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Karen Armstrong was born in England and as I'm sure you all know spent seven years as a nun in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. During that time she also graduated from Oxford. Her book, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, chronicled the troubled years following her decision to leave the Roman Catholic nunnery. It was an instant best seller of course. She's also the author of the international best seller The History of God, and played a key role in Bill Moyer's popular PBS series on religion. Karen has been acclaimed as the leading thinker on the role of religion in the modern world today and has written books on all of the major monotheistic religions. Her much anticipated new book, The Great Transformation, goes back to the beginning of our religious traditions in the 9th century B.C. and examines the roots of the worlds four major spiritual traditions. So now I'd like for you all to give a great welcome for Karen Armstrong. My book is about what's being called the "axial age", the period from about 900-200 B.C.E., when all the world religions, that have continued to nourish humanity, either came into being or had their roots. So that you have, in four distinct regions of the earth, Confucianism and Taoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism and Jainism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Now, this was probably one of the greatest periods of transformation of consciousness that the world has seen. We have not seen anything like it until our own great transformation which began in the 16th century with our scientific revolution and is still in progress. We've never gone beyond these great insights that developed during the first axial age. But basically, we've not gone beyond those great insights. And you can see later, Christianity, rabbinic Judaism and later still, Islam as secondary flowerings of that first axial age spirit. They didn't do anything different, they restated these first great insights, but in another form. now um, I didn't want my book to be simply an exercise in spiritual archaeology because I knew that it'd be, in a sense, a critique of the way we're religious today, because it often seems to me that in our various institutions, we're reproducing exactly the kind of religiosity that people such as the Buddha, wanted to get rid of. Now, for example, in the Western world, particularly in the Western Christian world, we often think of faith as believing things and we often call religious people believers, as though accepting certain articles of a creed was the main thing that they did. In fact, that's a very, very eccentric position. None of the great axial age thinkers was at all interested in doctrine, dogma or theological conformity, not one. The prophets of Israel, for example, did not talk about metaphysics. They were more like political commentators today, they were looking at the turbulent politics of the Middle East and finding the divine hand in that, and using that to urge their people to make a moral revolution of their lives. The Buddha had a monk who was continually pestering him about who created the world, was there a God, had the world been created in time or had it always existed? And the Buddha said to him, he was like a man who'd been shot with a poisoned arrow, but who refused to have any medical treatment until he found out the name of the man who shot him and what village he came from. The Buddha said, you'll die before you get this perfectly pointless information. We could spend many hours, oh monks, discussing these fascinating topics, but it won't help you. Suppose, he said, you find out who created the world and how he did it, the situation will not have changed, suffering, pain, despair, mortality, sickness, cruelty will still exist. And Confucius used to say to his disciples sometimes, oh I wish I did not have to speak, and his disciples said to him, but master, if you didn't speak to us, what would we poor little ones have to tell our own pupils about you? And Buddha said heaven does not speak, Heaven was the high god of China, he said, but look how effective heaven is, because of heaven the stars turn in their courses, the seasons follow one another, but heaven does no speaking. And the implication was that if we stopped this theological chatter, we could be as effective as heaven too. The Taoist thought that the kind of certainty people often look for in religion, was immature and unrealistic. And indeed it was counterproductive because people identify with their opinions, their theological opinions, quite passionately, so when they pontificating about what they believe they're really asserting their ego and the axial age sages insisted that in order to encounter what they call Brahman or God or Nirvana or the Tao, you had to leave your ego behind. Now, the, its not that the axial age sages weren't interested in the sacred, they were, but they knew very well that the sacred was transcendent and that means that it went beyond anything we could say, or think, or know. Silence was better than speech, which could only limit or cut down on our appreciation of what we mean by the sacred. Instead of believing things, therefore, the axial age sages wanted a religion of doing things, doing things that changed you at a profound level. In particular, in getting rid of ego. That means that that grasping aspect of ourselves, that which can't look at anything without saying I want, do I like that, or when we hear of something we immediately say how will that affect me and this is what they all decided was what put us outside the ambit of the sacred. If you could get rid of this self-centered propensity we would encounter the sacred. The