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The Buddha and the river

Of all the religions, the only one that ever held any appeal for me was Buddhism. That was until I looked into it a bit more closely, and discovered that it is as full of dogma as the others. Mountaineer Reinhold Messner tells in his Himalayan travels of passing Tibetans and Nepalese endlessly chanting sutras along the paths he traversed. This clinging to ritual is in direct contradiction to what the founder of Buddhism would have wanted: Siddattha Gotama repeatedly told his followers that you have to find your own way to peace.

British author Karen Armstrong unpacks the history and lineage that the Buddha emerged from in her eponymous book about this mysterious figure. Well, she does her best to: nothing was written about him until about 100 years after his death, and, like the life and times of Jesus, there are differing accounts, foremost among them the Mahayana sutras. Embellishments have inevitably become woven into the tales of Buddha, though some anecdotes are surprisingly detailed, and even include lengthy dialogue. Regardless their degree of truth, it is clear that the man had a huge impact on those he encountered after his enlightenment; just by seeing him, a living embodiment of nirvana, many sceptics became instant converts.

Armstrong repeatedly refers to the ‘Axial Age’, a concept first mooted by philosopher Karl Jaspers. It refers roughly to the period of 800-200BCE, and was a time when mankind shifted from pastoralism to living in cities. It was a time of empire and acquisition. The divorce from nature and the rise of the merchant class accompanied a huge shift in religious thinking and practice, away from ‘magical thinking’ and sacrifice, to inner contemplation and moralism. Figures such as Confucius and Lao-Tzu became prominent in China; Zarathustra in Iran, Elijah in Palestine, Plato and Aristotle in Greece and Buddha in India.

I found it particularly interesting to discover that Buddha was first a yogin before he experienced his own revelation. This was how he learned how to control his bodily desires, his breath, and to calm his mind, but, unlike the ascetic yogins, he did not reject the profane world of the senses: he came to embrace it. And, unlike the predominant religions of his age in the Ganges region, his belief system was for the common man, not just the upper Brahmin caste. Eventually (but apparently with much reluctance) he even broadened its scope to include women.

How Buddha arrived at his own path of spontaneous compassion, ecstasy and lasting peace is the real meat of Armstrong’s book. It’s also a fascinating and meticulous analysis of the historical accounts, and she methodically relates his progress, and the growth of his order, until his death at age 80. I was also able to discern in part how Hermann Hesse created his own version of those events in his novel Siddartha, wherein he dissembles the Buddha into two figures – Siddartha and Gotama ­­– who at one point actually meet each other; the younger and older aspects of himself, perhaps?

Hesse places Siddartha in his final years next to a river, where he lives with a ferryman for many years; he could have drawn this from a tale that the Buddha taught his followers, and which brings me back to the point I began with: that of rejecting any dogma in your mission to discover your own truth. Buddha compared his teachings to a raft: they can help you get across a river, but then, once you have crossed, do you wish to carry the raft with you for the rest of your days, on your back?

Siddartha learns many lessons from the humble ferryman, and from the river itself. The first lesson he learns is when he watches the water “it continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same, and yet every moment it was new”. Hesse could be hinting here at Buddha’s lesson of non-attachment: we continually and tragically mistake the flow of life as being something permanent, and are then ‘shocked’ when confronted by its impermanence in the form of, for example, death.

The ferryman then urges Siddartha to listen intently to the river, and he does so, hearing many voices in it, until one day they blend together: “all of the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life”. Thus he finally attains a state of permanent nirvana: “From that hour Siddartha ceased to fight against his destiny. There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with the conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events …”

Hesse is also perhaps hinting at one of the great truths of Buddhism: those who dwell in the never-ceasing flow of their thoughts live in a permanent dream state, caught up in their beliefs, never truly accessing the present moment, never living life to the full. To really live in the moment requires standing back from the hubbub of one’s thoughts, which can only be attained by meditation and mindfulness.

To be totally alert, in the present, yet going with the flow. It’s a great way for the average spiritual bonehead to access and understand his state of nirvana; the Buddha has transcended his ego (he is Tathagata or ‘thus gone’), but such a state is usually very hard to describe in words to those who haven’t. It doesn’t mean much to the unenlightened to say nirvana is ‘nothing’, that to go beyond the ego is an ‘extinction’ that is paradoxically the supreme state of being. Thanks Hermann.

As a flame blown out by the wind

Goes to rest and cannot be defined

So the enlightened man freed from selfishness

Goes to rest and cannot be defined

Gone beyond all images –

Gone beyond the power of words