Colombo Telegraph

Heart And Soul Of Siddhartha

By Sajeeva Samaranayake

Sajeeva Samaranayake

As a troubled nation continues on its weary way burdened with the weight of violence and anxiety – the film Sri Siddhartha Gautama makes a welcome appearance to transport us to another reality. This short reflection is not about the monumental feat of Navin Gooneratne as the producer – but about Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha – an older piece of work which remains grossly un-appreciated in this country.

Can great cinema change attitudes by itself? This is an interesting question because film makers have often created exquisite works of art which must somehow penetrate the mental chains we have bound ourselves with. Most probably the extent of penetration will always depend on how much we see ourselves – stripped of our usual and instinctive self images….

We learn about phenomena through our reactions to them. When these reactions began in time we don’t know…. It may be something pretty mundane (or so we think) like our reaction to heat, sweat and a scratching body that itches here and there. Not when we have got into some sporting activity where all this is hardly noticed – but when after a tiring day of work and you take a refreshing wash and there is some sudden sweaty activity for which you have not mentally prepared….. then you will resist and identify this as a clear enemy – a discomfort and irritation, like a mosquito.

The reaction becomes a badge for that phenomenon which you can then identify very efficiently and effortlessly as the sanna or symbol for this particular aversion you have cultivated. With the symbolic direction given to your mind your intention and action is formed and the karma is completed. In other words you have accumulated, strengthened and reinforced a particular tendency in your mind. You can be sure this tendency will visit you again and again and again. This mental feat is the basic journey we take through samsara – and of course there are thousands of cravings and aversions shapes and colours and tastes with which we construct the self and world.

Repetition makes for habit and habit makes character. It is this character that is the hardest thing to change because it has developed its own logic in collaboration with mara our thinking ego which can con us into staying within its own empire – the empire of the senses.

Buddha’s teaching is simply about working backwards through this self created maze. He taught the people he met the basic technology using metaphors, similes and stories suited to their own temperament and mental status. Following the yogis and sramanas who had preceded him into the forests in the Gangetic plain in India he stressed on the need for cultivating stillness of body and silence of mind to experience the spaciousness and peace within the human consciousness. And of course he came up with the technical tools that could take the disciple right up to final liberation from the bondage of desire, aversion and blindness.

One central idea in his teaching was to let go or renounce. If the existing consciousness was to unravel by itself for the disciple to see the working of the mind the constant flow of fresh sensory impressions had to be stopped – hence the need for renunciation and meditation. In Herman Hesse’s classic Siddhartha the young Brahmin refuses to become an official follower of Buddha and he elects to go his own way. He attains self realization after a turbulent life of experiencing both excessive sensual indulgence and the bitter after-taste of such immersion. To a superficial reader this novel may look a challenge to Buddhism. This is especially so as Siddhartha’s friend Govinda who did become a disciple of the Buddha returns eventually to Siddhartha as a confused and disillusioned old man without finding release from suffering.

Siddhartha is in fact a challenge, but only to institutionalized Buddhism that affirms the dualism of ‘this’ and ‘that’. The dualism of Buddhism as a unique path and a reduction of all other paths is confronted by Hesse who demonstrates that renunciation and meditation as a way of life rather than any formal or official way is really the heart and soul of Buddhism. In fact the same might be said of other organized religions as well.

Enlightenment does not depend on being a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Christian but on the depth of your renunciation, meditation and intelligence. Spiritual understanding and dialogue between the followers of different religions and sects from time immemorial up to this day has proceeded on this pragmatic foundation.  In fact neither Buddhism nor Hinduism would have matured as they did without being influenced by each other within the uniquely Indian and broadminded spiritual environment. This cross cultural exchange and dialogue takes place person to person even if the organized religions would for their obvious reasons assert separation.

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