05/25/2007 02:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Buddha and the World (Part 3)

One reason that people revere Buddha but don't follow him is that they don't feel motivated enough to seek change. They hold an image of Buddhist monks perpetually meditating, observing strict discipline, and avoiding the world. The images aren't false, but they aren't complete, either. Like every great spiritual teaching, Buddhism turned into an organized religion, and in so doing it offered a way of life to ordinary people as well as renunciant monks. Yet I was struck by one comment that these posts received: " I know many Buddhists from Asian countries. They can recite the entire Heart Sutra from memory. But they never meditate. They don't know how to quiet the mind, what the nature of their thoughts are, and they don't have any spiritual practice. Sometimes they go to the temple as a social event, to meet and talk with people, or because their family expects them to. "

In other words, Buddha's teachings have suffered the same fate as Jesus's. Yet also like Jesus, Buddha set the truth before his listeners so that they could choose it as a means to freedom. It's an inescapable fact that Buddha was a master diagnostician of the human condition. No one has more rightly deserved the title of physician to the soul. Yet he refused to use words like spirit, soul, or God. He realized that the disease of separation and isolation had progressed so far that spirituality itself was infected. "Soul" and "God" are labels. Labels fit things you already see before you, things you already know. I can label myself an Indian male, a husband and father, a breadwinner, a citizen, and so on.

All these are things I see and know already. Can I label my soul the same way? No. To Buddha, God and the soul were question marks, not things with labels. They were unknowns. They had to be, because if someone seeks solace from God and communion with the soul, they can't know in advance what their goal is. Otherwise, they'd simply be seeking themselves in disguise. Buddha understood that when people prayed to the gods, they were praying to creations of the mind, and what the mind creates has no substance or truth except as a projection. Anything I can label is a projection of a concept I know all too well. Maybe I can be clever enough to disguise my ego and project it as an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present deity. But whenever the known is projected into the unknown, something false is happening and the truth moves further away, not closer.

Buddha was a radical surgeon, and he cut out all labels that put a name on the unknown. Naturally, people who came to him for comfort and solace were shocked that Buddha proposed major surgery. They saw themselves as humble seekers after truth, which they would hear from his lips. Buddha knew better than to satisfy them--instead, he overturned their expectations about how truth works.

Truth isn't found in words but through insight and self-discovery.
Truth isn't taught or learned. It is wrapped inside consciousness itself.
To reach the truth, you must become it. Your consciousness must change until what is false has been left behind. Then truth will exist by itself, strong and self-sufficient.

These are simple, universal statements. Yet they became easy prey for the ego-personality. Let's say that Buddha wanted us to be non-violent, to revere all forms of life, to extend compassion even to strangers. In the context of the religion that Buddha knew as a child, this truth already existed and went by the name of Ahimsa, often translated as harmlessness. A physician still acknowledges Ahimsa today as a medical duty to first do no harm. But Ahimsa can easily turn out to be part of the human disease rather than the cure. I can feel superior to violent people because I am non-violent. I can occupy the moral high ground and feel safe. I can avoid conflicts and step away when arguments turn into aggression and war.

In subtle ways, then, Ahimsa gets co-opted by the ego, which wants to feel superior and to think well of itself without getting involved. (As an example, we only need to look at the widespread indifference to the Iraq war that is masked over by socially approved disapproval of it. The attitude may be right, but nothing really changes.) Truth can also get you into trouble. Following where Ahimsa leads, I may become a pacifist who finds himself hated by his society for refusing to protect it from enemies. This hatred may lead to persecution, and so I become a martyr to the truth. I get thrown in jail-or in extremis I become a monk setting himself on fire in Vietnam to stir the conscience of the world-and in the end I suffer more than if I hadn't learned this truth called Ahimsa.

We face such riddles every day, which is why the promise made by Buddha and Jesus, that the truth will set us free, hasn't been fulfilled. How can this situation change?
(To be continued)

Deepak Chopra's most recent book is a novel Buddha: Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment