Review of Deepak Chopra’s Timeless You

I recently participated in a review of Timeless You, a new online seminar by Deepak Chopra covering tools to stimulate the body, mind, and spirit in reversing the aging process.  The program guides participants through a series of practical steps combined with teachings in meditation, yoga, Ayurveda, and other mind-body solutions to “maximize your energy, eliminate stress, and become the best you.”

TimelessYou-imageTimeless You consists of 7 courses each running about 30-60 minutes, and the topics included are Changing Perceptions, A Youthful Mind, Healthy Relationships, The Mind-Body Connection, Mindful Eating, and Joyful Excercise.  Each course is broken down into a number of steps presented through text and text-based exercises, video, audio tracks, downloadable PDFs and printable affirmations, charts, and checklists, along with questionnaires and an interactive forum.  I found the format impressive, being someone who had never taken a online seminar of this nature before.

The first step, Changing Perceptions, is perhaps the most important one of all, and it forms the basis for the entire Eastern approach to body, mind and spirit.  Chopra says, “For generations, we have been conditioned to believe that aging means progressive decline.”  However, scientific studies show that this need not be the case.  Our mind is the key.  The Indian system of health and well-being, Ayurveda, teaches that “What you see, you become.”  In this way, if we think growing older will result in decline, that is exactly what will happen.  If we think differently, if we understand how to change our perceptions and use some simple methods to improve our health, we can reverse the aging process. And by at least 10 years, according to Chopra.  The idea is to achieve a “timeless mind”, an idea Chopra has long promoted.

The seminar includes some simple breathing meditations, yoga exercises, and tips on how to maintain a proper diet.  Much of the material I was already familiar with.  But I did get some good suggestions on how to fight insomnia (a problem that I occasionally struggle with), and I found the course on mindful eating informative.  Although I am somewhat acquainted with Ayurveda, I had not heard of the concept of the six taste groups (sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent).  The course recommends trying to combine all six with every meal.

Some of the information was common sense. Most people know it’s a good idea to drink lots of water each day.  Likewise, that activities such as reading, taking a class, learning a language, travel, and so on, will stimulate the mind.  While some concepts, like “synchrodestiny” (“coincidences that open us up to possibilities”) are unique to Chopra’s core teachings, a great deal of the material is available elsewhere on television and on the Internet – and at no charge.  Almost any day of the week, you can find the same information on such television programs as Dr. Oz, Katie, PBS, and various cable shows.

I’ve mentioned several times on this blog that I feel Deepak Chopra is criticized a bit unfairly.  Some people see him as little more than a huckster padding traditional teachings with New Age mumbo-jumbo.  Well, he is a commercial enterprise, and to be successful you must reach a broad audience, which may not be possible if you don’t water-down or simplify the material to some degree.  On the other hand, in his frequent role as a TV pundit, he offers a viewpoint, based on Eastern wisdom, that is an alternative to the prevailing Judeo-Christian perspective that is often polarizing and in recent years has become rather ugly.  In other words, he’s helping to raise awareness about Eastern philosophy and how its methods can transform lives, and that’s a good thing.  Plus, I think he is sincere in his desire to help people

Overall, I think the same can be said about the Timeless You seminar.  It seems designed for folks who have had little or no exposure to these concepts. In such cases, if the seminar helps raise their awareness about the Eastern approach to mind-body wellness and helps encourage them to explore the subject further, and since that can only benefit their life, I’d say the seminar is worth the cost of the $29.99 tuition.  At the same time, because the material is so general and simplistic, and readily available in other formats, I can’t wholeheartedly endorse it.  The one real benefit of the seminar seems to me that you can find this information organized in one place and presented in an engaging manner.

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should say that I am receiving a very small remuneration in the form of a Amazon gift certificate for the time I spent taking and reviewing the seminar.  I used to frequently participate in surveys and focus groups for which I would receive a fee.  It was a nice way to pick up some extra cash.  However, my motivation here was primarily to have a new experience and to expose myself to a more secular presentation of mind-body teachings, an approach I have thoughts about and will address in future posts.

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Three Principal Paths

In Monday’s post, there was a brief reference to the concept of The Three Principal Aspects to the Path, developed by Tsongkhapa. I thought I would go over them briefly.

Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), an important Tibetan philosopher, was said to have composed 10, 000 pages of commentary on the Buddha-dharma. He also founded the Geglug order, the pre-eminent school in Tibet and the one headed by the Dalai Lama. The Three Principal Aspects of the Path is the poem he composed in which he intended to condense his knowledge of Buddhist doctrine into fourteen verses.

Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) divides the Path into sutra, the Mahayana “scriptures”, and tantra, the meditation and associative practices of Vajrayana. Tsongkhapa’s poem forms the doctrinal basis for the union of sutra and tantra in Tibetan Buddhism.

The Three Principal Aspects of the Path are:

Renunciation –

Without pure renunciation, there is no way to quench
The constant thirst for pleasure in the ocean of life,
And since all living beings are bound by their craving,
You must begin by seeking renunciation.  3

Bodhicitta (Thought of Awakening) –

And yet, if renunciation is embraced,
If it is not accompanied by the pure motivation of bodhicitta,
It will not produce the mind of awakening,
Thus, the wise generate supreme bodhicitta.  6

Correct View of Emptiness –

While you may master renunciation and bodhicitta,
Without wisdom of the true nature of reality,
You cannot cut the root of conditioned existence,
Therefore, make an effort to penetrate the heart of dependent arising.  9

Renunciation, usually thought of in terms of renouncing the material world, is more about letting go of our attachment to material things. Renunciation means to change our way of thinking. I once heard the Dalai Lama say, “True renunciation is a state of mind. It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.”

In regards to a correct view of emptiness is concerned, Nagarjuna said, “Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.” Misunderstanding emptiness may not be quite as dangerous as mishandling a snake, nonetheless misunderstanding seriously hinders insight. To understand emptiness correctly, we must first cultivate a deep appreciation for the interdependency of all things.

While the Three Principal Aspects of the Path is a teaching for tantric practice (in a textual form known as lamrim), they really apply to the entire Mahayana or Buddhist path. The important point for those of us who regularly engage in the practice of Buddhism is that it is crucial to develop a holistic approach. That means to embrace all the various aspects of the path, not just practice bits and pieces of it; none of these elements stand-alone. There is no compassion with emptiness, and without emptiness, there is no real transformation of our mind, and so on.

When, in this way, you have well comprehended
These essential points of the three principal aspects of the path,
Withdraw, dear child, to strengthen your effort,
And quickly accomplish the ultimate and lasting aim.  14

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The Dalai Lama and Protector Deities

The Dalai Lama is currently on a mini-speaking tour of the U.S. Tomorrow night he will be in Los Angeles to give a public talk on Non-Violence and the Effects of Compassion in the 21st Century at the Forum. Last night, he was in Berkeley speaking on How To Achieve Happiness.

Public talks are different from the Dalai Lama’s teachings. Public talks usually do not last more than two hours and he mostly speaks in English, or at least he makes what is for him a valiant attempt at English. Teachings are given over the course of a 3-4 day period, about six hours per day, and he will only speak in Tibetan with a translator on stage and several other translators behind the scenes translating into various languages.

Reuters reported that “Dozens of Buddhists rallied on the streets of San Francisco on Saturday protesting the Dalai Lama, who they say has persecuted followers of an ancient deity that the Tibetan spiritual leader denounced decades ago.”

For some time in Tibetan Buddhism there’s been a controversy over practice associated with Dorje Shugen, a protector deity. The Dalai Lama is very much opposed to this practice. According to Reuters, “Critics claim that the Dalai Lama has excommunicated thousands of Shugden Buddhists from Tibetan exile communities in India, and continues to push practitioners out of communities around the world by encouraging his followers to deny them jobs, schooling and health care.” I don’t know about the excommunication part, but I seriously doubt the second accusation. I have heard him ask Dorje Shugden believers to leave his teaching sessions, though.

I side with the Dalai Lama on this because practice based on any protector deity falls under the rubric of outer-power (tariki), which I feel has no place in Buddhism. It’s looking for enlightenment outside of your own life and that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught inner-power (jiriki). If you are interested in learning more about this long, complicated controversy, Wikipedia has a good but not perfect overview here.

And from my notebook, here are some remarks made by the Dalai Lama on this subject in May 2001 during a teaching on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life:

You are your own protectors. You should take hardships as positive aspects for your practice.

Not satisfied with the Three Principal Parts of the Path*, other practices are added that corrupt the practice. Buddha is the supreme refuge, but we sometimes think that Shayamuni died a long time ago and is no longer relevant, so other protector deities are used and this is wrong.

Success depends on the practice of loving-kindness and meditation on emptiness, not protector deities. It’s as if some people are trying to bribe protector deities and are not relying on the practice of developing oneself.”

– – – – – – – – – –

* The Three Principal Part or Aspects of the Path, a Tibetan Buddhist teaching by Jey Tsongkhapa (1357-1419). The three refer to renunciation, bodhichitta (the thought of awakening), and a correct view of emptiness.

