As a species, it seems as though we have spent thousands of years searching for something better, some fabulous place where our every need is met, and everyone lives happily in peace and harmony. Utopia, Paradise, Shalimar, Eden; these are but a few names for that place which we believe, deep within our hearts, must exist in some hidden corner of the world we inhabit.
Many books have been written, including James Hilton’s classic 1935 novel “The Lost Horizon”, where the concept of “Shangri-la” was brought to Western society (although the concept of such a place in the Himalayan region was possibly introduced by Siddhartha Gautama himself in the founding teachings of Buddhism, 2500 years earlier). Additionally, paintings, sculptures, and other works of art have been created, visions seen; and legends passed down; all of this mythical place where we believe perfection exists. Expeditions have searched the deepest corners of the darkest jungles, the most remote inhabitable places on the planet, even below the surfaces of the earth and the ocean, but no one has ever found the fabled lands of milk and honey. In some ways it is easy to understand, for as human, we often seek that which has never been found, the quest for the impossible drives us forward, giving our lives a purpose. Yet the very definition of such a place as Utopia is “an imaginary and indefinitely remote place”, suggesting the futility of the search.
Entire religions and similar mythological belief systems have based themselves on the idea that this paradise exists, and that certain tests must be passed before being allowed to enter. Some tests are written in the form of moral codes to be upheld, some are in the form of personal sacrifices or pilgrimages, but all share the common trait that the key to this place, this wonderful world unlike our own world of pain and suffering, can only be discovered after completing all of the necessary tests. This idea moves in the direction of discovering this blissful place, but falls short in the end, clinging as it does to it’s insistence that this is an other-worldly, or at the very least nearly inaccessible, place.
Recently, I saw an interview with the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of millions of Buddhists. The interviewer was quite sure that the Dalai held the secret of the location of Shangri-la (also known as Shalimar), the mythical city of wonder, and pushed the issue. The response was pretty simple and forward, basically that he believed there to be no such place on the physical plane, and as far as other planes, he didn’t know. He went on to say that he did not worry himself with such things, but concerned himself with the beauty of the Earth around him instead, and maintaining peace in his own life. Missing the point completely, the interviewer went on to imply that the Dalai Llama had simply avoided the question and was hiding something; when in fact the answer had been given out loud (and rather easy to see, I thought).
How can we overlook the obvious? Are our lives so difficult, so filled with sorrow and pain, that we cannot see the beauty of the world we live in today? Certainly there is strife and evil around, but how can we possibly appreciate the beautiful without the ugly, the nice without the nasty, the black without the white, the old without the young? Can there be a place where everything is always wonderful, full of sweetness and light, peace and love? It seems unlikely, to say the least, for even if such a place existed, we as humans would grow to be unappreciative so quickly as to make it less than paradise almost overnight.
Have we, in fact, ever left the Garden of Eden? Examining this particular tale more closely, it is only after people receive knowledge that they are banished from the garden. Were we in fact banished, or did the knowledge gained simply allow us to recognize that there was more than a simple, positive force at work in the environment; that in fact some negative is necessary to balance the positive? We were not banished from the garden, we merely learned that it was not a place of pure nicety, and this realization led us to believe that we had lost something. In fact, nothing has been lost except the innocence with which we first faced the world.
The concept of heaven espoused by the teachings of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths is one of return to the Garden of Eden after death through the upholding of a certain moral code in life. If the supposition of the previous paragraph is true, that we have never truly been banished from the garden, then what is heaven? Is it a return to a more innocent state; in fact, a loss of the knowledge that allows us to separate good from evil? I often joked about it when I was younger, but now I truly wonder: how wonderful a place can heaven be when those most likely to go there are the most miserable in this life? Do they lose that “wisdom” that leads them to a pious, often unemotional life at death, suddenly breaking loose to enjoy their deaths?
This concept has always bothered me, but in my own spirituality I begin to see some answers. I cannot accept death as being a loss of wisdom, as I believe in reincarnation, and it makes little sense to be reborn into another life without having gained something, some bit of enlightenment, from the previous one. To lose wisdom at death would be a constant regression, and as a species, we would be steadily devolving instead of evolving, growing simpler with every passing generation. Certainly not all is retained, but enough to carry something further the next time around.
The other concept, and the key to a great deal more, is the idea that paradise is not some far-off, remote place inhabited by people unlike ourselves. Paradise is right here, right now, and all that prevents us from seeing it is our preconceived notion of what it should be. Certainly the pollution of the inner city calls forth images of hell rather than heaven, but a simple walk through the woods after a fresh fallen snow is enough for me to realize that no heaven could have greater beauty. If we begin to realize that we already inhabit Eden, might we not be more inspired to take care of it?
The concept that has driven the most literary endeavors is that of the ideal society peopled by those who work together in peace and harmony towards a common good. As a planet, this is probably beyond us; humans have been at odds with one another as long as they have existed, and this trait is not unique to humanity! Certainly, on a small scale, we can be brought together in peaceful groups to accomplish goals; look no further than those who work to save the forests or help the poor. Must there be petty fights, jealousies, the taking of sides? Of course! Once again, we cannot appreciate the good without the bad, but the existence of the bad does not mean that we cannot achieve the good. And this is the lesson of paradise.