In the evening of this day, they caught up with the ascetics, the skinny Samanas, and offered them their companionship and obedience. They were accepted.
Siddhartha gave his garments to a poor Brahman in the street. He wore nothing more than the loincloth, and the earth-colored, unsown cloak. He ate only once a day, and never something cooked. He fasted for fifteen days. He fasted for twenty-eight days. The flesh waned from his thighs and cheeks. Feverish dreams flickered from his enlarged eyes, long nails grew slowly on his parched fingers, and a dry, shaggy beard grew on his chin. His glance turned to icy when he encountered women; his mouth twitched with contempt, when he walked through a city of nicely dressed people. He saw merchants trading, princes hunting, mourners wailing for their dead, whores offering themselves, physicians trying to help the sick, priests determining the most suitable day for seeding, lovers loving, mothers nursing their children; and all of this, was not worthy of one look from his eye, it all lied, it all stank, it all stank of lies, it all pretended to be meaningful and joyful and beautiful, and it all was just concealed putrefaction. The world tasted bitter. Life was torture.
A goal stood before Siddhartha, a single goal: to become empty, empty of thirst, empty of wishing, empty of dreams, empty of joy and sorrow. Dead to himself, not to be a self any more, to find tranquility with an emptied heart, to be open to miracles in unselfish thoughts, that was his goal. Once all of my self was overcome and had died, once every desire and every urge was silent in the heart, then the ultimate part of me had to awake, the innermost of my being, which is no longer my self, the great secret.
Silently, Siddhartha exposed himself to burning rays of the sun directly above, glowing with pain, glowing with thirst, and stood there, until he neither felt any pain, nor thirst, any more. Silently, he stood there in the rainy season, from his hair the water dripped over freezing shoulders, over freezing hips and legs, and the penitent stood there, until he could not feel the cold in his shoulders and legs any more, until they were silent, until they were quiet. Silently, he cowered in the thorny bushes, blood dripped from the burning skin, from festering wounds dripped pus, and Siddhartha stayed rigidly, stayed motionless, until no blood flowed any more, until nothing stung any more, until nothing burned any more.
Siddhartha sat upright and learned to breathe sparingly, learned to get along with only few breaths, learned to stop breathing. He learned, beginning with the breath, to calm the beat of his heart, leaned to reduce the beats of his heart, until they were only a few and almost none.
Instructed by the oldest if the Samanas, Siddhartha practiced self-denial, practiced meditation, according to a new Samana rules.
A heron flew over the bamboo forest, and Siddhartha accepted the heron into his soul, flew over forest and mountains, was a heron, ate fish, felt the pangs of a heron’s hunger, spoke the heron’s croak, died a heron’s death. A dead jackal was lying on the sandy bank, and Siddhartha’s soul slipped inside the body, was the dead jackal, lay on the banks, got bloated, stank, decayed, was dismembered by hyaenas, was skinned by vultures, turned into a skeleton, turned to dust, was blown across the fields. And Siddhartha’s soul returned, had died, had decayed, was scattered as dust, had tasted the gloomy intoxication of the cycle, awaited in new thirst like a hunter in the gap, where he could escape from the cycle, where the end of the causes, where an eternity without suffering began.
He killed his senses, he killed his memory, he slipped out of his self into thousands of other forms, was an animal, was carrion, was stone, was wood, was water, and awoke every time to find his old self again, sun shone or moon, was his self again, turned round in the cycle, felt thirst, overcame the thirst, felt new thirst.
Siddhartha learned a lot when he was with the Samanas, many ways leading away from the self he learned to go. He went the way of self-denial by means of pain, through voluntarily suffering and overcoming pain, hunger, thirst, tiredness. He went the way of self-denial by means of meditation, through imagining the mind to be void of all conceptions.
