book review: Chopra’s Buddha

Buddha – a story of enlightenment by Deepak Chopra

The Patheos Community invited me to read Deepak Chopra’s latest book, Buddha – a story of enlightenment, and share my thoughts on their newly setup Book Forum.  Unfortunately, I can log on but not contribute because there aren’t any “reply” buttons visible to me.  Fortunately, my fellow blogger Nate of Precious Metal is there so, if you manage to get in the group and if the Reply button is magically available for you, do consider his questions.

Having worked my way through the book, however, I think it’s worth making a comment or two here.  This may seem like a reprise of my caveat in Brad Warner’s “Sex and What I Want Zen To Be” book: Deepak Chopra is not an author I enjoy or read at all.  I’ve tried one of his books, an attempt at Arthurian fiction (The Return of Merlin), and swore off any more.  So, I was surprised by the readable start of the book.

Chopra begins with a well-crafted back story of Gautama’s childhood.  Suddhodana’s grief transformed to anger by the loss of Maya is displaced onto the child and the emotional neglect leads the young Gautama to find comfort in various parts of the palace.  All the elements of palace politics between Priest and Warrior castes are woven into a neat rationale for isolating the young prince.  Chopra then makes an interesting move in showing how this is doomed to failure.  He does this not through any mysterious encounters but through following the everyday playfulness of a young boy-child.  Gautama finds the truth of life, aging and death in the lives of soldier ants, dragonflies, and minnows.  These are not held up as any huge insights but simply left to percolate in the mind of a child where they are layered over with the usual distractions of puppy love and infatuations that handsome princes and winsome girls are prone to.  Life happens for Gautama when the adults are not looking.

Other characters who play a significant role are introduced simply.  Devadatta comes to the palace to toughen up the by-now Hamlet-like Gautama.  His sociopathy is glaring but very psychologically consistent with a child who knows he is nothing more than a pawn in a kingdom he will never possess.  Mara and Asita , at least initially, are crafted as the voices of a growing conscience in Gautama.  My favourite line comes from Krishna who appears to the starved Gautama prostrating himself in front of this vision of a blue-purple god.

“I have waited to meet you all my life,” (Gautama) murmured.  “I have abandoned everything for you.”

“I know,” Krishna said… “Now go home and don’t do anything so stupid again.”

Gautama doesn’t and forges on to his historic and mythical realization under the pipal tree.  Chopra slides into this enormous moment without much drama.  Gautama meets Mara who introduces him to Mara’s three daughters.  The verbal fencing between Gautama and “Desire,” “Lust,” and “Aversion” is a treat and the Prince Who No Longer Exists goes beyond.

Chopra would have done well to stop here.  His treatment of the various threads that wrap and traverse together in a complex life was admirable.  The writing was choppy in parts and the conclusions sometimes trite but mostly free of the New Age preaching Chopra is often (and rightfully) accused of channeling through his books.  Nevertheless, I particularly disliked the steal from Conan Doyle: “When all else fails, whatever else is left must be right.”  (Really?  Were we not to notice?)  I will give him credit however for putting together a decent and almost psychologically viable developmental history.

Then, I’m guessing, his editor called and likely said, “Deep, dear heart, we’re getting onto publication time and you’ve got to wind this baby up!”  I find many authors get caught in this 11th chapter dilemma.  So much to explore, so little time to prep for the book tour!  The last two chapters become a roller coaster of various myths of the Buddha’s life: the marauding elephant, the Turning of the Wheel, Angulimala (no, really!), Devadatta’s attempted coup, the war with Bimbisara, the reunion with Yashodhara and Rahula, Ananda and a hint of the future Socially Engaged Buddhists as the Buddha walks through the carnage of Devadatta’s war philosophizing about karmic connections.

Humanizing mythical figures is a dangerous game.  We have our pre-conceived notions of the myth and magic infused into these characters and we are not given to having these challenged by historical fact or psychological forensics.  Often these attempts sink, overburdened by trying to explain too much or be too clever.  Chopra hasn’t dodged the first bullet and was grazed by the second.  But he seems to have survived.

At the risk of blasphemy, Chopra’s attempt (at least the first chapter), along with two other treatments of the Buddha’s life, forms an interesting constellation.  Thich Nhat Hanh’s version, Old Path, White Clouds, weaves the origins of the sutras beautifully into the life this wandering mendicant painting a story of a growing community with all its joys and missteps.  Karen Armstrong’s Buddha is a more philosophically complex figure and definitely, hands-down, my favourite treatment of the Buddha’s life, despite the supra-human presentation of it.  Combining the three books, we actually have a decent insight to the life this amazing philosopher-king:  Chopra’s for the making of Buddha, Armstrong for the cultivation of Dharma, and Thich Nhat Hanh for Sangha building.

My recommendation: enjoy Chopra’s the first section: Siddhartha the Prince.  Go to the scholars for the rest.

(Edited 10 Oct 04 @ 1054: The book is divided into three sections: Siddhartha the Prince, Gautama the monk and Buddha)

7 thoughts on “book review: Chopra’s Buddha

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention book review: Chopra’s Buddha « 108zenbooks -- Topsy.com

  2. Thank you for your concluding suggestions on how to piece together a rich view of the Buddha’s life.

    I sometimes wonder about the importance of biographical detail. Do I need to know anything about an author to enjoy her book? Do I need to know anything about a chef to enjoy his food?

    At the same time, the Buddha’s life – if we could strip away the myth-making – might provide guidance and inspiration.

    Or, we could just examine our own lives, which are probably not very different from the life of the Buddha. The whole story is probably within each of us.

    • Thanks, Barry. We’re just so curious beings, aren’t we. And how can there be a celebrity without a back story! 😉

      I enjoy learning about the path people walked “before the whitewash.” Somehow it can be instructive and reassuring. But I have to keep reminding myself that all biographies are constructed realities – as opposed to contrived ones which are more in the realm of the autobiographies of the vanity press, 😀

  3. Pingback: book review: Chopra's Buddha « 108zenbooks | Pulplit Magazine

  4. The next time you feel like read a book about the Buddha, if you haven’t already read it, I recommend “Lady of the Lotus” by William E. Barrett. The novel tells the traditional story of the Buddha’s life, but more from the point of view of his wife, Yadohara.

    It was published in 1975 and I think is out of print, but you can find it on Amazon. Barrett was the author of “The Left Hand of God” and “Lillies of the Field.” He was not a Buddhist, but his telling of this tale is convincing. I loved this book and many of my women friends whom I’ve shared it with loved it too.

    • David, thank you for the book! I really enjoy the feminine voice which is so crucial to rounding out the views we hold of mythic figures! Amazon has it on their used list so I’ve ordered a copy. Another book review to do…! Yay!

  5. Pingback: book review: Chopra's Buddha « 108zenbooks | BOOK-REVIEW.TK

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