“[T]here is one thing that this clear, worthy instruction does not contain; it does not contain the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced—he alone among hundreds of thousands. That is what I thought and realized when I heard your teachings. That is why I am going on my way—not to seek another doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach my goal alone—or die.”
This excerpt, from the chapter “Gotama,” is part of Siddhartha’s parting dialogue with Gotama the Buddha. Here, Siddhartha further refines and revises the principles that will guide his spiritual quest. He clearly defines the problem he sees in Gotama’s teaching: Gotama has achieved enlightenment himself, but his achievement does not guarantee that he is able to enlighten others. This doubt serves as a centerpiece to Siddhartha’s argument. Siddhartha points out that Gotama did not have a teacher to show him how to attain Nirvana. Siddhartha finally proves that following the commands of an enlightened man does not necessarily lead to becoming enlightened oneself. Siddhartha goes no further. He does not dislike Gotama, and, in fact, he praises Gotama’s teachings and concedes that attaining Nirvana certainly qualifies one to teach others about the world. Siddhartha maintains only that attaining Nirvana does not appear to enable one to teach others to reach it.
Siddhartha’s problems with Gotama’s teaching helps Siddhartha shape his own quest for enlightenment into a self-directed one. When Siddhartha goes straight from his many years of asceticism to a life of indulgence and sensual gratification with Kamala, the contrast may at first seem jarring or implausibly radical. However, passages such as the one above do account for Siddhartha’s extreme transition. He has resolved to apprentice himself to no other person in his quest for Nirvana. While Kamala teaches him to enjoy physical love, and Vasudeva teaches him to listen to the river, Siddhartha’s journey remains self-directed for the remainder of the novel. All notions of where Nirvana might be found now come from within.