Zheng He Shakya
(Aug 10, 2005)
THERE IS NO UTOPIA IN SAMSARA
by Zheng He Shakya
The idea that we can create a heaven on earth is nothing new. From the ancient Greek philosophers who debated the perfect state's form to the architects of communism who jury-rigged it, discontented visionaries have devised paradises which, they assured us, would appear if only we obeyed the rules they advocated.
Either the state is the religion or the religion is the state. In South Africa, where I live, the old Apartheid government was supported and given theological legitimacy by an errant Christian group with the mission of creating a White Utopia.
All over the world, fanatics envision schemes whereby they can take control of governments and individuals, dictating how people should act in public and in private, seeing themselves as executors of God's Will, the custodians of God's temple.
Though attractive, the idea that it's possible to create a paradise, heaven, or utopia on earth is severely flawed. It lays the kind of trap that followers of religion are particularly inclined to fall into. The irony is that a variety of religious traditions each claim a unique solution to living according to God's command.
Despite the allurements of utopianism, most theologians regard the world as a fallen place that will once again be made upright - but not by the actions of human beings. Those who truly understand the Dharma or the New Testament agree that earthly utopias are not possible. The Refuge or the Kingdom of God are places of the spirit and can be found only within each of us.
In South Africa, the history of Apartheid offers a poignant example of what can happen when a society buys into utopianism. Using religion as a justification, the government instituted laws which they believed would usher in an era of everlasting white domination; and this, in their view, would create the perfect world. But behind the religious facade there was little that resembled Christianity. The government's main proponent was the Dutch Reformed Church, a Calvinist denomination. Despite the Christian teachings of the tradition, most clergymen, from the synod down to the individual ministers, elders and deacons, allowed themselves to be duped into supporting a completely unchristian idea. The few who objected to such distortions became outcasts and were branded as traitors.
Such individuals exist in every society that succumbs to the fantasy notions of utopianism Their insights help us to see a path to freedom. These are the persons who guide us inward, to our hearts and minds, the only places where true change can occur.
In South Africa one such heroic person was Dr Beyers Naude. A minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, Naude was a member of the Broederbond, of which his father was a founding member. The Broederbond, which translates loosely to "Brotherhood" or "League of Brothers", was a secret male-only organization that was the real power behind the DR Church and the ruling National Party. Naude was seen as a possible future candidate for the presidency.
But just as he verged on political success, something happened that opened him to the truth. Faced with the suffering caused by the Apartheid system and unable to reconcile Christian ethics with the prevailing views, Naude rejected the policy of racial segregation and publicly proclaimed that it had no Biblical basis. As expected, he was forced to resign from his position in the church and was "banned," placed under a form of house arrest, which limited those with whom he could have contact, and prevented from publishing or airing his views.
Meeting in secret with anti-apartheid activists and religious leaders such as Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Naude worked with them to move exiled individuals in and out of the country - and to bring an end to Apartheid.
With the fall of Apartheid, the Dutch Reformed Church apologized for supporting Apartheid and welcomed Naude back into the church. Although too frail to participate actively in public life, he became a symbol of reconciliation. White South Africans realized for the first time how highly Naude was esteemed among black South Africans.
Dr. Naude died in late 2004. I wish I could say that his passing was mourned by all South Africans; but the Utopian dream is not easily dispelled. The vast majority of South Africans, however, did grieve his loss; and his solemn funeral service, broadcast on television, was attended by the president and various dignitaries.
The Dutch Reformed Church has long since admitted its mistakes in providing ideological support and religious justification to the Apartheid system. But the fact that a religious institution - filled with sincere Christians - could be duped into supporting such a hateful program is a fact we all need to keep in mind. Fanaticism, especially that which is dependent upon the abuse of human freedom, is ever the symptom of the obsession for power.
This wish to create a heaven on earth is interesting from a Buddhist perspective. The Buddha tells us that the desire to find something perfect and eternal is the reason that we are mired in samsara. There is nothing we want more than stability - circumstances that are reliable, permanent and unchangeable. But, says the Buddha, that is the one thing that we will never, ever find in the material world. Yet, human nature is such that when a few people tell us that we can create a wonderful environment, a perfect place, a place of everlasting security if only we put into action their grand socio-economic schemes, our samsaric mind immediately jumps at the opportunity, leaving our common sense and ethics behind.
Even in small ways we fall prey to utopian ideas. Many Buddhists, for example, believe that a monastery is one such utopia, a place run by Buddhist rules, in which a Buddhist style of living is followed and is, therefore, a place of perfect happiness and everlasting contentment. They dream of monastic utopias because their everyday world is filled with the drudgery of work, of earning money to pay for food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and a hundred other necessities. They suppose that monks and nuns live in monasteries as ethereally as angels - never hungry, never cold, never tired... always singing or praying in sweet devotion. This dream is a common one; and not only Buddhists but people of all religions entertain such notions. In fact, in the early days of the reign of Henry VIII of England, Saint Thomas More first coined the term Utopia, a Greek language construct meaning "the Happy Place," a place in which gentle, spiritual folks lived together in peace and harmony. According to More's plan, in his Utopia all property would be held in common and there would be few laws and no lawyers. He could not see the evils of communism or the turmoil of anarchy. And however attractive the idea of life without lawyers was, he also could not see another major flaw in his concept: since he committed his society to a peaceful existence, he deemed it proper to hire mercenaries to conduct its wars.
Historians have noted that Thomas More, a layman, lovingly fantasized about monastic life and constructed his ideal society along the lines that his frustrated desires had inscribed in his imagination. It is of interest that More, incautiously outspoken in his condemnation of the King's intention to divorce his wife, was beheaded.
That the monastery is not a utopian Nirvana but is actually a place where physical and emotional struggle is the norm of everyday life is conveniently overlooked by the zealously religious. Selling all his possessions and getting on the first plane to this envisioned utopia, the immigrant to Paradise soon realizes that he is not in heaven, and that if he wants to get there, it is going to take a lot of spiritual, not physical, traveling. It is important to note that monasteries and other religious communities do help to provide an environment that conduces to spiritual growth and enlightenment. But that is all that they do: provide the conditions. We still have to do the work. The real transformation occurs inside us, not in a building.
As Buddhists then, we should strive to remember the words of Shakyamuni before he died. "All material things are impermanent," he told his followers; and we know that nothing is eternal or unchanging. Everything is empty, and not even the smallest atom or the biggest mountain has any lasting existence. The Buddha's final words encouraged us to work diligently for our salvation.
While we should engage the world and try to make it a better place, helping those in need and preventing unnecessary violence, we should never fall prey to the idea that we can change this composite world into a place without poverty, old age, sickness and death. No monastery, temple or community will ever offer us a "Nirvana on earth." That can only come from the inside, and once it does, we are then able to make a difference by helping to guide others out of samsara's hell.
The Kingdom, Nirvana, and Utopia are not out there, but inside us.