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Men at War

I watched a very good film last night, the moving black and white 1956 version of Kon Ichikawa’s Burmese Harp. It’s the story of a Japanese soldier during WWII who repulsed by the horrors of war becomes a Buddhist monk dedicated to performing a rather extreme and solemn task concerning the war dead. The film subtly criticizes the military madness that fueled Japan’s expansionist policies in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and was one of the first films to focus on the war from the Japanese soldier’s point of view.

WWII-era poster depicting Japanese soldier as a monkey-man threatening a white woman.

I suspect it was also one of the first times movie audiences outside of Japan were presented with a portrayal of Japanese soldiers as average men, battle-weary, hungry, and not a little bit forsaken, as opposed to image that still prevailed in the 1950s, held over from the previous decades, as in the poster on the left.

At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to a Japanese infantry company in the Burma campaign. Private Mizushima has learned how to play the Burmese harp. He uses it to signal back to the company when he is scouting ahead, and as an accompaniment when the men are led in song by their captain, a former choirmaster, songs sung to raise their spirits. Mizushima will eventually become the Buddhist monk.

The film deals with a big issue, the brutality of war, in a personal and thoroughly humanistic manner. I suppose you would me an anti-war kind of guy, but I must admit I’ve seen more than my fair share of war movies. I’ve found that the best ones are not about great battles, but rather the small moments of life and death, courage and fear. In the end, there is, to borrow a phrase, a thin red line between those opposites.

How does a person continue when he, or she, has engaged in a barbarous act such as war, and has fully realized the horror of it? To participate in something unthinkable can taint you, if you allow it. Average men and women seldom are able affect history, but they can create a personal history. This is the lesson learned by Pvt./priest Mizushima, who at one point writes,

Burmese HarpMy heart was racked with questions. Why must the world suffer such misery? Why must there be such inexplicable pain? As the days passed, I came to understand. I realized that, in the end, the answers were not for human beings to know, that our work is simply to ease the great suffering of the world. To have the courage to face suffering, senselessness and irrationality without fear, to find the strength to create peace by one’s own example.”

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Sweet Harmony

At the beginning of the Common Era, there was a great tradition of healer-monks in Indian Buddhism. Raoul Birnbaum, in Healing and Restoring, notes,

[Such] physician-monks were effective transmitters of Buddhist teachings . . . prominent in the process of bringing Buddhism to China . . . It appears that the superior healing ability of some of these monks was a significant factor in the spread of Buddhist teachings there. These healers brought to China theories, skills, and medicines different from those of the sophisticated traditions already developed in that land. Their effective healings gained many followers, while texts that they brought from their native lands on healing and extension of the life-span were of great fascination to the Chinese, whose native religions placed unusual interest in such topics.”

One of the texts the healer-monks brought with them was the Bhaisajyaguru-vaidurya-prabha-raja Sutra concerning the Medicine or Healing Buddha. In addition to this sutra and other texts, the healer-monks also brought to China the Indian medical system known as Ayurveda. The techniques of Ayurveda were different from Chinese healing methods, but the underlying philosophy was very similar, and as a result, the Chinese embraced the Indian system, integrated it into their own. Within Buddhism, this helped inspire the establishment of monastic hospitals, clinics, and lay “compassionate societies.”

The term for good health in Ayurveda is svastha, “being in one’s natural state” and “relying on one’s self.” Just as in Buddha-dharma, Ayurveda teaches that we are born into the world ignorant of our originally awakened mind. We then go on to live a life that is out of sync with our true nature, and as often as not, at odds with nature itself, and other living beings. We lack harmony, and this is a cause for suffering.

yinyang_001aWhen we suffer we experience pain. Whether it is mental, emotional, and/or physical, that pain is a message that we are lacking harmony. Healing is the restoration of harmony. In Chinese medicine, harmony is represented by the yin/yang symbol. Chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching says,

The ten thousand things are sustained by yin and embraced by yang.
They achieve harmony by integrating these two energies.

“The ten thousand things” mean all things, all that exists. Yin and yang are all opposite forces or energies. We perceive all that exists and experience diverse energies through the five skandhas or aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness). All phenomena we take in either harmonize with us or upset our harmony. When we experience harmonious things, we feel healthy and happy. Disharmonious things produce feelings of dis-ease and pain.

Instead of allowing opposite energies to create friction in our lives, we can allow them to meet and flow together, in harmony. But, in the end, what we think as either harmonious or disharmonious is largely a matter of viewpoint or awareness. After all, the Heart Sutra tells us that the five skandhas are empty (sunyata), which is why Nagarjuna said,

Everything stands in harmony for the person who is in harmony with sunyata; but nothing stands in harmony with the person who is not in harmony with sunyata.”

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