Once upon a time, in the 20th Century, there was a German writer named Hermann Hesse. Hesse, like any good person, strongly objected to Nazism and was exiled to Switzerland where he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Whilst you may be thinking, this is all very interesting but what does it have to do with Asia?
Hesse’s life and work were heavily influenced by Eastern Philosophies, especially Buddhism. Buddhism started in India and soon travelled through the Nathu La mountain pass in the Himalayas into China in the 5th Century BC, where the Greek Philosopher Pythagoras (the guy who gave us A2 + B2 = C2 ) then took it to Greece where it became a part of the developing Western culture.
Hesse wrote a novel called Siddhartha about a person living at the same time as the Buddha (who bore the same name but was not about the Buddha). In the novel, Siddhartha tries, as with the Buddha, to cure his Lebenskrankheit (sickness with life) to find the happy life, that most elusive of all things!
Siddhartha’s journey is predicated on Eastern philosophies, from India and the rest of Asia. He tries abstinence, in giving up everything, and finds that this does not make him happy. He tries excess, having too much of everything, but this also has the same results.
As Siddhartha works through the different disciplines he realises that to follow them, and those who follow them, to an extreme detail are not happy or even contended. They always want more of everything that they have. Hesse shows that Siddhartha cannot think his way to happiness, rather, as Hesse says in a conversation about the conclusion of the novel,
‘[my] Siddhartha does not, in the end, learn true wisdom from any teacher, but from a river that roars in a funny way and from a kindly old fool who always smiles and is secretly a saint.’ (Ralph Freedman.
Hermann Hesse. Pilgrim of Crisis)
Siddhartha learns that the key to happiness is to realise what one has and to appreciate it and not go to extremes but to find inner balance. This, according to Hesse, is how one can find happiness- through intellectual and emotional balance,
‘Buddha’s way to salvation has often been criticized and doubted, because it is thought to be wholly grounded in cognition. True, but it’s not just intellectual cognition, not just learning and knowing, but spiritual experience that can be earned only through strict discipline in a selfless life’ (Hesse ibid),
By being kind and making those around us happy we can find happiness within ourselves.
Nowadays we are under a lot of pressures to be ‘successes’ in our work, lives, private lives etc., and with mental health becoming a growing concern in China given the arbitrary stresses imposed upon us by social media, family, friends, work etc.
it seems that today may be the best time to plan for our futures by looking into the past and taking the lessons that Hesse’ Siddhartha learnt and learn to appreciate the Yellow Mountain’s majestic views, the local dress of Korea or even just the pitter-patter of rain falling upon our roofs.