May 17, 2011

Time for a Little Enlightenment

Filed under: Book Discussion — Tags: , , , , , — Brian Triber @ 7:20 am

Image ©2007 Eric Pouhier.
A new (to me) must read…

There are books that touch the reader on an emotional level. There are books that are focused on selling a particular brand of spiritual self-help. Then there are books that transcend the marketplace, and in doing so poetically echo their own meaning.

Even if you’ve read it before, the new translation of Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse (trans. by Susan Bernofsky) is worth the revisit. And if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for?

The story, in a nutshell, is the transcendent journey of Siddhartha to Buddahood, and those trials he meets and overcomes. Along his path, the very meaning of spiritual seeking is illuminated, and an understanding of our relationship to family, society, and the divine are laid out in the elegant, and misleadingly simplistic, tale. There’s love, friendship, humor, irreverence, joy, sex and death — all the good things in life. But there’s also the message of how to balance spiritual life with living in the world, and an understanding of the necessary solitary work needed for transcendence.

In this version, Bernofsky provides an enchanting and melodic translation whose phrasal repetitions transport the reader into 400BCE India. Between the sentences, between the perfumed melody and the silken prose, one can hear the snapping of twigs underfoot, smell the forests and villages, feel the spray of the river speaking to Siddhartha, and form an understanding of what samadhi, the single-mindedness of meditative and contemplative being, is. And this is what makes the story work on a poetic level — each of the chapters, meditated on, reveals a new understanding of what it is to be human, and how each of us is also Buddha consciousness.

Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. New Translation by Susan Bernofsky. Published by Random House, ISBN 978-0-8129-7478-2.

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  1. Hey, Henry!

    My problem with this book is the ending.
    “How did you find peace?”
    “I stopped looking for it.”

    I’m sure that everyone could live their lives unfettered by stress if they stopped giving a shit. Of course, nothing would get done. But, like always, everyone misses the big picture with this story. It’s about the journey, not the destination. If Siddhartha (or anyone) were 18 years old and said, “I’m going to be happy by not looking for happiness,” we would all rail against him as wasting his life. Siddhartha could not have achieved peace on his little ferry boat if he had not been a prince and an ascetic and a courtesan’s man, etc.

    But everyone skips that bit and tries to “let go” and “achieve enlightenment.” You get the most out of life by living it, by participating. It’s only at the end of the journey can you look back in reflection and be content.


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    Comment by E.H. — May 17, 2011 @ 8:03 am

  2. Well, Edward, I think you’ve actually hit the nail squarely on its round head. It is indeed the journey that is the focus, just as it is in Pippin, and Candide, and numerous other literary classics. But, without the second hand, what indeed is the sound of one hand clapping? Without the river, what use is the ferry?

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    Comment by Brian Triber — May 31, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

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