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[649] Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse

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” When the exalted Gautama, teaching, spoke of the world, he had to divide it into samsara and nirvana, into illusion and truth, into suffering and release. One can do nothing else, there is no other way for the one who wants to teach. But the world itself, that which exists around us and inside us, is never unilateral. Never is a man or a deed wholly samsara or wholly nirvana, never is a person entirely saintly or entirely sinful. ” (Part II, Gorvinda, p.112)

Siddhartha is a short philosophical novel that exhausts neither possibility nor interpretations. The premise is simply and almost too conventional to pique my interest at first. A young Indian Brahmin’s (highest caste of society) pursuit of enlightenment, during the same time period of gautama Buddha. It has a strong resemblance to the story of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, except in Hesse’s rendition of his Brahmin prince, Siddhartha forsakes Buddha’s teachings, even though he is highly moved by Buddha’s presence, because he has the complicating (and troublesome) intuition that he cannot achieve what the Buddha has achieved by following the Buddha. In other words, no amount of second-hand knowledge and learning can give him the real sense of peace and happiness unless it’s enlivened by real first-hand experience.

I have had to endure so much stupidity, so many burdens, so much error, so much disgust and disappointment and misery simply to become a child again and to be able to begin fresh. But it was rightly so, my heart affirms, it, my eyes laugh at it. I had to experience despair, I had to sink down to the most misguided of all thoughts, to the thought of suicide, in order to experience grace, again to perceive Om, again to sleep well and properly to awaken. (Part II, By the River, p.76)

So Siddhartha decides the best way to emulate the Buddha is not to follow him. Into the world he goes, allow it to hold him captive—desire, covetousness, lassitude, and avarice. After he tasted wealth, swathed in well-being, he loses his spiritual edge and forgets about his quest, and ends up being disgusted with himself.

Siddhartha reads like a prose-poem interspersed with philosophical insights. Although Siddhartha achieves a kind of surpassing peace as the book draws to a close, throughout the book Hesse’s pursuit of other religions resonates. The language is both lyrical and sensual. Siddhartha himself is an absorbing character, who follows nothing other than the dictates of his heart. Hesse doesn’t enlighten us what “enlightenment” is because enlightenment itself is abstract and intangible. Whether or not Siddhartha attains enlightenment (if there’s such a thing as perfect enlightenment), he experiments with the whole range of possibility. Keeping his own counsel he evolves as a human being to a place of peaceful universal unity.

140 pp. Barnes & Noble Classics. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

26/30 Day Book Meme: Ground-breaking Book

Day 26: A book that changed your opinion about something

Growing up religious (Baptist and then non-denominational) has afforded me a solid knowledge of the bible. By high school I could quote scriptures to the verse numbers. But there has always been a pent-up fear, which over time evolved into a stoic acquiescence that I cannot be saved being homosexual. Salvation does not seem a very tangible idea to me. Not that I do not give two straws about God or salvation, I just don’t see the big deal about Jesus being inclusive or exclusive. By fourth grade I knew I am attracted to men and this is something I’m born with. Until I read What The Bible Really Says About Homosexuality by Daniel A. Helminiak.

It’s not like I would blow the trumpet and get the party streamers out for a celebration after I read the book, which, to my understanding from Helminiak, the Bible is not addressing our current questions about sexual ethics. The Holiness Code embedded in Leviticus, for example, in the context of its historical horizon, spells out the requirements for Israel to remain holy, meaning to separate from the Gentiles. So Leviticus forbids homogenitality as a betrayal of Jewish identity. This concern about male-to-male sex is an offense against Jewish religion, not violation of the inherent nature of sex. No thought is given to whether the sex is right or wrong.

When the Bible does talk about same-sex behavior, it refers to it as it was understood in those ancient times. In other words, hermeneutics from literary theory affords the importance of the biblical interpretation over time. Meaning of the scriptures remains the same but the significance fluctuates. The Bible must be situated within its historical horizon and be examined under the context of cultural meanings within which it was written. Therefore, the biblical teachings will apply today only insofar as the ancient understanding of same-sex behavior is still valid.

So what does it all mean? Does it mean I can be saved? That, as a homosexual, I won’t be excluded from God’s grace and salvation? I do not have answer to the question. But at least it’s comforting to know there is hope if you do believe. As for me, I am not bound by any religion or religious beliefs and/or doctrines, I am who I am, since I left my mother’s womb. I never look for justification in the bible or anywhere for my homosexuality. I didn’t choose to be gay. It’s not a lifestyle—it’s a life. I believe in kindness and that I should behave and treat others the way I want to be reciprocated.

[118] The Gospel According to Jesus Christ – Jose Saramago

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Saramago deftly embraces historical facts, myth and reality and juggles them in this extraordinarily fictitious account of Jesus Christ. The novel is an in-depth psychological portrait of a savior who possesses a touch of humanity so much more substantial than the Bible claims. Jesus who is at once the Son of God, the beginning and the end, men’s destiny, and a young man of the earth is an interweaving of letters, irony, spirituality, irreverence, humanity, and foible.

