While in the bargain section of Barnes & Noble recently, I spotted the slim book Siddhartha that brought back memories from long ago. It was back in the 1960s that Suzy, the slim and pretty red-haired daughter of friends, lent me her copy. Appropriately called Mother Earth, she had two small children and her husband, Don Baker, was a playwright, director, and actor. We were visiting them in Wise, Virginia, to see Don’s play Red Fox/Second Hanging at Appalshop in nearby Whitesburg, KY. Appalshop is a nonprofit arts and education center dedicated to preserving Appalachian culture. The play was in the storytelling tradition with the three actors interrupting, overlapping and finishing each others sentences in rapid succession.
We arrived early at the theater. The house lights were on with a slowly changing slideshow of historic photos projected onto the stage background. The stagehands (the actors, it turned out) were arranging the set while the waiting audience was chatting and finding their seats. Eventually, one of the stagehands, setting down glasses and a pitcher of water, casually turned to the audience and mentioned the projected slide was of the old courthouse in Wise. As he added more about the old courthouse, the house lights gradually, imperceptibly, dimmed, the other stagehands joined in, and the show was on. Like informal storytelling, it evolved with no definite beginning, no traditional curtain rise.
Don was also a building contractor to ensure a family income, and about a year earlier he bought a small, empty rural house to salvage its materials. When he tore off the siding, he found a much older log cabin underneath. He dismantled the cabin and rebuilt it on his own property as a charming, private guest house, which was where we stayed during our visit.
Siddhartha is a book written by Hermann Hesse in 1922. Hesse, a brilliant Swiss-German, suffered from depression and other mental problems but won the Nobel prize for literature in 1946. He became known in America in 1951 when Siddhartha was translated into English and became an introduction to Eastern religions for the nascent beat generation. In the mid-1960s his books were best-sellers as they became more generally known.
Siddhartha is the story of a young Indian boy growing up in the time of the Buddha. He leaves his wealthy family life to search for an escape from the pain and unhappiness he sees as the normal condition of life (pain and unhappiness from the angst of unfulfilled desires, such as for youth, good health, our children’s success). He joins a group of ascetics living in the forest where he learns to endure physical pain, but finds no deeper answer. He then tries an opposite lifestyle, becoming wealthy, but finds luxury provides no permanent answer to our inevitable problems.
Siddhartha’s life mirrors the traditional life of the Buddha, himself (although most scholars think this is fictional). He earlier met the Buddha and studied his philosophy, but, after years of struggle, finds his bliss without following any set of specific beliefs.
My description sounds crude and more complex than the book really is. The writing is silky smooth—the words and thoughts slide effortlessly off the page into your consciousness. You can read it easily in one evening, but you will probably return to it later to contemplate specific passages. (Beware of small differences: Brahmin is the scholar class of society; Brahman is the ultimate reality of everything. Brahman is not some sort of pagan god, and neither is the Buddha. Both are impersonal concepts with no material reality.)
I find new insights re-reading the book at this stage of life. We are are all dealing with loss, disappointment, and physical pain in some degree, problems that need help now and cannot wait for the bliss of some future afterlife. This is just what Siddhartha was searching for.
You can download the book for free at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2500/2500-h/2500-h.htm or almost any library should have it.