Anyone interested in how humanity’s understanding of itself and its universe developed is bound to be fascinated by what happened between 600 and 300 BCE.
In all the parts of the world from which we have historical records, people were moving from a belief in many gods to a belief in One Spirit, and then to the concept that this One Spirit lived in mysterious but profound unity with all of Creation.
Those 300 years of spiritual and philosophical awakening are part of the larger Axial Age, which spanned 200 to 800 BCE. During that time humanity reached a level of self-awareness and linguistic ability that enabled significant leaps to take place.
We’ve looked at a few writings from those times, now let’s look at more, one from Buddhism and one from Judaism. Notice that the form of writing between the two is stunningly different because each reflects the tradition from which it came. It seems to me, however, the thoughts being expressed are strikingly similar.
Dhammapada: Sayings of the Buddha
The True Master
He is calm.
In him the seed of renewing life
Has been consumed.
He has conquered all the inner worlds.
With dispassionate eye
He sees everywhere
The falling and the uprising.
And with great gladness
He knows that he has finished.
He has woken from his sleep.
And the way he has taken
Is hidden from men [and women],
Even from spirits and gods,
By virtue of his purity.
In him there is no yesterday,
He has come to the end of the way,
Over the river of his many lives,
His many deaths.
Beyond the sorrow of hell,
Beyond the great joy of heaven,
By virtue of his purity.
He has come to the end of the way
All that he had to do, he has done.
And now he is one.
Because Buddhism doesn’t include a Creator Spirit in the same sense that many other religions or philosophies do, it is sometimes hard to figure out how to include Buddhist thought in a discussion such as this. However, it’s impossible to miss the message of unity in this passage.
This translation by Thomas Byrom, a brilliant English mystic and educator I had the honor to know before his death in 1991, uses the master’s indifference to such practical opposites such as the “sorrow of hell” and the “joy of heaven” to show unity.
But the lyrical yet pithy language also evokes Buddhist teaching in its reference to seeing both falling and rising everywhere. Additional passages from the Dhammapada can be found in In the Same Breath.
Byrom also translated the Hindu Ashtavakra Gita, written in the 8th or 14th Century, which we will look at in more detail when we are explore what was happening in Eastern religions at time when Western thought was coming even more dualistic. Byrom’s comments on the Ashtavakra Gita will also be part of our look at the 20th and 21st Century renaissance of our waning and waxing thread of unity.
Turning to Judaism, we see the description in Exodus, thought to have been written in about 650 BCE, regarding the events that took place nearly a millenium earlier when the Jews fled Egypt for what was to become Israel. Biblical scholars believe Exodus was written by several authors over the centuries until it was solidified during Axial Age to what we have today.
Exodus 3: 13-15
Then Moses said to God, “I am to go then, to the sons [and daughters] of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ But if they ask me what his name is, what am I to tell them?”
And God said to Moses,
“I Am who I Am. You must say to the [children] of Israel: ‘I Am has sent me to you.’
“This is my name for all time; by this name I shall be invoked for all generations to come.”
The key words here are “I am who I am,” or as some translations have it, “I am who am,” which is a more accurate translation of the Latin, “Ego sum qui sum.” However, just as the English came from the Latin, the Latin came from the Greek, and the Greek from a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic! Likewise, the English translations that we have of ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist scriptures and canons came mostly from the original Chinese and Sanskrit.
Regarding Exodus, there is much discussion over just what God meant in his answer to Moses, or to those who don’t believe that the bible was divinely inspired, what the writers in ancient Israel were trying to imply by their choice of words.
Some say that Moses was really asking what he should tell the Jews to get them to follow him out of Egypt, cling to their God and stay away from all the other gods being worshipped at the time.
In modern lingo, then the answer meant, “I am the only God. All those others are part of me. Stick with me and you’ll be fine. Just get them out of Egypt!”
Many mainline Christian theologians stick with interpret those words as meaning that God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who had no creator, is above and separate from everything, and thus is transcendent.
But looking at it with our lens of immanence, it seems that these powerful words could also mean that at least some in ancient Judaism believed that nothing exists outside of God and thus Spirit and Creation must be One.
The Hebrew phrase is “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” which is literally translated as “I shall be who I shall be,” raises more questions than it answers. Some say it indicates that God is still becoming and his work isn’t finished. Others look to Aramaic-speaking Assyrians would translate those words today.
The translation: “I am the beginning I am.”
Wow! Do you suppose that Chuang Tzu just happened to drop in for lunch and a chat that day?
More about the marvelous times of 600 to 300 BCE when next we meet.