Siddhartha (Guest Review)

Siddhartha is a Buddhist philosophy novel, written by a German guy in 1922. I’m not much of a philosophy guy myself, but I was interested in Eastern philosophy to see how it was different from the philosophy I was used to. In addition, Westerners tend to “fetishize” Eastern philosophy; a lot of hippies in the 60’s heralded it as this perfect wonderful truth that would solve all our problems. I assume that one of the earlier pieces will be less distorted because it won’t have that echo chamber effect; in addition, my English teacher swore up and down that this was totally legit Buddhism.

If it is, though, this book convinced me to not touch it with a ten-foot pole.
The philosophy espoused by the book seems to be that you shouldn’t care about anything or help anyone. The only way to be happy is to completely detach yourself from everything, including other people’s suffering.

To start with, the main character, Siddhartha, is a Brahmin. If you’re unfamiliar with the Indian caste system, that means he is at the very top of the social ladder. He spends his childhood trying to achieve spiritual enlightenment, but he’s not satisfied with the establishment teachings, so he goes off to join a group of ascetics, the Samana. He stays there for a while, but he still feels like there’s something missing, so he leaves the ascetics and strikes out on his own. This introduction is fine; it’s a little dull to someone as uninterested in spirituality as me, but I can sort of understand Siddhartha’s thought process, and an important component of Buddhism is a rejection of both hedonism and asceticism, so this is a necessary step.

But then things get…weird. When he enters the nearby town Siddhartha has no money or food, of course; ascetics make their living by begging. The people still assume he is one, and someone gives him a rice cake. How does he react?

He was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of pride. He was a Samana no longer; it was no longer fitting that he should beg. He gave the rice cake to a dog

This is ~500 BC India. Farmers worked hard and expended resources to make that rice cake. Someone gave it to him with the belief that he was a holy man who deserved it. There are people starving on the streets, non-Brahmin and non-Samana beggars who cannot receive this gift as easily as him.

And he gives it to a dog.

I doubt we’re supposed to be completely on his side here – this is during the chapter where he becomes a hedonist, which is the closest thing to a sin Buddhism has – but I think the flaw is more that he’s considering himself important enough to not beg, not that he’s wasting food. The people who surround Siddhartha do not matter; all that matters is his grandstanding about how great and enlightened he feels. This is an incredibly self-centered and individualistic view of reality, where the rest of the world matters only as a backdrop for your own high-minded philosophizing.

Later Siddhartha becomes a businessman, and is hugely successful of course. He grows dissatisfied with his pleasures and hedonism, however, and forgets the spiritual teachings of his youth. He feels empty and purposeless.

I can understand this, to a point. Yes, even if you have a wealth of material goods, if you have no purpose in life you will be miserable. But, the thing is, it’s not hard to find purpose. There are so many awful things in the world and so many worthy causes you could pledge yourself to. If you have money and influence, there’s a lot you can do to help people and improve the world. You want purpose, Siddhartha? Feed beggars. Help the oppressed. Fight the corruption in the business world. Make the world a better place.

Of course, he doesn’t do that. You want to know what he does?

Siddhartha began to play dice for money and jewels with increasing fervor […] He derived a passionate pleasure through the gambling away and squandering of wretched money. In no other way could he show more clearly and mockingly his contempt for riches, the false deity of businessmen. […] He won thousands, he threw thousands away […] He loved that anxiety, that terrible and oppressive anxiety which he experienced during the game of dice

He wastes all his money on cheap thrills, because that’s apparently the only way he can feel like he’s rejecting the “soul sickness” of his empty pleasures: more empty pleasures.

If he really wanted to show his contempt for riches, he could give that money to the poor, something, anything productive. Instead he gambles it away on nothing. This, ironically, makes him even more obsessed with money; he becomes a harsher businessman who stops being nice to his customers. Oh wait –

Siddhartha became impatient at losses, he lost his patience with slow-paying debtors, he was no longer kindhearted to beggars, he no longer had the desire to give gifts and loans to the poor.

Never mind, he apparently was doing all the stuff I talked about, but it wasn’t good enough for him. “Oh no, my life is so meaningless and empty, I’m only feeding beggars and handing out money to the poor, let me screw them over so I can pursue my own happiness!” At this point, I ran out of sympathy for Siddhartha. I could no longer care about his whining that it’s so hard being a wealthy and intelligent Brahmin who gets everything handed to him, it’s hard and nobody understands. This man is a monster.

I had a similar feeling when I watched Citizen Kane. There were similarities there: a wealthy man who had everything but just wanted people to love him. The story wants me to feel sympathy for him and I just can’t, because he has so many opportunities to help people in real ways that would make them love him, but he just doesn’t take them. The only explanation I’m left with is that he’s an elitist jerk who only wants love from the upper class and believes the lower class isn’t worthy of his appreciation, in which case, why should I care? He’s an elitist jerk. Siddhartha is even worse, because apparently he did do things to help others, it just wasn’t good enough for him because he’s some kind of sociopath.

And I think this is something that’s toxic about Buddhism in general. People can be happy as wealthy philanthropists. You don’t have to give up everything to be happy, and more importantly, it is possible to be happy by helping other people. Siddhartha doesn’t achieve happiness by finding a purpose in his purposeless life, he just accepts that he doesn’t have a purpose and learns to not care. That is certainly one way to achieve personal happiness, but it’s not the only way – yet this book seems to be claiming it is, by showing Siddhartha trying and failing to achieve happiness as a man of the world.

Like one who has eaten and drunk too much and vomits painfully and then feels better, so did [Siddhartha] wish he could rid himself with one terrific heave of these pleasures, of these habits of this entirely senseless life.

