June 2006

Barbara J. King


In Search of the Lost Heart: Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation

In ancient China, a man named Zhuangzi (370-311 BCE) withdrew from public life and became a hermit. Entering a game park one day, he took aim at a magpie. The magpie, being wholly preoccupied with eyeing a cicada, did not notice Zhuangzi. Neither the cicada nor a nearby preying mantis noticed the magpie. The magpie “swept down on its prey in high excitement and gobbled them both up.” A feeling of compassion welled up in Zhuangzi: he realized the creatures he had observed were fated to a sequence of mutual destruction, however unwilled. Here was the essence of life. Lost in reflection, Zhuangzi himself did not notice that his trespassing in the park was unwelcome, and he was chased away by a gamekeeper.

Following these events, Zhuangzi was depressed for months. Nothing in his life so far had prepared him for the new thoughts entering his mind. Life is about endless transformation; death should not be feared. Giving himself up to “the natural rhythm of the cosmos,” Zhuangzi began to experience an “exhilarating freedom.” When his wife died, a visitor who came to pay his condolences was alarmed to discover Zhuangzi ”sitting cross-legged, singing rowdily, and bashing a battered old tub,” flagrantly violating the dignified ceremonies of the mourning period. Zhuangzi explained that he had “cast his mind back to the time before [his wife] was born, when she had simply been part of the endlessly churning qi, the raw material of the universe. One day there had been a wonderful change: the qi had mingled together in a new way, and suddenly, there was his dear wife! Now she was dead and had simply gone through another alteration... If he wept and complained, he would be completely at odds with the Way things really were.”

This story is just one of many that Karen Armstrong relates in The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. Like all the others, it works effectively on two levels. Armstrong brings Zhuangzi alive: a man living 2400 years ago in China bloomed in my mind and heart as a person whose emotions were every bit as real as mine. (If that sounds easy enough for an author to accomplish, try it!) And in its focus on the redemptive nature of compassion, the role of human response to suffering in the universe, and our openness to revising what we know as we live, Zhuangzi’s story conveys something important about the Axial Age, Armstrong’s subject.

Between 900 and 200 BCE, transformation swept through the religions of the world. At the start of this period, many regions were gripped by upheaval and violence. Chapter by chapter, Armstrong traces the gradual shifts in religious expression in China, Greece, India, and Israel. All manner of fascinating and sometimes eccentric people populate these pages. The Jains of India, for instance, developed the principle of ahimsa, nonviolence, to an astonishing degree.  “They had to move with consummate caution lest they inadvertently squash an insect or trample on a blade of grass. They were required to lay down objects with care, and were forbidden to move around in the darkness, when it would be easy to damage another precious creature. They could not even pluck fruit from a tree, but had to wait until it had fallen to the ground of its own accord.”

Even in recounting an extreme such as this, Armstrong develops her theme, for the guiding principle of the Axial Age was the Golden Rule. But wait, don’t yawn yet! It’s true that the Golden Rule has been intoned into meaninglessness by Sunday (and Friday-night and Saturday) school teachers everywhere, not to mention middle school vice principals. But Armstrong invites us to think in a fresh way about this moral command.

In its first known version, devised by the Chinese sage Kong Qui (551-479 BCE), the Golden Rule was expressed this way: never do unto others what you would not like them to do unto you. We know Kong Qui as Confucius, and in articulating this vision, Confucius became “one of the first people to make it crystal clear that holiness was inseparable from altruism... The Way was nothing but a dedicated, ceaseless effort to nourish the holiness of others, who in return would bring out the sanctity inherent in you.” Armstrong explores the nature of the Golden Rule across the regions and centuries of the Axial Age. She explodes any notion that it invariably equates with an injunction to love thy neighbor. Chinese sage Mozi (480-390 BCE) was indifferent to love but created a “strictly utilitarian” ethical vision based on justice. Similarly, in the Middle East, “‘to love’ meant to be helpful, loyal, and to give practical support.” The Greek ideal of empathy emerged on stage when the chorus “issued a directive to the audience, instructing them to feel compassion” for even those characters who had committed unspeakable acts.

The beauty of the Golden Rule lay in its purity. When the Rabbi Hillel (80 BCE-30 CE) was challenged by a pagan to teach the entire Torah while standing on one leg, Hillel replied, “what is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go learn it.” In Rabbinic Judaism, as Armstrong puts it, “study was a dynamic encounter with God.”

The Axial Age’s empathy rested on a new, and brutal, type of human awareness. “The Axial sages all pointed out that existence was inherently unsatisfactory and painful, and wanted to transcend this suffering... salvation lay in facing up to suffering, not retreating into denial.” This facing up involves another Axial principle, kenosis, the notion of emptying the self of ego and pride.

The Great Transformation is no beach book. Heavy in content as well as poundage, it demands a seriousness of purpose from its readers. I settled in at a pace of only 30 or 40 pages a day, and required silence even for that; any interruptions caused me to confuse one prophet for another or to miss nuances of the emerging traditions. Just as my adolescent daughter Sarah says “goodbye” to her father and me when she retreats into an MP3 music world, I developed the habit of bidding farewell to my family every evening, specifying for them whether I was headed toward 6th-century India or 4th-century Israel.

I soaked up this book, and have no intention of attempting to analyze it critically. Indeed, I have no strong knowledge base from which to do so. Ask me about the compassion expressed by the gorilla Binti Jua or about the graveside rituals of the extinct Neanderthals, sure, but don’t expect me to distinguish readily Xunzi from Laozi or Biblical author J from E. I admit to only glancing at maps labeled “Judea During the Persian Period” and “The Seleucid, Ptolemaic, and Mauryan Empires.” For the glossary of key concepts at the back of the book that helped me keep straight Brahman and Brahmin, mystai and mythos, I was grateful.

I have admired Armstrong since I read A History of God and The Spiral Staircase. Themes from those earlier books shine through in this new one. First, a conflation of religion and belief very much misses the point. “If the Buddha or Confucius had been asked whether he believed in God, he would probably have winced slightly and explained” with great courtesy, “that this was not an appropriate question.” Right practice, not belief, leads to transcendence. Second, none of the major faiths has ever been about violence, nor does any hold a monopoly on justice now. “Some people have concluded either that religion itself is inescapably violent or that violence and intolerance are endemic to a particular tradition. But the story of the Axial Age shows that in fact the opposite in the case. Every single one of these faiths began in principled and visceral recoil from the unprecedented violence of their time.”

It was heartbreaking to read Armstrong’s final pages on Memorial Day weekend in the U.S. As the death toll of Americans and Iraqis mounts day by day by horrific day, I listen to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a song that I honor because my father, a Navy veteran of World War II, loved it. But I listen even more carefully as the words Armstrong used to conclude her book replay in my head: “If religion is to bring light to our broken world, we need… to go in search of the lost heart, the spirit of compassion that lies at the core of all our traditions.”

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong
ISBN: 0375413170
496 Pages

-- Barbara J. King plays the new Dixie Chicks’ song “Not Ready to Make Nice” at least once a day, loudly.