Call Deepak Chopra a "new age guru," and he bristles. To his mind, the label belittles a serious, career-long effort to combine western scientific knowledge with eastern spiritual wisdom in a comprehensive approach to health and healing. A hugely successful one-man industry with his own California-based Chopra Center for Wellbeing, a nonstop lecture tour, and a weekly radio program, the Indian-born physician (internal medicine and endocrinology) has also made time for 49 books. The most recent, Buddha, is a fictionalized version of the early life of the great spiritual leader (563?-483? B.C.), taking the northern Indian prince Siddhartha from his cloistered palace upbringing through his years as a monk and seeker to his transformative enlightenment.
I have been totally surprised to find that Buddha is so trendy these days, and yet when I talk to people who are interested in Buddhism, I find they know very little about the life of the man. In fact, some don't even know that he was from India. I have also talked to western Buddhist scholars and, to my surprise, discovered that many of them, too, had little idea about the person behind the philosophy. Sometimes the only inkling they had of the person was through a novel by Herman Hesse called Sidhhartha, which is not about the Buddha. He is a made-up figure with Buddhist leanings, but he had nothing to do with Buddha's life. So I thought I should really write about this person
But what was the deeper attraction to this subject?
I grew up in an environment [in New Delhi, India] where I had heard every little story that is in the novel—and many more. I grew up with the myths, the stories, and the history of Siddhartha the prince who then became Guatama the monk who then became Buddha the enlightened being. I have been to the places that I write about many times throughout my childhood. So I thought, why not write this story? The only part that I had to imagine is not what is happening outside but what was happening in his mind. At first that seemed daunting, but then I realized that Buddha's story is our story. He is not a deity, a prophet, or a messiah. He is a young man with a vulnerable heart who is asking the same questions that we all ask when we come of age: Who am I, and what is the meaning of my existence? Why do people suffer? What happens after we die? How can we have a deeper understanding of our existential conundrums? At first, in fact, I was going to call the novel I, Buddha.
Even more personally, my father passed away about five or six years ago, and then shortly after that my mother did too. I was immersing the ashes of my father in the Ganges up in the north of India, which is very rich in Buddhist lore. I even went to our family temple, which had records of my ancestors going back more than 2,000 years to the time of Buddha. Sitting there immersing my father's ashes, I thought, "Well, I'm the next in line for the experience of death." I spent a lot of time thinking about my death, and somehow that compelled me to confront the questions Buddha had asked: Do we all have to grow old? Do we all have to die? So I started rereading about Buddha, and that's what precipitated my writing about him.
How has the story of Buddha's life come to us, and which sources did you use in shaping your novel?
First of all, there is a lot of local lore that exists in the places that I have visited, like Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment, or Sarnath, where he gave his first sermon. You can find a lot of literature there. But I will be very honest with you: I started with Google. Thich Naht Hahn, a remarkable Vietnamese Buddhist monk, is the author of another life of Buddha that is very academically sound, Old Path White Cloud: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha. I used that as well as Karen Armstrong's life of Buddha. But as I said, many of the best stories and characters are absent in western literature, and they are the things I learned in my childhood.
You depict Siddhartha as a very real person, with real-life struggles, who attains wisdom that is perhaps mystically influenced but still very much this-worldly and nontheistic. Yet this humanistic depiction is accompanied by apparently supernatural and even miraculous events as well as otherworldly characters. How do you reconcile this seeming inconsistency?
Well, in the time Siddhartha lived, India was a place where everyday reality was enmeshed in mythology, and it is so even today. People very easily move back and forth, both in their imagination and their behavior, between reality and the world of mythical beings. The supernatural elements that I have introduced in Siddhartha's life, these supernatural beings, are expressions of his own archetypal self, both divine and diabolical but mostly diabolical. Mara (the shape-changing Lord of Illusion) is his shadow. It's easy if you are an Indian to move back and forth between the mythical domain and so-called everyday reality.
I also wanted to make the point that Buddha was very much a product of the [Hindu] Vedic culture, who gave a new vocabulary to the nondualistic philosophy of ancient India that made the teaching easier to understand than what the elitist Brahman preachers taught. It's so amazing that Buddha never became really popular or accepted in India. And Brahmans still argue about silly things like the meaning of Nirvana and how it's different from Vedic philosophy. But it's not. It has its roots in Vedic tradition.
Buddha means "enlightened one," but how does the meaning of enlightened differ here from our more conventional understandings of the word?
