‘There has to be an invisible sun
That gives us hope when the whole day’s done”
–‘Invisible Sun’, The Police—
All human beings desire to live in a world without suffering. Since the first human walked the earth, our species has tried to avoid suffering and to find some kind of lasting peace and joy.
That lasting peace has often been associated with a place that exists beyond this world, a place where there is no suffering and where individuals can understand the purpose behind their lives and where there is often some kind of reward for living a virtuous life in this difficult world. The Vikings had their Valhalla, Christianity has its Kingdom of God, and Buddhism its Pure Land.
Though the Buddha presents the Pure Land as a place without suffering, Thich Nhat Hanh notes that this is not a truly possible reality:
“The reason why we are happy to have something to eat is because we know what it is to be hungry. Just imagine someone who has never been hungry. However much that person has to eat, it won’t make him or her feel happy…that is why a world that has only happiness is an unimaginable world.” (Finding Our True Home, Parallax Press, 2003)
Hahn then relates a tale from the Lotus Sutra, in which a group of travelers in search of precious jewels grows weary and feels they can go no further. Their guide, a holy man, tells them of a city that is close by where they can find rest and refreshment. The group continues on to the city, where they eat and bathe and rest. The next morning they awaken to continue their journey and find that there is no city. It was an illusion conjured by the holy man and by their belief.
The Pure Land is like the magic city. In presenting it as a place without suffering, the Buddha demonstrates his great understanding and compassion for human beings, knowing that they must have something that pulls them forward when they are weary and feel they can no longer continue on their journey through this world.
Suffering is always present, Hahn postulates, but humans can learn to transform their suffering into understanding, love, and happiness, and in the Pure Land or Kingdom of God, everyone is able to do this.
In an organizational behavior class I once took, the lecturer told a story about a man who had a dream.
First he dreamed that he was in hell.
There was a gorgeous banquet hall bedecked with jewels and beautiful adornments, and a long table that was filled with the most sumptuous food imaginable. The aroma of the food wafted through the air and it was wonderful. However, the people seated at the table had braces of some kind on their arms and their necks which prevented them from bending their arms to use their silverware and eat the delicious food or bending their necks to reach the food. No matter what they did they could not feed themselves.
The people were sad and desperate and their wailing filled the air because they were starving in the middle of this lavish banquet.
Then the man dreamed that he was in heaven.
Everything in heaven was exactly the same—the same beautiful banquet hall, the same delicious food, the same braces on the people in attendance which prevented them from being able to feed themselves. But there was no pain or suffering, no wailing in the air.
“In heaven” the man said, “the people were feeding each other.”
Versions of this story exist in nearly every spiritual tradition. In some the people have spoons too long to reach their mouths with; in others they have very long chopsticks. But the point is the same regardless.
In a speech given to a largely Christian audience, Hahn once said “You do not need to die to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” A Course in Miracles proclaims “Heaven is here. There is nowhere else. Heaven is now. There is no other time.” The Talmud tells the Jewish believer “During the time of the darkest night, act as if the morning has already come.”
What is the point of all this? The fact that there is an invisible sun: the knowledge that humans can learn to transform their suffering into love, compassion, and happiness right here and now, but that sometimes we need a little help.
All spiritual traditions seem to instinctively have understood this and incorporated it into their belief system.
And the Police song has a lot more than a catchy hook going for it.