Ch. 9: The Ferryman

By this river I want to stay, thought Siddhartha, it is the same which
I have crossed a long time ago on my way to the childlike people, a
friendly ferryman had guided me then, he is the one I want to go to,
starting out from his hut, my path had led me at that time into a new
life, which had now grown old and is dead--my present path, my present
new life, shall also take its start there!

Tenderly, he looked into the rushing water, into the transparent green,
into the crystal lines of its drawing, so rich in secrets. Bright
pearls he saw rising from the deep, quiet bubbles of air floating on
the reflecting surface, the blue of the sky being depicted in it. With
a thousand eyes, the river looked at him, with green ones, with white
ones, with crystal ones, with sky-blue ones. How did he love this
water, how did it delight him, how grateful was he to it! In his heart
he heard the voice talking, which was newly awaking, and it told him:
Love this water! Stay near it! Learn from it! Oh yes, he wanted to
learn from it, he wanted to listen to it. He who would understand this
water and its secrets, so it seemed to him, would also understand many
other things, many secrets, all secrets.

But out of all secrets of the river, he today only saw one, this one
touched his soul. He saw: this water ran and ran, incessantly it ran,
and was nevertheless always there, was always an at all times the same
and yet new in every moment! Great be he who would grasp this,
understand this! He understood and grasped it not, only felt some idea
of it stirring, a distant memory, divine voices.

Siddhartha rose, the workings of hunger in his body became unbearable.
In a daze he walked on, up the path by the bank, up river,
listened to the current, listened to the rumbling hunger in his body.

When he reached the ferry, the boat was just ready, and the same
ferryman who had once transported the young Samana across the river,
stood in the boat, Siddhartha recognised him, he had also aged very

"Would you like to ferry me over?" he asked.

The ferryman, being astonished to see such an elegant man walking along
and on foot, took him into his boat and pushed it off the bank.

"It's a beautiful life you have chosen for yourself," the passenger
spoke. "It must be beautiful to live by this water every day and to
cruise on it."

With a smile, the man at the oar moved from side to side: "It is
beautiful, sir, it is as you say. But isn't every life, isn't every
work beautiful?"

"This may be true. But I envy you for yours."

"Ah, you would soon stop enjoying it. This is nothing for people
wearing fine clothes."

Siddhartha laughed. "Once before, I have been looked upon today because
of my clothes, I have been looked upon with distrust. Wouldn't you,
ferryman, like to accept these clothes, which are a nuisance to me,
from me? For you must know, I have no money to pay your fare."

"You're joking, sir," the ferryman laughed.

"I'm not joking, friend. Behold, once before you have ferried me across
this water in your boat for the immaterial reward of a good deed. Thus,
do it today as well, and accept my clothes for it."

"And do you, sir, intent to continue travelling without clothes?"

"Ah, most of all I wouldn't want to continue travelling at all. Most of
all I would like you, ferryman, to give me an old loincloth and kept me
with you as your assistant, or rather as your trainee, for I'll have to
learn first how to handle the boat."

For a long time, the ferryman looked at the stranger, searching.

"Now I recognise you," he finally said. "At one time, you've slept in
my hut, this was a long time ago, possibly more than twenty years ago,
and you've been ferried across the river by me, and we parted like good
friends. Haven't you've been a Samana? I can't think of your name any

"My name is Siddhartha, and I was a Samana, when you've last seen me."

"So be welcome, Siddhartha. My name is Vasudeva." You will, so I hope,
be my guest today as well and sleep in my hut, and tell me, where you're
coming from and why these beautiful clothes are such a nuisance to you."

They had reached the middle of the river, and Vasudeva pushed the oar
with more strength, in order to overcome the current. He worked calmly,
his eyes fixed in on the front of the boat, with brawny arms.
Siddhartha sat and watched him, and remembered, how once before, on that
last day of his time as a Samana, love for this man had stirred in his
heart. Gratefully, he accepted Vasudeva's invitation. When they had
reached the bank, he helped him to tie the boat to the stakes; after
this, the ferryman asked him to enter the hut, offered him bread and
water, and Siddhartha ate with eager pleasure, and also ate with eager
pleasure of the mango fruits, Vasudeva offered him.

