THE DAWN OF THE SECOND AXIAL AGE
by Brother Wayne Teasdale
We are rapidly entering a new age, and it will be, perhaps, the decisive time for the Earth. It will be an age unlike any other in the issues it will resolve, in the direction it assumes, in the consciousness that guides it, and in the truly global civilization it will fashion. Nationalism and fanaticism will evaporate before the rising sun of a more universal identity discovered by the human family. Humankind will come of age, and will outgrow these forms of association as doubtful luxuries no longer desirable or affordable.
Curiously it is the religions that are playing a central role in leading the world into this new age. It was Mahatma Gandhi who observed so prophetically that there would never be peace on Earth unless there was first peace among the religions. Hans Kung has reiterated this truth in our time, particularly at the Parliament of the World's Religious. (1) A subtle shift is occurring in how the religions relate lo one another. Often antagonists in the past, their rivalry produced tens of thousands of wars throughout recorded history. (2).
- From August 28-September 5, 1993, the Parliament of the World’s Religions met in Chicago. It celebrated the first Parliament of 1893, also convoked in the Windy City, but this second Parliament strongly endorsed the idea of a permanent platform or structure for the religions to consult, speak out and act together on the pressing issues facing our planet.
- There are notable exceptions. Jainism and Buddhism have always practiced strict nonviolence, and it is an ideal in Hinduism.
Suspicion, competition and conflict has characterized their relationship. Their cultures developed m splendid isolation, occasionally influencing one another. Now a new paradigm of relationship is emerging as the barriers dividing the world's religions collapse. Faced with the same critical issues threatening all of us, i.e., the ecological crisis, escalating violence, economic instability, hunger and poverty, disease, the population explosion, racism etc., they have found a new mode of cooperation, and through their collaboration, the possibility of genuine community among the traditions.
Community was always a potential because of the deeper reality out of which we have all come, but the dark. forces of fear, insecurity and competition and bloody conflict. When we see this tragic history in the light of our profounder nature, our primordial unity, then these conflicts resemble the petty squabbles of children on a playground when cruelty and mean-spiritedness take over.
The cultural transformations that are occurring are global in scope, comprehensive in extent —affecting everything — and radical in their depth. Awareness of our interconnectedness but also our fragility, and the fragility of the Earth, is changing how we look al the planet and one another. The media is an important tool in breaking down the old exclusivistic altitudes that each society, culture and religion has followed. It was the television that brought us the breathtaking image of the Earth from Apollo. In that precious image like some ethereal jewel, a new consciousness was born, the fruit of a lightening revelation that compelled us to confront our essential interdependence, our limitations, our inescapable fragility, and our frightening tentativeness. It is this realization really that is the basis of the new age into which we are now entering.
The importance of this approaching period to the survival and well-being of our planet, ours and other species, is such as to have the status of being axial in character. Thus far in human history there has been only one Axial Age, a term popularized by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers to designate the time frame of 1,000 B.C. up to and including the time of Christ. This millennium is called the Axial Age because it was the golden age of so many spiritual geniuses whose insights became the foundation or all the great ancient civilizations, enduring even into our century, These figures include Mahavira, a Jain saint, Gautama the Buddha, Zoroaster, Socrates and Plato in Greece, Lao-Tzu, Chuang~Tzu. Confucius in China, the major Prophets of Israel, and numerous sages in India. These extraordinary beings have provided the axis of our cultures up until the present, and their influence will continue till the end of time because of the perennial nature of their wisdom.
Although this is beyond dispute, the radical changes taking place around the globe are propelling us quickly into what can be called the Second Axial Age. Like the first axial period, the second will provide the foundation for culture this culture will be universal in scope. The coming age will never dispense with the spiritual, psychological and moral wisdom of the First Age. It will build on the experience, wisdom and insight of the great sages of the first period of humankind's awakening.
The Second Axial Age begins, I think, with the Parliament or the World's Religions. This is where the shift in relationships among the great world religions and smaller ones became explicit. The latter half of the 20th century has witnessed three revolutionary religious/cultural events: the Second Vatican Council (1962~1965), the arrival of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama to the world stage, and the Parliament of the World's Religions. The first two events will impact life and culture for centuries, and both have implications for the new axial period, indeed, they are part of it. The third event, however, is so radically significant as to be the catalyst into the next age.
