In the book “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse – the protagonist, who is a Samana (a homeless hermit), is enchanted by the beauty of a woman named Kamala. On their first discourse, Kamala asks him what is he capable of doing that he can trade for money, pretty clothes, shoes, sweet perfumes and gifts for her. To which Siddhartha replies,
“I can think. I can wait. I can fast.”
I think that is a very profound answer and it will do ignorant fools like us much good if we make an attempt to comprehend it.
“I can think”
What does Hesse mean by “think”? Here’s my two cents: “think” is a metaphor for everything we can affect. The universe may be unforgiving and wild but our minds do have a certain say in certain matters. It is our responsibility to seek education, contribute to the productivity of the community, demand reward in return of our efforts, tie in matrimony with suitable partners, rear children et cetera(The pedantics may take to the comment section to tell me how wrong I am. We can sort it out there). All these worldly responsibilities cannot be fulfilled if we are selfish. Running away from them, seeking happiness in isolation and frugality is a valid (and selfish) way of life but in my opinion, not a optimal one. Just because the world is dying of global warming and degradation doesn’t mean we use fancy terms to run away from our duties. If we turn something bad, it is our duty to mend it, not run away from it (Footnote 1).
Herein lies a caveat though, engaging in worldly activities invariably implies invitation to negative emotions like desire, greed, jealousy and so on. By clear and rational thinking, we can be sure to not pursue a path of unfairness and uphold our modesty, chivalry and conviction while being gentle, kind and honest to our immediate brethren. Thus, it is prudent and crucial that such capability of thought be actively cultivated in minds, young and experienced alike.
“I can wait”
Hmm, here we enter the territory of the spiritual. I hold that there is indeed a way of life that is meaningful, fulfilling and full of happiness (Footnote 2). It involves plucking many ideas from many different trees in the garden of the collective human thought and preparing a recipe (Your author here is still in pursuit of that recipe, however). One of these ideas is waiting. A metaphor, of course.
Waiting for what? Nothing. And everything. Lao tzu talks about it beautifully in “Tao Te Ching”. Frankly, the idea bears quite resemblance to Lao’s scheme. It is the realization that you are nothing but a fool in the grand scheme of things (Reading astronomy at a young age helps in this realization, I have found) and subsequent acceptance that you, as a spectator, can only watch as things unfold before you. The world composed of other ignorants like you can exercise such a effect on you yet individually, we end up being at their mercy. Don’t believe me? Then, why do people get late for office meetings? If they really are so powerful, why not stop all the traffic in the first place? Or why is it that most people fail miserably in relationships that they try to actively seek out? (Naive examples but I cannot think of better ones at the moment).
Most importantly, desperation is never an answer. And neither is shouting or rage or profanity or the myriad of others, all of them offsprings of desperation.
“I can fast”
“Fasting” is a metaphor for restrain and abstinence. It is indeed a simple idea. What will make you restless if you have nothing to be restless about? Isn’t that powerful?
There is a bit of a contradiction here, perhaps my pedantic readers will notice. Engaging in society means desiring materialistic wealth and chasing romantic oppurtunities. How can one fast then? That is the beauty of it. Tzu uses the phrase, “To stand at the center”. Yes, to experience everything, good, evil, pure, noble, unchaste, corrupt, sinful and yet, not be moved by anything at all.
Most fundamental ideas are beautiful. And beautiful ideas are utterly simple. Is this the ultimate guide to life? Far from it. Learning is not the recitation of words written down or the memorization of facts but the courage to question them and find even simple answers. May this serve as an inspiration to those who listen and set them on their own journey of finding their answers.
To perpetual learning.
Footnote 1: The pace at which modern society has evolved is blistening. Since the Information Age, we have developed far faster than we are capable of comprehending. This blinding growth (both numerical and technological) is at its worse, a recipe for disaster. Ignorance is evil, it always has been. But today, how to make sense of the information explosion? So most people don’t. What hurts most is not the absence of knowledge but partial knowledge. That is indeed the case today. Access to information should be coupled with education in order to yield it effectively. Impulsive youth can easily be swayed by baseless arguments and stage upheaval. Prudent assessment of all facts is key to survival and flourishment of us. Today, it makes us both vulnerable and powerful than ever before.
Footnote 2: And today, more than ever in our history, it is possible to achieve that.