Afterwards, it was almost the time of the sunset, they sat on a log by
the bank, and Siddhartha told the ferryman about where he originally
came from and about his life, as he had seen it before his eyes today,
in that hour of despair. Until late at night, lasted his tale.

Vasudeva listened with great attention. Listening carefully, he let
everything enter his mind, birthplace and childhood, all that learning,
all that searching, all joy, all distress. This was among the
ferryman's virtues one of the greatest: like only a few, he knew how
to listen. Without him having spoken a word, the speaker sensed how
Vasudeva let his words enter his mind, quiet, open, waiting, how he
did not lose a single one, awaited not a single one with impatience,
did not add his praise or rebuke, was just listening. Siddhartha felt,
what a happy fortune it is, to confess to such a listener, to burry in
his heart his own life, his own search, his own suffering.

But in the end of Siddhartha's tale, when he spoke of the tree by the
river, and of his deep fall, of the holy Om, and how he had felt such
a love for the river after his slumber, the ferryman listened with twice
the attention, entirely and completely absorbed by it, with his eyes

But when Siddhartha fell silent, and a long silence had occurred, then
Vasudeva said: "It is as I thought. The river has spoken to you. It
is your friend as well, it speaks to you as well. That is good, that is
very good. Stay with me, Siddhartha, my friend. I used to have a wife,
her bed was next to mine, but she has died a long time ago, for a long
time, I have lived alone. Now, you shall live with me, there is space
and food for both."

"I thank you," said Siddhartha, "I thank you and accept. And I also
thank you for this, Vasudeva, for listening to me so well! These people
are rare who know how to listen. And I did not meet a single one who
knew it as well as you did. I will also learn in this respect from

"You will learn it," spoke Vasudeva, "but not from me. The river has
taught me to listen, from it you will learn it as well. It knows
everything, the river, everything can be learned from it. See, you've
already learned this from the water too, that it is good to strive
downwards, to sink, to seek depth. The rich and elegant Siddhartha is
becoming an oarsman's servant, the learned Brahman Siddhartha becomes a
ferryman: this has also been told to you by the river. You'll learn
that other thing from it as well."

Quoth Siddhartha after a long pause: "What other thing, Vasudeva?"

Vasudeva rose. "It is late," he said, "let's go to sleep. I can't
tell you that other thing, oh friend. You'll learn it, or perhaps you
know it already. See, I'm no learned man, I have no special skill in
speaking, I also have no special skill in thinking. All I'm able to do
is to listen and to be godly, I have learned nothing else. If I was
able to say and teach it, I might be a wise man, but like this I am only
a ferryman, and it is my task to ferry people across the river. I have
transported many, thousands; and to all of them, my river has been
nothing but an obstacle on their travels. They travelled to seek money
and business, and for weddings, and on pilgrimages, and the river was
obstructing their path, and the ferryman's job was to get them quickly
across that obstacle. But for some among thousands, a few, four or
five, the river has stopped being an obstacle, they have heard its
voice, they have listened to it, and the river has become sacred to
them, as it has become sacred to me. Let's rest now, Siddhartha."

Siddhartha stayed with the ferryman and learned to operate the boat, and
when there was nothing to do at the ferry, he worked with Vasudeva in
the rice-field, gathered wood, plucked the fruit off the banana-trees.
He learned to build an oar, and learned to mend the boat, and to weave
baskets, and was joyful because of everything he learned, and the days
and months passed quickly. But more than Vasudeva could teach him, he
was taught by the river. Incessantly, he learned from it. Most of all,
he learned from it to listen, to pay close attention with a quiet heart,
with a waiting, opened soul, without passion, without a wish, without
judgement, without an opinion.

In a friendly manner, he lived side by side with Vasudeva, and
occasionally they exchanged some words, few and at length thought about
words. Vasudeva was no friend of words; rarely, Siddhartha succeeded
in persuading him to speak.

"Did you," so he asked him at one time, "did you too learn that secret
from the river: that there is no time?"

Vasudeva's face was filled with a bright smile.

"Yes, Siddhartha," he spoke. "It is this what you mean, isn't it: that
the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the
waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains,
everywhere at once, and that there is only the present time for it, not
the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future?"

"This it is," said Siddhartha. "And when I had learned it, I looked at
my life, and it was also a river, and the boy Siddhartha was only
separated from the man Siddhartha and from the old man Siddhartha by a
shadow, not by something real. Also, Siddhartha's previous births were
no past, and his death and his return to Brahma was no future. Nothing
was, nothing will be; everything is, everything has existence and is

Siddhartha spoke with ecstasy; deeply, this enlightenment had delighted
him. Oh, was not all suffering time, were not all forms of tormenting
oneself and being afraid time, was not everything hard, everything
hostile in the world gone and overcome as soon as one had overcome time,
as soon as time would have been put out of existence by one's thoughts?
In ecstatic delight, he had spoken, but Vasudeva smiled at him brightly
and nodded in confirmation., silently he nodded, brushed his hand over
Siddhartha's shoulder, turned back to his work.

And once again, when the river had just increased its flow in the rainy
season and made a powerful noise, then said Siddhartha: "Isn't it so,
oh friend, the river has many voices, very many voices? Hasn't it the
voice of a king, and of a warrior, and of a bull, and of a bird of the
night, and of a woman giving birth, and of a sighing man, and a thousand
other voices more?"

"So it is," Vasudeva nodded, "all voices of the creatures are in its

"And do you know," Siddhartha continued, "what word it speaks, when you
succeed in hearing all of its ten thousand voices at once?"

Happily, Vasudeva's face was smiling, he bent over to Siddhartha and
spoke the holy Om into his ear. And this had been the very thing which
Siddhartha had also been hearing.

And time after time, his smile became more similar to the ferryman's,
became almost just as bright, almost just as throughly glowing with
bliss, just as shining out of thousand small wrinkles, just as alike to
a child's, just as alike to an old man's. Many travellers, seeing the
two ferrymen, thought they were brothers. Often, they sat in the
evening together by the bank on the log, said nothing and both listened
to the water, which was no water to them, but the voice of life, the
voice of what exists, of what is eternally taking shape. And it
happened from time to time that both, when listening to the river,
thought of the same things, of a conversation from the day before
yesterday, of one of their travellers, the face and fate of whom had
occupied their thoughts, of death, of their childhood, and that they
both in the same moment, when the river had been saying something good
to them, looked at each other, both thinking precisely the same thing,
both delighted about the same answer to the same question.

There was something about this ferry and the two ferrymen which was
transmitted to others, which many of the travellers felt. It happened
occasionally that a traveller, after having looked at the face of one of
the ferrymen, started to tell the story of his life, told about pains,
confessed evil things, asked for comfort and advice. It happened
occasionally that someone asked for permission to stay for a night with
them to listen to the river. It also happened that curious people came,
who had been told that there were two wise men, or sorcerers, or holy
men living by that ferry. The curious people asked many questions, but
they got no answers, and they found neither sorcerers nor wise men, they
only found two friendly little old men, who seemed to be mute and to
have become a bit strange and gaga. And the curious people laughed and
were discussing how foolishly and gullibly the common people were
spreading such empty rumours.

The years passed by, and nobody counted them. Then, at one time, monks
came by on a pilgrimage, followers of Gotama, the Buddha, who were
asking to be ferried across the river, and by them the ferrymen were
told that they were were most hurriedly walking back to their great
teacher, for the news had spread the exalted one was deadly sick and
would soon die his last human death, in order to become one with the
salvation. It was not long, until a new flock of monks came along on
their pilgrimage, and another one, and the monks as well as most of the
other travellers and people walking through the land spoke of nothing
else than of Gotama and his impending death. And as people are flocking
from everywhere and from all sides, when they are going to war or to the
coronation of a king, and are gathering like ants in droves, thus they
flocked, like being drawn on by a magic spell, to where the great Buddha
was awaiting his death, where the huge event was to take place and the
great perfected one of an era was to become one with the glory.

Often, Siddhartha thought in those days of the dying wise man, the
great teacher, whose voice had admonished nations and had awoken
hundreds of thousands, whose voice he had also once heard, whose holy
face he had also once seen with respect. Kindly, he thought of him, saw
his path to perfection before his eyes, and remembered with a smile
those words which he had once, as a young man, said to him, the exalted
one. They had been, so it seemed to him, proud and precocious words;
with a smile, he remembered them. For a long time he knew that there
was nothing standing between Gotama and him any more, though he was
still unable to accept his teachings. No, there was no teaching a
truly searching person, someone who truly wanted to find, could accept.
But he who had found, he could approve of any teachings, every path,
every goal, there was nothing standing between him and all the other
thousand any more who lived in that what is eternal, who breathed what
is divine.

On one of these days, when so many went on a pilgrimage to the dying
Buddha, Kamala also went to him, who used to be the most beautiful of
the courtesans. A long time ago, she had retired from her previous
life, had given her garden to the monks of Gotama as a gift, had taken
her refuge in the teachings, was among the friends and benefactors of
the pilgrims. Together with Siddhartha the boy, her son, she had gone
on her way due to the news of the near death of Gotama, in simple
clothes, on foot. With her little son, she was travelling by the river;
but the boy had soon grown tired, desired to go back home, desired to
rest, desired to eat, became disobedient and started whining.

Kamala often hat to take a rest with him, he was accustomed to having
his way against her, she had to feed him, had to comfort him, had to
scold him. He did not comprehend why he had to to go on this exhausting
and sad pilgrimage with his mother, to an unknown place, to a stranger,
who was holy and about to die. So what if he died, how did this concern
the boy?

The pilgrims were getting close to Vasudeva's ferry, when little
Siddhartha once again forced his mother to rest. She, Kamala herself,
had also become tired, and while the boy was chewing a banana, she
crouched down on the ground, closed her eyes a bit, and rested. But
suddenly, she uttered a wailing scream, the boy looked at her in fear
and saw her face having grown pale from horror; and from under her
dress, a small, black snake fled, by which Kamala had been bitten.

Hurriedly, they now both ran along the path, in order to reach people,
and got near to the ferry, there Kamala collapsed, and was not able to
go any further. But the boy started crying miserably, only interrupting
it to kiss and hug his mother, and she also joined his loud screams for
help, until the sound reached Vasudeva's ears, who stood at the ferry.
Quickly, he came walking, took the woman on his arms, carried her into
the boat, the boy ran along, and soon they all reached the hut, were
Siddhartha stood by the stove and was just lighting the fire. He looked
up and first saw the boy's face, which wondrously reminded him of
something, like a warning to remember something he had forgotten. Then
he saw Kamala, whom he instantly recognised, though she lay unconscious
in the ferryman's arms, and now he knew that it was his own son, whose
face had been such a warning reminder to him, and the heart stirred in
his chest.

Kamala's wound was washed, but had already turned black and her body was
swollen, she was made to drink a healing potion. Her consciousness
returned, she lay on Siddhartha's bed in the hut and bent over her stood
Siddhartha, who used to love her so much. It seemed like a dream to
her; with a smile, she looked at her friend's face; just slowly she,
realized her situation, remembered the bite, called timidly for the boy.

"He's with you, don't worry," said Siddhartha.

Kamala looked into his eyes. She spoke with a heavy tongue, paralysed
by the poison. "You've become old, my dear," she said, "you've become
gray. But you are like the young Samana, who at one time came without
clothes, with dusty feet, to me into the garden. You are much more like
him, than you were like him at that time when you had left me and
Kamaswami. In the eyes, you're like him, Siddhartha. Alas, I have also
grown old, old--could you still recognise me?"

