Wisdom Traditions

Most of the Wisdom Traditions evolved during the Axial Age, between 900 and 200 BCE. Karen Armstrong, renowned modern theologian, asks; “Why should we go back to these ancient faiths? Because in this period of history people worked as hard to find a cure for their spiritual ills as we do today trying to find a cure for cancer…none of them were interested in doctrines or metaphysical beliefs…(at that time) a religion was about behaving in a ‘way’ that changed you.”

References to the ‘way’ are made in all the wisdom traditions. The ‘way’ is not a single path, but all the varied paths which lead to the same destination. As trekkers on the path we discover that the ‘way’ is the path through life. It is our own personal journey of finding meaning, truth and purpose. And, in time, we also learn there is no destination in this life – the meaning is the journey.

The fact that the spiritual principles found at the core of the Twelve Steps of AA are so easily traceable throughout all the Wisdom Traditions, suggests these principles are universal – crossing the boundaries of culture, language, religion, time, political ideologies, and belief systems.

When looking across the spectrum of the Wisdom Traditions we find seven common spiritual themes:

Spirit exists (no matter what it is called)

Spirit is found within

Most of us live in a “fallen” or “‘illusory” state which creates our sense of separation

There is a “way” or “path” out of this state which results in freedom or liberation

If we follow the “path” we will be “awakened” or “enlightened” and experience the Spirit within

This change will end our spiritual longing

As a result, we will grow in compassion and hear the call to be in service for the good of all sentient beings and for the Earth

As we filter the 12 Steps of AA through the lenses of the various Wisdom Traditions we discover that each Tradition provides a path; a guide to follow encased in a language, culture and history which is indigenous to our understanding. This can only mean that throughout the past 4,000 years, humans have longed for the same existential answers.

The historical framework of each of these traditions helps us understand that we belong to a much larger whole; this wholeness informs us that things are far more integrated than they seem. The narrowing gap today between quantum physics and spiritual mysticism confirms this ancient belief. Houston Smith, in the Illustrated World’s Religions, describes this experience as being in the mystery, “…knowledge and ignorance advance lockstep. As known unknowns become known, unknown unknowns proliferate, the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder. It’s like the quantum world. The more we understand its formalism, the stranger that world becomes. Things are more integrated than they seem, they are better than they seem, and they are more mysterious than they seem; this is the vision that the wisdom traditions bequeath us.”

Universal Golden Rule of the Wisdom Traditions

A German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, coined the term “axial age” for the historical period from 900 to 200 BCE because it was pivotal to the spiritual history of humanity. During this period the major faith or wisdom traditions were birthed:

  • Confucianism and Taoism in China
  • Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainsm in India
  • Monotheism in Israel – which later developed into Judaism, Christianity and Islam
  • Rationalism in Greece

In studying these traditions which grew out of diverse cultures, tradtions, geography and governments, there is one basic unifying theme, which we know as “the Golden rule.” It was first described by Confucius in 500 BCE, as a sense of compassion for all sentient beings which develops from our capacity to feel with others.

The “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” from the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993 proclaimed the Golden Rule as the common principle for many religions.The Initial Declaration was signed by 143 leaders from different faith traditions and spiritual communities.

Universal Golden Rule expressed in the words of the Wisdom Traditions:

“Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”
Dhammapada 10

“And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”
Luke 6:31

“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself. ”
Confucius, Analects XV.24

“One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires.”
Brihaspati, Mahabharata (Anusasana Parva, Section CXIII, Verse 8)

“Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.”
Muhammad, The Farewell Sermon

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
The Sage Hillel formulated the Silver rule in order to illustrate the underlying principles of Jewish moral law

“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”
T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien

Wisdom Texts

There a variety of Buddhist scriptures and texts. Some schools of Buddhism venerate certain texts as religious objects in themselves, while others take a more scholastic approach. Buddhist scriptures are written in: Pali, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, Sanskrit and a hybrid Buddhist/Sanskrit.

Buddhism has no single central text that is universally referred to by all traditions. The size and complexity of the Buddhist canons are seen by many as barriers to the wider understanding of Buddhist philosophy. However, some scholars have referred to the Vinaya Pitaka and the first four Nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka as the common core of all Buddhist traditions.

Mahayana considers these merely a preliminary, and not a core teaching. Tibetan Buddhists have not translated most of the gamas, though theoretically they recognize them, and they play no part in the religious life of either clergy or laity in China and Japan.

The followers of Theravada Buddhism take the scriptures known as the Pali Canon as definitive and authoritative, while the followers of Mahayana Buddhism base their faith and philosophy primarily on the Mahayana sutras and their own vinaya. The Pali sutras, along with other, closely related scriptures, are known to the other schools as the gamas.

