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Fellow Travelers – Part I: The Spiritual Journey

May 27, 2011

Hwy 20 between Valentine and Hay Springs, Nebraska, February 2008, photo by Brandon Sanford

Many years ago I had a dream.

I walked a long, dusty road.  People were before and behind, dim figures in the distance.  The shadowy shapes of solitary trees and buildings came and went, but they were not important.  The road was important and that we all walked it.  Sometimes the dim figures would be near, sometimes far, sometimes passing, but none spoke.  Only the soft wind was heard.  The sun neither rose nor set, but always shone on the silent road. It seemed as though all had walked this road since beginningless time. 

I came upon a figure, a small huddled figure at the side of the road, sitting rocking, a tiny face hidden against skinny, dirty knees, legs wrapped round with skinny, dirty arms and clutched tight, so tight.  She cried, but quietly, silently, as though she wished to disappear into herself.  I stopped to look at her.  No one else stopped.

“Hello.” I spoke.  No one else spoke.

She lifted her head to look at me.  Her blue eyes were empty, as though her soul had hidden far down inside, so far it could no longer be glimpsed through those sad, empty eyes.

“Come with me.”  I held out my hand.

Time came slowly back into those eyes, time and knowledge.  She looked at me.  She looked at my hand, a pale, slender, strong, clean hand.  Forever people passed us by, stopped at the edge of the road.

Then she took my hand, grasped it with that desperate grip.  I pulled her up and we walked together down the eternal road.

I wrote about this dream as a teenager.  My mother said it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever written, which struck me as odd at the time.  It is so simple.  I no longer possess the original copy, but I still remember the original dream.  It does not now surprise me that a dream as simple as this should speak to another person so strongly.  What I never wrote down and never told anyone was that in the dream I was both the one who offered the hand … and the one who grasped it.


In Images of Pastoral Care numerous pastoral theologians present metaphors for the work of caring for others in a spiritual way.  These metaphors range from the pastor as a document, shepherd, healer, storyteller, and gardener.  The authors include priests, ministers, laypeople, academics, therapists, physicians, psychologists, and chaplains.  The dates of these essays range from 1936 to 1999 and they are, almost to a one, from a Christian, or at the very least, theistic perspective. (Dykstra, various)

It is not surprising that to a Buddhist chaplain-in-training none of these ‘images’ quite ring true.  All are familiar, a few eye-opening, and some more appealing than others.  However, the theological and philosophical roots from which they draw are naturally quite different from those a Buddhist chaplain, monk, nun, or priest might access.  I will not enumerate the differences here.  In point of fact, I tend to believe Buddhism and the theistic faiths have more in common than contrast.  Rather, I will focus on painting an entirely new picture: the chaplain as a fellow traveler.*

Perhaps the most common religious metaphor of all is the ‘spiritual journey.’  Personal spiritual development has long been likened to a physical voyage and the voyager to a traveler along an unknown path.  Cultural wisdom provides numerous maps, waypoints, and guides.  What is the role of the chaplain in all this?  Are we the catalyst that sets the traveler on the road?  The mapmaker who charts the course?  A waypoint, bridge guard, or innkeeper?  None of these.  The chaplain is a fellow traveler.

This image is drawn primarily from the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva, one who seeks enlightenment for the sake of all beings. (Chödrön, p. ix)  First, they vow to travel the spiritual path.  Second, and most importantly, they vow to return and guide others along this path.  For our purposes, the most important point of this vow is its intention.  If our motivation is true, then even before the would-be bodhisattva reaches enlightenment they act again and again in the best interests of others – their fellow travelers.  We still strive towards the enlightened ideal.  In that ideal we may choose a particular spiritual mentor to emulate.  I take as my mentor Jizo Boddhisattva (Kshitigharba in Sanskrit, Ti-tang Pusa in Chinese, Ji-Jang Bosal in Korean, Sati-snin-po in Tibetan), protector of mothers, children, and wayward travelers. (Bays, p. xx)

The course of this work is divided into two parts: 1) the journey and 2) the fellow traveler.  The journey is the road, that spiritual path we all walk whether we are aware of it or not.  The travelers on this journey include all sentient beings; we are all seeking (and making) meaning in our lives.  Each bit of meaning is like a paver in the road, making it smooth or bumpy depending on our understanding and choices.  The fellow traveler in this metaphor is the chaplain, the one who holds out a hand and who walks beside.  This section is of the most concern to chaplains in their future work.  It includes scriptural basis for the bodhisattva path as well as the practice of ‘engaged’ Buddhism and a description of Jizo Bodhisattva.

