What is learning? What is unlearning?

There could be various explanations and articulations. Pondering them reminds me of Hermann Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha. It was a life of the man named Siddhartha who lived in the days of Gotama Buddha.

Siddhartha was a smart, intelligent, idealistic, and sinciere son of the well-known rich Brahmin family.

While Buddha’s name is also Siddhartha, it is not Buddha’s biography, but a life of a person who lived in the age of Buddha.

Both of them went through a similar path, which is to say, searching, searching, searching, and eventually surrendering searching itself. It’s not giving up but embracing and accepting.

They went through the way of learning and unlearning. But of course, this novel’s focus was not on Gotama Buddha but one fictional figure, seeker; his name was also Siddhartha.

In Sanskrit, the word Siddhartha consists of two words; Siddha (achieved) and Artha (what was searched for). So, it means that he or she who has attained what was sought for. The name implies a seeker and his or her struggles.

The story goes as follows.

While young Siddhartha was still in the path of his obsessive searching, he heard the news that there was the Enlightened One who formed his community for the followers and practitioners of his teachings, which intrigued Siddhartha a lot.

Eventually when young Siddhartha met Gotama Buddha. Buddha asked Siddhartha if he liked to join the community, Sanga.

Siddhartha’s answer was something like this (in my summary):

Venerable Buddha, I admire your teachings. I see following and practicing them could lead us to the Enlightenment and Emancipation. While I wish I could join your group, what intrigued me is more with “how” you were able to find such great teachings. After all, teaching is teaching. All we can do is follow and practice them. But, Venerable Buddha, you were able to find such great teachings by yourself alone. How did you do that? Unless we find this “how” part, I think, nobody could ever reach the hight that you are now.

And Buddha’s reply (in this novel) was as follows:

“You know how to talk wisely, my friend. Be aware of too much wisdom!” The Buddha turned away, and his glance and half of a smile remained forever etched in Siddhartha’s memory.


Probably, Buddha saw young Siddhartha was still in the stage of his obsessive searching. And his obsession was even stronger than those passionate followers and practitioners of his teachings. Both were self-absorbed in the very ego that what they sought after could be the Enlightenment.

Young Siddhartha was eager to learn many things, which was not bad, even necessary, only if he would realize the other side of such learning and probably a glimpse of unlearning.

After this meeting with Gotama Buddha, Siddhartha’s best friend, Govinda, joined the group. Govinda was a passionate follower. He decided to follow Gotama, not his best friend, Siddhartha anymore. Govinda admired and loved Siddhartha from his childhood. It was his painful decision.

Siddhartha did not join the group. He continued his searching and learning, which even went to the extent of carnal. He left his ascetic life and entered the worldly turmoils. He even became a successful businessman and had an affair with one beautiful courtesan, Kamala. Ironically, Siddhartha learned many things from her insight, wisdom, and maturity. He loved her and had their son.

Kamala, however, did not live longer. After Kamala’s death, Siddhartha faced difficulty in the relationship with his only son. By the time, elderly Siddhartha was already with a full of wisdom and experience. He learned a lot from all the ups and downs of life. He can be ideal at the same time, practical. Even with such maturity, old Siddhartha felt helpless just for managing a good relationship with his young son.

In those days at his old age, he lived in a small hut nearby the river with a simple ferryman, Vasudeva. They worked together. Vasudeva was a simple guy, uneducated, and yet learned everything from the river that he worked for. Or, perhaps, it’s not accurate to say that he learned from the river. It was not learning. He was the river admiring how the river guided him. He admired the river; at the same time, he was the river.

Thus, elderly Siddhartha admired such simple, modest, and warm demeanor of Vasudeva. Seeing Siddhartha’s painful struggles with his son, Vasudeva had no smart suggestions but just gave him a warm smile as if he was the river that could let everything go being accepted and embraced, which deeply consoled Siddhartha’s soul.

It reminds me of the following Bible verse.

For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?

1 Corinthians 1:19-20

Unlearning is never the effort of learning unlearning. We can never learn unlearning as it is by itself the state of surrendering and letting go, letting God, and perhaps for Vasudeva, letting the River.

At the last scene of the novel, Govinda met Siddhartha again. While Govinda was still an obsessive learner of many teachings, Siddhartha was no longer a learner. He was an “unlearner.”

Let me cite some portions:

[Govinda] no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhartha, instead he saw other faces, many, a long sequence, a flowing river of faces, of hundreds, of thousands, which all came and disappeared, and yet all seemed to be there simultaneously, which all constantly changed and renewed themselves, and which were still all Siddhartha.


Not knowing any more whether time existed, whether the vision had lasted a second or a hundred years, not knowing any more whether there existed a Siddhartha, a Gotama, a me and a you, feeling in his innermost self as if he had been wounded by a divine arrow, the injury of which tasted sweet, being enchanted and dissolved in his innermost self, Govinda still stood for a little while bent over Siddhartha’s quiet face, which he had just kissed, which had just been the scene of all manifestations, all transformations, all existence. The face was unchanged, after under its surface the depth of the thousandfoldness had closed up again, he smiled silently, smiled quietly and softly, perhaps very benevolently, perhaps very mockingly, precisely as he used to smile, the exalted one.


Deeply, Govinda bowed; tears he knew nothing of, ran down his old face; like a fire burnt the feeling of the most intimate love, the humblest veneration in his heart. Deeply, he bowed, touching the ground, before him who was sitting motionlessly, whose smile reminded him of everything he had ever loved in his life, what had ever been valuable and holy to him in his life.


Image by Heri Santoso

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