One day, Govinda is resting in the pleasure grove with the other monks and hears the rumor of the wise ferryman, and decides to visit him. He has been following the teaching but has not expelled seeking from his heart. He is ferried across by the old ferryman, and asks him if he is also a seeker of the right path. Siddhartha wonders why this old disciple still calls himself a seeker, but Govinda replies that he believes it is his destiny to seek.
Just like Gautama’s reputation had somehow radiated across the land, now it is Siddhartha and Vasudeva who are a powerful source of wisdom. Real wisdom has a way of traveling without being taught, a kind of spirit or energy.
Govinda asks Siddhartha for a word of advice. Siddhartha doesn’t know what he can say to the Venerable One, but suggests that maybe he is seeking too hard. When one seeks too hard, one only sees the sought object, the goal, but finding is about being open and not focusing on one goal. Govinda doesn’t quite understand, so Siddhartha gives the example of when Govinda didn’t recognize him while he slept by the river. Govinda is astonished that he has again failed to recognize his old friend. Siddhartha tells him he has changed many times – it is his destiny to keep changing, he says – and he invites Govinda to stay with him in the hut.
As Govinda has stayed the same, always seeking and always slightly anxious, Siddhartha’s high calling has manifested itself as an ability to transform and follow a changing path. The openness that Siddhartha promotes is also a lack of direction and a willingness to be pulled along in many directions, to experience many things. The idea of wisdom and enlightenment itself has changed from a certain goal to a less definable state. It is not a set of knowledge. It is an accumulated understanding of experience.
In the morning, Govinda wishes to know one last thing before he goes, whether Siddhartha has any teaching, any bit of knowledge, that he looks to for guidance. Siddhartha reminds him that he distrusted teachers long ago. This hasn’t changed but he has had many teachers, including a courtesan and a merchant, and Govinda. The most important of his teachers has been a ferryman, in whom Siddhartha has discovered perfection and holiness. Govinda thinks Siddhartha is joking. He pushes for Siddhartha to tell him some insight or thought that helps him live. Siddhartha says that he has had many thoughts, but he has learned that wisdom cannot be communicated. Knowledge can be uttered, but wisdom can only be learned through experience.
Govinda believes so strongly that wisdom comes in the form of teachings, words and thoughts that can be communicated. Perhaps this is why he is still seeking as an old man and still feels like he is destined to seek forever, because he still relies on words. As we have found along Siddhartha’s path, it is things and nature and life’s experience that teaches. Siddhartha’s is a different kind of insight and, as such, is difficult to convey to Govinda.
Siddhartha comes to his best thought. He tells Govinda that “the opposite of every truth is just as true.” Only one-sided truths can be spoken, like when Gautama spoke of Nirvana and samsara, the two opposites. But the world itself is never one-sided. It only seems otherwise because time is perceived as reality, but actually there is no time. Govinda is confused. Siddhartha explains that each sinner is also a Brahmin and a Buddha, will sin and will reach Nirvana. And all of these stages are not on a linear path but occurring all at once. The world is perfect at every moment.
Siddhartha removes the notion of heaven and hell, goodness and sin, and all the other opposites that have dictated the rigidity of the perceived path to enlightenment. By doing this, the scope of the world and the ways and paths that one can use to ascend to spiritual wisdom become larger, almost unlimited. This makes the world seem a much freer place, which explains Siddhartha’s serenity compared with Govinda’s anxiety.
With good meditation, it is possible to remove time. This is why everything seems good and right to Siddhartha. He has learned to agree with the world in its totality. Siddhartha then uses a stone as a prop. He explains the stages of a stone, its various possible incarnations, ground into soil, then the soil fertilizing a plant, feeding an animal, and says he used to think of this as a cycle, but now he knows that the stone is an animal, is God, is everything, all at once. And this is why Siddhartha loves the stone now, in its stone-ness.
Anything and everything can be used as inspiration for Siddhartha now. In the first part of his journey, when he was learning from Brahma and the ascetics, the goal was a kind of essence or ultimate knowledge, but now every little thing is valuable and provides wisdom.
Unsatisfied by the pettiness of these words, Siddhartha stops there. He explains that he used the stone to show how he loves things, but could have chosen any other example, a tree, a flower. He does not love words. He suggests that it is words that keep Govinda from finding peace, that Nirvana is only the word Nivarna, nothing else. Govinda claims it is also a thought, but Siddhartha doesn’t see much difference between words and thoughts. It is things that matter. Vasudeva showed this in his belief in the river. He became venerable without books. Govinda is concerned that these ‘things’ may just be images and not essential truths. Siddhartha is not troubled. If they are images, he is also an image.
Siddhartha realizes, and we realize while reading, that this conversation is essentially useless. With each word that he utters, Siddhartha knows that words cannot describe adequately what he has learned, and even are a hindrance to Govinda’s understanding. Words are a kind of unreality, a reduction of reality and experience. So, when Govinda worries about the difference between things and images, Siddhartha knows that both words denote the same thing, and the truth is unchangeable.
Siddhartha tells Govinda that he has come to see love as the most important thing now. Govinda reminds him that the Buddha taught benevolence and tolerance instead of love. Siddhartha sees this as a fight of words. There is no actual contradiction. He knows that he is one with Gautama, that they all are, and so trusts that they all feel the same kind of love. It is Gautama’s actions and gestures that convince Siddhartha, not his words.
Siddhartha’s philosophy is that things are the only reality. Words are misleading, because they are only attached to things and they can create difference and opposition where there is none. Perhaps it is not really the Buddha’s teaching that has earned him such a reputation but the natural effect of his physical presence.
Govinda thanks Siddhartha for his thoughts. He doesn’t understand but wishes him well. To himself, Govinda reflects that Siddhartha’s style is so different from Gautama’s. His thoughts sound strange. But his whole presence radiates peace and saintliness, just as Gautama’s did. Govinda feels deep love for Siddhartha and bows to him.
Siddhartha’s individual path to enlightenment comes into focus as a whole. He has not mimicked the path of any other yet his enlightenment is of the same quality as the Buddha’s. This shows that enlightenment is enlightenment, no matter how it arrives.
Govinda wishes for one word that he can understand, to take with him when they part for the last time. Siddhartha smiles still. Govinda’s face is full of angst and seeking. Siddhartha tells him to come close and kisses his forehead. As he touches Siddhartha, beyond his thoughts and concerns, a vision comes to him. He sees a river of faces, animals, murderers, lovers, transformed and reborn, never dying. Over them all is a kind of mask, keeping all the faces in one whole, and this mask is the smile that Siddhartha wears now. It is the exact smile of oneness that the Buddha used to wear. Time and existence seem to disappear at this moment and Govinda stands before Siddhartha, and he cries and bows low, feeling such deep love for this holy man.
Everything Siddhartha has gathered in wisdom about the unity of the world, the nature of wisdom and the importance of love and human connection and listening, comes together in this moment for Govinda to see. It is a physical, visual moment, showing the complete picture of life as it enlightens Siddhartha. Now, he wears the smile of the Buddha and we see that, just like Gautama, Siddhartha has followed his own path and has reached its pinnacle. It is also a moment of enlightenment and fulfillment for Govinda, as if he is still the shadow, but has become a saintly shadow just as he hoped to become as a boy. That Siddhartha communicates ultimately not with words but with a kiss, not with a teaching but with an experience and a connection, is further testament to his belief that enlightenment is not about following teachings, it is about learning from the experience of the world.