Three omens appeared at the time of the second Parliament that signaled its more than historic status, its super historical character as one of the great turning-points for the planet. The first omen was a headline in the Chicago Sun Times the morning before the opening (Aug. 27, l993), which read: "Religious Lenders Flock to Chicago, Global Talks Begin Tomorrow." This had an unusual ring to it, pointing to something fundamentally different from the normal course of events. The second omen happened on the day of the opening itself (Aug. 28th) in one of those stunning manifestations of synchronicity that suggest the inner connectedness of everything. This event was the breakthrough in the Middle East between the Palestinians and the Israelites, thus pulling them and the whole region on the path to lasting peace for the first time in nearly half a century. The. third sign or omen was of a more personal sort though no less meaningful. It was again the morning of the Parliament's commencement. I was having breakfast with Most Ven. Samdhong Rinpoche, the chief o[ the Tibetan Delegation and with Brother Rolph Fernandes, a Franciscan friar from Montreal. I was carrying a cup of coffee to Rinpoche when quite suddenly it slipped out of my hand into his lap! You can imagine how I felt! Without the slightest irritation, Samdhong smiled beatifically, remarking: "This is a very positive omen." And it certainly was. Rinpoche even with a puddle of hot coffee in his lap — although being quickly absorbed by his heavy maroon monastic garb, was able to look. beyond this momentary discomfort lo the symbol it was and the meaning it conveyed. I take these omens very seriously, for they were each a harbinger of something monumental about to be born.
They foretold a general experience that can be described as nothing less than a second Pentecost. Using the language of our Christian tradition to express or explain what was a corporate mystical experience can easily be misunderstood both within and outside the tradition, but the Pentecost analogy is apt. What happened at the Parliament of the World's Religions was singular and miraculous. Some 8,700 people representing 125 religions, along with a large number of groups standing for various causes, came from around the world. They participated in the grandest display of diversity and creativity ever recorded, even more diverse than the Rio Earth Summit of June 1991. The Parliament was a transcendent moment in history animated by a spirit of genuine openness, mutual listening and respect. Aside from a few minor exceptions greatly exaggerated by the media, it was as if there had never been any religious wars and other struggles. During those momentous days at the end of summer 1993, a revelation was given to humanity. The veil was parted for the brief period of eight days, and a new awareness became evident among the participants, those with and without a religious tradition or - spirituality. This extraordinary awareness revealed some of the skills we will need for our planet to survive and flourish. These skills include: dialogue, sustainable economic and social life, conflict resolution, a Global Ethic, a Universal Spirituality, a willingness to share, mutual openness, trust, respect and a capacity for profound listening to others, ourselves and to the planet itself.
These are all actually values and practices we need in order to actualize the deeper, more inclusive type of community glimpsed during the second Parliament. The Parliament gave us a vision of sacred community that includes all religions, nations, groups, organizations, all species, the Earth with the entire cosmos. If we want this dream to be then we must learn and exercise these skills. We must always be willing to dialogue or communicate in an authentic manner. No one should be excluded! Our economic and social life has to be in harmony with the natural world. That is what sustainability requires. Harmony with the Earth and with one another demands genuine justice: for the planet itself or eco-justice for other species, and for members of our own species. There can be no actual peace unless there is true justice which is ecological, that is, towards the Earth, and social, or within our communities. How we utilize resources will affect the issues of justice and peace. More and more this will be the case. It is imperative that we embrace the practice of sharing our resources. Sharing will create the conditions for social justice, and will contribute to a sustainable economics. The Parliament produced a document signed by most of the 250 members of the Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders. lt is entitled, Towards A Global Ethic (An Initial Declaration). (3) This kind of document represents humankind accepting a universal responsibility for the Earth, other species and our own. It is the first indication of a consensus. Spirituality is an inner stand in relation to the Divine or Ultimate Reality that calls us to higher realization. lt is spirituality that embodies our profoundest and purest desire, our passionate yearning for the Divine itself. It is a longing for union and communion with God, with Ultimate Reality. All spirituality is characterized by this passionate commitment to the Ultimate and takes the form of embracing the spiritual journey, the road to inner transformation and growth. Each kind of spirituality awakens us to reality as it is and our own condition. Spirituality itself, as the deepest dimension of life and being, is common lo all religions. In identifying the essential elements of a Global Spirituality - the elements part of any viable tradition seven are clearly discernible: (1) a capacity to live morally, (2) deep nonviolence, (3) a sense of spiritual solidarity with others, including other species and the Earth, (4) a spiritual practice, and a comprehensive self-knowledge, (5) simplicity of lifestyle, (6) selfless service, and (7) prophetic action.
