bu review: deepak chopra’s buddha

by vanessagobes

I wrote a detailed book review of Deepak Chopra’s fictional novel Buddha about a year ago on Everything Old which, while it is embellished by Chopra’s imagination, is rooted in truth and a wonderfully colorful and soulful version of the life of Prince Siddhartha, the original Buddha.  I’m reposting the crib notes I recorded last year…

September 6, 2011

Do you know the story of Buddha?  Though over the years I’ve learned a bit of Buddhist philosophy, I never took the time to learn about Buddha himself.  Honestly, I didn’t even know if he really existed, which is funny b/c after reading the book Buddha by Deepak Chopra, I found out he did really exist, but then he didn’t really exist either.  This everything-is-nothing philosophy is complicatedly simple.

Here are some spirity crib notes on Chopra’s version of Buddha’s life…

It all starts with a warrior king, Suddhodana, viciously defending his kingdom called Sakya, India, 563 BC.  Though he’s a merciless soldier, he’s a loving husband and worships his wife Maya.  She was unable to conceive a child but Suddhodanna never turned to other women.  One night, Maya had a premonition she’d bear a son.  She rushed to the king’s rooms and 9 months later Prince Siddhartha was born.  Tragically, Maya died shortly after giving birth.

An old ascetic hermit named Asita predicted that this baby would be the Buddha, the One who returns light to the world of suffering.  He visited Mara, a nasty demon who lorded over pain and death, and told him his prediction.  Mara was pissed.  He tried to curse the baby but it didn’t really work.

Meanwhile, a group of high-caste holy men, Brahmins, presented Suddhodana with his son’s astrological charts.  All signs pointed to greatness.  The king was thrilled but there was more.  Siddhartha would rule the four corners of the earth but it was predicted that Suddhondana would disown him as a son in the process, as the boy had a very strong spiritual calling.  Asita confirmed the reports.

Suddhodana wanted his son to be a warrior king like him, so he and the kingdom’s high Brahmin, Canki, composed a plan to keep Siddhartha’s spiritual tendencies smothered by disallowing him to encounter any type of suffering until the age of 32.  Suddhodana banished every single old, sick, disfigured or ugly person in the the kingdom.  He sent them to a place just beyond the kingdom walls called “The Forgotten City”.

Siddhartha lived happily for many years but his pull toward heaven was strong.  He asked big questions and felt deep compassion.  His temperament was mild, not one of a warrior, which disappointed the king.  When his older cousin Devadatta was imported from a neighboring kingdom to teach the prince toughness, Siddhartha was in for a shocker.  This kid was an asshole.  He threw rocks at Siddhartha, teased him, threatened him, disrespected his best friend, a low-caste stable boy named Channa.  The demon Mara tapped into Devadatta easily and planned to use him to rub out the future Buddha, but Mara did not leave it all up to Devadatta.

Mara continued to shadow Siddhartha over the years, too, and crept into the prince’s thoughts formally, encouraging him to become his student.  But so did Asita, who appeared to teach him how to meditate like a yogi and find stillness.

On Siddhartha’s 18th birthday, Suddhodanna threw him a coming out party for the neighboring (enemy) kingdoms, complete with mock battles.  Siddhartha reluctantly participated.  He was an excellent athlete and well-trained warrior so he easily bested his opponents in all matches, and did so without armor.  In his last show of competition, he accidentally pierced his opponents neck with an arrow and the man died.  Devadatta publicly chided him and Channa stepped in to defend.  Siddhartha came between the two and forced the challenge back to himself.  He and Devadatta duked it out.  The prince won, sparing D’s life, and had a godlike moment when he envisioned himself jumping off a cliff in complete peace and heard the words Surrender and be Free.  Channa lived, too, but not without punishment.  Low-castes can be killed for even breathing on a high-caste.  The king whipped him brutally and spared his life.

So in revenge for complete humiliation, Devadatta, the total SOB that he was, found out that Siddhartha had a crush on this girl named Sujata.  Devadatta went to her room at night, raped and killed her, then secretly tossed her body in the river.  Thinking there was a chance she could still be alive, Siddhartha and Channa escaped the kingdom walls to search for her.  What they found instead was The Forgotten City.  Siddhartha couldn’t believe what the king had done to control him.

