia. He, while falling into slumber over his bowl of rice wine, finds the same thing that Siddhartha and Govinda find when they, after hours of practice, are able to journey outside of their bodies. So it is, O Govinda.”

Govinda spoke: “So you say, O friend, but you know that Siddhartha is no ox driver and that a Samana is no drunkard. True, the drinker finds anesthesia, true he finds short flight and respite, but he returns out of the illusion and finds everything just as it was before; he has not grown wiser, he has not gathered knowledge, he has not climbed one step higher.”

And Siddhartha said, smiling: “I don't know that I'm never going to become a drunkard. I only know that I, Siddhartha, only find momentary numbness in my methods and meditations. I know that I am even as far removed from wisdom and deliverance as the child is while still cradled by the mother's love. This I know, O Govinda; this I know.”

At another time when Siddhartha and Govinda left the woods in order to beg for some nourishment for their brothers and teachers in a village, Siddhartha began to speak, saying: “How now, Govinda; are we truly on the right path? Are we really growing towards a realization? Or are we, perhaps, just going in circles—we who think that at some point we shall escape the circle of existence?”

Govinda said: “We have learned much, Siddhartha, and much remains to be learned. We're not going in circles; we are going upwards. The circle is a spiral, and we have already climbed several steps.”

Siddhartha answered: “How old do you think our oldest Samana, the one most worthy of honor, really is?”

Said Govinda: “The oldest among us is perhaps sixty years.”

And Siddhartha: “He is sixty years old and has never reached Nirvana. He will become seventy and eighty, and you and I will also become old while practicing, fasting, and meditating. But we will not reach Nirvana just as he will not. O Govinda, I believe that, among all the Samanas in existence, not even a single one will reach Nirvana. We may find consolation, or numbness, or may learn genuine skills with which we can deceive ourselves. But the fundamental thing, that Way of Ways, we do not find.”

“On the contrary,” said Govinda, “you should not speak such outrageous words, Siddhartha! Are you saying we will find no Way of Ways among so many learned men, Brahmins, and seekers, among so many sincerely zealous and holy men, or among so many strong and venerable Samanas?

Siddhartha then said in a voice that contained scoffing and sadness, in a voice that was quiet, somewhat sad, and somewhat mocking: “Soon, Govinda, your friend will leave the Samanas' path that he has traveled for so long with you. Unfortunately, I thirst, O Govinda, and on this long path of the Samana my thirst had dwindled until it has become nothing. I have always thirsted after enlightenment; I am always becoming full of questions. I have asked the Brahmins and the holy Vedas year after year. O Govinda, perhaps it would have been just as good, just as intelligent, and just as efficacious if I had asked the rhinoceros birds or the chimpanzees. It has required a great deal of time, and even now I have not come to the end of the journey of learning this fact, O Govinda: that man can learn nothing! The thing that we call “learning” is, in truth, nonexistent! It is inherent, oh my friend, in a knowledge that is everywhere, that is Atman; it is in me and in you and in every essence. I am starting to believe that this knowledge has no more aggressive enemy than learning and the desire for knowledge.

Govinda remained on the road, standing there. He raised his hands and said: “You shouldn't alarm your friend with such conversations! Your words truly stir up worry within my heart. Just think: what would lend holiness to one's prayers, what would make the Brahmin class worthy of honor, what would make the Samanas holy, if, as you say, there is no learning?! What would all of these be, O Siddhartha, in such a case; what would be holy, what would be worthwhile, what would be venerable?

Govinda then murmured a verse out of the Upanishad:

Siddhartha, however, remained silent. He thought about the words Govinda had spoken to him, and considered them until their conclusion.

Yes, he thought while he stood there with a lowered head, what still remains of it all; what appears holy to us? What remains? What is worth doing? He then shook his head.

One time, when both lads had lived with the Samanas and shared their practices for about three years, a rumor, an adage arrived to them through various highways and byways: one named “Gotama” has appeared, the sublime, the Buddha, who has overcome the world's anguish within himself and has brought the Wheel of Rebirth to a standstill. He was surrounded by disciples as he went through the land, teaching. He was without possessions, homeless, womanless, wearing the yellow mantle of an ascetic but with a cheerful visage. He was a saint; princes and Brahmins bowed down before him and wanted to sit under his tutelage.

This tale, this rumor, this fairy tale resonated outwards, wafted upwards, and traveled here and there. The Brahmins spoke about these things in the cities, the Samanas did so in the woods; the name of Gotama, the Buddha, hammered upon the ears of young lads time and time again. They heard both good and bad reports about Gotama; they heard both adulation and abuse.