The Journey

What is this familiar road we have all travelled since beginningless time?  Such a simple image, an endless road, is so evocative that we can all recognize it as meaningful with barely the least description.  Buddhist’s call spiritual practice a “path.”  This metaphor is neither just Buddhist nor even religious, in the strictest sense of the word.  The journey in story, legend, and myth is long established, predating any currently practiced religion.  Even today’s religions use stories of travel and movement as central meanings – the escape of the Jews from Israel, Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem on the eve of Christ’s birth, Mohamed’s Hijra migration from Mecca to Medina, Shakyamuni’s wanderings with the aesthetics – all these journeys are recorded in scriptures and regularly recounted to practitioners of the world’s great religions.  Even the “lesser” stories – The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Journey to the West, King Arthur’s Quest, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars – all involve some form of travel.  Moreover, they all mean something to us.

In both types of stories, scriptural and fictional, the journeys undertaken are never strictly physical journeys.  In fact, they are not even primarily physical journeys.  They are spiritual journeys.  When investigating the nature of such quests, I was struck by one fact over and over again: there is a great body of contemporary literature pertaining to the spiritual journey, but it is almost exclusively personal – “My Spiritual Journey,” “A Spiritual Journey,” “The Spiritual Journey of So and So.”  The amount of theory on what constitutes a spiritual journey is tiny in comparison, though by no means insignificant.  The pertinent theology usually constitutes commentary on the meaning of specific scriptural stories.  It seems the best way to explain the spiritual journey is to tell the story of a spiritual journey.

The most relevant story I can imagine is that of the Buddha.  It is a story we Buddhists are intimately familiar with and it has been retold many times by contemporary teachers as well as in the scriptures of every Buddhist tradition.  However, I want to focus on a more contemporary rendition: Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.  This work, originally written in 1922 and translated into English in 1951, is entirely fiction, but it is based very strongly on two things – the story of the Buddha and Hesse’s own spiritual journey.  Moreover, it is written in the form of a modern novel, making it more accessible to modern (particularly Western) Buddhists.

Siddhartha, a novel by Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha Leaves Home

Siddhartha is the pampered and well-educated son of a Brahmin, the highest class of Indian noble.  He is much loved by his family and friends.  All respect him.  Yet Siddhartha is dissatisfied with the meanings that had been handed to him since birth.

Siddhartha had begun to feel the seeds of discontent within him.  He had begun to feel that the love of his father and mother, and also the love of his friend Govinda, would not always make him happy, give him peace, satisfy and suffice him.  He had begun to suspect that his worthy father and his other teachers, the wise Brahmins, had already passed on to him the bulk and best of their wisdom, that they had already poured the sum total of their knowledge into his waiting vessel; and the vessel was not full, his intellect was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not still. (Hesse, p. 5)

This is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism.  Suffering and dissatisfaction exist.  They result from impermanence.  As Siddhartha suspected, his mother and father would someday be gone, and even his friend Govinda might change or go away.  Indeed, these people, even should they abide forever, were not and could not be the source of his happiness.  His restlessness was the beginning of a process of doubt, by which we question the meanings that have been given to us by our family and culture.

James Fowler, in his seminal work Stages of Faith, would characterize this as a period of transition between the Stage 2 Mythic-Literal faith of his cultural heritage to Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional faith.  In the first, Siddhartha has internalized “the stories, beliefs and observances that symbolize belonging to his community.”  However, his reflection on the wisdom of the Brahmins has led “to disillusionment with previous teachers and teachings” that “creates the need for a more personal relationship with the unifying power of the ultimate environment.” (Fowler, p. 149-150)

Joseph Campbell would characterize this part of the hero’s journey as ‘departure.’  During this time “what formerly was meaningful may become strangely emptied of value.” (Campbell, p. 55)  Campbell names this restlessness the “call to adventure,” which “signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.” (Campbell, p. 58)  Campbell’s most well-known book, The Hero of a Thousand Faces, primarily concerns myth and literature rather than religion, yet it is immediately clear that the journey this hero (or heroine) undertakes is primarily spiritual.  In fact, in the chapter on departure, the story of the Shakyamuni Buddha leaving home serves as a pivotal example.