Buddha talked about the doctrine of Anata, no self, and what he meant by was not so much a philosophical or metaphysical conception of the self as a sort of fictional reality, but it was like all his teaching, it was a directive to action, if you behave, the Buddha said, as though the self did not exist, you'd be happier. And I think if you think that through, its probably true. When we wake up at three o'clock in the morning when life seems bleak and toss and turn, and feel sorry for ourselves, those kinds of thoughts that run through our mind are very much why haven't I got this, why is X doing better than me, why did this have to happen to me, its not fair, etc. if you could get outside this self-regarding state, the Buddha said, you would know a certain peace. Yoga, which was very, very different from the kind of yoga often practiced in the west today, in meditation halls and gyms, was meant to root out egotism; it was a systematic assault on ego. It was not, a sort of aerobic exercise, it was not designed to make yourself feel better about yourself, or to feel more at peace with the world, it was about rooting out the I principle from your thinking, going right down into the unconscious world, the unconscious realm long before Freud and Jung had discovered the unconscious, the yogis of India had already found it. So getting rid of self was a priority and Jesus would later teach the same thing or at least the Christians would. In a very early Christian text, Saint Paul talks, quotes a very early Christian hymn. If you remember he talks about Jesus who was in the image of God but didn't cling on to that great honor, but he emptied himself, using the Greek word the title of one of my chapters, which means emptying, getting rid of that ego and he accepted the likeness of a slave he even accepted a humiliating and disgraceful death. And because he'd done that God exalted him to a very high level and gave him the title_____. Now Saint Paul wasn't teaching the incarnation, he had been rather surprised by that doctrine, though the text is often quoted in that way, this is a directive to action. If you remember, Saint Paul introduces this hymn by saying you must have this same mind as Christ Jesus, you've got to be self emptying too and in the passage leading up to this he says you too must be self-effacing, must think of others as better than yourselves. And unless you put this doctrine into practice you won't understand what is meant by the story of Jesus, that you divest yourself of ego and then you enjoy an enhancement of your being, you become greater and more enlarged. Now, I spent as a young girl, a lot of time battling with my ego in my convent, but a lot of ways in which I did it were not very skillful, to use a Buddhist term. We're constantly thinking about our faults and detailing our failings and sins and things and this was a complete waste of time because this type of self-regard actually embeds you in the egotism that you're trying to transcend, your stuck in it. I couldn't have had a proper religious experience if one had come and tapped me on the shoulder. Instead, the axial age sages said they had no time for this kind of thing. The best way to lose your ego is by the practice of compassion, and compassion is the key to axial age religion. All of them insisted that compassion, the ability to feel with the other, is what would bring you into a union, into an appreciation of the Tao or Nirvana or Brahman or God. And you had, that's because in compassion you have to dethrone yourself from the center of your world and put someone else there instead so that you're going out, almost always, toward the other. Central to the practice of compassion is what we call the "Golden Rule". The "Golden Rule" was first promulgated, as far as we know, by Confucius five hundred years before Jesus. And he told his disciples that this was the single thread that ran through all his teaching, "Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you". That he said is the single thread that pulls all my teachings together. "Master", said his disciples, "which one of your teachings can we practice all day and everyday?" and Confucius replied, tsu likening to the self, look into your heart, find what it is that gives you pain and then refuse under any circumstances to inflict that pain on anybody else. And the Buddha taught his own version of the "Golden Rule" and much later Rabbi Hillel, one of the founders of rabbinic Judaism, who was an older contemporary of Jesus, gave a very startling description of the importance of the "Golden Rule". A pagan is said to have came to Hillel and promised that he would convert to Judaism on condition that the Rabbi could recite the holy Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. And Hillel stood on one leg and said, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah, the rest is commentary, go and study it." Now that's an alarming and surprising statement. There is no mention there of God or the creation of the world or the exodus from Egypt or Mt. Sinai or the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Torah, simply don't do to others which you would not have done to you. Just like Confucius religion was altruism. A not belief, but discipline altruism, but they went further. And this is where I think they become so relevant to our own time, they all insisted that you could not confine your benevolence to your own particular group. You had to have what the Chinese sages called Jen-i, concern for everybody. You had to, the Buddha used to make his monks and lay people alike, do a kind of meditation where by they sent out thoughts of benevolence to all four corners of the earth, not omitting a single creature from their radius of concern, not even