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With the Samanas

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This page was last updated: February 04, 2003


The Brahmin's Son
With the Samanas
Amongst the People
By the River
The Ferryman
The Son

On the evening of the day they overtook the Samanas and requested their company and allegiance. They were accepted.

Siddhartha gave his clothes to a poor Brahmin on the road and only retained his loincloth and earth-coloured unstitched cloak. He only ate once a day and never cooked food. He fasted fourteen days. He fasted twenty-eight days. The flesh disappeared from his legs and cheeks. Strange dreams were reflected in his enlarged eyes. The nails grew long on his thin fingers and a dry, bristly beard appeared on his chin. His glance became icy when he encountered women; his lips curled with contempt when he passed through a town of well-dressed people. He saw businessmen trading, princes going to the hunt, mourners weeping over their dead, prostitutes offering themselves, doctors attending the sick, priests deciding the day for sowing, lovers making love, mothers soothing their children and all were not worth a passing glance, everything lied, stank of lies; they were all illusions of sense, happiness and beauty. All were doomed to decay. The world tasted bitter. Life was pain.

Siddhartha had one single goal to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought that was his goad. When all the Self was conquered and dead, when all passions and desires were silent, then the last must awaken, the innermost of Being that is no longer Self the great secret!

Silently Siddhartha stood in the fierce sun's rays, filled with pain and thirst, and stood until he no longer felt pain and thirst. Silently he stood in the rain, water dripping from his hair on to his freezing shoulders, on to his freezing hips and legs. And the ascetic stood until his shoulders and legs no longer froze, till they were silent, till they were still. Silently he crouched among the thorns. Blood dripped from his smarting skin, ulcers formed, and Siddhartha remained stiff, motionless, till no more blood flowed, till there was no more pricking, no more smarting.

Siddhartha sat upright and learned to save his breath, to manage with little breathing, to hold his breath. He learned, while breathing in, to quiet his heartbeat, learned to lessen his heartbeats, until there were few and hardly any more.

Instructed by the eldest of the Samanas, Siddhartha practised self-denial and meditation according to the Samana rules. A heron flew over the bamboo wood and Siddhartha took the heron into his soul, flew over forest and mountains, became a heron, ate fishes, suffered heron hunger, used heron language, died a heron's death. A dead jackal lay on the sandy shore and Siddhartha's soul slipped into its corpse; he became a dead jackal, lay on the shore, swelled, stank, decayed, was dismembered by hyenas, was picked at by vultures, became a skeleton, became dust, mingled with the atmosphere. And Siddhartha's soul returned, died, decayed, turned into dust, experienced the troubled course of the life cycle. He waited with new thirst like a hunter at a chasm where the life cycle ends, where there is an end to causes, where painless eternity begins. He killed his senses, he killed his memory, he sipped out of his Self in a thousand different forms. He was animal , carcass, stone, wood, water, and each time he reawakened. The sun of moon shone, he was again Self, swung into the life cycle, felt thirst, conquered thirst, felt new thirst.

Siddhartha learned a great deal from the Samanas; he learned many ways of losing the Self. He travelled along the path of self-denial through pain, through voluntary suffering and conquering of pain, through hunger, thirst and fatigue. He travelled the way of self-denial through meditation, through the emptying of the mind of all images. Along these and other paths did he learn to travel. He lost his Self a thousand times and for days on end he dwelt in non-being. But although the paths took him away from Self, in the end they always led back to it. Although Siddhartha fled from the Self a thousand times, dwelt in nothing, dwelt in animal and stone, the return was inevitable when he would again find himself in sunshine or in moonlight, in shadow or in rain, and was again Self and Siddhartha, again felt the torment of the onerous life cycle.

At his side lived Govinda, his shadow; he travelled along the same path, made the same endeavours. They rarely conversed with each other apart from the necessities of their service and practices. Sometimes they went together through the villages in order to beg food for themselves and their teachers.

'What do you think, Govinda?' Siddhartha asked on one of these begging expeditions. 'Do you think we are any further? Have we reached our goal?'

Govinda replied: 'We have learned and we are still learning. You will become a great Samana, Siddhartha. You have learned each exercise quickly. The old Samanas have often praised you. Some day you will be a holy man, Siddhartha.'

Siddhartha said: 'It does not appear so to me, my friend. What I have so far learned from the Samanas I could have learned more quickly and easily in every inn in a prostitutes' quarter, amongst the carriers and dice players.'

Govinda said: 'Siddhartha is joking. How could you have learned meditation, holding of the breath and insensibility towards hunger and pain, with those wretches.'

And Siddhartha said softly, as if speaking to himself: 'What is meditation? What is abandonment of the body? What is fasting? What is the holding of breath? It is a flight from the Self, it is a temporary escape from the torment of Self. It is a temporary palliative against the pain and folly of life. The driver of oxen makes this same flight, takes this temporary drug when he drinks a few bowls of rice wine or coconut milk in the inn. He then no longer feels his Self, no longer feels the pain of life; he then experiences temporary escape. Falling asleep over his bowl of rice wine, he finds what Siddhartha and Govinda find when they escape from their bodies by long exercises and dwell in the non-Self.'

Govinda said: 'You speak thus, my friend, and yet you know that Siddhartha is no driver of oxen and a Samana is no drunkard. The drinker does indeed find escape, he does indeed find a short respite and rest, but he returns from the illusion and finds everything as it was before. He has not grown wiser, he has not gained knowledge, he has not climbed any higher.'

Siddhartha answered with a smile on his face: 'I do not know. I have never been a drunkard. But that I, Siddhartha, only find a short respite in my exercises and meditation, and am as remote from wisdom, from salvation, as a child in the womb, that, Govinda, I do know.'

On another occasion when Siddhartha left the wood with Govinda in order to beg for food for their brothers and teachers, Siddhartha began to speak and said: 'Well, Govinda, are we on the right road? Are we gaining knowledge? Are we approaching salvation? Or are we perhaps going in circles we who though to escape from the cycle?'

Govinda said: 'We have learned so much, Siddhartha. There still remains much to learn. We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is spiral; we have already climbed many steps.'

Siddhartha replied: 'How old, do you think, is our oldest Samana, our worthy teacher?'

Govinda said: 'I think the eldest will be about sixty years old.'

And Siddhartha said: 'He is sixty years old and has not attained Nirvana. He will be seventy and eighty years old, and you and I, we shall grow as old as he, and do exercises and fast and meditate, but we will not attain Nirvana, neither he nor we. Govinda, I believe that amongst all the Samanas, probably not even one will attain Nirvana. We find consolations, we learn tricks with which we deceive ourselves, but the essential thing the way we do not find.'

'Do not utter such dreadful words, Siddhartha,' said Govinda. 'How could it be that amongst so many learned men, amongst so many Brahmins, amongst so may austere and worthy Samanas, amongst so many seekers, so many devoted to the inner life, so many holy men, none will find the right way?'

Siddhartha, however, said in a voice which contained as much grief as mockery, in a soft, somewhat sad, somewhat jesting voice: 'Soon, Govinda, your friend will leave the path of the Samanas along which he has travelled with you so long. I suffer thirst, Govinda, and on this long Samana path my thirst has not grown less. I have always thirsted for knowledge, I have always been full of questions. Year after year I have questioned the Brahmins, year after year I have questioned the holy Vedas. Perhaps, Govinda, it would have been equally good, equally clever and holy, if I had questioned the rhinoceros or the chimpanzee. I have spent a long time and have not yet finished, in order to learn this, Govinda: that one can learn nothing. There is, so I believe, in the essence of everything, something that we cannot call learning. There is, my friend, only a knowledge   that is everywhere, that is Atman, that is in me and you and in every creature, and I am beginning to believe that this knowledge has no worse enemy than the man of knowledge, than learning.'

Thereupon Govinda stood still on the path, raised his hands and said: 'Siddhartha, do not distress your friend with such talk. Truly, your words trouble me. Think, what meaning would our holy prayers have, the venerableness of the Brahmins, the holiness of the Samanas, if, as you say, there is no learning? Siddhartha, what would become of everything, what would be holy on earth, what would be precious and sacred?'

Govinda murmured a verse to himself, a verse from one of the Upanishads:

He whose reflective pure spirit sinks into Atman

Knows bliss inexpressible through words.


Siddhartha was silent. He dwelt long on the words which Govinda had uttered.

Yes, he thought, standing with bowed head, what remains from all that seems holy to us? What remains? What is preserved? And he shook his head.

Once, when both youths had lived with the Samanas about three years and shared their practices, they heard from many sources a rumour, a report. Someone had appeared, called Gautam, the Illustrious, the Buddha. He had conquered in himself the sorrows of the world and had brought to a stand-still the cycle of rebirth. He wandered through the country preaching, surrounded by disciples, having no possessions, homeless, without a wife, wearing the yellow cloak of an ascetic, but with lofty brow, a holy man, and Brahmins and princes bowed before him and became his pupils.

This report, this rumour, this tale was heard and spread here and there. The Brahmins talked about it in the town, the Samanas in the forest. The name of Gautam, the Buddha, continually reached the ears of the young men, spoken of well and ill, in praise and in scorn.

