“Have you,” he asked once, “have you also learned this secret from the river: that time does not exist?”
Siddhartha compares notes with Vasudeva. After spending many months living and working by Vasudeva’s side. Siddhartha receives his first important insight from the river: Time does not exist. Here, Siddhartha asks Vasudeva if he learned this same insight from the river, which Vasudeva confirms. This insight about time serves as an important lesson because such knowledge prepares Siddhartha’s mind to perceive another important insight about the world—its unity, which exists as another essence of enlightenment. These perceptions form Siddhartha’s final steps towards enlightenment.
But do you not mean that the river is everywhere at once, at its origin and at its mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at the same time, and for it only the present exists, no shadow of the past, no shadow of the future?
Siddhartha further qualifies his insight about time to Vasudeva. The truth the river has been able to teach Siddhartha that time does not exist resides in the river’s nature. The river exists in all places at one time, with its water’s constant movement and unified presence at both the river’s origin and terminus. Similarly, all time exists in the present moment, which comprises both the present and the future. This quality of time allows the present moment to possess the same quality as the eternal.
“That is it,” said Siddhartha. “And when I learned that, I took a look at my life and saw that it too was a river, and the boy Siddhartha was separated from the man Siddhartha and from the graybeard Siddhartha only by shadows, not by anything real. And there was no past for Siddhartha’s earlier births, and his death and his return to Brahma are without future. Nothing was, nothing will be; everything is, everything has essence, is present.”
Through the river’s teachings, Siddhartha ultimately realizes that time exists as an illusion that distracts us from life itself. Siddhartha comes to understand that nothing separates the boy in him from the man, just as nothing separates his life as a Shramana from that of a merchant. In the present moment exist all of these “selves” that comprise Siddhartha’s life, for his life flows just like the river. Siddhartha can only come to enlightenment once he breaks free from this illusion about time and identity.
Vasudeva sat inside the hut weaving a basket. He no longer drove the ferry, his eyes had begun to grow weak, and not only his eyes but also his arms and hands. The only thing that was unaltered and blossoming was the joy and bright benevolence of his face.
Siddhartha observes how Vasudeva’s body has aged. Vasudeva’s body begins to weaken and fail, and he has become unable to ferry people across the river. The light and peace emanating from Vasudeva’s face, however, does not fade. In Siddhartha, the quality of enlightened people’s faces does not change over the years. This important feature reveals the timelessness of enlightenment and how the peace and joy attained from enlightenment remains a continuous thread throughout the enlightened being’s life, connecting all past, present, and future selves.
[T]his ‘one day’ is an illusion, it is only a metaphor! . . . [I]n the sinner, now and today the future Buddha already exists, his future is already entirely there, you must revere the becoming, the potential, the hidden Buddha in him, in yourself, in everyone.
Siddhartha explains to Govinda the illusion of envisioning enlightenment as a goal in an indeterminate future. The idea that a man transforms from a sinner to enlightened over many years rings false, since in the present moment, both the “sinner” Govinda and the “enlightened” Govinda exist at the same time. Instead, life functions as a long, unfolding revelation of what one already is, by virtue of the unified nature of time.