The Second Axial Age: Three Paths In Need Of Synthesis

The First Axial Age

Karl Jaspers famously argued that the Axial Age, occurring between 8th and 3rd BCE, introduced the conceptual framework that has been with us since. Most notable among other discoveries was that of transcendence, and so we find The Upanishads speaking of liberation from the bondages brought about by suffering, the Presocratics like Parmenides and Empedocles showing us the mystical oneness of Reality (according to Peter Kingsley), the Buddha disclosing that there is a path leading to nirvana, the Daoists pointing to the Dao that is beyond and before all names, and so on. In fact, the conceptual and more than conceptual relationships between immanence and transcendence, the visible and the invisible, the one and the many are those we are still grappling with and trying to sort out.

To his credit, the late Ewert Cousins, in Christ of the 21st Century, suggested, as early as 1994, that we may be entering a Second Axial Age. Here, I’d like to provide the briefest of sketches of what a Second Axial Age might entail.

I. Classical Greeks: Wisdom

The Classical Athens in particular bequeathed to all of us the central question: what is wisdom? Of course, “Socrates” is the name we rightly give to this question, yet the question of wisdom was, as Pierre Hadot skillfully demonstrates, taken up by Platonists, skeptics, Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics, and no doubt beyond.

Let us say that the question of wisdom opens up a path for us today: the question of wisdom is also and at once a question about how to be wise, about how to lead a wise life.

Let wisdom be defined as exhibiting virtuous conduct that flows immediately, intuitively, and directly from the completest understanding of the cosmos. In this way, wisdom is the elegant yoking together of the good and the real; its actual exhibition or manifestation is beautiful or graceful or radiant.

This is the first path we are invited to follow, and we can devote our entire lives, as we ought, to being wise and therefore to conducting ourselves wisely with and on behalf of all beings.

II. Early Christians: Love

The Gospel is contained in former Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, which is entitled Deus Caritas Est (“God is love”). I find it very pithily and poignantly stated in Matthew 22:36-40:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Love God and love thy neighbor as thyself. The central term, on my interpretation, is love.

The question opened up for us today is this: what is love, and how is it possible to create a global community consisting of all living beings and bound together by love?

III. Buddhists and Hindus: Liberation

Buddhists and Hindus (NB: I’m only familiar with Advaita Vedantists) both urge us to see that we are neither the mind nor the body and also that the world is unreal. The invitation is to understand, as fully and intuitively as possible, that what we really are is the Unborn, Unmanifest Reality. While they lay out different paths, they aim at the same goal: liberation from the suffering brought about by mind-concocted ignorance.

Thus, both traditions ask, “What is really real, and who, essentially am I?” And both demonstrate the answer to the first question is identical with the answer to the second. In other words, Atma (the True Self, or who I truly am) is Brahman (or Ultimatel Reality).

“What is liberation,” both ask, “and how can we free ourselves from seemingly endless delusions or vexations?” These questions are as alive today as they were when they were first posed thousands of years ago.

IV. The Need for Synthesis

The convergence we need is akin to the synthesis effected by St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was able to synthesize the received Aristotelian cosmology (“the Greek dispensation”) with the likewise received Augustinian theology (“the Christian dispensation”).

For us, they synthesis sought must elegantly combine, while going beyond, the path of wisdom, the path of love, and the path of liberation.

What is this higher path that transcends while including all three?

‘Reality Is Trinitarian’

Raimon Panikkar argues that God should be understood not in dualist or in monist terms but in terms of nonduality. Here he goes:

If, in the monotheistic perspective, there is one absolutely omniscient being who embraces and understands all of reality [from which He is, in a certain sense, separate–AT], that is not the case for the Trinity. Nevertheless, there are not three Gods: this is non-dualism. God is not one [pace monotheism], but neither is God two [pace dualism], nor any multiplicity [pace pantheism]. It is only through the constant negation of duality, by the refusal to close the process, in the conscious renunciation of trying to understand everything, in the neti neti of apophatic mysticism, that we can approach the trinitarian mystery (The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery, p. 65).

A page later, Panikkar concludes, “Reality is Trinitarian” (p. 66).

This is too true, and yet I also want to make sure that Panikkar’s words are understood correctly. For he also makes it clear that this neti neti is a form of passivity that is more passive than all forms, or acts, of passivity. It is a “yin attitude.” This yin attitude is a deep surrender and, as such, does not fall prey to the “desiccation” about which I’ve previously written. Surrender is of the Heart to the Heart and thus is ever deep in the Heart.

