Mar 11, 2008

Deepak Chopra's Buddha

The recent bestseller "Buddha" by Deepak Chopra follows a long literary tradition of fictionalized accounts of the Buddha's life story which really go back at least to the Buddhacarita of Ashvaghosa. In modern times, the genre starts with Matthew Arnold's "Light of Asia" and continued through Hermann Hessa (Siddhartha) and Thich Nat Hanh (Old Path, White Clouds). No doubt there have been many others. It is not unusual for such authors to use the character of the Buddha to voice philosophical ideas of their own. Matthew Arnold's "dew drop slipping into the shining sea" owes more to the Upanishads, perhaps by way of the Theosophical Society, then anything found in the Buddhist canon. Even Thich Nat Hanh rewrites quite a bit of the story and teachings, for instance putting a somewhat laboured feminist slant onto the story of the founding of the bhikkhuni order.

Deepak Chopra is certainly no exception. The literary enterprise of crafting a fictional life of the Buddha is not in itself illegitimate. Of his early life, we really have very little solid information. Even the well-known account of the Siddhattha's life as a prince, with his father Suddhodana attempting to keep him hidden from the realities of sickness, old-age and death is mostly an early post-canonical gloss. Some elements of this story are improbable, for one thing we know from canonical sources that the Sakyans at that time had a republican government. The early and unknown teller of these tales should perhaps be credited with founding the genre of ficitional Buddha stories.

While we may grant Mr. Chopra and the other authors some literary license for inventing details, it is fair to take them to task when they distort the known history and especially the teachings. If the Buddha's early life is very sketchy, his subsequent career and doctrines are very well documented in the Pali Canon.

For example, for whatever reason Deepak Chopra seems intent on making one of the Buddha's principal teachings to be the freeing of Indian civilization from a superstitious belief in the gods. In the introduction, he says the Buddha "never mentioned miracles or the gods, and had a doubtful view of both." Oh my. To cite just one counter-example among many, when the Buddha was asked point blank whether there are gods he answered, "It is known by me to be the case, Bharadvaja, that there are gods." (Majjhima 100)

So, Deeprak Chopra writes out the moving story of the Brahma Sahampatti begging the newly enlightened Buddha on bended knee to teach for the benefit of "those with little dust in their eyes." Instead, the event which moves the Buddha to get up from his Bodhi seat is a vision of the face of his wife Yasodhara! In passing, it should be noted that Chopra is not the only modern author to diss poor Sahampatti. Stephen Batchelor writes him off as "the ancient way of saying, an idea." This sort of thing seems to me a shame. Our modern taste is quite coarse, and seems unable to appreciate grandeur and high tragedy.

Curiously though, while there are no gods in Deepak Chopra's book, there is one devil. Mara is quite definitely personified. But he seems to my taste to be modelled much more on the Christian Satan than on the Mara of the Pali Canon. It is an odd cosmology that admits the demonic while denying the divine.

There are a few other incidents that appear to show Christian influence. In the middle section of the book, corresponding the period of the Bodhisatta's austerities and quest, at one point he is travelling with another "monk" (the term Chopra uses for samana) when they come across a farmer's cart over-turned in the ditch. Siddhattha proceeds to help the farmer push it out and in his mind he is critical of the other monk who seems to "have forgotten the monk's vow of service." Service in that sense was never a part of the Indian yogic tradition, either pre- or post-Buddhist. In addition, Siddhattha in his wanderings heals the sick and at least apparently raises the dead.

It is the last section, the Buddha after his enlightenment, that represents the greatest distortion though. Deepak Chopra's Buddha bears more resemblance to Keanu Reeeves in the Matrix movies than to the Buddha of the Pali Canon. He ends a war by striding into the battlefield and snatching the flashing swords away with his bare hands. And in another telling episode, he returns a weeping woman's dead husband by turning back time time so that his murder never happened. (Didn't Christopher Reeve save Margot Kidder in one of the Superman movies this way?) Compare this to the canonical Buddha and the story of Kisagotami.

The philosophical underpinning of this New Age Buddha seems to be quite close to the ideas expressed in "What the Bleep Do I Know?" and other New Age sources; that this world is essentially a phantom or a dream and that enlightenment is a kind of lucid dreaming. It is not transcendence of the world, but mastery over it.

