Siddhartha: Suffering, Desire, Enlightenment
In Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, a classic novel about enlightenment, the main character, Siddhartha, goes on a lifelong journey of self-discovery. Along the way, Siddhartha encounters many who try to teach him enlightenment, undoubtedly the most important being the illustrious Buddha himself. Although Siddhartha rejects the Buddha's teachings, saying that wisdom cannot be taught, we can see, nevertheless, that along his journey for understanding Siddhartha encounters the Four Noble Truths that are a central theme in Buddhism: suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the middle path.
The First Noble Truth is The Truth of Suffering. If people examine their own experiences, or look at the world around them, they will see that life is full of suffering. In the novel, Siddhartha experiences the two forms of suffering - physical and mental. Physical suffering can come in many forms - disease, ageing, injury. Siddhartha experiences physical suffering as a young man when he joins the ascetics or Samanas. As a Samana, Siddhartha learns to fast, to tolerate extreme heat and cold, and to endure pain through meditation. Siddhartha's life as a samana is bitter, and he learns that "life [is] pain" (p.11).
Siddhartha experiences mental pain in the second half of his life when he begins a contrasting existence of pleasure, and then again when he meets his only son.
After leaving the Samanas, Siddhartha begins a life of decadence in the house of a wealthy merchant and in the company of a beautiful courtesan. Though at first Siddhartha remains apart from their daily troubles, as the years go by Siddhartha himself begins to value money, fine wine, and material possessions. Because of this "a thin mist, a weariness [settles] on Siddhartha," (p. 63) and he is engulfed in mental pain. Later, after ridding himself of the pain of the life of a wealthy merchant by becoming a simple ferryman, Siddhartha again experiences mental anguish when he meets his son. Siddhartha immediately falls in love with his arrogant 11-year-old son, whom he has never seen before. But the son despises his father and his simple life, and after a short time runs away. Siddhartha becomes restless and worried, again experiencing great mental anguish.
As he goes along his journey, Siddhartha realizes The Second Noble Truth - that the direct cause of suffering is desire. Because of his desire to be empty and to rid himself of the Self, Siddhartha experiences physical pain as a Samana. Because of his desire to amass a fortune, to win the favor of the lovely courtesan Kamala, to have the love and respect of his son, Siddhartha feels mental anguish.
After he becomes conscious of this, Siddhartha realizes The Third Noble Truth - that to end suffering completely, one must remove desire. After Siddhartha rids himself of the desire to escape from his Self, he no longer endures the physical pain of the ascetic. After freeing himself of the desire for wealth and sexual pleasure, Siddhartha no longer has to deal with the mental pain that these desires bring. After Siddhartha finally lets go of his son, the wound in his heart heals.
Just like the Buddha, Siddhartha experiences both the indulgent and pleasure-filled life of a rich man and the hardships of the life of a Samana. In the end he realizes The Fourth Noble Truth - that the way to happiness and enlightenment is to lead a life that avoids extremes. Siddhartha realizes the Middle Path.
Just as The Four Nobles Truths build upon each other in to teach enlightenment, Siddhartha's experiences with them build upon each other until he, too, experiences enlightenment. At the end of the story, Siddhartha, armed with his awareness of The Four Noble Truths, reaches his final goal of Nirvana.
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