Deepak Chopra is one of the world’s greatest leaders in the field of mind, body and medicine. The author of more than 50 books, Chopra is regarded as the pre-eminent authority of Eastern philosophy in the Western world. He has been a best selling author for decades whose writings have been translated into 35 languages. What many do not know is that Dr. Chopra was also the chief of staff at the Boston Medical Center and has long been revolutionizing common wisdom about the crucial connection between body, mind, spirit and healing. In his new book, The Buddha. A Story of Enlightenment. Dr. Chopra shows how the iconic journey of the prince who became the Buddha has changed the world forever and how the lessons he taught continue to influence every corner of the world.
BustedHalo: I think that the first thing that may be helpful to discuss is the misconception among some that Buddhism is a religion, and therefore incompatible with Catholicism. Maybe could you give a just a little bit of a backdrop about Buddhism as a kind of philosophy.
Deepak Chopra: That goes back to the original story of the Buddha and if you recall he was a prince, part of the royal family and at a young age he was not exposed to any kind of suffering because there was a prediction, an astrological prediction if you will, at that time, we’re talking 2,500 years ago, that when he grew up he would be the emperor of the whole world, or he would turn into a monk and his father was very scared that he would choose the latter. So in order to protect him, he surrounded him with pleasures. But inevitably as we grow up we see something in our lives. So he first saw an old person and very old man, and he asked his friend “what’s that?” and his friend said, his friend was a stable boy, “that’s an old man, as everyone gets old.” And he aske d, “Will I get old?” He said “Of course.” So that night this little prince couldn’t sleep very well, the next day they went out into the city again, and this time they saw a person with leprosy and he was all kind of bent over, lots of trouble with his figure as he was disfigured. And the young prince asked the stable boy, “What’s that?” “That’s an old man, but that’s also a sick man.” He asked, “Does everyone get sick?” He said, “If you live ling enough, more or less everyone gets sick?” He asked, “Will I get sick?” He says, sure.
So that was the second episode, and the third episode was out there and someone taking a man for cremation, and the dead body, and he said “What’s that?” “That’s a dead man” “Does everyone die?” “He says “Yes. Everyone dies, if you’re born, then you will die.” “Will I die too?” “He says, “Of course.” So that caused the young prince to have a lot of anguish, it’s the existential anguish of every human being, at some point we all ask these questions. On the way back they saw a monk, and the monk was in deep tranquility, and there was something about the profound peace that this man radiated that attracted the young prince.
So the second phase of his life is that he does become a monk, and the third phase of his life is that he saw through the boundaries of our mortal existence and experienced the domain of awareness that in Christian theology is referred to as the soul, which is immortal, which is eternal and he suddenly had the insight that if he could shift our reference point from this skin encapsulated ego of ours to a domain of awareness that is universal, then we have kindness and compassion, and in that kindness and compassion—that healing of the rift of our collective thought—that there is the birth of love, and when there is the birth of love there is the possibility of healing.
In essence, what Buddha talks about is exactly what you hear about in the Sermon on the Mount and you know how, when you read the Sermon on the Mount, you say “How could anyone be that? How could anyone person possibly be that great? That good? That divine?” And I think that the key to it, is only through a deeper experience of our own soul can we come to realization, that in a sense that love and compassion and kindness are not so much modern dictates as they are a byproduct of a deeper domain of our own consciousness. The Buddha’s philosophy says that when you realize that there is a part of you that’s connected to all that exists, you will be loving, you will be compassionate, and you will actually follow what Christ says on the Sermon on the Mount.
BH: Tell us how somebody could be a Jew, a Muslim or a Catholic and a Buddhist.
DC: Well you know the Buddhist principles don’t tell you to follow this or that religion they just say, that if you’re mindful in every moment of your life, mindful of your feelings, mindful of your thoughts, mindful of your behavior, mindful of the impermanence of everything in the relative, mindful of the inseparability of everything that exists then in the practice of that mindfulness you will enter a domain of awareness where there is no fear which is universal, which has no beginning or ending in time, and that will change the way you perceive you think and you feel. Because everything that you call reality, which is perception and cognition, and feeling, and behavior and biology and social interactions and personal relationships are a direct result of who you think you are. And you’re not who you think you are, you are not your physical body not even your mind, not even your personality, the deeper soul expresses itself as this. And when you start to compare some of the deeper insight to this Buddhist philosophy, which is very practical, you’ll get to the same place where, in Christianity for example you speak of the father, the son and the holy ghost, well the Greeks spoke of the biosphere, the noosphere, the theosphere, in the Judaic tradition, you have similar terms to describe the physical domain, the fertile domain of mind, and the more deeper domains of soul and spirit, so what Buddhist practice says is just be in touch with your own self and one of the highest forms of human intelligence is the ability to observe yourself without judging yourself, and when you do observe yourself and not judge yourself, soon you find this point of evolution, of transformation in how you behave and think and act in the world.
BH: And certainly we would see that in Christian meditation.
DC: Absolutely, you know especially Christian mediation like the centering prayer, the Benedictine monks practice.
BH: An interesting element of your new book is that you wrote it primarily as a fictionalized story to elucidate some qualities of the Buddha. I think it’s great that we can draw out what we believe about this great spiritual leader and what we believe about what he teaches by extrapolating a little more, and I wonder why you think it seems to be much more of a touchy subject if we do that with Jesus for instance?
DC: Well the Buddha didn’t claim he was of divine source. He did not say he was the direct expression of God on earth. So he claimed to be a human being with increased awareness. In fact when he was dying, someone asked him, they said, “Are you God?” “No,” he said, “Are you a messenger of God?” “No” “Are you a prophet, a messiah, etc?” and he said, “No to all those questions.” So finally some disciple who was a little frustrated kind of shook him, and said, “You’ve got to tell us who you are before you die.” And he merely said, “I’m awake, I’m awake” So you know, that’s his message, to be awake, that’s all.
BH: The book itself goes through the three stages of his life. As you explained before, he was initially a prince, and he renounced that and became a monk and then the Buddha. What was it like for you creating a fictionalized account? Does this mean that you needed to study more about who the man was?
DC: What I did, was first of all I grew up in India, and I had heard all the stories. But around any historical figure, there is a lot of mythology, a lot of legends, a lot of stories that get built up. Some of them are true, and some of them are part of the mythical domain of the culture. I grew up with all that. And I also went to all the historical places where he was born, where he gave his first sermon, where he sat in meditation under the tree, etc. It was obvious from the story, that here’s a man who was struggling withhis inner demons. He recognized that he has anger and fear; he also recognized that he also had compassion, understanding and love. And so how did he go to that part of himself where he was able to vanquish his own demons and for that I had to resort to basically here are the facts, here are the people he met, here are the people he interacted with, and I wondered, what was going on in his mind, what was he going through? And that was the fictionalized part. Because there is no way I could know what was exactly going on in his mind, other than imagining it.
BH: So was that a spiritual process for you as an author?
DC: Very much so, the struggle with our own little self, our own skin-encapsulated ego, our own desires to manipulate and control, you know, assert our selves in the world, and on the level of soul, we’re all equal.