Together with other monks, Govinda used to spend the time of rest between pilgrimages in the pleasure-grove, which the courtesan Kamala had given to the followers of Gotama for a gift. He heard talk of an old ferryman, who lived one day’s journey away by the river, and who was regarded as a wise man by many. When Govinda went back on his way, he chose the path to the ferry, eager to see the ferryman. Because, though he had lived his entire life by the rules, though he was also looked upon with veneration by the younger monks, on account of his age and his modesty, the restlessness and the searching still had not perished from his heart.
He came to the river and asked the old man to ferry him over, and when they got off the boat on the other side, he said to the old man: “You’re very good to us monks and pilgrims, you have already ferried many of us across the river. Aren’t you too, ferryman, a searcher for the right path?”
Said Siddhartha, smiling from his old eyes: “Do you call yourself a searcher, oh venerable one, though you are already old in years and are wearing the robe of Gotama’s monks?”
“It’s true, I’m old,” spoke Govinda, “but I haven’t stopped searching. Never I’ll stop searching, this seems to be my destiny. You too, so it seems to me, have been searching. Would you like to tell me something, oh honourable one?”
Said Siddhartha: “What should I possibly have to tell you, oh venerable one? Perhaps that you’re searching far too much? That in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding?”
“How come?” asked Govinda.
“When someone is searching,” said Siddhartha, “then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind, because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means, having a goal. But finding means, being free, being open, having no goal. You, oh venerable one, are perhaps indeed a searcher, because, striving for your goal, there are many things you don’t see, which are directly in front of your eyes.”
“I don’t quite understand yet,” asked Govinda, “what do you mean by this?”
Said Siddhartha: “A long time ago, oh venerable one, many years ago, you were once before at this river, and found a sleeping man by the river, and sat down with him to guard his sleep. But, oh Govinda, you did not recognize the sleeping man.”
Astonished, as if he had been the object of a magic spell, the monk looked into the ferryman’s eyes.
“Are you Siddhartha?” he asked with a timid voice. “I wouldn’t have recognized you this time as well! From my heart, I’m greeting you, Siddhartha; from my heart, I’m happy to see you once again! You’ve changed a lot, my friend; so you’ve now become a ferryman?”
Siddhartha laughed warmly. “A ferryman, yes. Many people, Govinda, have to change a lot, have to wear many a robe, I am one of those, my friend. Be welcome, Govinda, and spend the night in my hut.”
Govinda stayed the night in the hut, and slept on the bed which used to be Vasudeva’s. Many questions he posed to the friend of his youth, many things Siddhartha had to tell him from his life.
The next morning, when the time had come to start the day’s journey, Govinda said, not without hesitation, these words: “Before I’ll continue on my path, Siddhartha, permit me to ask one more question. Do you have a teaching? Do you have a faith, or a knowledge, you follow, which helps you to live and to do right?”
Said Siddhartha: “You know, that I already as a young man, in those days when we lived with the penitents in the forest, started to distrust teachers and teachings and to turn my back to them. I have stuck with this. Nevertheless, I have had many teachers since then. A beautiful courtesan has been my teacher for a long time, and a rich merchant was my teacher, and some gamblers with dice. Once, even a follower of Buddha, traveling on foot, has been my teacher; he sat with me when I had fallen asleep in the forest, on the pilgrimage. I’ve also learned from him, I’m also grateful to him, very grateful. But most of all, I have learned here from this river and from my predecessor, the ferryman Vasudeva. He was a very simple person, Vasudeva, he was no thinker, but he knew what is necessary just as well as Gotama, he was a perfect man, a saint.”
Govinda said: “Still, Siddhartha, you love to mock people, as it seems to me. I believe in you, and know that you haven’t followed a teacher. But haven’t you found something by yourself, though you’ve found no teachings, you still found certain thoughts, certain insights, which are your own, and which help you to live? If you would like to tell me some of these, you would delight my heart.”
Said Siddhartha: “I’ve had thoughts, yes, and insight, again and again. Sometimes, for an hour or for an entire day, I have felt knowledge in me, as one would feel life in one’s heart. There have been many thoughts, but it would be hard for me to convey them to you. Look, my dear Govinda, this is one of my thoughts, which I have found: wisdom cannot be passed on. Wisdom which a wise man tries to pass on to someone always sounds like foolishness.”