Both Shakyamuni and Siddhartha came into contact with someone who practiced a different way than their fathers.  In the novel they are called Samanas, wandering aesthetics.  “Any such widening movement of consciousness can be called adventure,” according to John Haught, and it is one of the four major functions of religion, “And because of its yearning for the boundless breadth of absolute perfection religion may be called adventure.”  Siddhartha perceived that the Brahmins had not achieved this perfection.  They still suffered.  However, his restlessness told him that such perfection, such freedom from suffering, is possible.  Adventure is the search for meaning, peace in tragedy, ordered novelty among chaos, and beauty within contrast.  It entails both trust and risk. (Haught, p. 173)

Encounters on the Path

It is the search for a new understanding that prompts Siddhartha to leave home and travel with the Samanas, much as the historical Buddha did.  Siddhartha and his friend Govinda, who accompanied him, practice all manner of deprivations with the Samanas for many years.  They learn many ways of controlling the mind and master all the teachings of the aesthetics.  Yet, Siddhartha remains dissatisfied.  One day he and his friend Govinda went to hear an illustrious teacher, Gotama, who had achieved enlightenment and freedom from suffering.  Gotama was all that he was purported to be and Govinda resolved to stay with him, yet Siddhartha chose a different path.  To Gotama he said:

Not for one moment did I doubt that you were the Buddha, that you have reached the highest goal which so many thousands of Brahmins and Brahmins’ sons are striving to reach. You have done so by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through mediation, through knowledge, through enlightenment.  You have learned nothing through teachings, and so I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings.  To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment. (Hesse, p. 33-34)

Siddhartha has realized a critical truth, but the Buddha warns him against pride and arrogance.  So warned, Siddhartha nevertheless goes on his way.  He has conceived at this point, what Fowler calls and ‘ideology’ of Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional faith: “a more or less consistent clustering of values and beliefs [that] he … has not objectified … for examination and in a sense is unaware of having.” (Fowler, p. 173)

With this belief, that he must figure things out for himself, Siddhartha embarks on a new adventure – becoming a merchant.  He travels to a city, takes up with a courtesan Kamala, and apprentices to the most wealthy merchant of the town, a Kamaswami.  However, before he arrives there he has a brief but important encounter.  On his journey, he crosses a river and meets a ferryman who generously carries him over the water.

“It is a beautiful river,” he said to his companion.

“Yes,” said the ferryman, “it is a very beautiful river.  I love it above everything.  I have often listened to it, gazed at it, and I have always learned something from it.  One can learn much from a river.”

“Thank you, good man,” said Siddhartha, as he landed on the other side.  “I am afraid I have no gift to give you, nor any payment.  I am homeless, a Brahmin’s son and a Samana.”

“I could see that,” said the ferryman, “and I did not expect any payment or gift from you.  You will give it to me some other time.”

“Do you think so?” asked Siddhartha merrily.

“Certainly.  I have learned that from the river too; everything comes back.  You, too, Samana, will come back.  Now farewell, may your friendship be my payment!  May you think of me when you sacrifice to the gods!” (Hesse, p. 49)

Siddhartha did indeed come back, but first he had lessons to learn in the life of a merchant.  This is what Campbell calls being in ‘the belly of the whale.’  “The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold [a spiritual realization], is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died.” (Campbell, p. 90)  Likewise, Siddhartha is swallowed into the realm of sensual pleasure, of sex, drinking, food, gambling, and seeking profit.  His mind becomes dull and his body fat.  He is consumed with his ‘self,’ the identity he has made, but eventually “Disillusionment with one’s compromises and recognition that life is more complex,” begins to seep through, as Fowler predicts on the cusp of transition from Stage 4 to Stage 5 Conjunctive faith. (Fowler, p. 183)  Campbell calls this the ‘road of trials’ on which the hero meets with the ‘temptress’ and overcomes the ‘father,’ only to be disappointed.  The ‘dark night of the soul’ was upon Siddhartha.

