Monday, May 09, 2011

Pilgrims

I almost missed the cultural revolution of the 1960s and early-1970s. I was just married, starting a family, up to my ears in the study of physics, then starting a new job as a teacher. For me, it was Maxwell's Equations rather than marijuana, up late with a colicky child rather than the Summer of Love. But like almost everyone else of a certain age, I managed to read Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, the hippie scripture of the Flower Generation.

The book was published in the U. S. in a New Directions paperback, which I think I still have around the house somewhere. Right now I'm looking at a copy off the shelf here in the college library.

Did it guide me on the path to enlightenment? I don't think so. But as I flip through the pages it all comes back to me.

Who did not want to identify with the young Siddhartha, "strong, handsome, supple-limbed"? The girls all swooned when he walked through the street. Everybody loved Siddhartha. He made everybody happy.

But Siddhartha was not happy. His soul was not at peace. Like those of us who came of age in America in the 1950s, the circumstances of Siddhartha's life in ancient India, in the lingering aura of the Buddha, seemed -- well -- comfortable but hollow. And so off he went in pursuit of a deeper, more satisfying way of living.

And didn't we all. For me, though, the path didn't lead East but West. For enlightenment I looked to Francis of Assisi and Henry Thoreau, Meister Eckhart and Sigrid Undset, Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Mann. Meanwhile I shored up reliable, scientific knowledge of the world, building a sure foundation from which to launch my personal quest. It wasn't Om that would be my tool, but Ockham's Razor.

And where did it all lead?

Siddhartha tried it all. Asceticism. Commerce. Sex. And ended up by the river. Listening to the river. The unceasing murmur of what is. What did he learn? That words and thoughts and the teachings of the gurus were superfluous. What mattered were things. Every wind, cloud, bird and beetle is equally divine.

At the end of his journey, Siddhartha says to his oldest friend: "I can love a stone, Govinda, and a tree or a piece of bark. These are things and one can love things. But one cannot love words. Therefore teachings are of no use to me; they have no hardness, no softness, nor colors, no corners, no smell, no taste -- they have nothing but words."

And curiously, traveling West rather than East I ended up in pretty much the same place. Oh, I love words or I wouldn't have become a writer. I love books -- novels, poetry, history, biography. But of the words of those who profess the truth -- the preachers, the bloviators, the writers of encyclicals and how-to-be-happy books, the bloggers (me included) and twitterers, even Jesus and the Buddha -- well, I'll stop up my ears and go for a walk in the woods. A river, stone, a piece of bark are divinity enough.