Just as when a country is ravaged with the plague and rumour arises that there is a man, a wise man, a learned man, whose words and breath are sufficient to heal the afflicted, and as the report travels across the country and everyone speaks about it, many believe and many doubt it. Many, however, immediately go on their way to seek the wise man, the benefactor. In such a manner did that rumour, that happy report of Gautam the Buddha, the wise man from the race of Sakya, travel through the country. He possessed great knowledge, said the believers; he remembered his former lives, he had attained Nirvana and never returned to the cycle, he plunged no more into the troubled stream of forms. Many wonderful and incredible things were reported about him; he had performed wonders. had conquered the devil, had spoken with the gods. His enemies and doubters, however, said that this Gautam was an idle fraud; he passed his days in high living, scorned the sacrifices, was unlearned and knew neither the practices nor mortification of the flesh.

The rumours of the Buddha sounded attractive; there was magic in these reports. The world was sick, life was difficult and here there seemed new hope, here there seemed to be a message, comforting, mild, full of fine promises. Everywhere there were rumours about the Buddha. Young men all over India listened, felt a longing and a hope. And among the Brahmins' sons in the towns and villages, every pilgrim and stranger was welcome if he brought news of him, the Illustrious, the Sakyamuni.

The rumours reached the Samanas in the forest and Siddhartha and Govinda, a little at a time, every little item heavy with hope, heavy with doubt. They spoke little about it, as the eldest Samana was no friend of the rumour. He had heard that this alleged Buddha had formerly been an ascetic and had lived in the woods, had they turned to high living and the pleasures of the world, and he held no brief for this Gautam.

'Siddhartha,' Govinda once said to his friend. 'Today I was in the village and a Brahmin invited me to enter his house and in the house was a Brahmin's son from Magadha; he had seen the Buddha with his own eyes and had heard him preach. Truly I was filled with longing and I thought I wish that both Siddhartha and I may live to see the day when we can hear the teachings from the lips of the Perfect One. My friend, shall we not also go hither and hear the teachings from the lips of the Buddha?'

Siddhartha said: 'I always thought that Govinda would remain with the Samanas. I always believed it was his goad to be sixty and seventy years old and still practise the arts and exercises which the Samanas teach. But how little did I know Govinda! How little did I know what was in his heart? Now, my dear friend, you wish to strike a new path and go and hear the Buddha's teachings.'

Govinda said: 'It gives you pleasure to mock me. No matter if you do, Siddhartha. Do you not also feel a longing, a desire to hear this teaching? And did you not once say to me I will not travel the path of the Samanas much longer?'

Then Siddhartha laughed in such a way that his voice expressed a shade of sorrow and a shade of mockery and he said: 'You have spoken well, Govinda, you have remembered well, but you must also remember what else I told you that I have become distrustful to teachings and learning and that I have little faith in words that come to us from teachers. But, very well, my friend, I am ready to hear that new teaching, although I believe in my heart that we have already tasted the best fruit of it.'

Govinda replied: 'I am delighted that you are agreed. But tell me, how can the teachings of the Gautam disclose to us its most precious fruit before we have even heard him?'

Siddhartha said: 'Let us enjoy this fruit and await further ones, Govinda. This fruit, for which we are already indebted to the Gautam, consists in the fact that he has enticed us away from the Samanas. Whether there are still other and better fruits, let us patiently wait and see.'

On the same day, Siddhartha informed the eldest Samana of his decision to leave him. He told the old man with the politeness and modesty fitting to young men and students. But the old man was angry that both young men wished to leave him and he raised his voice and scolded them strongly.

Govinda was taken aback, but Siddhartha put his lips to Govinda's ear and whispered: 'Now I will show the old man that I have learnt something from him.'

He stood near the Samana, his mind intent; he looked into the old man's eyes and held him with his look, hypnotized him, made him mute, conquered his will, commanded him silently to do as he wished. The old man became silent, his eyes glazed, his will crippled; his arms hung down, he was powerless under Siddhartha's spell. Siddhartha's thoughts conquered those of the Samana; he had to perform what they commanded. And so the old man bowed several times, gave his blessings and stammered his wishes for a good journey. The young men thanked him for his good wishes, returned his bow, and departed.

On the way, Govinda said: 'Siddhartha, you have learned more from the Samanas than I was aware. It is difficult, very difficult to hypnotize an old Samana. In truth, if you had stayed there, you would have soon learned how to walk on water.'

'I have no desire to walk on the water,' said Siddhartha. 'Let the old Samanas satisfy themselves with such arts.'




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