IN the evening of this day, they caught up with the ascetics, the skinny Samanas. They offered them their companionship and obedience. They were accepted.
Siddhartha gave his garments to a poor Brahman in the street. He wore nothing more than the loincloth and the earth-colored, unsown cloak. He ate only once a day and never something cooked. He fasted for fifteen days. He fasted for twenty-eight days. The flesh waned from his thighs and cheeks. Feverish dreams flickered from his enlarged eyes, long nails grew slowly on his parched fingers, and a dry, shaggy beard grew on his chin.
His glance turned to ice when he encountered women; his mouth twitched with contempt when he walked through a city of nicely dressed people. He saw merchants trading, princes hunting, mourners wailing for their dead, whores offering themselves, and physicians trying to help the sick. He saw priests determining the most suitable day for seeding, lovers loving, and mothers nursing their children. All of this was not worthy of one look from his eye. It all lied; it all stank; it all stank of lies; it all pretended to be meaningful, joyful, and beautiful; and it all was just concealed putrefaction. The world tasted bitter. Life was torture.
A goal stood before Siddhartha, a single goal: to become empty. His goal was to be empty of thirst, empty of wishing, empty of dreams, and empty of joy and sorrow. Dead to himself, not to be a self any more, he sought to find tranquility with an emptied head. To be open to miracles in unselfish thoughts: that was his goal. Once all of myself was overcome and had died and once every desire and every urge was silent in the heart, then the ultimate part of me had to awake — the innermost of my being, which is no longer myself, the great secret.
Silently, Siddhartha exposed himself to burning rays of the sun directly above. Glowing with pain and glowing with thirst, he stood there until he neither felt any pain nor thirst any more. Silently, he stood there in the rainy season. From his hair, the water was dripping over his freezing shoulders, hips, and legs, and the penitent stood there until he could not feel the cold in his shoulders and legs anymore. He stood there until they were silent and until they were quiet. Silently, he cowered in the thorny bushes with blood dripping from his burning skin. From his festering wounds, dripped pus. And, Siddhartha stayed rigid and motionless until blood no longer flowed, until nothing stung, and until nothing burned anymore.
Siddhartha sat upright and learned to breathe sparingly, learned to get along with only few breathes, and learned to stop breathing. He learned, beginning with the breath, to calm the beat of his heart. He learned to reduce the beats of his heart until they were only a few and almost none.
Instructed by the oldest if the Samanas, Siddhartha practiced self-denial and practiced meditation, according to the rules of a new Samana. A heron flew over the bamboo forest and Siddhartha accepted the heron into his soul — flew over forest and mountains, ate fish, felt the pangs of a heron's hunger, spoke the heron's croak, and died a heron's death. A dead jackal was lying on the sandy bank, and Siddhartha's soul slipped inside the body — was the dead jackal, lay on the banks, got bloated, stank, decayed, was dismembered by hyenas, was skinned by vultures, turned into a skeleton, turned to dust, and was blown across the fields.
And Siddhartha's soul returned: had died, had decayed, was scattered as dust, had tasted the gloomy intoxication of the cycle. Awaiting in new thirst like a hunter in the gap where he could escape from the cycle, where the end of the causes, and where an eternity without suffering began. He killed his senses. He killed his memory. He slipped out of his self into thousands of other forms. He was an animal, was carrion, was stone, was wood, and was water. He awoke every time to find his old self again. Sun shone or moon, and he was his self again turned round in the cycle: felt thirst, overcame the thirst, and felt new thirst.
Siddhartha learned a lot when he was with the Samanas, many ways leading away from the self he learned to go. He went the way of self-denial by means of pain — through voluntarily suffering and overcoming pain, hunger, thirst, and tiredness. He went the way of self-denial by means of meditation, through imagining the mind to be void of all conceptions. These and other ways he learned to go. A thousand times he left his self — for hours and days he remained in the non-self. But though the ways led away from the self, their end nevertheless always led back to the self. Though Siddhartha fled from the self a thousand times and stayed in nothingness, in the animal, and in the stone; the return was inevitable. Inescapable was the hour when he found himself back in the sunshine, in the moonlight, in the shade, or in the rain; and he was once again his self and Siddhartha. Again, he felt the agony of the cycle which had been forced upon him.