What is perhaps worse, is the scene where the Buddha is re-united with Suddhodana and they hug one another and weep like sensitive new age guys. Why is it that the modern taste seems to want a weeping Buddha? What part of making an end of suffering don't we get?

I also have some historical and literary criticisms of Chopra's "Buddha." Historically, I think his portrayal of the religion of the Brahmins is totally anachronistic. He has the head priest of the Sakyans sacrificing to Shiva, which belongs to much later period. The brahmins of the Buddha's time were still following the original Vedic Aryan religion and would have prayed to Indra. In general, his picture of Indian beliefs, customs and mores seems to be that of several centuries later than the time the book is ostensibly set in.

On the literary side, several of the characters in Deepak Chopra's book are much less interesting than the originals known from the canon and commentaries. Suddhodana, for example, is quite one-sided; a simple bloody-minded tyrant rather than a basically good figure with the one tragic flaw of ambition. The oldest sources are a rich mine of fascinating character studies, very human people with a mixture of noble qualities and vices. This seems to be lost in translation, and most of Chopra's characters are more like one-sided cartoons. Surely in a literary treatment with pretensions to the novelist's art, the complexities of the characters should have been enhanced and explored, rather than written out.

It should be said that Deepak Chopra in his last chapter does a reasonable job of summarizing some of the main points of the Buddhist teaching, including a fair summary of the Three Characteristics and of the Eightfold Path. However, he does end the book on a false note, in the very last sentence misrepresenting the goal of the path. "[the Buddha] promised that the end point would be eternity." This is no better, and perhaps worse, than "dewdrops slipping into shining seas."


Joe said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention Karen Armstrong's "Buddha," which more than a strictly literary account in the ordinary sense of a biography uses his life-story as an unfolding of his teachings. Perhaps it's this less-than- or more-than-literary quality that put it beyond the radar of this post, but if not then I humbly want to suggest it.

Robert Stone said...

This is why I don't read these sorts of books. Generally I expect them to just project new age ideas into historical fiction and it's just annoying.

Really anything acknowledged as fiction isn't so bad, but if he's making false factual claims in the introduction, that's bad.

Hokai said...

Thanks for this review, your objections are correct. To readers, I would recommend a historical biography of the Buddha by H. W. Schumann "The Historical Buddha", published in English by Penguin.

Angulimalo said...

In relation to Deepak Chopra (or his ghost writers) I quote (loosely) from a dialogue between Tom Cruise and Paul Newman:
PN "Can't you smell it?"
TC "Smell what?"
PN "The money son, the money".

As for the life story of the Buddha, the best modern author is the late Bhikkhu Nanamoli.
The other authors are clearly pushing ideological barrows.

Richard said...

I agree with your good post in general, but I have to quibble with your characterization of Mara as the "demonic" antithesis of the "divine" gods. My understanding is that the gods to which the Buddha refers to are, in fact, _samsaric_ gods, subject, after a very long lifespan, to death and rebirth (usually in lower realms). In Buddhism, surely "divine" would refer to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, not the gods.

And any, since Buddhism is nondualistic, "demonic" = "divine"...

Eric said...

I try to avoid Deepak Chopra and the New Age ilk. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu observes, most of their ideas come from Romanticism rather than Buddhism:

