I once heard a story about two Buddhist monks. I do not remember the exact phrasing, but the story basically went as such:
A master and a novice were walking along the river when they came across a naked woman. She had been bathing, but then had hurt herself. She needed to be carried across the river, so she asked the monks for help. The master immediately picked her up and carried her across the river. The novice asked the master why he had carried her when part of their creed is chastity. The senior monk replied, “I let her go long ago. Why do you still carry her?”
Before I even finished reading it, the theme of this story was obvious to me: attachment. The fundamental root of all suffering, according to Buddhist teaching, is attachment. My initial idea of attachment, before, had been material things: clothes, houses, video games, etc. This story, however, highlighted what was missing from my personal connotations to the meaning of attachment. The novice was attached to literal meaning: to him, nudity meant sex. To the master, nudity was not attached to sex. This reminded me of one of my own attachments to meaning: that attachment applied to material things. Having gained a little extra insight, I moved on. Then I read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and saw the film Siddhartha.
The historical figure known as Buddha was named Siddhartha Gautama. I knew that Hesse could not have named his protagonist Siddhartha without making an allusion to Buddha and his teachings. As soon as I opened the book, I expected to read something about attachment. It was never explicitly stated, but I saw its presence as Siddhartha lived without it among the Samanas and drowned in it as he lived in the material world. As Siddhartha lived on the river with Vasudeva and achieved enlightenment, though, I sensed its presence in a form I could readily identify. This bothered me for a while, but then I let it go, thinking that I was too attached to finding attachment in the story.
Approaching the film, I tried to be as unattached to the book as possible. Experience has taught me that holding on too tightly to a book will often spoil the film. I love film for its interpretative quality, and I was not about to miss any new insights the film could offer me. What I had not prepared for was my inner film critic. With the opening shots, I appreciated the cinematography. This was quickly overshadowed. Throughout the film I was constantly distracted by the actors. To be frank, I was distracted by their poor acting. Every moment on the screen felt like a contrivance. As they recited their lines, I was painfully aware that they were reciting lines rather than speaking dialogue. It did not feel natural, so I did not believe in the thoughts and emotions they portrayed on the screen the way I believed Forrest Gump’s love for Jenny or Rick’s pain over losing Ilsa. My training in Stanislavsky and Linklater stuck a stubborn filter over my perceptions that I could not peel away despite my best efforts. Driving home from class, I beat myself up for being so attached to my acting training.
I did not bother to suppress a slightly bitter chuckle when a response paper to Hesse’s book and the film was assigned. It was not because I resent writing a paper. On the contrary, I am one of those freaky students who actually likes writing papers. No, it was because I felt that this paper would not come to me as naturally as papers tend to come. Reading the book had been more like a confirmation rather than a revelation. Every word about the experience of enlightenment made sense to me: the illusion of time, the transcendent connection everything shares, the traps created by words and thoughts, and freedom of experience and action. These were all things I had thought and expressed before. While reading the book and watching the film, I did not experience that “ah ha” moment that is crucial to my writing. Could I really write anything of substance based on these experiences? I saved the email with the assignment paper in my school documents folder, and I went to bed hoping that the answer would come to me while I slept.
I spent days pondering how to write a response. The answer did not come in my sleep. I did not expect it to, but one can always hope. I have a good record for writing papers because I always seek to write along themes that I expect other students to avoid -- papers others do not think their teachers will approve -- the archetypes present in the Final Fantasy video game series, the aesthetic philosophy of Disney animation, the different poles of thinking exhibited by Jules and Vincent as they argue over the connotations of foot massages versus oral sex in PULP FICTION. Additionally, I seek to write in such a manner that my voice virtually oozes from the page -- with touches of sarcasm and humor uniquely my own. As I sat with my Macbook, though, none of the usual weapons came to me. I leafed through the book searching for inspiration. Try as I may, no particular concept or event stood out as particularly revelatory, and trying to make it revelatory made the story mundane rather than the enjoyable read it is. I reflected on the film, but there was little I remembered beyond bad acting and beautiful cinematography. I went over my notes, but they were fragmented and insubstantial.
Eventually, I was just fed up. I looked outside, and I saw that it was clear and sunny for once. Having not taken my best friend -- my dog, Jake -- for one of his daily walks yet, I decided to get away from the paper and clear my head. I grabbed my iPod, fastened Jake’s collar, and led him outside. I sipped jasmine tea as I walked, in hopes that the caffeine would prod my fried brain back to life. Turning on my audiobook of Siddhartha, I hoped maybe the words would drip into my self conscious. I watched Jake. He strolled down the road a little ahead of me, and I thought, “what would I do for your kind of serenity?” He was just walking along, his belly swinging side to side with each step. With a little smile on his face, and he would smell things as he passed them, then move on. Jake was just enjoying being in the world. If he strayed a little way away, he would turn and look back for me because he loves me. He was peaceful. I could not help but notice that my observations of Jake were similar to Hesse’s descriptions of the enlightened people in the book. Based on Hesse’s description, Jake seemed to have achieved Nirvana. I laughed, thinking how that might sound to other people. Upon thinking this, the narrator of the audiobook read, “one person’s treasure and wisdom always sounds like foolishness to others.”
Frankly, I believe that my dog understands the world in ways that I do not. In some ways, he is the perfect Buddhist. True, he is attached to food, but he just eats the food I give him. True, he begs for scraps when I am eating, but only because I have a bad habit of giving him scraps. As such, he expects that I will give him food when I eat. He can sleep pretty much anywhere; there is no fancy bed required. He is very attached to me, but when I leave him, he knows that I will return -- just like the river. Honestly, he lives a lot of the wisdom that Vasudeva and Siddhartha gained from the river. As I looked at Jake, I recalled a scene from an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where Dr. Bailey said, “the world just makes a lot more sense when you’re looking at a baby.”
For me, writing this paper just made a lot more sense to me when I was looking at my dog. Yes, this may sound ridiculous -- not only for thinking my dog had achieved Nirvana but also for thinking of Grey’s Anatomy when writing a philosophy paper. Perhaps, but this was my signal to reflect a bit more on it.
Upon these reflections, I realized that I had attached sounding intelligent and witty to writing a good paper, just as the novice associated carrying a naked woman to sex. Perhaps there could be insight transmitted in writing something that sounded foolish on the surface. I lost track of how the story itself really existed for me. Similar to how the river existed as a whole to Siddhartha and Vasudeva, the story existed as a whole and as subtext for me. No specific quotation, event, or concept could have transmitted that in my writing. Just as Siddhartha’s entire life experience -- the ascetic, the material, the good, the bad -- helped him achieve enlightenment, the story as an entirety was what I responded to, namely attachment.
Attachment is not directly explored in the story, but it was fundamental to my experience of it. Instead of resisting it, I choose to succumb to it. By confessing, exploring, and succumbing to some of my attachments, I have ultimately freed myself from them. They have put me in touch with an empowering and transcendent attachment. That there, is one step further to achieving a greater enlightenment, for transcendence is the cornerstone of Nirvana.
Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Narrated by Firdous Bamji. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999, Audible.com Audiobook, 2006.
Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha. Translated by Susan Bernofsky. New York: The Modern Library, 2006.