November 04, 2010

Siddhartha & Samsara (MDIV 555)

Journal for November 2, 2010

Years ago a friend gave me a copy of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. It even made the trip to California with me, when many other books did not, despite being just a possibility on my shelf. After reading the quotation of Siddhartha’s final realization in Kornfield’s book, I was curious enough to finally pick it up. I skipped lunch and felt my tummy grumble pleasantly through the last few chapters, but I managed to finish it in an afternoon.

It’s frickin’ brilliant.

No doubt is has been critiqued and criticized sufficiently since 1922, some of it deserved, some not. That’s beside the point. Here in a short 152 pages is a succinct description of the main Buddhist teachings presented in the guise of a story, told from the mind of a character about whom the reader can truly care. It is pared down, with lavish description of context and landscape spared and spent instead on mental states, philosophy, emotion, and realization. It is a novel of the mind.

On page 75, the chapter called Samsara begins, in which Siddhartha spends twenty years as a merchant. He becomes accustomed to luxury, acquisitiveness, and gambling. I believe this, of all the chapters, is one to which people can relate most strongly.

A friend recently said that he didn’t want to have much in way of possessions. He liked to live in a simple home, take public transit, not have a lot of things to be responsible for. To some people this sounds like cowardice, fear of life, fear of “growing up.” It may be partially so, but to me it sounds very wise.

The summer after I graduated high school, my parents moved out of our house. My brother, two years older than I, and a group of his friends moved back in. Our folks bought a townhome nearby, something smaller than the five-bedroom ranch, where they didn’t have to mow the yard or shovel the snow. A year later, my brother and I bought the house. We continued to rent out three of the bedrooms.

I remember how proud I was of being “independent,” being a homeowner, even in a home I couldn’t really afford unless it was shared with strangers. I was always trying to “improve” my home, because that’s what homeowners do. I wanted a new rug for the dining room, new curtains for the living room, a larger television, flowers for the yard, to repaint my bedroom, remodel the bathroom, remove the dying tree. Beyond just the necessary maintenance, I wanted more than I had. I put a lot of money into these tasks, probably more than I could afford. There was an entire list, and by the time I had completed everything, I would have undoubtedly added a dozen more things I wanted.

Looking back now, I remember that mindset was permeated with a kind of misery. Outwardly, I had everything I was supposed to – a house in the suburbs, yard with the dogs, a car, a good, white-collar, nine-to-five job at the bank, financial independence, and an ongoing college education that kept me in class until ten o’clock four nights a week. When I was home on Friday and weekends, I cleaned, mowed the massive yard (which I came to hate), did repairs, watched too much television, read novels, and did laundry. I wasn’t really unhappy, but life was permeated by dissatisfaction.

Brandon moved out to live with his girlfriend, now wife. I rented his room. My close friend, Melissa, moved in. We remodeled her bedroom and bathroom. I went part-time at the bank and returned to the University full-time to study architecture. I worked two or three jobs on the side. We took out a second mortgage to pay for my first year back in college. My mother took out a parent’s student loan to pay for my second year. I ran up my credit cards to fill in the gaps. One of my dogs died. And I did the budget and did the budget and did the budget, until I realized I just couldn’t afford this massive, five-bedroom, mortgage in the suburbs.

I was never so happy as when I lived in Lincoln. We sold the house at a loss of three-hundred dollars, but it was finally gone. I gave my furniture to Melissa, who rented an apartment with two of our former housemates. I found a little, one-bedroom condo in an old building next to the State Capital on foreclosure sale in Lincoln. My parents bought it outright using the equity on their townhome. I paid my mortgage to them.

It took a while to get out of the mindset of samsara. I wanted to endlessly improve even my little condo. But the credit card payments drained my extra income and eventually I learned to be happy with what I had. I honestly got over the need for new curtains and rugs and televisions. I was delighted when I found a set of shelves left out by the dumpster. I stopped shopping in retail stores and bought my clothes second hand. Eventually, my closet shrank to a third its original size, and I didn’t mind. I didn’t drive my car everyday and I didn’t buy gas more than once a month. I learned to enjoy walking and riding my bicycle everywhere, being in the world rather than travelling through it wrapped in glass and metal. Eventually, I let the credit cards default and then declared bankruptcy, finally letting go of the last pretense of financial “independence” and “responsibility.”

Siddhartha walked away from his wealthy life as a pampered merchant and went to live as a ferryman in a small hut on the edge of the forest, growing crops, tending the orchard, weaving baskets, and listening to the river. Such a dramatic transformation is unlikely these days and I am no Siddhartha.

But I get it, and I think other people can get it, too, if they’re looking.

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