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Lions Roar : July 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2006 85 and visceral recoil from the ... violence of their time.” She identifies the virtue of ahimsa (nonviolence) as nothing less than the “indis- pensable key” to India’s Axial Age. Nevertheless, Armstrong admira- bly resists making such generalizations into Procrustean beds into which all data are forced to fit. She readily admits anomalies. “In Greece,” she writes, “where violence was institutionalized by the polis, there was ultimately no religious transformation.” Third, in the Axial Age, religion discovered a new inwardness and yearning for self-transcendence. Axial sages, says Armstrong, expanded the frontiers of human consciousness by discovering a transcendent dimension in the core of their being and making it the object of religious exertions. No longer content to worship the gods in return for protection and sustenance, Axial sages spoke of an inner journey toward a condition limitlessly better than that of ordinary life in the world. They called it salvation or liberation and invited their hearers to exchange the constrictions of the ego- bound life for the infinitely wider expanses of an inner life centered on the divine. This may well have been when systematic practices of interiority were first developed and propagated. Religion, no longer an exclusively cosmological concern, had become psychological. Fourth, human religiosity, once almost exclusively ritual- isitic, was now rendered ethical. The Hebrew prophets tirelessly preached that God wanted goodness and justice, not just another burned bull or slaughtered lamb. The yogis of the Upanishads scorned the efficacy of the ritual fire sacrifice and recommended instead the inner fire of spiritual discipline to burn away the im- purities of egotism and greed. Confucius preached—for the first time in history, claims Armstrong—the Golden Rule. “The spirituality of self-surrender is at the heart of the Axial ideal,” says Armstrong. In the pre-individual communal mentality of our tribal past there was perhaps no need of this, but the world was different now. The Axial sages univocally encouraged an ethos of sympathy, respect, and universal concern, a disciplined and habitual cultivation of empathy, generosity, and justice. Confucius’ ren (benevolence), the Buddha’s metta (loving-kindness), Socrates’ arête (virtue), and the Hebrew prophets’ mighty rivers of justice and righteousness all bespoke the need for self-criticism and self-transformation. For them, respect for the sacred rights of others was religion. We have never really surpassed the religious insights of the Axial Age and still have far to go in actualizing them. Armstrong clearly hopes that a deeper appreciation of these noble and trans- formative ideals will help awaken the spiritual revolution she feels is necessary to counterbalance today’s emphasis on techno- logical mastery. In her view, the Axial sages inspire us to reach for the deepest understanding of all that is universally human and to use this knowledge to combat the cultural and nationalistic idolatries that continue to bedevil us. As Hans Küng has said, there can be no peace in the world without peace among the world’s religions, and Armstrong’s work on the Axial Age hastens the day when these great wisdom traditions will be able to recog- nize their different but equally valid relationships to the ultimate reality that is their source and end. ♦ GAMPO ABBEY FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS, Gampo Abbey has trained western monastics and lay people in all aspects of Buddhist life, study and practice. If you are an ordained Buddhist Monastic, interested in receiving temporary ordination or participating as a lay resident, please contact us to learn more about joining the Abbey community, our Winter Yarne retreat, Advanced Study Program or Three Year Retreat. For more information or to support Gampo Abbey, call (902) 224-2752, visit us at gampoabbey.org, or send an email to