A Buddhist Utopia from an Unlikely Source

In the 1890s Rudyard Kipling wrote “The Song of the Cities”, a poem comprising quatrains in which 16 of the chief cities of the British Empire report to London (and/or Queen Victoria).  Most of them, it seems, are doing fine.

            A typical example is Singapore’s contribution :-

Hail, Mother !  East and West must seek my aid

    Ere the spent hull may dare the ports afar.

The second doorway of the wide world’s trade

    Is mine to loose or bar.

            Since no voice from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) is to be heard here, the only Buddhist city represented is Burma’s Rangoon :-

Hail, Mother !  Do they call me rich in trade ?

    Little care I, but hear the shorn priest drone,

And watch my silk-clad lovers, man by maid,

    Laugh ‘neath my Shwe Dagon.

            A very different verse – though it, like Singapore’s, mentions “trade”.  For Rangoon, trade and its wealth are not things worth boasting of (though they may discreetly be hinted at, and they no doubt paid for the silk-clad lovers’ raiment).  Better to hear the monks chanting in Burmese-accented Pali (which is bound to sound like droning to someone like Kipling who doesn’t know the language) or watch the lovers laughing.  And the lovers, and perhaps also the monks and the merchants, are all regarded benevolently by “my Shwe Dagon” : Rangoon’s great Buddhist pagoda that presides over a city in which Work, Love, and Religion are all available as what would nowadays be called “lifestyle options”.  How much is Yangon (Rangoon renamed) like that today ?  

            It’s a wonderful vision, isn’t it ?  But is it Buddhist ?

            Why ever not ?

           In Theravada Buddhism trade is not looked down on provided that its obtention is compatible with Right Livelihood : one should not buy or sell slaves, for instance (even though there seems to be no explicit prohibition against owning slaves).  Wealth, as the product of such trade, is good not bad provided that it is not attached to obsessively, that some of it is re-invested wisely, that it is  enjoyed [!] by the people who acquired it and by their family and friends, and that some of it is used for dana (philanthropic donation).  In Theravada Buddhism human life is accompanied by Old Age, Sickness, and Death – but not inevitably by Poverty.  “The poor always ye have with you” is a Christian sentiment, not a Buddhist one.

           Ah, but the lovers, the lovers !  No religion seems at ease with them. And to the best of my knowledge there is no Theravada equivalent of the Song of Songs.   But Theravada Buddhism at least circumscribes the area in which sensual love is a problem.  Abstention from sexual misconduct is one of Buddhism’s five most fundamental precepts. But sexual misconduct does not mean sexual conduct – except for monks and nuns. Indeed, sexual misconduct seems to be essentially violation in the sexual sphere of the other four precepts : taking what is not given freely, deceiving others for sexual purposes, intoxicating people in order to seduce them, and, more generally, harming others for one’s own advantage.  And, wonderful though sexual love assuredly is, it, too, is, alas, subject to Impermanence and should not be clung to obsessively : as Auden said, “I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.”

            Frankly, the laughing silk-clad lovers, man by maid, seem more part of the solution than part of the problem.  If either of them were my child, I’d approve.  And so, it seems, does the Shwe Dagon.

            What makes Kipling so infuriating – and ultimately so great – is the conflict between his head and his heart.  His head tells him he must take up the White Man’s Burden and rule everyone else.  His heart tells him he wants to be both Mowgli, at home with bird and beast and listening to their Forest Murmurs, and Kim, “the little friend of all the world”, playing with, and learning from, the people he is supposed to be ruling.

            In writing about Rangoon, Kipling listened to his heart, which opened to the variegation of Buddhist life, and produced a Buddhist Utopia that may well not correspond with any Really Existing Buddhist society but that every Buddhist can feel is worth working towards.  And if Buddhist spiritual practice turns out to be somewhat more than just hearing the shorn monk drone – why, so much the better !

— essay contributed and copyright retained by Robert Ilson