You could have at any point, Siddhartha. You just chose not to.

Eventually he realizes the life of a businessman isn’t working for him, so he departs into the wilderness and leaves all his worldly possessions behind.

Without knowing it, [Siddhartha] had endeavored and longed all these years to be like all these other people, like these children. And yet his life had been much more wretched and poorer than theirs, for their aims were not his, nor their sorrows his.

You see, the rich and privileged have just as hard a life as poor people, maybe even harder! It’s so hard being rich and powerful, it’s hard and only Buddhists understand.

Siddhartha goes to live and philosophize with a ferryman. He learns from the river that time is an illusion because the river is everywhere at once.

“That is it […] my life […] 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.”

Siddhartha spoke with delight. This discovery had made [Siddhartha] very happy. Was then not all sorrow in time, all self-torment in fear of time? Were not all difficulties and evil in the world conquered as soon as one conquered time, as soon as one dispelled time?

No.

This is nonsense. Just because you can hack your brain through logical paradoxes does not mean they have any bearing on reality. Believing that all states of time exist simultaneously (and therefore that everything is inevitable) does not conquer evil and sorrow. It will not stop you from being hurt by natural or manmade disasters, and it will not stop anyone else from being hurt either. All difficulties and evil in the world come from society and nature, not time. This complacency, this belief that evil stems from some kind of abstract metaphysical ignorance, is dangerous because it denies people the capacity to fight against real evil in the world. If people are suffering, do you say “Their suffering is because they don’t understand reality like I do, they just need to get over themselves,” or do you try to help them? If you picked the former, congratulations, you’re enlightened!

I’m not exaggerating the inevitability and nihilism aspect here. Later in the story, Siddhartha meets his son, who is a bratty noble’s kid. Siddhartha fears that his son will flee to the city and fall into the same empty hedonism he did, so he tries to keep his son with the ferryman. The ferryman tells him he’s misguided for feeling this way and should give up.

“Do you really think that you have committed your follies in order to spare your son them? Can you then protect your son from [fate]? How? Through instruction, through prayers, through exhortation? My dear friend, have you forgotten that instructive story about Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, which you once told me here? Who protected Siddhartha the Samana from [fate], from sin, greed, and folly? Could his father’s piety, his teacher’s exhortations, his own knowledge, his own seeking, protect him? Which father, which teacher, could prevent him from living his own life, from soiling himself with life, from loading himself with sin, from swallowing the bitter drink himself, from finding his own path? Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared this path? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.”

And later, after the son does run away:

“I must follow him,” said Siddhartha, […] “A child cannot go through the forest alone; he will come to some harm. […]”

“[…] [Let] him go, my friend, he is not a child anymore, he knows how to look after himself. He is seeking the way to the town and he is right. Do not forget that. He is doing what you yourself have neglected to do. He is looking after himself; he is going his own way. Oh, Siddhartha, I can see you are suffering, suffering pain over which one should laugh, over which you will soon laugh yourself.”

If you see someone going down an obviously self-destructive path, don’t try to stop them. If you see someone making the same mistakes you did, don’t say anything. To think you can change anything, to think that you can make the world even a slightly better place, is childishly naïve, absurd even. Suffering is inevitable, so don’t try to help people. Just give up.

So after he, in his wisdom, lets his son go, Siddhartha continues being a ferryman. Listen to how he describes the people he sees:

When he now took the usual kind of travelers across […] they no longer seemed alien to him as they once had. He did not understand or share their thoughts and views, but he shared with them life’s urges and desires. Although he had reached a high state of self-discipline […] he now felt as though these people were his brothers. Their vanities, desires and trivialties no longer seemed absurd to him; they had become understandable, lovable and even worthy of respect. There was the blind love of a mother for her child, the blind foolish pride of a fond father for his only son, the blind eager strivings of a young vain woman for ornament and the adoration of men. […] For their sake he saw people live and do great things, travel, conduct wars, suffer and endure immensely, and he loved them for it. […] These people were worthy of love and admiration in their blind loyalty, in their blind strength and tenacity. With the exception of one small thing, one tiny little thing, they lacked nothing that the sage and thinker had, and that was the consciousness of the unity of all life. And many a time Siddhartha even doubted whether this knowledge, this thought, was of such great value, whether it was not also perhaps the childish self-flattery of thinkers, who were perhaps only thinking children. The men of the world were equal to the thinkers in every other respect and were often superior to them, just as animals in their tenacious undeviating actions in cases of necessity may often seem superior to human beings.

These are the thoughts of an enlightened Siddhartha, who is almost at the end of his spiritual journey of becoming a Buddha. They sound like a sociopath trying to describe people. It’s so blatantly condescending and patronizing: “Oh, these ordinary people are so like me and so not, they love their children, isn’t it quaint? Of course they don’t understand the one great truth like I do, but I won’t judge them for it, I’ll just wait for them to see it.” And then he compares them to animals while trying to put them on a pedestal at the same time. It’s just… creepy. Siddhartha describes humanity like it’s some quaint novelty he appreciates on an academic level but can’t manage an emotional connection with. He’s horrifically detached.

The story ends with Siddhartha becoming a Buddha and telling his childhood friend Govinda about his enlightened views on the world. It is terrifying.

The world, Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men[…] During deep meditation it is possible to dispel time, to see simultaneously all the past, present and future, and then everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman. Therefore, it seems to me that everything that exists is good–death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me. […] [I have learned] to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.

You heard him: the world is perfect just the way it is. Any suffering you see is meant to be there and to teach us some kind of lesson. When a man beats your child to death with a dead kitten, don’t do anything about it, just sit there and smile radiantly because it’s inevitable and there’s no point in stopping it. When people are systematically oppressed and forced to eke out a horrible, miserable existence for completely preventable reasons, don’t do anything to change that. When people are dying of preventable diseases, just let nature take its course. Don’t try to stop genocidal maniacs, just lie down and die. The true sin is judging the world as somehow wrong, as not matching up to your expectations. Your vision of a better world can never come to pass, so don’t even try. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Karl Marx – such silly people, thinking they could change the status quo! They were just childish, angsty rebels who didn’t realize the wonderful truth. We don’t judge, though! It’s okay because they’ll become a Buddha in another life, when they’re ready.

And you know what? If you believe in Samsara, fate, that this life and this world are just transitory, then that’s absolutely correct. The state of the world isn’t really important if we’re all immortal and destined to live countless different lives. Trying to change the world is misguided, because it’s not real, just a morality play meant to teach us something. To trash the set and rewrite the script to be the way you want it is indeed childish and absurd.

But if you don’t think that way – if you believe that there is no greater order to anything and this life is all we’ve got – then that worldview is terrifying.

From a cynical perspective, karma really is the ultimate way to enforce the status quo, isn’t it? The Christian version – the best-of-all-possible-worlds theory – broke down because people just couldn’t rationalize it. Everyone who suffers did something to deserve it, really, even newborn babies? People see the holes, and it makes them uncomfortable. But say those babies were Hitler in a past life, and, well, carry on! There’s always a way to rationalize suffering: people can be guilty of crimes they’ve never committed.

I won’t deny that, on a personal level, Buddhism is certainly an effective route to happiness. If you don’t care about anything, you can no longer be disappointed, and thus will always be content. If seeing people suffer makes you sad and uncomfortable (and by whatever powers you believe in, I dearly hope that’s true for you), then being told you don’t have to worry about it will definitely make you happier. This is all true.

But personal happiness isn’t everything, because your life is intimately tied to everyone else’s. You can ruin the lives of everyone around you while still being perfectly happy, and that’s the logical conclusion of this philosophy, because giving up all attachments also means giving up caring about the happiness of others. It’s just as I said earlier – if you see someone being beaten to death in front of you, you can’t try to help them, because then you’d have to care about them and have expectations about their survival, and that means you could be disappointed if those expectations aren’t met. So, the only thing a Buddha can do in that situation is smile serenely and say it’s okay, their suffering has meaning, maybe they did a bad thing in a past life, better luck next time. If you care about that person and try to help them, you’re not a Buddha.

It’s especially toxic when applied so widely, to entire cultures. There is no room for social justice in a Buddhist world. There can be no improvement, no critiques, no change. Sit down and learn to accept what you have because the world is perfect, period. It enables suffering and oppression that could be stopped if people just had the willpower to stand up and fight.

I don’t know. Maybe this book got it completely wrong, and Buddhism is a perfectly valid philosophy that’s just been twisted through a Western, individualist lens. But I’ve heard some pretty similar Buddhist stuff before, so it’s not so easy for me to dismiss the book like that. I’m sure people would say that my Western upbringing is preventing me from “getting it”. They’re probably right. But I’m not sure I want to “get it”. I understand why Herman Hesse wrote this book, and I understand why people believe in Buddhism, but I can’t agree with it. I just can’t.

My English teacher would probably tell me that I’m “passing judgment” and that’s wrong. Well, yeah. I am passing judgment, just like I pass the judgment that murder and thievery and racism are wrong. Passing judgment is how we make sense of the world, and I’m founding my judgment on the evidence presented in front of me. On the most fundamental level, I just cannot believe there is no progress or improvement in the world. I cannot believe that there is nothing people can do to make it better; I cannot believe people hold no blame for thoughtless or cruel actions on the basis nothing can make it worse either.

36 Comments

  1. SpoonyViking says:
    You ARE passing judgement, but that’s not a bad thing – true objectivity is a myth, after all (for starters, a scholar already displays subjectivity simply by making a choice of what to study and analyse).

    That said, I have to question if this novel really is representative of the Buddhist religion. For starters, there are many Buddhist denominations, some of those syncretised with other, local religions; can this single novel written by a Westerner in the beginning of the 20th century (so back when Eastern cultures still weren’t well-understood) properly represent even a single branch of Buddhism, much less all of them?

    Also, I’m not an expert on Buddhism or anything, but to say it’s about not caring about anything seems to be an oversimplification. I mean, according to Buddhist beliefs, many of the Buddhas are people who achieved enlightenment (which is spiritually better than going to Heaven) and chose to remain behind (risking being spiritually contaminated and losing their “state of grace”) just so they could teach people how to be enlightened themselves. One would imagine a religion so unconcerned about the well-being of others wouldn’t tout those as lofty examples, right?

    1. Guest Reviewer says:
      That said, I have to question if this novel really is representative of the Buddhist religion.

      Oh, it probably takes a lot of liberties, I don’t doubt that. But even if it is an unrepresentative distortion, the result is still so abominable that I couldn’t just let it go. And it was the book my English teacher chose to assign for our unit on Eastern philosophy, which leads me to believe this is the popular interpretation in Western belief even if it’s not accurate to the source.

      That would make sense, actually; this does sound like how a collectivist ideology might be misinterpreted through an individualist lens.

      I mean, according to Buddhist beliefs, many of the Buddhas are people who achieved enlightenment (which is spiritually better than going to Heaven) and chose to remain behind (risking being spiritually contaminated and losing their “state of grace”) just so they could teach people how to be enlightened themselves. One would imagine a religion so unconcerned about the well-being of others wouldn’t tout those as lofty examples, right?