These and other ways he learned to go, a thousand times he left his self, for hours and days he remained in the non-self. But though the ways led away from the self, their end nevertheless always led back to the self. Though Siddhartha fled from the self a thousand times, stayed in nothingness, stayed in the animal, in the stone, the return was inevitable, inescapable was the hour, when he found himself back in the sunshine or in the moonlight, in the shade or in the rain, and was once again his self and Siddhartha, and again felt the agony of the cycle which had been forced upon him.
By his side lived Govinda, his shadow, who walked the same paths, undertook the same efforts. They rarely spoke to one another, than the service and the exercises required. Occasionally the two of them went through the villages, to beg food for themselves and their teachers.
“How do you think, Govinda,” Siddhartha spoke one day while begging this way, “how do you think did we progress? Did we reach any goals?”
Govinda answered: “We have learned, and we’ll continue learning. You’ll be a great Samana, Siddhartha. Quickly, you’ve learned every exercise, often the old Samanas have admired you. One day, you’ll be a holy man, Siddhartha.”
Said Siddhartha: “I can’t help but feel that it is not like this, my friend. What I’ve learned, being among the Samanas, up to this day, this, oh Govinda, I could have learned more quickly and by simpler means. In every tavern, in the whorehouses, among carters and gamblers, my friend, I could have learned it.”
Said Govinda: “Siddhartha is joking. How could you have learned meditation, holding your breath, insensitivity against hunger and pain, there among those wretched people?”
And Siddhartha said quietly, as if he was talking to himself: “What is meditation? What is leaving one’s body? What is fasting? What is holding one’s breath? It is fleeing from the self, it is a short escape of the agony of being a self, it is a short numbing of the senses against the pain and the pointlessness of life. The same escape, the same short numbing is what the driver of an ox-cart finds in the inn, drinking a few bowls of rice-wine or fermented coconut-milk. Then he won’t feel his self any more, then he won’t feel the pains of life any more, then he finds a short numbing of the senses. When he falls asleep over his bowl of rice-wine, he’ll find the same what Siddhartha and Govinda find when they escape their bodies through long exercises, staying in the non-self. This is how it is, Govinda.”
Said Govinda: “You say so, oh friend, and yet you know that Siddhartha is no driver of an ox-cart, and a Samana is no drunkard. It’s true that a drinker numbs his senses, it’s true that he briefly escapes and rests, but he’ll return from the delusion, find everything to be unchanged, has not become wiser, has gathered no enlightenment, has not risen several steps.”
And Siddhartha spoke with a smile: “I do not know, I’ve never been a drunkard. But that I, Siddhartha, find only a short numbing of the senses in my exercises and meditations, and that I am just as far removed from wisdom, from salvation, as a child in the mother’s womb, this I know, oh Govinda, this I know.”
And once again, another time, when Siddhartha left the forest together with Govinda, to beg for some food in the village for their brothers and teachers, Siddhartha began to speak and said: “What now, Govinda, might we be on the right path? Might we get closer to enlightenment?
Might we get closer to salvation? Or do we perhaps live in a circle; we, who have thought we were escaping the cycle?”
Said Govinda: “We have learned a lot, Siddhartha, there is still much to learn. We are not going around in circles, we are moving up, the circle is a spiral, we have already ascended many a level.”
Siddhartha answered: “How old, would you think, is our oldest Samana, our venerable teacher?”
Said Govinda: “Our oldest one might be about sixty years of age.”
And Siddhartha: “He has lived for sixty years, and has not reached the nirvana. He’ll turn seventy and eighty, and you and me, we will grow just as old, and will do our exercises, and will fast, and will meditate. But we will not reach the nirvana, he won’t and we won’t. Oh Govinda, I believe out of all the Samanas out there, perhaps not a single one, not a single one, will reach the nirvana. We find comfort, we find numbness, we learn feats, to deceive others. But the most important thing, the path of paths, we will not find.”
“If you only,” spoke Govinda, “wouldn’t speak such terrible words, Siddhartha! How could it be that among so many learned men, among so many Brahmans, among so many austere and venerable Samanas, among so many who are searching, so many who are eagerly trying, so many holy men, no one will find the path of paths?”