Following this thread about the nature of surrender, we should read Panikkar’s story about Huang Po (Huangbo) very carefully:

A being athirst for God, in search of the experience of God, he goes off into the valley to do penance, to meditate, to prepare himself, to purify himself. But he achieves nothing, finds nothing. Then he cries, groans, and beseeches. When he hears a voice from the top of the mountain, he climbs to the summit of the mountain in order to listen. But once there, he neither finds no head anything. He goes back into he valley with the feeling that he is being mocked, that he has been deceived. He cries out and groans again, and again he hears the voice. He climbs back to the summit of the mountain and finds nothing but silence. He descends and climbs, climbs and descends. Finally he becomes silent, stops beseeching, and stops searching. He then becomes aware that the voice he had heard was nothing but his own echo. (Ibid, p. 59)

Who is silent? From whom does the voice emerge?

Reality is Trinitarian.

Fragments On The Experience Of God

The following is an excerpt from Raimon Panikkar’s The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery (2006). Please contemplate and enjoy.


Everything [Panikkar writes] that we would be able to say about the experience of God in a strictly rational manner would be blasphemous. Indeed, there is something blasphemous about every theodicy and every form of apologetics. To want to justify God, to prove God’s existence or even defend God, implies that we are presenting ourselves as the very foundation of God. We are transforming ontology into epistemology, and the latter in a logic that would be above the divine and the human. Ultimately, it is a question of the primacy of thought over being, which has characterized Western thought since Parmenides.

The experience of God cannot be monopolized by any religion or by any system of thought. Inasmuch as it is ultimate experience, the experience of God is one that is not only possible but even necessary for all human beings to arrive at the awareness of their own identity. Human beings are fully human only from the moment that they experience their ultimate foundation, what they really are.

The experience of God is not the experience of whatever or whoever there might be. It is not the experience of an object. The whole Christian tradition, from Denys the Areopagite to Thomas Merton, as well as the majority of the religious traditions of humanity, have always told us that we can only know one thing about God: that we cannot know him. “Blessed be the one who has arrived at infinite ignorance,” says that great genius of the Christian world, Evagrius of Ponticus. Agnosia is learned ignorance, absolute non-knowledge. In the Kena Upanishad (II, 3), we are sent back to the same experience. We call it God in order not to break completely with those traditions that have utilized this word as symbol of mystery….

The experience of God is not the experience of an object. There is no object God of which we can have the experience. It is the experience of nothingness, hence of the ineffable. It is the experience of discovering that one’s own experience does not arrive at the depths of any reality. It is the experience of emptiness, of absence; the experience by which one becomes conscious that there exists a “something more,” but not in the quantitative order, not something that completes but something that has no bottom–an emptiness, a Non-being, a “something more,” if you will, that precisely makes all experience possible.

The experience of God is not a special, still less a specialized, experience. When we wish to have the experience of God, when we wish to have an experience of any kind, we inevitably deform it, and it escapes us. Without the link that unites us with all reality, we are unable to have the experience of God. In the experience of eating, drinking, sleeping, loving, working, being with someone, giving someone good advice, doing something stupid, and so on, we discover the experience of God. Since it is not the experience of an object, the experience of God is pure experience; it is precisely the contingency of being with, living with, since it is not the experience of an “I am” but of a “we are.” In Christian language, we call it Trinity (pp. 38-40).

Vasanas And Thoughts = Mind

Ramana Maharshi is very clear about two things. One, vasanas/samskaras are what force the mind outward. Thus: “It [the mind] is accustomed to stray outward by the force of the latent vasanas manifesting as thoughts” (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, p. 302). And, two, the mind is nothing but thought. “Thoughts,” he states plainly, “comprise the mind” (Ibid, p. 302).

Samskaras, as I’ve discussed in other posts, are ego-self tendencies. They are “specks” on the pristine mirror or “clouds” in the azure blue sky of pure awareness. Maharshi’s helpful point is that samskaras aren’t just ego-self tendencies like “I am unlovable” or “I am proud” that arise. In their arising, they are also “pulling” or “yanking” the mind outward.

As the mind goes outward, it seeks among objects and others for satisfaction, which amounts to nothing but temporary relief. As a result, this cycle–samskaras arising, mind going outward, seeking for temporary relief…–continues.

We must see and then dissolve all samskaras, therefore, or as many samskaras as is necessary. As this happens, the mind “returns to” the Heart, as Maharshi likes to put it. Or in Zen, we would say that scattered mind gives way to unified mind and then to no-mind.

The second point Maharshi makes cannot be made often enough. The mind, as mind, is a fiction: there is no such entity as mind. Often, Maharshi tells spiritual aspirants that there is no mind apart from thought. Here, he says that thoughts completely “comprise the mind.”

If you ask, “Who is the one observing the arising of thoughts?,” you’d be wrong to answer that this too is the mind. Clearly, pure awareness is prior to as well as beyond the arising of mind in the mode of thought.

In the absence of thought, there is no mind. In the absence of mind, there is no world. In the absence of mind and world, there are no others. In the total absence of all of these, there is only pure awareness.

Maharshi was adamant: “Just be still.” Pure awareness is utter stillness, utter stillness pure awareness.