Sound in Siddhartha Compared to Absence in “What the Buddha Taught” It seems that important motifs in several works of literature consist of something very tangible. The repeated symbol has to be very potent, something one can see or touch—or even a very strong, particular smell. The idea or thing that is so important is made obvious in an especially physical way. This is what makes pieces of literature about how to obtain the good life from an Eastern perspective so fascinating. Repeated ideas in these tales are far more subtle. Though Siddhartha and the Buddha reach Enlightenment through different journeys (since wisdom must be discovered within), Siddhartha and “What the Buddha Taught” are more easily compared than contrasted because they possess less obvious ideas and motifs. “What the Buddha Taught” may considered as transcending tangibility and physicality in its ideas due to its overarching focus on absence. Buddha’s teachings enforce that allowing oneself to experience extremes throughout life is to allow suffering and the avoidance of Nirvana. Both hedonism (or “the indulgence in the sense pleasures”) and self mortification are considered “painful and unprofitable”, though in different ways. Thus, the Buddha teaches the middle path, the Cessation of Suffering. The importance of absence from worldly attachments, from extremes, from tangibility is underlined by its reward: Nirvana, a sweet, peaceful emptiness. This text, over and over, associates the absence, the cessation, the lack, and the emptiness with desirability. Meanwhile, attachment, ordinariness, greed and hedonism are to be avoided. This is all to achieve, again, a lack of existence, to refrain from “re-becoming” in the cycle of reincarnation. In the journey of Siddhartha, another subtle idea repeats itself frequently: the importance of sound. Though more tangible than the teaching of abstaining from sense pleasure, sound is overlooked since its significance is more difficult to suggest over silent text. Different sounds help to categorize the separate phases of his life. We first see this in play during Siddhartha’s expedition and education with the samanas. In the context of sound, he primarily learns silence through his physical exercises. In an effort to acquire how to eliminate desire, Siddhartha does everything with an absence of sound: “Siddhartha stood silent in the vertical blaze of the sun…He stood silent in the rainy season…Silently he crouched…” However, the use of silence does not help him eliminate his desire for knowledge, and, dissatisfied, he moves on. His encounter with the Buddha also highly emphasizes silence, as the Illuminated One walks silently, possesses a “silent face…a calm, silent, hidden smile…silently lowered gaze…” and more. Referring back to “What the Buddha Taught”, here we may perceive that in the context of his teachings, the absence of sound is associated with his unbreakable inner peace. Once again Siddhartha finds that someone else’s teachings could not bring him to Enlightenment, so he moves in the complete direction: toward hedonism. His attempt at the lifestyle of common people may again be represented by sound. Upon entering a village a residing here, the emphasis on silence is lost and instead there is noise, including “loud laughter”, yelling (usually from Kamaswami), and “scolding and insulting”. This change in sound represents the extreme change from one phase of his life to the next: he gives up his life of refrain to experience worldly matters. He trades silence for noise. Living in such a shallow eventually rots his soul and, with desperation, he moves on to the next phase of his life: living as a simple ferryman with Vasudeva. This final phase of his life also possesses sound, but not the convoluted noises of the city; rather, he learns to listen to the pure wisdom of the river. His Enlightenment is facilitated by learning to listen fully and completely to the all voices of the river, which all fuse to form the final, most important sound of Siddhartha’s tale: the om. These texts are similar in that finding the good life involves abstaining from the extremes of worldly matters. However, while Buddha’s teachings suggest that finding Enlightenment can be done through absence and living a particular way, Siddhartha finds Enlightenment by listening to this grand, wise river. Perhaps this demonstrates that we may all achieve Enlightenment through different methods.
Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. New York. Penguin Classics. Print. 1920. Wahula, Rapola. “What the Buddha Taught: Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth.” New York.
Grove Press. Print. 1974.