      Man, I don’t even know. Maybe the trick is that as long as you don’t have any expectations about your success (therefore avoiding disappointment), you can do whatever you want? Under that model you could certainly do good as long as you don’t get attached. Still, if an ideology is toxic, I wouldn’t say that spreading it is a good thing…

      1. SpoonyViking says:
        But even if it is an unrepresentative distortion, the result is still so abominable that I couldn’t just let it go.

        Hm, I’d probably have suggested framing this article solely as a criticism of the novel’s philosophical discourses, then, rather than a general criticism of the Buddhist religion as a whole.

        Actually, if it ever strikes your fancy to rewrite this article for some purpose or another, I’d suggest comparing some relevant passages from this novel and the other Buddhist texts your teacher used in class. If nothing else, it will give you a bit more of a leg to stand on when criticising Buddhism as a whole, instead of just this novel.

        (Also, bear in mind that just as you can’t be truly objective when analysing something, neither can your teacher be truly objective when choosing the course texts. I might suggest you also conduct an additional research regarding those texts to “establish their credentials”, so to speak, and possibly find other texts that might – MIGHT, I stress – have better qualifications.)

        Maybe the trick is that as long as you don’t have any expectations about
        your success (therefore avoiding disappointment), you can do whatever
        you want?

        Nah, I think the idea is more that if you can, you should help others along their own journey. Based on what I understand of it, the goal of Buddhism is for humanity as a whole to transcend the cycle of reincarnation, not just a select few.

        1. Guest Reviewer says:
          (Also, bear in mind that just as you can’t be truly objective when analysing something, neither can your teacher be truly objective when choosing the course texts. I might suggest you also conduct an additional research regarding those texts to “establish their credentials”, so to speak, and possibly find other texts that might – MIGHT, I stress – have better qualifications.)

          Well yes, that’s obvious to me now. Hindsight is 20/20 and all.

          I’d suggest comparing some relevant passages from this novel and the other Buddhist texts your teacher used in class.

          I don’t have them anymore, but they concerned the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which are easy to look up. From what I can see, Buddhism stems from one single premise, which is Dukkha. It’s often simplified to “life is suffering”, but more specifically, it claims that clinging to life is suffering — attachment to good and evil, fear over limitations such as dying and illness, pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, the normal psychological processes that run us. Everything else in Buddhist doctrine is about trying to minimize Dukkha, but I believe it looks at the problem from the wrong direction. There are bad things in life, that is true — but Buddhism seems to emphasize that the real problem is caring about the problems, not the problems themselves. That’s why it advocates such a nihilistic worldview of cutting yourself off from everything. And sure, that does, technically, make people happier…but it’s such a defeatist argument! It implies that there’s no point in trying to fix the problems, and that our only solution is to devise a better coping mechanism. I reject that utterly; it is antithetical to everything I believe in.

          I am also very, very leery of anything related to Hinduism. Karma was used to justify caste systems and horrific oppression in India, and that process just continued in Buddhist-governed Tibet. The whole reincarnation cycle thing… it just fosters such an unhealthy view of reality, where nothing really matters so you shouldn’t try to change the world. I think it’s pretty telling that the very first step of the Eightfold Path is seeing reality for what it “really” is, by which of course they mean the transient Hindu perspective of physical things being impermanent and karma being the one guiding factor of reality. Everything I read about peoples’ beliefs on the reincarnation cycle just makes me really uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse the Buddhism tries to escape from it… when there’s no end goal, I feel like you might be able to just enjoy life for what it is, but if you say that the only way out is to not enjoy or care about anything…ehh.

          Very little of this is inconsistent with the novel, also. Hesse’s interpretation of samsara as more like fate is probably a Western influence, but everything else seems pretty on-point.

          (The bit about time and the river is also 100% legit Buddhism. It sounds very much like a koan, and while I don’t hate koans on principle, I retain my stance that short-circuiting your brain does not make you any more qualified to understand reality.)

          1. SpoonyViking says:
            It implies that there’s no point in trying to fix the problems, and that
            our only solution is to devise a better coping mechanism.

            Not necessarily. Consider that if you believe the root causes of all human evil are fear, desire and regret, the Buddhist teachings would also eliminate those roots. Remember, according to legend Siddharta Gautama himself remained on this world to teach others; compassion for others can’t be so anathema to Buddhism as you seem to think it is.

            (The bit about time and the river is also 100% legit Buddhism. It sounds very much like a koan,[…]

            Aren’t koans a characteristic of Zen, though? Which does tend to frequently and closely mix with Buddhism – hence, Zen Buddhism -, but is it representative of all Buddhist branches?

            1. Guest Reviewer says:
              Not necessarily. Consider that if you believe the root causes of all human evil are fear, desire and regret, the Buddhist teachings would also eliminate those roots.

              Oh no, I agree that everything makes sense if you accept the premise. I just think the premise itself is wrong. I’d rather fix the problems causing the negative emotions than try to fix the negative emotions themselves, if that makes sense.

              compassion for others can’t be so anathema to Buddhism as you seem to think it is.

              There is definitely a lot of compassion in trying to help others achieve enlightenment, but because that enlightenment is so troubling it feels like a very limited and misguided compassion to me. It is very possible to hurt someone with the best and most compassionate of intentions.

              Aren’t koans a characteristic of Zen, though? Which does tend to frequently and closely mix with Buddhism – hence, Zen Buddhism -, but is it representative of all Buddhist branches?

              Yes, that is true. For some reason Zen Buddhism seems to be the most popular version to cross over to the West, and therefore the one Hesse is describing in the book. I think that sect, specifically, is the one I dislike the most, but the fundamental principles of the religion are still unsettling to me.

              Reply
              1. SpoonyViking says:
                I’d rather fix the problems causing the negative emotions than try to fix the negative emotions themselves, if that makes sense.

