“I Got These Dark Circles
Before I Turned Ten”:
Reflections on Siddhartha,
Search for Human Potential
4 October 2013
Siddhartha’s first experience with life
outside his village recalls Gotama’s first
impression of the rest of the world upon
leaving his family’s estate – those first
glimpses of pain, deprivation, and
The difference is that Gotama was
moved, while Siddhartha claims that
“all were not worth a passing glance,
everything lied, stank of lies; they were
all illusions of sense, happiness and
beauty. All were doomed to decay. The
world tasted bitter. Life was pain.”
As emo-teenager as this sounds, the
point here is that Siddhartha sees and
treats everything around him as a
On the one hand, that’s not
necessarily a bad idea if you’re
following the Buddhist system.
If our perceptions form maya –
illusions – and reality (satyam) actually
lies behind that veil, perhaps we should
praise Siddhartha for paying attention
to the figurative man behind the
On the other hand, this is a deeply
problematic attitude if you’re following
the actual book – which doesn’t so much
exist to promote Buddhist values, but
rather incorporates knowledge
of/familiarity with them in order to say
something profound about living, aging,
If anything, the book’s overall
message rejects adolescentSiddhartha’s worldview, or at least the
way he uses it.
For example, life may be “pain,” but
the problem isn’t that life is painful; it’s
that we respond unintelligently to that
Similarly, all beauty fades, and all
happiness fades, but their transitory
nature isn’t problematic; we just
perceive them incorrectly, and wail
when we cannot have what we want
(because we’re foolish enough to want
the things we cannot have until we learn
to better appreciate the things we
And that’s really what Hesse’s going
here, which I think is particularly
interesting: Siddhartha’s not wrong,
except he totally is.
Right ideas, wrong responses: he has
the knowledge, but lacks the ability to
properly use it.
Experience proves to be a pretty good
teacher in the long run; Siddhartha
eventually learns more about the ways
we connect, the meaning of existence,
and so on.
But he’s young, blind, and
headstrong here – a dangerous
combination, albeit probably a
necessary phase for all of us.
Siddhartha is chasing nothing
less than purity and perfection,
which at first blush is pretty good –
better to chase awesomeness than
to waste your time shooting for
The problem, of course, is that
perfection isn’t really
possible…and aren’t we just
guaranteed to suffer if we seek
something we can’t reach?
And isn’t that suffering and
fruitless seeking what ultimately
causes us to be blinded by maya in
the first place?
Notice that when Siddhartha
finally reaches an enlightened
state, he’s not actively seeking it at
all; it’s just that love and loss and
experience combine to grant him
that insight once he’s had enough
If you reject the “bitter world,”
Hesse argues, you don’t get enough
As Voltaire put it, life may be a
shipwreck, but we mustn’t forget to
sing in the lifeboats.
In his doomed effort to chase
perfection, however, Siddhartha suffers
intensely; sometimes the cure is worse
than the disease.
Siddhartha’s body decays
(graphically) over the course of three
years as he tries to shatter the Self.
He saves everything, even his breath,
while trying to “suffocate” the Self, with
the object being to break through
illusion and reach the truth behind it.
Again, he has the “right idea” (i.e.,
looking behind the veil), but it’s mixed
in with a whole lot of wrong, and much
of what happens in the second chapter
follows that pattern – hints of what
should be happening drowning in seas
The moment where his soul is
basically bopping from body to body,
from person to dead jackal, is another
example: Siddhartha, on some dim,
subconscious level, almost seems to be
aware of the interconnectedness of
things this early in the story.
But he can’t consciously process the
realization on any level save those
The idea is that someone who’s truly
enlightened – who is aware of that
interconnectedness – could, figuratively,
stay in those other bodies for as long as
Remember, the bodhisattvas are
enlightened because they empathize,
and because that empathy depends on
an understanding of the other party’s
nature – their wants, needs, and fears.
The bodhisattvas no longer have
concerns for themselves; they’ve moved
beyond wanting, and now live to help
other people in their pursuits of
happiness, wisdom, or peace.
Siddhartha keeps snapping back into
himself because that’s where he’s
caught up – in his own “onerous life
cycle,” not the world he’s ostensibly
trying to better understand.
It’s really a matter of impatience. Siddhartha
wants everything, and he wants it now.
The irony of his situation – that everything he
needs to complete his quest already exists in the
world around him – merely underscores that the
point isn’t simple to fulfill the final goal, but to
live an adventure worthy of that ending first.
It’s the same thing with books: you have the
ability to turn to the last page whenever you
want, but the only way that last page is ever
worth reading is if you move through the other
At this point in his life, if you told Siddhartha
where the “last page” was, you’d better believe
he’d look at it. And that’s exactly why he wouldn’t
be able to understand it if you did.
He’s all hard work and dark circles, but that –
as any exhausted AP student will tell you – isn’t
enough to guarantee you’ll learn what you need.
We see on the chapter’s second page
that he’s being instructed by the eldest
Samana. (Wasn’t it only a few
paragraphs ago that Siddhartha was all
But he’s soon questioning the
Samanas’ methods and teachings, just
as he challenged the elders in his
village, and he bemoans the temporary
nature of his escape from the self
Once again, no one seems to know
the way to reach what Siddhartha seeks;
his distrust of teachers who haven’t
achieved what they’re trying to teach
others to do is at least partially justified.
