Can the Elusive "Kingdom of Heaven" be Fought For?

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, May 18, 2005

Dharma Inspired Movie Review - Kingdom of Heaven

Singapore -- The Crusades were a series of bloody military campaigns, much of which were Roman Catholic efforts to re-capture Jerulsalem from the Muslims. "Kingdom of Heaven" tells the semi-fictitious story of how Balian the blacksmith, who was on the verge of losing his faith in the justice of God (Click for Buddhist perspective), seeked redemption through joining one of these crusades. He did so in the hope of purging himself of his misgivings, and to win for his late wife, who died by suicide, a place in heaven.

It tells how he became a warrior, more for his people's lives, than for God, "not to protect stones (of the holy land), but the people." He realised compassion for the living was more important than fighting for the lifeless, so much so that he negotiated a bloodless surrender by the film's end. Yet it was true victory in a sense, as peace was won for both parties. As personally taught by the Buddha, to prevent a war in His time, "Victory breeds enmity. The defeated one sleeps badly. The peaceful one sleeps at ease, having abandoned victory and defeat."

Godfrey, Balian's father, had uttered the following to him earlier, to urge him to fight for God, for "A better world than has ever been seen... A kingdom of conscience, peace instead of war, love instead of hate. That is what lies at the end of crusade." But can peace itself be fought for? In the eternally truthful words of the Buddha, "Hatred can never cease hatred. Hatred can only be ceased by love." History is the great witness of this truth - as the crusades spanned from the 11th to the 13th centuries, killing countless people, yet with no clear winner or loser. True victory lies in winning hearts and minds, not land, especially since true "holiness" is not essentially in any particular place, but a state of mind. As taught in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, "When the mind is pure, the land is pure." In this sense, was the Holy Land not at its unholiest in the midst of the hatred of war during the Crusades? Mirroring this truth, Balian remarks that the true kingdom to be won is in the heart and mind, which can never be surrendered.

"Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Speak the truth, always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless, even if it leads to your death; that is your oath. Rise a knight... rise a knight!" Those were the noble words by Godfrey, who thus knighted Balian. Surprisingly, they seemed to hold traces of the Bodhisattva vow "to benefit all and to harm none". Balian lives up to his oath, echoing its spirit in the words, "What man is a man who does not make the world a better place?" The Bodhisattva aspiration to protect and to serve! On his deceased wife, Balian reflects thus, "How can you be in hell when you are in my heart?" Likewise, Bodhisattvas will never forsake a single being to burn helplessly in torment in the hells. Even the hell-beings suffering from their negative karma are constantly held within the heart of their infinite compassion, as they help whenever they can.

With the notion that "to kill an infidel is not murder - it's the path to heaven", there was the prevalent concept that heaven can be won through putting non-believers through "hell", which they are deemed to deserve. But how can anyone be rewarded karmically through acts of hateful violence? "God wills it!" is uttered as a war cry throughout the film, but it is obvious in many instances that it was the deluded men themselves, who willed what they did, while the gods themselves remain ominously silent. It forces the audience to question how much were they fighting for God and how much for themselves, to covet land and wealth. Grave ungodliness in the name of God?
Saladin, the leader of the "opposition", when asked "What is Jeruasalem worth?", replied with a cryptic grin, "Nothing... Everything." Almost a Zen-like answer, it hinted that he knew very well that the land was just a symbol of holiness, though he had to fight for it, as his followers were attached to the symbol itself. Strongly urging religious harmony, Balian proclaims to the masses that "No one has claim (to the holy land); all has claim." How true! Since the Catholics and Muslims find Jerusalem holy according to their own particular perspectives, why not co-exist in harmony? Disharmony only makes any "holy land" unholy. In fact, disharmony is unholiness itself.
In a brief scene of gentleness away from the fighting, Balian's love interest, Sibylla, exclaimed to him, "Between one person and another, there is only light." She then blows out the candlelight between them, as they embraced in the enveloping darkness. Only when we differentiate our forms are there great differences. Are we all not equal in the dark? Are we all not equally deserving of peace? Are we all not equally deserving of respect despite our different religious beliefs? In Buddhism, we are all equal as we all have the same supreme Buddha-nature - the potential to be Buddhas of perfect Compassion and Wisdom.

In the end, Balian rejects a second invitation to join the next crusade, having already redemned himself in his own ways, having discovered the peace that already is. For how can peace be fought for? The true crusade is never to destroy enemies out there, but to slay our inner demons of defilements. As Stonepeace said, "As the enemy of my enemy is me, our real enemy is 'enmity'." Should we all realise this, the truest sense of a "Kingdom of Heaven", or a paradisical earthly Pureland, will not be far.