Just as it is in a land where the pestilence is raging, and tidings go forth: “here or there is a man, a sage, a harbinger whose words or whose breath, when they fell upon a person, were sufficient for healing the plague”—and just as every person spoke about these reports running rampant throughout in the land, with many believing and doubting while others immediately went on their way to seek help from the wise man—in this same way went out every tale and aromatic report of Gotama, the Buddha, the wise man of the Sakya clan. According to the believers, he possessed the highest knowledge: he could recall his previous lives, he had reached Nirvana and would not return time and again to the circle of existence, he did not submerge himself any longer in the turbulent streams of mortal beings. Many majestic and unbelievable things were reported of him: he had done miracles, he had overcome the devil, he had spoken with the gods. His enemies and the unbelievers, however, said that this Gotama was a vain seducer. They said he lived extravagantly, that he despised the sacrifices, that he had no learning and had intimate knowledge of neither customs nor the caste system.

The tales of the Buddha sounded sweet; the reports had the scent of magic. The world was certainly sick, and life was difficult to endure—and see, here a fountain appeared to spring up, here a clarion call appeared to sound that was trustworthy, mild, and full of elegant promises. Everywhere that the rumor of the Buddha cropped up, in every place in the lands of India the lads pricked up their ears. They felt a deep longing of the heart; they felt hope. Among the sons of the Brahmin and in every city and village a pilgrim or a stranger was welcome when he brought news of him who was Sublime, the Sakyamuni.

The tales slowly permeated to the Samanas in the woods as well as to Siddhartha and Govinda. The tales came slowly; they trickled in drops that were heavy with hope and heavy with doubt. They spoke little about these things, as the oldest Samana was no friend of these tales. He had heard that the one everyone looked upon as the Buddha had previously been an ascetic in the woods but had turned back to pursue luxury and the world's lusts, and he had little regard for this Gotama.

“O Siddhartha,” Govinda said at one point to his friend, “Today I was in the village, and a Brahmin invited me to step into his house. In his house was a Brahmin's son from Magadha who had seen the Buddha with his own eyes and had heard his teachings. Truly, the breath in my breast failed me, and I thought to myself: how I would also like—how I would like us both, Siddhartha and I, to experience the hour when we would hear the teachings proceed from the mouth of this perfect one! Speak, friend, don't we want to go there and listen to the teachings that come from the Buddha's mouth?”

Siddhartha said: “I had always thought, O Govinda, that you would remain with the Samanas. I have always believed that it was your goal to become sixty or seventy years old, pursuing all the while the methods and means that adorn the Samanas. Ah, but see, I had known too little of Govinda. I had known little of your true heart! Now, all right—as you wish, most precious one: open forth a path and go ahead on it. Go where the Buddha proclaims his teachings.”

Govinda said: “You love to mock it. You shall mock it regardless, Siddhartha! Don't you also desire, doesn't a yearning also awaken within you to hear this teaching? Didn't you once say to me that it wouldn't be long before you left the way of the Samanas?”

Siddhartha laughed at this; he laughed and his voice took on a shadow of sorrow and mockery. He said: “Truly, Govinda, you have spoken truly and have remembered correctly. Would that you had remembered the other things you have heard me say as well, namely that I have become skeptical and tired about teaching and learning, and that my trust in words that come from teachers is small. But nevertheless, dear one, I am ready to hear every teaching—even though I in my heart believe that we have already gleaned the best fruit from every teaching.”

Govinda spoke: “Your readiness to do so strikes joy in my heart. But say: how is that possible? How could the teaching of Gotama have already developed its best fruit before we have ever examined it?”

Siddhartha said: “Let's savor this fruit and save the rest of it for later, Govinda! We already owe the Gotama thanks for this fruit, however, and it lies in the fact that he is calling us away from the Samanas! Whether he has other things to give us, O friend…well, let us wait for this with quieted hearts.”

On this same day, Siddhartha gave the oldest Samana his decision: that he would leave. He let the elder know with the politeness and decorum that was fitting for disciples and scholars. The Samana, however, approached him in scorn because both of the lads were leaving. He spoke loudly and used coarse insults.

Govinda was shocked and became embarrassed. Siddhartha, however, leaned his mouth over to Govinda's ear and whispered to him “Now I will show the old one that I have learned something from him.”

At this Siddhartha took up a position in front of the Samana and gathered his thoughts. He captured the elder's gaze with his own, entranced him, made him be silent, and drained him of his will. Siddhartha conquered the elder's will, making the elder do what he wanted. The old man became silent as his eyes stared; he was paralyzed and his arms hung down. The feeble elder was shot out of the sky by Siddhartha's spellbinding. Siddhartha's thoughts seized hold of the Samana and had to perform the actions imposed upon him. So the elder bowed down several times, completing this blessed gesture fully, and then stammered a devout wish for good travels. The lads reciprocated this wish, likewise bowing down with thanks as they walked away and bid him farewell.

As they went on their way, Govinda said: “O Siddhartha, you have learned more among the Samanas than I knew. It is very difficult indeed to bewitch an older Samana. Had you remained there, you truly would have learned to walk on water before too long.”

“I don't have any desire to walk on water,” said Siddhartha. “Let the old Samanas satisfy themselves with such tricks.”

“Whosoever immerses themselves in Atman through contemplation and a purified spirit.

Will receive ineffable blessing in their heart.”