The meaning here is that your real self is not a person, that there is no such thing as a separate self, that a person doesn't really exist. What we call a person is a transient behavior of the total universe, and when you get to the consciousness that is behind your thoughts, you are in touch with the same consciousness that is behind all the intelligent activity of the whole universe. So enlightened here means transcendence to that level of existence where the personal self becomes the universal self. Through mindfulness and meditation, observing that all phenomena arise and subside in consciousness, Buddha was able to touch this domain of existence in which all things occur. Having that experience, and not just an intellectual insight, he found a level of being where there is infinite kindness and compassion. His meaning of enlightenment is really Nirvana, which is the nondual consciousness that gives rise to everything that we call reality.
What religious tradition were you raised in?
My mother came from a Hindu family, and my father had a mixed Hindu and Sikh background. But at that time, the only schools that gave you a good education were Irish Christian missionary schools. So while I heard about Buddha and learned Hindu stories from my mother and Sikh stories from my father, in school all I absorbed was what the Jesuit preachers taught me about the Gospels and other Christian writings. Around the age of 12, many of my classmates converted to Christianity. I didn't. But I was totally taken with the prayers and sacraments of Catholicism. I was fascinated by the rituals of Christianity, but also by the ones at home. I had a rich understanding of many traditions.
Do you now consider yourself a Buddhist?
No, I don't. What I find among Buddhists now are schisms, schools of thought, often with a lot of rigidity. So I don't consider myself Buddhist because I don't think Buddha himself believed in ideology or dogma. He would say that he was showing us very practical ways to get the same insights ourselves. He was a secular spiritual person. He never spoke about God, and many people thought that he was even an atheist.
The "Middle Way" is the practical path of moderation for seekers who can't go the whole distance and attain enlightenment. Could you tell us whether you have settled for it, or are you hoping to go the whole way?
I think it's not a bad idea to want to go the whole way, but it's consistent with Buddhist philosophy to also be detached from the outcome, because if you become attached to the outcome, you'll never get there. So I do love the Middle Way, even though I may have a different understanding of what living by the right practices of the Eightfold Path means. They help me be centered in the confusion, uncertainty, and sometimes anarchy of our time.
You have just finished a book about Jesus and are also writing a novel about him. How are the fundamental teachings of Jesus and Buddha similar and different?
They are similar in relation to the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—and in the total embodiment of nonviolence—you must turn the other cheek and love your enemies. Buddha says when you look deep enough into your enemy, you will see that he is yourself. The same with loving your neighbor. We are all inseparably one. So the teachings are similar even if they are enclosed in different languages, which reflect the cultures they came from.
What about sin? Jesus clearly thinks it exists, while Buddha views it as one of the many misconceptions. And what about God?
What Jesus calls sin Buddha calls ignorance, lack of awareness. So, yes, the sin part of Jesus's teaching is very much derived from his rabbinical background. The God question is also very different. The God idea is totally from the Jewish tradition. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God created the universe, whereas in the Buddhist tradition, Being is Becoming. So God, or the intelligence that is at the source of creation, is not some outside intelligence but is, in fact, inherent in the consciousness that conceives, governs, and becomes the universe. But still, there is little difference in the moral codes of behavior.
Is there a fundamental tension between spirituality and religion as we have come to understand those words, and how does the novel Buddha deal with it?
I think spirituality is a domain of awareness where we all experience our universality and where we experience universal truth. It has very little to do with religious dogma, ideology, or even self-righteous morality. The novel Buddha deals with the experience of a person and I hope shows that this is an experience that is open to all of us. Whereas religious ideology is divisive and quarrelsome, I think secular spirituality is unifying and all-inclusive.
What does fiction allow you to do that you cannot do in other kinds of writing or presentation?
When you do other kinds of writing and are sticking to the facts, you are not revealing the total truth, because the total truth is how you see the world. The total truth is being vulnerable and exposing yourself. Through the characters of the novel, both the sacred and the profane are exposed. When you write about Devadatta [Siddhartha's hot-tempered rival] or Mara [the Lord of Illusion], you are exposing what exists in your imagination. In many ways, as the novelist V. S. Naipaul says, fiction reveals the truth much more than nonfiction.
As I wrote this novel, I wanted it to be as close to the truth as possible. I was almost in a reverential mood throughout the writing of it, always meditating before writing, always paying homage to the great tradition, but always also recognizing that if I had to tell the truth as I saw it, it had better be a good story.