                It does! To make a flawed comparison, it’s like believing it’s better to teach sexual awareness to teenagers and distribute condoms than simply preaching abstinence, right?

  2. wordoftheday says:
    I don’t think Hesse intended the book as a complete and accurate illustration of Buddhist philosophy; when Siddhartha meets the Buddha, he refuses to become his disciple because he disagrees with some of his teachings and wants to forge his own path. I’d rather read it as Hesse using ideas from Buddhism in service of his idiosyncratic brand of spiritualism, the same way he used Jungian psychoanalysis in Demian and Jazz Age partying in Steppenwolf. He certainly always ends up recommending you ignore the people around you and focus on your own damn enlightenment. Not the most endearing attitude in the 21st century, but rather understandable in an early 20th century context when recent examples of collective action included a world war, Stalinism and Fascism. In contrast to Hesse, there are devout Buddhists who see opposition to injustice as a religious duty. The examples best known in the West are probably the Dalai Lama and Thich Quang Duc.

    I can’t agree with your take on Kane either. He does use his money to act as champion of the working class via his populist paper and failed political campaign, but being liked by the masses is no substitute for a loving personal relationship, which he is unable to maintain. Kane seems to in fact prefer people from social classes lower than his own, as he antagonizes the banker Thatcher and craves the love of his writer friend Leland, his second wife Susan, and ultimately his mother.

    1. Guest Reviewer says:
      recent examples of collective action included a world war, Stalinism and Fascism.

      1922 was before the latter two, but I see the point about the world war. Perhaps his selfishness could be read as a Hobbes-like reaction to the horrors of WWI and the resulting depression in Germany; with so much death and destruction it probably is attractive to just shut down and not get attached to anything. I still don’t think it’s a good philosophy to perpetuate, though.

      On Kane, I got the impression that love from the lower classes didn’t matter to him, and he only cared about approval from the upper crust. It’s the exact same criticism I level at Siddhartha here: if he wanted love, there were plenty of good works he could have done to get it (he appeared to have essentially infinite money, and you can do a lot of good with infinite money), but instead he just wails about how no one loves him and it’s so unfair. I have a hard time reading that as anything but “who cares about the poor, only rich peoples’ approval matters”. And I just can’t sympathize with that.

      Also, if he really wanted a stable relationship he could have, you know, not been a possessive abusive jerkward to Susan. The falling out with his first wife I can understand, because that was political/ideological, but everything else he really has no excuse for.

      1. wordoftheday says:
        Yeah, it’s a little premature to talk about Stalinism in 1922, though Fascism was a rising political ideology by then. It’s the same year Mussolini became prime minister. Out of the Hesse books I’ve read, I found Steppenwolf the least infuriating because it discusses the idea of abstaining from humanity in the context of toxic nationalism. That, and the fact that the Hesse stand-in is an utter mess rather than an enlightened sage makes him downright likable.

        As for Kane, isn’t that what makes the story a tragedy? Kane had the means to become a great and good man, and even made an attempt at it with his newspaper and political campaign, yet he ended up a sad recluse who did irreparable damage to the people closest to him. His controlling behavior was likely an attempt to prevent others from abandoning him like his mother had (though with the best of intentions), which of course just resulted in them leaving.

  3. Socordya says:
    Also, I know it was 1922, but literally the only woman in the book exists only to:
    -teach him sex
    -give him a son
    -raise the son alone for a few years (because changing diapers is not spiritual enough for our protag)
    -bring the son to him before randomly dying for no reason at all.
    1. Guest Reviewer says:
      And let’s not forget the scene where Siddhartha was all “I could totally rape you you know” and she was all “I don’t care because something something deep philosophy!”
    2. GeniusLemur says:
      “before randomly dying for no reason at all.”
      She died for the tried and true reason of “fullfilled her plot function, so I can’t be bothered with her anymore. I’ll just have her drop dead now.”
      Also known as “Pulling an Amidala.”
  4. GeniusLemur says:
    One of my favorite Buddhist stories is about Asanga, who came upon a dog suffering greatly from being infested with worms. To relieve the dog’s suffering without making the worms starve, he decided to transfer the worms to his own flesh. Fearing he’d hurt the worms with his fingers, he decided to move them with his tongue. The pure compassion of the act granted him a spiritual visitation.
    Spoony mentioned the Bodhisattvas, who stop at the border of nirvana to help others achieve spiritual progress.
    So yeah, sitting around wanking about how spiritual and thus better than everyone else you are isn’t compatible with the actual ideas and ideals of Buddhism. It would be like a Christian refusing the spread the gospel, instead focusing on how more spiritual and superior he was because he had Jesus and was going to heaven, unlike all these other losers.
    1. Guest Reviewer says:
      Wow. Yeah, that isn’t compatible with this book’s philosophy at all. It’s sad but not very surprising that Western individualism distorted it so much.
      1. SpoonyViking says:
        To play Devil’s Advocate for a bit, it’s possible this novel DOES reflect Buddhism in some way and the aspects you’re criticising can’t solely be attributed only to Western individualism. For instance, I have seen Eastern works portraying Buddhist monks (and not just individual characters, but the religious institution as a whole) as selfish and uncaring about the suffering of the peasants around them.

        To paraphrase one of Terry Pratchett’s characters, “Truly treat all men as equal. Allow the Easterners to be just as much bastards as the Westerners”. :-D

        1. Roarke says:
          Mmm, Jingo. Now that was a book.
    2. SpoonyViking says:
      Irk. This sort of selflessness is definitely noble and admirable, but there’s also something utterly terrifying – possibly even inhuman – about it.
      1. Guest Reviewer says:
        Indeed. That’s the other side of the coin: taking collectivism too far, to the point of completely subsuming the self and believing individual desires to be worthless. It makes a degree of sense coming from a culture as crippled by overpopulation as India’s, but it’s still not healthy.

