The Jesus Sutras: An Ancient Message for a Post-Modernist Future
by Martin Palmer
For over 30 years I have been profoundly interested in the faiths, cultures, history and philosophies of ancient China. Most especially, I have been intrigued by that strange phenomenon, ancient Christianity in China. When I mention this deep interest, the most common response is a puzzled look and the question “What ancient Christianity?” Chinese Christianity dates from early in the Seventh Century, but it has been a closely kept secret, both for China and for Christianity. The tradition, as it developed, drew upon not only Christian imagery and philosophy, but also the wisdom of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The texts that survive are few, but fascinating. My colleagues and I, in recent years, entered, through them, the conceptual world of these early Chinese Christians. Most marvelous of all, hidden in plain sight in China’s heart, we discovered the earliest monastery—adorned with the earliest Christian artwork—that still survives.
The Discovery of a Treasure
The place was not far from where, if legend can be believed, Lao Tzu wrote the Dao De Ching. In an incident straight out of a fairytale, it was an aged seller of amulets who was the instrument of revelation. My colleagues and I had come to Lou Guan Tai, the site of the greatest official Daoist temple. I believed that the earliest Christian church in China was located nearby.
West of the main temple, we saw a perilously leaning seven-storey pagoda. We asked an old woman, a vendor of amulets, sitting nearby what religion it represented. “It is Buddhist,” she replied. As we turned away disappointed, she added, “But it wasn’t always Buddhist.”
Our hopes were aroused until she continued, “It used to be Daoist,” she told us. Crestfallen, we again prepared to leave. With impeccable timing, she again prevented us from departing.
It doesn’t really belong to either of them, though,” the old woman confided. “It was built by five monks who came from the West and believed in one God.”
To explore further, we climbed the steep hill into which the site had been cut. We scrambled to the top—and were welcomed by another aged lady, a Buddhist nun who informed us that she was 115 years old.
We searched for proof that the pagoda had once been Christian. No evidence offered itself. Only when I climbed still higher did I discover that we had found what we had sought. Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples, almost without exception, run north-south. This terrace, cut to hold the temple, ran east-west: the cosmic alignment for Christian churches.
Why So Much Noise?
“Why so much noise?” the Buddhist nun asked as I ran down the hill shouting the news. I explained my conviction that we stood on an ancient Christian site, then worried that I had offended her when she drew herself up to her full height of five feet. “Well, of course it is!” she informed us.” This was the greatest Christian monastery in China. We all know that!”
We were told that local people remembered the five monks who had come from the West and the building that they had made. Memory lost to the wider world for over a millennium had persisted here.
We were saying our farewells when the old nun turned to me. “You want to pray, don’t you?” she asked. “Go ahead, then. They will all hear you.”
I prayed on ground sanctified by Christian and Buddhist supplications. We know only a little about how they prayed, these spiritual ancestors of China. One Tang Dynasty painting shows Christians with hands raised in simple devotion. Another shows a saint—or perhaps Jesus himself—in the Buddhist mudra (pose) associated with teaching. I know how I prayed that day. I prayed weeping.
The Chinese Madonna
Discoveries followed, once excavation had begun. Within the center of the mountain was a cave, and in the cave was the lower portion of a statue. The design of the mountain and the cave were classical Chinese. The figure was not.
The Orthodox Church bases its representations of Christ’s birth on the Book of James, which recounts that Mary gave birth alone, in a mountain cave. The figure in the cave echoed thousands of Orthodox depictions of the Nativity. A woman, semi-reclining, gazes at the child she holds. She is Mary. Outlined in the dirt was the shape of a child. The earliest known Christian statue in China was composed of Orthodox iconography surrounded by Chinese art. The second statue seems to represent a favorite prophet of the Church of the East, Jonah.
Architecturally and historically, these were important discoveries. Even more important, perhaps, is the spiritual discovery of The Jesus Sutras.
The Jesus Sutras
On its publication, my book translating these Sutras aroused great interest. The Christianity revealed in the texts emerges in a form unknown to most of us. In showing what the past has been, these writings suggested what the future could be. An ancient faith revealed a way of believing ideal for those who live today.
My colleagues and I found classics brought to China by the first official Church mission in 635 CE, texts not extant only in Chinese. We found Persian books retelling the life of Jesus; documents from the Subcontinent exploring the fusion of Greek and Indian Buddhist traditions; evidence of religious dialogue among Christians and Hindus and Jains; even a fragment of a text from the ancient Church of Tibet. The insight into Greek, Persian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist and shamanic cultures was remarkable. So was the ability of the Church to fuse Christian teachings and images with wisdom and symbolism from other traditions.
The Jade-Faced One
In the Sutras, Jesus is called “the Jade-Faced One,” because, for the Daoists, jade is the stone of immortality. In the Sutras, the doctrine of original sin has no place. Creation is innately good. Concepts of dharma and reincarnation are explored. There is even feminism. The Sutra of the Teachings of the World-Honored One explains that Eve’s sin in Eden is fully expiated by the women who are the first to see the evidence of the risen Christ, saying:
As the first woman caused the lies of humanity, so it was women who first told the truth about what had happened, to show all that the Messiah forgave women and wished them to be treated properly in the future. (Ch 5:32)
The early Chinese Church taught that not only feminine nature, but all human nature is in harmony with Nature itself. The Stone Sutra explains that, as in Daoist philosophy, the whole of creation is intrinsically good. Only when humans allow the goodness that is their birthright to be invaded by foolishness, greed, envy and pride do they become inharmonious with the rest of creation. “Original sin”—the doctrine that “in Adam’s fall/ we sinned all”—is not mentioned.
“These Teachings are Inexhaustible”
Instead of a viewpoint that sees all of humanity laboring under a curse, the early Chinese Church found much in Daoist teachings that reflected its more loving beliefs.
All of you should chant this day and night,
Because it brings back clear seeing,
And each of you will return to your own original nature,
Your ultimately true beingness,
Free from all falsehood and illusion.
And you will see these teachings are inexhaustible.
Anyone, even if they only have a little love
Can walk the Bright Path, and they will suffer no harm.
This is the way that leads to Peace and Happiness.
And they can come to this even from the darkest of darks.
If you really follow the Sutras, imagine how easy this could be!
“Following the Sutras,” in Seventh-Century China, meant opening to the possibilities exemplified by Jesus. It meant peeling off layers of ignorance and greed to reveal the glory that is our truth, not crushing any inherited wickedness.
The Gentle Stone
It is not only in teachings on The Fall that the Chinese Church is so wonderfully different from what we might expect. The Stone Sutra’s version of the Ten Commandments echoes Buddhism in forbidding the taking of any life (even animal) and Confucian thought in encouraging the veneration of parents. In fact, the Decalogue itself becomes interwoven with the Sermon on the Mount, as the passage below suggests.
The first covenant of God is that anything that exists and does evil will be punished, especially if they do not respect the elderly.
The second covenant is to honor and care for elderly parents. Those who do this will be true followers of Heaven’s Way.
The third covenant is to acknowledge we have been brought into existence through our parents. Nothing exists without parents.
The fourth covenant is that anybody who understands the precepts should know to be kind and considerate to everything, and to do no evil to anything that lives.
The fifth covenant is that any living being should not take the life of another living being, but should also teach others to do likewise.
The sixth covenant is that nobody should commit adultery, or persuade anyone else to do so.
The seventh covenant is not to steal.
The eighth covenant is that nobody should covet a living man’s wife, or his lands, or his palace, or his servants.
The ninth covenant is not to let your envy of somebody’s good wife, or son, or house or gold, lead you to bear false witness against them.
The tenth covenant is only to offer to God that which is yours to give.
There are even a few “extras.”
If a poor person begs for money, give generously. If you have no money, have the courtesy to explain why you can only give a little help.
If someone is seriously ill or handicapped do not mock, because this is the result of karma and not to be ridiculed.
The Four Essential Laws of Christian Dharma
Good counsel is not all that the Sutras offer. The following passage illustrates how far beyond Judaic tradition the Chinese Christians ranged.
Now, what are the Four Essential Laws of the Dharma?
The first is no wanting. If your heart is obsessed with something,
It manifests in all kinds of distorted ways.
Distorted thoughts are the root of negative behavior . . .
The second is no doing. Don't put on a mask and pretend to be what you’re not . . .
The effort needed to hold a direction is abandoned,
And there is simply action and reaction.
So walk the Way of No Action.
The third is no piousness. And what that means
Is not wanting to have your good deeds broadcast to the nation.
Do what's right to bring people to the truth
But not for your own reputation’s sake.
So anyone who teaches the Triumphant Law,
Practicing the Way of Light to bring life to the truth,
Will know Peace and Happiness in company.
But don't talk it away. This is the Way of No Virtue.
The fourth is no absolute. Don't try to control everything,
Don't take sides in arguments about right and wrong.
Treat everyone equally, and live from day to day.
It’s like a clear mirror that reflects everything anyway:
Green or yellow or in any combination-
It shows everything, as well as the smallest of details.
What does the mirror do? It reflects without judgment.
“To Move, You Need Light to See By”
Such ancient teachings resonate for contemporary people. The Sutra of Returning to your Original Nature offers words from the living Jesus that speak across the ages.
Then He spoke to the assembled crowd and said:
This Sutra is profound and unimaginable.
All the gods and gurus agree on this, and acknowledge
This Way that is the essences of connection and return.
To move you need light to see by — this teaching provides it
Just as the sun slants out, so you can see what is in front of you,
This Sutra offers understanding, and by its light
You can know the Way of Peace and Happiness in your heart.
If anyone wants to share these teachings with friends or family
Of course they can. Honor them, sing and pray together —
And this will bless you and your family into the next generation.
Every generation is united in this communion —
From goodness in past lives, people come to this religion
And through the faith they have they find Happiness.
It’s like the spring rain that refreshes everything —
If you have roots, you will flourish in its coming.
Ch.3 :12 – 19.
The discovery of a site so long hidden is wonderful. Finding art that so beautifully fuses Chinese and non-Chinese traditions is deeply satisfying and instructive. Knowing more about the forms that surrounded the early Church in China contributes much to our human heritage.
The spiritual teachings once imparted within these forms contribute even more. The Jesus Sutras urge respect, kindness, gentleness, and receptivity. To understand them is to peer into an almost-forgotten distant past. To understand them is to light a path to a possible future. Contemplating “The Jade-Faced One” and the Church built around him in China may allow a model of Christianity that is not only ancient but well-fitted for contemporary life, a revelation not only of what has passed away, but of what can come to be.
Reprinted from “The Jesus Sutras: an Ancient Message for a Post-Modernist Future,” Elixir: Consciousness, Conscience and Culture, No. 1, Autumn 2005, abridged with permission of the author.