a mosquito. And in doing that, the Buddha said, you would gradually break down the barricades with which we protect our fragile egos and collect around us a bunch of like-minded people who endorse our sense of self. If you send out your thought waves of benevolence to all the peoples on the face of the earth, you encounter an enlarged mental being and the Buddha called these meditations "the immeasurables", because you yourself became immeasurable as your horizons became expanded. In the book of Leviticus, God tells the Israelites that they must honor the stranger, they must love the stranger; if a stranger lives with you in your land, do not molest him. You must treat him as one of your own people and love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. is kind of the "Golden Rule" in action again, look back at your own history, remember when you were strangers and then apply that imaginatively to the strangers in your own midst. And that word love needs unpicking a bit. The word love did not imply that we had to be filled with warm, tender affection towards these strangers. Leviticus is a legal text, and to talk about the emotions would be as out of place there as they would be in a high court ruling here. The word love was a technical term used in international treaties whereby two kings or two princes would promise to love each other that is they'd look out for each others interest, offering each other practical support and help and give them complete loyalty. And that is within anybody's grasp. Jesus said, "Love your enemies". And by that, again, I think he meant that you put your benevolence where there is no hope in return. What merit is it, he said, if you only love those who love you, do not the pagans do the same, but I say to you love your enemies. Do, give your benevolence to where you know your not going to get anything back and your simply building up yourself. Now the Greeks gave, I haven't mentioned them yet, the Greeks gave a wonderful object lesson in compassion and concern for everybody. They put on stage suffering in their tragic drama. Every year during the fifth century, on the feast of Dionysus, all the male citizens of Athens, had to congregate in a theatre built at the foot of the Acropolis at the foot of the Parthenon, to watch plays three solid days, everybody had to come. It was not a question, have you caught the latest play by Aeschylus, you had to go. And we're not sure whether the women came or not, the evidence is conflicting about that, but the male citizens had to attend and they even let people out of prison to attend these plays. They were part, they were of a religious ritual in honor of Dionysus, god of transformation, and the plays very often reflected the dilemmas of Athens during that year, that setting them in a mythical framework. And the leader of the chorus would instruct the audience to weep for people that they would often shun in ordinary life. People like Oedipus, who had killed his father and committed incest with his mother. Or Heracles, who in a fit of divinely inspired madness had slaughtered his wife and children and the leader of the chorus says, "Look at this man, weep for him". And the Greeks did weep unlike Western men today, they didn't sort of gulp hard, swallow and wipe an embarrassed tear from the corner of their eye, they wept aloud because they felt weeping together created a bond between people and created a sort of strong bond of citizenship within the palace. One of the first plays, in fact the first play that has actually survived and come down to us of these plays is Aeschylus' The Persians, which looked at the battle of Salamis from the point of view of the enemy, the Persians. Only a few years earlier, the Greeks, who eventually won the battle of Salamis, had had to watch miserably while the Persians rampaged through their city, vandalized Athens completely and smashed to pieces the beautiful new temples that they'd built on the Acropolis. And now Aeschylus was telling the Athenians to weep for their enemy, to weep for the Persians. And the Persians are presented not as a defeated people, there is no hint of gloating or triumph, but they're treated with great respect and honor as a people in mourning, a people like the Greeks. And its astonishing if you think, could you imagine anything like that happening in New York, New York right now after 9/11, that was the spirit of compassion. Jen-I, concern for everybody. So you didn't hang on to your righteous rage which puffs you up with self-delight, you let that go. And in doing so you got enhanced life. Now the Greeks, actually, didn't have a religious axial age in the end, even though they made some spectacular contributions, tragedy was one of them. Socrates was definitely a man of the axial age, but ultimately their axial age was mathematical, scientific, philosophical, metaphysical, and their old pagan religion remained unchanged, in place, until the 5th century after Christ, with all the old gods and goddesses and all the old rituals. Now why, one of the reasons, I think, is because the Greeks did not give up violence. In each of the other regions, violence had reached an unprecedented level. Iron weaponry had been invented and that made the wars far more deadly and terrifying. In China, for example, this was a period called by historians, the era of the Warring States, where by for two hundred years the various states of China fought a series of appalling wars until only one of them was left, having destroyed all the others and lots loss of life among the ordinary people. Now there were also large new states and empires developing, which relied very much on force and large armies to keep the populous in control. There was also the beginning of a market economy, trade