        And I can see how it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to get from “my own well-being is worthless because deep philosophical reasons” to “everyone’s well being is worthless because deep philosophy”.

        1. SpoonyViking says:
          I was thinking more of “complete denial of the self” being scary than collectivism in itself, though. :-)
          1. Guest Reivewer says:
            Complete denial of the self is an extension of extreme collectivism, though. Sort of like how American culture’s horrible “the world revolves around me” thing is an extension of radical individualism.
            1. SpoonyViking says:
              Yeah, but that’s not the only possible cause for this self-destructive selflessness. You’ve been following Act’s Let’s Play of F/SN, right? Well, Shirou is a perfect example of selflessness taken too far without any political ideology motivating it.

              I think it’s important to make a distinction (as you’ve just done) between “collectivism” and “collectivism taken to such an extreme it completely obliterates the individual”.

              Reply
      2. Farla says:
        Also a bit dangerous. What does it say about the guinea worm?
        1. SpoonyViking says:
          Also a bit dangerous.

          Indeed! But what do you mean about the guinea worm?

  5. Ember says:
    Really uncomfortable with all the “I think this about Buddhism” when by “Buddhism” you mean “this one particular Western white asshole’s take on it” going on in this article.
    1. Guest Reviewer says:
      That would be why I withheld this for so long and why I kept bugging Farla about if this was at all accurate. I probably should have screened and researched it more thoroughly, but I was so sick of sitting on it that I just wanted to get it over with already.

      In my defense, my English teacher paired this with texts that were supposedly pure Buddhist doctrine (which didn’t do much to contradict the philosophy of the book), and, as I said, swore up and down that this book reflected real Buddhism. I even asked him point-blank “But doesn’t that mean it’s wrong to try to change the world?” and he just gave this waffling non-answer about how some Buddhists are social rights activists so it’s totally possible maybe, but refused to explain the logical train of thought that actually squared that with the philosophy he was teaching. He could also have been misinterpreting it and/or distorting it through Western philosophy, of course…

      In the past I have also heard not-so-great things about Buddhism that are very similar to the values expressed in the book, but that could have been from the Western sect as well.

  6. starling says:
    well, in a way, trying to help others could be seen as self centred. You could say that if you see something wrong for the world, and impose your vision of rightness on the rest of the world, it doesn’t mean you’re right.
    Doesn’t mean, say, nelson Mandela was wrong to become a national hero of course. But “right” or “wrong” aren’t alsways the most relevant things to say about something. “ethnocentric” or “based on fundamentally limited Descartian ideas” perhaps.
    To assume an evolutionary perspective on culture is to be ethnocentric. It assumes that “modern” are more evolved than we used to be, and that “primitive” is a valid judgment to place upon other cultures.
    To accept that good and bad, or that two opposing truths, can coexist in the same moment, is another way of saying that the world is perfect. (But not really. But kind of, if you think about it.)
    God these ideas are so complex Im not sure I’m making any sense, but basically I think there is more to grasp in this than you acknowledge.
    1. Guest Reviewer says:
      well, in a way, trying to help others could be seen as self centred. You could say that if you see something wrong for the world, and impose your vision of rightness on the rest of the world, it doesn’t mean you’re right.

      That’s true, and that’s my main criticism of the philosophy in the first place, I think. The book seems to be saying that because you could be wrong, you shouldn’t try ever. Or maybe that you’re automatically wrong for trying in the first place, or that you’re doomed to fail by the nature of the universe so there’s no point in trying. Even if it’s not as all-encompassing as I interpret it, it’s still an argument for moral stagnation. I’d rather encourage people to be helpful, but also encourage them to be cautious and well-informed at the same time.

      To assume an evolutionary perspective on culture is to be ethnocentric. It assumes that “modern” are more evolved than we used to be, and that “primitive” is a valid judgment to place upon other cultures.

      I’m not sure what this is referring to. But, I do think that an evolutionary perspective for cultures is valid, because cultures do objectively evolve. The India of today is not the India of a century ago is not the India of a millennium ago. I think you can observe and judge those developments without being ethnocentric, if you judge them based on your personal ethical framework rather than using one culture as a baseline (which of course is silly).

      To accept that good and bad, or that two opposing truths, can coexist in the same moment, is another way of saying that the world is perfect.

      …No? The fact that situations are complicated and good can exist in the proximity of evil doesn’t, like, cancel them out or anything like that. The world is perfect if good and bad don’t have to coexist. Not really sure what you’re getting at here.

      1. starling says:
        I haven’t read the book, but I didn’t see a quote above saying that you shouldn’t try to change the world. I saw this bit starting with:

        “Do you really think that you have committed your follies in order to spare your son them? Can you then protect your son from [fate]? How? Through instruction, through prayers, through exhortation?’

        This boils down to a guideline for interpersonal relationships – let other people have responsiblity for their own actions, and don’t assume that people do anything because of you – because to assume so is self centred. If you try and change other people’s actions, you place your self interest over their self determination. Siddhartha’s son is doing what he has to do. If he fucks up, he learns from that. I mean, after he fucked up Siddhartha got enlightened, and he wouldn’t have got enlightened without fucking up.
        I don’t think this is saying you shouldn’t try to make the world a better place or act with love and hope. Or even that you should become totally zen like Siddhartha – the use of “blind” and “foolish” in the text doesn’t seem to be a value judgment to me for some reason.