(The Samanas are really dumb.)
When Govinda defends the Samanas’
methods, he and Siddhartha have the
• Govinda: You speak thus, my friend, and
yet you know that Siddhartha is no
driver of oxen and a Samana is no
drunkard. The drinker does indeed find
escape, he does indeed find a short
respite and rest, but he returns from the
illusion and finds everything as it was
before. He has not grown wiser, he has
not gained knowledge, he has not
climbed any higher.
• Siddhartha: I do not know. I have never
been a drunkard. But that I, Siddhartha,
only find a short respite in my exercises
and meditation, and am as remote from
wisdom, from salvation, as a child in the
womb, that, Govinda, I do know.
I love that the two discuss the futility of
their search in terms of intoxication, which is a
really easy metaphor: It’s the willing surrender
of control to corruption, a substitution of
poison for experience, an inherently empty,
sad, and self-destructive pursuit.
In other words, it’s one of the ultimate
expressions of desire’s relationship to
There is nothing to gain from drunkenness
but false escape; it is too easy, and too
This, in turn, is one of the reasons why Hesse
shows Siddhartha drinking so heavily in the
“Samsara” chapter; he poisons himself
because he leads a poisoned life.
As Siddhartha despairingly puts it:“We find
consolations, we learn tricks with which we
deceive ourselves, but the essential thing – the
way – we do not find.”
If the forest is about stagnation – a
kind of self-inflicted torment – the
Samanas’ lifestyle is about another kind
The idea driving the Samanas’
actions is a simple one: human life is
filled with desire, and that desire causes
If one burns away one’s own
humanity – becomes uncivilized, denies
the body what it wants, etc. – one could,
in theory, stop being human, and
consequently stop wanting, and
consequently look beyond the blindness
caused by living as one’s flawed Self
(piercing the veil – moving through
Maya and into Satyam).
But again – and never forget this – the
Samanas are really dumb.
Their approach is particularly flawed
because it contains a fundamental
Not wanting something you can’t
have is one thing; is denying yourself
what you can have analogous?
In order to continue existence as a
Samana, one must violate its credos
daily: One must cease being a “true”
ascetic in order to eat at some point, to
sleep at others.
To be an ascetic, in other words, is
either to die or lie.
The clear implication is that life is not
compatible with the Samana way – a big
hint that either their outlook is mistaken
or that they’re going about things
The Samanas’ principles of asceticism –
compared unfavorably to the “drunkard’s” actions
– only prove that one cannot flee the unavoidable.
It’s important to take control of what you can,
and to at least understand what you can’t – not to
At one point, Siddhartha wonders aloud
whether he’s still “trapped in the cycle.”
• Siddhartha: Well, Govinda, are we on the right road?
Are we gaining knowledge? Are we approaching
salvation? Or are we perhaps going in circles – we
who thought to escape from the cycle?
• Govinda: We have learned much, Siddhartha. There
still remains much to learn. We are not going in
circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral;
we have already climbed many steps.
Well, they’re definitely spiraling…but they’re
heading downwards, not upwards; every day spent
on the wrong path is a day further removed from
So it’s unsurprising that Siddhartha doesn’t
find what he’s looking for automatically with
the Samanas, and unsurprising that he ditches
them in the end.
Hey, he’s getting faster – it took about
eighteen years to flee the Brahmins, and only
three to move on from these guys.
Gotama’s introduction here is presented in
terms of “plagues” and “cures: – an interesting
choice, given his real personal history:“The
world was sick, life was difficult and here there
seemed new hope, here there seemed to be a
message, comforting, mild, full of fine
And Hesse buries a little hint for the future
in the narrator’s version of Siddhartha’s
interior monologue:“He had heard that this
alleged Buddha had formerly been an ascetic
and had lived in the woods, had then turned to
high living and the pleasures of the world, and
he held no brief for this Gotama.”
Govinda, always easily distracted by the
prospect of something better, grows eager to
meet Gotama after hearing from those who
have witnessed him work.
When Siddhartha mocks him for straying
from the Samanas’ path so readily, Govinda
says he’s merely curious about the teacher.
Everything goes in cycles: Siddhartha
believes he has “already tasted the best fruit”
of Gotama’s teachings, but he’s also aware that
he’s started stagnating again in the Samanas’
Once again, a leader is displeased with
Siddhartha’s intended departure, and
Siddhartha simply defeats him through the
strength of his will and, ironically enough,
desire. (For someone who intends to defeat
desire, Siddhartha acts according to what he
wants pretty disturbingly often.)
These experiences, futile as they may
seem, do prove critical to Siddhartha’s
The elders themselves may be unable
to give Siddhartha what he wants or
needs – but it’s important to remember
that he doesn’t want to be given
Whether he’s aware of it or not, their
influences help guide him along the
course he’s taken.
After all, knowledge can be passed
from one source to another, but wisdom
cannot – it must be generated from
within in order to be pure and genuine.
If you simply want to hear someone
tell you the truth, and don’t want to look
for it yourself…you’re Govinda.