“Are you kidding?” asked Govinda.
“I’m not kidding. I’m telling you what I’ve found. Knowledge can be conveyed, but not wisdom. It can be found, it can be lived, it is possible to be carried by it, miracles can be performed with it, but it cannot be expressed in words and taught. This was what I, even as a young man, sometimes suspected, what has driven me away from the teachers. I have found a thought, Govinda, which you’ll again regard as a joke or foolishness, but which is my best thought. It says: The opposite of every truth is just as true! It’s like this; any truth can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided. Everything is one-sided which can be thought with thoughts and said with words. It’s all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness, roundness, oneness. When the exalted Gotama spoke in his teachings of the world, he had to divide it into Samsara and Nirvana, into deception and truth, into suffering and salvation. It cannot be done differently, there is no other way for him who wants to teach. But the world itself, what exists around us and inside of us, is never one-sided. A person or an act is never entirely Samsara or entirely Nirvana, a person is never entirely holy or entirely sinful. It does really seem like this, because we are subject to deception, as if time was something real. Time is not real, Govinda, I have experienced this often and often again. And if time is not real, then the gap which seems to be between the world and the eternity, between suffering and blissfulness, between evil and good, is also a deception.”
“Why?” asked Govinda.
“Listen well, my dear friend, listen well! The sinner, which I am and which you are, is a sinner, but in times to come he will be Brahma again, he will reach the Nirvana, will be Buddha, and now see, these “times to come” are a deception, are only a parable! The sinner is not on his way to become a Buddha, he is not in the process of developing, though our capacity for thinking does not know how else to picture these things. No, within the sinner is now and today already the future Buddha, his future is already all there, you have to worship in him, in you, in everyone the Buddha which is coming into being, the possible, the hidden Buddha.
The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life. It is not possible for any person to see how far another one has already progressed on his path; in the robber and dice-gambler, the Buddha is waiting; in the Brahman, the robber is waiting. In deep meditation, there is the possibility to put time out of existence, to see all life which was, is, and will be as if it was simultaneous, and there everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman.
Therefore, I see whatever exists as good, death is to me like life, sin like holiness, wisdom like foolishness, everything has to be as it is, everything only requires my consent, only my willingness, my loving agreement, to be good for me, to do nothing but work for my benefit, to be unable to ever harm me. I have experienced in my body and in my soul that I needed sin very much, I needed lust, the desire for possessions, vanity, and needed the most shameful despair, in order to learn how to give up all resistance, in order to learn how to love the world, in order to stop comparing it to some world I wished, I imagined, some kind of perfection I had made up, but to leave it as it is, and to love it and to enjoy being a part of it. These, oh Govinda, are some of the thoughts which have come into my mind.”
Siddhartha bent down, picked up a stone from the ground, and weighed it in his hand. “This here,” he said playing with it, “is a stone, and will, after a certain time, perhaps turn into soil, and will turn from soil into a plant or animal or human being. In the past, I would have said: This stone is just a stone, it is worthless, it belongs to the world of the Maya; but because it might be able to become also a human being, and a spirit in the cycle of transformations, therefore I also grant it importance. Thus, I would perhaps have thought in the past. But today I think: this stone is a stone, it is also animal, it is also god, it is also Buddha, I do not venerate and love it because it could turn into this or that, but rather because it is already and always everything, and it is this very fact, that it is a stone, that it appears to me now and today as a stone, this is why I love it, and see worth and purpose in each of its veins and cavities, in the yellow, in the gray, in the hardness, in the sound it makes when I knock on it, in the dryness or wetness of its surface. There are stones which feel like oil or soap, and others like leaves, others like sand, and every one is special and prays the Om in its own way, each one is Brahman, but simultaneously and just as much it is a stone, is oily or soapy, and it is this very fact which I like, and regard as wonderful and worthy of worship.
But let me speak no more of this. The words are not good for the secret meaning, everything always becomes a bit different, as soon as it is put into words, gets distorted a bit, a bit silly; yes, and this is also very good, and I like it a lot, I also very much agree with this, that this what is one man’s treasure and wisdom always sounds like foolishness to another person.”