        Cultures don’t objectively evolve. Change, sure. But there’s so much more to culture than the framework of ‘evolution’. Evolution assumes a start point (presumably of ‘perfect nature’), heading towards a goal of perfection (possibly ‘perfect culture’?), and that what comes after is better than before. This is one (very Western) way to see it. But it is definitely not a given. The distinction between nature and culture may not be as clear as most of us think it is.

        The first step to not being ethnocentric is acknowledging all of us are steeped in the process of culture, and that our own personal values are likely to have stemmed from our own culture in a myriad of ways. To avoid being ethnocentric, you have to try and understand another culture from their point of view – try and make the ‘other’ familiar and the ‘self’ strange.

        I’ll try to illustrate what I mean about perfection. The poet John Keats talked about contradiction:

        “Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—”

        To me he sounds a little bit Zen. The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi is similar. As opposed to modernism, which strives for perfection, technological advancement and eternity, wabi-sabi looks to nature, imperfection and moments of ‘inception and subsiding’ for real beauty eg. a dying flower. It’s happy to accept that flowers die and are reborn, and that at any given moment, perfection does not exist. So maybe ‘perfect’ was the wrong word for Siddhartha to use above. The idea is, contradictions are everywhere. Sometimes there aren’t any answers and there’s beauty or ‘enlightenment’ (i think?) in that unknowability. Maybe the world isn’t perfect, but it is what it is, and that’s okay. Accepting that from moment to moment means that instead of being detached, you become more present in the world.

        Sorry for the ramble there. but there are a lot of different ways of thinking about this stuff.

        1. Guest Reviewer says:
          I haven’t read the book, but I didn’t see a quote above saying that you shouldn’t try to change the world.

          “[I have learned] to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it,” seems to state that pretty clearly, to me. The enlightened teacher is saying that he wants to “leave it as it is”, to not “compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world”. Is that not saying that the world is perfect as it is and we shouldn’t try to change it?

          This boils down to a guideline for interpersonal relationships – let other people have responsiblity for their own actions, and don’t assume that people do anything because of you – because to assume so is self centred. If you try and change other people’s actions, you place your self interest over their self determination. Siddhartha’s son is doing what he has to do. If he fucks up, he learns from that. I mean, after he fucked up Siddhartha got enlightened, and he wouldn’t have got enlightened without fucking up.

          And I don’t think that’s a responsible way of looking at interpersonal relationships.

          The son does not realize what he is doing. Siddhartha does. Siddhartha knows that the son is walking blindly into the lion’s maw, and he is told to do nothing about it. Look at it this way: if someone wanted to suddenly take tons of drugs on the basis that their school health classes were just propaganda, would you let them? Even if they don’t die, they’ll be addicted and miserable for a long time, possibly doing their bodies permanent damage. And for what? What will they have gained by ruining their life in this way? “Enlightenment”? If that’s enlightenment I don’t want it. People do stupid, pointlessly dangerous things all the time without any knowledge of what they’re risking. I don’t think it’s more compassionate to let them get themselves killed or crippled just so they can learn some kind of lesson.

          That model of compassion, I think, works off the assumption that people are immortal. The boatman assumes the son won’t die in the process of doing this, that he’ll come out intact and better for it, and that he’ll have enough of a life left to use the knowledge he gained. But that’s not a safe or even reasonable assumption most of the time! And if you die that’s it, you can’t ever learn important life lessons from your mistakes. That’s not a problem in a religion that believes in reincarnation, but I don’t believe in reincarnation, so I must prioritize life over enlightenment.

          In sum: “Can you then protect your son from [fate]? How? Through instruction, through prayers, through exhortation?” Yes. Yes I can. That’s the entire point of education. To tell people they shouldn’t try to warn and educate others about their own mistakes is cruel, dishonest, and harmful.

          Cultures don’t objectively evolve. Change, sure. But there’s so much more to culture than the framework of ‘evolution’.

          Ah, okay, we were assuming different definitions. I’m sorry, I misinterpreted you. Yes, I don’t think cultural change is some kind of…linear ladder or something where different cultures can be judged as better or worse at a glance.

          To avoid being ethnocentric, you have to try and understand another culture from their point of view – try and make the ‘other’ familiar and the ‘self’ strange.

          I do try…and I know that’s not always enough, and I might not be trying hard enough, but I do try to listen to other perspectives and understand stuff as best I can before coming to conclusions. But here’s the thing: when you advocate an active philosophy, the onus is on you to prove that it is not a harmful one. If I see people advocating something that I believe will cause suffering (or if I directly see it causing suffering), I’m going to object to it. I might be wrong, and if I am I’m willing to change my stance, but I would rather speak out and be wrong than be silently complicit on the grounds that I can never know everything.

          contradiction stuff

          Uh…okay, I guess. If that view appeals to you that’s fine. But I just don’t see the world that way. Different philosophies work for different people, you know?

          1. starling says:
            Fair enough. :)

            RE sons & drugs: “letting” doesn’t even come into it. You can and should try to help all you want, but it’s not necessarily about what you do for them.

            If someone close to me was making some bad decisions regarding X thing that I thought were bad, and I knew the reason for, and I knew that they knew that they shouldn’t make these decisions according to what they’d been taught and told, I would say “Please don’t do X. I am very worried about you & I’m here to help. Advice, suggestions, you can talk to me whenever.” But if they weren’t ready to hear it, or they weren’t able to make the change in their own lives, there’s not much else I’d be able to do but accept I couldn’t dig them back out of the hole they dug – they’d have to do it themselves. (Not to mention that my view of the incorrectness of their decisions is subjective – which is not to say you shouldn’t try to act on your views because they aren’t ‘objective’. That’s selling subjectivism short. But it means that to say I can’t let them do something that is incompatible with my views on X seems unreasonable to me.)

