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."