Here in the United States, just over two hundred years ago, the European settlers ventured to create a more perfect union. Today, I’d like to discuss this venture in the context of Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God and tales of an ancient kingdom in Asia.
We’ll consider this topic within a common Buddhist framework examining the outer, inner, and secret levels of the kingdom. The outer level is the more literal or external; inner refers to universal, psychological meaning, while the secret aspect is unique to our own experience and also considered to be self-secret.
The Outer Level
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth, as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10)
Jesus’ ministry revolved around the idea of a kingdom. In fact, he talked about the kingdom of God more than anything else. Admittedly, it’s more popular among contemplatives like myself to look at this as an inner kingdom. After all, when the Pharisees asked Jesus when this kingdom would come, he mysteriously replied saying, “The kingdom is within and among you.” (Luke 17:21)
Nonetheless, Christ’s early followers anxiously waited for him to establish a physical, earthly kingdom. Even after his death, they believed he would soon return to take power. Were they just confused? Not exactly. They may have downplayed their personal role in building this kingdom being convinced that Jesus would accomplish this himself. Yet, I think an earthly kingdom was and still can be part of the Christian vision.
At the very least, the idea of such a kingdom has long existed in the human heart and imagination. We are forever seeking the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
The Kingdom of Shambhala
In Asia, tales of an ancient kingdom abound – the kingdom of Shambhala – which inspired the movie Lost Horizon. This movie portrayed a Western version of an Eastern paradise called Shangri-la. Some sources say Shambhala was a real place that existed long ago, perhaps in Central Asia. It provides us with a model for a good and enlightened society organized around a conviction in human goodness and dignity.
I believe the United States was founded upon a similar conviction. After all, a country that exists for the people and by the people must firmly rest on the opinion that people are essentially good and capable of organizing their lives and government effectively.
The Inner Level
Where does such conviction come from? Like Jesus said, this kingdom you seek is within you. Again, we contemplatives tend to imagine he was referring to a mystical state or higher level of consciousness. Perhaps he was.
Yet, on a more basic level, maybe he simply meant that the vision of a good society already exists as an archetype in the human mind. It’s part of who we are. In fact, people throughout history have worked together to create a decent life based on constitutional or fundamental rights. Many believe a country ruled by the people, either directly or by representation, is a step in the right direction.
Here’s one way I imagine Jesus could have finished his famous response to the Pharisees.
Pharisees: When will the kingdom come?
Jesus: The coming of the kingdom is not something you can observe. People won’t say, “Here it is or there it is.” For the kingdom of God is among you. It will appear gradually over time as you all work together to build it. Then, almost as if out of nowhere, it arrives.
The Secret Level
Finally, let’s consider the secret meaning behind all of this. What does this notion of a kingdom or for that matter a democracy based on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean to you? How does the basis for such a kingdom already exist in our own experience?
Perhaps there’s a natural impulse toward courage and bravery that manifests in the face of racism. Maybe it’s a longing to communicate our truth, to share a little of who we are with others, especially as we’re confronted by a global pandemic. It could be an instinct to help, to care, to consider our world while wildfires burn all around us.
The funny thing is, we don’t always recognize this treasure, our own essential goodness. Yet, we have this amazing capacity to open fully and completely to ourselves and our nation. I think that’s why Jesus compared the kingdom to a pearl of great price. It’s so valuable, yet the oyster doesn’t even know it’s there. In that way, it’s a self-secret treasure.
In her excellent book, Awake Mind, Open Heart: The Power of Courage and Dignity in Everyday Life, Cynthia Kneen reminds us:
Finding the secret meaning of Shambhala in your own experience is a process of personal discovery that takes energy and exertion. Like finding gold, jewels, or oil in the earth, you have to work to find the meaning and make it yours.
It might be worth asking yourself now, Where does the kingdom arise in my own experience?
In all these ways and more, the kingdom already exists. It’s completely accessible, but we do have to open to it. This kingdom, these nations, all the various societies that have formed and crumbled, each rise and fall as a result of our collective psychology. The archetype is real and part of who we are as human beings.
In a week’s time, those of us who live in the United States will have had the opportunity to play a vital role in creating a more perfect union. We will cast our votes and have our say. In so doing, we are exerting our influence to bring about our own vision of Shambhala or a kingdom built upon charity and love.
We at Contemplative Light hope you have enjoyed and benefited from this election series. We also hope our readers in the United States will proudly take the opportunity to vote for the promise of a better life. May God’s grace be with us all.
Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God by George Eldon Ladd
Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche