The book of Ecclesiastes records Solomon’s search for meaning. That path leads Solomon down many wrong paths and at the end of each path he finds meaninglessness. His path leads him to seek wisdom, pleasure, and accomplishment, and finally leads him back to simple and faithful obedience to God: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” Ecclesiastes 12:13
Siddhartha, my most recent companion on my commute, reminded me a lot of Ecclesiastes. It’s the story of Siddhartha’s search for meaning. Unlike Ecclesiastes, it is told from a Buddhist perspective and has a Buddhist conclusion.
Ritual, asceticism, learning, and pleasure
Siddhartha starts as a religious devotee. He had mastered all the religious rites and prayers and was on his way to becoming a successful Brahman. He was admired by his parents, his peers, and his friend Govinda. But Siddhartha was not satisfied with sacrifice to the gods. He wants to discover the divine oneness that lies within himself.
As he is praying one day and speaking the “ohm” he sees some traveling ascetics, Buddhist monks called Sramanas. He convinces his father to let him become an ascetic and he and Govinda follow that path. As a Sramana he tries to completely empty himself of himself, to lose himself, through fasting, meditation, and deprivation. His goal is enlightenment. However, he learns that he can always only lose himself for a time, after which he is always, once again, himself. This, he decides, is no better than a person who loses himself in strong drink or momentary pleasures.
He begins to make up his mind to leave the Sramanas and finds his opportunity when the Buddha Gautama arrives. He and Govinda go to hear the Buddha. Both admit that the Buddha’s teaching is very wise and clear and Govinda decides to become his disciple. But Siddhartha believes now that teaching does not provide the path to enlightenment. He believes that the Buddha really has become perfected, but that it only came through a private experience, not by learning. Siddhartha, disillusioned once again, decides to pursue his path elsewhere.
Through a private insight, he now plunges himself into the realm of personal experience. He meets a beautiful woman and learns love from her. He becomes a merchant. He even takes up gambling. For a while he experiences this with a sort of personal disconnectedness. It’s a game for him. It’s a set of goals which he is able to accomplish, but all the while he has a sort of mocking attitude towards it.
But the more he plunges himself into pleasure the more it begins to take hold of it. It begins to empty out his soul. He becomes obsessed by his possessions. He gambles heavily and wildly. And, finally, he reaches his breaking point. Metaphorically he ate until he was stuffed, then sick, and now it was time for him to vomit it all out.
He left all his possessions behind, along with his lover, and began once again to travel. He came upon a river and was about to commit suicide by plunging himself into its depths. But as he was about to do it he spoke the word “ohm” and was saved. He fell asleep and awoke refreshed.
He then became the companion of a humble ferryman and from the ferryman he learned to listen to the river’s wisdom. In this he found a life of contentment, at least for a time.
Eventually, the Buddha Gautama became ill and many of his followers flocked to see him before he died. One of those followers was Siddhartha’s past lover, now with Siddhartha’s son, who he did not know he had. They came across Siddhartha, but she died shortly after their meeting. Siddhartha loved his son and attempted to raise him, but his son did not love him, and eventually completely spurned his father and ran away.
And here Siddhartha bore his final pain, his final wound. For a long time, he could not get over the loss of his son. But in time, Siddhartha learned a final lesson from the river. He heard in the river all the voices of life together – cries of joy and pain and battle. He learned from the river that it is always moving and always progressing and yet it is at once always at its source and always at its destination.
From this he concluded that time was an allusion and that all was ultimately one. He was at once Siddhartha the religious, Siddhartha the ascetic, Siddhartha the indulgent, Siddhartha the suffering, and Siddhartha the perfected one. That he was on a journey to perfection was only an allusion since in the oneness of time and being he had already attained his goal. He also saw, then, that his son needed to go on his own journey, with all its different twists and turns, and that all those twists and turns were both necessary and caught up in the divine oneness of being. Here Siddhartha found peace.
The Search and the Destination
How does Siddhartha’s searching, and conclusion, line up with Solomon’s and the rest of the Bible’s vision?
The source of enlightenment: For Siddhartha, “One must find the source within one’s own Self, one must possess it. Everything else was seeking — a detour, an error.” Contrast this with Scripture, where we see that knowledge and fulfillment come from outside the Self, from God. God grants us knowledge of Himself within us – to all men through a sense that He exists – and in believers through the Holy Spirit. But both of these inner senses exist ultimately to point us away from ourselves to a fundamental reality apart from our selves.
The role of teaching and learning: For Siddhartha, “Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” Solomon would acknowledge the limits of learning: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:11). Knowledge can lead us to wisdom, it doesn’t necessarily make us wise.
But, Siddhartha’s critique is harsher than Solomon’s. His problem with teaching is that the teacher must make distinctions, must distinguish between real and illusion, between Nirvana and suffering, between good and evil. Siddhartha believes the world cannot be divided as such, since all things are fundamentally intertwined and interconnected. Teaching necessarily obscures the truth. The Biblical worldview disagrees. It’s sees knowledge, learned through teaching, as a necessary step towards the truth. Teaching has its limits. It cannot transform the heart. But it enlightens reality, it does not obscure it.
On time and distinction: Siddhartha finally rejects time, and with it, distinction. A stone is at once a stone and soil and a person and a god. It is not potentially those things, it is not that such a transformation will happen, but that it is simultaneously those things. Siddhartha acknowledges that such a teaching sounds ridiculous, but as noted above, this is a case where teaching obscures, not clarifies, reality.
Again, Solomon would disagree. While “there is a time for all things” under the sun, those things are distinct. There is “a time to be born and a time to die” but those are fundamentally different realities, taking place in the reality of time.
On the goal of life: What is the goal of life? For Siddhartha it is simply to ascent to what is and to the fundamental oneness of reality, it is to agree with the ever flowing river of life in all its manifestations. This means agreement with the good and the evil, the joy and the suffering, the wisdom and the foolishness. And, in that agreement, to find peace. Siddhartha’s journey is complete when he finds individual perfection, understood as an inner state of tranquility.
Solomon’s story seems to end with simple resignation, “This is the duty of man.” But the breadth of Scripture leads us beyond this. The goal of life extends beyond the inner self. For Christians, it’s also about our relation to other people and, most importantly, to God.
Consider, for instance, the ethical implications of Siddhartha’s elimination of distinctions. What happens if we begin to view good and evil, justice and injustice, joy and suffering, as all necessary and natural to the divine “ohm” of reality, distinct only in their particular manifestations?
Perhaps from a personal perspective we will then be able to make peace with all of them and find inner tranquility, but we won’t be able to fight for one side of the reality over and against the other. From an ethical perspective, if we want to fight for what is good, we first need to be able to make a distinction between good and evil. Such distinctions are essential to the Christian worldview and fit naturally with the idea that our chief end is beyond the self.
Many in our time, even if they are not Buddhists, take the same path as Siddhartha. Even secular materialists also must ultimately do away with the distinctions between good and evil, justice and injustice. The world simply exists and cannot be judged by any outside standard. All is one, all is transformation, all is cycle. The Christian worldview is fundamentally different, and, therefore, so is our ultimate goal.
Programming note: I am going to start adding book recommendations at the end of each post. The first reason for this is purely self-seeking. My blog has reached the point where it gets about 500-1000 views per month, mostly from search results, and I’ve decided to become an Amazon Affiliate to try to turn those views into a bit of extra money (nothing so far). The second reason is that I think reading good books is really important. Each of these books is a book that I’ve either read, or has been recommended to me by a friend. Each will also relate to the post. If you want to buy the book and you do it from the below link, hey, I get a little cut. But that’s of secondary importance.