Blood beats in the ears. Beat, beat, beat. A slow drum in the darkness, beating in the ears of one who lies wakeful with fever, with the sickness of too much misery. It beats unceasingly, in the ears, in the mind itself. Body and mind are indivisible and in the spirit blood painfully throbs. Sad thoughts droop through the mind. A small pure light comes swaying down through the darkness, comes to rest, resigning itself to the obscurity of its misfortune. There is resignation, but blood still beats in the ears. Blood still painfully beats, though the mind has acquiesced. And then, suddenly, the mind exerts itself, throws off the fever of too much suffering and, laughing, commands the body to dance. The introduction to the last movement comes to its suspended, throbbing close. There is an instant of expectation and then, with a series of mounting trochees and a downward hurrying, step after tiny step, in triple time, the dance begins. Irrelevant, irreverent, out of key with all that has gone before. But man’s greatest strength lies in his capacity for irrelevance. In the midst of pestilences, he builds cathedrals; and a slave, he can think the irrelevant and unsuitable thoughts of a free man. The spirit is slave to fever and beating blood, at the mercy of an obscure and tyrannous misfortune. But irrelevantly, it elects to dance in triple measure—a mounting skip, a patter of descending feet.
It was a life of order and strict service, an unending sacrifice, a constantly renewed striving for clarity and justice. It was much purer, much better than the life of an artist, vagrant, and seducer of women. But seen from above, with God’s eyes — was this exemplary life of order and discipline, of renunciation of the world and of the joys of the senses, of remoteness from dirt and blood, of withdrawal into philosophy and meditation any better than Goldmund’s life? Had man really been created to live a regulated life, with hours and duties indicated by prayer bells? Had man really been created to study Aristotle and Saint Thomas, to know Greek, to extinguish his senses, to flee the world? Had God not created him with senses and instincts, with blood-colored darknesses, with the capacity for sin, lust, and despair? These were the questions around which the Abbot’s thoughts circled when they dwelt upon his friend.
Yes, and was it not perhaps more childlike and human to lead a Goldmund-life, more courageous, more noble perhaps in the end to abandon oneself to the cruel stream of reality, to chaos, to commit sins and accept their bitter consequences rather than live a clean life with washed hands outside the world, laying out a lonely harmonious thought-garden, strolling sinlessly among one’s sheltered flower beds. Perhaps it was harder, braver and nobler to wander through the forests and along the highways with torn shoes, to suffer sun and rain, hunger and need, to play with the joys of the senses and pay for them with suffering.
Yet, one of the most compelling things about the Buddhist view of suffering is the notion, inherent in the Wheel of Life image, that the causes of suffering are also the means of release; that is, the sufferer’s perspective determines whether a given realm is a vehicle for awakening or bondage. Conditioned by the forces of attachment, aversion, and delusion, our faulty perception of the realms—not the realms themselves—cause suffering.