Govinda listened silently.
“Why have you told me this about the stone?” he asked hesitantly after a pause.
“I did it without any specific intention. Or perhaps what I meant was, that love this very stone, and the river, and all these things we are looking at and from which we can learn. I can love a stone, Govinda, and also a tree or a piece of bark. These are things, and things can be loved. But I cannot love words. Therefore, teachings are no good for me, they have no hardness, no softness, no colors, no edges, no smell, no taste, they have nothing but words. Perhaps it is these which keep you from finding peace, perhaps it is the many words. Because salvation and virtue as well, Samsara and Nirvana as well, are mere words, Govinda. There is no thing which would be Nirvana; there is just the word Nirvana.”
Said Govinda: “Not just a word, my friend, is Nirvana. It is a thought.”
Siddhartha continued: “A thought, it might be so. I must confess to you, I don’t differentiate much between thoughts and words. To be honest, I also have no high opinion of thoughts. I have a better opinion of things. Here on this ferry-boat, for instance, a man has been my predecessor and teacher, a holy man, who has for many years simply believed in the river, nothing else. He had noticed that the river spoke to him, he learned from it, it educated and taught him, the river seemed to be a god to him, for many years he did not know that every wind, every cloud, every bird, every beetle was just as divine, and knows just as much, and can teach just as much as the worshipped river. But when this holy man went into the forests, he knew everything, knew more than you and me, without teachers, without books, only because he had believed in the river.”
Govinda said: “But is that what you call `things’, actually something real, something which has existence? Isn’t it just a deception of Maya, just an image and illusion? Your stone, your tree, your river, are they actually a reality?”
“This too,” spoke Siddhartha, “I do not care very much about. Let the things be illusions or not, after all I would then also be an illusion, and thus they are always like me. This is what makes them so dear and worthy of veneration for me; they are like me. Therefore, I can love them. And this is now a teaching you will laugh about; love, oh Govinda, seems to me to be the most important thing of all. To thoroughly understand the world, to explain it, to despise it, may be the thing great thinkers do. But I’m only interested in being able to love the world, not to despise it, not to hate it and me, to be able to look upon it and me and all beings with love and admiration and great respect.”
“This I understand,” spoke Govinda. “But this very thing was discovered by the exalted one to be a deception. He commands benevolence, clemency, sympathy, tolerance, but not love; he forbade us to tie our heart in love to earthly things.”
“I know it,” said Siddhartha; his smile shone golden. “I know it, Govinda. And behold, with this we are right in the middle of the thicket of opinions, in the dispute about words. For I cannot deny, my words of love are in a contradiction, a seeming contradiction with Gotama’s words. For this very reason, I distrust in words so much, for I know, this contradiction is a deception. I know that I am in agreement with Gotama. How should he not know love, he, who has discovered all elements of human existence in their transitory nature, in their meaninglessness, and yet loved people thus much, to use a long, laborious life only to help them, to teach them! Even with him, even with your great teacher, I prefer the thing over the words, place more importance on his acts and life than on his speeches, more on the gestures of his hand than his opinions. Not in his speech, not in his thoughts, I see his greatness, only in his actions, in his life.”
For a long time, the two old men said nothing. Then spoke Govinda, while bowing for a farewell: “I thank you, Siddhartha, for telling me some of your thoughts. They are partially strange thoughts, not all have been instantly understandable to me. This being as it may, I thank you, and I wish you to have calm days.”
But secretly he thought to himself: This Siddhartha is a bizarre person, he expresses bizarre thoughts, his teachings sound foolish. So differently sound the exalted one’s pure teachings, clearer, purer, more comprehensible, nothing strange, foolish, or silly is contained in them. But as different as his thoughts seemed to me, Siddhartha’s hands and feet, his eyes, his forehead, his breath, his smile, his greeting, his walk. Never again, after our exalted Gotama has become one with the Nirvana, never since then have I met a person of whom I felt, this is a holy man! Only him, this Siddhartha, I have found to be like this. May his teachings be strange, may his words sound foolish; out of his gaze and his hand, his skin and his hair, out of every part of him shines a purity, shines a calmness, shines a cheerfulness and mildness and holiness, which I have seen in no other person since the final death of our exalted teacher.