Onwards, onwards, this is your path.  He had heard this voice when he had left his home and chosen the life of the Samanas, and again when he had left the Samanas and gone to the Perfect One, and also when he had left him for the unknown.  How long was it now since he had heard this voice, since he had soared to any heights?  How flat and desolate his path had been!  …  Then Siddhartha knew that the game was finished, that he could play no longer.  A shudder passed through his body; he felt as if something had died. (Hesse, p. 83-84)

Siddhartha abandons his life of a Kamaswami, much as he abandoned his life as a Brahmin’s son.  He wanders into the forest, starving and wishing for the oblivion of death.  Yet there he finds grace instead, in the single syllable of ‘om’ that he had learned so long ago.

Then from a remote part of his soul, from the past of his tired life, he heard a sound.  It was one word, one syllable, which without thinking he spoke indistinctly, the ancient beginning and ending of all Brahmin prayers, the holy Om, which had the meaning of ‘the Perfect One’ or ‘Perfection.’  At that moment, when the sound of Om reached Siddhartha’s ears, his slumbering soul suddenly awakened and he recognized the folly of his action. … ‘Om,’ he pronounced inwardly, and he was conscious of Brahman, of the indestructibleness of life; he remembered all that he had forgotten, all that was divine. (Hesse, p. 89-90)

Fowler characterizes this as Stage 5 Conjunctive faith which “involves the integration into self and outlook of much that was suppressed or unrecognized in the interest of Stage 4’s self-certainty and conscious cognitive and affective adaptation to reality.”  Siddhartha had adapted to the life of a merchant so well he had lost much of what he had learned along his path.  “This stage develops a ‘second naïveté’ (Ricoeur) in which symbolic power is reunited with conceptual meanings.  Here there must also be a new reclaiming and reworking of one’s past.”  To quote a Zen proverb, he had seen that the mountain was a mountain, realized the mountain was not a mountain, and now once again came to know the mountain as a mountain.  In Siddhartha’s crisis, he is able to reconnect with his heritage and realize the practical efficacy of the symbolic practices, “the depth of reality to which they refer,” which he had dismissed. (Fowler, p. 197-198)

He has found ‘reassurance,’ another of the Haught’s four purposes of religion.  This reassurance is based on our capacity as human beings to trust.  “Religions are transformative bodies of symbols, myths, stories, rituals, practices and ideas, often pointing to an other than ordinary dimension of reality and encouraging us to trust in it.”  Siddhartha trusted in the perfection of ‘om’ in his moment of clarity.  “[R]eligions provide ultimate re-assurance.  They relate to our natural confidence by pointing symbolically to an ultimate basis in reality for our trusting again.” (Haught, p. 148)  No matter how we may stray on our path, religion tells us what things we may return to time and time again precisely because they work, they are trustworthy.  Siddhartha thus returns and finds re-assurance in one of these.  But his journey is not over.

Dwelling by the River

It was just after this that a familiar friend appeared, Govinda on his own journey, and, though he did not recognize his old friend at once, he offered him food and care.  It gave Siddhartha strength to continue his journey until he comes again to a familiar place – the river where the ferryman still dwells.  There he joins the ferryman, Vasudeva, and begins his spiritual journey with renewed commitment.

This is possible due to what Haught calls ‘mystery,’ another of the four primary functions of religion.  This is the human ability to be constantly curious and enthralled by the unknown.  There is always more to learn and strive for.  Siddhartha’s dark night of the soul can be understood as a ‘limit-experience’ that lies “at the edge of normal life and seemingly thrust[s] us toward a terrifyingly unfamiliar (tremendum) but also perhaps promising (fascinans) dimension…. In these moments we apprehend mystery in an especially sharp way.” (Haught, p. 166)  That same thing that frightens us also gives us hope.  Religion says that not only is there an unknown, but this unknown thing is something ultimate “for which there are no adequate words in our languages.” (Haught, p. 159)

After many further trials, perhaps some of the most difficult of his life, Siddhartha comes to understand fully that which he had once told Gotama, that “To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment.” (Hesse, p. 33-34)  Likewise, Siddhartha could not communicate that which he had learned from his time listening to the river.