But Siddhartha said with a quiet, a slightly sad, a slightly mocking voice: “Soon, Govinda, your friend will leave the path of the Samanas, he has walked along your side for so long. I’m suffering of thirst, Govinda, and on this long path of a Samana, my thirst has remained as strong as ever. I always thirsted for knowledge, I have always been full of questions. I have asked the Brahmans, year after year, and I have asked the holy Vedas, year after year, and I have asked the devout Samanas, year after year. Perhaps, Govinda, it had been just as well, had been just as smart and just as profitable, if I had asked the hornbill-bird or the chimpanzee. It took me a long time, and I am not finished learning this yet, Govinda: that there is nothing to be learned! There is indeed no such thing, so I believe, as what we refer to as `learning’. There is, oh my friend, just one knowledge, this is everywhere, this is Atman, this is within me and within you and within every creature. And so I’m starting to believe that this knowledge has no worse enemy than the desire to know it, than learning.”
At this, Govinda stopped on the path, raised his hands, and spoke: “If you, Siddhartha, only would not bother your friend with this kind of talk! Truly, you words stir up fear in my heart. And just consider: what would become of the sanctity of prayer, what of the venerability of the Brahmans’ caste, what of the holiness of the Samanas, if it was as you say, if there was no learning?! What, oh Siddhartha, what would then become of all that is holy, what is precious, what is venerable on earth?!”
And Govinda mumbled a verse to himself, a verse from an Upanishad:
He who ponderingly, of a purified spirit, loses himself in the meditation of Atman, unexpressable by words is his blissfulness of his heart.
But Siddhartha remained silent. He thought about the words which Govinda had said to him and thought the words through to their end.
Yes, he thought, standing there with his head low, what would remain of all that seems holy? What remains? What can stand the test? And he shook his head.
At one time, when the two young men had lived among the Samanas for about three years, and had shared their exercises, some news, a rumor, a myth, reached them after being told many times: A man had appeared, Gotama by name, the exalted one, the Buddha. He had overcome the suffering of the world in himself, and had halted the cycle of rebirths. He was said to wander through the land, teaching, surrounded by disciples, without possession, without home, without a wife, in the yellow cloak of an ascetic, but with a cheerful brow, a man of bliss, and Brahmans and princes would bow down before him, and would become his students.
This myth, this rumor, this legend resounded, its fragrance rose up, here and there; in the towns, the Brahmans spoke of it, and in the forest, the Samanas; again and again, the name of Gotama, the Buddha, reached the ears of the young men, with good and with bad talk, with praise and with defamation.
It was as if the plague had broken out in a country, and news had spread, that in one or another place, there was a man, a wise man, a knowledgeable one, whose word and breath was enough to heal everyone who had been infected with the pestilence, As such news would go through the land, and everyone would talk about it, many would believe, many would doubt, but many would get on their way as soon as possible, to seek the wise man, the helper. Just like this myth ran through the land, that fragrant myth of Gotama, the Buddha, the wise man of the family of Sakya, ran throughout the countryside. He possessed, so the believers said, the highest enlightenment. He remembered his previous lives, he had reached the nirvana, and never returned into the cycle, was never again submerged in the murky river of physical forms. Many wonderful and unbelievable things were reported of him, he had performed miracles, had overcome the devil, had spoken to the gods. But his enemies and disbelievers said, this Gotama was a vain seducer, he spent his days in luxury, scorned the offerings, was without learning, and knew neither exercises nor self-castigation.
The myth of Buddha sounded sweet. The scent of magic flowed from these reports. After all, the world was sick, life was hard to bear, and behold, here a source seemed to spring forth, here a messenger seemed to call out, comforting, mild, full of noble promises. Everywhere where the rumor of Buddha was heard, everywhere in the lands of India, the young men listened up, felt a longing, felt hope. Among the Brahmans’ sons of the towns and villages, every pilgrim and stranger was welcome, when he brought news of him, the exalted one, the Sakyamuni.
