In a town called Savathi, Gautama and his disciples are worshipped. He is given a grove called Jetavana. When Siddhartha and Govinda arrive in the town, they ask their host where to find the Buddha and she directs them to Jetavana, where hundreds of people go to hear the teaching. The woman tells them that she has seen the Buddha walking through the streets with his alms bowl, silently, filling it with donations quickly.
The power of the Buddha’s name transforms an ordinary grove and region to a very special place of pilgrimage and everything in the grove seems touched by his presence. But Gautama doesn’t seem like a god. It is possible to see him, he needs to beg to eat like the other monks, and teaches with his own voice. The duality of the Buddha’s human form and enlightened spirit has interesting implications for Siddhartha’s own journey.
Excited, Govinda wants to hear more but Siddhartha pushes them on to the grove, which they soon realize with their own eyes to be a destination for herds of pilgrims, who fill the contours of the beautiful grove. Siddhartha and Govinda camp among them. In the morning, the place is full of yellow-robed monks.
Words and ideas dominate Govinda’s and Siddhartha’s experience of the Buddha so far, but Siddhartha is impatient with these shallow things. He seeks real experience – the description that follows of the colors of the pilgrim camps and natural beauty suggest that even if he doesn’t get a real experience of the Buddha, he’ll certain experience the phenomenon of the Buddha’s following.
Like the Buddha, these monks go into the town to beg. This is where Siddhartha first sees the Buddha and points him out to Govinda. He looks much the same as the other monks but they both know instinctively that he is the Sublime One. As they follow and watch him, they notice his calm, silent, slow way – a kind of perfect peace, not imitating or desiring anything. Siddhartha reflects on how doubtful he’d been that the Buddha could teach him anything. Now they are in sight of him, Siddhartha believes deeply in the Buddha’s knowledge of truth. His whole being is Truth, thinks Siddhartha.
The sight of the Buddha inspires Siddhartha and Govinda. Even without hearing a word of his teaching and with no other evidence that he is the deity himself, the serenity of Buddha’s appearance assures them of his holiness. This shows how natural and radiant real Truth is. It’s a little like the description of Siddhartha that we heard in the first chapter, and how his appearance and natural charisma seemed to match his gifts.
Siddhartha and Govinda plan not to eat anything that day. They observe the Buddha taking a tiny morsel of a meal and withdraw to the mango trees. That evening they hear his teaching. It is wise beyond compare, telling calmly of suffering and guiding them to ascend suffering by following the teaching. His voice is light and powerful, a natural phenomenon.
Even though it is the teaching that has drawn these hoards of pilgrims, the real power of the Buddha seems to lie elsewhere, in his manner and physical qualities. Siddhartha’s criticism of the samana elders had been that they were not living their own philosophies, but Gautama is the physical embodiment of his own teachings of serenity and goodness.
After the teaching, like many others, Govinda asks to be accepted into the Buddha’s fellowship. He is accepted and goes to Siddhartha to ask why he hasn’t also committed to the teaching. Siddhartha tells Govinda, with honest pleasure, that he is proud of him for choosing his own path for the first time, and tells him to follow it. Govinda asks again why Siddhartha won’t also seek refuge but Siddhartha doesn’t really reply. Govinda starts to weep. He is sad to be leaving everything he has known. Siddhartha reminds him that by seeking refuge he has renounced his previous life, including his friendships. Tomorrow they must part.
Govinda is so impressed with the Buddha’s teaching that he is convinced he will find no higher knowledge with which to seek refuge, but his attachment to Siddhartha is still so strong that he assumes their paths will remain united. Even though it seems that Govinda is finally choosing his own path, it is still Siddhartha that must make the final break, and persuade Govinda that it is time for them to part. Siddhartha does not want to seek “refuge” in anyone else’s teaching.
That night, Govinda continues to question Siddhartha about the fault he sees in the teaching. Siddhartha reassures him that of course the teaching is good. In the morning Govinda joins the other novice monks to get his robes and begin his new life. Siddhartha, walking through the grove, sees Gautama walking too and takes the opportunity to ask permission to speak to him. He tells the Buddha that unlike his friend, he has decided to continue his pilgrimage alone.
Even though it is Govinda that is especially touched by the Buddha’s teaching, it is Siddhartha who has the guts to go up to Gautama and speak to him. While he is still reverent, their conversation is more man-to-man than follower-to-teacher, and is a sign of Siddhartha’s inner confidence and high calling.
The Buddha accepts this, but Siddhartha wishes to say something else. He expresses his extreme admiration for what the Buddha has taught about the world’s connectedness and unity but the idea of deliverance above this chain of living things disconcerts him. The Buddha responds kindly. He praises Siddhartha for his contemplation, but warns him of the dangers of too much knowledge-seeking. The problem of opinions and words has no place in his teaching, he says. Siddhartha reaffirms his absolute respect for Gautama and his faith that he has achieved enlightenment, but he believes that it has been attained by Gautama’s own path, not that of a certain teaching. This is why Siddhartha himself will continue his pilgrimage alone.
The connection between Siddhartha and the Buddha is mutually warm and respectful but there is a distance that both men are aware of. Gautama, having reached enlightenment, seems above the concerns that consume Siddhartha. His holy, distant presence is so content that troubles like these don’t really seem to touch him. But Siddhartha makes a good point – if the key to achieving enlightenment is ascending the world of cycles and circles, what did Gautama do to break his own cycle, and is Siddhartha following the same holy path?
The Buddha wishes the best for Siddhartha but he questions his plan. He asks Siddhartha to contemplate whether the hundreds of monks who have taken refuge in his teaching would be better off without this life. Siddhartha does not claim to know the answer. He can only judge and guide his own path. But he questions whether the disciples absorb the teaching too much, absorb it as a kind of ego and a delusion.
The difference is very manifest between the Buddha’s way and Siddhartha’s way. Though the Buddha’s path seems clear, and his thousands of follows trust completely in it, Siddhartha is able to look past it and focus only on his own.
The Buddha’s peaceful smile is unwavering. He warns Siddhartha to be careful of his own cleverness. Then he goes smiling away. Siddhartha recognizes the holiness of that smile and wishes he could attain the same level of connection to his core self. He will never bow down to any other, knowing that Gautama is the Sublime One. He considers that this man has taken away his friend and shadow, but also that he has given him something very valuable, the chance to be himself.
Gautama’s smile seems to come from his very essence. It is not put on or maintained by effort. It is a constant symbol of the enlightened state, so that no doubt can touch it. The fact that this essence makes Siddhartha feel more connected to his own essence unites the two characters.