In the evening of this day they caught up with the ascetics, the skinny
Samanas, and offered them their companionship and--obedience. They
Siddhartha gave his garments to a poor Brahman in the street. He wore
nothing more than the loincloth and the earth-coloured, 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 heard, 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 was dripping 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 breathes, 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
Instructed by the oldest if the Samanas, Siddhartha practised
self-denial, practised 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
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, 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 for 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, oh Siddhartha."
Quoth 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 of that part of a town where the whorehouses
are, my friend, among carters and gamblers I could have learned it."
Quoth Govinda: "Siddhartha is putting me on. How could you have
learned meditation, holding your breath, insensitivity against hunger
and pain there among these 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, oh Govinda."
Quoth 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, finds everything to be unchanged, has
not become wiser, has gathered no enlightenment,--has not risen several
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, oh 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?"
Quoth 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?"
Quoth 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 in a voice which contained just as much sadness as
mockery, 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, oh 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 devote Samanas, year after
year. Perhaps, oh 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 am not finished learning this
yet, oh 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 worser enemy than the
desire to know it, than learning."
At this, Govinda stopped on the path, rose 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 of this what 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
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 which seemed to us to be 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 rumour, a
myth reached them after being retold 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
This myth, this rumour, this legend resounded, its fragrants 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 been
spreading around 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, and 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 this myth
ran through the land, that fragrant myth of Gotama, the Buddha, the
wise man of the family of Sakya. 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 would 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 rumour of Buddha was heard, everywhere in the lands of India,
the young men listened up, felt a longing, felt hope, and 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.
"Oh 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?"
Quoth Siddhartha: "Always, oh 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 practising those feats and
exercises, which are becoming a 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."
Quoth 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 in his very own manner, in which 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 dear, 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."
Quoth 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?"
Quoth Siddhartha: "Let us eat this fruit and wait for the rest, oh
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 also other and better things to give us, oh friend, let us await
with calm hearts."
On this very same day, Siddhartha informed the oldest one of the Samanas
of his decision, that he wanted to leave him. 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 glances, 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
On the way, Govinda said: "Oh 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!"