The novel hinges on the fact that Jesus’ father, Joseph of Nazareth, out of cowardice and selfishness of the heart, failed to alert the parents that King Herod had issued a decree to kill boys under the age of 3. He could have spared the lives of 27 children had he spoken up. Joseph felt the scruple of running off to save his own son but had forfeited the lives of others. The guilt he felt was exactly guilt a man may feel without having sinned or committed the actual crime himself. It was the sin of omission.

To assuage his remorse that incessantly plagued him, Joseph, as he truly believed he was acting out of his own accord and obeying God’s will, made strenuous effort to beget more and more children to compensate for the 27 lives. When Jesus learned about Joseph’s crime, Jesus felt poignant for his father but asserted that his father was to blame for the deaths of innocent children. Joseph’s sin was illustrated to full actuality as Jesus envisaged infants dying in perfect innocence and parents who had done nothing wrong. Jesus was embittered and broken at the fact that never was a man more guilty than his own father, who had sinned to save his life.

Joseph’s death, which was rather dramatic and undeserving, bore the scruple of his own conscience and arose the question of what awaited him after death. Would it be possible than everything ended with death? What would happen to the life’s sorrow and sufferings, especially the sufferings right before the last breath? What about the memory if time is such an undulating surface than can only be accessed by memory, would memory of such suffering linger at least for a short period of time? Saramago has repeatedly made claims to explore the notion of after-death and its correlation to human existence throughout the novel.

Jesus under Saramago’s pen is not as perfect, impure, and righteous as the Bible portraits him to be. One sees that the savior succumbs to temptation, to not receiving the cup of death, to choose to remain on earth and not to be crowned with glory. The most provocative and controversial aspect of the book is when Jesus intervened the stoning of an adulteress, which brought him to awareness that he was living in sin with Mary Magdalene, and thus living in defiance to God’s will. The sin of adultery (sexual immorality as the Bible claims) brought Jesus into open conflict with the observed law.

The book is not deprived of interesting dialogues in spite of the serious overtones of theology. My favorite is the conversation in which the Devil pleaded with God to admit him into the kingdom. God curtly denied the request asserting than the good God represented would cease to exist without the evil Devil represented. In regard to the meaning of human existence and the pursuit of holiness, Saramago does leave us with an enlightening thought (with such sober dignity) that the soul, in order to be able to boast of a clean and blameless body, has burdened itself with sadness, envy and impurity.

12-Year-Old Harangue on Religion, Sinnerdom, Goodness, Morality

Leo is the go-between in L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between. Chance has him become the bearer of clairvoyant messages passed between two lovers, a lady from an aristocrat family and a brusque farmer. This is not a review of the book, which I have yet finished. But the 12-year-old affords some very mature, translucent insights of religion, God, and which bear a similar perspective to mine.

Excerpt:

“Think about being good, my mother had told me, and I had no difficulty in doing this, for I had a sense of worship. …I felt I could really contemplate the mercy of God, and hymn its praises if I didn’t have to stand forever; but I thought of it simply as an attribute of God; I didn’t connect it with the sins of men. And in the same way I did not associate goodness much with moral behavior; it was not a standard to live up to, it was an abstraction to think about; it was included in the perfection of the heavenly bodies, though it was not their goodness that specially attracted me, it was their immunity from the disabilities I suffered from. … Usually I closed my mind completely to what was being intoned, … But this time some of the words came through and “miserable sinners,” instead of being a sound, reached me as a meaning with a challenge.” (p.85)

I do not encourage nor do I approve of adultery or any form of criminal perpetration, but ever since my Christian friends turned their back on me upon coming out, I realized goodness does not always go hand-in-hand with moral behavior. Inevitably, the next question in mind is what defines moral behavior. To what extent does the breach of moral behavior, or morality, contribute to decadence of goodness. Is homosexuality considered immoral? If so, then does it mean that all of us are not good?

“I rebelled strongly against it. Why should we call ourselves sinners? Life was life, and people acted in a certain way, which sometimes caused one pain. … Life has its own laws, and it is for me to defend myself against whatever comes along, without going snivelling to God about sin, my own or other people’s. How would it profit a man, if he got into a tight place, to call the people who put him there miserable sinners? … I disliked the leveling aspect of this sinnerdom; it was like cricket match played in a drizzle, where everyone had an excuse … Life was meant to test a man, bring out his courage, initiative, resource; and I longed, I thought, to be tested: I did not want to fall on my knees and call myself a miserable sinner.” (p.86)

This is refreshing. For years I have experienced this very leveling aspect of religion making people’s life miserable. I don’t like when people bust out a scripture, usually out of context, in order to justify their disapproval or hatred of another human being, a social group, or a behavior.