Siddhartha listened.  He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything.  He felt that he had now completely learned the art of listening.  He had often heard all this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. … They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways.  And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world.  All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.  When Siddhartha had listened attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices; when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om – perfection. (Hesse, p. 135-136)

 The Return to Teach Others

Siddhartha, like Gotama, did not allow the ineffability of this experience from preventing him from trying to communicate it for the sake of others.  When his friend Govinda returned one last time, he attempted just that.  He told Govinda of his long life and many travels, much to his friend’s astonishment.

Govinda said: ‘It seems to me, Siddhartha, that you still like to jest a little.  I believe you and know that you have not followed any teacher, but have you not yourself, if not a doctrine, certain thoughts?  Have you not discovered certain knowledge yourself that has helped you to live?  It would give me great pleasure if you would tell me something about this.’

Siddhartha said: ‘Yes, I have had thoughts and for a day, I have become aware of knowledge, just as one feels life in one’s heart.  I have had many thoughts, but it would be difficult for me to tell you about them.  But this is one thought that has impressed me, Govinda.  Wisdom is not communicable.  The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish.’

‘Are you jesting?’ asked Govinda. (Hesse, p. 142)

Though Siddhartha attempts, for the love of his friend, to expound on what he has learned, Govinda finally leaves in puzzlement, knowing that he has heard a great thing, but not truly understanding what it was.  Yet, Govinda experienced “a feeling of great love” for the man “whose smile reminded him of everything that he had ever loved in his life, of everything that had ever been of value and holy in his life.” (Hesse, p. 151-152)  It is on these words of love that Hesse’s novel ends.

Govinda realizes that Siddhartha has achieved what Fowler characterizes as Stage 6 Universalizing faith.  “Stage 6 becomes a disciplined, activist incarnation – making real and tangible – of the imperatives of absolute love and justice of which Stage 5 has partial apprehensions.” (Fowler, p. 200) Notice the emphasis on love and justice.  Haught calls this ‘morality,’ in the final of his four functions of religion.  This morality derives from “unselfish love.  In its major manifestations religion has increasingly intuited an unspeakable compassion at the heart of mystery.”  This love is the embodiment of our ‘attraction towards goodness’ and morality is that goodness put into action. (Haught, p. 185-186)  It is out of morality, or the will to do good in the service of altruistic love, that both Siddhartha and Gotama share what they have learned, despite knowing just how difficult to communicate it will be.

This is the role of the bodhisattva, or, in Campbell’s lexicon, the hero.  The hero’s journey, begun with departure and continued through many trials, does not end with the final ‘apotheosis’ or ‘ultimate boon.’  No, the hero’s journey must include his or her “return then to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed.” (Campbell, p. 20)  This is the journey of the boddhisattva.

However, seeing as we are not yet enlightened bodhisattvas, does that mean we must wait, like the hero, until we have achieved our own perfection to aid others?  I would argue no, for in seeking to help others now we solidify the very intentions and habits that will lead us to that which we seek for their sake – the perfection of wisdom and compassion.  This is the journey of the Buddhist chaplain.  We are not Hesse’s Gotama, the Buddha, nor even Siddhartha.  We are Govinda the friend.  We are Kamala the courtesan.  We are Vasudeva the ferryman.  We are the fellow traveler.


* This moniker has also been used for artists and writers who were sympathetic to, if not actively involved in, the communist revolutions of the past century.  It is not being used in this sense here.


Bays, Jan Chozen.  Jizo Bodhisattva: Gaurdian of Children, Travelers, & Other Voyagers.  Boston: Shambhala Press, 2003.

Campbell, Joseph.  The Hero With a Thousand Faces.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1949.

Chödrön, Pema.  No Time To Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva.  Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2005.

Dykstra, Robert C., editor.  Images of Pastoral Care: Classic Readings.  St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005.

Fowler, James W. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning.  San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1981 (1995 edition).

Haught, John F.  What is Religion? An Introduction.  New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

Hesse, Hermann.  Siddhartha. Translated by Hilda Rosner.  New York: Bantam Books, 1951.


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