Imagine the Life of Buddha
Combining western scientific knowledge with eastern spiritual wisdom, Deepak Chopra has developed his own unique form of complementary, mind-body medicine. A hugely successful one-man industry with his own California-based Chopra Center for Wellbeing, the Indian-born physician has also made time to write some 49 books ranging from spiritual and medical advice to fiction. The most recent, Buddha, is a novel about the early life of the great spiritual leader, taking the Indian prince Siddhartha from his palace upbringing through his years as a seeker to his transformative enlightenment.
Why have you written about Buddha?
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.
Was there a deeper attraction to this subject?
I grew up with the myths, the stories, and the history of Siddhartha the prince, who then became Gautama the monk, who then became Buddha the enlightened being. I have been to the places that I write about many times throughout my childhood. 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.
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 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?
You depict Siddhartha as a person with real-life struggles. Yet this humanistic depiction is accompanied by apparently supernatural and even miraculous events, as well as otherworldy characters. How do you reconcile the 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 are expressions of his own archetypal self, both divine and diabolical.
Buddha means "enlightened one." How does the meaning of enlightened differ from 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.