and industry in these regions, meant that merchants were aggressively preying upon one another. Now in every case, this is something I found that really astonished me when I was doing my research, the catalyst for religious change was revulsion from that violence. The axial age began when Indian ritual scientist began to take all the violence out of the liturgy. The rituals of ancient India had been quite violent, raiding was a sacred activity and the rituals were often punctuated by raids and mock battles and fights because the Indian way of life, in India the Aryans were violent people, they were like cowboys really. rustling their neighbor's cattle And the Indian ritualists took out the violence, but more remarkably, they persuaded the warriors to go along with this to give up their war games, their sacred war games, and accept this very anodyne, innocuous liturgy. The word yoga is interesting here. The word yoga means "yoking" and it meant, it referred originally to the yoking of the horses to the war chariots before a raid. A man of yoga was a warrior with a sword who was constantly mobile, and the men of yoga looked down their noses at people who just stayed home peacefully. Now, in the axial age, instead of the yoking was the tethering of the various powers of the mind to achieve this concentration and the death of the ego, and the man of yoga was no longer a warrior, he sat at home all day in the yoga position. But more interestingly, he was not allowed to begin yoga until he'd mastered a five point ethical program. At top of the list was ahimsa, non-violence. Ahimsa became the absolute watchword for the Indian spirituality. And this did not mean that you simply couldn't fight people, or kill people, you were not supposed to even speak and angry word, speak an impatient word, or betray any of your facial expressions irritability with one another. You had to exude a constant sense of friendliness and serenity and until your guru was satisfied that this was absolutely second nature to you, you could not even learn to sit in the yoga position. Yoga and the new spirituality was profoundly rooted in non-violence. And similarly in China, the Dao De Jing, today is a classic, was actually written for the ruler of a small state in China in this terrible time when all the little states were being obliterated in this terrible series of wars and the Dao De Jing makes it quite clear that war violence simply breeds more violence that sometimes you may have to fight but if you do, says the Dao De Jing, then ok be victorious but do not triumph, be victorious but do not gloat, be victorious but restrain yourself and do not inflict undo retaliation because this will only come back to haunt you. Jesus, you can also see, as a man of non-violence, turn the other cheek he said. Now, what went wrong? Well, the trouble is, of course, that often, religious people prefer to be right rather than compassionate. And compassion is not a popular virtue. Sometimes when I go around talking about this I see people looking sort of bored and mutinous. They know that compassion is a good thing. That its something they aught to be doing, but you know what's the fun of being religious if you can't disapprove of other people sometimes or break he "Golden Rule", or condemn this or condemn that and I sometimes think that if some people got to heaven and found everybody there they'd be furious because heaven wouldn't be heaven unless you could actually know there were people who hadn't gone in in some way. Because of the extreme demands of compassion, very often, religious people have erected secondary goals in place of compassion almost as a distraction so doctrinal correctness which is being the peculiar obsession of the Christian West, especially since the 18th century, up until that time there were belief, actually comes from the middle ages "beleven" which originally meant to love rather than accepting things, accepting things intellectually, or else these endless discussions about, you know who can be a priest or a bishop, can a woman be holy and sexy, conundrums which we make for ourselves, and this is a distraction from the prime duty of compassion, which they all, all the axial age sages insisted, and later on rabbinic Judaism would put charity and loving kindness right at the top of the agenda seeing it replacing the old animal sacrifices and the prophet Mohammed, though much later, his religion was called Islam, eventually it was called Islam, which means "surrender", the surrender of the ego. And the first thing that he got his disciples to do was to prostrate themselves on the ground in the typical posture of Muslim prayer. And this was hard for the Arabs who didn't approve of kingship and found it degrading to grovel on the ground like a slave, but the posture of their body taught them at a level deeper than the rational, what was involved in the giving up of that preening, posturing ego that's always flitting around and calling attention to itself. And similarly Mohammed was living in a very, very, very violent society. Arabia in the 7th century was a complete blood bath and his Muslim community was being attacked by Mecca, the most powerful city in Arabia, and the pre-Islamic Arabs didn't mess around, if they had conquered the Muslims, all the men would have been slaughtered and the women and children sold into slavery. So the Koran says, you may fight in self-defense, but never aggressive warfare. God loves not the aggressors. And the second the enemy asks you for peace, you must lay down your arms immediately and accept whatever terms are offered, even if they are disadvantageous. And Mohammed did this, this is the end of the book, I say how at a point when he thought he could do it he took a tremendous risk