Kate Brandt Reviews LITTLE SIDDHARTHA by William Irwin

Published by Shanti Arts publishing, 2018 

My favorite story about Rahula, the Buddha’s son, is the one in which the Buddha returns to his former home, only to be confronted by the son he abandoned.  Rahula asks his father for his inheritance.  The Buddha hands him his own begging bowl.  I’ve always loved this wordless reply.  The empty bowl is a perfect image of sunyata, the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” as poet Wallace Stevens put it.  

The story I’ve just recounted is not to be found in William Irwin’s Little Siddhartha, which brands itself a sequel to Hesse’s classic 1922 novel Siddhartha.  In Little Siddhartha, Rahula plays a different role entirely.  Rahula wishes to become a monk, and join the other monks who follow Gotama Buddha, but his father, Siddhartha, wishes him to become a merchant instead. 

The conflict between Rahula and his father mirrors the conflict between Siddhartha and his own father, also named Siddhartha (yes, it is extremely confusing).  Siddhartha the elder, having previously lived a life of some debauchery, has retired to a hut by the river, living a simple, spiritual life with the ferryman, Vasuda.  

Before settling into life with the ferryman, the elder Siddhartha had left the younger Siddhartha’s mother.  When she died, elder Siddhartha found his son and brought him to live with him in his hut.  But younger Siddhartha hated this life with his father and eventually left to pursue life as a merchant.  He became rich, important, and dead set against Gotama’s brand of Buddhism.  When Rahula (younger Siddhartha’s son) tells his father that he wants to join Gotama’s monks, his father cuts him with a knife.  

Sons rebel against fathers, leave, and after a lifetime of seeking, are reunited again.  This cycle is somewhat like the river that is the central metaphor of the book—constantly changing, and at the same time eternal.  The cycle of rebellion and reconciliation also serves to make the point that each person’s path to realization is unique—no one can really follow another’s path.  

A few favorite moments:

Time.  The understanding that time is not really separate from us has been one of the most freeing for me as I’ve studied Buddhism.  This is captured in a conversation between Govinda and Siddhartha (elder):

“I listened to the river.

“And what did it say?”

“At first nothing, or I should say, many things.  There were many voices.  My past, my present, my future.  All were voices speaking to me from the river.  After several years, though I finally understood the lesson that all those voices together were teaching me.”

“What was the lesson, Siddhartha?”

“That there is no such thing as time.” 

Thinking.  Practically every character in Little Siddhartha is a seeker.  The story shifts frequently from one character’s search to another.  One of my favorite moments occurs when Rahula has left the monks, Gotama’s followers, having found that they do not offer him everything that he seeks.  As he walks along, the workings of his mind mirror his physical wanderings: 

With these thoughts flooding his head, Rahula continued down the road…..Rahula saw now that joining the monks was a paradoxical solution to his problem and theirs: separation.  For a time, it worked.  Rahula was part of a group whose values he shared.  When his father refused to let him go the first time, Rahula attempted to become part of his father’s world as a merchant.  But it was if he were a man wearing a wig and pretending to be a woman.  The second time he asked his father’s permission to leave, Rahula received a scar not a blessing, but he was free.

The men in yellow robes offered unity by separation.  Rahula reflected that his debt to them was great.  He had learned many things among the monks, but the most important was how to feel part of a group. 

By now, anyone who has practiced Buddhism in any form has heard the term “monkey mind.”  “Monkey mind” gives thinking a bad rap.  This passage reminds us all of an important truth:  we would all like to be as calm, cool, and collected as the Buddha, but the fact is, there is a great deal of thinking and self-questioning involved in walking the “path.” 

Warm detachment.  In a story that revolves around the rifts between fathers and sons, it makes sense that the climax should come in various moments of forgiveness.  In Little Siddhartha, forgiveness takes on a distinctly Buddhist flavor: it is tied to the understanding of sunyata.  So, towards the end of the story, when Rahula comes seeking forgiveness from his father, and Siddhartha comes seeking forgiveness from his own father (the elder Siddhartha), Govinda says to Rahula: “To understand all is to forgive all.”  In other words, once we see that all things are interconnected, we let go of casting blame.

My one quibble with Little Siddhartha is the author’s decision to name both father and son Siddhartha.  Perhaps the point was to highlight the cyclical nature of the story, but I found it unnecessarily confusing.  That said, the writing was skillful enough that with a bit of effort, I was able to follow the story. 

Like its predecessor, Little Siddhartha is a parable.  I looked up the word parable online, and learned that it comes from the Greek and means “to cast alongside.”  The word seems to have come from the time of the New Testament.  The parables of Jesus, for instance, were meant to tell a simple story that was “cast alongside” a more complicated or elusive truth that was harder to convey.  With that meaning in mind, I will end by saying that Little Siddhartha, the sequel to Siddhartha, is proof that the parable is still relevant in the 21st century.  

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