As Govinda thought like this, and there was a conflict in his heart, he once again bowed to Siddhartha, drawn by love. Deeply he bowed to him who was calmly sitting.
“Siddhartha,” he spoke, “we have become old men. It is unlikely for one of us to see the other again in this incarnation. I see, beloved friend, that you have found peace. I confess that I haven’t found it. Tell me, oh honorable one, one more word, give me something on my way which I can grasp, which I can understand! Give me something to be with me on my path. It is often hard, my path, often dark, Siddhartha.”
Siddhartha said nothing and looked at him with the ever unchanged, quiet smile. Govinda stared at his face, with fear, with yearning, suffering, and the eternal search was visible in his look, eternal not-finding.
Siddhartha saw it and smiled.
“Bend down to me!” he whispered quietly in Govinda’s ear. “Bend down to me! Like this, even closer! Very close! Kiss my forehead, Govinda!”
But while Govinda with astonishment, and yet with great love and expectation, obeyed his words, bent down closely to him and touched his forehead with his lips, something miraculous happened to him. While his thoughts were still dwelling on Siddhartha’s wondrous words, while he was still struggling in vain and with reluctance to think away time, to imagine Nirvana and Samsara as one, while even a certain contempt for the words of his friend was fighting in him against an immense love and veneration, this happened to him: He no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhartha, instead he saw other faces, many, a long sequence, a flowing river of faces, of hundreds, of thousands, which all came and disappeared, and yet all seemed to be there simultaneously, which all constantly changed and renewed themselves, and which were still all Siddhartha.
He saw the face of a fish, a carp, with an infinitely and painfully opened mouth, the face of a dying fish, with fading eyes. He saw the face of a new-born child, red and full of wrinkles, distorted from crying. He saw the face of a murderer, he saw him plunging a knife into the body of another person. He saw, in the same second, this criminal in bondage, kneeling and his head being chopped off by the executioner with one blow of his sword. He saw the bodies of men and women, naked in positions of frenzied love. He saw corpses stretched out, motionless, cold, void. He saw the heads of animals, of boars, of crocodiles, of elephants, of bulls, of birds. He saw gods, saw Krishna, saw Agni, he saw all of these figures and faces in a thousand relationships with one another, each one helping the other, loving it, hating it, destroying it, giving re-birth to it, each one was a will to die, a passionately painful confession of transitoriness, and yet none of them died, each one only transformed, was always re-born, received evermore a new face, without any time having passed between the one and the other face. And all of these figures and faces rested, flowed, generated themselves, floated along and merged with each other, and they were all constantly covered by something thin, without individuality of its own, but yet existing, like a thin glass or ice, like a transparent skin, a shell or mold or mask of water, and this mask was smiling, and this mask was Siddhartha’s smiling face, which he, Govinda, in this very same moment touched with his lips. And, Govinda saw it like this, this smile of the mask, this smile of oneness above the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness above the thousand births and deaths, this smile of Siddhartha was precisely the same, was precisely of the same kind as the quiet, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps benevolent, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha, as he had seen it himself with great respect a hundred times. Like this, Govinda knew, the perfected ones are smiling.
Not knowing any more whether time existed, whether the vision had lasted a second or a hundred years, not knowing any more whether there existed a Siddhartha, a Gotama, a me and a you, feeling in his innermost self as if he had been wounded by a divine arrow, the injury of which tasted sweet, being enchanted and dissolved in his innermost self, Govinda still stood for a little while bent over Siddhartha’s quiet face, which he had just kissed, which had just been the scene of all manifestations, all transformations, all existence. The face was unchanged, after under its surface the depth of the thousandfoldness had closed up again, he smiled silently, smiled quietly and softly, perhaps very benevolently, perhaps very mockingly, precisely as he used to smile, the exalted one.
Deeply, Govinda bowed; tears he knew nothing of, ran down his old face, like a fire burnt the feeling of the most intimate love, the humblest veneration in his heart. Deeply, he bowed, touching the ground, before him who was sitting motionlessly, whose smile reminded him of everything he had ever loved in his life, what had ever been valuable and holy to him in his life.