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Great Faiths Began With a Theme: the Golden Rule

Times Staff Writer

The great traditions, author Karen Armstrong likes to observe, flowered in response to a time of violence similar to our own.

Turbulent times accompanied the birth of Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Confucianism and Taoism in China, monotheism in the Middle East and rationalism in Greece.

All shared a core vision for building a better world that was both simple and drastic: Do not harm others.

But Armstrong, one of the leading British writers on the history of religion, says the golden rule, an elegant concept advanced by sages and prophets from Socrates to Ezekiel, has long been obscured by disputes of “my faith is better than yours.”

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Can the ideals of a few inspired lives from 2,500 years ago be effectively applied to quell today’s intolerance and warfare?

In her 14th book, “The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions” (2006, Alfred A. Knopf), Armstrong, a former Catholic nun and a senior member of the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations, says those ideals can apply and urges that humanity abide by the ancient call to abandon selfishness and embrace compassion.

Her previous works include the best-selling “A History of God,” which examined how the idea of a supreme being has evolved over the last 5,000 years from the amicable God of Genesis who broke bread with Abraham, to the God of Islam who encompasses 99 attributes of greatness. The attributes emphasize that he is the source of all positive qualities in the universe.

“We are living in a world united now -- whether we like it or not -- electronically, economically and politically,” Armstrong said in a telephone interview from New York. “What happens today in Gaza or Iraq will increasingly have horrible repercussions in New York or London.

“The only way we can end this hostility is to learn to think that other nations are as important as ourselves,” she said, “and to practice the golden rule -- do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you -- which was first proposed by Confucius about 500 years before Christ. It’s the only safe way.”

Question: How did the world’s enduring faiths independently develop the same basic message in four separate regions of the world?

Answer: The sages during this time frame -- of about 900 to 200 BCE -- worked as hard to find a cure for the spiritual ills of humanity as we work today to find a cure for cancer.

They were great geniuses who found that the way of compassion and the emptying of selfishness actually worked. It did bring people a sense of sacred peace within themselves.

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We’ve never gone beyond these great insights, which is why we call this period the “Axial Age” -- the pivot of the spiritual history of humanity.

In later times, people looked back at these figures and their teachings and reproduced them to speak to their own difficulties. But you have to put it into practice. It has to be lived.

A lot of people go to religion simply because they want a little uplift once a week; then they return to their ordinary life.

And a lot of the religions have actually shielded people from the Axial Age’s concentration on compassion by erecting secondary goals, such as orthodox beliefs.

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But people like Confucius, the Buddha, the prophets of Israel, and later Jesus and Muhammad were more ambitious. They wanted to craft a different kind of humanity.

They were interested only in compassionate behavior that dethrones the self from the center of one’s world and puts another there. But compassion makes great demands on people.

Sometimes when I’m lecturing on compassion to religious groups, for example, I see people in the audience looking at all this in a way that seems to ask: “What’s the fun of being religious if you can’t disapprove or denigrate other people?”

Q: The golden rule sounds simple, but isn’t it difficult to achieve?

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A: All you need to do is be kind to everybody.

It doesn’t matter what tradition you belong to. Compassion and kindness bring you into the presence of what monotheists call god, but which is also known as nirvana, Brahmin, or the Way.

Ekstasis, or ecstasy, in Greek means “stepping outside.” Not an exotic state of consciousness, it means the freedom of stepping outside the prison of egotism, selfishness, greed and envy. This, anybody can do.

Confucius was asked, “Which one of your teachings can we put into practice all day and every day?”

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He replied, “Do not do to others as you would not have done unto you.”

That means every time we are tempted to say something unkind about a relative, or an annoying colleague, or a country with whom we are at war, we should ask, “How would I like that said about me or our people?”

The instant we refrain, we have transcended ourselves and our selfishness.

Q: Explain your concerns about what you called “the militant piety of fundamentalism.”

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A: Every single one of the “fundamentalist” movements I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of their own annihilation.

All are convinced that liberal -- secular -- society wants to wipe out faith. And when people feel their backs are to the wall, they are fighting for survival. They can lash out violently.

But it is important to note that fundamentalism always begins as an inter-religious dispute. People begin by fighting their own co-religionists and fellow countrymen.

Osama bin Laden, for example, began by attacking the Saudi royal family. It is only at a later stage, if at all, that they turn their hostility against a foreign power.

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The Axial Age sages were all consistent. You have to have what one Chinese sage called “concern for everybody.”

Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” This didn’t mean to be filled with warm affection for our enemies. Love was a legal term used in [ancient] treaties and covenants obligations.

So, if you promised to give someone else love, it meant you had his interests at heart, you were looking out for his welfare, you would give him practical support.

Q: Are there signs of hope in these turbulent times?

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A: I think people are anxious for an antidote to the hatred and rhetoric of dislike and suspicions that keep us in a state of constant fear.

We hear a lot about religious extremism, but what we don’t hear is the equally strong movement, especially in the United States, for a wider vision.

After 9/11, for example, interfaith groups mushroomed independently all over the country. I think people are ready now not just to tolerate other religions, but to appreciate them too.

On Sept. 11 last year, I was with the Dalai Lama and he said there was no need to convert to another faith, or to Buddhism.

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Stay with your religion, he said, but recover the core of compassion that lies at its heart.


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