Siddhartha smiled: "Instantly, I recognised you, Kamala, my dear."

Kamala pointed to her boy and said: "Did you recognise him as well?
He is your son."

Her eyes became confused and fell shut. The boy wept, Siddhartha took
him on his knees, let him weep, petted his hair, and at the sight of
the child's face, a Brahman prayer came to his mind, which he had
learned a long time ago, when he had been a little boy himself. Slowly,
with a singing voice, he started to speak; from his past and childhood,
the words came flowing to him. And with that singsong, the boy became
calm, was only now and then uttering a sob and fell asleep. Siddhartha
placed him on Vasudeva's bed. Vasudeva stood by the stove and cooked
rice. Siddhartha gave him a look, which he returned with a smile.

"She'll die," Siddhartha said quietly.

Vasudeva nodded; over his friendly face ran the light of the stove's

Once again, Kamala returned to consciousness. Pain distorted her face,
Siddhartha's eyes read the suffering on her mouth, on her pale cheeks.
Quietly, he read it, attentively, waiting, his mind becoming one with
her suffering. Kamala felt it, her gaze sought his eyes.

Looking at him, she said: "Now I see that your eyes have changed as
well. They've become completely different. By what do I still
recognise that you're Siddhartha? It's you, and it's not you."

Siddhartha said nothing, quietly his eyes looked at hers.

"You have achieved it?" she asked. "You have found peace?"

He smiled and placed his hand on hers.

"I'm seeing it," she said, "I'm seeing it. I too will find peace."

"You have found it," Siddhartha spoke in a whisper.

Kamala never stopped looking into his eyes. She thought about her
pilgrimage to Gotama, which wanted to take, in order to see the face of
the perfected one, to breathe his peace, and she thought that she had
now found him in his place, and that it was good, just as good, as if
she had seen the other one. She wanted to tell this to him, but the
tongue no longer obeyed her will. Without speaking, she looked at him,
and he saw the life fading from her eyes. When the final pain filled
her eyes and made them grow dim, when the final shiver ran through her
limbs, his finger closed her eyelids.

For a long time, he sat and looked at her peacefully dead face. For a
long time, he observed her mouth, her old, tired mouth, with those lips,
which had become thin, and he remembered, that he used to, in the spring
of his years, compare this mouth with a freshly cracked fig. For a long
time, he sat, read in the pale face, in the tired wrinkles, filled
himself with this sight, saw his own face lying in the same manner,
just as white, just as quenched out, and saw at the same time his face
and hers being young, with red lips, with fiery eyes, and the feeling of
this both being present and at the same time real, the feeling of
eternity, completely filled every aspect of his being. Deeply he felt,
more deeply than ever before, in this hour, the indestructibility of
every life, the eternity of every moment.

When he rose, Vasudeva had prepared rice for him. But Siddhartha did
not eat. In the stable, where their goat stood, the two old men
prepared beds of straw for themselves, and Vasudeva lay himself down
to sleep. But Siddhartha went outside and sat this night before the
hut, listening to the river, surrounded by the past, touched and
encircled by all times of his life at the same time. But occasionally,
he rose, stepped to the door of the hut and listened, whether the boy
was sleeping.

Early in the morning, even before the sun could be seen, Vasudeva came
out of the stable and walked over to his friend.

"You haven't slept," he said.

"No, Vasudeva. I sat here, I was listening to the river. A lot it has
told me, deeply it has filled me with the healing thought, with the
thought of oneness."

"You've experienced suffering, Siddhartha, but I see: no sadness has
entered your heart."

"No, my dear, how should I be sad? I, who have been rich and happy,
have become even richer and happier now. My son has been given to me."

"Your son shall be welcome to me as well. But now, Siddhartha, let's
get to work, there is much to be done. Kamala has died on the same bed,
on which my wife had died a long time ago. Let us also build Kamala's
funeral pile on the same hill on which I had then built my wife's
funeral pile."

While the boy was still asleep, they built the funeral pile.

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