Over the years, various attempts have been made to synthesize a single Buddhist text that can encompass all of the major principles of Buddhism. In the Theravada tradition, condensed ‘study texts’ were created that combined popular or influential scriptures into single volumes that could be studied by novice monks. Later in Sri Lanka, the Dhammapada was championed as a unifying scripture.

Dwight Goddard collected a sample of Buddhist scriptures, with the emphasis on Zen, along with other classics of Eastern philosophy, such as the Tao Te Ching, into his ‘Buddhist Bible’ in the 1920s. More recently, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar attempted to create a single, combined document of Buddhist principles in “The Buddha and His Dhamma”. Other such efforts have persisted to present day, but currently there is no single text that represents all Buddhist traditions.
Warder A.K. Indian Buddhism. 3rd edition (2000)
Eliot. Japanese Buddhism. London: 1935


The New Testament is the newest section of the Christian Bible, the first being the Old Testament. The original texts were written by various authors 45 CE, in Koine Greek, the written language of the Roman Empire.

The individual books were gradually collected into a single volume. Although Christian denominations differ as to which works are included in the New Testament, the majority have settled on the same twenty-seven book canon: it consists of the four narratives of the life and death of Jesus, called “Gospels”; a narrative of the Apostles’ ministries in the early church; twenty-one early letters or the “epistles” written by various authors and consisting mostly of Christian counsel and instruction; and an Apocalyptic prophecy


Hindu scriptures were transmitted orally for many centuries before they were written down. Sages refined the teachings and expanded the canon. Most sacred texts are in Sanskrit and are classified into two classes: Shruti and Smriti.

Shruti (that which is heard) primarily refers to the Vedas, which form the earliest record of the Hindu scriptures. They are the laws of the spiritual world, which still exist. Hindus believe that because the spiritual truths of the Vedas are eternal, they continue to be expressed in new ways.

There are four Vedas. The Rigveda is the first and most important Veda. Each Veda is divided into four parts: the primary one or the Veda proper, which contains sacred mantras. The other three parts contain commentaries. These are: the Brahmas, arayakas, and the Upanishads. While the Vedas focus on rituals, the Upanishads focus on spiritual insight and philosophical teachings, and discuss Brahman and reincarnation.

Hindu texts other than the Shrutis are collectively called the Smritis (memory). The most notable of the smritis are the epics, which consist of the Mahabharata and the Ramyaha. The Bhagavad Gita is an integral part of the Mahabharata and one of the most popular sacred texts of Hinduism. It contains philosophical teachings from Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, told to the prince Arjuna on the eve of a great war. The Bhagavad Gita, spoken by Krishna, is described as the essence of the Vedas.
Vivekananda, Swami. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Calcutta: 1987


Muslims consider the Qur’an to be the literal word of God; it is the central religious text of Islam. The verses of the Qur’an were revealed to Muhammad by God through the angel Gabriel between 610 and 632. The Qur’an was orally transcribed by Muhammad’s companions while he was alive. Islamic scholars believe the Qur’an has not changed significantly over the years.

The Qur’an is divided into 114 suras, or chapters, which combined, contain 6,236 verses. The earlier suras, revealed at Mecca, are primarily concerned with ethical and spiritual topics. The later Medinan suras discuss social and moral issues relevant to the Muslim community. The Qur’an is more concerned with moral guidance than legal instruction, and is considered the sourcebook of Islamic principles and values.


The Jewish Bible is called the Tanakh which is derived from the three consonants, T, N and K which represent the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim respectively. Torah means law or teaching, and it refers to the whole of the Jewish Bible which includes the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Nevi’im, or prophets, refers to the twenty-one books which record the sayings which remind Israel of its relationship with God. Ketuvim, or other writings, refers to the thirteen books which comprise the balance


The Tao Te Ching is considered to be the most influential Taoist text. It is a foundational scripture of central importance in Taoism. It has been used as a ritual text throughout the history of religious Taoism. The precise date it was written is the subject of debate; thought to be some time between the 6th and 3rd century BCE.

Tao literally means “path” or “way” and can figuratively mean “essential nature”, “destiny”, “principle”, or “true path”. The philosophical and religious “Tao” is infinite, without limitation. One view states that the paradoxical opening is intended to prepare the reader for teachings about the unteachable Tao. Tao is believed to be transcendent, indistinct and without form, therefore, it cannot be named or categorized.

The Tao Te Ching is not thematically ordered, however, the main themes of the text are repeated, often with only slight variation. The leading themes revolve around the nature of Tao and how to attain it.
Kim, Ha Poong. Reading Lao Tzu: A Companion to the Tao Te Ching With a New Translation (Xlibris Corporation, 2003)