By his side lived Govinda, his shadow, who walked the same paths and undertook the same efforts. They rarely spoke to one another other than when the service and the exercises required. Occasionally, the two of them went through the villages to beg for food for themselves and their teachers.
"How do you think, Govinda," Siddhartha spoke one day while begging this way, "how do you think did we progress? Did we reach any goals?"
Govinda answered: "We have learned, and we'll continue learning. You'll be a great Samana, Siddhartha. Quickly, you've learned every exercise, often the old Samanas have admired you. One day, you'll be a holy man, oh Siddhartha."
Quote Siddhartha: "I can't help but feel that it is not like this, my friend. What I've learned, being among the Samanas, up to this day, this, oh Govinda, I could have learned more quickly and by simpler means. In every tavern of that part of a town where the whorehouses are, my friend, among carters and gamblers I could have learned it."
Quote Govinda: "Siddhartha is putting me on. How could you have learned meditation, holding your breath, insensitivity against hunger and pain there among these wretched people?"
And Siddhartha said quietly, as if he was talking to himself:
What is meditation? What is leaving one's body? What is fasting? What is holding one's breath? It is fleeing from the self. It is a short escape of the agony of being a self. It is a short numbing of the senses against the pain and the pointlessness of life. The same escape. The same short numbing is what the driver of an ox-cart finds in the inn drinking a few bowls of rice-wine or fermented coconut-milk. Then he won't feel his self anymore; then he won't feel the pains of life anymore; and then he finds a short numbing of the senses. When he falls asleep over his bowl of rice-wine, he'll find the same what Siddhartha and Govinda find when they escape their bodies through long exercises, staying in the non-self. This is how it is, oh Govinda.
You say so, oh friend, and yet you know that Siddhartha is no driver of an ox-cart and a Samana is no drunkard. It's true that a drinker numbs his senses. It's true that he briefly escapes and rests, but he'll return from the delusion and finds everything to be unchanged. He has not become wiser, has gathered no enlightenment, and has not risen several steps.
And Siddhartha spoke with a smile: "I do not know, I've never been a drunkard. But that I, Siddhartha, find only a short numbing of the senses in my exercises and meditations. That I am just as far removed from wisdom and from salvation as a child in the mother's womb. This I know, oh Govinda, this I know."
And once again, another time, when Siddhartha left the forest together with Govinda to beg for some food in the village for their brothers and teachers, Siddhartha began to speak and said: "What now, oh Govinda, might we be on the right path? Might we get closer to enlightenment? Might we get closer to salvation? Or do we perhaps live in a circle? We who have thought we were escaping the cycle?"
Quote Govinda: "We have learned a lot, Siddhartha, there is still much to learn. We are not going around in circles. We are moving up. The circle is a spiral, and we have already ascended many a level."
Siddhartha answered: "How old, would you think, is our oldest Samana — our venerable teacher?"
Quote Govinda: "Our oldest one might be about sixty years of age."
He has lived for sixty years and has not reached the Nirvana. He'll turn seventy and eighty, and you and me, we will grow just as old and will do our exercises, and will fast, and will meditate. But we will not reach the Nirvana. He won't, and we won't. Oh Govinda, I believe out of all the Samanas out there is perhaps not a single one who will reach the Nirvana. We find comfort; we find numbness; and we learn feats, to deceive others. But the most important thing, the path of paths, we will not find.
"If you only," spoke Govinda, "wouldn't speak such terrible words, Siddhartha! How could it be that among so many learned men, among so many Brahmans, among so many austere and venerable Samanas, among so many who are searching, among so many who are eagerly trying, and among so many holy men that no one will find the path of paths?"