The myth had also reached the Samanas in the forest, and also Siddhartha, and also Govinda, slowly, drop by drop, every drop laden with hope, every drop laden with doubt. They rarely talked about it, because the oldest one of the Samanas did not like this myth. He had heard that this alleged Buddha used to be an ascetic before, and had lived in the forest, but had then turned back to luxury and worldly pleasures, and he had no high opinion of this Gotama.
“Siddhartha,” Govinda spoke one day to his friend. “Today, I was in the village, and a Brahman invited me into his house, and in his house, there was the son of a Brahman from Magadha, who has seen the Buddha with his own eyes and has heard him teach. Verily, this made my chest ache when I breathed, and thought to myself: If only I would too, if only we both would too, Siddhartha and me, live to see the hour when we will hear the teachings from the mouth of this perfected man! Speak, friend, wouldn’t we want to go there too, and listen to the teachings from the Buddha’s mouth?”
Said Siddhartha: “Always, Govinda, I had thought, Govinda would stay with the Samanas. Always I had believed his goal was to live to be sixty and seventy years of age, and to keep on practicing those feats and exercises, which are Samana. But behold, I had not known Govinda well enough, I knew little of his heart. So now you, my faithful friend, want to take a new path and go there, where the Buddha spreads his teachings.”
Said Govinda: “You’re mocking me. Mock me if you like, Siddhartha! But have you not also developed a desire, an eagerness, to hear these teachings? And have you not at one time said to me, you would not walk the path of the Samanas for much longer?”
At this, Siddhartha laughed, and his voice assumed a touch of sadness and a touch of mockery, and said: “Well, Govinda, you’ve spoken well, you’ve remembered correctly. If you only remembered the other thing as well, you’ve heard from me, which is, that I have grown distrustful and tired against teachings and learning, and that my faith in words, which are brought to us by teachers, is small. But let’s do it, my friend, I am willing to listen to these teachings; though in my heart I believe that we’ve already tasted the best fruit of these teachings.”
Said Govinda: “Your willingness delights my heart. But tell me, how should this be possible? How should the Gotama’s teachings, even before we have heard them, have already revealed their best fruit to us?”
Said Siddhartha: “Let us eat this fruit, and wait for the rest, Govinda! But this fruit, which we already now received thanks to the Gotama, consisted in him calling us away from the Samanas! Whether he has other and better things to give us, my friend, let us await with calm hearts.”
On this very same day, Siddhartha informed the oldest of the Samanas of his decision that he wanted to leave. He informed the oldest one with all the courtesy and modesty becoming to a younger one and a student. But the Samana became angry, because the two young men wanted to leave him, and talked loudly and used crude swearwords.
Govinda was startled and became embarrassed. But Siddhartha put his mouth close to Govinda’s ear, and whispered to him: “Now, I want to show the old man that I’ve learned something from him.”
Positioning himself closely in front of the Samana, with a concentrated soul, he captured the old man’s glance with his, deprived him of his power, made him mute, took away his free will, subdued him under his own will, commanded him, to do silently, whatever he demanded him to do.
The old man became mute, his eyes became motionless, his will was paralysed, his arms were hanging down; without power, he had fallen victim to Siddhartha’s spell. But Siddhartha’s thoughts brought the Samana under their control, he had to carry out, what they commanded.
And thus, the old man made several bows, performed gestures of blessing, spoke stammeringly a godly wish for a good journey. And the young men returned the bows with thanks, returned the wish, went on their way with salutations.
On the way, Govinda said: “Siddhartha, you have learned more from the Samanas than I knew. It is hard, it is very hard to cast a spell on an old Samana. Truly, if you had stayed there, you would soon have learned to walk on water.”
“I do not seek to walk on water,” said Siddhartha. “Let old Samanas be content with such feats!