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How Can We Create A Utopia?*

 

“But, we ask, what will happen to our drive for progress if we see all opposites are one? Well, with any luck, it will stop - and with it that peculiar discontent that thrives on the illusion that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. But we should be clear about this. I do not mean that we will cease making advancements of a sort in medicine, agriculture, and technology. We will only cease to harbor the illusion that happiness depends on it. For when we see through the illusions of our boundaries, we will see, here and now, the universe as Adam saw it before the Fall: an organic unity, a harmony of opposites, a melody of positive and negative, delight with the play of our vibratory existence. When the opposites are realized to be one, discord melts into concord, battles become dances, and old enemies become lovers. We are then in a position to make friends with all of our universe, and not just one half of it.” - Ken Wilber, “No Boundary”

One issue that has engaged religious thinkers for centuries is the question of how one should relate to the world. Should we transcend the manifest world? Reject it? Live it fully? There are many different views on this subject. If we care about this world, we must return to the classic question of “What is the good?”

This hinges, of course, on how one regards the world itself. If the world is completely evil, with no hope of it getting better, then it would be “good” to abandon the world completely. However, I think this is extreme. Existence is a complex interplay of factors - light and shadow, hatred and love, pleasure and pain, ignorance and knowledge, order and chaos.

 

Sometimes the destructive power of the world, whether it’s from human civilization or the forces of nature, is so overwhelming that it gets completely beyond our control and can destroy us. Despite the protective barriers we erect around ourselves, disasters still occur, painfully, reminding us of just how vulnerable we are.

It is not only the extraordinary that can bring us to this realization, but the mundane world. Nature, no matter how beautiful or inspiring, is built upon a food chain and hierarchical relationships. To survive, we must kill or be killed. Living beings do not want to die, yet must, often by being eaten by others, who would themselves die without this food, or by being destroyed by micro-organisms, toxins, or the inevitable breakdown of the body (i.e. “sickness”). Investigate into the non-living universe and one can see that stress and violence is built into its structure, although it’s doubtful that non-organisms have the sentience to “feel” it, so to speak. But we do.

 

Yet there is more to life than this. There are also moments of happiness, when goodness shines, and when things seem just right and the universe seems perfect the way it is. It is clear, then, that the facts of the world, such as we choose to pay attention to, do not necessarily determine our feelings toward it, and our values stem more from feelings than facts alone.

There is much to be appreciative of and much to be horrified about. Is it even possible to objectively evaluate the nature of the world, let alone devise wise ways of coping and living within it? (Indeed, one would think that in a perfect world, we would not have to figure out how to cope with things. Or perhaps it’s only a matter of subjectivity - the world appears “perfect” when we stoically accept all situations and not think too hard or worry about anything. I, however, am not content to leave the issue unexamined).

 

In this matter I have turned to what sages in the Wisdom Traditions have counseled. Hindu metaphysics holds that a utopia on planet earth, which is just one of countless worlds, however we might imagine this scenario on earth, is a hopeless goal. And would having everything we want really be perfection? Perhaps, eventually, we can get anything we want – with countless lifetimes available to seek out our desires – but what, really, is worth desiring? 

Maybe a perfect world has to be imperfect. There is an Indian parable about a wish-fulfilling jewel. The moral of the story is that if we get everything we want immediately, we become spoiled. The world has always been difficult and it will always be so; otherwise we couldn’t develop our potential. Life allows us to get the fruits of our desires, but there is no guarantee that people, unguided, will be wise with their desires, let alone be able to see through the limitations and illusions of the manifest world. Thus, while Hindu society has, to a certain extent, included sensuality and pleasure-seeking as legitimate goals, the basic thrust of this civilization has been transcendental (in theistic and non-theistic forms). 

 

Buddhism has a similar take. Human birth is considered a rare and precious opportunity. Buddhist mythology has six classes of beings who experience various levels of pain and pleasure. Beings in hell, the most painful realm, experience nothing but anger and passion. There are hungry ghosts, beings characterized by greed. They have huge stomachs and tiny mouths, and since they can’t eat enough to fill their stomachs, they are never satisfied. Animals are dominated by survival instincts and the search for pleasure; a state of basic ignorance. In the celestial realm, deities enjoy a life much easier than that on earth or in the lower realms. Demigods, while less constrained than humans, are jealous of the gods because they are not as powerful. The gods are endowed with supernatural powers. They can think, imagine, and do anything they want. They are totally out of touch with suffering. But in Buddhism, even heaven does not last forever. When the karma which brought them there has run its course, the gods no longer stay in the heaven and will experience distress again. Because they were so busy enjoying themselves, they didn’t create any good karma, or continue the path to end karma. 

 

So human life, unlike all the others, according to Buddhism has the right conditions in which one can eliminate karma altogether, even good karma. At the peak of virtue and wisdom, the cycle of existence comes to an end, and with it all remnants of desire and attachment, resulting in perfect peace. 

“Manifestation is not a sin; getting lost in manifestation is. We think that ego and nature are the only realities in the entire Kosmos, and there is our sin and our suffering.” - Ken Wilber, “One Taste”

The ultimate goal of Buddhism is the complete transcendence of  the world, and of all worlds (terrestrial or heavenly). But what about others living in the world? Do you leave them out too? 


This concern led to the development of the Bodhisattva ideal, based on bodhichitta - the motivation to aid all beings to nirvana. It is an optimistic view in that there is confidence that all beings will eventually become enlightened. However, it doesn’t happen without any effort. The universe is always full of surprises, so the ultimate act of selflessness is to come back to an uncertain world for the sake of others, as long as it takes until all attain the Absolute.

Even in this case, however, the focus is on leaving or transcending the world. What is not commonly stressed as much in Asian spiritual paths is the idea of improving the state of the world from the ground up, so to speak. This is where the wisdom of Judaism comes in, which venerates earthly life. In Judaism, G-d [1] is completely good, and so is the world, which was created through an act of divine will. The notion of tikkun olam  healing/repairing or perfecting the world – has had a major impact on Western philosophy, in the subsequent Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam [2], as well as in politics, economics, and secular social movements.

 

Judaism focuses on the active nature of G-d. This means that G-d created humans for a purpose, so that we could be co-creators in the manifest realm, though not His equals. There is thus a cosmic duty to make the world better because the original vision and plan of creation is holy. It’s not surprising, then, that Judaism has no current monastic tradition (the Essene sect, of which Jesus may have been a member, ended with the appearance of Christianity).


However, certain sects of Judaism are stricter than others. Hassidim, for example, are not celibate, but their lifestyle is quite ascetic given their social and familial obligations. Islam, which is closely related to Judaism, also has no celibate orders. While the prophet of Islam was against the practice, certain mystics (Sufis and Muslim visionary philosophers) despite having jobs and families, have maintained a certain detachment from worldliness.

However, I feel that the West versus East polarity is simplistic, and it often creates false divisions rather than help make sense of the diversity of religious expression. The pull between helping the world, or leaving it for something better, is ubiquitous, and there is a pendulum in the rhythm of human experience that calls for both [3].  The Arhat and the Bodhisattva, the celibate Priest and the activist Reverend, the Mufti and the Fakir, the Brahmin and the Sannyasi; there are many ways a religious or spiritual seeker can be in the world or out of it.

So what is better - to fix the world or transcend it? I think we need to do need both.

 

In Buddhism, the Arhat is a fully liberated person who creates no karma. They have reached the end of their training, there is nothing more that they need to do in this world. Arhats can teach us how to attain nirvana, although they should have no ulterior personal motive for doing so. When people encounter Arhats, they cannot help but be affected positively. But in the end, the Arhat leaves the world at their death without a trace. If we care about making the world a better place, we need sages and saints to leave some trace, and not just traces of monastic traditions. Those who are highly involved in shaping the fate of our planet - politicians, social workers, artists, writers, doctors, scientists, engineers, builders, etc. - must plant healthy seeds in the physical and social environment, and be supported in that endeavor. Actually, we all share that responsibility because we are all involved, however small a role it seems each of us, individually, plays.

Going back to the wisdom of Judaism, there is a mystical notion of Lamed Vov - at any given time there are a small number of pure souls in this world. Their identity is hidden because they are put here by G-d for an esoteric reason. What exactly do they do? If such an elite group of spiritual/moral superheroes really do exist, most likely, they do whatever is needed for the times (I'm skeptical of the whole idea, but it has, perhaps, mythological value). 


I do not think that there is merely one basic platform for contributing to the planet. Some could set an example by living a simple existence, teaching others how to avoid needless conflicts and to not waste resources. Others could be more embedded in the complex fibers of modern workaday life. The point is that we need people to act as a positive force in precarious times, which means transcending the world, specifically its ignorance, while also contributing to it in a positive way.

 

This is what Hindus called “Karma Yoga,” the way to God through selfless service. Religious people who want utopia must, however one defines their god – a higher power, the greater good, a grand supernatural being – examine their being-in-the-world in the present. Are they serving God or are only serving their own small, self-interest? None can answer this but oneself, and if we can be honest, we should know what our motivation is. In short, how large is our circle of concern? 

 

Even without religion or God, the desire to evaluate the state of the world, and how well we live in that world, does not simply go away. And the issue of how to live with more integrity and wholeness cannot be separated from the goal of finally reaching perfected states of being.

 

Notes

 

* You will notice that this essay is concerned with how to achieve utopia, i.e. how to work towards it, specifically addressing individuals who’ve decided to embark on a spiritual path. That such paths include the goal of living in a better way, focusing on acts of virtue and generosity, which should have some positive effect on the environment, is nearly taken for granted. As is the assumption that the current health of society, as well as the international order, is not in an ideal state and that we should at least consider what’s worth preserving or changing about the status quo, rather than advocating unthinking obedience and conformity (even a Confucian can concede that much). Thus, the relationship between personal spirituality, worldly life, and participation in the social sphere is what is being explored.

Whether there truly is some teleological movement of history towards an absolute ideal, an end state of history ala Hegel, is beyond me. I’m still on the fence as to whether collective social progress even exists at all. And yet that doesn’t lead me to conclude that broader participation in political institutions, or contributing to a larger community, has no value. The bottom line is that spirituality, however one defines it, cannot be separated from integrity, and that includes some sort of social ethics, skillfully working with the environment one lives in, rather than aggressively trying to dominate it or selfishly exploit those in it. How far we go towards preventing others from doing so, and in what ways, is another matter.

Notice that I don’t define what a utopia, once achieved, would actually look like. There are many visions in this regard, whether in the Marxist, anarchist, libertarian, or religious eschatological mould, but I myself cannot envision a specific social order that could perfectly accommodate all in a truly just and fair way, let alone postulate on how viable and endurable it would be. Even Rawls, who asks us to imagine a scenario where a contract is designed for a society in which the draftees do not know what future role they will play in it, does not lay out the details of this potentially perfect place (assuming it was created in a fully rational manner). Rather, this social contract is simply a thought-experiment meant to highlight basic features of justice in its distributive aspects.

Basically, this essay asks us: Is the world a good place (i.e. friendly, conducive to humans and/or quality of life in general)? If yes, how do we keep it that way? If not, can we make it better, and to what extent? Or is the world inherently flawed due to its natural structure? If so, why do we have the ability to imagine/yearn for more? Is this, as Leibniz asserted, the best of all possible worlds?

 

[1] I refrain from spelling out the name out of respect for Jewish tradition.

 

[2] This is not to gloss over the differences between these two faiths. In Christianity, when the Catholic (universal) Church was formed, it became the major normative institution in Europe following the collapse of Rome. When it shared power with monarchies, the form of government known as theocracy developed. St. Augustine wrote about city of man versus the city of God. The former can only be, at best, a pale reflection of the latter because of the inherent sinfulness of humanity. Since Christ’s mission on earth was accomplished, His followers will only find their salvation in the afterlife until He returns to earth, at which point the world itself will end, true believers will be saved, and God’s metaphysical kingdom will rein forever, rendering the attempt to create a utopia on earth pointless. Though much of medieval Christian life was determined by Kings, feudal arrangements, and local community relations, the Church made major decisions regarding the lives of Christians based on their interpretation of the Bible, the basic rules being the 10 Commandments. 

               Islam also has theocratic models of governance, but unlike Christianity, the area its religious law covers is much more extensive in the lives of Muslims. One similarity is the belief in the return of Christ, and also a period of peace on earth after a bloody struggle between good and evil, but some Muslims believe that in addition there will be a return of “the Mahdi,” a savior who will guide true believers through his gnosis.

 

[3] I am reminded in this of Huston Smiths distinction between altered states [of consciousness] and altered traits [of personality]. The former can, and often is, sought in many forms, from mystic practices to psychotropic drug use. Altered states can be ecstatic, revealing, or just plain out-of-this-world fun. They can also be not so fun, but nonetheless directly instructive of one’s mind. 

       Regardless, whether altered states are fun or not, they are just that - states. Altered traits result when these special states become life-changing; a lasting impression left on one’s being as a result of a great vision or experience. The latter unfold only when the former are interpreted in such a way as to give meaning to one’s life, and a deeper sense of purpose based on transcendent values. 

 

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utopia

               www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j36/
               www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j19/

               www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j18/