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.
- 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
- ibid, pp. 15-16
- Melissa Anne-Marie Curley, Pure Land, Real World: Modern Buddhism, Japanese Leftists, and the Utopian Imagination, Honolulu, 2017, p. 4.
- Ibid, p. 12
- Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. California, 1991, p. 100.
- Curley, Pure Land, p. 4