The capacity to live morally or ethically is the foundation indispensable to the spiritual life in any tradition. One who is on the spiritual journey is always a morally committed individual. This element of a Universal Spirituality relates well to the Global Ethic, and a Universal Spirituality would easily adopt the code of the Global Ethic. Spirituality becomes the inner motivation in implementing the norms of the Global Ethic in one's life, or in the life o( a community.
A deep!y rooted attitude of nonviolence is also an important aspect of spirituality. As one becomes more awake within, one also becomes gentle and sensitive with-out, that is, in relations with others. Not just nonviolence, but deep nonviolence has to be emphasized because of the growing problem of violence all over the world. By "deep nonviolence" is meant a non harming that is the fruit of wisdom and compassion; it is really a form or love, and it is also a way to spread peace: by living nonviolently! If we truly wish to teach peace then we must live nonviolently !!!
Every person who follows the call of the inner life knows there is a deep bond of human and spiritual solidarity that unites us all. It emanates from the unity of reality itself, and because of this oneness, there is also a spiritual oneness, the basis of our interdependence. That means actually that reality bas degrees of subtlety and unity, subtlety-in-unity.
Spirituality has a high degree of unity that can be seen as solidarity on the human level. Practically speaking, it implies a responsibility to assist and guide any seeker on the spiritual journey who asks for our aid. Thus, a spiritual solidarity exists in life, and we receive what we need, while the journey provides what is required for us. At the same time, we have a spiritual solidarity with the other species and with the Earth in a special way. It manifests itself in the possibility of harmony and communion with them both. This harmony and communion is not as rare as we might imagine; it is common to many very advanced in holiness who also have a highly evolved sensitivity towards the created order, like St. Francis of Assisi, the nature mystics and poets, and certain monastics, not to mention some unusual laypersons.
All genuine spirituality has a spiritual practice. This practice is actually the heart of spirituality itself in its practical sense of bringing about the process of inner change. Without it, spirituality is not authentic nor viable. Spiritual practice can consist in some form of mature prayer, meditation or interiority, a discipline of contemplation, spiritual reading, reflection, study, work and a simple resting in the Divine. Spiritual practice often involves all or most of these activities. It. also involves liturgy or some kind of ritual. Certainly this aspect is central lo the Catholic tradition. The one rule is that spiritual practice has to be transformative. It must initiate, follow through and sustain fundamental indeed radical change in the aspirant. Spiritual practice, with the aid of grace, initiates a fourfold transformation: of consciousness, will, character and action. This four-fold transformation has self-knowledge as its basis, and again, all genuine spirituality requires a comprehensive or thorough type of self-knowledge.
One's consciousness grows by addition of greater knowledge and awareness. Perception of reality is profounder and more all-embracing. This includes an awareness of the three primary worlds: the "material", psychological and spiritual dimensions of all reality, life and being. The person becomes proficient in spiritual wisdom. One's consciousness becomes more and more subtle. The individual acquires a progressively deeper understanding of hidden motives and unconscious emotional programs originating from infancy. Eventually these give way to spiritual maturity. The person’s will, like the mind, is, transformed; it no longer seeks selfish ends, and becomes more other-centered. It seeks the permanent in the midst of what is passing away. It is in harmony with the divine will, and the totality of life. Similarly, the human character knows a far-reaching transformation whereby by the person becomes more and more grounded in virtue, grace, and holiness. The saintliness of character emerges as the person submits to love, and is shaped by this into a loving, wise, compassionate bailing. Finally, one's behavior is altered. Selfish patterns of behavior give way to altruistic actions. All one's actions are then governed by love, kindness, compassion, mercy and wisdom. Spirituality is tautly transformative and brings into existence what the Christian tradition calls a deified person, a God-like being, or what in the Buddhist tradition would be called a bodhisaitva or someone who has, realized the Buddha-nature.
The fifth clement of Universal Spirituality is simplicity of life or lifestyle. Its power and truth are so eloquently expressed in the admonition: Live simply so that others may simply live! For millennia in every tradition, simplicity in style of life in the use of the Earth’s goods has always been a requirement and a sign of the genuine nature or one's spiritual witness. In monasticism and other forms of religious life, the vow of poverty is meant basically to emphasize the need for simplicity in living. Simplicity also has a direct bearing on the cultivation of detachment, and detachment facilitates the growth in our spiritual lives, especially in holiness and our attachment to the Eternal, that is, to God.
