Karen Armstrong’s most recent book is The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts.
As a young woman, I was a nun for seven years. We may have lived in a convent cut off from the world and lived in silence, but there was no solitude. Far from it – we lived in a close-knit community, cheek by jowl, night and day, and sometimes I yearned to be alone.
I did not experience solitude until I became a writer – I am a historian of world religion – and it became essential. I have never married and have very little family, so although I have many dear friends, I cannot say that my life changed much when Britain first went into isolation three weeks ago, but to my surprise it seems to have made the subject of my work even more relevant.
This is a time of suffering. We are witnessing mass death. In the West, we tend to regard religion as a private search for personal peace and serenity. But this would have shocked the great prophets and sages. The world faiths all emerged in times of political and social distress. Jesus, who was executed as a common criminal, told his followers that they too must expect persecution; that only those who identified with the poor and sick would enter God’s kingdom; and that they must love even their enemies. Hindus did not develop yoga to become serene, happy and content; yoga was an exacting discipline that enabled them to transcend the egotism that blinds us to the pain of others. So, after achieving yogic enlightenment, Buddhists were commanded to return to the marketplace and travel through the world to heal the suffering of all living beings. Interestingly, the Buddha’s grim definition, “Existence is suffering (dukkha),” may have been inspired by a pandemic. In the fourth century BC, India was developing an urban economy, and viruses that thrive only when people live in crowded proximity may have run rife.
Belief in supernatural doctrines, which has become so essential to what we call “religion” in the modern West, was simply not important. The aim was to achieve a transcendence of self by the practice of compassion, the ability to “feel with” the other. This – whatever our “beliefs” – is what we can learn in isolation. We now have the time, perhaps, to acquaint ourselves with the tragic situation of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar and the Uyghur Muslims of China, who are experiencing a virulent form of isolation and are far more vulnerable to the virus, and learn to “feel with” them. And when we fear for our own lives and the lives of those we love, we should remember the people of Syria and Yemen, to whom such terror has become routine.
What we call “religion” today is all too often divisive and even cruel. But initially the world religions insisted that there are no limits to benevolence. We must, said the Chinese sage Mozi (c. 480-390 BC), have “concern for everybody” (jian ai). In isolation – freed, perhaps, from our regular preoccupations – we can practise the Confucian method of extending our compassion in a series of concentric circles: from our own circle of friends and family, to fellow-isolates in our own city, to the entire country and finally to the whole world. As the Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhang Zai (1020-77) explained: “Anything that occurs in the universe I regard as my own body and my own nature … All people are my brothers and sisters and all things are my companions.”
In recent years, we have seen a dangerous surge of ethnic, religious, national and cultural intransigence – something that we vowed would never happen again after the Nazi Holocaust. In Britain, it was evident in the xenophobic rhetoric of the Brexit campaign; in the United States, we heard it in Donald Trump’s “America First.” We need urgently to develop a truly global consciousness. A pandemic is a leveller that draws us all – without exception – together and, in Britain, it is already making people rethink. Recently, when our soccer players, the country’s darlings, refused to take a cut in their obscenely high salaries, there was an outcry even from their fans. There are countless people sleeping in the streets in Britain, and they have been housed during the lockdown, but people are calling for a more humane and permanent change of policy. This is a promising start, but we must now go further, using the dukkha of the pandemic, when everything seems awry, to cultivate an empathic concern to unite our suffering and dangerously divided world.
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