Karen Armstrong’s Buddha and the Axial Age

The axial time is a term created by German philosopher Karl Jaspers for the determination of the time period in human history during which the mythological world view was replaced and a rational, philosophical worldvision, which have formed the kind of a man that exists today, has came. Jaspers dates axial to 800-200 BC. According to his doctrine of axial age (which in amended form still exists) is characterized by rationalism and the desire of man to rethink the pre-existing norms, customs and traditions. Some pre-axial civilization (Ancient Egypt, Assyro-Babylonian civilization) could not adapt to changes and ceased to exist. The axis of world history, if it exists, can be found only empirically, as a fact, meaningful to all people, including Christian. This axis of the world history should be reckoned from 500 BC to that spiritual process, which was between 800 and 200 BC. Then there was a very abrupt turn in the history. A man of such type, which is preserved to our days, appeared. At that time there were many extraordinary things. In China there were Confucius and Lao-tzu, all fields of Chinese philosophy appeared, then Mo-tzu, Chuang-tzu, Le-tzu etc. In India Upanishads appeared, Buddha lived; In philosophy – both in India and China all the possibilities of philosophical comprehension of reality, even skepticism, to materialism and sophistry and nihilism have been considered. Everything that associated with these names appeared almost simultaneously within a few centuries in China, India and the West independently. Everything new, which arose in this era in three cultures, explains that a person is aware of being in general, himself and his limits. He understands the horror of the world and his own helplessness. Standing over the abyss, he asks radical questions, calls for the liberation and salvation. Realizing his limits, he sets for himself the highest goals, knows the absoluteness in the depths of consciousness and in the clarity of the transcendental world.

According to Armstrong, all the prophets and sages of the Axial Age discovered, simultaneously, that the way to a higher, transcendent, more fully human life was by looking within and discovering self-existing, self-liberating, inner truths. In this era the main categories, which we think till our time have been developed;  the foundations of world religions were laid, which even today affect the lives of people.

In all directions the transition to universality occurred. People felt, knew that during their time something exceptional began, and this exceptional, in its turn, led to the realization that this really was preceded by an infinite past. Even in the early stages of this awakening of the human spirit, man is full of memories, he has the impression that he lived at a late stage of development, moreover, in the period of decline.

This process has led many people to reconsider, to question, to analyze all unconsciously adopted earlier beliefs, customs, and conditions.

All these notions are involved in the whirlpool. Mythological era with its quiet resistance came to the end. The basic ideas of Greek, Indian, Chinese philosophers and Buddha, thoughts of the prophets about God were far from myth. Karen Armstrong about Buddha: “One night toward the end of the sixth century B.C., a young man called Siddhatta Gotama walked out of his comfortable home in Kapilavatthu in the foothills of the Himalayas and took to the road”. “He had a yearning for an existence that was “wide open” and as “complete and pure as a polished shell”, but even though his father’s house was elegant and refined, Gotama found it constricting, “crowded” and “dusty”. He had to leave his family, his parents, his wife and little son, but “if he wanted to live in holiness, he had to cut these fetters and break free”. “Gotama would not, therefore have agreed with our current cult of “family values.” “Nor would some of his contemporaries or near-contemporaries in other parts of the world, such as Confucius (551-479) and Socrates (469-399), who were certainly not family-minded men, but who would, like Gotama himself, become key figures in the spiritual and philosophical development of humanity during this period”. (K. Armstrong, 2001)

Buddha changed the common idea about perception, that’s why Buddhism was in essence new religion, predecessor of which was Hinduism, based on the Vedic teachings. One of the characteristics of the axial time was a propagation of new ideas (for example Confucius, Buddha). Scientists and preachers travelled from one country to another to popularize their ideas. Buddha wasn’t an exception. He made Buddhism a religion by extending the common perception and making its accessible not only for individuals, but the masses. Armstrong thinks that Buddha was an axial person, because he changed the fabric of the society he was living, testing the bounds of traditions and rules and created the school of new thought, which exists till our days. She wrote in her book: “When he looked at human life, Gotama could see only a grim cycle of suffering, which began with the trauma of birth and proceeded inexorably to “aging, illness, death, sorrow and corruption”. The purpose of both mindfulness and the immeasurables was to neutralize the power of that egotism that limits human potential”.

One of the key ideas of Buddhism is karma. This word in its meaning is close to the western word “fate”, but it has a distinction, in which the importance of the destiny is contained, and also the idea that the person’s destiny is preordained. These suppositions shook the opinions of that time. Gautama offered universally scheme, which is not limited by class or social structure. About another Buddhist term K.Armstrong wrote “Dhamma could not be understood by rational thinking alone. It only revealed its true significance when it was apprehended ”˜directly’, according to yogic methods, and in the right ethical context”.

All these changes took place with the help of reflection. Consciousness was aware of consciousness, thought made though as the object. The spiritual struggle began, during which everyone tried to convince the other, telling him his ideas, rationale and experience. The most controversial features were tested. Discussions, the formation of different parties, the splitting of the spiritual sphere, which even in the inconsistency of its parts retained their interdependence – all this gave rise to anxiety and movement, which borders upon the spiritual chaos.

Karen Armstrong in her book “Buddha” wrote not only about the religion or just Buddha’s biography, she was able to show the incredible joy the Buddha radiated. She wrote:” People saw something passionate and compelling in him!” This feature drew tens of thousands of people to join to his strict way of life.

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