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Documentary Shows World's Religions Have Similar Focus on 'Heaven' - 2003-07-23

Most of the world's religions have an idea of "heaven," but the concepts are very different. An American filmmaker asked believers from major religions what heaven means to them, and found their distinctive visions have a similar focus.

Is heaven a destination or a state of mind? Documentary filmmaker John Scheinfeld was curious, and teamed up with cable television's National Geographic Channel to explore the concept. "The idea of heaven is important in many religions, but the filmmaker asked himself how to approach the topic for a one-hour film for television," he said.

"We can't go there," he laughed. "We can't shoot there. So what are we going to do. I didn't want to do a straight-ahead boring academic history of heaven. So I said, where does the concept come from? How does the concept manifest itself in the five great religions today? And then how do some people within those religions live their lives to get there?" he said.

To look at heaven in Judaism, he turned to the mountain Jews of Azerbaijan, who find heaven in a moral life lived within their ancient religious tradition. "What really fascinated me about the mountain Jews is that here's this group of people that have been in this place for 2,500 years. And secondly, they are engulfed by a sea of Islam, and how do they survive as Jews. And what I learned is that they have accomplished this really by clinging to their faith. Their faith has sustained them," Mr. Scheinfeld said.

Living in a region subjected to many empires, from the Persians to the Russians, the Mountain Jews have also embraced tolerance as a central religious tenet. The film features worshippers and community leaders, including this town elder.

"We want the place that we live in to be peaceful and be secure. No murder, no killing, no robbery, no gossip. This is what our community considers to be heaven," the town elder said.

Western concepts of heaven have been formed through Christian art, where heaven is often seen as a place of billowing clouds with saints and angels. But for Father Gregory Boyle, a Catholic priest who ministers to Los Angeles gang members, heaven is less important than survival in a violent part of the city.

"I buried my first kid in 1988. I buried my 113th two weeks ago," Father Boyle said.

For Father Boyle and the young gang members, the thought of heaven provides solace in times of tragedy, while inspiring his practical work of getting youngsters out of gangs and into jobs. The filmmaker looked at a very different concept of heaven among Turkey's whirling dervishes, Sufi Muslims who worship God through ritual dance.

In his film, Sufi Muslims tell Mr. Scheinfeld, "We feel ourselves in an extraordinary atmosphere. We have no idea about the outer world. We are completely in heaven."

He says, "This dance that they do expresses their feelings, their symbolic feelings about heaven and God and the cosmos."

To look at Buddhist concepts of heaven, the filmmaker spoke with a female monk in Thailand named Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, who is reviving an ancient tradition of women clergy. "And as she said to me, heaven is not the final destination in Buddhism, it is merely an option. And in fact, as I learned, there could be as many as 33 heavens in the Buddhist model," Mr. Scheinfeld said.

He said for Buddhists, heaven is just a stop on the path to enlightenment.

In India, the filmmaker looked at a man named Veer Bhadra Mishra, a professor of hydraulic engineering who is also the chief priest at a Hindu temple. He is devoting his life to saving the Ganges River, which is sacred to Indian Hindus.

"I bathe in the river three times a day, morning, afternoon and evening. By bathing, you cleanse yourself of all your sins," he man said.

But ritual bathing pollutes the river, and the Hindu environmentalist knows that bathing must be controlled to save the river. For him, heaven is seen in the Ganges and in all of God's creation.

"And so this is his dilemma to save the river, he must challenge some of the tenets of Hinduism. This is a very difficult thing for him to do," Mr. Scheinfeld said.

For believers, heaven can be the focus of devotion, a foundation for moral law, or the source of forgiveness. The filmmaker adds that for most of the people he talked with, heaven is an ideal that inspires life in the here and now.

"If there's a message of the film, it's that. For many, many centuries, blood has been shed because of what people believe and what religion they practice. And I think what we can see is that we're not all that different. We all have some of the same goals and some of the same hopes and dreams, and if we paid a little more attention and we learned a little bit about this, perhaps hate would work out of the vocabulary," the filmmaker explained.

And we would all be a little closer to the ideal of heaven.

John Scheinfeld's documentary film In the Name of Heaven, appeared July 20 on the National Geographic Channel.