Books influence us profoundly, of course. But for a book to work its magic on you, you have to be ready. The Buddhist have a saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Actually, what that means is that when the student is ready, the presence of the teacher becomes known to the student. The teacher has been around all along but the student did not have the faculty to recognize the teacher. The prepared mind is a necessary condition for books to have any impact.
In a sense you cannot learn something that you don’t really already know implicitly, or something that you are not yourself on the verge of discovering. What you read is just the last hint that solves a problem that you have almost solved, or the little nudge that takes you over the edge. You have to be very close to the solution yourself for the hint to work; you have to be at the edge for the nudge to work. If you are too far away, hints or nudges are pointless.
Education has something to do with learning, which in turn has a relationship with knowledge and understanding. The raw material for knowledge is information. Somehow in the human brain, information properly processed and internalized results in knowledge. Somehow the whole body of knowledge further gets processed into understanding.
I feel that there is an optimal amount of information that any given brain can process into knowledge, and that this optimal is less than the maximum capable of being absorbed. It is like calories derived from food: the maximum possible is far greater than the healthy amount.
Processing of knowledge for understanding requires time and effort, just as time is needed for internalizing information to acquire knowledge. Since time is a ultimate binding constraint (you cannot release time constraints unlike all other constraints), what time you spend in internalizing information (gaining knowledge), you cannot spend in understanding. Knowing too much is as much of a hindrance to understanding, as having too much information is a barrier to knowing.
It was in Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha that I got a lot of hints about the nature of understanding. For example, in the final chapter called Govinda (here is a handy copy), the relationship between searching and finding is discussed. Govinda says that he has been searching for a long time but has not found the answers. Siddhartha says:
Perhaps that you’re searching far too much? That in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding?”
“How come?” asked Govinda.
“When someone is searching,” said Siddhartha, “then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind, because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, oh venerable one, are perhaps indeed a searcher, because, striving for your goal, there are many things you don’t see, which are directly in front of your eyes.”
Later on in the dialog, Govinda presses Siddhartha to tell him what wisdom he has gained from all his years of searching.
Quoth Siddhartha: “I’ve had thoughts, yes, and insight, again and again. Sometimes, for an hour or for an entire day, I have felt knowledge in me, as one would feel life in one’s heart. There have been many thoughts, but it would be hard for me to convey them to you. Look, my dear Govinda, this is one of my thoughts, which I have found: wisdom cannot be passed on. Wisdom which a wise man tries to pass on to someone always sounds like foolishness.”
“Are you kidding?” asked Govinda.
“I’m not kidding. I’m telling you what I’ve found. Knowledge can be conveyed, but not wisdom. It can be found, it can be lived, it is possible to be carried by it, miracles can be performed with it, but it cannot be expressed in words and taught. This was what I, even as a young man, sometimes suspected, what has driven me away from the teachers. I have found a thought, Govinda, which you’ll again regard as a joke or foolishness, but which is my best thought. It says: The opposite of every truth is just as true! That’s like this: any truth can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided. Everything is one-sided which can be thought with thoughts and said with words, it’s all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness, roundness, oneness. When the exalted Gotama spoke in his teachings of the world, he had to divide it into Sansara and Nirvana, into deception and truth, into suffering and salvation. It cannot be done differently, there is no other way for him who wants to teach. But the world itself, what exists around us and inside of us, is never one-sided. A person or an act is never entirely Sansara or entirely Nirvana, a person is never entirely holy or entirely sinful. It does really seem like this, because we are subject to deception, as if time was something real. Time is not real, Govinda, I have experienced this often and often again. And if time is not real, then the gap which seems to be between the world and the eternity, between suffering and blissfulness, between evil and good, is also a deception.”
It is in this chapter that I felt the greatest shock of recognition when I read the lines, “The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life.”
But now to bring this piece to a close. The written word is all well and good, but for real poetry, you have to hear the spoken word. And you can do worse than to hear Sir Derek Jacobi read Siddhartha in his flawless evocative style. You cannot hear the final bits without breaking out in goose bumps, where Govinda sees a vision while touching Siddhartha’s forehead with his lips. The vision is that of the entire evolution of life played out in a timeless stage.