Utopia: Futuristic Goal or Idealistic Impossibility?

A utopia is, by definition, impossible to achieve. This may seem like a bold statement, but there is good reason behind it. Firstly, the idea of a utopia, or utopian world, must be separated into two distinct forms: religious, and political. In a religious sense, a utopia is therefore the ideal world, a perfect state which an adherent believes they will find themselves in or otherwise attain, whether during their life or after death. On the other hand, a political utopia is defined as the creation of a perfect state on earth, whether through governmental actions or otherwise. By comparing the religious utopian beliefs of the Christian Heaven or Paradise and Buddhist Nirvana or Pure Land with the political utopian goal of Anarchy, this piece will argue that the goal of a utopian future cannot ever be realised in actuality, as it must remain an impossible ideal to give hope for the future and serve as a reminder of one’s place in society and awareness of one’s circumstances.

A religious utopia, as it is understood in both Buddhism and Christianity, is the creation or realisation of a perfect state of both world and being. As Joseph Kitagawa puts it, “Every religion, every culture, and every civilization has a characteristic view of the future as well as a characteristic way of recollecting the past, which together influence its understanding of the meaning of present existence.”1 Kitagawa argues that the Maitreya, the Future Buddha, served as a focus point for the laity, and the belief in the coming of the Maitreya therefore “gave them grounds for optimism and hope”. 2 It is the last past of Kitagawa’s understanding that is the most important, that it is the present existence that shapes an individual’s perception of their world and their place in it, on a cosmological scale. In this sense, religion therefore serves as a positive influence, as believers hold on to the possibility of a better world.

In contrast, Melissa Anne-Marie Curley’s analysis is far more pessimistic, as she outlines the way in which belief in the Buddhist Pure Land ideology in Japan waned over the course of the 20th century. In her words, people became disillusioned with the idea of a better future as “modern people, embarrassed by those hopeful images from the past, are set the impossible task of working toward the transformation of reality even as they are sworn to this world as it is.”3 Her analysis shows that as a society becomes more technologically advanced, belief in a religious utopia correspondingly diminishes, as people turn away from the promise of a heavenly paradise towards the creation of a better world for themselves.

Is there a more positive outlook to be found in the political ideal, then? Curley is even more pessimistic here, pointing out that in Europe, and to a lesser extent in Japan, goals of utopia “repeatedly curdled into totalitarianism”.4 Here, she notes that prominent Japanese Pure Land figures went even further in their views, arguing that the only way to achieve religious utopia was through the total separation and withdrawal of religion from the state. 5

This is not to say that political goal of utopia were equally impossible, per se. Rather, as Arif Dirlik notes in his analysis of the Chinese Anarchist movement of the early 20th century, it largely came down to a lack of planning. Dirlik points to the goal of ‘rural utopianism’ set out by Liu Shipei, noting that revolution was “ultimately a continuing process with no foreseeable end.”6 Curley echoes this view, noting Theodor Adorno’s and Ernst Bloch’s argument that a true utopia, whether religious or political, is thus “defined only in terms of absence”, such as hunger or constraint, and, perhaps most importantly, not here, not now [own emphasis7]. In other words, a utopia can only exist ‘somewhere else’- either in the future, or in a different realm of existence. A utopia is therefore something than cannot exist in the ‘here and now’. It must remain an ideal, always tantalisingly out of reach, neither fully defined nor denied, but out there, waiting to be realised.

  1. Joseph Kitagawa, ‘The Many Faces of Maitreya: A Historian of Religions’ Reflections’, in Sponberg, Alan, (ed.) Maitreya, the Future Buddha. Reissue edition. Cambridge, 2011, p. 7 []
  2. ibid, pp. 15-16 []
  3. Melissa Anne-Marie Curley, Pure Land, Real World: Modern Buddhism, Japanese Leftists, and the Utopian Imagination, Honolulu, 2017, p. 4. []
  4. ibid []
  5. Ibid, p. 12 []
  6. Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. California, 1991, p. 100. []
  7. Curley, Pure Land, p. 4 []

Miki Kiyoshi’s Marxist Buddhism: The Impact of Imagination on the Past, Present, and Future

But the fact that we see the imagination as a faculty peculiar to artists is probably related to the fact that we view artistic activities in particular as original creations. Our job is to elucidate the logic of imagination as a logic of historical creation, while liberating it from its restriction to the realm of beauty and broadly introducing it into the world of action.” – Miki Kiyoshi, The Logic of Imagination

Miki Kiyoshi, a 20th century utopian thinker who combined Marxism and Pure Land Buddhist philosophy, used the relationship between imagination and history to clarify his vision for the future of society.  Miki’s work is influenced by the Kyoto School — an intellectual movement led by thinkers who interpreted Western philosophy in the context of East Asian intellectual traditions — which lays the foundation for his conception of ideas like logos, pathos, and imagination.1  His novel ideas about the historical applications of imagination not only created new ways of interpreting history, but also unprecedented ways of imagining the future.