For the next decade, he spent his time helping the poor.  During this time he also got hitched to a woman named Yashodhara and had a son named Rahula.  He would not stay to watch his family grow, though.  His spiritual calling overwhelmed him and he gave up his worldly status, changed his name to Gautama and retreated to the jungles, forests and mountains of India.

He sought Dharma, gurus, wisdom.  He studied under an ancient hermit and learned to meditate for days on end.  He became frustrated by a monk named Ganaka who challenged his desire to serve others, he met gurus Alara and Udaka who taught him the wisdom of ancient scripture, but Gautama was still not enlightened.  Nobody seemed to be.

So he retreated to cave on the edge of the Himalayas with five ascetic monks who believed he knew the path to enlightenment.  They were in and around that cave for five years.  Gautama basically spent the entire time in samadhi, a deep meditative trance, and the fab five had to wash him, feed him, and keep him propped up.  The monks knew Gautama was someone special and were devoted to his teachings and promise of enlightenment, but the brutal elements and starvation wore them down.  One by one they left Gautama, who would’ve perished if not for a young girl named, get this, Sujata, who climbed the mountain looking for the god who lived there and could bless her upcoming marriage.

When she found him, she nursed him back to health in her dead grandmother’s old shack.  Once he recovered fully, he spent some more QT in samadhi under a pipal tree outside the shack.  There he met Mara and they battled through spirit.  At last, Mara tried to coax Gautama into his trap with an offer of marriage to his three beautiful demon daughters.  Gautama smartly accepted the girls on conditions that they never be desired by or lusted after by him, and that they must learn to love.  The girls turned into demons and disappeared.

Gautama emerged as the Buddha, a living god.

As Buddha, he could bring back the dead and right the wrong.  His powers were miraculous.  He found his fab five and returned to Sakya where a battle was raging beyond the kingdom walls.  He entered the gates and reconnected briefly with his wife and child, enlightening them with one embrace, then headed back outside to take care of the battle, which was in full swing.  The fab five were scared entering the battle scene but Buddha assured them that they could end war with words.  He beamed radiant light and awed the soldiers.  He told the people that they write their own futures, they just have to decide to live it.  The men put down their swords.  Miraculous.

He did, however, allow Devadatta and Channa to violently settle their long-standing personal battle.  The warriors nearly killed each other but because of Buddha’s grace and wisdom, both survived.  Suddhodana, though old and a little nuts, was still king.

Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching his Dharma.  He had a large following that included people from high and low castes, monks and royals.  Even Devadatta and Channa joined him.  He brought yoga to the world and released it to all levels in the social hierarchy of India.  His love knew no boundaries.  His story actually reminds me a lot of Jesus’ story.  The biggest difference being Buddha was able to live a long life and spread his teachings.  He died at 80 from eating bad pork.  (Huh?)

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Chopra brought Buddha to life beautifully.  What amazes me about this storyteller is that he presents dialogue and history and spirituality confidently and convincingly and without judgment; in order to do this he’s got to have complete understanding of his subjects and his spirit.  And he does.  He is an extraordinary man.  Some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“This world is nothing more than desire, and every desire makes me run after it.  Why?  Because I believe that it’s real.”

“The dust holds its shape for a fleeting moment when I throw it into the air, as the body holds its shape for this brief lifetime.  When the wind makes it disappear, where does the dust go?  It returns to its source, the earth.  In the future that same dust allows grass to grow, and it enters a deer who eats the grass.  The animal dies and turns into dust.  Now imagine that the dust comes to you and asks, ‘Who am I?’  What will you tell it?  Dust is alive in a plant but dead as it lies in the road under our feet.  It moves in an animal but is still when buried in the depths of the earth.  Dust encompasses life and death at the same time.  So if you answer ‘Who am I’ with anything but a complete answer you will have made a mistake.”

“The fire of passion burns out eventually.  Then you dig through the ashes and discover a gem.  You pick it up; you look at it with disbelief.  The gem was inside you all the time.  It is yours to keep forever.  It is buddha.

My ultimate fave and the one I tell my kids every day:  “Winning and losing are the same thing.  Both are nothing.”

From mine to yours,

Vanessa