"Many Westerners, when new to Buddhism, are struck by the uncanny familiarity of what seem to be its central concepts: interconnectedness, wholeness, ego-transcendence. But what they may not realize is that the concepts sound familiar because they are familiar. To a large extent, they come not from the Buddha's teachings but from the dharma gate of Western psychology, through which the Buddha's words have been filtered. They draw less from the root sources of the dharma than from their own hidden roots in Western culture: the thought of the German Romantics.
The German Romantics may be dead and almost forgotten, but their ideas are still very much alive. Their thought has survived because they were the first to tackle the problem of how it feels to grow up in a modern society. Their analysis of the problem, together with their proposed solution, still rings true.
Modern society, they saw, is dehumanizing in that it denies human beings their wholeness. The specialization of labor leads to feelings of fragmentation and isolation; the bureaucratic state, to feelings of regimentation and constriction. The only cure for these feelings, the Romantics proposed, is the creative artistic act. This act integrates the divided self and dissolves its boundaries in an enlarged sense of identity and interconnectedness with other human beings and nature at large. Human beings are most fully human when free to create spontaneously from the heart. The heart's creations are what allow people to connect. Although many Romantics regarded religious institutions and doctrines as dehumanizing, some of them turned to religious experience-a direct feeling of oneness with the whole of nature-as a primary source for re-humanization.
When psychology and psychotherapy developed as disciplines in the West, they absorbed many of the Romantics' ideas and broadcast them into the culture at large. As a result, concepts such as integration of the personality, self-fulfillment, and interconnectedness, together with the healing powers of wholeness, spontaneity, playfulness, and fluidity have long been part of the air we breathe. So has the idea that religion is a primarily a quest for a feeling-experience, and religious doctrines are a creative response to that experience.
In addition to influencing psychology, these conceptions inspired liberal Christianity and reform Judaism, which proposed that traditional doctrines had to be creatively recast to speak to each new generation in order to keep religious experience vital and alive. So it was only natural that when the dharma came west, people interpreted it in line with these conceptions as well. Asian teachers-many of whom had absorbed Romantic ideas through Westernized education before coming here-found they could connect with Western audiences by stressing themes of spontaneity and fluidity in opposition to the "bureaucracy of the ego." Western students discovered that they could relate to the doctrine of dependent co-arising when it was interpreted as a variation on interconnectedness; and they could embrace the doctrine of not-self as a denial of the separate self in favor of a larger, more encompassing identity with the entire cosmos.
In fact, the Romantic view of religious life has shaped more than just isolated dharma teachings. It colors the Western view of the purpose of dharma practice as a whole. Western teachers from all traditions maintain that the aim of Buddhist practice is to gain the creative fluidity that overcomes dualities. As one author has put it, the Buddha taught that "dissolving the barriers that we erect between ourselves and the world is the best use of our human lives ….[Egolessness] manifests as inquisitiveness, as adaptability, as humor, as playfulness… our capacity to relax with not knowing." Or as another has said, "When our identity expands to include everything, we find a peace with the dance of the world." Adds a third: "Our job for the rest of our life is to open up into that immensity and to express it."
Just as the Chinese had Taoism as their dharma gate-the home-grown tradition providing concepts that helped them understand the dharma-we in the West have Romanticism as ours. The Chinese experience with dharma gates, though, contains an important lesson that is often overlooked. After three centuries of interest in Buddhist teachings, they began to realize that Buddhism and Taoism were asking different questions. As they rooted out these differences, they started using Buddhist ideas to question their Taoist presuppositions. This was how Buddhism, instead of turning into a drop in the Taoist sea, was able to inject something genuinely new into Chinese culture. The question here in the West is whether we will learn from the Chinese example and start using Buddhist ideas to question our dharma gate, to see exactly how far the similarities between the gate and the actual dharma go. If we don't, we run the danger of mistaking the gate for the dharma itself, and of never going through it to the other side."

Manapo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
They call him James Ure said...

This is a bit off topic but I've always wondered how we know any of the suttas to be real/historically accurate?

How do we not know that most were simply made up by well meaning monks to add their own spin onto the life of the Buddha?

I'm not trying to be argumentative but I'm not an expert and was just wondering what your insight might be.

Zack said...

I haven't read the entire book, and honestly can't really say that I entirely intend to, but already I can full-heartedly agree with your analysis, Ajahn. Though it is a nice colorful depiction of childhood (thusfar), it lacks the seriousness and often bluntness of life. And, as you also said, it distorts the teachings, as well as the time period, and more-or-less exists in an ideal literary universe. I bought the book hoping it would contrast the more stiff Theravada books I have read, but in the end it contrasted wholly too much. I think, for me, perhaps it's best to stick with traditional stories, and look more at the biographies of modern Arahats for inspiration. The biography of Acariya Mun is a particularly inspiring book when held along-side the Pali canon, for instance.

Angulimalo said...

In regards to the biographies of the Thai Ajahns. it's particularly bad form to be seen as including information that could be construed as critical. Ajahn Thanissaro tells the story of writing a bio of his teacher and including material concerning Ajahn Fuangs struggles that he found inspiring....the Thais were horrified. So just remember Ajahn Mun didn't have a linear path to Enlightenment.