“to live simply so others may simply live" of course refers to all the poor. That is its original social context, but it also has a direct bearing on the Earth. Our self-indulgent consumer society has caused and continues to cause a serious deficit lo the planet itself. Simplification of life means above all using only what we need of resources and nothing beyond. This principle of spirituality thus translates into a benefit for the Earth and all its Inhabitants. ll indicates the eminently practical nature of spirituality itself. We don't need much to live and be happy, and the Earth can easily sustain us here, a fact recognized by Gandhi in his time. He often remarked that the Earth has sufficient resources for mankind's needs, but not for its greeds. This insight is still to be learned by many.
The sixth principle or guideline in a Universal Spirituality is selfless Service. The transformation of the person living an intense inner life, especially the radical change in character and will, leads spontaneously to the development of a sensitivity lo all sentient beings and the Earth itself. One's relationship with others is grounded on compassion, kindness, love, and the real possibility of selfless service or compassionate action. One is always capable of thinking and acting beyond one's limited self-interest. Such a person is wisely able to discern what is required, from justice and charity, in each situation where the need of another or others is concerned. That enlightened person then generously responds to that felt need. This pattern of behavior is found in every valid expression of the spiritual life, and is one of the infallible signs of its genuineness. The capacity for selfless service, loving kindness, acts of mercy, is an enduring fruit of enlightened awareness, and that awareness unfolds in the spiritual journey. ·
A seventh and final clement of a Universal Spirituality is the freedom lo exercise prophetic action, or taking a courageous stand for others in matters relating lo justice, peacemaking, economic policy, refugees, hunger, poverty, women, the elderly, children, the unemployed, the homeless, AIDS and other diseases, and the whole critical issue of the environment. Prophetic action requires spiritual leadership and moral courage, the courage to lake a stand that perhaps has political implications and often consequences.
The issue of Tibet, for instance, is one that cries out lo be heard, and yet few spiritual and religious leaders are saying anything. For nearly five decades now the Tibetan people have endured immense suffering, oppressed by the Chinese who have carried out physical and cultural genocide against them, inflicting on them unspeakable forms of torture and numerous other indignities. The world has stood by in utter silence. The United Nations has completely ignored the whole question of Tibet, and the religions of the Ilic world, with the notable exception of Buddhism, have been equally reticent lo speak. Can they not sense the extreme anguish and pain of the Tibetan people? Do they not feel a certain twinge of conscience and empathy when they encounter the Dalal Lama, rinpoches, other monks and ordinary Tibetans whose hearts are always grieving because of the crucifixion or the Tibetan people? And yet it goes on and on without a word of protest from official religious leaders. Genuine spirituality demands prophetic action when and where appropriate.
Another example is the plight of indigenous peoples. We have not dealt adequately with their complaints, nor have we been sensitive to their intense pain over the centuries, a suffering for which we bear a certain historical responsibility. This is especially true of Christian Europe and the Americas. Healing must lake place between Native peoples and Europeans who have oppressed and nearly destroyed indigenous tribes in the Western Hemisphere and Australia. Healing will come, but first a deep deep acknowledgement, then repentance, and sorrow for this terrible tragedy. Guatemala, for example, has a majority indigenous population of 75% and yet they are still treated as a minority fo their own country because their rights are systematically denied them by the 25% of European descent who rule Guatemala. The indigenous Guatemalans are disenfranchised. Here is another area for prophetic concern and action by spiritual leaders,
Spirituality's authenticity demands the prophetic function since it is only with enlightened beings that moral clarity as wisdom are sufficient. In this age of spiritual interdependence, when we have finally discovered the profoundly rich bonds of sacred community that unite us, our global spiritual tradition, in its active dimension and function, must possess the ability to speak out when the occasion requires. Such moral leadership is another fruit of genuine spiritual life, and in our age it is much more: an essential demand and function of a Global Culture.
TOWARDS A PERMANENT PARLIAMENT
The second Parliament of the World's Religions was conceived as a call to action on the critical issues common the international community. At the Parliament itself and certainly in academic and scientific circles as well as popular culture, the ecological crisis has emerged as the most press of the critical issues. So much so is this the case that it is the chief moral concern of the coming Age we are entering. It should be pointed out then that the Earth is the matrix of interfaith dialogue just as it is the medium in and through which we live. For far too long we have abused the natural world unaware of what we were doing. Now we neglect it our own peril. We need a whole new vision of human life part of and in harmonious interaction with the natural world and the cosmos. This point has been developed at great length by Thomas Berry. (4)
The Second Axial Age is also the Ecozoic Age, the shift away from an exclusively anthropocentric culture to a geocentric aud cosmocentric one. Such a momentous and radical alteration of culture, and the evolution of a global society or civilization that is friend to the Earth, requite the Active participation of the religions. For just as there can be no world peace unless there is first peace between and among the religious, there can be no new vision of life, culture and the human family’s relationship to nature unless all the religious traditions support it and realize its critical necessity. Here the Catholic Church's leadership will be crucial. The great religions, indeed all the religions and all organizations concerned, in any way, with human responsibility must work together in forging such a vision. Collectively, the spiritual heritage of humankind is deposited among the traditions. This heritage belongs to each one of us and is accessible to all in differing degrees. The religions possess enormous psychological, moral, educational and spiritual resources that can be marshaled in the Olympia task of creating the new vision. It can and will happen eventually. The Global Ethic and a tentative Universal Spjrituality are two examples of what can be achieved drawing on these vast inner resources, the treasures of humanity's religious consciousness.
