The person that said winning isn’t everything, never won anything. – Mia Hamm
I picked up Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha recently and have been browsing through it. At first I thought it was about the Buddha but it turns out that Hesse is writing a story that tends to follow a particular narrative. Hesse was popular in the counterculture sixties and writes about how his heroes turn away from what is normal and seek to forge their own path.
A few points stand out and are indicative of underlying assumptions that are worth considering.
The stories I grew up with talk about the concept of Maya – that the world is an illusion that we have to see through. It’s an obvious thought – after all everything we see and hear is actually reconstructed by our brains in their windowless caves. We believe there is a world out there but how do you know your reality isn’t closer to the one in the Matrix films?
The idea that everything is an illusion, however, is like running into a brick wall for those who believe the world is real. It’s all we have and it’s actually out there. There are trees and flowers and birds and colour and laughter and song. Robert Pirsig’s Phaedrus, in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance gives up his studies of Indian philosophy when the teacher is talking about Maya and claims that the atom bombs that were dropped during the war were also an illusion.
The problem with believing that nothing is real is that nothing actually matters. Hesse’s Siddhartha engages in business but treats it as a game not something that is important. Making money or losing money are the same to him – while his merchant boss loses sleep over lost time and missed opportunities.
The trouble with believing that nothing matters is that there is no point in doing anything. The trouble with believing that things matter is that you become a hoarder seeking to amass more of everything that you see as valuable. The former makes nothing better but it also makes nothing worse – you just exist. The latter can make better things – food, medicine, products of all kinds – but it also uses up everything on Earth.
What’s clear, what’s obvious, is that extremes don’t work. We have to walk a middle path, somewhere between recognising the world is real and our responsibility for looking after it and our desire to make things better for ourselves and the people we care about. This middle way, in the end, is what I remember as the Buddha’s message. A compromise, an accommodation – an acceptance of reality and a committment to making things better.