Zack said...

I don't know if I quite understand then. I've never really thought of the path to enlightenment to be linear at all. Is it not so? From what I've read, even the Buddha had his struggles. But maybe I need to re-examine this.

Angulimalo said...

In simpler terms the Thai won't put in for example the fact that there were times when Ajahn Mun was bored out of his tree or struggled with lust and had an erection for 3 months. I find the biographies of the Thai Ajahns of limited value because they don't seem to have much connection with my own struggles. But I fear this is getting off topic. I would suggest that you track down Bhikkhu Nanamoli's "Life of the Buddha" should be the North American stockists.ea

Zack said...

I find that a rather fascinating bit of information actually. It makes it all the more inspiring. I knew it was really an idealistic biography, that much was obvious. But I'm sure even the Buddha struggled with lust at one point or another, if not in that lifetime, than most definitely in another. It's a very real human thing. Forgive me if this is offensive though... I don't quite know the do's and don't's of posting on Buddhist forums. I will check out "Life of the Buddha" though. Thank you.

Eric said...

"I find the biographies of the Thai Ajahns of limited value because they don't seem to have much connection with my own struggles."

They usually mention their struggles in their talks. For instance, Ajaan Chah spoke about his struggles with food cravings and lust.

Zack said...

Yes, I find that I can connect with many of the struggles they mention, and using their advice, I can quickly get through it. Food cravings, sensual pleasure, over-sleeping, etc., a lot of these problems are addressed. I find it easier to connect with people who have lived within my lifetime, or the lifetime of my parents or grandparents, than I can with the Savaka Arihants or even the Buddha.

seanhoade said...

"In relation to Deepak Chopra (or his ghost writers)..."

Ouch. :)

Chopra likes to remind people of the importance of the imagination (as in "science isn't all that great," so maybe this is another example of "imagination" over anything approaching reality or substance.

Great post, Bhikkhu, as always.

Sanj said...

It is not transcendence of the world, but mastery over it.

I think this hits the nail on the head. I abandaoned Deepak chopra's ageless body timeless mind midway, because he generally tends to build a kind of desire for this kind of mastery, and I guess interested readers would just want to buy more and more of his books - and more money. I did like his Seven Laws book though, but its probably a good idea to stop at that :)

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Alim said...

my first Deepak Chopra book.. I resisted him all this while coz I thought of him more as a 'commercial' author than an 'intellectual'..

I still think of him like that.. but I have to admit that people may criticize the book as flawed or faulty at certain parts.. but it's a pretty good read.. and I guess the one's who read it are aware that it is fictionalized and are wise enough to know that there would be a few 'personal' touches to the book which others would term as 'inaccuracies'..

I would still advise someone new to Buddhism to read it.. it adds an auro of romanticism to Buddhism which is sadly lacking in other 'accurate' and 'unflawed' books on Buddhism..

focus said...

I just finished reading Deepak Chopra version of Buddha's story. He admits to his fictional approach prior to telling the story. I am however surprised to see so many examples of miracles and actual manifestations of demons in his version. However I may have a distorted and inaccurate understanding of Buddhism. I understood Buddha to be a man like the rest of us living in a world that we witness every day who through intensive reflection and meditation managed to reveal a brilliant, elegant and beautiful understanding of the world we perceive. I believed Buddha broke through the core issue of human suffering by shedding light on our compulsive desires to want things to be other than they are.
I am thrown by Mr. Chopra's use of amazing miracles in telling this already remarkable and inspiring story of conversion and enlightenment. But I will admit I may have had Buddha's story all wrong. I've read countless books on Buddhism and have meditated primarily by myself regularly over the past decade and on a rare occasion with a group of Soto Zen Buddhists far from where I live. I love these core ideas but admit to having trouble believing what appears to me to be unreal rather than remarkably real.
If fantastic miracles and and belief in demons and gods is necessary to Buddhist following please let me know. I will respectfully decline to participate.

Mugunumulle Chandima said...

The real way to understand Buddha is not by reading books. You have to meditate according to Vipassana meditation technique and Understand by your self, how actually he is by understanding Dhamma. Read your real book called "Mind and body".