            Sure you’ve ‘exhorted’ and ‘instructed’ the hypothetic friend , if you want to get literal. But essentially you can’t decide what this person does, which is what Siddhartha seems to be getting at. I don’t think this is an assumption of immortality; it’s more about humility and recognition that the world is how it is & that people do things for reasons unrelated to one’s own actions. Maybe we all shouldn’t just sit under a tree at peace with the world forever, but like it’s fair enough if Siddhartha’s son survived his time in Sin City and came out and said “I’m the person I am because of my mistakes, and I’ve learned from the risks I took no matter what my parents say that was good for me.” I think this explanation might veer a little individualistic, but I think there’s a lot of ways you could spin it and I haven’t totally figured out individualism so that’s a moot point.
            And I don’t think this stuff is about not-trying. Siddhartha’s son, to the contrary, is trying very hard.

            It’s kind of saying that life doesn’t have to be perfect to be essentially okay. That you can be a former drug addict and have learned something from it and that’s who you are. Or you can have failed horribly but your life was still a good one as long as you were trying your best in each moment. And if life doesn’t have to be perfect to be good – which it can’t be, there isn’t some ‘perfect life’ hanging around out there to be discovered, the idea is absurd – then the word ‘perfect’ becomes meaningless, and could be applied to anything. Hence, the world is perfect as it is. That’s the semantic trick going on there.

            (Sorry for all the weird quotes!! but I think a quote from Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” is a powerful illustration of the idea -)

            ““What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?”” (Context- she’s just climbed a lot of beautiful mountains alone)

      2. SpoonyViking says:
        But, I do think that an evolutionary perspective for cultures is valid, because cultures do objectively evolve.

        Remember that evolution is about adapting to the environment for the purpose of survival of the species, though, not about improvement as it’s generally understood. Cultures do objectively change over time; they don’t necessarily get “better”.

        […]if you judge them based on your personal ethical framework rather than using one culture as a baseline[…]

        Is it that easy to separate personal ethics from cultural ones, though?

        1. Guest Reviewer says:
          Remember that evolution is about adapting to the environment for the purpose of survival of the species, though, not about improvement as it’s generally understood. Cultures do objectively change over time; they don’t necessarily get “better”.

          This is true. I was just kinda confused by what Starling meant.

          That said, there is the “arc of the moral universe bends towards justice” argument. Change isn’t necessarily good, yes, but I do like to believe that things get better over time and that the oppressed can revise their cultural systems to be fairer.

          Is it that easy to separate personal ethics from cultural ones, though?

          It might not be easy, but it’s not impossible either. That’s my entire point, we have to at least try. It’s true that culture influences a lot of our beliefs, but we are not unchanging robots whose viewpoints are fixed by virtue of where we grew up.

          I want to be clear: I am not trying to imply that Western culture is any better. Western culture is terrible in its own ways and living in it just makes me all the more aware of that. That’s precisely why I want to learn about other cultures and perspectives, but I have still found them wanting from my own perspective. It’s true that one’s personal ethics are always going to be informed by one’s upbringing, but I think you are overstating the controlling effect of dominant culture. Especially in the age of the internet, where it’s very easy to listen to voices from other countries, people are more complicated amalgams than I think you’re giving them credit for.

          1. SpoonyViking says:
            [..]but I think you are overstating the controlling effect of dominant culture.

            I’m not. I am , however, cautioning against presuming it’s so easy to separate personal beliefs from your sociocultural context. :-)

          2. Starling says:
            Nah, it’s okay to be ethnocentric, we all are. It’s just a bit of an issue in discussions about different cultural values.

            We ARE our culture. It isn’t a static thing you can find in newspapers or TV, it’s a mental and social process (including cross-cultural happenings). There is no objective “natural” interior self you can detach from your culture to inspect things 100% rationally. That also is a way of thinking with comparatively recent Western origins. which highlights that the very moral and ontological concepts you would use to do so are produced and reproduced by culture. And that’s fine.

            The art/science/discipline that really examines this is anthropology.

  7. x says:
    It’s not completely incorrect, just misleading. (Also, this information may be somewhat or mostly inaccurate, so don’t quote me.)

    Essentially, Buddhism differs from Hinduism in that the idea is that spiritual enlightenment comes from The Middle Way, aka don’t starve yourself or overindulge. Basically, no, suffering isn’t there to help you. Truth comes from within.

    Here’s the thing: Pride, greed, hunger, boredom, happiness, excitement, all these distract us from the truth inside ourselves. One must achieve perfect balance by the end of one’s life.

    Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean disconnect yourself from the world entirely. The Buddha, after attaining perfect enlightenment, spread the word and helped others.

    To explain further, and because this post is already pretentious, here’s a story I remember. There was once a mighty tree about to be cut down to make a palace beam (To simplify things). No other tree around it could find a way to save it. But there was a type of weed at the base of the mighty tree. It knew the secret of the chameleon, and so when the lumberjacks came to cut down the tree, they checked it one last time. But the tree was soft! It was far too soft to make a palace beam. And so, says the Buddha, never look down on those lower than you, for they may one day save you.

    other things: don’t throw away friendships or food, if someone offers you a gift, accept,  if you are not compassionate, you may end up in a place akin to Hell. And so on.

    The interesting thing about Buddha is that he didn’t seem for karma, he tried to focus on the idea that class had nothing to do with karma. Unfortunately, that’s as far as I understand because Buddhism is kind of hard to figure out sometimes.  So I can’t say for sure what karma was for, just that the Buddha seemed to be against the idea one’s class had to do with it.

    Also, Siddhartha? A part of being a Buddha is being a teacher. What are you doing, just vaguely watching and pitying them?

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