In his published collection of essays, The Logic of Imagination, Miki argues that imagination is not a purely fictional realm belonging only to artists, but a process which directly impacts the real world.2  This is also true of myth, which he sees as the product of imagination, and whose impact on historical reality can be traced throughout history.3  If imagination influences action, and action shapes history, then imagination must directly influence reality.  This supports Miki’s claim that, “being human also means to exist in a particular historical context — as Miki puts it in ‘History’s Reason,’ ‘human beings do not exist outside of history; they stand within history’.”4  He defines human reality as grounded in historical reality, and historical reality as directly influenced by imagination.  In her study of Pure Land Buddhism and 20th century utopian thinkers, Melissa Anne-Marie Curley argues that Miki used the imaginary utopia of the “Pure Land” as a historical myth to help shape his Marxist vision for the future.5

According to Miki, the myth of the Pure Land belongs to the realm of imagination, but this does not negate its importance — if anything, imagination provides a conceptualisation of the future which cannot be found in reality.  The ability to imagine a better future or a “Pure Land” allows humans to act on this myth.  Here, he applies Marxist theory to imagine such a future: a unified human community supported by the principles of mutual aid.6   Religion, which exists primarily in the human of imagination, is an internal realm, but “Miki maintains that this internal experience inevitably and directly manifests socially, generating new religious phenomena or new forms of social life that are founded upon a demand for happiness and thus arc always toward utopia.”7  Imagination, by Miki’s definition, is both a historical actor as well as a force which influences our future.

  1. Masakatsu Fujita, The Philosophy of the Kyoto School, trans. Robert Chapeskie (Singapore: Springer, 2018), vi, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-8983-1_5. []
  2. John W.M. Krummel, “Introduction to Miki Kiyoshi and his Logic of the Imagination,” Social Imaginaries 2, no.1 (2016): 17. []
  3. Ibid., 19 []
  4. Melissa Anne-Marie Curley, Pure Land, Real World: Modern Buddhism, Japanese Leftists, and the Utopian Imagination (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2017), 141, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvvmxmx. []
  5. Ibid., 148 []
  6. Ibid., 151 []
  7. Ibid., 143 []

The American Encounter with Buddhism: What it tells us about Japan and it’s Pursuit of Modernity

In the second chapter of The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent, Thomas Tweed discusses American engagement with Buddhism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Tweed explains that, “This study analyzes the public conversation about Buddhism (in English) and focuses on Euro-American Buddhists.”1 The author describes a contradictory engagement with Buddhism in America: the chapter starts off with evidence of Buddhism’s proliferation in America, but quickly turns to consider the many factors which limited American support of Buddhism. In addition to shedding light on American reactions to Buddhism, Tweed’s chapter, “Shall We All Become Buddhists?” points to major differences in Japanese and Chinese engagement with overseas populations, and illuminates in particular the Japanese relationship with modernity. 

In his discussion about Asian-American Buddhists, Tweed asserts that “The Japanese provided greater support for their immigrant Buddhist communities than the Chinese. They apparently did so, in part, in response to Christian missionary efforts.”2 As evidence for this assertion, he points to the 1898 decision by the Japanese Jodo-Shin-shu (True Pure Land Sect) to send two representatives to the United States to study immigrant spiritual practices and the subsequent move by the Kyoto headquarters to send two missionaries, officially recognizing the Buddhist mission in America. Tweed’s observations are useful in a discussion of Japanese reactions to Western industrialization and modernization. Just as the arrival of Mathew Perry’s “black ships” in 1854 threatened Japanese sovereignty, Christian missionaries’ attempt to convert Japanese immigrants in America jeopardized the future of one of the major Japanese religious traditions. Japanese powers intervened to preserve Pure Land Buddhism in America and therefore prove that it was a religion suited for the modern age. Tweed points out that as opposed to Japanese powers, the Chinese did not send missionaries to their American immigrant communities.3 The resulting poor adherence to Buddhism that Tweed notes among Chinese-Americans mirrors China’s failure to institute the systematic program of modernization undertaken in the Meiji era in Japan.  

Both the adoption of Western ideas about Chinese-Americans and the copying of certain Western elements of Buddhism that Tweed observes also represent manifestations of Japan’s pursuit of modernity. Although they largely arrived after the Chinese, “Japanese immigrants, often repeating American criticism of the Chinese, tried to distinguish themselves from the “lower class” Chinese who seemed unable to assimilate.”4 This adoption of western beliefs allow Japanese-Americans to elevate themselves to a status above Chinese-Americans, and therefore separate themselves from a “less developed” nation. In addition, Tweed comments that “A limited amount of Americanization and Protestantization also occurred in Japanese Pure Land Buddhist communities before World War I.”4 The construction of Buddhism along Western lines demonstrates Japan’s attempt to Westernize within the traditional Japanese framework of Pure Land Buddhism. Modern Western powers attained global primacy through intense industrialization and a Christian civilizing mission, Japan sought to do the same by utilizing the discursive tradition made available by Buddhism. 

This pattern is indicative of the new conceptualization of religion which emerged in mid nineteenth century Japan “as both transcending the profane society and responsible for improving and ‘civilizing’ its mores.”5 Religion was now seen as a force separate from the state, that could be used as a tool in Japan’s civilizing and modernizing mission. The Japanese policy regarding Buddhism in America mirrors the propagation of Christianity as a “civilizing religion” by Western powers and is a reaction to the introduction of Western modernity which reached Japan, along with Perry’s ships, in 1854. 



Tikhonov, V. M, Social Darwinism and Nationalism in Korea – The Beginnings, 1883-1910: Survival as an Ideology of Korean Modernity (Brill, 2010). 

Tweed, Thomas, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent (UNC Press Books, 2005). 



  1. Thomas Tweed, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent (UNC Press Books, 2005), p. 38 []
  2. Ibid., p. 36 []
  3. Ibid., p. 35 []
  4. Ibid., p. 37 [] []
  5. V. M. Tikhonov, Social Darwinism and Nationalism in Korea – The Beginnings, 1883-1910: Survival as an Ideology of Korean Modernity (Brill, 2010), p. 113. []