But Siddhartha said in a voice which contained just as much sadness as mockery — with a quiet, a slightly sad, a slightly mocking voice: "Soon, Govinda, your friend will leave the path of the Samanas that he has walked along your side for so long. I'm suffering of thirst, oh Govinda, and on this long path of a Samana my thirst has remained as strong as ever.”
“I always thirsted for knowledge. I have always been full of questions. I have asked the Brahmans year after year, and I have asked the holy Vedas year after year, and I have asked the devote Samanas year after year.”
“Perhaps, oh Govinda, it had been just as well and had been just as smart and just as profitable if I had asked the hornbill-bird or the chimpanzee. It took me a long time and am not finished learning this yet, oh Govinda: that there is nothing to be learned!”
“There is indeed no such thing, so I believe, as what we refer to as ‘learning.' There is, oh my friend, just one knowledge. This is everywhere. This is Atman. This is within me, within you, and within every creature.”
“And so, I'm starting to believe that this knowledge has no worse enemy than the desire to know it — than learning."
At this, Govinda stopped on the path, rose his hands, and spoke: "If you, Siddhartha, only would not bother your friend with this kind of talk! Truly, your words stir up fear in my heart.”
“And just consider: what would become of the sanctity of prayer? What would become of the venerability of the Brahmans' caste and what of the holiness of the Samanas if it was as you say? If there was no learning? What, oh Siddhartha, what would then become of all of this: what is holy, what is precious, and what is venerable on earth?"
And Govinda mumbled a verse to himself, a verse from an Upanishad:
He who ponderingly, of a purified spirit,
Loses himself in the meditation of Atman,
Unexpressable by words is the blissfulness of his heart.
But Siddhartha remained silent. He thought about the words which Govinda had said to him, and he thought the words through to their end.
Yes, he thought, standing there with his head low, what would remain of all that which seemed to us to be holy? What remains? What can stand the test? And he shook his head.
At one time, when the two young men had lived among the Samanas for about three years and had shared their exercises, some news: a rumor and a myth reached them after being retold many times. A man had appeared, Gotama by name — the exalted one, the Buddha. He had overcome the suffering of the world in himself and had halted the cycle of rebirths.
He was said to wander through the land teaching, surrounded by disciples without possession, without a home, and without a wife. In the yellow cloak of an ascetic but with a cheerful brow, he was a man of bliss, and Brahmans and princes would bow down before him and would become his students.
This myth, this rumor, and this legend resounded. Its fragrance rose up, here and there; in the towns, the Brahmans spoke of it and in the forest, the Samanas. Again, and again, the name of Gotama, the Buddha, reached the ears of the young men — with good talk, with bad talk, with praise, and with defamation.
It was as if the plague had broken out in a country and news had been spreading around that in one or another place there was a man — a wise man and a knowledgeable one — whose word and breath was enough to heal everyone who had been infected with the pestilence. As such news would go through the land and everyone would talk about it, many would believe, many would doubt, but many would get on their way as soon as possible to seek the wise man, the helper. Just like this, this myth ran through the land — that fragrant myth of Gotama, the Buddha and the wise man of the family of Sakya.
He possessed, so the believers said, the highest enlightenment. He remembered his previous lives. He had reached the nirvana and never returned into the cycle. He was never again submerged in the murky river of physical forms. Many wonderful and unbelievable things were reported of him. He had performed miracles, had overcome the devil, and had spoken to the gods. But his enemies and disbelievers said that this Gotama was a vain seducer. He would spend his days in luxury. He scorned the offerings, was without learning, and knew neither exercises nor self-castigation.
The myth of Buddha sounded sweet. The scent of magic flowed from these reports. After all, the world was sick, life was hard to bear. Behold: here a source seemed to spring forth and here a messenger seemed to call out, comforting, mild, and full of noble promises. Everywhere where the rumor of Buddha was heard. Everywhere in the lands of India the young men listened up, felt a longing, and felt hope. Among the Brahmans' sons of the towns and villages, every pilgrim and stranger was welcome when he brought news of him: the exalted one, the Sakyamuni.
