Just before I moved to China in late 2009, my dear friend Gina informed me that she had a parting gift for me. “It’s called Siddhartha,” she said, as she placed a tattered blue book onto her coffee table. “It’s a fictionalized account of the story of Buddhism. I think it’s really relevant to where you are right now.”
Sure, I’d attended a handful of meditations classes at the Shambhala Center in South Austin at that point. But actual Buddhism? I was tentative as I picked the book up off the table.
Gina continued, “It’s the story of a man who never stops searching. He lives many lives: He’s a rich man and a poor man; One moment he’s got a wife and child, the next he lives alone on a riverboat. And as he progresses through his life, which largely consists of travel, he inches toward truth.”
“Oh,” I said and started reading the back cover. “I like the sound of that.”
The Story of Siddhartha
Before I begin, allow me to be clear: If you even slightly believe that personal growth arises from travel, you need to read this book. And no excuses, please — the audiobook version of Siddhartha is available for free download, thanks to the fine folks at LibriVox.
The story begins somewhere in India around 2,500 years ago. By all accounts, Siddhartha has the perfect life. A member of the Hindu caste known to possess the highest spiritual knowledge, Siddhartha is intellectually and physically gifted, adored by his peers and elders alike and, most importantly, is obedient to his father. By all accounts but Siddhartha’s own, that is.
Siddhartha isn’t unhappy, per se. Rather, he knows there is more to life than anyone around him can perceive, let alone provide him, and sets off into the woods with his friend Govinda. Eventually, the two meet a Buddha named Gotama. You know, the original Buddha.
Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Govinda is keen to blend in among the legions of Gotama’s faithful. Although Siddhartha acknowledges the extent to which Gotama is enlightened, this does not satisfy the longing within him, and he sets back off into the woods.
Siddhartha comes upon many riches as he progresses through his life. He meets Kamala, a courtesan, and learn the art of making love from her. He later works for a wealthy merchant and becomes very wealthy himself, but becomes caught up in a life of gambling, drinking and sloth.
In each of his endeavors Siddhartha finds a certain amount of satisfaction, but finds that the contentment that seems so inherent in everyone he meets continues to evade him.
Eventually, he takes over the duties of the ferryman who would transport him and Govinda across the river when they were younger. He finally finds solace in nature, only to find out he’d fathered a son with Kamala, and tries his hand at parenting.
Siddhartha summons his son to the river to work for him for a time, but the boy is ultimately unable to appreciate the purity of his father’s love. Ironically, it is this great disappointment that ends up being the antidote to Siddhartha’s lack of compassion.
We Are All Siddhartha
Siddhartha spends a great deal of his life traveling, but in every case the travel itself is ultimately secondary to some higher purpose. At the same time, what Siddhartha is seeking is never something he can pin to a destination, a person or even an experience.
Like a backpacker trying to see whole world — but not necessarily collecting passport stamps — Siddhartha slowly begins to understand he isn’t in search of any singular entity, but of totality and wholeness. For Siddhartha, experiencing the world wholly is essential to him becoming whole as an individual and thus, an integrated part of the larger oneness.
What traveler can’t relate to that longing? Literally every time I get home from even the most incredible journey (I’m going through it right now in the wake of my Australia trip), an even greater longing than the one that took me on my previous trip awakens within me. It isn’t because I’m ungrateful or unsatisfied, per se.
Much of my yearning is in fact born of gratefulness. Being thankful that I better understand myself, by way of gaining a small understanding of the world, and feeling almost obligated to continue learning, growing and understanding.
Indeed, It’s not that having visited 36 countries (and the sometimes painful personal growth along the way) isn’t “enough”; It’s that the more of my own story I read, the more each page feels like the very beginning. I feel obligated to keep going — why would I want to surrender at the start of the race?
Reading Siddhartha While Roaming
Siddhartha itself is likewise a journey that always feels like it’s beginning, rather than ending. I can open the book to literally any page and feel like I’m reading it for the first time, no matter how many times I’ve read it. Even the most expository passages feel fresh and relevant the more I read them.
The book is an especially good read — or, if you prefer the Siddhartha audiobook I mentioned earlier, listen — when you’re actually in transit, be it in the air, on the land or even over water. Wandering and wondering go hand in hand for me and Siddhartha, perhaps more than any other book, allows me to place all the questions and answers I come upon with traveling in a context that is at once relative and absolute.
Siddhartha ultimately speaks less to fleeting experiences and encounters and more to the larger journey of travel and, indeed, life. Siddhartha himself comes to realize, ironically, that he already knew everything he spent his life searching for. As he states in his final monologue, my favorite passage from the book:
The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect or on a slow path toward perfection. No, it is perfect in every moment. All sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself.