Heart of Darkness, post-colonial novella by Joseph Conrad, can be interpreted in many ways. Some may read it as colonial fiction, portraying the dark side of colonialism and how the European exploit the African. Some may read it as Modernist fiction. Marlow’s exotic adventure to Africa is his journey to meet his real self, which is his subconscious. The “Heart” of “Darkness” is unknown to most of us, yet Marlow manages to see the mystery of man’s spiritual life. However, Marlow and Kurtz’ discovering selves can be interpreted in Buddhist context as well.
The description of Marlow is mentioned three times throughout the book: twice at the beginning and once at the end. At the opening of the story, Marlow is described that “He sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arm dropped, the palm of hands outwards, resemble an idol” (page 2). The characteristic of Marlow in the description is similar to Buddha in many ways. Firstly, “an ascetic aspect” of Marlow is one of the most important principles of Buddhist practice. The Buddhist believes that self-discipline can help people get less distracted from worldly pleasure, the biggest obstacle for enlightenment. His self-discipline will prepare the reader for Marlow’s rejection of worldly pleasure later. Secondly, his posture represents the Buddha at the moment of enlightenment. Although Conrad does not specify the name of an idol, the reader can definitely relate his posture to Buddha statue. The most common iconic image of Buddha is “Bhumi-Sparsha Mudra” or “The Earth-Witness Mudra”, a posture of Buddha defeating Mara in the night before his enlightenment. Lastly, the mizzen-mast Marlow leans resembles the Bhodi tree, the tree of wisdom in Buddhism that the Buddha leans when he is enlightened.
However, the second description of Marlow shows that he actually is not the real Buddha, but the Buddha for European civilization. Marlow is described that “… he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower” (page 5) This is the first time the name Buddha is mentioned in the novel. However, the lotus-flower, which the Buddha is always shown seated on, is not under Marlow. The lack of lotus-flower shows that Marlow is not the Buddha in Buddhism aspect but the European Buddha who is going to deliver the first sermon of his experience searching for his true self in Africa to his audiences.
At the end of the story, Marlow is described that “Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of meditating Buddha” (page 102) Again, the image of Buddha is compared to Marlow but the gesture has changed. Marlow takes his hand down and sits in silence because his sermon is finally over. His gesture now is called “Dhyanibuddha”, which is the Buddha in deep meditation.
Marlow experiencing life in Africa is a kind of enlightenment. In the eye of Marlow,...