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  • Writer's pictureStephen Shields

Much of Peak XV’s story focuses on Siddhārtha’s early life over 2,500 years ago.

Stephen Shields, creator of Peak XV begins his story with the birth of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha. Siddhārtha was born into a royal family in present-day Nepal over 2500 years ago. He lived a life of privilege and luxury until one day he left the royal enclosure and encountered for the first time, an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. Disturbed by this he became a monk before adopting the harsh poverty of Indian asceticism. Neither path satisfied him and he decided to pursue the ‘Middle Way’ - a life without luxury but also without poverty.

The story Siddhārtha begins in the Nepalese district of Kapilavastu. Siddhārtha decides to leave behind his home in the hope of gaining spiritual illumination by becoming an ascetic wandering beggar of the Shramanas. Joined by his best friend, Govinda, Siddhārtha fasts, becomes homeless, renounces all personal possessions, and intensely meditates, eventually seeking and personally speaking with Gautama, the famous Buddha, or Enlightened One. Afterward, both Siddhārtha and Govinda acknowledge the elegance of the Buddha's teachings.

Although Govinda hastily joins the Buddha's order, Siddhārtha does not follow, claiming that the Buddha's philosophy, though supremely wise, does not account for the necessarily distinct experiences of each person. He argues that the individual seeks a unique, personal meaning that cannot be presented to him by a teacher. He thus resolves to carry on his quest alone. Siddhārtha crosses a river and the generous ferryman, whom Siddhārtha is unable to pay, merrily predicts that Siddhārtha will return to the river later to compensate him in some way. Venturing onward toward city life, Siddhārtha discovers Kamala, the most beautiful woman he has yet seen. Kamala, a courtesan, notes Siddhārtha's handsome appearance and fast wit, telling him that he must become wealthy to win her affections so that she may teach him the art of love. Although Siddhārtha despised materialistic pursuits as a Shramana, he agrees now to Kamala's suggestions. She directs him to the employ of Kamaswami, a local businessman, and insists that he have Kamaswami treat him as an equal rather than an underling. Siddhārtha easily succeeds, providing a voice of patience and tranquility, which Siddhārtha learned from his days as an ascetic, against Kamaswami's fits of passion. Thus Siddhārtha becomes a rich man and Kamala's lover, though in his middle years he realizes that the luxurious lifestyle he has chosen is merely a game that lacks spiritual fulfillment. Leaving the fast-paced bustle of the city, Siddhārtha returns to the river and thinks of a new existence and is saved only by an internal experience of the holy word, Om. The very next morning, Siddhārtha briefly reconnects with Govinda, who is passing through the area as a wandering Buddhist. Siddhārtha decides to live the rest of his life in the presence of the spiritually inspirational river. Siddhārtha thus reunites with the ferryman, named Vasudeva, with whom he begins a humbler way of life. Although Vasudeva is a simple man, he understands and relates that the river has many voices and meaningful messages to divulge to any who might listen. Some years later, Kamala, now a Buddhist convert, is traveling to see the Buddha at his deathbed, accompanied by her reluctant young son, when she is bitten by a poisonous snake near Siddhārtha's river. Siddhārtha recognizes her and realizes that the boy is his child. After Kamala's death, Siddhārtha attempts to console and raise the furiously resistant boy, until one day the child flees altogether. Although Siddhārtha is desperate to find his runaway son, Vasudeva urges him to let the boy see his path, much like Siddhārtha did himself in his youth. Listening to the river with Vasudeva, Siddhārtha realizes that time is an illusion and that all of his feelings and experiences, even those of suffering, are part of a great and ultimately jubilant fellowship of all things connected in the cyclical unity of nature.

After Siddhārtha's moment of illumination, Vasudeva claims that his work is done and he must depart into the woods, leaving Siddhārtha fulfilled peacefully and alone once more. Toward the end of his life, Govinda hears about an enlightened ferryman and travels to Siddhārtha, not initially recognizing him as his old childhood friend. Govinda asks the now-elderly Siddhārtha to relate his wisdom, and Siddhārtha replies that for every true statement there is an opposite one that is also true; that language and the confines of time lead people to adhere to one fixed belief that does not account for the fullness of the truth. Because nature works in a self-sustaining cycle, every entity carries in it the potential for its opposite, and so the world must always be considered complete. Siddhārtha urges people to identify and love the world in its completeness. Siddhārtha then requests that Govinda kiss his forehead and, when he does, Govinda experiences the visions of timelessness that Siddhārtha himself saw with Vasudeva by the river. Govinda bows to his wise friend and Siddhārtha smiles radiantly, having found enlightenment.

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