Because there already exists a community of the faith traditions within the larger identity of the Earth Community, spiritual interdependence is a growing insight, and with this realization is the further creative possibility of interspiritual wisdom. These truths are also explicit developments from the consciousness of the Parliament event. They are now integral to the process of self-awareness and vision of the Parliament as it continues its self-defining and self-reflection. The notes of interfaith community, spiritual interdependence, and inter spiritual wisdom are equally axial in significance. They represent good news for the planet as a whole in all its glorious variety.
The religions have a sacred responsibility to create the conditions for formulating, spreading and implementing the new vision. They have been groping forward now for more than a century, since the first parliament of 1893. The second Parliament, possessing the necessary awareness and consensus, has the duty to create the permanent platform for the religions with the equal collaboration of the other international interfaith organizations, like the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the Temple of Understanding, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the World Congress of Faiths, and many other groups. Together they can inaugurate the vehicle that will allow our planet to progress in inspiring the new global culture and civilization that will be a true friend to the Earth and a mature expression of humankind's collective wisdom: a civilization, a society, a culture, and a spirituality with a heart!!! This new global society will only be achieved if the world's religions and other organizations and groups accept together their universal responsibility for the planet. This responsibility entails collaboration and action on the various critical issues, but to exercise a common voice a permanent platform is required, a permanent Parliament, or something similar. It is only a matter of time before it becomes a reality in one form or another. My personal view is that it will probably happen in an evolutionary manner, rather than as the product of a deliberate, overarching plan. We have a sense of the direction but we don't yet see how to get there. l believe we will arrive at that point through a process of little steps as the Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, perhaps, empowers itself and assumes responsibility for the goals and ultimate mission of the permanent Parliament. That is my hope for the future, and a way open to us as we begin the Second Axial Age, the definitive time for the human family, a period when we have finally grown into a healthy and fruitfully symbiotic relationship with the Earth, the locus of the sacred community. I would like to conclude with the following prayer that embodies my hope.
A COSMIC PRAYER FOR THE SACRED COMMUNITY
0 Blessed One, eternal Source and Lord of creation, sustainer of all worlds. you embrace the whole cosmos within yourself, for everything exists in you. Lei your cosmic winds come and breathe your everlasting Spirit on us. Let us inhale you, divine Spirit and be inspired. Enlighten us in your truth. Pour your grace into our hearts. Wipe away our sin and all negativity. Transform us into your Love, and let us radiate that Love to all others. Inflame us with your unending life. Dissolve our limited way of being. Elevate us into your divine Life. Give us the capacity to share that Life with everyone. Shape us in your wisdom. Grant us your gentle and healing sensitivity towards all creatures. Give us your joy and
laughter. Let us become that divine wisdom, sensitivity, laughter and joy for all beings. Let us realize fully that we are members of that Sacred Community with all humankind, with other species, with Nature and the entire cosmos. Grant us a heart that can embrace them all in you. Let us be in communion with you forever in the bliss of That Love: the Love that Dante knew so well "moves the sun and other stars "
(3) These 250 leaders also included representatives of the academic, business, and governmental communities. For a copy of this document, please write: Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, P.O. Box 1630. Chicago, IL 60690, or call (312) 629-2990. for the document with hundreds of other articles, documents etc., write: The Source Book Project, 1039 Calvin SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49506. For a detailed account of the first Parliament, see Henry Harrows' The World's Parliament of Religions: An, Illustrated and Popular History, Held in Chicago in Connection with the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago: Parliament Publishing Co, 1893), 2 vols, and more recently Richard Hughes Seager’s The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World’s Parliament of Religions 1893 (La Salle:
Alpine Court, 1993). For a history of the inter religious dialogue movement, see Marcus Braybrooke’s Pilgrimmage of Hope: A Hundred Years of Global Interfaith Dialogue (New York: Crossroad, 1992).