The myth had also reached the Samanas in the forest, Siddhartha, and Govinda — slowly, drop by drop, every drop laden with hope, and every drop laden with doubt. They rarely talked about it because the oldest one of the Samanas did not like this myth. He had heard that this alleged Buddha used to be an ascetic before and had lived in the forest, but He had then turned back to luxury and worldly pleasures. He had no high opinion of this Gotama.
"Oh Siddhartha," Govinda spoke one day to his friend:
Today, I was in the village, and a Brahman invited me into his house. In his house, there was the son of a Brahman from Magadha who has seen the Buddha with his own eyes and has heard him teach. Verily, this made my chest ache when I breathed, and thought to myself: If only I would too. If only we both would too, Siddhartha and me, live to see the hour when we will hear the teachings from the mouth of this perfected man! Speak friend: wouldn't we want to go there too and listen to the teachings from the Buddha's mouth?
Always, oh Govinda, I had thought Govinda would stay with the Samanas. Always I had believed his goal was to live to be sixty and seventy years of age and to keep on practicing those feats and exercises, which are becoming a Samana. But behold, I had not known Govinda well enough. I knew little of his heart. So now you, my faithful friend, want to take a new path and go there where the Buddha spreads his teachings.
Quote Govinda: "You're mocking me. Mock me if you like, Siddhartha! But have you not also developed a desire and an eagerness to hear these teachings? And have you not at one time said to me that you would not walk the path of the Samanas for much longer?"
At this, Siddhartha laughed in his very own manner, in which his voice assumed a touch of sadness and a touch of mockery, and said:
Well, Govinda, you've spoken well and you've remembered correctly. If you only remembered the other thing as well you've heard from me, which is that I have grown distrustful and tired against teachings and learning. That my faith in words, which are brought to us by teachers, is small. But let's do it, my dear, I am willing to listen to these teachings — though in my heart I believe that we've already tasted the best fruit of these teachings.
Quote Govinda: "Your willingness delights my heart. But tell me, how should this be possible? How should the Gotama's teachings, even before we have heard them, have already revealed their best fruit to us?"
Quote Siddhartha: "Let us eat this fruit and wait for the rest, oh Govinda! But this fruit, which we already now received thanks to the Gotama, consisted in him calling us away from the Samanas! Whether he has also other and better things to give us, oh friend, let us await with calm hearts."
On this very same day, Siddhartha informed the oldest one of the Samanas of his decision that he wanted to leave him. He informed the oldest one with all the courtesy and modesty becoming to a younger one and a student. But the Samana became angry because the two young men wanted to leave him and talked loudly and used crude swearwords.
Govinda was startled and became embarrassed. But Siddhartha put his mouth close to Govinda's ear and whispered to him: "Now, I want to show the old man that I've learned something from him."
Positioning himself closely in front of the Samana, with a concentrated soul, he captured the old man's glance with his glances, deprived him of his power, made him mute, took away his free will, subdued him under his own will, and commanded him to do silently whatever he demanded him to do. The old man became mute. His eyes became motionless. His will was paralyzed and his arms were hanging down, without power. He had fallen victim to Siddhartha's spell. But Siddhartha's thoughts brought the Samana under their control and he had to carry out what they commanded.
And thus, the old man made several bows, performed gestures of blessing, and spoke stammeringly a godly wish for a good journey. And the young men returned the bows with thanks and returned the wish. They went on their way with salutations.
On the way, Govinda said: "Oh Siddhartha, you have learned more from the Samanas than I knew. It is hard. It is very hard to cast a spell on an old Samana. Truly, if you had stayed there, you would soon have learned to walk on water."
"I do not seek to walk on water," said Siddhartha. "Let old Samanas be content with such feats!"
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