Why Nobody Else Can Teach You How to Be Happy

There are only three books I have read more than once.

Lord of the Rings: three times

Dune: three times

The last is the one book I keep coming back to: Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse.

If you aren’t familiar with it, it is the story of a Brahmin’s (priest’s) son who, thirsty for knowledge of truth, leaves his class to pursue knowledge any way he can, becoming an ascetic, then becoming a wealthy merchant and aesthete, then abandoning all that with the intention to commit suicide, until, eventually, near the end of his life, attaining awakening.

Essentially, it is the story of a journey to Buddha-hood.

Critically, though, it is not about the historical Buddha.

Siddhartha encounters Gotama, the real Buddha, early on and rejects him as a teacher.

WHAT?! How could he do that? Given the chance to study with a man acknowledged to have attained enlightenment, who Siddhartha himself intuitively KNOWS has it, why would he turn away?

Imagine someone who has done exactly what you dream of.

Maybe you’re an entrepreneur and that person is Elon Musk. Maybe you are a soccer football player and that person is Ronaldo. Maybe you are a Buddhist and that person is the Dalai Lama.

Now imagine they offer you to teach you, for free. You may become one of their disciples.

Could you say no?

That is what Siddhartha did.

Here’s how it goes down.

Turning Away from the Teacher

Siddhartha and his best friend, Govinda, meet the historical Buddha. They listen to him teach and after the teaching is over, Govinda commits to becoming a disciple, expecting Siddhartha to follow suit. After all, they have spent their lives seeking truth, first from their Brahmin upbringing, then the ascetic Samanas.

But Siddhartha turns away. Govinda is heartbroken and doesn’t understand why his friend would turn down the opportunity to learn from a man who so clearly has found what they have been looking for their whole lives.

Siddhartha then encounters Gotama, the Buddha, wandering the park and has the chance to voice his reservations.

He says two things:

  1. The Buddha’s teachings are beautifully and uniquely in-line with the way the world and people actually are...until you get to the teaching themselves. The teachings do not match everything else Gotama is saying. They are not truth.
  2. The Buddha did not achieve enlightenment from a doctrine or from anyone else. He in fact rejected all his teachers and all the teachings he mastered. They did not free him from suffering. And, he could never confer what he had experienced to anyone else. So to ask others to follow his teachings seemed hypocritical.

All this Gotama said two things in response:

  1. The teachings are not meant to be explain the world. They are only–critically–meant to reduce suffering.

    “You've found a gap in it, an error. You should think about this further. But be warned, oh seeker of knowledge, of the thicket of opinions and of arguing about words....the teachings, you've heard from me, are no opinion, and their goal is not to explain the world to those who seek knowledge. They have a different goal; their goal is salvation from suffering." (3.36)

  2. To the second, he admitted Siddhartha was right: Gotama rejected all his teachers and the subtlety of the truth was impossible to “teach”. But also, to be wary of too much cleverness.

    This last comment seems like an admonition, but perhaps it is a bit of helpful advice for a youth who has been constantly worshipped by his parents and peers for his intelligence and force of will.

The Spiritual Rebel

So Siddhartha leaves the Buddha, assured that there are no more teachers who can help him attain knowledge and also assured that the path to enlightenment didn’t involve following a doctrine.

He commits to learning about himself and about the world, rather than rejecting it as he had when a Brahmin and as a Samana.

In his journey to enlightenment, Siddhartha breaks all the rules (just as Gotama did).

Not only does he turn away from the accepted spiritual paths of his caste, the less-accepted but also recognized spiritual path of the Samanas, AND the alternative spiritual path offered by Buddhism, he loses himself in material concerns, mastering carnal knowledge (with the help of the expert courtesan Kamala) and wealth.

Ultimately, he finds enlightenment working as a ferryman, a position of such lowly import it is routinely ignored as simple infrastructure. He eats bananas and dresses simply. He has no airs of spiritual bliss, and he does not teach.

His "teacher" is no teacher. He is a mentor, someone who doesn't teach anything himself, but instead points you in the direction of experiences that will, if you pay attention, teach you something valuable.

All he does is enable him to learn.

Many Paths

The story reminds us that there are many ways to truth, happiness, success, or growth (and that these terms can get really tangled up).

It reminds us that just because Gotama achieved awakening the way he did–or Elon Musk achieved success the way he did–doesn’t mean it is the only path or even the one we ought to follow.

For Siddhartha, success was knowledge, but no matter how much knowledge he attained, he was no closer to happiness.

For us, success might be fame, wealth, influence, a massive round of funding, a new job, a degree or certificate, that secret skill or marketing trick. But no matter how much we attain...well, you know.

But we do see some people in the world who seem to have “it”: harmony with the world, what they do, and themselves. And we think that if we can just be a bit more like them, we too, can have “it.”

We forget that every bit of knowledge, skill, or practice that anyone has had comes with the un-expressible weight of experience that suffuses that person’s world. Ronaldo could never teach you to play like he does, because the “soccer enlightenment” he has touches every mote of his life and thus, cannot be transferred.

You must learn yourself. Take all the intensity with which you study the tactics, tricks, and truths of others and apply it to experiencing and learning from your own life.

There are no “5 Things Successful People Do (That You Don’t).”

There are no “7 Things Happy People DON’T Do.”

There are no “10 Things You MUST Do Before Breakfast if You Want to be Successful.”

In the end, there are only, “The Things YOU Do Every Morning Before Breakfast to Be Successful.”